Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Over the last two days, I have been rather harsh on this book without a lot of substance to back up my vitriol, and I hope today to make up for that.  My opinion of the book isn’t as passionate as all that, if anything I’m mainly disappointed.  Going in to Canada Reads 2011 this was the book I looked forward to the most: billed as a funny, irreverent take on Canadian politics, I felt I was probably the ideal audience.  I am continually harping on the overly depressing state of Canadian literature (and of most literature since 1910, really), pining for the days when books had heroes.  And I love politics.  Love.  I have even gone so far as to work as a volunteer for one of our major political parties, so a lot of the backroom shenanegans offered up by Fallis were familiar to me.  I knew there was a lot to expose there.

The first thing to understand about Best Laid Plans is that it is written for a very conservative (presumably small-c, as the heroes are all Liberals), possibly older, audience.  Fallis is trying to show us a situation gone zanily out of control, with all the hyjinx and absurdity he could pack into his 300 pages.  Unfortunately, his idea of what constitutes “zany” and “absurd” is about twenty years out of date.  Daniel Addison’s election campaign is publicly executed by two punk kids from his English for Engineering class who are, in every scene, giving poor Daniel aneurysms with their shocking fashion choices: Mohawks, piercings, and fishnet define their characters.  We’re talking about a subculture that’s been around since the 1970s, and which is currently practiced by teenagers so widely that you can buy a fishnet shirt in a mall in Brantford.  This is hardly the cutting edge of hooliganery.  So when Daniel discovers with amazement that his charges don’t have criminal records and are actually (gasp!) pretty good in school, he might be having his world turned inside out, but this reviewer found herself rolling her eyes. Similarly the “scandal” that brings about Angus McLintock’s election is, yes, shocking enough to colour an election, but it’s hard to imagine that the intelligent, experienced main characters of the story would be quite so taken aback.  Cheap S&M jokes are bandied about in a Sienfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” kind of way, but again, this reader was a lot less shocked than the jokes seemed to warrant.  In both cases what really baffled me was that Daniel, the transmitter of all these gasps and shocks, is supposed to be – what, 31? 32?  He’s a young guy, more or less fresh out of University and an old hand at Parliament Hill.  You’re going to tell me he’s never seen a live Mohawk before?  That he was channeling a 50-something (60-something?) author was painfully evident.

That the author is a little out of touch was evident in other ways.  When something newsworthy happens, bystanders whip out their “Betacams”.  The poor dear.  Even in news media, nobody uses Betacams anymore – nor is it the shorthand for hand-held recorded film.  His glimpse into Academia was sheer fantasy.  Daniel decides he’d like to quit being a mover and shaker in Parliament and “takes a break” – waltzing right into a tenure track job in the English department of a major Canadian university!  I beg your pardon?  Without a decade of sessional work, thankless publishing, and living on $12,000 a year?  Must be nice!

There has been much said about the strength of Angus McLintock’s character, and I won’t disagree.  He was fun and likable man, easy to cheer for.  He also lives in an alternate universe of rainbows and puppies where everyone can have their cake and eat it too.  His solutions to political problems were insultingly facile.  If life were without hard choices, of course we’d all be better people.  The suggestion that these simple, perfect-fit-everyone-wins solutions exist and today’s insanely hard-working politicians just wouldn’t take them is a preposterous.  Angus’s character ultimately suffers because he has no flaws (I’m sorry, gas doesn’t count) and never has to make any hard decisions.

Daniel, meanwhile, just can’t seem to decide where he stands on anything.  He’s desperate, desperate to leave politics and yet he spends the entire second half of the novel having fits every time his boss calls because it could mean the end of “his career in politics”.  Mere weeks earlier he is vomiting in the bush outside his MP’s house because (and I’m not sure here why, exactly, he was so ill at this time – I read the passage three times and it was absolutely unclear.  So the following is guesswork) he might actually win his election.  He’s an easily flustered boy, our Daniel.  When Angus is scheduled to meet with a women’s rights lobby, the first thing I thought was “Oh good, this should be easy. Angus is, after all, the widow of a leading feminist; he has this one in the bag.”  I’m quicker than Daniel, I guess, who spends the whole chapter having fits because he thinks his boss is being murdered by the women’s lobby – literally.  I guess they give tenure-track jobs to just anyone these days.

