Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lisa Moore

The strange literary comment of 2008, as I noted earlier, was the Calgary Herald's review of Alice Munro's Best Selected Stories (M&S, 2008):

To finish reading any of the stories in this collection is to be left hanging; surely, this is all leading to something, one supposes, but it never does, and then--The End. Dialogue is excruciating as characters discuss whether they would like tea, or say things like: "We have to get that movie back to the store. Maybe we should do it before we go to the beach." Aargghh.

The 2008 winner of this dubious non-award goes to Barbara Kay, who "preemptively reviewed" Lisa Moore's novel February in the National Post (July 15, 2009):

Novelists who are offended by bad reviews should suck it up, because it is infra dig for artists to shoot an honest messenger. But what about a reader who's offended by a good review? To whom does one take exception? I am Canadian, therefore wouldn't dream of ranting on anyone's website. Instead, while watching the Giller Prize-giving (on TV, because somehow I feel sure I will not get an invitation), I will discretely, but quite defiantly, frown.

The quotation from Kay's column gives the gig away. She wrote without having read the novel. She wrote in response to a profile of Moore that appeared in the Post, July 9, 2009, written by Katherine Laidlaw.

The Post's website (and Quill Blog) boasts many comments and responses to Kay's piece.

The point I want to draw attention to here, is that Kay and the Calgary Herald review make a common complaint. As the Herald's headline put it: "Plot eludes Munro."

Here's what Kay had to say about Moore's novel, after she'd read it, in a follow-up column headlined: "In search of exciting Canadian stories" (Sept 9, 2009):

This novel's heart is a woman endlessly describing in lyrical, highly polished prose how tired and yearning and horny she is. Art imitating reading: February is 99% writerly foreplay, 1% readerly orgasm. I'm not asking for Moby Dick, but surely a country of this size, prosperity and cultural maturity should demand more than that of its most-cosseted novelists.

She goes on:

Speaking of actual readers -- you and me, not the Giller judges -- in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Good books don't have to be hard," critic Lev Grossman asserts that the 21st century will see the reawakening of the plot-driven novel after its long, reader-unfriendly Modernist sleep.

So the fiction vs. fiction debate goes on, obscured by wacky generalities. (Are those who read and enjoyed February not "actual readers"? Is the Giller not already among the most populist of literary prizes?)

Some people read for plot; others have different literary sensibilities. Some people vote Republican; others have different political philosophies. Drawing paranoid, exaggerated constrasts between different types of books is not only unhelpful; it's dishonest.

The reawakening of the plot-driven novel? When has it ever been in decline?

There are many different ways to write a novel, and it has always been thus, and may it be forever so. Good readers, readers with a sense of literary history, learn to accommodate the full spectrum of approaches to writing: from plot-driven narrative, to the obscurely abstract (William S. Burroughs' cut-ups might serve as an example here).

Of course, we all have our preferred tastes, so there's no need for readers to perpetually sample the full spectrum. Equally, however, it is irresponsible to put-down those who would choose otherwise from yourself. Literature doesn't abide partisanship well, however much it appears to encourage it.


Which might seem like a strange way to begin a review of Lisa Moore's new novel.

I was going to begin it with this sentence: "February is Lisa Moore's best book so far." Then add an anecdote about how I gave that opinion to a friend and he asked, "Better than Open?"

"I didn't like Open," I said.


Well, I sort of liked Open. I wrote a review of it for The Danforth Review:

The ten stories in Lisa Moore's new short story collection, Open, play with the time structure of narrative to the point of exasperation. Or is it brilliance? This reader sometimes wasn't sure.

Of course there is no reason why a story needs to be told as it "occurs": first A happened, then B, then C. In fact, no writer of value would bother with such a rudimentary rolling out of details. But still, stories must be more than "an invention of randomness" (a quotation borrowed from mid-way through Moore's collection, p.113). Unless the writer has swallowed a gobful of post-modernism - in which case this reader is prepared to forgive incoherence if it is replaced with rhetorical brilliance. Which it sometimes is in Open, but not often enough.

I don't mean to give the impression that
Open is a bad book. On the contrary, it is a conglomeration of self-conscious technique. It is art, for sure. Just flawed art. It probably wouldn't be unfair to say it's art that just tries too damn hard.

Seven years later, what I remember about Open is that I thought some of the stories were brilliant; others frustrated me to my core.

Since then, I've read quite a bit more by Moore, and I don't fault her a moment for her lack of plot. In fact, I call February her best book, because it seems like the culmination of her vision. She has found a story that marries the strengths of her style, her empathy, her fierce local knowledge and pride ... and her significant talent and ambition.

Is February a uniformly brilliant novel? No. But when it's good, it's very good. Where it's less good, I would not describe it as "flawed art," as I did previously. I would just say that no novels are perfect.

I would also point to the following passage (p.238-9):

[John] has given a lot of thought to the nature of time and how a life can be over much too quickly, if you're not careful. The present is always dissolving into the past, he realized long ago. The present dissolves. It gets used up. The past is virulent and ravenous and everything can be devoured in a matter of seconds.

That's the enigma of the present. The past has already infiltrated it; the past has set up camp, deployed soldiers with toothbrushes to scrub away all of the now, and the more you think about it, the faster everything dissolves. There is no present. There was no present. Or, another way to think about it: your life could go on without you.

The structure of time, the implications of time, is perhaps Lisa Moore's primary narrative obsession. Contrary to the explicit meaning of this passage ("there is no present"), Moore's stories are hyper-focused on the eternal present. In February, Helen may have lost her husband in 1982, but she is also highly focused on the present. Moore's style and attention to the details of her character's specifics, focus the reader's attention on the here and now, while also allowing the past and future to resonate.

This is Moore's genius, and Kay obscures it with a misdirected misreading.

Perhaps ironically (in current context), after my review in TDR appeared (which was before Open was nominated for the Giller that year), someone wrote to accuse me of writing my review out of jealousy. I was accused of wanting to tear down the success of others. I hope that demon can now be put to rest. (Later, I sat on the ReLit jury that awarded Lisa Moore's Alligator that prize.)

There are many complaints about the culture of books (and reviews) in Canada. My number one whine is the attempt to find the "secret motivation," as if we were all simply writing in code, attempting to conceal hidden societies.

For my part, I take Barbara Kay on face value that she would prefer a CanLit of thumping endings; I would just argue that her desire for such an outcome causes her to obscure, like a politician, what others are up to. This may well make her a good op-ed columnist.

Myself, I want a diverse literary ecosystem. I also prefer writers, like Lisa Moore, whose work make take a couple of books to understand. There is more likely to be lasting value there, not merely entertainment.

But then ... that's the age-old debate, isn't it?
Post-script (Dec 21, 2009):
I have re-read the above and I fear it may suggest that I agree that February is weak in plot. I don't mean to suggest this. The plot is perfectly sufficient, IMHO.
Second, another tangential thought. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the novel should do what only the novel can do. To whit, telling a plot-driven story is easily told in a number of media, and likely better done (more powerfully put across) now in cinema.
To follow this line of thought, Barbara Kay is, therefore, quite wrong to insist that "real novels" (quotations mine) are plot-centric. True novels, to paraphrase Kundera, are unfilmable.
February, in its essence, is unfilmable. What makes it good, isn't plot. It's that 99% of writerly foreplay that Kay disparages.
That said, I want to end by affirming that plot-driven novels can be just as "novelistic" as Tristan Shandy, Don Quixote, and the other novels Kundera champions. His own The Unbearable Lightness of Being, of course, is a broadly known film. What it communicates, however, moderates from medium to medium.

No comments: