Friday, December 19, 2008

The Book of Job

"Where have you been?" asked Crow.
I couldn’t lie so I told him.
A jet flew overhead.
Crow stared high into the blueness long after the plane had left.
He said, "I asked you a question."
"And I answered it." I was mad at him and he was mad at me. He wasn’t known for his patience. I’d had enough.
He tried to sweet-talk me.
"Please," he said. "Please, Prince. Tell me again."
I wasn’t having any of his sugar but I couldn’t lie.
"I have been abroad," I said. "Wandering the earth."
Crow smiled. What I told him he already knew. He’d heard the rumour I’d been shacked up with Jennifer, locked in her attic playpen, stirring her stew all the time I’d been away. "I’ve been overrun by love!" he wanted me to say. But I hadn’t been with Jennifer. Not in body or dreams.
"If not Jennifer, who?" asked Crow.
"Not who, where?"
"Abroad. Across the earth I have wandered."
"The Wanderer," said Crow. He’d expected me to tell him more. When he wanted to he could squawk right loud. It had been so long since I heard him squawk I’d forgotten he could move the earth and wind. The earth and wind shook with his noise. He started to tap his beak up and down. I thought he was going to launch into song.
But he didn’t sing.
"Tell me your story, Prince. Start at the end and don’t stop until you get to the beginning."
"Haven’t you got things backwards, Crow?"
"Sing. Sing in the way I said."
I didn’t feel like fighting, so I took my orders from him.

The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love.

"Stop!" yelled Crow.
I knew what was bothering him. It bothered me, too, but I couldn’t lie.
A feeling greater than love.
"Stop!" yelled Crow.
He flew at me, beat his wings against my face.
"You have been gone too long," he said. "You have lost your mind."
"No, Crow."
"You sing ridiculous things."
"I cannot lie, Crow."
"You need medicine. You need a thousand days in a dark cave."
"No, Crow." I wanted to hug him. We had history, me and him.
He’s the one who sent me away. It started in Saskatchewan with a cherry-red Chevy. A convertible. Miles of road, prairie, sky. My hair loose over my eyes, loose in the wind. I had a woman in Winnipeg waiting for me. I had Led Zeppelin full-blast loud in the tape deck. My throat hurt from singing over the engine. I hadn’t seen another car in over three hours when suddenly there was Crow. In the middle of the highway. I thought he would take off and fly over the car — look down on me, soaring, and we’d scream like Robert Plant together — but he just stood there and I had to swerve. I jumped out of the car, ran back.
"Crow! What are you doing?"
"Same as you. Came out of the void. Waiting to return."
"I mean on this road!"
"This road is a good place to die."
His talon reached into his feathers and pulled out tobacco.
"Smoke with me."
He walked off the road, onto the land. He hopped onto a boulder, turned to face me. "Got a light?"
In the car I found some matches.
"That’s a buffalo you’re sitting on," I said.
"I know it," said Crow. He once said he’d eaten buffalo with Poundmaker but he’d only told that story twice. Once to me. Once to a girl named Pauline in Sault Ste. Marie. He told me one night after we’d drank six bottles of whiskey. He told me because he’d told Pauline. He told her to stop her from jumping off a bridge. She was seventeen and Crow was in love with her. It’s been a long time since then. She has three kids now, two ex-husbands. Crow hovered over her house all last winter. Her kids set out bowls of Cheerios. She watched him out of the window but she didn’t come outside.
Since the beginning of time Crow has been out of love for only seven days.
Once I asked Crow, "How many children do you have?" The ground shook for a fortnight.
"You are all my children," said Crow finally. The ground had stopped shaking. Crow stood slyly grinning amidst rubble, smoke, flames.
"Didn’t you know?" he asked.
"You’re a hit with the ladies, aren’t you?"
"Ka." He leapt into the sky, unhappy. I didn’t see him again until I nearly ran him down on the highway.

The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love.

Maybe you see what upset Crow?
I knew what was bothering him. It bothered me, too, but I couldn’t lie.
A feeling greater than love.
That day beside the highway became a night. As the stars appeared we cast our light into the universe. Told stories. Crow in Paris boxing with Hemingway. Crow in Berlin, sprinting against Owens for the gold. Crow with Muddy Waters in Chicago, playing the blues. Crow high, following glacier trails. High over clouds in thin air. Below: Beaver dams, canoes, fallen trees, open land. Mackenzie agitating for rebellion. Horse buggies, two lanes widen into four. Crow in the beginning. Emptiness, the void. The bang. The emptiness filling with matter. Rivers of stars falling like tear drops. Rolling galaxies like continents splitting into solar systems, comets, planets. The earth cooling green and blue. Crow seeing Crow in his first tree. Crow seeing Crow laugh, the world shaking. The sky opening. Flowers budding loud as oceans. Crow sees the tower, the pin that holds the city to the lake. The tower shines. The suburbs rise over the horizon.
"Crow, do you know the meaning of love?" Hummingbird once asked him.
Ain’t nothin’ but pain in your heart.
"Oh, no," said Butterfly.
Crow chased her from Algonquin to Costa Rica.
Crow on the roadside. Left wing dragging. A line of dust stirred loose. Crow limps, claws a trail forward. Pauses. A dust cloud rises. A transport. Wheels shake, rocks fly. Crow stoops. Waits. Leaps. A flash of black across the windshield. Brakes scream. The air fills with smoke. The truck swerves. Crow spins higher, higher. The truck disappears. Crow laughs like thunder and the sun drains fire, burning holes in the sky.
Crow craves coffee. Crow wants to take in a hockey game. See the girls on Queen Street. Crow wants to have his bell rung. Crow wanting the new fashions, the new sounds. Digital toys. Monica. Crow wanting Monica, Monica not wanting Crow. There was always Angela. There was always Katrina. There was always Margaret.
It was three in the morning when Crow told me about Rachel. "Her love is the biggest I’ve ever seen," he said.
I should’ve paid more attention. I closed my eyes.
"Listen, Prince. Her love’s the baddest."
I could still hear him but he’d started to fade.
"It’s the best," said Crow.
I was so tired, everything turned a shade of purple.
"Prince, are you paying attention?"
I wasn’t. He came to the important part.
"This girl’s more than the others. This girl — "
I fell asleep.
Half an hour later Crow was still talking.
"Prince! Prince!"
I stood up suddenly. I was ready to fight.
"Prince! Prince!" he said. "I waited on this highway so I could tell you about the limits of love! So I could take you to the outer reaches of the universe! So I could tell you about the capacities of the heart! Quantum physics is nothing besides this, man! Einstein was a third grade dropout! What I have to say will take you through the bend in space-time! You must listen with a still heart! You must listen with a cool, open soul! Ready yourself for a tidal wave of knowledge!"
"Give me a break," I said.
I dropped to the ground, fell onto my back. I closed my eyes. Opened them again.
Crow stood on my chest, shaking his head.
"I have a challenge. You must accept it or I will poke your eyes out."
He leaned toward me, placed his beak on my right eyelid and pressed gently. I didn’t need the reminder. I’d never seen him like this. He was a fury and an iceberg.
"What will it be?" he asked.
"What is the challenge?"
"Do you accept?"
"What is it?"
He told me: Rachel would love him forever. Of this he was sure. I was challenged to dissuade her from loving him. Until I answered this challenge I was cursed.

