From the Dept. of Hubris

Here's a word cruncher that claims to be able to tell whether the writer is male or female. It's funny: the subject of a female writer writing a male character or a male writer writing a female character never comes up.

Also, words like 'with', 'if' and 'should' are considered feminine, whereas words like 'what', 'more' and 'are' are considered masculine.

Really, what fresh hell is this.

It claims to have the imprimatur of the New York Times and The Guardian. Ooh.

If I were associated with these august institutions, I would be embarrassed.

The first page of The Girls Who Saw Everything has rendered me a female writer. I suppose I should be relieved.

Here's the breakdown:

There is greater hubris here than in Gilgamesh.

A Young Aline Irwin

I know this blog has long passed its usefulness where promoting a book is concerned. I've even written a whole other book and tried to promote it too, halfheartedly. I didn't know why it was so hard until I realized that this site for this book was never really about promotion at all.

 The Girls Who Saw Everything was partly about the world as it presented itself on the Internet — specifically how it presented itself to Aline Irwin on the internet. So I guess it's no surprise that I keep finding things on the internet that resonate with Aline and the other former members of the Lacuna Cabal MontrĂ©al Young Women's Book Club.

So I think I'm going to keep posting here. Just for the what of it. My novel-writing phase may have only been temporary, and a bit dilettantish, but I suspect the Lacuna Cabal blog is forever.

 Which brings me to the just discovered young Aline Irwin presenting himself as herself with great skill, on the internet:

The Kid Who Was Supposed to Read My Book

Yesterday, someone on twitter wrote:

Grade 11 student asking for a summary of @sean_dixon novel that I reviewed on Goodreads. Ah, no.

She included a link with her very nice review, one of my all time favourites:

How I loved this book. I happened to be in Montreal while I read this book which gave me a better understanding of the book's setting. I loved the idea of a pair of narrators who miss out on all the main action. I loved the references to all the other books and authors in the story (many of which I had read). I finished it on the train heading back home and cried and cried and cried. I wonder what the original play was like.

-and his reply:

hey Jennifer I was wondering if you could please please give me the full summery of this novel, The Girls Who Saw Everything? because I am an grade 11 student, and i have to do my main project for english on this novel, and its due in couple of days, and i dont have enough time to read this novel, in the time limit I have, so can you please please please be so nice to give me the full summery of this novel. can you please please email me on : [redacted] or can you please replay on here at this website? thanks in advenced.

So I decided to write to him:


Your teacher will never believe you wrote this. You should tell him/her that you fell behind and wrote to the author and he sent you this. The only reason why I'm doing this is because it mirrors an action that happens near the end of the book. 

But you should also read the book. It's pretty good. 




The Girls who saw Everything follows the adventures of various members of a Montreal young woman's book club - The Lacuna Cabal - as they conduct a six week reading of The Epic of Gilgamesh, showing how the events in this old story collide with the unfolding personal melodramas of their young lives.

The time is March 2003, during the lead-up to the Iraq War, an event that most of them are blissfully unaware of, except for one member - the cross-dressing outsider Aline Irwin - who has been following the blogs of Salam Pax out of Baghdad.

At the novel's heart however is the Quixotic girl who first proposed the book, Runner Coghill, and the mystery of her personal connection with the ancient tale. She has in her possession ten priceless cuneiform stones that look like they've come straight from an archeologica l dig in the Middle East.

We follow Runner's courageous attempt to use the tale of the Epic of Gilgamesh to set a kind of artistic order onto the chaos of a debilitating family tragedy and her own serious illness.

And from Runner to her ten-year old brother, Neil, who seeks after his sister's death to enact the events of the Epic on his own. Pursued across the world by the surviving members of the Lacuna Cabal, he embarks on a journey across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean and down the Red Sea, ending up sitting at a computer terminal in the office in a shipyard in Bahrain, conducting an exchange about life and death with the Baghdad Blogger Salam Pax.

The novel's engine is comic, and somewhat quixotic, and in fact the turning point is a haircut, but it's nestled within a unifying theme of 'reading lives.'

