Behind the Wallpaper of the World

A review of Michelle Barker’s The Beggar King (Thistledown Press, 2013)

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author


By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Beggar King, Michelle Barker explores the potential of the fantasy medium for creating a deep coming-of-age story. Jordan is a boy on the cusp of adulthood and in his society youths his age normally receive a talent, a gift that will help them to determine their career – either they are good at firing arrows, have an aptitude for prophesy, or some other gift that will allow them to chose a career path. But, Jordon’s gift hasn’t appeared yet. He has an ability to leap from building to building, and a skill at stealing from the marketplace, but what he really wants is a clear talent and an uncomplicated path to the future. But things keep getting more complicated for him.

Jordan encounters the dark figure from his culture’s mythology, the Beggar King, a being who uses undermagic, a forbidden type of magic that has been locked away because it could only be used for evil purposes and tended to turn on those who used it. Shortly after he first sees this dark figure, his community is invaded by the Brinnians, people who not only don’t respect his people’s traditions, but actively engage in activities that would be considered sacrilegious – hanging dead bodies from their sacred tree, killing sacred deer, and burning their sacred book.

When these invaders threaten to kill his mother, Jordan is told by friends and the Beggar King that he should consider opening the door to the undermagic that has been locked away in order to use its power to free his people.  Jordan is caught between a feeling that it is his cultural and religious duty to rid his community of invaders who engage in sacrilege and his knowledge that if he opens the door to the undermagic, he may be engaging in a sacrilege greater than any that these invaders could bring. Jordan discovers that he is one of the few who has the power to open the door to the undermagic – he has been given the gift to retreat outside of the world and disappear, he is the only one who can cross the Bridge of No Return that only the Beggar King can cross, and he has already opened the door to the undermagic a tiny crack…. he is uniquely positioned to either be the saviour of his people or bring about their downfall, and both friends and the Beggar King are playing on his desire to be exceptional, to prove himself, and to have a place in society by encouraging him to make a name for himself by opening the door to the undermagic. He discovers that some doors open for us, and some doors open within us.

This is a book about the in-between, that place that teens occupy as they search for identity as adults while rejecting their childhood identity. The in-between nature of this book stretches out into the position of Jordan as a person who is between the living and the dead when he crosses behind “the wallpaper of the world” to disappear as well as being the person who can open the doorway to the undermagic. He walks in those in-between places, hopping from rooftop to rooftop as he travels, and when he gains the power to become invisible, in the world between the places of our world and the underworld. But, the Holy City of Cir is itself a place betwixt and between – it is an island that can only be reached by bridges, and each bridge can only be crossed at certain times, with certain thoughts and behaviours – each bridge requires the individual to be in a certain mindset before it allows him or her to cross, whether that mindset is mischievous, meditative, or another frame of mind. When it becomes invaded, the Holy City of Cir becomes further liminal, being a place both of the Cirrans and the competing cultural influence of the invading Brinnians. It has become a city in the midst of a clash between traditional religion and the new capitalist imperialism brought by the Brinnians. Jordan is also in a morally liminal place, pulled in different moral directions and stuck with uncertainty about magic and undermagic because of the presence of these moral and cultural Others.

The Beggar King reinforces this ambiguity, being both a figure that is in inside and outside of the world, appearing on its fringes, but unable to appear to everyone (only to those suited to open the gateway to the undermagic). Even the term Beggar King is liminal, positioning him between poverty and wealth. Before attaining the power of undermagic, the Beggar King was a sin eater, a scapegoat for his culture who had to eat food that was filled with the sins of the households he begged from.

Using these liminal characteristics, Barker suffuses her world with the inherent contradictions that come with youth and the transition to adulthood – the uneasiness and questions that come with transformation and change. Although early in the narrative, prophets see Jordan as a ‘little boy wearing too-big shoes’, his encounters with other aspects of the fringes, other betwixt and between spaces, helps him to grow into those shoes and face an uneasy destiny rather than the one of ease and fame which he would have chosen. He discovers that one never knows the full picture and that when one acts unilaterally, even when he thinks it is the best thing for his community, he brings greater trouble to them. Only by accepting his role as a member of a greater community and recognising the diversity of skills and strengths within the people around him can he gain a complete understanding of the situation that faces him and take actions that are in support of others rather than in service to his own desire to be famous. By observing the emperor who has conquered his territory as well as his own choices, he comes to understand that arrogance is one of the greatest forms of ignorance.

To discover more about Michelle Barker’s work, visit her website at http://michellebarker.ca/ . To pick up a copy of The Beggar King, visit  Thistledown Press at http://www.thistledownpress.com/index.cfm .

