Approaching RM Vaughn's collection of essays Compared to Hitler in an analytical fashion proved impossible. I had been provided with a review copy in .pdf form which I dutifully loaded on to my faithful Kobo. Alas the Kobo, almost two years old now so it is an antique, did not facilitate note taking or underlining. I began jotting page numbers and brief quotes of sentences and ideas that I found particularly hilarious, clever or illuminating but gave up after filling several pages - I was redundantly reminding myself to return to almost every page - and decided to just settle in and enjoy in the hope that I could come up with a coherent, reasonably intelligent, overview. Fortunately a collection of essays, which by their very nature tend to be about events, items or ponderings reflecting on what is now in the past (unless it was released just minutes ago and these essays are in some cases even more prehistoric than my Kobo) is designed to be read for sheer pleasure. Vaughn's words, turns of phrase, and plethora of provocative ideas are indeed pleasurable enough to be savoured right down to the acidic after taste. If a reader does not laugh out loud at least once then they are a bitterer queen than Vaughn himself. There was only one essay I skipped part of - Compared to Hitler does encourage dipping and sampling - but all the rest, including the essays on arcane artists I had no interest in before reading Vaughn's take, I relished.
There is a delicious intellectual voice that is almost always uniquely gay - dry, witty, meticulous and sublimely bitchy - that can be found in the works of prominent literary icons like Truman Capote, Joe Keenan, JR Ackerley, Sky Gilbert and Diana Vreeland. It is a voice descended from drag queen speak (and Vaughn makes many references to his checkered career as a drag doyenne), the necessary discretionary coding of the closet, gossip, and the arch British literary antecedents of Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse. Vaughn drags that voice into the present and sets it loose on whatever he has been asked to write about. The voice is so pitch perfect that I frequently threw the Kobo down in disgust, wishing that I had the ability to conjure such prose.
Even the afterword - following the celebrity interviews which are not to be missed by anyone who has been appalled by a fluffy or shallow paparazzi-loved personality profile or been disappointed by a tabloid revelation that proved inanely fraudulent - contains a brief overview of working at the National Post, the newspaper that originally published some of these essays, that is remarkable for its restraint and vitriol. That the National Post continues to publish the rantings of Christie Blatchford while denying us the joy of more RM Vaughn is a criminal act. But then Blatchford has not been compared to Hitler (at least not this week that I know of) while Vaughn has received that dubious honour more than once.
Vaughn does occasionally succumb to a world weary bitchiness but that only makes the heartfelt moments that rear their reluctant heads - the Will Munro mentions are dry-eyed heartbreak personified - more breathtaking. Vaughn claims that he would write about a topic as mundane as lint, if someone would pay him to do so. I would read it.
Compared to Hitler is available at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St and launches on Wed, Nov 20 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. rmvaughn.ca.
Vaughn himself is happy to explain why this is an event that must be attended: "The launch event is not a reading. Everybody's heard enough from me by now. I've assembled a panel of very smart people to talk about the state of culture writing in Canada today - where it is going in the future, and why culture writing (art, dance, theatre, music) seems to have disappeared from mainstream media. The people on the panel are all seasoned experts, and I'm looking forward to their insights into the decline in arts reportage. They're also a witty bunch, so this will not be a sour-puss panel! Now, what to wear??"