The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love. A voice we all know speaks to each of us and we laugh. Massive waves of laughter crumble the land, flood the oceans, fill the empty spaces. The difference between big and small diminishes. The difference between here and there disappears. The difference between now and then is erased.
Then POP!
The whole thing starts again.

"You will be cursed," Crow said. "Cursed to wander the earth."
He was gone when I woke.
I had a woman waiting in Winnipeg and a car parked by the highway.
I forgot what Crow said to me.
I forgot about Rachel.
I forgot I’d heard Crow curse.
"Wheels, give me speed!" I said. I turned the ignition.
Wendy! I thought. That was my woman’s name. Wendy, I’m the morning sun on my way to you!
"Damn that bird," I said as I rushed across the prairie, the air turning dusty.
Then dustier.
Then just dust. A sandstorm.
As I crossed the Manitoba border the engine seized. The car rolled to a stop. I curled into a ball on the back seat and tried to keep my ears clean of the Saharan winds.
Sixteen inches of sand lay piled around the car.
But I’d forgotten the curse.
"Crow," I thought. "You trickster."
I was more hungry for Wendy than ever. I wanted her lips on mine, her arms around me. I could feel my loneliness spread, a thousand ninjas beating me from my shoulders to my knees.
Still I didn’t remember the curse.
I started to walk.
I stuck out my thumb.
A farmer in a tractor pulled over.
Years later I would say, "That’s when I started to wander."
"Strange storm, that," the farmer said. "Never seen the likes of it before. You?"
His name was Ezekiel and he claimed to have wrestled angels. He dropped me at a truck stop ten miles down the road. I ordered a coffee and dropped a quarter in the payphone to call Wendy.
"Baby!" I said. "Sugar plum! Sweet cheeks! Bella!"
At the sound of my voice she hung up.
I tried again. She let the phone ring.
I tried once more. No answer.
I sat down at the counter and made eyes at the waitress. She had a nametag. Doris. The farmer was gone. By now my loneliness had spread from the rims of my toes to the tips of my ears.
I said, "Tell me something, Doris."
"Like what?"
"Anything, Doris. Anything."
Doris was about thirty. She had knowledge, something special. Everyone does. I wanted to discover hers.
"Won’t she talk to you?" Doris asked.
"Your baby sweet cheeks on the phone."
"You must have done something wrong."
"Why do you say that?"
"A woman knows."
I was no saint, sure. But I’d been right true to Wendy.
I decided on a different tack.
"Married, Doris?"
"Been there, done that."
"Recommend it?"
"Works for some."
"He do you wrong?"
"We all have faults."
"His worse than yours?"
"Seemed so."
"I’ve had a few."
"Any lately?"
"None I care to confess."
"What are you doing later, Doris?"
"Got plans for me?"
"Can you take me down the highway to my car?"
"What’s your name, Jim?"
"No, Prince. I won’t take you to your car."
I felt a great and sudden need to sleep.
"Do you have a backroom here, Doris? Somewhere I could catch a nap?"
I didn’t wait for an answer. My head bounced off the counter. I collapsed onto the floor. Asleep.

Then POP!
The whole thing starts over again.
Crow flies out of the void. Coughs up blood. A river starts to flow. Crow flies, scratching at the void. The void tears, buckles, breaks into fragments. The fragments spin into planets, stars, comets. Crow looks for a place to land. His wings are tired. The void is a big place. He’s flown from one end of eternity to the other. He sees a blue dot in the void and flies towards it. It’s far away. He flies and flies and still it remains a small blue dot. As he’s flying Crow closes his eyes and tries to sleep. He falls through space and wakes with a headache. He’s on the blue planet. Earth. He doesn’t know how to leave.

I won’t tell you everything that happened next.
Eventually I got back to my car and found it stripped. A local mechanic told me he’d take what was left off my hands. It was the only deal going, so I took it.
My loneliness and lust had inverted. Became a cavern in my chest. I thumbed my way to Wendy’s. My key wouldn’t work. I knocked. A man answered. A man six foot eight, three hundred pounds. He offered to separate my head from my torso. I left the neighbourhood with a hollow feeling in my heart and a hole above my left eye that took thirteen stitches to close.
I went from Winnipeg south to Texas. A patch of bad luck was all I thought I had. I’d done some ranching in the past, when I was feeling down. It had a way of setting me right. But this time I suffered three snake bites in two days.
"You gotta go now," my friend Billy said. He owned the ranch and could recognize a curse.
I wasn’t convinced.
I kept to the southern route. I signed onto a freighter crew in Panama. I’d once sailed with Blackbeard. Felt at home in the ocean swells. But three days at sea and I turned a dozen shades of green. The US Navy picked me up and threw me in quarantine. The doctors thought I had the Ebola virus, bird flu or a previously unrecorded water bug. My conditions cleared on the way to Florida. The doctors wanted me locked away but my lawyers disagreed. I promised to report to the nearest hospital if I as much as sneezed.
I got a job in New Orleans bar. It was Mardi Gras weeknights and the Super Bowl on weekends. I bought a used saxophone and jammed with a quartet every night until three. Damn, that bird, I thought one night as I hit a high note. Crow, you don’t know what you’re missing. A week later the city was under six feet of water and I evacuated to a refugee camp in Georgia. It was here — so late, so late — that I started to get a clue.
"You’re cursed," said the woman beside me in the breakfast line.
"Excuse me?"
A wrinkled mass of ebony skin waved a bony finger at me. "You heard me."
"Yes, I did, my sister," I said.
"And you know what I’m talking about."
Damn, that bird. Cursed, I am. Cursed to wander the earth.

He’s on the blue planet. Trapped. He starts walking. His wings hurt. He’ll never fly again, he’s sure of it. He stops beside a pool of water. He drink, his first. He walks into the water. He doesn’t float. He walks out of the water. Okay he’ll fly again. He’s hungry now. And something else: Lonely. He doesn’t know it yet. He’s never known another being. He’s never felt incomplete. In the beginning was Crow and the void, and the void was with Crow and the void was Crow. Now there’s Crow and the blue planet, Crow and water, Crow and sky. Suddenly: Crow and the first woman. She swims through the water. She sees him on the shore and smiles. Smiles! Crow jumps ten feet in the air! Flaps his wings! He’s flying!

Since the void split all the women Crow has loved have been echoes of the first. She had no name. If you’re tempted to name her, call her Eve. Mother of Life. Sustainer of Dreams. Down through the millennia Crow kept looking for another like her. Cleopatra came close. So did Napoleon’s Josephine. Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Marilyn Monroe weren’t far off. Mary Magdalene had many approximate talents, as did Mae West. Crow once said that Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina had tempted him with passions he’d thought he’d lost in the shadows of early time. I knew what he was referring to — the days of his lovenest with Eve. Lover of Eternity. Mistress of the Four Corners of the Universe.
When I remembered Crow’s curse I knew what I had to do. Find Rachel. Wander the earth. The first thing I did was make a deal with Raven. Raven was no friend of Crow. I found Raven at the Banff Springs Hotel.
"Raven, I need help."
"Where have you been? Everyone’s talking about you."
"Wandering the earth," I said. I couldn’t lie.
"Ha, ha."
"What’s so funny?"
Raven laughed again. His sense of humour was even stranger than Crow’s.
"Be serious for a minute," I said.
"I know what you want. Everyone knows."
"A little sunshine. A little paradise."
"I need to find Rachel."
Raven nodded. "I’m all over it." He knew exactly where she was.
I thought Tahiti. Bali. California. Somewhere hot, with lots of sun.
She wasn’t where I expected.
She was in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.
I stared at Raven. "Where?"

The blue planet goes around and around. Around the sun. Around the solar system. Around its axis. Crow goes around the blue planet. He sits atop a rhinoceros on the African plain. Not such a bad little planet, he thinks. He hears drums beating. He starts to dance.

"We must wait until Crow’s out of town," I said to Raven. "We’ll need room to operate."
"Count on it."
He told me Crow sat on a wire above Rachel’s house. He swung in the wind and waited for her to come outside. Day after day.
"I’ve never seen him like this," Raven said.
"How hard can it be?"
I didn’t want Crow to know I was coming, to think his curse had worked. I didn’t want him to know I’d ever been there. I wanted him to think Rachel dumped him by choice. That would be my trick on Crow. That he thought Rachel’s love silenced on its own.
"We need a plan," I said.
"I know," said Raven.
We were on the hotel patio, looking over the lake. Blue mountains all around us, jagged, tossed with rocks like crumbs on a cake. Behind me someone spoke German. Someone Japanese. Earlier I’d seen two girls in tennis shorts and now I heard them giggling, scolding a child who talked of avalanches.
"I’ll be back in half an hour," Raven said. "Meet me in your room."
I ordered a martini. Shaken, not stirred.
The waitress didn’t smile. She said, "I get that a lot."
"You do?"
"Licensed to kill, right?"
She had long legs and a short skirt.
I said, "Double-owe-seven." I tried to catch her eye and wink.
But she turned away. Quickly.
Cursed, that was me.
I felt myself being erased, the void returning.
Half an hour later I opened the door to my hotel balcony. Raven flew in with a leather satchel. He had photographs, maps, a notepad full of details of Crow’s movements, when he flew east over the trees, north over the ocean, sat on the wire and swayed in the wind, waiting for Rachel.
"Raven," I said. "This is great!"
Raven pointed to a sealed envelope. I picked it up.
Raven flapped his wings, rose into the air. Said, "I’ll be back tomorrow. Same time." He disappeared over my balcony.
Damn birds, I thought. I didn’t understand them. I wanted Crow to love me again — but also I didn’t. I didn’t care for his love and I was hungry for it. I wanted the curse lifted. I wanted to start over. I wanted the perfect emptiness of the void. I opened the envelope. It was a photograph of Rachel.
She wasn’t what I expected.
The more I looked at her the more she seemed to fade away. This was the one who loved Crow with a love greater than Olympus? With a love like the end of the world? With a love that shook him more than the love of the first woman?
The photograph was of her face. A close up, slightly over-exposed. Her cheeks were full and wore scars of acne and age. Her lips were thin, chapped, her hair pulled back. Her eyes shone with the strength of grandmothers. They were black, deeper than any I’d seen. They held my attention and I knew Crow was right. She would love him forever. She was all love. For everything and everyone. Was that it? Was that the limit?
I tried to remember what Crow had told me. What had I missed? Why had he cursed me? What did I need to bring back to him? How could I break the spell?
I lay down on my hotel bed, fell asleep.

Crow high, high, high, like a shooting star. Like a rocket. Crow standing on my chest, his beak on my eyelid. We never feel more complete than when we are about to be dismembered. The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love.

The next day I was on the highway east out of Banff at dawn. My opportunity was slim. Though I was cursed, I wasn’t out of luck. I was going to the place where no one could find me. Saskatchewan. The land of sky. The place in the continent that was like an ocean. To the rock that had once been a buffalo. To wait for Crow. To absolve myself of the curse. To share with him a story I knew he didn’t know.
Then POP! The whole thing starts over again.
I knew he would come. I had to be there when it happened. I knew what he would ask me. "Where have you been?" He would stare high into the blueness. I wouldn’t lie. "I have been abroad."
"Wandering the earth."
That’s how it would start. It would go on from there.

(c) Michael Bryson, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Harold Hoefle

Harold Hoefle's debut novel is The Mountain Clinic (Oberon, 2008). It's the story of Walter Schwende, whose Austrian-born father disappears in 1966, when Walter is seven and living in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

The novel compresses the next 30 years into seven brief chapters. Walter's father is believed dead, though no body is ever found. His abandoned car is found with his clothes stacked on the front seat by Lake Ontario. He is presumed to have drowned, but there are reasons for him to have picked up and vanished also: his business is failing, he owes money, he's a proud Austrian for whom the shame of a collapsed life is worse than disappearing into the ether.

The father-son relationship is the heart of this novel, even though half of that partnership is largely represented as an absense.

The absent father is, of course, a powerful archetype. Google "absent fathers" and you get sites like this one. Robert Bly made waves a decade ago with Iron John (Vintage, 1992). Subtitled "A Book About Men," Bly's "mythopoetic" argument focused on reorienting men to their primal masculinity: their relationship with the archetypal father.

The Mountain Clinic isn't that sort of book.

Walter lost his father, but he doesn't seek psychoanalysis. He seeks adventure. He goes to Vancouver, where he goes an welfare and lives with two divorced Czech emigres. He goes to the North West Territories, where he takes a security guard job at a mill. He goes to Nicaragua, where he doesn't exactly fight the contras, but he wants to.

