If there were ever a book that failed to deliver on the high praises of the back cover, Winnipeg expat Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Stripmalling is a front-runner. The jacket has accolades from several respected Canadian artists, an intriguing title, and comic book images depicting characters that have the potential to be interesting. The story inside, however, offers underdeveloped, unenjoyable characters set in a background readers have heard described in a sarcastic, apathetic tone too many times. Even the frequent Winnipeg references aren’t enough to titillate the most generous supporter of local talent.
Stripmalling’s protagonist is the author as himself and a fictional younger version of himself. It explores recreational drug use, sexuality coupled with mid-life crises and the effects of meagre success on an aging academic.
The novel begins with a whimsical memory of childhood, but soon shifts to a painfully sardonic tone for an introduction to Jonny, a 20–something Winnipegger, who works at a gas-bar in Transcona and lives in his car. The narrative is told largely from his perspective, but occasionally his gas-bar girlfriend offers a journal entry or two, as does the author writing as “himself.” This style is reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay Adaptation. But, while that film was an inspired blurring of the line between the created and creator, Fiorentino is no Kaufman.
Perhaps realizing he lacks Kaufman’s finesse partway through the novel, Fiorentino also decided to include a comic-book retelling of an earlier chapter. No new information is given, and the words are repeated verbatim in speech bubbles, only this time accompanied by pictures where Jonny (or Fiorentino, it’s hard to tell) is generously portrayed as a good-looking anti-hero, whose lack of comedic talent is pulled into sharp relief. The effect may be intentional, but it ultimately hurts the narrative, leaving the reader somewhat apathetic. If he’s really a bad comedian and writer, why are readers rooting for him, or even sticking with him through his journey to find success in these avenues?
The novel attempts to cast Jonny as the classic anti-hero, a poverty-stricken modern Holden Caulfield, but it doesn’t develop a central character that engages readers. Jonny whines endlessly, with an ego disproportionately large for his accomplishments. This changes when he enrolls in some creative writing classes. Now, his oversized ego becomes completely proportionate to his accomplishments and readers begin a frustrating journey of self-congratulatory mental masturbation.
Perhaps the best example of this comes when Jonny writes a poem about feces (I’m guessing it’s a Fiorentino original) and introduces it to readers and his university-level writing class. Predictably, it is poorly received (woe is the anti-hero), and when a sweater-vested stock character criticises it, his teacher defends the poem as inspired and interesting writing.
This has been done before an excruciating number of times. Facebook and the blogosphere are littered with accounts of similar incidents where an antihero triumphs over the over-educated, privileged stereotype, and, often, they are much better written than Fiorentino’s account. Had Fiorentino honestly explored this uncomfortably evident lack of talent in Jonny, interest could have been created about whether or not Jonny might come to realize his shortcomings. Unfortunately, there isn’t even a hint that the fictional Jonny or real Jon might come to understand this by the end of the book.
In sum, Stripmalling and its protagonist lack any redeeming qualities. Fiorentino adds twists in a futile attempt to revive bored readers; Jonny’s new boyfriend is cheating on him with his ex-wife, and much like Jonny, readers don’t care. Even journal entries from the author worrying about how the book will sell, acknowledging that the book might not be very good and that he couldn’t find inspiration to pass on workable material to his publisher, don’t make up for actual poor writing and the it’s-been-done-a-million-times-but-way-better plot. Where Kaufman excelled in making a similar storyline interesting, Fiorentino has failed, and readers are left with a flat run-on narrative about self-involved characters who fail to engage.
This one is best left on the bookshelves, where readers won’t have to endure another 200-page “I’m desperate to write a cult classic!” foray into narcissism.
0 stars out of *