A stylish new novel of 21st century city life inspired by Winter Dreams, F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterful Gatsby warmup story.
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Unfolding in Toronto in the early 2000’s, The Silver Age tells the story of Stephan Stern, a gifted twentysomething photographer who catches the eye of Jenny Wynne, a local journalist who writes a popular lifestyle column – a frothy confection of cultural analysis, gossip, and material cribbed from Sex and the City.
They begin a romance, but while Stephan falls head over heels, fantasizing marriage and a new life as a New York media power couple, Jenny treats the relationship as a casual fling. Life is long and youth’s possibilities endless, she tells him, and there's no need to get serious just yet.
But already their world is shifting: Stephan’s beloved silver-nitrate film process is giving way to cheap, effortless digital photography, and the print media are struggling to survive in an increasingly savage marketplace. As the story progresses, personal and societal crises gather like dark clouds at the edge of a sunny vacation photo.
Set against a backdrop of societal change and upheaval – the destructive excesses of the Noughties, the revolutionary rise of digital media – The Silver Age is a romantic tale of ambition, hope, the passage of time and the drug of desire.
Download the book's first chapter in PDF format, and read the brief excerpts highlighted below...
In the safe haven of the equipment room, Stephan began reorganizing a box of power cables, carefully looping each cable up over his elbow and tightly down between his thumb and forefinger. As he worked he gazed up at the downtown skyline through a side window. It loomed over him, seeming to shimmer a little in the harsh sunlight.
The city was not New York or Paris, he understood – the locals themselves frequently said so, with a strange note of satisfaction in their voices. But its steel and glass towers, lakeside location, and multicultural population lent it an at times daunting energy and vigor, at least in comparison to the rather whitebread suburban realm Stephan had previously known. Certainly people like Jenny Wynne were not particularly common in his home town.
After a few more minutes, an angry murmur arose from the far end of the studio.
“...well, Sandra, you were the one... set this up... taking the slightest interest in fixing the...”
Stephan began to giggle nervously, but restrained his laughter before it gained volume. He could not resist thinking, with uncharacteristic cruelty, that the publicist might in fact be an idiot, and that Jenny Wynne was justified in tearing a strip off her. He emerged from the equipment room just as another kerfuffle was ramping up.
“Well, it’s not nice,” Jenny Wynne exclaimed, as if on cue. She tore the floppy hat from her head and attempted to toss it, like a Frisbee, across the room. But the hat was so light that it fluttered easily down into a chair, like a butterfly coming in for a landing on a leaf, which defeated the symbolism of the gesture. Her skin was now flushed a healthy, not unattractive, pink.
Stephan fought hard once again to suppress his laughter, managing just barely to maintain his composure. The moment passed, and he relaxed his hold on himself, then thought again of the floppy hat wobbling uncertainly through the air. Before he could stifle it, a loud bark of laughter escaped his lips. She froze, turned towards him in her chair, her neck revolving slowly, as if she was a character in a horror movie possessed by demons.
“Something seems to be amusing the folks in the peanut gallery,” she called to him. “Maybe you’d like to share your private little joke with us, mister intern person?”
“I’m sorry?” Stephan asked, trying to sound innocent. “Oh, no no, just a sneeze. Allergy season. Sorry.”
She fixed him with a hard stare, her mouth twisted in a furious pout.
“Bless you,” she said.
A ghostly figure broke away from a group that had been standing in the shadows on the far side of the patio and made its way over to the railing near him, where it lit a cigarette. How strange, he would think, years later, whenever he looked back on the scene, that people still smoked in those days. A few years, or even months later, and the story might never have unfolded.
It was her.
The flare of pale yellow flame from her lighter illuminated her features for a second or two before fading. Then her face was dark again and she was blowing smoke rings out over the railing. He watched as each ring stood perfect and solid for a few seconds before evaporating into nothingness, swallowed up by the hot night.
Something about her posture made him think that she hadn’t seen him. He wondered if he should make some sound to let her know, without startling her, that she wasn’t alone. He might have slipped away unseen, but her position along the railing blocked him into a dead-end corner of the balcony, so that he couldn’t leave without passing directly behind her. But before he could make any sign she turned to him, unalarmed, her face in darkness but a halo of golden light on her hair.
“Who’s that over by the potted plant?” she called. “Raymond? Is that you?”
He emerged, feeling somehow like a voyeur caught in the act.
“Sorry... I...” He stepped forward into the light, and she looked him up and down.
“You’re not Raymond,” she said, sounding miffed, as if he were somehow to blame for the fact that he wasn’t Raymond. “Aren’t you one of those people from This City I ran into earlier?”
“Well, it wasn’t me that you actually ran into. That was someone else.”
It was an aggressive, as opposed to genuinely witty, thing to say. Most likely it was the alcohol talking, and he half-expected, even wanted, her to take it the wrong way, lash back at him. But she only smiled.
