Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life
by Paul Quarrington
The Perfect Order of Things
by David Gilmour
Thomas Allen, 2011
Beauty & Sadness
by André Alexis
Three gentlemen of Canadian literature. Three memoirs. One of them framed as a novel. One of them a celebration of life and critique of music. One of them a hybrid short story /essay collection.
One of them published posthumously.
Paul Quarrington wrote Cigar Box Banjo in the 12 months his doctors gave him after his lung cancer diagnosis. He'd already started it, but what had started as a reflection of his life-long interest (and career in) music became a reflection on the significant moments of his life and the strange space of his final year.
If you knew you had a year to live, what would you do? Quarrington makes it clear that he took his diagnosis as a gift. Of course he would have liked to live longer. Of course he was angry. But it could have been worse. He could have left with no chance to say goodbye, with no chance to do some of the things on his bucket list (such as record a song in Nashville with his childhood friend, Dan Hill).
And without that final year, we wouldn't have this book, which is imperfect but also more than charming. It resonates with life-force, and it serves as a reminder that the well-lived life is possible even in the most trying of circumstances.
This blog began in 2008 with a report of The Writers' Union of Canada's AGM. Specifically, it recounted a session on the writing life led by Quarrington, Nino Ricci and Wayston Choy. Quarrington repeated some learned wisdom: "Bitterness is the writer's black lung disease." Quarrington said: At the end of the day, there's the body of work. Be proud of it. Avoid careerism.
It was the only time I "met" Quarrington, and it was enough to understand that he is widely missed by friends, family and colleagues.
Reviewing his memoir in the context of other memoirs of the Canadian writing life, it is easy to conclude that Quarrington's is the cheeriest. Matt Cohen's Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, also written as its author was dying of lung cancer, for example, is rife with bitterness, though also interesting reportage from the publishing front lines.
David Gilmour's The Perfect Order of Things (Thomas Allen, 2011) trawls a series of traumatic events in its (unnamed, first-person) narrator's life. The reader is informed early that the book's 10 chapters will return the 60-ish-year-old narrator to the geography of a significant (usually suffering) event in his life.
The events include his father's suicide, his mother's death, lovers' quarrels, drug trips, multiple marriages and divorces, a murder, interviewing George Harrison, punching a book critic, and meeting Robert DeNiro outside the bathroom door at a Toronto International Film Festival after party.
The Perfect Order of Things also recounts a life well-lived through trying circumstances, but its narrator is (a) masked by the armor of fiction, and (b) not dying. Trauma is portrayed in relief; it is distant and manageable. But let's not be glib. This is a narrator who knows what it means to endure. And he is also enthralled by life.
By which I mean, love. Both romantic and filial. Love makes all things endurable, and his enduring good relations with his ex-wives is commendable. The wound of the suicide and the parental abandonment masks all. There is no bosom to return to and the narrator grasps at alternatives.
Again, let's not be glib. The theme of this novel is suffering, and its resolution is the ordering of chaos. That is, its aesthetic ambition is true. And, I submit, its ambition is achieved. Though there are some truths I wished the narrator had come cleaner on, such as his relationship with mood altering chemicals.
Why the drugs? It's unexplained. They're just there, a comfort where comfort is needed. At one point, a new wife gives him two conditions: no women, no pills. Later he remembers there was one pill bottle he didn't dispose of. Not sure why. Not sure why he's remembering it now. But, boy, how handy.
I don't mean I wanted a more fulsome confession. That is delivered and unambiguous. What I wonder about is a different word: addiction. An acknowledgement of a deeper mystery. I didn't want a presentation of a 12-step cure, and I wasn't looking for a Naked Lunch tangent from reality, nor any Oprah-like restoration to the greater good.
I guess what I'm saying is that the drugs were not revisited as a geography of their own. They are simply there, and they seemed a topic (an activity) that needed a little more explanation.
But explanation isn't what this book is about. There is only, This is what happened and I'm still trying to make sense of it all. This reader was engaged and sympathetic. Others may be less inclined.
The controversy surrounding André Alexis's Beauty & Sadness began prior to its publication with the appearance of an excerpt in The Walrus in July 2010 called "The Long Decline" and subtitled: Canada used to have a vibrant critical culture. What happened?
The sharpest point of the controversy regarded Alexis's claim that John Metcalf was the source of all that was wrong with Canadian literature.
Okay, let's not exaggerate. Here's a direct quotation: "If I had to blame any one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I'd blame John Metcalf" (209).
To this notation, the blogosphere erupted. And, frankly, I don't blame them (it?). Laying the fault of a culture at the feet of one individual is a silly claim. Though let's also reference the footnote attaches to this sentence: "It is, of course, rhetorical to blame any one person for attitudes that spread through a population. Metcalf is the purveyor of ideas that, at a certain time in our literary history, met with certain approval…"
An odd, uneven collection, Beauty & Sadness contains short stories, essays and first-person memoir. The disparate pieces are held together by the author's claim that this is the best way to present his aesthetic growing up; that is, coming of age; that is, progressing from the age of innocence to the age of disappointment.
