Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

"In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that the same laws and principles that govern science and engineerin' also preside over politics. ...Newton's first law says that an object at rest or in motion will remain in that tstate unles acted upon by another force. In politics, if a party is at rest--stalled in the polls, as it were--it will remain there unless it, or some other force, does somethin' to change its fortunes. Newton's third law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well, this plays itself out daily in the Commons. The Government makes an announcement, the Opposition responds, as the name suggests, in an opposin' fashion." --Angus McLintock, in Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans

Short review: The Best Laid Plains is a well-written, light-toned political satire, and I didn't really care for it at all.

The longer version will, as you may expect, be somewhat longer. First, let's talk about one of the most interesting aspects of the book: its distribution. Fallis originally wrote the book, but was unable to find a publisher for it. So he broke it into pieces, and released the pieces as a podcast. (A podcast which, incidentally, is still available; the first chapter can be found here.) It proved successful enough that he felt encouraged to self-publish the novel in book form, and that gained enough attention to garner him the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and a sequel, The High Road. Though my main reading was through the book, I listened to a bit of the podcast as well; Fallis has a good voice for such readings, and I think I prefer that form to the book, simply because it conveys a little more of the author's intention when Fallis is on hand to provide the emphasis and tone he meant the book to convey. It's an interesting comment on the commercial/cultural mindset of the reading public that we're willing to pay for a book copy of a product that existed previously (and concurrently) on the Internet for free.

And what about the plot? Well, it all revolves around Daniel Addison, speech writer for the Canadian Liberals, and owner of a PhD in Canadian Literature. After realizing that politics was making him somewhat jaded--and coming across his financee engaged in a, um, different sort of congress with the Party Leader--Addison decides to turn towards a career in academia. The political body lets him go without hard feelings--providing he can find someone to run on the Liberal ballot for the university's constituency, one that is counted as a sure-win for the Conservatives. He eventually strikes a deal with his landlord, the 61 year old Scottish engineering professor, Angus McLintock. The deal is this: Daniel will teach Angus' English for Engineers course, and McLintock will run on the ballot, provided he doesn't have to campaign and has no chance of winning. I think anyone with a passing familiarity of comedy knows what happens next: through a series of unfortunate events, the outspoken, no-nonsense Scotsman is suddenly a member of Parliament. And--surprise--his nonpartisan, direct and honest approach to politics turns out to be just what the country needs.

The novel has a lot to recommend it. It's light, but no so light that there's no substance to it. It's a fairly critical and fairly accurate depiction of business in Ottawa. And yet... it rubbed me the wrong way, for two big different reasons.

First, there was a plot. From the description above, you may gather that it's reasonably predictable, and perhaps a bit too much of a stock story. But I don't have any problem with that; one of my favorite genres is 18th century comedy plays, and those follow such a stock formula that you can often predict exactly how the story will unfold just from the list of character names. (If there's a character named Colonel Cuckold, he's probably not going to have a happy ending.) In my book, innovation is great, but it's secondary compared to execution. And that's where the book, in my opinion, falls short. There's a number of characters in the book: Angus' immediate opposition and his head tactician; the two Petes, punker Engineers supporting Angus' campaign; various reporters and Liberal politicians who range from slightly more jaded than Daniel to out and out villains; and the tough-as-nails, aged former Liberal candidate, Muriel Parkinson and her granddaughter Lindsay, also Daniel's love interest. Or perhaps a better phrase would "love vague inclination," since the relationship seems to unfold and settle without any particular effort on the part of any of the characters involved. Most of the characters, in fact, are fairly ancillary and paper-thin; for the most part, the only two who receive any fleshing out are Angus and Daniel.

Again, I don't have a particular problem with this. Stock characters are part and parcel of the stock comedy; you don't need them to be much more than placeholders, as long as the main cast is strong. In this case, the main two characters we're left with are Daniel and Angus. Daniel, following the traditional model, is cast as the straight man to Angus' performance. That means that quite a lot of his actions involve telling Angus that he can't do something, then being secretly glad that he did it. His other major defining characteristic is an obsession (one shared, and taken to greater extremes by Angus) with correct English grammar. I too am following the English studies career path, and even I find grammar obsessions to be incredibly pretentious and annoying. (That doesn't mean I don't correct people's grammar all the time; I do, I just recognize that I'm being pretentious and annoying when I do it. It's the self-awareness that's important.)

