February 10, 2011
Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
Over the last two days, I have been rather harsh on this book without a lot of substance to back up my vitriol, and I hope today to make up for that. My opinion of the book isn’t as passionate as all that, if anything I’m mainly disappointed. Going in to Canada Reads 2011 this was the book I looked forward to the most: billed as a funny, irreverent take on Canadian politics, I felt I was probably the ideal audience. I am continually harping on the overly depressing state of Canadian literature (and of most literature since 1910, really), pining for the days when books had heroes. And I love politics. Love. I have even gone so far as to work as a volunteer for one of our major political parties, so a lot of the backroom shenanegans offered up by Fallis were familiar to me. I knew there was a lot to expose there.
The first thing to understand about Best Laid Plans is that it is written for a very conservative (presumably small-c, as the heroes are all Liberals), possibly older, audience. Fallis is trying to show us a situation gone zanily out of control, with all the hyjinx and absurdity he could pack into his 300 pages. Unfortunately, his idea of what constitutes “zany” and “absurd” is about twenty years out of date. Daniel Addison’s election campaign is publicly executed by two punk kids from his English for Engineering class who are, in every scene, giving poor Daniel aneurysms with their shocking fashion choices: Mohawks, piercings, and fishnet define their characters. We’re talking about a subculture that’s been around since the 1970s, and which is currently practiced by teenagers so widely that you can buy a fishnet shirt in a mall in Brantford. This is hardly the cutting edge of hooliganery. So when Daniel discovers with amazement that his charges don’t have criminal records and are actually (gasp!) pretty good in school, he might be having his world turned inside out, but this reviewer found herself rolling her eyes. Similarly the “scandal” that brings about Angus McLintock’s election is, yes, shocking enough to colour an election, but it’s hard to imagine that the intelligent, experienced main characters of the story would be quite so taken aback. Cheap S&M jokes are bandied about in a Sienfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” kind of way, but again, this reader was a lot less shocked than the jokes seemed to warrant. In both cases what really baffled me was that Daniel, the transmitter of all these gasps and shocks, is supposed to be – what, 31? 32? He’s a young guy, more or less fresh out of University and an old hand at Parliament Hill. You’re going to tell me he’s never seen a live Mohawk before? That he was channeling a 50-something (60-something?) author was painfully evident.
That the author is a little out of touch was evident in other ways. When something newsworthy happens, bystanders whip out their “Betacams”. The poor dear. Even in news media, nobody uses Betacams anymore – nor is it the shorthand for hand-held recorded film. His glimpse into Academia was sheer fantasy. Daniel decides he’d like to quit being a mover and shaker in Parliament and “takes a break” – waltzing right into a tenure track job in the English department of a major Canadian university! I beg your pardon? Without a decade of sessional work, thankless publishing, and living on $12,000 a year? Must be nice!
There has been much said about the strength of Angus McLintock’s character, and I won’t disagree. He was fun and likable man, easy to cheer for. He also lives in an alternate universe of rainbows and puppies where everyone can have their cake and eat it too. His solutions to political problems were insultingly facile. If life were without hard choices, of course we’d all be better people. The suggestion that these simple, perfect-fit-everyone-wins solutions exist and today’s insanely hard-working politicians just wouldn’t take them is a preposterous. Angus’s character ultimately suffers because he has no flaws (I’m sorry, gas doesn’t count) and never has to make any hard decisions.
Daniel, meanwhile, just can’t seem to decide where he stands on anything. He’s desperate, desperate to leave politics and yet he spends the entire second half of the novel having fits every time his boss calls because it could mean the end of “his career in politics”. Mere weeks earlier he is vomiting in the bush outside his MP’s house because (and I’m not sure here why, exactly, he was so ill at this time – I read the passage three times and it was absolutely unclear. So the following is guesswork) he might actually win his election. He’s an easily flustered boy, our Daniel. When Angus is scheduled to meet with a women’s rights lobby, the first thing I thought was “Oh good, this should be easy. Angus is, after all, the widow of a leading feminist; he has this one in the bag.” I’m quicker than Daniel, I guess, who spends the whole chapter having fits because he thinks his boss is being murdered by the women’s lobby – literally. I guess they give tenure-track jobs to just anyone these days.
During the Canada Reads debates, Sara Quin valiantly made a cause for women in Best Laid Plans by bringing up the only really great character in the book, Muriel Parkinson. Here we did have a great woman and a great character; credit where credit was due. Unfortunately I felt she was more than undermined by the caricature that was her niece, the eventual love interest. Lindsay, hot young poly-sci grad student, has maybe four lines in the whole book. We do know, however, what she is wearing in every scene she’s in. She’s a very complete OKCupid profile, a list of likes and dislikes. She loves her grandmother, watches hockey, wears tight clothes – what’s not to like? I didn’t like, personally, that she wasn’t a character.
Maybe the most disappointing thing about Best Laid Plans was that Fallis failed to expose or lampoon a lot of the actual darkness going on in the back rooms of politics. He was off to a good start when he caught his ex-girlfriend with her boss in his office: but he balked at drawing any conclusions about what this means to be a woman trying to get ahead in party politics. Instead Rachel was apparently actually involved in a relationship with her boss. His lampooning was painfully shallow, making straw-men out of the Tories and fools out of the NDP. There was no bite to this satire.
There’s a word for fiction which is all lightness – they call it fluff. It might divert you for an hour or two, and it might make you giggle now and again. If that’s what you want, this is your book.