And he wrote back:

Hey thank you thank thank you so much!! this really helped, I was wondering if you could maybe help me out with one more thing? please!!! the actual project is to come up with an theme that you found in the novel, then create an Painting or an Comic Script that has : - 10 techniques ( and actual examples) to include. like if i do the comic script then i can have 2 or 3 techniques on the ittle page ( and techniques doesnt have to be similie, personification.... it can be anything like the color choosen for the painting or the title page..) please please please please help me out wiht this! this was the actual project, but i needed to know abt the book first. I kinda knew about the summery of the book before i messaged you, but I was just making sure that I got the plot right. But I really really need help with this, because i only have 1 more day left to finish this, and this is worth 25% of my mark and, if I dont do well on this project then, I FAIL this course. so can you please please please please help me!!!! ( and btw I am going to buy an coppy of this novel and read it in this summer).

I did not understand his new set of instructions and did not write him back.

Later ps: Jacob McArthur Mooney tells me I should still help this kid, writing, "I don't even understand the project he's being asked to do, exactly. But I feel you should make him a diorama and mail it to him."

He was joking, of course. 

I won't send the kid a diorama but perhaps he could compose variations on these bookplates (actually drawn by Evan Munday.) That might do the trick, if he can find them here, as long as he doesn't just copy them like some kind of zombie internet automaton. 

Later pps: Assuming he copies the below and hands them in, he should probably look up the terms 'bookplate' and 'ex libris', familiarize himself with the Latin expression on the bookplates (hint: the 'v' is really a 'u') and also hope his teacher doesn't already have a set. 

Okay, so there's more:
hey i m sorry if u didn't understand the project, i managed to photo copy the project instructions. I uploaded the file so u can see, and I am sorry I couldn't upload the comment there because i couldn't upload a file! 
please did is part of the message after u read the uploaded file:  

 I just want to let you know that I already did one portfolio on the novel Frankenstein. And I cant do the music because I did music for that novel!! and also since you are a author I was wondering if u could help me do the poem. And also don't worry I won't copy word for word from the project you help me with! please please please please please help me I really really neeed it right now!! I have lots of other things for my other classes as well, and if I dont do well on this project then my mark will go down by a lot, and my favorite uncle just died today as well, so I can't focus on anythings at all! :( so please help me!! 

Yeah. That's what I said. He's treating me like his life teacher, telling me that the dog hate the homework. He also attached the assignment and a stab at the theme of the book:

KID! The theme of the novel is not 'Sometimes death is the only option'. That is not the theme. It's about as far from the theme as you could possibly get. 

 As for the rest of it, it's all here. It amazes me that you think I would give you anything else. All you have to do is use your powers—the same powers you use to seek help from half of the internet including the author of the fucking book! All you have to do is use those powers to interpret the exercise you've been given in a way that makes you able to do it!


Later still. Now the grand poobahs of Metafilter have chimed in, after somebody posted it there and sent me the link. From this I learn that by interacting with a Grade 11 student, I have exposed myself as unprofessional, an idiot and a 'piece of shit'.

But thank you, Grobstein, for defending my honour. And Bwithh is right: my synopsis doesn't make any sense. I think it was one I took a stab at that was rejected by the publisher.

And finally, to the kid: You should have a look at zylocomotion's post to the metafilter thread at 6:51 p.m. He's really on to something. Because in my opinion, this isn't a post about the perils of school. It's about the perils of skimming.


Final postscript: The Globe and Mail picks up the story, ending it with a nice compliment for the kid. For the record, I agree.

Scissors Don't Lie

Raven and brown and red and golden 
Four hundred loads of fresh-cut hair 
From the girls who live along the coast 
Four hundred trucks to the ocean there 

The ocean’s as black as the east 
From oil as black as a tree 
And a bald girl along for the ride looking north 
Who’s given her hair for the health of the sea.

We here declare that the shorn Romy Childerhose will look with great satisfaction this coming November, when she finds that the story of how a bully once chopped off the hair of a misfit, like her, a kid who recalled the act with terror for the rest of his life, has cost this man the Presidency.

