LIVE BY REQUEST
Rob Payne HarperFlamingo, $24.95
Rob Payne caused a minor uproar in the Canadian publishing community earlier this year when, in a January Globe and Mail article, he called Canada "an underdeveloped literary nation." Payne argued that our literature is stagnant because it is dominated by formulaic historical fiction, or what he labeled MMD -- books that "Make Me Drowsy."
Editors and writers rushed to the defence of the Giller and Governor-General's Award lists, dismissing Payne's concerns as simple ignorance about the widely varied nature of the CanLit scene. This backlash ignored Payne's background in the editorial trenches -- he is a former editor for Quarry Press and has edited two anthologies of new Canadian short fiction. It also did nothing to address Payne's main argument -- historical fiction does dominate CanLit. Now Payne answers his detractors with his first novel, Live By Request.
The novel demonstrates Payne's literary credentials in its postmodern juxtaposition of genres: it's a road novel, a romantic comedy, a bildungsroman, a literary This Is Spinal Tap. Set in Canada and the United States, Live By Request follows the quest of Jay Thompson, a 26-year-old bartender, to be a rock star. Jay's ticket to the big time is his band Archangel, and therein lies his problem. The band is such a mismatch of characters -- the experimental composer Tyler, the corporate drone Noel and the vixen bass player Jan -- that its doom is inevitable.
The book details the band's slow implosion, interspersed with Jay's fantasies of being asked to play with famous musicians. Things spiral downward when the band loses their only gig and they enter a Christian band competition in a last attempt to find some -- any -- sort of fame.
Live By Request follows a well-established tradition of its own: witty, urban books that read like screenplays -- think Nick Hornby or even Roddy Doyle. The book does occasionally remind readers that it's a first novel -- the subplot with Jay's brother coming to live with him is underdeveloped, and the chemistry of the band is far too predictable, particularly Jay's romance with Jan. Still, Live By Request's focus on the here- and-now-now-now of culture adds a much-needed rebel yell to the muzak that CanLit has become. Say what you will of Payne as a book critic, Live By Request is anything but MMD.