In the end, he becomes an English teacher in Montreal, where he asks his students to "get into father-thinking mode" by writing their reflections on that topic. One student writes:

my dad
will the radiation work
will he die
will he live
whats going to happen
when will I see him again
I miss him
why does this happen to him

Meanwhile, Walter is reading the "Occurance Report" he obtained from the Toronto Police about his missing father. He reads some information that suggests his father might not have died in 1966. Then he goes to Austria for his grandfather's 100th birthday.

I first read this book about 10 years ago when it was a collection of short stories in manuscript. (I declare that I am ineligible to nominate it for a literary prize.) I have just finished reading it between bound covers, and my mind rattles with echos of moments and complete stories that the author has removed from the final product.

The back cover indicates the novel includes an episode of Walter in post-revolution Romania. It doesn't. A late change removed that chapter.

Readers will be curious that all of the chapters are written in the first person: six in the voice of Walter, one in the voice of a Nicaraguan revolutionary. Why this shift in perspective? What did the author intend? It made me think of Milan Kundera's perspective shifting games. I'm curious to read what others think of this gambit.

The absent "post-revolution Romania" story is also suggestive. Walter is an idealist: an early-1980s Communist, actually. The Czechs in Vancouver abuse him for his beliefs. The lumberjacks in the NWTs have no time for political abstractions. Walter in Nicaragua is called "Flaco" (flaky?), and the revolutionary who tells that story (after the revolution has collapsed) reminds Walter that Lenin called people like him "useful idiots."

But Walter is no idiot. He is a searcher. For his father? Yes. But ultimately what he is searching for is something more important. Himself.

"Why don't you have a girlfriend?" his mother asks.

He answers: "It's not that easy."

I will end by identifying The Mountain Clinic as an example of diaspora literature: the Austrian diaspora. A Google search failed to reveal much of interest on this topic, which was surprising (isn't everything available online?).

The racist attitude of Torontians towards German-speaking immigrants in the 1950s might seem like a faint memory today. But unwelcoming attitudes create pain wherever they pervade. However much hate Hitler reasonably deserved.

This pain is personified in Hoefle's novel in the seven-year-old Walter. His creation is worthy of pity ... and much praise.


See also an interview with the author (from The Danforth Review)

Andrew Steinmetz

Andrew Steinmetz's new book, Eva's Threepenny Theatre (Gaspereau, 2008), tells the story of his great-aunt, who appeared in the workshop version of Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" in the 1930s, before fleeing the Nazis.

A mixture of fiction and memoir, Steinmetz's "novel" explores the intersection of history, family, identify and artistic creation.

See also Steinmetz's website [] and an interview I recently conducted with the author.

The title implies that Eva's life can be best understood through a Brechtian lens. The following quote from Wikipedia might help explain that point:

Collective and collaborative working methods were inherent to Brecht's approach, as Fredric Jameson (among others) stresses. Jameson describes the creator of the work not as Brecht the individual, but rather as 'Brecht': a collective subject that "certainly seemed to have a distinctive style (the one we now call 'Brechtian') but was no longer personal in the bourgeois or individualistic sense."
As Steinmetz ably illustrates, through interviews with Eva and fictional reconstructions of different eras of her life (of which there were many), "Eva" was reborn as a character on many different stages. Her identify was shaped, influenced and manipulated by multiple strong personalities: from her father and brother, to Brecht, to her husband and lovers, to Hitler.

Who was Eva? This novel lovingly explores that question. It is the depth and quality of the exploration (not any implied answer) which makes this book a rewarding (but not easy) read.

It is conventional, in this Oprah-heightened reading enviornment, for memoirs to be powered by redemptive themes. James Frey's A Million Little Pieces may be the best known example. A criminal and drug addict, Frey turned his life around and wrote about it, but like Farley Mowat he didn't like the facts interfere with a good story. Or a good commercial theme, more to the point.

Eva's Three Penny Theatre doesn't explore redemption. It is a better book because it avoids this Christian, post-Freudiean cliche. Television talk shows may "make good TV" by providing simple solutions ("conflicts wrapped up with a bow in 24 minutes or less!"), but literature serves itself best when it avoids this commercial imperative.

I am tempted to write that literature should complicate simplicities, but then ... isn't that a simplicity?

What I do know, is that Steinmetz's exploration of his family's history, and the way he has chosen to frame those stories, reveals a depth of humanity that would have failed to come through if he'd sought the simple theme: all's well that ends well.

There are loose ends in this book. There are narrative fragments that fit poorly with others. But the whole is strong ... and stronger because of these discontinuities.

Eva lives! Long live Eva!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Farley Mowat

Farley Mowat is nearly ninety, but he's the most exciting thing in Canada, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Kristof challenged his readers to name something interesting about Canada (he couldn't come up with anything). Then he hit on an idea:

Something really exciting about Canada just dawned on me last night, as I was reading Farley Mowat’s book, “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be,” to my 11-year-old daughter. It’s Farley Mowat. He is such a wonderful, evocative writer — an exciting one, even — and he even manages to make Saskatoon exciting.
I'm astonished, mostly, that Mowat has contemporary 11-year-old readers.

I tried to get a copy of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be for my nephew and niece last year, and in the end concluded that it had gone out of print. (I ended up buying a new paperback of Owls in the Family, only to find out they had it already....)

Of course, Mowat has a new book out: Otherwise (M&S , 2008). And he's the feature of a large profile in today's Globe and Mail.

But the most exciting about Canada? Has Kristof not heard about the poetry crisis?

"Never let the facts interfere with the truth," Mowat tells the Globe. He is a booming voice from an age of Canada that is gone. At times, he has been a brilliant storyteller. He isn't unserious, but even he acknowledges it has been a long time since he carried any cultural weight.

Is Kristof joking? He doesn't appear to be, except that his December 5, 2008 column is silly, yes. He praised Canada for "sensational work promoting micronutrients like iodine," and Canadians complained because he also called us "boring."

WTF, he asks? Is that so bad?

I don't think so (some of the comments in reply are just hilarious).

But it's low to place Farley Mowat are the head of "something exciting" about Canada. One staggers to know where to begin the rebuttal.

Suggesting Kristof read Rawi Hage might be a good place to start.

There are innumerable others.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Attack of the Neo-Dadaists

Last week, I sat in on an occupational therapy assessment session of my eight-year-old step-son. It was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways.

Afterwards, I realized that I'd been thinking about learning disabilities as a "brain thing." There is something neurologically distressed, which can affect emotional capacity, cognitive function and academic results.

But it is now clear to me that my step-son has a physical disability (as well). His struggle with some simple physical tests was illuminating.