Mitt Romney wasn't just a kid who wanted to conform. He was the kid who wanted to enact the conformity, enforce the conformity. He wanted to be a leader for conformity, of conformity, about conformity. And you know what? He still does.

Scissors don't lie.

And John Lauber, with his non-conformist, swept-down, bleached blonde hair that his sister says he wore for the rest of his life despite the act of the boy pictured at right—is now and will forever be an honorary member of the Lacuna Cabal.


Jennifer H. & Danielle D.
Former Members
Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Womens' Book Club

The Oldest Sheet Music Predates Preserved Papyrus

Out of Syria, preserved thanks to the light ruggedness of Cuneiform tablets, the oldest 'sheet' music is here performed on a lyre by this guy.

Stop me if you've heard this one.

For the record, I can't say for sure how the rest of the joke goes, but I believe the answer is "me".


Bahrain was said to be where Utnapishtim—the wise old Noah precursor—lived in the Epic of Gilgamesh. That's why the members of the Lacuna Cabal end up there at the end of The Girls Who Saw Everything.

And so Romy and Neil steamed around the northern coast of Qatar to alight at their destination: the northwestern tip of the small island hidden beside it; an island with no oil left except for what was lapping on her shores, and no underground water left, except for what they could convert from the sea; where farmland had begun to turn into desert; where people used to dive by the thousands for pearls; where, in a grave and mysterious coinci- dence, Uta-napishti the Faraway, known to people of the Ancient World as an old wise man, once looked out over the waters to see Gilgamesh coming on a raft and said to himself, ‘That’s not one of my men’; where the underworked shipyard had begun to take on jobs no one else wanted, such as pulling apart a fleet of contaminated and rusting American hulks; where the relatively harmless transformation of the Nindawayma from ferry boat to cable ship was soon to take place; and where Neil and Romy would be, much to everyone’s surprise, arrested.


Like many immigration officers in the Gulf countries, Seyed Samir had recently been trained in the practice of recovering stolen artifacts. The truth is, he was taking to it like a fish to water. To Seyed, this was the first really gratifying work he had ever done. Being an islander, he didn’t generally run into a lot of trouble in his work. The most exciting thing that ever had happened at Bahrain’s borders was when he and a couple of his compeers were asked to politely detain a diplomat and get him to pay his outstanding parking tickets.
It was also gratifying to Seyed that he should become a detec- tive of sorts, because he had always understood that, to be a devout man, one must be prepared to see beyond the five senses of the body. What better profession, Seyed reasoned, than to become a sleuth, a seeker of the truth?

In early 2003, things were a lot quieter there, while the US was making trouble in another part of the Gulf.

The Upside of Losing the Fight

Killing Humbaba the monster, who looks just as human as they do.

Priya, from The Girls Who Saw Everything, after Romy plays Humbaba:

‘But what was it like?’ she persisted, earning an approving look from Runner. ‘What was it like to be the monster Humbaba?’

‘Stop pestering her.’ (Missy.)

‘But we have to talk about it, Missy. Otherwise it’s a waste of time. To the victors go the spoils, but the victims get the visions, and people should hear about it.’

‘What people? What visions?’ asked Missy.

‘Us people,’ said Priya. ‘Our visions.’

Romy, from The Girls Who Saw Everything, after playing Humbaba:

‘Since I’m dead,’ she said, ‘I can finally admit that I read all kinds of shit, like even the crappy magazines that I pretend to despise. I read bad, pulpy books, too, and books that scare me, though not so bad as when the rabbits died in Watership Down. I read all kinds of shit, I might as well admit it since I’m dead. And I’d be a hypocrite to mind you comforting the traumatized and fallen heroes, the men, since I wish the women could comfort me too. I do. I really do. I might as well admit it since I’m dead ... ’

She couldn’t quite believe she was speaking out loud like this.

‘Emmy could hold me to her soft breast too, and I would feel her breathing and slow down my breathing to the level of her breathing too. That’s comfort. That’s what comfort is. And people get comfort when they win, not when they lose. Do you see why I want to be alone for a bit? I’ll see you tomorrow, ’kay?’