And that leaves Angus. Angus is something of a modern day Renaissance Man. He is a full-fledged engineer, and one of the book's running subplots is his work on his homemade hovercraft. He is a romantic, as evidenced by the daily journal entries dedicated to his dead wife. He is an intellect, as demonstrated by his constant games of chess and attention to English language. In politics, he refuses any level of compromise for his principles, and waits on no man. In fact, Angus is a saint, a comparison Daniel himself makes, albeit half jokingly, when Angus receives an award for his engineering efforts in a Papa New Guinea village. Wikipedia, ever the forefront source for accuracy, contains this entry: "A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue) in literary criticism is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader." Angus, thus, is a fully fledged Mary Sue, and the book's insistence on this point is its major detraction point, in my mind. His only personal flaw is the occasional bout of flatulence and the only mistake he makes in the entire story comes near the end, where he holds a town meeting and tries to convince the townspeople that voting against tax cuts is a good thing, and gets booed off the stage. In other words, his one mistake is believing that he can reason with the masses.

My other problem with the book is on a political level, or rather, an ideological one. I've already gone over my political views in a previous post; granted, it was a few years ago, but it still stands. I'm not going to condemn Fallis for promoting the Liberals over my own group of preference; on a federal level, there's not really much reason to support the NDP at the moment anyway. But what I will object to is the alternative Angus represents. One of the pervading themes of the book is that politics, left unchecked, are a corrupting influence, transforming the optimistic into the pragmatic, and the pragmatic into the opportunistic and self-interested. I'm not going to oppose that; I think, like most people, I feel a little jaded towards politics in general, and a reason to bring in some optimism is a good thing.

But according to the principles the book espouses, the proper way to do that is, first of all, abandon the party line system in effect in Ottawa, and ignore your party's stance on an issue in favor of your own interpretation of what that stance should be. (Which, come to think of it, is an endorsement of the American style of congress and representation, a connection that is somehow never fully explicated in a book very conscious about its appeal as Canadian literature.) And at the same time, Angus doesn't believe in voting in terms of what's good for his individual constituency, and certainly, after the booing, doesn't believe in doing what his constituents want, as they are driven by self-interest. Rather, he votes to his own conscience, and for what he believes is best for his country.

The irony is, that's not too far off from what my own beliefs of what a representative should do. He or she can't afford to take a poll every time a vote comes out; rather, he/she needs to trust that the constituents knew who they were electing, and know the conscience and values of that individual (although that doesn't quite work in this case since Angus deliberately refused all campaigning, so no one knew really what he was like). My problem is with presentation. Because Angus is a Mary Sue sort of character, he can be counted on to always, always see the truth of the matter, and to be right in all situations. The political system Fallis is espousing, then, has a similarity to Plato's old claim that the ideal government is the one ruled by the perfect philosopher god-king; as the genius engineer/political activist/saint, Angus comes close.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another politically-oriented work, L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach. Its politics couldn't be more different; while The Best Laid Plans ostensibly is about a liberal view of politics, The Probability Broach is ceaseless and almost aggressive in his portrayal of libertarianism. (Also, Smith's book is science fiction, not comedy, and features alternate realities, dolphin scientists, and monkey police officers.) The similarity, though, is that both books present a fictional world in which their respective philosophies form the ideal; neither, in their utopias, can do any wrong, not because the ideas are perfect, but because the author is stacking the deck so that no flaw is ever shown. And even that isn't a make or break element of a book for me; Terry Pratchett's Nation is, arguably, a humanist screed, but because its characters demonstrate some nuance, and are willing to entertain other points of view, I enjoyed it, and a lot more than I did Fallis' or Smith's works.

And if you want to see really pretentious behavior, I could go on a rant here about the quotation I started with the post with, and the danger of overapplying scientific rationalism to humanist institutions, but I'll settle for just saying that, as someone who's taught English for Engineers for decades, Angus should really know the difference between a scientific theory and a metaphor.

Final word: I would have probably liked this novel a lot more if either my political affiliations or my support for individualism was slightly increased. As it is, though I didn't like it, it did generate a lot of thought on my part, which is part of what literature should do. And I'd probably sit through the sequel--especially if it came in podcast form.

Later Days.

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