“No, of course I know that,” she said. “But you may have been splashed.”
“Only a little. And anyway it gave me a chance to actually use my pocket square, which was kind of novel.”
Her smile became a smirk. It was the same one she’d employed in the headshot that accompanied her newspaper column. It was not ineffective.
“I’m Jenny Wynne,” she said, confident and matter-of-fact, extending her hand for a formal little shake. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
Bill Plisskins was something of a legend in local photography circles. A camera nerd of the old school, he’d been a newspaper photojournalist in the 1960’s, when he was still in his twenties. He had covered the Vietnam War, as well as the protests against it, with the Monterey Pop Festival thrown in for seasoning. He’d won a couple of prestigious awards, done some compelling work, but eventually burned out, as he told it. (Stephan found it equally likely that Bill’s slothful side had simply put its foot down one day, calling a moratorium on globe-trotting to exotic locales where fast-food outlets were scarce.) That was when he had started running the lab, a vocation that seemed to suit him well. It allowed him to keep a hand in the world he loved without the bother of travel or daily deadlines.
“So what brings you in here at this hour?” Stephan asked. “Doesn’t seem like it’s your style to burn the candle at both ends, Bill.”
“Couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d come down and sneak in a little work,” Bill said.
“Insomnia?” Stephan was surprised.
“I suppose so,” Bill admitted. “Never been an issue before. I don’t know. Business is down. Rents are up.”
“Maybe you should look into doing some, uh, advertising or something, track down some new customers,” Stephan offered. It was a vague and lame suggestion, he realized.
“Perhaps,” Bill said, with a sigh. “But I think the problem could be deeper than that. The industry is changing, my friend. Digital photography is taking over. I’m not sure there’s a market for this place anymore.”
“Oh come on, Bill,” Stephan said. “There will always be a huge contingent of serious photographers who prefer film.”
“I’m not so sure. The new generation of digital SLRs that are hitting the market? Sure, they’re expensive now, but the quality isn’t so bad, and the prices are coming down all the time. The professionals are already switching, doing their post-production on Macs. It’s just so much more efficient than...” He swept his hand in a wide arc, taking in the darkrooms and the suite of colour developing machines. “...all of this.”
At one point, now deep in the labyrinth of alleyways, they found a swing, someone’s idea of a joke, or of art. It was just like one of the swings in the playground of his primary school – a black rubber seat shaped like a band-aid held aloft by steel chains. In this case, however, the chains were anchored not to the traditional A-frame but to a steel pole wedged between the brick walls of the abutting buildings, four stories up. It was quite the contraption, and didn’t look entirely safe, but before he could voice this observation she had already hopped onto it and was gliding elegantly through the null space of the alleyway.
“Give me a push, dammit!” she cried, her voice a delighted squeal. He obeyed this directive, careful to put his hands on the small of her back and not lower down, lest he bring the beautiful, shimmering moment to a sudden, terrible end. Then he stepped back and snapped a couple of shots in quick succession as she whizzed past him, narrowly missing a steel garbage can with her foot.
“I want to go higher,” she shouted, pumping her legs for altitude. “As high as it’ll fucking go!”
He continued snapping pictures, image after image, killing off a roll and hastily loading another, laughing in unison with her as she soared through the air right there in front of him.
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We’ve all lived through a “Silver Age.” The longing for a career, a girl, a self-identity, before life takes over and takes off. Gunn captures it all, from the moment things are still blurry, then brings it into focus with the tone and detail of a fine albumen print.
I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes the works of Fitzgerald, or who lives in Toronto. Like the photography processes in the novel itself, the prose in The Silver Age harks back to the literature of the early 20th century, but updates its language and its themes for the modern era and modern anxieties.
One thing that I think distinguishes a compelling read is when readers can see themselves in the story. This book achieves that and drew me in by dealing with universal human traits - in this case characters obsessed with attaining the unattainable.
Nicholson Gunn is an author, bon vivant, humanitarian, artisanal bourbon connoisseur and frisbee golf enthusiast who divides his time between New York City, Paris, Maui and suburban southwestern Ontario, Canada.
A former culture journalist, food writer and book critic, he has been nominated for various awards but remains an obscure figure.
His favorite books are The Age of Innocence, A Sentimental Education and Green Eggs and Ham (he believes the latter to be misunderstood by the critical establishment). He is a proponent of Hemingway’s late-career catchphrase, "How do you like it now, gentlemen?"
A dedicated black-and-white film photographer, his efforts in this area have been described as amateurish at best.
Additional off-duty pursuits include cycling, woodworking and rampant womanizing.
Here is his favourite sentence: "Sometimes your words come back to me like a distant echo, like the sound of a bell carried by the wind; and when I read about love in a book, I feel that you are there beside me."
He finds the concept of a "human trout" hilarious.