When I was doing my undergrad there were very few required courses – I didn't have to take statistics, or any math or science course, for example. I did, however, have to select English classes from various literary periods and as a result ended up taking an in-depth class on Restoration literature. That was the high-point of English satire, when authors like Swift and Pope wrote their political critiques and bawdy essays. Although I'm sure people reading the work at the time got all the jokes and allusions, everything was heavily footnoted to ensure modern readers understood why a certain line or turn of phrase was as caustic as it was. But having joke explained to you takes the edge off, which is why modern satire is fun: you don't need footnotes or explanations because the jokes are current and, if you don't get them, you don't notice. Edward Riche's Easy to Like is a great example of this.
The novel starts of with Elliot Jonson (he changed the spelling to be unique in L.A.), a washed-up script writer and wine enthusiast conducting a wine tasting for some trophy wives in California. One of the wines he has chose for them to taste is one of his least favourites. Tasting enjoyable ones, he explains to the confused and drunk women, is a waste of time because it's too easy. Elliot, as it turns out, has his own vineyard but the wine is just not turning out the way he hoped and financially he's sunk. Not that that is enough to keep him from chasing his wine dreams, so he books a flight to France in search of the illusive Matou de Gethsmane grape, which he believes is the missing ingredient.
But Elliot just can't catch a break and he ends up stranded in Toronto because his passport is due to expire in six days. Elliot is originally from Newfoundland, which means he can't return to California, but must remain in Canada until he gets a new passport. It seems, though, that this is lucky timing because a wiretap scandal is unfolding in L.A. and it matters very much to a certain key player that Elliot not be around to testify, should it come to that (not that he'd have anything to say, since he's not entirely sure what's going on). His agent recommends he stay in Canada for a while, and with the help of some L.A. hotshots Elliot lands an interview for the job of CBC's vice-president English programming. He talks his way through the interview using buzz words and lands the job.
Much of the ensuing novel unfolds around Elliot's new job and the absurdity of the CBC's bureaucracy – every meeting ends with a discussion of when the next meeting will happen, there are creative heads for departments that no longer exist, and their mandate (nicely summed up by Elliot in his interview as "to serve everyone every way") is pretty much impossible. Now, I should say that I'm a fan of the CBC, but its troubles are hardly a secret and Riche's portrayal is both harsh and hilarious – everything from the literally unbalanced president to Elliot's irreplaceable assistant's gnarled, arthritic hands is carefully chosen.
There are too many jokes and subplots to go into them all – and that would spoil the fun of reading it anyway – but Easy to Like is riddled with details and plot points that are ridiculous without crossing the line into nonsense. The challenge, I think, with modern satire is to make it simultaneously accessible and just insider-y enough that readers feel smart laughing at the jokes. In a lot of ways, that balance mirrors exactly what's going on in the plot, which is what makes Riche's writing so successful. I'm sure there are joke here I won't get until I reread, but that's the other pleasure of satire. Like a great bottle of wine, a single serving doesn't reveal everything, which forces you to go back for seconds.
Easy to Like
by Edward Riche
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anasi Press edition)