No future, or, the submerged punk ethos of Susan Sanford Blades’s Fake It So Real

What qualifies as punk? The question has bedevilled critics, enthusiasts, and practitioners alike as long as punk has been a generic classification for anything vaguely anarchic or anti-establishment. Is it a sound? A fashion statement? A political stance? The Ramones are New York City punk; Dead Kennedys are Cali punk; D.O.A. is Vancouver punk; the Viletones are Toronto punk. Bad Brains are punk, if one discounts the reggae of more Wailers-esque tracks like “I Luv I Jah.” Blondie began as punk, before settling into the more lucrative and mass marketable genres of disco and new wave. The Sex Pistols are the Monkees of punk, a self-conscious creation of impresario Malcolm McLaren. (John Lydon’s public support for Donald Trump’s presidency may constitute the most punk thing he’s ever done, though Sid Vicious’s cover of “My Way” is reliably punk through and through.) More recently, punk has been subject to such latter-day distortions as emo, grunge, post-punk, and pop-punk, without drawing any more lucid distinctions between what is authentic and what is ersatz.

Where, given this heterodox array, would Dorothy’s Rainbow fall? The group was originally intended to be a ska band, but the bassist “thought punk would get us more chicks.” Said bassist, named Donny, “looks like Sid Vicious,” “eats nothing but Twizzlers and pussy,” and “has track marks.” Or so claims Shepps, a second-stringer in Dorothy’s Rainbow, an outfit that is the brainchild of Donny and lead singer and guitarist Damian (the Antichrist moniker frequently shortened to the determinedly anti-punk “Dams”). Shepps appears at the beginning of the aptly titled “Poseurs,” which might be considered the first chapter of the debut novel by Victoria writer Susan Sanford Blades.

It might equally be considered the first entry in a collection of linked stories, a generic hybrid that appears in CanLit with great frequency – think Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women or Who Do You Think You Are?, Margaret Lawrence’s A Bird in the House, Michael Winter’s Creaking in Their Skins or One Last Good Look, Méira Cook’s Once More with Feeling, Alex Pugsley’s Aubrey McKee, Sidura Ludwig’s You Are Not What We Expected, or Maria Reva’s Good Citizens Need Not Apply, to name just a few. The blurring of genres can be considered a punk-inflected flouting of rule-based decorum; the decision to paper over a collection of stories and call it a novel, by contrast, is a publisher’s marketing gambit, the equivalent of McLaren putting his cartoonish pseudo-rebels onstage to shout about anarchy and no future.

Then again, such a liminal state is arguably appropriate for a book with the self-contradictory title Fake It So Real. The line between truth and prevarication is drawn right from the start: when Shepps shows up at the bar of the diner where Gwen works, she can tell almost instantly that he’s not all he claims to be: “What’s your poison? Gwen said, and before he could answer she poured him a glass of apple juice. She poured herself a vodka and let him lie to her.” In “What to Expect,” the subheads in a standard pregnancy guide are a palimpsest for more authentic, emotive descriptors: “Your Pregnancy Lifestyle You Have Too Many Sharp Edges”; “The Second Month You Might Regret This”; “The Sixth Month The Baby Shower: Shake Your Rack and Break Your Sac.”

The liminality continues in the shifting narrative point of view across the various parts of the book. The three central characters in Fake It So Real are Gwen, who Damian thinks resembles Nancy Spungen – “She was psychotic.” “Would you prefer Nancy Sinatra?” “Psychotic’s good” – and Gwen’s daughters, Sara and Meg. (Both were unplanned pregnancies during the seven years Gwen and Damian were together, before he ran off on her.) Sara’s sections are told in first person, while Gwen’s are relegated to close third, the easier for Blades and her reader to maintain an ironic distance:

Shepps’ lies endeared him to Gwen. This one lied due to the unbearableness of the truth. Nights spent jacking off in a sleeping bag with a broken zipper, judged by the blinking silver eyes of his tambourine. Days spent pointlessly sticking paper to the walls, begging the band for a larger role – backup vocals, cowbell. Gwen let him eat her out atop the counter after close, his lips sticky from the apple juice.

Meg’s perspective is first person also, with the exception of “Angling,” which is told in the second person, the better to underscore the creepiness and moral danger at its heart. The story involves the now-adult Meg, whose father hasn’t seen her since running out on the family when she was a baby. Meg stumbles across Damian’s profile on the dating site Plenty of Fish – where he uses the cringeworthy screen name Kneel Young – and arranges a meeting. The encounter is as queasy as might be expected, though Blades handles the material coolly and efficiently: “How hard would it be to melt? Wrap your hands around him, grab his crotch. Say, Is that a gun in your pocket? He would laugh. Turn to you. You could fall into him. Rub your cheek against his stubble. His furry warmth. His kiss, like home.”

Meg professes to be surprised by Damian’s relative honesty in his dating profile, including reference to his two daughters. (“But chicks love a guy with daughters.”) Though here also there is a limit to the amount of openness the man might be willing to countenance: “He fits the profile. Claims to be thirty-five, which is what any fifty-year-old cruising twenty-five-year-olds would do.”

Blades’s language in these stories – let’s call them that, if only to be punk – is unadorned and efficient, with a bite that is particularly piquant in the dialogue:

Meg. All these questions first thing in the morning.

It’s ten o’clock at night.

Is it still Friday?

Mom, are you?

I’m not. I haven’t. A few drinks. I’m not drinking.

You had drinks?

No. I mean she did. I didn’t.

Please stay away from her.

You can’t control me.

You can’t control yourself.

I’m not like you, Meg.

I know. I know you’re not.

The pared-down style, irony, and shifting perspective combine to accentuate the jagged edges of relationships between and among the characters, with the result that the stories feel inhabited, the people recognizably flawed and struggling. In this respect, the book’s title is a stand-in for Blades’s fictional intent and she is refreshingly frank and unsentimental in her execution. Her language is full of verve and humour: “Floating in the Maybe” opens with Meg at a hipster cocktail bar where she suffers “diarrhea like a blow from an orca” and subsequent embarrassment about the public shame her “skirling anus” has caused her.

“This look is very punk rock,” Sara tells her sister toward the end of that final story, which closes with a sort-of reunion of Dorothy’s Rainbow. In sum, Blades seems to argue, punk may be an attitude more than anything else; the author does a good job in these connected stories of dramatizing the melded anger and desire for authenticity that undergirds the punk aesthetic. In Fake It So Real motherhood is punk. Relationships are punk. Life is punk. As it should be.

No future, or, the submerged punk ethos of Susan Sanford Blades’s Fake It So Real