I'm surprised, though, at how surprised I was, because I've known all along that "fine motor skills" are something that he can experience trouble with.

The extent of the trouble astonished me.

Also last week was parent/teacher night. My step-son is in grade three, and according to his report card he is a middling student. He is, however, happy, which is more important.

Last year, his teacher gave him better marks, but he was terribly unhappy.

As parents, we encourage happy over unhappy - and file the report card under irrelevant.

What is relevant is the Independent Educational Plan (IEP) that we helped his teacher draft early in the school year. This plan provides direction to the teacher about how to support our son's learning needs.

For example, his non-verbal learning disability means (among other things) that he has a weak working memory. So he has trouble putting together a sequence of instructions: do A, then B, then C.

His teacher gives him two questions to complete. When he's done those, he goes back to her and gets two more questions. His learning is more more incremental than that of neurologically normal children.

If he is expected to process information at the rate of neurologically normal children, he overloads and becomes emotionally distressed. If his environment is modified (slowed down, mostly), he is able to learn just about anything.

Getting the balance right is the most important - and challenging.

In the months ahead, we will all be learning more about occupational therapy - and how to help our son overcome the physical challenges that also act as barriers to best results.

Why is this blog posting called "Attack of the Neo-Dadaists"?

Because I've been thinking about my previous post on "Professional Poets," and I wanted to say again that there are more important things in life than who serves of literary award juries.

But I wanted to go further, too.

Because ... yes, the jury process can be improved.

And ... yes, something doesn't seem right about this year's GG jury for poetry.

And ... yes, Di Brandt's comment about "neo-Dadaist ... circles in Toronto" is obscure and oddly beautiful.

But have you read the recent report of the provincial auditor on the state of special education in Ontario?

My step-son loves to read. His teacher says he's a great reader, and we agree.

His report card mark in this area was "C".

Why? He struggles with context. He struggles with interpretation. He struggles with organizing his thoughts into coherent arguments. He struggles with putting together the big picture.

He loves stories. He loves violence. He loves jokes.

In graduate school vernacular, he is a naive reader. And that is okay; he's only eight; we have time to help him figure out how to make the connections he needs to make to find "meaning."

Making meaning is what I once thought was the purpose of literature. Then I went to graduate school, where I learned (I'm oversimplifying) that neo-dadaists deny the possibility of meaning.

I just made that up.

I still don't know what neo-Dadaists are, but if Di Brandt wants to have a debate about the "important poetics of our time," I say: reality is challenging enough.

[What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.]


As yesterday was John Lennon's death day (1980), one final awkward plea: Just Gimme Some Truth.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Professional Poets

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators for a reason. They haven't yet settled on a common system of governance.

Reactions to the 2008 Governor General's Award for Poetry are beginning to resemble the current dysfunctional parliament in Ottawa.

Andre Alexis brought the issue to national attention in last Saturday's Globe and Mail.

Discussion at Bookninja is robust.

Zach Wells was an early catalyst.

The winning poet's editor has weighed in.

Summary is a kind of cliche, but here it goes.

Jacob Scheier's book More To Keep Us Warm (ECW, 2007) won the big prize. This isn't controversial. What is controversial is the past relatioship between one of the three jurors who awarded the prize and the prize-winning poet.

Di Brandt is the juror who has attracted the brunt of attention.

In his book, Scheier acknowledges Brandt's "ongoing advice, support and feedback in the process of writing this book." He also credits Brandt with co-translation of a Rilke poem, the first in the collection.

Should Brandt have excused herself from the jury? Should the Canada Council have dropped her?

These questions have been debated robustly elsewhere.

I am interested in two quotes from Brandt that Alexis included in his Globe and Mail piece. They are reportedly taken from an interview with Brandt by Quill and Quire.

Brandt: "If people want to debate anything, they should at least be having a discussion on the level of poetics."

Brandt: "There is a debate going on in Canada about what is the important poetics of our time, and I think that Jacob Scheier's book demonstrates a poetic clarity ... and spiritual engagement which is in some ways unconventional in the current, neo-Dadaist fashion in some circles in Toronto."

Alexis accused Brandt here of attempting to shift the discussion from the controversy about the award to "an argument about Toronto."

I'm not unsympathetic to this complaint.

However, let's try to have a discussion on the level of poetics. What is the important poetics of our time? Is there even such a thing?

Those debating the appropriate governance structure of literary juries aren't debating poetics. Neither are the politicians plotting power tricks in Ottawa worried about the status of contemporary ghazals.

I asked my wife if she'd heard anything about the GG2008 winner for poetry, and she said, "No. What about it?"

I got halfway through an explanation, and she asked me to stop. What did I want for supper?

(We live in Toronto -- and aren't neo-Dadaists, I promise you.)

I suspect that Brandt was earnest in her explanation. I first saw her read in 1987, and she was earnest then about the power of poetry and how it opened up new opportunities for spiritual engagement. From what I have seen of her career, she has remained consistent in seeking a special place for poetry in the world -- and a special place for a special kind of poetry (at least "special" as she sees it; poetry that is "spiritually engaged").

Is this anything less than trying to grab the remnants of Shelley's unacknowledged legislative reins? Is there a poetic connection between the 2008GG award and the changing of legislative power in Ottawa?

I jest, but only lightly.

It seems to me that poets like Brandt (poets of the spiritually charmed kind, I mean; and I don't mean this as a put-down) are partisan. They are yin to the politician's yang.

There is a debate going on in Canada, but it isn't about what is the important poetics of our time. It is about how to avoid falling into a 1930s-style economic disaster. That debate has become fiercely partisan in the past week, and it may bring down the Harper government.

If you are hard-core partisan, you don't consider that the other side has an equal argument. You try to destroy them, as Harper attempted to destroy the opposition parties with a mean-spirited economic statement that proposed revoking public support for political parties.

If you are partisan, you try to build a world that nurtures the supports you need -- your friends, connections, colleagues, like-minded institutions. Publish or perish. These are not only the rules of democratic governance ... they work for professional poetry, too. Or is that too cynical?

Given the events of this past week, I think not.


I have come to distrust idealists of all stripes. Bring me not a better world, just ham and cheese sandwich.

And a good book.

Pretty please.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


"No matter how they cast their ballots, all Americans can be proud of the history made yesterday," Mr. Bush said. "Across the country, citizens voted in large numbers. They showed a watching world the vitality of America's democracy and the strides we have made toward a more perfect union."

Oh, dear.

It's nice, sure, to see Mr. Bush find his gracious side in his final days in office, but this quest for America(n exceptionalism) to push towards perfection has to end.