And then she was gone. Disappeared into the stairwell. Slipped down through the floors and out into the darkening streets as a god.

Romy's bookplate

A tribute to student actors

Really lovely tribute to the latest group of Lacuna Cabal members in the Ryerson student production of The Girls Who Saw Everything.

The Carnival Barkers of CanadaReads!

Image from here.

It was with a feeling of pride and some sense of dread that I saw my book, The Girls Who Saw Everything, listed last Thursday on the top 40 list for CanadaReads 2011.

I'd been thrilled to open my Twitter page a couple of weeks before and read that my name had been put forward by book blogger Kerry Clare in her Pickle Me This, not so much as 'an essential book' from the last decade but rather as a little known story that might be accessible to a wider audience and fun to read.

It was exciting. I'd been prepared to ignore the storm among better known writers and here I was being swept up into it. The writer's life is shall we say prosaic and so these little thrills are few and far between.

But then, during that first poll, I was vaguely accused of essentially sitting by my computer and clicking 'vote, vote, vote' over and over again, all by my self, in a little room somewhere. What brow-furrowing troubles lay ahead?

They're not so bad, in the grand scheme of things. Someone complained that the list order was incorrect with respect to titles that began with 'the'. Authors' names have been overlooked (of course), great authors' names. Corey Redekop left me off his own top ten list, along with himself and his book Shelf Monkey (thematically similar to my own, I've heard). I thought, 'Sir, you're too modest! Surely you're not against having one comic novel on the theme of reading lives? If not mine, please, let it be yours! If not yours, please, why not mine?'

There were accusations of mobilizing friends and 'gaming' the vote. Again, not so bad, but it was all making me shrink away a bit. I thought, isn't it just my luck that I should be considered for the one edition of CanadaReads that everyone is going to love to hate!

But then Steven W. Beattie weighed in with an essay on why he thought the whole thing was a bad idea, expressing sympathy for the lot of the writer as carnival barker and performing monkey.

I can be mistrustful and combative with critics at times. But my introduction to Beattie's blog had been his 2007 defense of the value of the comic novel, underrated, he felt, in Canadian literature, using my own novel as an example (an essay which I cannot link to since Beattie lost several years of archived material when trying to retool his website in 2009, goddamn it.)

So even though he himself put forth another book in this fray, and even though he seemed to be casting aspersions on the indignity of writers who might dance along "to the tune of Mr. Ghomeshi’s hurdy-gurdy", I was not particularly offended.

I was inspired, in fact.

Beattie was worried that we writers would all be rendered carnival barkers. But I've already been a carnival barker. I've been a street performer, I play the bugle (badly) and the concertina (very badly) and the banjo (reasonably well). Dignity and mystique have never been my strong suits.

I thought: 'Carvival Barker, c'est moi.' Honestly, I even have a purple jacket with red stripes. I don it on Hallowe'en with a gorgeous (if I may say so) Venetian bird mask and a hat and bow tie, white shirt (cotton/lycra blend, for stretching) and big black pants stuffed with pillows, whereupon I endeavor to stop all the cars on my street. The neighbours call me 'Mister Bump'. As in speed bump. Many of them don't even know it's me.

Odin Teatret

For a while, as a young man, I was an actor in a theatre company in Winnipeg, Primus, modeled after the famous Odin Teatret in Holstebro, Denmark, where part of the actor's job was to get out in the street and make sure the townspeople knew you were coming with your shows. The shows were challenging and very serious. The parade, though, was celebratory, inclusive, social, larger-than-life.

That meant learning an instrument, that meant acrobatics and stilts. And barking. Lots of barking.

You might argue that literature has no place in the street. But Cervantes and Alexandre Dumas would probably disagree with you. If, as some people say, literature is dying, then my response is: Join the club: They've been saying that about theatre for a thousand years. Welcome to the fresh air.

