Saturday, March 17, 2012

Russell Wangersky & the Pros/Cons of Realism

Mark Anthony Jarman has a review of Russell Wangersky's new short story collection, Whirl Away (Thomas Allen, 2012), in today's Globe & Mail.

It's a fine review and an excellent summary of the book, which I have just finished reading.

Like Cheever or Munro, Russell Wangersky delves stealthily into disquieting corners of the domestic sphere, his stories dissecting lives when they are fracturing, lives at stress points, lives much like the roller coaster at the centre of McNally's Fair, an exciting and popular ride gleaming with fresh paint, but about to collapse from hidden rust and broken bolts. Such parallels are his m├ętier and meat as a stylist. Water stains on a wall mirror flaws in the soul (daub on some paint and get rid of the place), and a meal at a diner resembles a relationship, “resolute about not living up to its promise.”

Whirl Away is a fine example of the kind of literary realism that is often mistaken as a Canadian canonical model. Munro is the prime influence here (in Canada, I mean); Jarman is right to also cite Cheever as an international icon of this approach to short fiction.

Interestingly, Jarman's own work is product of a tradition that deviates from soft-focus realism, following a path into wilder literary terrain, territory often said to have been mapped initially (or most prominently recently) by Barry Hannah. See, for example, Airships (1978).

For an idea of how contentious the dispute between these short story "camps" can be, see 2008's Salon des Refuses.

My intention here is not to fling Whirl Away into one camp or the other, or to prioritize one approach to short fiction over the other (there are a large multiple of approaches, and they are all legitimate). All that I intend here is to use this introduction to jump at a tangent to a question that animates me from time to time.

Wither realism?

We are well past McLuhan, and well along into a world of "socially mediated" lives. We are also well past the post-modern moment and deep into a world where we not only live our lives, but also simultaneously and self-consciously reflect, tweet, post, talk about, ironize and re-contextualize them, ad nauseum. If there was ever, there is now not ... any there, there.

As a reader, I felt anxiety reading Whirl Away, a feeling I also had when I read Alex McLeod's Light Lifting and Sarah Selecky's This Cake is for the Party. Both, by the way, excellent.

As a reader, I distrust realism. I want to crack its surfaces and break it up, interrogate its assumptions, like a Cindy Sherman photograph.

Which doesn't mean I dislike realism. But, if I'm honest, it kind of pisses me off.

And I'm not sure why.

Though it's connected to the pleasure I take in stuff like Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Gartner's break with realism couldn't be clearer.

Food for thought.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Reading & Reviewing

Literary fiction consists of story and manner. That is, the same story (plot) can be told any number of ways. As Wallace Stevens reminded us, there are 13 ways of looking at a black bird, and many more multiple ways of writing fiction.

This is, of course, an over-simplification, but sharing any interpretation requires it.

Are some manners of fiction better than others? I can't say that this is so, except that surely some manners are worse than others.

Some are more niave and some are more complex, and as literary readers, it's the complexity we crave. Yes?

Not always. In fact, in my experience, rarely.

However the reading process works, it is subjective above all. You look at the black bird one way, and I see it another. Do we have any chance of understanding each other? Can we ever read the same book?

What can the book reviewer hope to accomplish?

In the past, I have answered this question (for myself) by trying to convey in my reviews a clear articulation of my response to the book ... to back up that response with quotations from the text. If someone has a difference response to the book, then they can at least see the "evidence" behind my conclusion.

Lately, I haven't written any reviews. Not even on this blog. I'm feeling an existential drift. In writing these blog posts, am I speaking only to myself? (If so, that hasn't been a problem in the past. Often, just the process of writing the review enabled me to understand more deeply my response to the book.)

Also, I've realized that my response(s) to book(s) are multiple. Not only do I not evalulate books by a thumbs-up, thumbs-down principle, but I also recognized that I have contradictory conclusions about many books. In fact, these are the complex books that I (say I) crave.

Andre Alexis's Beauty & Sadness was one such book. There are many others.

In writing reviews, how do I capture this multiplicity of thoughts? This rainbow of responses? We are taught to write an essay with a strong central thesis and back it up, bang, pow, smash, with confidence.

Is multiplicity not just wishy-washy-ness?

A recent post on Lemon Hound also addresses this conundrum.

First linking to Constant Critic, Sina Queryas then comments on why she likes that website:

...there is such a diversity of vision and style here and you know, I don't want to know what a reviewer is going to think about a book before I start reading a review....though I do want to know that there will be a consistent kind of looking, or an integrity of vision even if I don't agree with the reviewer, and that, she said, was her objective: consistent reviews.

Diversity and unity, engaged perpetually in the act of criticism, a revolution (spinning) of thought, never settled, yet always seeking coherence.

This blog attempts a spinning of opinions by providing links to other Canlit blogs, reinforcing that there is no single point of contact for any reader (or ought not to be).

And I attempt to write spinny reviews, that offer argument, and also, hopefully, open multiple avenues for (re)interpretation.

Interpretation as breath, as act of living, as unending.

A thought that intrigues me.