This book, Terry Fallis’ latest, Poles Apart, had me in tears. Unfortunately those tears resulted from disappointment rather than the presumably preferred laughter, hardly the desired reaction by reader, of author, to a finalist of a major humour award such as The Leacock Medal. It’s been well over a week since I finished reading it and I’m still in shock at how much I disliked this book.
Terry Fallis has become somewhat of a darling of the Leacock Medal competition this past decade, having won twice and shortlisted an additional three times since 2008. In fact, it is this impressive record that led me to discover Terry’s work as I perused the Leacock winners for reading material. My first foray into Fallis’ bibliography was his 2008 Leacock winning novel The Best Laid Plans which I adored and crowed about on my blog last year. I followed that up with the Leacock shortlisted sequel The High Road, another joyful read. I then turned my eyes to last year’s Leacock winner, No Relation, once again revealing Terry’s talents as a fun, light-hearted writer. It seemed to me a no-brainer that Poles Apart would further build upon that foundation and so I very much looked forward to reading it for this little project of mine.
There’s a popular, some might say tired, adage that pops up regularly in creative writing textbooks and courses. I know because I’ve read a few and attended a few, both of which proved far easier than actually writing creatively. That adage is “Show, don’t tell.” I’d always viewed it as a trite piece of jargon until I read Poles Apart when it abruptly consumed my conscience as I read. I’ve never read a book where so much telling was occurring and so little showing. It quickly began to irritate me especially when almost nothing of importance happened until page 300.
Oh the characters do things but for the most part they are benign and we are told about them rather than experiencing them. Case in point, the primary plot driver of the entire novel, this magical feminist blog written by our protagonist, Everett, that takes the world by storm in … wait for it … one day. Now, I’ll readily admit that as a blogger myself, albeit it an amateur and accordingly obscure one, that my sensitivities to this plot thread were already piqued. As this part of the story developed that pique evolved to incredulity as I knew all too well the impossibility of a blog going viral globally in a measly twenty-four hours. This just does not happen and it certainly does not happen to brand new blogs by unknown authors writing about contentious societal issues no matter how earnest or well-written the piece. The internet is literally littered with these. Your mother is unlikely to stumble upon it in a day, never mind a popular celebrity television personality.
See? Piqued. Anyway, what struck me about these world-changing blog posts Everett was anonymously writing was that we never see them. Not a single word from Eve of Equality (that’s the blog’s name) is ever shared in the book. We are just told, many times at that, that these blog posts are spectacular literary creations that use humour to emphasize the injustices women face in society on a daily basis. Within days literally hundreds of thousands of followers have flocked to Twitter and the blog to engage in discussion and await the next sermon from the plucky Sage. So profound are these discourses that not only does Everett earn a book deal and television appearances but the books sole antagonist, the unsavoury and cliché strip club owner, Mason Bennington, goes so far as to hire thugs to not only discover Everett’s identity but threaten him and his loved ones with physical violence.
If you spend any time on social media you are well aware that verbal threats, many extremely vile, are commonplace. Ironically enough, they are overwhelmingly directed at women. This is no denial of that ugly reality but the “thug threatens hero in bathroom” trope was worthy of an eye roll at best. And I suppose this is the crux of what I disliked most about Poles Apart. There was such potential here for a wonderfully entertaining yet deeply insightful book thanks to the subject matter. The story itself is tantalizing but the characters ultimately were not. Instead, they were a congregation of expected stereotypes.
What’s worse, I felt this cadre of core characters was remarkably reminiscent of the characters from Fallis’ first book, The Best Laid Plans. Everett, the freelance writer with an activist past, is essentially Daniel, the English professor with a politic past. Beverly, the wise, ill, elderly forgotten feminist author is an amalgam of Muriel, the wise, ill, elderly party loyalist, and Marin, the wise, dead, feminist author. Even Billy, Everett’s brazen, politically incorrect father, resembles Angus, the gruff, outspoken Scotsman. Everett’s love interest, the modern, beautiful, and independent Megan was a near twin of Daniel’s love interest, the modern, beautiful, and independent Lindsay. I found this almost verbatim regurgitation of characters insulting.
Then there’s the subject matter of the entire book, Feminism. As Everett laments in the book once his blog goes viral, a white male cannot be the face of Feminism. Coincidentally, a white male criticizing a book so strongly steeped in Feminism can also be dangerous though hopefully my eight years as a stay at home dad gives me a modicum of street cred or at least a passing benefit of doubt.
For a book, even an admittedly light-hearted, humorous one, for which Feminism is the singular, driving purpose of the story there is remarkably little actual Feminist philosophy in it. We don’t see any of Everett’s impactful blog posts. We never see any part of Beverly’s book. These two bond over the subject yet we never even hear them have a sincere discussion about any specific topic aside from a cursory chat about using humour to promote the message. Surely there was room for actually showing inequality in a way that even remotely jars the reader.
Instead, the biggest affront to women in Poles Apart was the juvenile language Everett’s father uses when flirting with nurses. Surely the lame come ons of a retired auto worker are not the apex of sexism in society. The only moment that showed an inkling of actual darkness was Everett’s recount of his father steadfastly refusing to allow his mother to do her Master’s degree. This denial lead to her leaving and ultimately their divorce. That was the only time where a male character showed the slightest genuinely sexist and potentially dangerous behaviour towards a woman. Even the idiotic strip club owner was surprisingly timid.
It all came across so Milquetoast and cliché. The university student putting herself through school by stripping who also happens to be taking women’s studies … and is a lesbian … and is a single mother … on purpose … and is brilliant … and is beautiful. Or the sexist club owner’s lawyer who is a young women and also happens to be brilliant and beautiful. Both these women, in their own way, fall for Everett because even a book about Feminism can’t avoid the ultimate trope in all of popular culture, the gorgeous woman who falls for the average guy. The irony of that isn’t even ingenious or amusing, it’s just sad.
And if I may risk some backlash here, can we please stop using misogyny as a catchall phrase for even the slightest perceived impropriety towards women? It’s an actual word, a very serious one at that, and it has its place in calling out the very worst of male behaviour towards women. Applying it to every sexist deed, no matter how banal, diminishes its power and ultimately neuters the speaker’s credibility. There is no stronger example of this than that presented in Poles Apart where our fearless male feminist Everett seems to view calling women “girls” as the utmost in misogyny. Rather than being a champion for women’s rights, Everett comes across as nothing more than a whiner who can’t stop sweating the small stuff.
I’m so not enjoying writing this review. I really wanted to love this book but I just don’t. I could rant some more but that seems callous and arrogant on my part. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads suggest I’m by far in the minority with my take on it. The fact it made the shortlist for the Leacock Award further confirms that assessment. I’m rather dumbfounded it did, frankly. To each their own, as the saying goes.
It should be no surprise then, that I give Poles Apart by Terry Fallis only 1.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. As a fan of Terry’s previous work, I remain shocked at how disappointing this book was. The characters are derivative stereotypes and much of the plot is unlikely and plodding. I realize Terry’s work is far more Sunday afternoon CBC than Saturday night HBO but a little gutsy, dark humour would have given this book a much needed jolt of life. Ultimately, Poles Apart wasted a juicy opportunity to entertain while enlightening. I expected more.