I cannot resist a return to the campaign, when attack dog Palin speared Obama with claim that he sees America as being "so imperfect ... that he's palling around with terroritists." Of course it's imperfect! Palling around with terrorists? Where did they find this lunatic?

President Elect Obama and his defeated challenger John McCain both agreed last night that "hope" and "optimism" are central to the American identity. Nice that they found something to agree about, but I'm waiting for the day when the President Elect says: "Americans are just the same as everyone else on this planet. No better, no worse. It's time we got used to that."

Anything else is an assault on reason.

I've made this point before and been called anti-American. I'm not anti-American. I'm anti-American exceptionalism. So are many Americans.

This American critique of America isn't new.

My old friend Greg Cook used to argue that Americans have an unfinished revolution. (Well, you know. You better free your mind instead.) (Count me out/in.) I believe Greg was quoting Alden Nowlan when he said that. Perhaps not.

In any case, there's no intrinsic reason why government by the people for the people ought to seek perfection. Isn't that the goal of socialism?

There are loads of good reasons why perfection oughtn't to be the goal.

Some were abundantly clear in a documentary I saw last week: Trouble the Water. It's about a black family that survived in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It's stomach churning. It's horrifying. It calls the lie to Obama's great line that there is not a white American and a black America: there is a United States of America.

Audacity of hope? Yes. Truth? No.

But today, let's just say congratulations, Obama, and echo Nelson Mandela: "Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place."

Amen to that.

Better, but not perfect.


Media reports indicate that voter turnout in yesterday's U.S. election was the highest since 1964. News of a reengaged electorate is exciting and interesting. What it all means, I'm anxious to find out.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Reverse Slope Loss

Last fall I found out I have something with a name: reverse slope loss. In all likelihood, I've had this condition all of my life. It means I have hearing loss at the lower end of sound spectrum -- but normal hearing from the mid-range and higher.

My wife said, "Are you deaf?"

"Did you say something?" I asked. I knew that in my childhood I'd been tested and found to have a hearing problem. My father has it. My brother has it. That's all I knew about it.

My wife wanted me to get tested, so I saw a specialist, and he spooked me a little.

He said, "Clearly you have managed to live with this condition, and you have adapted in ways that you are probably unaware of."

Adapted? Was it that bad?

The doctor said, "If I woke up tomorrow with what you've got, I would be very disoriented."

Apparently my hearing loss in the lower sound spectrum is as high as 60 per cent.

Probably I read lips much more than I was ever aware. I hold back in group social situations. I prefer one-on-one interpersonal contact. I turn the TV up too loud. You don't want to hear me sing. My piano teacher was never impressed with me. I like to spend my time alone with a book. I'd previously thought I was a fairly typical introvert. That's a factor, sure, but I now think my personality type may be less of a factor in my interactions with the world than my hearing loss.

I believe vowels are higher pitched and consonants lower, and vowel sounds will bend around corners and consonants won't.

The specialist told me to tell my wife, it's like we've been married for twenty years (we'd only been married two months when I saw him). He also noted it was good that we live in an open-concept house. Not too may walls that sound needs to bend around.

"Why are you here?" the doctor asked.

I could tell he was curious about me. Reverse slope loss is apparently relatively rare. Most hearing loss is at the high end of the sound spectrum. That's where noise damage and old age attacks. He warned that the biggest risk I faced was losing the high end of the sound range when I got older, since I didn't have the lower range available to me. With age, I was likely to become more significantly impaired (as my father has).

I told the doctor I was there because my wife wanted to know what was going on with my ear canals. I wasn't looking for any solutions from him. He said hearing aids wouldn't likely offer much assistance to me, in any case. I'd found ways to cope that were clearly working, so ... keep on keeping on.

Which is what I've done, but it's interesting that I can now name my condition.
Reverse slope loss.

It's reverse slope because the normal hearing loss curve is like a ski hill. It goes down from left to right. My hearing loss is charted down from right to left. It’s a double negative and sounds like it ought to, logically, work out to be a good thing, but it isn’t. Reverse slope. Loss.

I’m writing about my hearing condition on this blog because I’ve been reflecting on how different people see the world differently. My step son has a learning disability; his neurology is highly subjective. He has a view of the world on a kilter to everyone else. Also, I’ve been thinking about how everyone has their own literary tastes – and their own political ones, too.

People often hear what they want to hear, yes, but also (in my case, for example) people only hear what they are capable of hearing. With whatever information they are able to take in, they make meaning.

The inability to communicate stable meaning has been a mainstay of literary modernism for over a century. Thomas Pynchon, in particular, has long brought together communications theory and physics: meaning is lost in the transfer of language just as energy is lost in the transfer of matter. Entropy is the key concept here.

My diagnosis with reverse slope loss has made this issue more personal to me than ever. I’ve clearly mis-heard people my entire life. To those of you who’ve been hurt by this – sorry! At the same time, it seems I must conclude that misunderstanding is just as important as understanding in the formation of meaning.

I didn’t get “it,” but I got something! Sounds like Beckett or Kafka, doesn’t it?


Monday, October 13, 2008

Salon des Refuses To Go Away

Old antagonists Wayne Grady and John Metcalf were at it again this past weekend, clashing in the Globe and Mail over the Salon des Refuses and Penguin's Book of Canadian Short Stories.

One can only wonder what the Globe was thinking, printing this entirely pointless exchange?

Grady advises us to "revel in what the Penguin book is, rather than what it is not." He also takes it for granted that "creative non-fiction ... now belongs in any modern definition of 'short story.'" Finally, he called the Penguin anthology "a broader, deeper and less biased view-point from which to survey the ebb and flow of our literature."

These points are not unreasonable, at least not as unreasonable as the personal attack of Metcalf that begins his piece: "lazy critic," "flail about in a slough of despond," "unseemly name-calling and name-dropping." But then the antagonism is mutual -- and long felt.

The title essay of Metcalf's 1982 book, Kicking Against the Pricks, includes Metcalf's outline of what he considers Grady's failings. Grady calls his most recent confrontation with Metcalf "tiresomely familiar."

I call the exchange tiresomely pointless.

First, because Grady refuses to address Metcalf's substantive point "that a story is a carefully crafted work of art that is discrete and entirely self-contained," as Metcalf repeats in his rebuttal. If the Salon des Refuses is to have any value, then it is not merely to suggest an alternate reading list (as Grady hints). It's value was supposed to be deepening the dialogue about short fiction in Canada.

Grady is steadfast in refusing this bait. He says nothing more than "revel in what this book is, rather than what it is not." He reinforces the Canlit exceptionalism he sees represented in the Penguin anthology. Like Sarah Palin, he would prefer his opponent to not worry, be happy. This is not helpful. It is not engaged discussion.