During the Canada Reads debates, Sara Quin valiantly made a cause for women in Best Laid Plans by bringing up the only really great character in the book, Muriel Parkinson.  Here we did have a great woman and a great character; credit where credit was due.  Unfortunately I felt she was more than undermined by the caricature that was her niece, the eventual love interest.  Lindsay, hot young poly-sci grad student, has maybe four lines in the whole book.  We do know, however, what she is wearing in every scene she’s in.  She’s a very complete OKCupid profile, a list of likes and dislikes.  She loves her grandmother, watches hockey, wears tight clothes – what’s not to like?  I didn’t like, personally, that she wasn’t a character.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about Best Laid Plans was that Fallis failed to expose or lampoon a lot of the actual darkness going on in the back rooms of politics.  He was off to a good start when he caught his ex-girlfriend with her boss in his office: but he balked at drawing any conclusions about what this means to be a woman trying to get ahead in party politics.  Instead Rachel was apparently actually involved in a relationship with her boss.  His lampooning was painfully shallow, making straw-men out of the Tories and fools out of the NDP.  There was no bite to this satire.

There’s a word for fiction which is all lightness – they call it fluff.  It might divert you for an hour or two, and it might make you giggle now and again.  If that’s what you want, this is your book.

10 Responses to Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    Yes. It drove me crazy that people kept comparing it to King Leary (“funny books have won before- look at Paul Quarrington”). Good lord. King Leary is a literary, intelligent novel with depth and complexity – written by an artist. The Best Laid Plans is a self-published podcast, an extended caucus joke. I preferred the debate in Civilians Read – they showed no hesitation in voting Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans off the island first.

  2. David says:

    I found your blog the other day, and I keep coming back to it to see what you’ll write next. I liked Best Laid Plans but it was a book I finished and forgot about. Your criticisms were very astute and well thought out. I found it shocking when I realized that this was considered the most ‘essential’ book of the past 10 years. Ridiculous.

  3. Steph says:

    You hit the nail on the head with your criticisms, particularly the one thing I think I had the most trouble with but failed to articulate properly on my blog: Daniel’s voice. I remember being shocked by his age, and I did say in my own review that it seemed Fallis too often got in the way of his narrator.

    I also agree very much with your thoughts on Lindsay. I was bothered by her one-dimensionalness, too, and Daniel’s comments or view of her clashed with his older-seemer self.

    I didn’t even notice some of the things you’ve brought up and yet when I read them, I thought, oh yeah…

    This is well-written, Charlotte: scathing, but fair.

  4. We had very different reading experiences of this novel. Although the one aspect with which I would agree is that I wanted a little more from Lindsay’s character. Perhaps because she was seemed a little pale next to Muriel, who was my favourite character.

    However, I found Daniel’s character completely believable. I’ve run into a lot of 35-year-old-going-on-55-year-olds whose conservatism baffles me; I found it quite credible that he wasn’t running into punks like the Petes amongst his PHill crowd; and I accepted the insanity of his insta-professor-ship precisely because it was explained as an oddity that would only have happened under the bizarre circumstances described (something about a summer vacation and people making poorly based decisions out of personal convenience…hm, does sound like politics).

    And maybe that’s where the book works — or does not — for a reader. Because if I hadn’t “bought” Daniel, I would have felt very differently about the book. I mean, come on: fart jokes? That’s totally not my humour. That has to be all on Daniel. That must be why I was giggling.

    • Charlotte says:

      It’s true, as always! Actually, we had this book HIGHLY recommended to us back when it was released at the bookstore by a good friend of the owner. The reader in question was a retired professor, INSANELY well-read, a very active supporter of the arts, etc.

      So we got it in and my boss (who reads like 150 books a year and is one of those people who really does seem to have read everything!) started reading it and gave up about 50 pages in. She was so disappointed she only left it on the shelf another 3 months before packing it up for return. She said “What this proves to me is that [her friend] doesn’t read novels,” – she reads mainly classics and non-fiction – “She has no frame of reference.” We haven’t had the book back in since.

      I think this is definitely a polarizing book. 🙂 You either laugh or you don’t. If it resonates with you, great! If not, it’s hard to see what anyone is laughing at…

  5. It’s interesting that both your boss (whose respected friend had spoken of it so highly) and you (I think you said it was the CR book that most excited you) had high expectations of the novel to start with. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the book before hand. Had I been particularly eager to read it, I might have received it differently; I’ve definitely found myself disappointed when a certain book has been highly recommended and I’ve not loved it half-as-much as the recommender did. Then again, sometimes a book just is not a good match, regardless of expectations.

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  7. Lorretta says:

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  8. Cathie says:

    I am so happy to read your criticisms of the book here. I recently read it because I may have to teach it to a grade 11 class (groan). I found Daniel so annoying and the book so infuriating that I was shocked to see so many positive reviews online. To each her own, I guess. To your critique, I would add that Fallis uses so many cliches, to little to not comedic effect, that I wanted to throw the baby out with the bath water! Hehe. Most frustrating though was his constant need to summarize, recap and explain as though his audience were exclusively people with short-term memory loss. The diary entries at the end of each chapter helped develop Angus’ character, but did they need to include a blow by blow account of everything we had just read?
    Anyway, nice blog!

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