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September 13, 2016
The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2016 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 25, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.
Next is Men of Action by Howard Akler, reviewed by Yusuf Saadi. Yusuf, the third of five 2016 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, is a writer based in Toronto. Howard Akler will be reading at The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 25, from 2:30pm – 3:00pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 11, 2016.
When Howard Akler takes on the Western idea of “self” in relation to the brain, his breadth of allusion draws from Descartes to Daniel Dennett without ever sounding too pedagogical. Akler’s lyrical essay, Men of Action, approaches the subject in a personal manner, describing his father’s death 30 months after a brain surgery. What follows is neither a father-son story drenched in bathos nor one punctured with sudden epiphany, but a sober, cautious account that crosses through the discourses of literary narrative and neuroscience to explore the interiority of his father, the seemingly unemotional man who expended most of his energy watching TV and calculating numbers.
Howard’s father worked as an accountant for fifty-seven years. He followed a strict schedule that included work until 5:19, dinner at 6, and TV every day from 7-10:30. He was also a staunch conservative and lambasted the welfare system (his politics disagreed with his son’s, but the latter performs that textual equivalent of baring his teeth and admitting all the juicy details, including his father’s vomit-inducing bodily odours). Akler wonders about what else ticks in the head of this being who seemingly existed without introspection. What is the “self” that his father was forced to redefine after the brain tumor forced him modify his lifetime habits?
Akler anecdotally discusses his own seizure, after which, he had difficulty making words signify — a terrible situation for a writer to find himself in:
It was a simple sentence constructed of common words. But that glimpse was all I got; meaning was lost. Without definition the sentence became weightless, separated word by word. I looked over my shoulder and watched each one float away.
While words may be our most effective tool to infiltrate others’ interiors and express our own, Akler wonders how language depends on the brain, that most mysterious organ we barely comprehend (though lack of understanding doesn’t prevent psychologists from prescribing medications by the bathtub-full). Akler admits that we don’t even theoretically have the technology to track the eighty-five billion neurons in the human brain. The question of how we can ever understand each other becomes more multifaceted the more we interrogate it.
Akler never reaches an answer, and given the complexity of his subject matter, we would be suspicious if he did. The book’s strength is that it characterizes both neuroscience and literature as intertwined, but also renders each more enigmatic in the process. The essay does not depreciate language with neuroscience’s emergence; instead, it attempts to remind us how miraculous our use of language is, even if it is imperfect. For example, as you read this sentence, even if you’re reading it in the morning after a night of heavy drinking and/or consumption of two seasons of Friends on illegally streamed TV (no judgement), millions of neurons are firing in your brain’s cartography with processes so complex that it would take lifetimes to understand, if they are possible to understand at all.
The title then, Men of Action, is not an ironic jab at a father who spent most of his waking life watching TV or a son who dedicates his own to imprinting words on paper; rather, it reminds us that even the most banal acts are miraculous when we consider how much magic occurs within that 20 cm3 space behind our eyes. He captures this wonder when he revisits a memory of his father post-surgery: “He stared out the window, but it was clear whatever he was watching was on the other side of his forehead.”
The short book, using clipped paragraphs that occasionally border on poetic description, attempts to attain a level of intimacy between son and father by approaching their relationship through different memories, scientific theories, and carefully cadenced sentences. The heart of the essay then is an attempt to understand, which is the principle at the heart of most good literature as well, a parallel that Akler’s keen eye doesn’t overlook.
Yusuf Saadi won the 2016 Malahat Review Far Horizons Poetry Award and the 2016 Vallum Chapbook award. He recently finished his MA at the University of Victoria.
Howard Akler has been nominated for the Toronto Book Award before. For what book was he nominated?
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.