Thursday, June 24, 2010

Late Nights on Air

Being a Canadian, I have read a deplorable amount of books written by Canadian authors. I seem to have this idea that things coming out of the United States are better some how. Whether it be music, television shows, movies, or books, I assume Americans are better at creating them. So this week I decided to help prove myself wrong, at least when it comes to novels, and read Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. The Ottawa born author writes about the power and intimacy of radio, and how we can fall in love with certain voices. The story is elegiac, exquisite, and creates enormous spaces with few words, making the reader party to the journey, listening, marveling, breathing, fearing.

In Late Nights on Air, the barren, treeless tundra of the Far North serves as a kind of reckoning ground for a clutch of characters. They're not visionaries, but all seekers in some way. The story is set among a group of people working at a small Yellowknife radio station in 1975. After being fired from his latest television job, a disgraced Harry Boyd returns to his radio roots in the northern Canadian town, as the manager of a station no one listens to, and finds himself at the center of the station's unlikely social scene. New and enigmatic, Dido Paris, both renowned and mocked for her Dutch accent, fled an affair with her husband's father, only to be torn between Harry and another man. The young and fragile Gwen came to learn radio production, but under Harry's tutelage finds herself the guardian of the late-night shift. And lonely but steadying force, Eleanor, wonders if it's time to move south just as she meets an unlikely suitor. Relationships are entered in and out of, while loyalties shift in surprising ways. Each of these characters come with their own unwavering back stories, and point-of-view shifts between them with such fluidity. Similarly the story moves back and forth in time in a way that feels only natural, demonstrating Hay's remarkable skill without actually making us aware of her at all.

As we come to learn about each characters history, and watch as they build and struggle with relationships, we also learn about the struggle in the north. The city is becoming divided over a proposal to build a pipeline that would cut across Native lands, bringing modernization and a flood of workers, equipment and money into sacred territory. This underlying event helps to provide a clear picture of the townspeople motives and morals, bringing some closer together, while others become strangers, as each person fights for what they believe to be right.

Late Nights on Air is as much about the how the characters relate to each other, as to how they relate to their environment. The final third of the book tells of four friends embarking on a six-week canoe trip where the evocation of the tundra - its emptiness, silence, and delicate beauty - is stunning, almost a new species of erotica. Hay beautifully portrays the tender bonds that are forged, and broken in such wild a place. I honestly didn't know how captivated I would become as the characters portaged and canoed for days, sometimes seeing no other living creature but a single ptarmigan or a caribou.

Indeed this is the True North, but not like we might imagine: "It was north of the sixtieth parallel and shared in the romance of the North, emanating not mystery but uniqueness and not right away. It had no breathtaking scenery. No mountains, no glaciers, in the winter not even that much snow." Sound, not sight, becomes the salient sense, which is natural with the radio, and Hay creates this effect beautifully. Admirably too, for it is hard to write sound. And not just those voices in the night, but also snow crunching underfoot, paddles in the water, crackling fires and birdsong. Truly, this is the most audible novel I have ever read.

"On the road below, a small man in a black beret was bending over his tripod just as her father used to bend over his tape recorder. Her father's voice had become the wallpaper inside her skull, he'd made a home for himself there as improvised and unexpected as these little houses on the side of the rock - houses with histories of instability, of changing from gambling den to barbershop to sheet metal shop to private home, and of being moved from one part of town to another since they had no foundations. All the little and large efforts of settlement intrigued her" This was one paragraph that stood out to me, but Late Nights on Air is filled with phrases and images that will capture your imagination, and take you to another place entirely.

Hay provides crystalline prose, keen details and sharp dialogue that sculpt the isolated, hardy residents of Yellowknife. A character in Elizabeth's book describes good script writing as having "simplicity, directness, and intimacy", and Late Night on Air achieves all three. Whether you love or hate the characters by the end of the book, you know them as well as our own skin. This book with teach you to respect the north; its timeless fragility, and its ability to both save and destroy those who venture there. Psychologically astute, richly rendered and deftly paced. It's a pleasure from start to finish.

Radio has become a such a common thing in our lives, that we don't even think about the marvel of it. With radio, we are able to share our thoughts, ideas, music, news, and communicate with people all over the world. Just the other night I watched the movie Pirate Radio. Although the vibe of Pirate Radio and Late Nights on Air are very different, they are both perfect examples of how radio can uplift people and truly effect peoples lives. My Tip for this book is listen to the radio. We all have our favorite stations, but try to listen to something new. You will expose yourself to new music, new voices and ideas, and will give yourself with the opportunity to grow as a person, building depth to your knowledge and versatility.

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