Jon Paul Fiorentino: Theory of the writer class

Theory of the writer class

Jon Paul Fiorentino brings po-mo back to the mall
Photo: Roger Aziz

Jon Paul Fiorentino's novel Stripmalling sets a course from apathy to comedy to box-store transcendence

Jon Paul Fiorentino, author of the multi-genre, comic-meets-fictional-autobiographical epistolary slacker novel Stripmalling, may have spent the last several years basking in the relative ease of writer-friendly Montreal since he moved here in the early oughts, but he still draws much of his inspiration from his place of origin: a suburban working-class Winnipeg no man’s land (his words) called Transcona. It’s the setting of numerous episodes and tangents from the seven books he has published in the last seven years, including his first, Transcona Fragments, a collection of poetry published in 2002, his short-story memoir Asthmatica, 2007′s The Theory of the Loser Class, and Stripmalling, which comes out this month.

In Stripmalling, the protagonist is a teenager named Jonny who lives in Transcona and works at the "Shill station" in a strip mall and then moves to Montreal, where he becomes a writer who writes a book called Stripmalling. In other words, about as literarily postmodern as you can get.

Caught up in Fiorentino’s tangle of narrative fragments is a poignant tension between narrative and fragmentation, hopefulness and cynicism, and nostalgia and mild embarrassment – much like Fiorentino himself. I wanted our interview to take place somewhere that would complicate that too-easy dichotomy about the place he’s from and the place he chooses to live, between his Winnipeg strip-mall past tense and his present-tense Montreal. Somewhere that expresses the poetry of place so evident in Fiorentino’s work.

Which is what brought us to Plaza St-Hubert: a glass awning-covered amalgamation of Italian wedding-dress wholesalers, light bondage gear purveyors and discount hardware stores, home to the best camera shop in town, Montreal’s only 99-cent store and a three-storey SAQ right down the block. At the end of this impossibly long, storied strip of shopping heaven, Fiorentino and I settle into a booth at the Rice Garden, a pan-Asian soup joint.

Amidst a forest of fake bamboo, the Day-Glo glare of the Rice Garden’s ginormous HDTV, and CHOM blaring Brown-Eyed Girl, I shopped through Fiorentino’s vast subconscious for some useful ideas about writing comedy, Quebec’s early influence on postmodernism, and how a digressive nature, an anxiety disorder and ADD have helped him become one of Montreal’s – and Canada’s – most prolific and accomplished young writers.

St-Hubert fragments

Hour It seem to me that Stripmalling is what people call a "fictionalized autobiography." The main character is named after you and is the author of a thinly veiled comedic autobiography that he launches at a Montreal literary event called "Red Cosmopolis." Aren’t you worried that people might think it’s all truth?

Jon Paul Fiorentino It’s sufficiently different than the experiences of my real life. The most embarrassing and seemingly impossible things that happen in the book are the true ones, and ones that seem so mundane and boring no one would make them up, are the ones I made up. I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface of embarrassing things that have happened to me.

Hour And you do seem to thrive on that. Few writers are un-self-serious enough to actually turn events from their own lives into self-debasing comedy bits. Is there something sick about that?

JPF My goal was for this book to cause the first rash that is formed exclusively from reading… an exclusively literary rash. I guess I anticipate that I’ll get a particular reaction, and yet, I mostly just have anxiety that the jokes won’t work. If you write a serious book, then people can just feel smart for having read it, or owned it, and put it on their coffee table or whatever. But if you say "this book is meant to be funny," and people don’t laugh, then you’ve failed and there’s no way around it.

Hour So it’s actually more risky to make life into comedy than into tragedy, literarily? To turn real pain into something glib, for laughs?

JPF Well, yes, unless your life is utter and complete tragedy. And then it’s just too funny for words.

Hour What is it about Transcona that provides you with constant inspiration? You now live in a not-terrible, artist-friendly place that is in a way so not-conducive to satire. And yet, the landscapes you construct are dismal – is it exorcism or satire or something else that inspires this?

JPF I’m inspired by Winnipeg and uplifted by Montreal. At the same time I see elements of Winnipeg in Montreal, in the areas that are not as developed, there’s the sameness, the box stores, and more sameness. In Montreal there’s a lovely arts scene, sympathetic to writers. But I would like to be buried in Transcona, or rather, have my ashes scattered there. Actually I would like someone to bury my ashes there. I don’t know why.

Hour You’ve thought about this a lot.

JPF Yes.

Imprints of darkness

Contrary to the cliché about young writers being interested only in their own advancement, Fiorentino is not only a prolific writer, he’s also one of the most dedicated impresarios in Montreal’s anglo literary scene: a lit professor at Concordia, editor-in-chief of Matrix Magazine, editor of 17 anthologies and books by other writers, and a frequent host and organizer of literary events. And his publishing company, Snare Books, an imprint at Insomniac Press, is dedicated to publishing young writers. All this somehow leaves him ample time to joke, drink beer and indulge in distraction.

Hour Do you see yourself in a continuum of anglo-Quebec or Canadian writers outside the mainstream? I’m thinking about Prairie literature, which seems the opposite of what you do, and yet your books are set in the Prairies and have a fragmentary and postmodern approach to narrative.

JPF I don’t know if those complaints about the bucolic, pastoral, prairie reality of CanLit are really valid anymore. Things are starting to open up. Modernism came 30 years late here, and post-modernism did too.

Hour But not in Quebec…

JPF No! Of course not in Quebec. Did you know Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition was commissioned by the government of Quebec? And Robert Kroetsch made the claim that Canada is a postmodern nation, and that claim has really stuck. I like the idea that Stripmalling is postmodern in that sense… The point was to write a humorous comedy novel that is also a comic book, but then I started challenging myself to write in as many different micro-genres as possible: journals, letters, comedy bits, personal essays, stand-alone short stories, scripts. I think it’s still true that in Canada we do still value the boring and pastoral and bucolic and not the urban and contemporary, but my hope is that that’s changing.

[The use of literature] is a question that I’ve tried to answer in so many different ways… One way is with my publishing company – it’s my way of trying to give young writers and poets a head start. … If I’m not thinking about something, not writing, it’s very important to me to be helping someone else with their project. Say what you want about my ever-present apathy and cynicism, I use those things as tools and then I work hard to make something from them.

Hour You seem to be weirdly anti-narcissistic as a writer.

JPF I think that coming from Winnipeg comes into play for that too. It’s a working-class town, where community sticks together and people help each other, and that for me comes through literary practice. I can’t imagine staying at home twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the muse. Stripmalling in a way is an [expression] of that, with its anti-box-store theme. I would like literary practice and literary dissemination to be the exact opposite of box stores… In fact, I would suggest that the ideal place to buy Stripmalling is at an independent Montreal bookstore such as The Word on Milton or Argo Book Shop on Ste-Catherine.

Hour That’s fantastic. Function follows form which follows purchasing power. I’ve never interviewed anyone who not only wanted to say that you should buy their book, but where to buy it as well.

JPF I know, I know. But I really do mean it! Doesn’t that count for something?

John Paul Fiorentino

Stripmalling (ECW Press) 180 pp.
By John Paul Fiorentino, illustrations by with illustrations by Evan Munday
Launch party, with readings and special guests, March 8, 9 p.m.
At Korova (3908 St-Laurent Blvd.)

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