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Meme Zombies

A Review of Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool (Maple Pictures, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As many of you know, I tend to focus Speculating Canada primarily on literature. This is not meant to ignore other types of texts and media, but has been an area that fascinates me.  I have recently been drawn to the film Pontypool through my love of representations of the monstrous. Since it is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, I thought it was worth exploring further.

I am not normally a huge fan of the zombie genre. I tend to find a lot of recent explorations of the zombie to be repetitive – involving the idea of viral contamination, chase scenes, and general body horror. This is not to say that there isn’t value in these zombie depictions, but it has been overdone a bit for my taste. I tend to like innovative new treatments of the zombie, and I think that is what drew me to Pontypool. The zombies in this film aren’t created by biting, scratching, an airborn virus… they are created by language.

Set in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, the movie features a small town radio station who gradually receives filtered news of a huge event. People have seemingly gone mad and are destroying the downtown, attacking one another, and mumbling gibberish the entire time. There is no official word on what is happening, and the radio station is only getting reports from random citizens as official channels stay silent on the issue.

Things hit close to home when people in the radio station itself begin to repeat phrases, alliterate, and get stuck in cycles of rhyming. This is the first stage of the virus – since the virus is contained in language, the body’s immune system kicks in to try to expel the virus by playing with language. When this immune response fails, the infected host seeks out others, homing in on them by the sound of their voice, fixating on the vocalisation of the English language to find new victims and spread to them.

Pontypool explores the idea that there could be something living in language, in consciousness that replicates itself when the brain of the new host recognises and understands words. This is a personification of the idea of the viral meme, made literal. It spreads through cultural expressions, replicating itself and moving from one area to another, expanding, spreading. Although most zombie movies involve a great deal of physical movement, one of the striking parts of this movie is that all of the movement occurs intellectually. There is little physical movement since the entire plot of the movie takes place in a radio station (and largely in the sound booth). The movement that occurs is through conversations, through hearing of events conveyed through voice and through leaps of awareness. All of the action of this movie is carried in words, through hearing action, which makes it a particularly apt medium for a movie about a virus that spreads through words. As one watches the movie, one becomes very sensitive to sound, noting differences in sound and becoming hypersensitive to the spoken word. Words feel weightier, more significant, louder, and awkward. The viewer becomes alienated from language itself.

Pontypool plays with ideas of fear and the spread of fear, focusing on the idea of voice as a medium for both understanding, but also for the spread of fear. The shock radio jockey star of this movie, Grant Massey (Stephen McHattie), begins his radio broadcast of the morning by trying to shock his listeners when he describes the threat of drug culture and drug dealers coming into small towns to create grow-ops. When his producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) tells him not to scare the small town populace, he informs her that fear is what sells news, and getting people angry means bigger ratings. Here, Burgess and McDonald provide a subtle warning about the nature of media and the use of fear as a marketing tool, as well as the conflict that happens in small town Ontario where people often are both attracted to the idea of hearing about threats, but also don’t really want to hear too much about the potential horrors of the world.

The idea of fear in the media is played on further when people come into the radio station in Arabic-face (i.e. white Canadians painted to appear Arabic) in order to play music about the Middle East. Calling themselves Laurence and the Arabians, one of the members of the group is compared to Osama bin Laden and he ends his song on the radio by firing a toy machine gun in the air. This musical interlude occurs as the first inklings of a crisis begin to filter into the radio through reports, and comments well on the state of today’s society where often the Middle East, and images of terror far away, is used as a mechanism for distracting people from threats and issues close to home.

The image of terrorism resurfaces again when Massey talks to a reporter from the BBC who is calling to get clarification about reports he has received that an act of terrorism has occurred. When Massey tells him that they don’t have any details and that information is scarce, the BBC correspondant begins discussing Canada’s history of French separatism and ends his broadcast by concluding that the issue in Pontypool Ontario is actually a terrorist attack by French separatists. The media once again focuses on the notion of easy scapegoats and figures that inspire fear rather than further investigating and interrogating the notion that threats can occur locally. It is easier to search for a pre-established and culturally accepted threat than to look for new threats.

The character Grant Massey brings critical attention to the issue of the military and fear culture when he says to the military personelle who are monitoring his broadcast as they begin bombing the small community to stop the threat: “You are just killing scared people.” He later notes, when talking about how people who have the zombie virus stop making sense: “We were never making sense”, bringing critical attention to the notion of the spoken word and its ability to disseminate confusion. Pontypool evokes in the viewer a sense that more is being said through the figure of the zombie and its location in a centre of media – one finds oneself contemplating the notion that terrorism makes zombies of us all, that fear of terrorism and radical responses to beliefs in the threat of terrorism make us willing to blindly follow the voices that guide us. As a society, we are more willing to follow voices (like the zombies in this movie do when seeking new hosts for the virus) than to think for ourselves and look deeply at underlying issues.

You can check out a trailer for Pontypool at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1386283545/