Having reached the end of my argument and looked it over, I'm compelled to add the caveat that I don't really believe this approach is appropriate for everyone. Anne Carson, for example, brings a scholarly delicacy to her work, exposing passion through tiny brushstrokes like a paleontologist revealing the Archaeopteryx, feathers and all. She'd be no great fan of all this moreness (though she'd probably look great in theatrical face paint, like Diana Rigg).

But it's not so bad for me. And, going by some of the exchanges I've been having on Twitter with Christy Ann Conlin, Angie Abdou and Zoe Whittall, it seems to be okay with some of my fellow top40ers. We all got busy discussing handstands, headstands, hurdy-gurdies, carnival costumes, and the Old English term for a boastful bard.

As a postscript (drum roll please), my favourite post from the comments section of the CanadaReads top 40 announcement, written by one 'Pooker' from Winnipeg:

I'm usually not one to eat crow, but I was wrong when I snarked at the "self-promoters". I've had a chance over many hours to follow their tweets and visit their websites and I've discovered a whole lot of grace and creativity, as well as support for their fellow artists (from Angie Abdou's video in support of Steven Heighton's Every Lost Country to Leo McKay's reason #17 for voting for his book). I hang my head and say I am sorry.

Please continue to promote yourselves and each other. There are about half a dozen books that I would not have heard of but for your exuberant cries of "vote for this book". And, while I have but one vote to spend to get one of you in that "top" ten, I do have a "book budget" that I'll happily spend to keep as many of you as I can in what?...probably not pen and paper, but whatever you need to keep on writing. So your clever little scheme worked with me - keep it up! Thank you to you all for your chutzpa and self confidence and to CBC/Canada Reads for the venue.

Another Girl...

... who saw everything. Or tried to. There's a bit of a kicker.

For Romy

The best documentary I've ever seen about elephants is about a matriarch named Echo. They have years of footage on her and her family.

If you feel that elephants are better than people--like, greater souls--is it a flaky sentiment or does it simply feel that way because your instinct tells you not to betray your species?

For Aline


The Girls Who Saw Everything is, once again, a play!
Of rather epic proportions.

It's being presented by the hugely talented graduating class of the Ryerson Theatre School until the middle of November. In rep. Directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones. I loved it. If you're in Toronto this month, go see it!

Holy Mountain

An Interactive video on the Montreal Mountain. Something that the members of the Lacuna Cabal would appreciate.


Katerina Cizek's great Highrise Interactive.

Both courtesy of the NFB.

The Girls Who Saw Everything (aka The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal) is currently, impossibly, being considered for inclusion in a long list to be whittled down for the next installment of Canada Reads.

Since the members of the Lacuna Cabal would much appreciate the idea of having their book read by many Canadians, I have little choice but to take this bid seriously.

The idea was put forward by a blog called picklemethis, maintained by a woman named Kerry Clare, who is hereby being inducted into full membership, with all existing members, of the Lacuna Cabal Montréal Young Women's Book Club.

There's a poll at the bottom of the page, among all the bloggers' choices. The Girls Who Saw Everything is currently in second place against a serious (as in non-comic) work by an international bestselling author named Kenneth J. Harvey, who incidentally sponsors an annual literary award called the ReLits. In third place is a graphic novel that I've always wanted to read, called Essex County. William Gibson is on there too, but we're all beating him, which is hilarious (I probably shouldn't be mentioning that.) Funny coincidence too because Salam Pax is a big fan of Gibson.

All I can do, in consideration of impossibility, absurdity and humility, is ask all readers, presumptive members of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women's Book Club, to consider voting for the book on the poll that is now running on the Canada Reads site.

Or, if not, then vote for one of the other books. On that poll or another poll on the site. Or, if not that either, then get out and vote in your municipal election!

Link here.

Yours in Consideration of the Lateness of the Date,

Sean Dixon
The Girls Who Saw Everything
(AKA The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal.)

"Gender is not a science, and biology does not make -- or unmake -- a woman."

Aline Irwin, who is way overdo for her own post, would approve of this petition on behalf of the athlete Caster Semenya.

So for Aline's sake I urge you all to take a look at it and to consider signing it.

(This bookplate was designed for Aline Irwin, somewhat androgynous member of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women's Book Club.)