The anthology, he says, "is a rich overview of the state of literature in Canada today, as well as a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country." This may well be true. I don't dispute it, in any case. What the anthology does not include, however, is an argument that supports its selections as the best short stories ever written in Canada.

The book is called The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, not Canadian Writing 101: An Introduction.

Earlier, I suggested that it was important that the the argument supported by the Salon des Refuses not become hyperbolic or personal. The exchange between Grady and Metcalf disappoints me for this reason. Cold War-like, it reinforces ingrained positions. It is all heat and no light. In short, it is pointless and tiresome.

A lot of work went into the double-issue of The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries. It is a shame to see the subtle points about the evolution of the aesthetics of short story writers in Canada be lost in a wave of personal acrimony.

Metcalf, it must be said, shares some of the blame for this. His rhetorical style has long championed drawing hard lines between positions. Ironically, such stances arguably end up hurting his purposes. Fighting personalities draw attention, swamping subtle aesthetic arguments.

As I've said before, the Penguin anthology is not a "disaster." The Salon des Refuses is rewarding reading.

The time is well past for old antagonists to turn the page.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Sky Gilbert

"If I'm going to tell you about it, I have to start back in 1951, with the black apartment and the black sheets." So begins Sky Gilbert's novel, Brother Dumb (ECW, 2007). If it sort of reminds you of the opening of The Catcher in the Rye, that's no surprise. Echoes of J.D. Salinger resound on every page.

But first, who is Sky Gilbert?

His website invites many answers (or questions). Quill and Quire offers a profile. Wikipedia tell us he is:

Schuyler Lee (Sky) Gilbert, Jr. (born December 20, 1952) is a Canadian writer, actor, academic and drag performer. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, he studied theatre in Toronto, Ontario at York University and the University of Toronto, before becoming co-founder and artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times, a Toronto theatre company dedicated to LGBT drama. Gilbert's drag name is Jane.

Although primarily a playwright, Gilbert has also published novels, poetry and an autobiography. He has also been a regular columnist for Toronto's eye weekly. Many of Gilbert's works are produced at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Gilbert holds the University Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

In other words, he's well accomplished in many fields, though a broad popular audience has not been his reward. Yet.

I would like to write about Brother Dumb by exploring it within the context of Gilbert's other work, but I don't know his other work beyond reading some poems in an anthology in the mid-1990s. I do remember those poems, though, as being direct and honest and, therefore, powerful.

Brother Dumb is direct, honest, and powerful, too, but it is also deceptive and complex. In Quill and Quire, Alex Good called the book an "unconvincing attempt to channel Holden Caufield" that is also a "well-paced and provocative book that sets itself an enormous creative challenge." We can no longer avoid it; a plot summary is in order.

It begins, as above, with the black apartment. The narrator is a famous writer, a recluse, and he speaks directly to the reader, confessing the story of his erotic attachments. The factual elements of the narrator's life align strikingly close to the known facts about J.D. Salinger. The writer is in World War II, publishes early stories in a prestigious New York magazine, writes a novel about a juvenile delinquint, takes a strong interest in Buddhism, moves to the country, as a 50-ish-year-old invites an 18-year-old girl to live with him.

The broad sweep will suffice. One must ask: Is Gilbert channeling Caufield or the author of Franny and Zooey?

This is why I called Brother Dumb deceptive. If you really want to hear about it, it's confusing. One can read and enjoy the novel without knowing anything about Salinger, but if one does: What is one to think? One is tempted to call Brother Dumb the Salinger sequel we've been waiting four decades to receive. Except it isn't.

Like many of Salinger's protagnoists, Gilbert's narrator attempts to draw the reader into a bond of "specialness." Only we understand what is real, what is good, what is right, the narrator suggests. The novel is a confession. Many things in the narrator's life have gone wrong. He is writing to explain himself, but also to find that special audience of special people. The gifted ones, the sensitive ones. The vulnerable ones.

For there is more than a little creepy about the narrator's plea. He is attracted to women much, much younger than himself. He is attracted to their childlike qualities. Years ago, Mary McCarthy wrote about Salinger's famous Glass family. Her essay, called "J.D. Salinger's closed circuit," appeared in Harper's, October 1962. What she found, she called "terrifying." This online "profile of a pedophile," in that regard, is not comforting.

McCarthy found the Glass family too cut off from the rest of humanity to be interesting. Pedophiles create alternate realities of "specialness" between themselves and their victims. One must be clear at this point to return to the fact that we are talking about a novel here. Salinger is fact, but Brother Dumb is fiction.

Like Nabokov's Lolita, Brother Dumb provides a complicated beauty. This is not a book that provides the simple pleasure of a well-told story.

Brother Dumb, like Lolita, is the story of one man's attempt to find "love." I put the word in quotation marks, because these are also books that complicate traditional, popular notions of love. That's about the most neutral way of stating that.

Yet, what is love if not complicated?

One of the features of Salinger's books is that his characters seek enlightenment, or transcendent reality. This is High Romanticism's legacy. Franny collapses and the reader may think she's had a spiritual epiphany. My mother, on the other hand, thought the poor girl was pregnant.

Love is sometimes framed as the gateway to the other side. This is oversimplistic nonsense.

McCarthy's essay on Salinger highlights the oversimplistic nonsense of Salinger's novels. Brother Dumb takes us through similar territory. The idealization of love is tempting. It's even sometimes rewarding. It can also be tragic, terrifying and abusive.

Brother Dumb is an unsettling book. It is a remarkable achievement. Alex Good suggested in his review that Salinger would have led the readers on "a merrier chase." I'm not so sure.

I find that thought, actually, a little creepy.


There's something else. Language. The writing process. The ability of language to approach truth. How language may or may not define the outer limits of reality. How language may or may not refer to anything but itself.

I don't mean to refer to Derrida here. I'm thinking of a recent letter to The Globe and Mail by Sky Gilbert about, as the Globe framed it, "the portrayal of gay men in Mark A. Wainberg's July 26 Three for Thought about HIV/AIDS, saying that it's a typical story from the white, heterosexual AIDS research establishment. Wainberg replies that the facts speak for themselves."

Wainberg wrote that promiscuity among gay males was the primary factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Gilbert called this "moral panic." Wainberg replied with, "Several studies have shown ...."

My interest here is not in the conflict over the spread of HIV/AIDS. What interested me was that Gilbert chose to respond to the conflict by referencing and quoting Oscar Wilde: "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." Gilbert argued that researchers are blinded by the framework of their language associations, which is leading them down the wrong path, just as the prosecutors of Oscar Wilde destroyed beauty by being blinded by their stark, barren aestheticism.