And it is disappointment and anger that dominate this book, not beauty and sadness (though, fair play, those concepts get a lot of time on the field also).
David Gilmour's narrator is buoyed by love and infuriated by bureaucracy and meanness. André Alexis is buoyed by beauty and saddened (and infuriated) by ugliness and nastiness, a darkness that he identifies in others, but also within himself:
Worse, literary society -- the world of grudges, launches, and festivals -- is anti-literary in a surprising way. First, there is the petty gossip and the secret enmities. Here, it would be easy to point out the pettiness of others, but I'd like to admit to my own enmities. There are a number of my fellow writers whom I loathe. And, just to we understand each other, I'm not proud of my feelings. In fact, I'm dismayed to confront my dislikes, dismayed that I can still feel loathing at all, now I'm in my fifties, a time by which, unless I was misinformed, I should have acquired at least some wisdom. What is anti-literary about the loathing I feel is that it keeps me, in one instance, at least, from reading work that is demonstrably good. Demonstrable by me, I mean, despite my dislike for the writer (184-5).
The reader does have the feeling of being hectored at. (The Globe and Mail review calls this section of the book "stark.")
Yet, the short stories are good. The essays on Beckett and Ivan Illych are engaging, well-argued, cogent, and worthy of recommendation. There are also tantalizing moments of criticism that beg for expansion. Alexis's close readings of Russell Smith and Christian Bök, for example, are interesting, but they also beg for more.
As a memoir, this book frustrates. There is much brilliance here, but ultimately, it left me sunk with a feeling of disappointed incompleteness.
Quarrington's book, on the other hand, is less brilliant, but more satisfying, despite the fact that the author died before being able to complete it.
Gilmour's book, like Alexis's, is unconventional in structure, but it delivers more robustly on what it promises.
Some of the reviews of Beauty & Sadness have suggested that Alexis blames Toronto and the city's literary/media culture for his own experience of disappointment with the literary life. But I disagree. I don't think he blames Toronto; I think he is engaged in an honest attempt to capture the source of his feeling of disappointment, of his hope (dashed) that Toronto would be a better, more welcoming place to be a contemporary man of letters. And that analysis, in part, turns (bravely) in on himself.
However, as others have pointed out, the publishing world has transformed in the past quarter century. Alexis complains about the shrinking book review coverage in Toronto newspapers without providing the context that this is a global phenomena. But, yes, it's happening here, too. Or, more specifically, Alexis's disappointment is specific. His experience of loss happened here.
But the lack of global awareness is a weakness. It's as if Alexis's attempt to chart the local specifics of his experience has blocked avenues of analysis that would have added richness and relevance to the narrative.
It's a cliché, but still true; we live in an increasingly global world. Alexis's short stories and literary essays are alert to that fact. However, his memoir is too local and is over-burdened with personal grievance.
The current global mentor of the fiction-memoir is arguably Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. Trying to think about these three books in international terms leaves me wondering what foreign audiences would make of these titles.
Quarrington's memoir is warm hearted and deeply felt, but it's not genre bending. Despite it's introduction from Roddy Doyle, it's appeal is limited. Gilmour's novel is episodic and insightful, but muted. Alexis's mixed genre approach is interesting and often compelling, but the long whine about literary culture in Toronto is degrading and, at times, disturbing.
Coetzee cuts to the bone examining self and others, personal and social history, linguistic assumptions and traps. He shies away from nothing and can leave readers frightened and exposed. A memoir is not just an opportunity to learn about its author, it's also an opportunity to be challenged to look at oneself, one's world, one's narrative-making.
Gilmour's narrator mines a deep emotional vein, though the path he follows is quirky. The Perfect Order of Things is a novel, but it has the feeling of a life lived. It is a life well examined, but it also contains many loose ends. Of these three books, it is closest to Coetzee in spirit.
Which brings us to Beauty & Sadness. Yes, Alexis lays himself bare. But, to meet his starkness with directness, his complaints about the anti-literary struck me as anti-literary, and I'm left, ultimately, with the simple subjective. While there is much (brilliance) in this book I admired, in the end, however, I was left frustrated.
This isn't a life presented as well-lived; it's a life presented as having gone off of the tracks. "[N]ow I'm in my fifties, a time by which, unless I was misinformed, I should have acquired at least some wisdom," he writes.
Misinformed by whom?
If the word addiction is missing from Gilmour's book, the word depression is missing from Alexis's. The last sentence in the book, however, is "Drowned but still living is exactly how I feel."
The Globe and Mail review concludes that Alexis's subject is himself. "It is a vast, fertile terrain, its landscapes varied and surprising, and well worth exploring alongside him."
This is a conclusion I would like to agree with. However, Alexis doesn't strike me as one who welcomes fellow travelers. Or, any more, expect them.