By Timothy Taylor
Spoiler Alert: If you haven't read this book and intend to, better stop here. Also, if you are Timothy Taylor, also stop reading. Feelings might get hurt.
It really does make or break a book. It's not about length. I've read a few romping good 1000 page books and some plodding 145 page books. It's about keeping the plot moving at a speed that is constant with both the tone of the book and the patience of the reader. It's a fine line between describing a moment in clear detail and stalling the movement of the plot. This, I found, was the primary problem with Timothy Taylor's Giller Award nominated novel Stanley Park.
Perhaps it had to do with the food-as-fetish plot that required detailed descriptions of the meals served up by the protagonist, Jeremy Papier, a "Blood" style chef who apparently dislikes the "Crips."
Anyway, I love food as much as the next guy but there is only so much "caramelization" and "chevre" I can handle in one book (take note Haruki Murakami!). Pages and pages of stalled plot is devoted to the description of Jeremy's ironic-and-oh-so-clever culinary concoctions and when the polt DOES move, it jumps over bits I was (mildly) excited to read and covers the episode in flashback.
I said pacing was the primary problem, but certainly not the only problem.
I think I was put off by this book from the very beginning when I noticed borderline plagerism between this book and Richard Russo's smalltown epic, Empire Falls. Struggling restaurant owner with kooky-yet-intelligent father (in a folksy sort of way) who is bailed out of his financial woes by a local millionaire (who also happens to be evil and manipulative).
Since Timothy Taylor is not Richard Russo, my plagerism claim went out the window once it became clear that this story is following a well trodden plot arc. Allow me to demonstrate: The aforementioned evil millionaire in Stanley Park happens to be named Dante and owns a chain of coffee shops known as Inferno Coffee. He also happens to be the protagonist's landlord.
And of course, Dante is that special sort of evil that one only finds in movies like Breakin' II: The Electric Boogaloo. You know the sort. Guy in a slick suit who wants to tear down the ramshackle old rec center to build extravagant condos for other soulless yuppie evil-doers who tie their sweaters around their necks. Instead, Dante usurps Jeremy's struggling but honest restaurant (called the Monkey's Paw... get it?) and hires a team of market researchers (the lowest pits of hell as reserved for people in this field, by the way) to revamp the place into a carfully market-researched bistro (Trattoria? Cucina? Which title is hippest?) for other soulless yuppie evil-doers who tie their sweaters around their necks. Jeremy becomes the plucky little nobody taking on the evil corporate empire all by himself. Did I mention that the baddie's name was Dante? You can imagine how this story progresses.
And what sort of novel would this be without a fall from grace? Enter Benny. The hip-urban-design-student-turned-love-interest who helps Jeremy defraud Canadian Tire (the highlight of the book, I might add) then later aligns herself with Dante during the renovation of his (er... Dante's) restaurant.
And of course the subplot of the wise homeless people living a charmed and happy life on the outskirts of our miserable existences in the city just irked me to no end. Have we not exhausted the paradigm of the noble savage enough? And if we are going to use it, does it always have to be a homeless guy? Is there no better way to include this paradigm into a novel than yet another misunderstood saint living on the streets?
I wouldn't have been so hard on this book if it didn't have the words "Giller Prize Finalist" splashed across the top of the cover. Seriously, was their only three books published in Canada in 2001? Was there absolutely nothing out there in CanLit that year Stanley Park deserved a nod? Something that didn't follow literally every single over-used convention in the history of writing prose?
I just read up on the book at Wikipedia and it mentions that Jim Cuddy really liked this book. That's just sad because I always liked Blue Rodeo. Now I have to give that a good think.
If you are wondering, everything turns out fine in the end. Rewards and punishments are doled out in standard fashion. I'm surprised it didn't end with Dante slipping from Jeremy's grasp and falling into a foggy Vancouver oblivion.