Gilbert's own words:
But the homosexual/AIDS meganarrative - like all meganarratives - while terrifically seductive, only resembles the truth. Not all people who get AIDS are libertines, and not all learn redemption. North American (mainly white and heterosexual) AIDS scientists - somewhat overzealously, I think - analyze "lifestyles" and collect data about the sex lives of gay men and Africans, meanwhile convincing everyone that their lurid invasions into the privacy of their subjects is about saving lives. But is it merely a coincidence that a transhistorical fear of same-sex desire between males and the Western obsession with colonizing Africa have merged to become a single discourse called The War on AIDS? Even if scientists were to find out conclusively that white heterosexual North Americans are models of monogamy, attempts by crusading colonizers to teach the rest of the world abstinence are historically doomed to failure. Human beings are sexual (which sometimes means promiscuous) and even an evangelical devotion to transforming the aberrant sexualities of mankind will not change that - or the course of this disease. Non-judgmental, factual information based on conclusive scientific evidence can, has and will.
Wainberg said in response, the statistics speak for themselves. Words need not apply.

Words. Numbers. Reality. Truth. Beauty. Lies. Danger. This conflict raises suggestions about how to read Brother Dumb. In short, we need not look to the life of J.D. Salinger or suppose the Gilbert is writing about him. This is not a biography. It is a work of imagination that intersects with reality, a kind of counter-life.

It's true subject may be, in the end, language itself. The novel's narrator often discusses the writing process and how writing is his substitue for interacting with other people. Does language lead toward insight and higher reality, or just an alternate, risky dimension?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mordecai Richler

The headline read "Quebec concerned that Paul McCartney will "bring back painful memories of our conquest,'" and I found it hard not to think of Mordecai Richler.

Especially when the article also revealed that a letter to the former Beatle endorsed by Parti Québécois Members of the Quebec National Assembly asked McCartney to show the same sensitivity to “the people of French Quebec” as he has shown to “the fate of the seals.”

The Beatles' bassist was in Quebec as part of the city's 400th anniversary. At first he said, "Me and the band are excited to finally get there and rock out with the good people of Quebec."

Later he said, "I'm very friendly with the French people that I know. I know people of all nationalities and, hey, I'm friendly with German people and, by that argument, I should never go to Germany or they should never come here."

This event took place in July 2008. By today (Sept. 21, 2008), the CBC version of this story had accumulated 348 comments.

Oh Canada, Oh Quebec! [Peter Gzowski interviews Richler on his book (1992).]

[The whole CBC archive on Richler here.]


Earlier this year, the first formal biography of Richler (1931-2001) appeared. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain (McGill-Queen's, 2008) by Reinhold Kramer, a professor of English at Brandon University, has been reviewed by Darryl Whetter, Steven W. Beattie, Nathan Whitlock, Robert Reid, Ken McGoodgan and probably others...

Previously, an informal biography appeared. The Last Honest Man (M&S, 2005) told the story of Richler's life through the voices of others. The book is full of fragments of interviews with those who knew Richler. The result is a kaleidoscopic view of the man. The general gist of his life come across, but one gets the sense of missing many details.

Kramer's biography fills in some of those details, but not nearly enough. More significant is its attack on the theme of the previous book: honesty. Kramer never calls Richler a hypocrit, but he does undermine the oversimplistic reputation of Richler among his fans that he simply "told it like it was."

"Do you want to be liked?" Joel Yanofsky asked Richler in 1997, and he got the stare of death in return.

"What do you mean do I want to be liked?" Richler finally replied. "I want my work to be well thought of. But myself? I never think of that one way or another. Look, I don't take the temperature every day. I've also been very critical of a lot of things in the past and I continue to be critical, so I'm fair game. I don't solicit affection."
Myself, I miss Richler because he was funny. He was complicated, and unique. I want to know what he would have made of the fracas over Paulie's showcase in Quebec City.


And what of the Kramer biography? First, there is a lot more to be written about Richler. This is not the definitive account. Second, Kramer is excellent in illuminating the consistency of Jewish thought through Richler's work. For example, the golem is a Jewish avenger, and so is St. Urban's Horseman, the hero of the book by the same title (1971). Who knew? Not me.

As noted above, Kramer seems to have gone out of his way to be "fair." That is, he is clearly not beholden to the Richler estate (though he is deferring to Richler's widow) or the myth of Richler as "The Last Honest Man." He has made an attempt to outline the influences and forces on Richler's life, and he has created an alternate account of Richler: one who knows the value of his work and never fails to exact it. He presents Richler as the hero of the common man who later publishes a story in Saturday Night magazine sponsored by Absolut Vodka.

Ken McGoogan in the Globe and Mail said Kramer "sounds like a tenured academic disparaging a professional writer for making a living by his pen." Actually, Kramer twice inserts jokes into the biography about Brandon being the centre of the universe. Funny? No! (Particularly after he botches one of Richler's best lines: how his father responded to his first novel, The Acrobats: "What do you know about the circus?")

There are a number of new biographies of Richler coming soon, one by Charles Foran. Many more will likely follow. I'm looking forward to the review of Richler's career as a screen writer. Kramer outlines it here, but only in the barest details.

Richler led many lives -- and was a remarkable self-creation in a time when Canada had no major writers to speak of. That's the most significant challenge for any biographer of Richler: to explain how he did it, drove himself into the world as he did, with the ambitions that he had, achieving what he did. It was a remarkable life. There is much more to be written about it, and the work, too.



I saw Richler twice. Once at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I'm guessing it was about 1992. And once at the Eden Mills Writers Festival, about 1998?

At Hart House, he presided over a debate about "appropriation of voice." The two sides debated and then he waded in. He didn't take sides. He essentially said it was an unfortunate, irrelevant debate. One, of course, could write whatever one wanted to. To the young, black woman who'd argued that she hadn't read anything that included her point of view, he expressed regret. It was too bad, but the remedy she wanted (a kind of censorship) wasn't realistic.

I'd been reading Richler essays, and I'd noted that he had a couple of favourite quotations that he repeated. In the discussion at Hart House, he used one of them again, and after the debate I went to talk to him about it. I tapped him on the shoulder and said I'd noticed that he'd used one of the quotations he liked. He said, "You're a very perceptive young man," and turned swiftly around before I could reply.

At Eden Mills, he read on a bill with Barbara Gowdy and Gordon Lish. Before Lish read, he warned the audience that any young children should be removed. He was going to read something that wasn't child-friendly. And he didn't. He read a litany of sex acts. After about fifteen minutes, the audience started clapping. Enough already. He stopped, noting that Leon Rooke had been given a similar kiss-off in New York City.

Richler made no comment about Lish's reading, but he did say that he'd been approached by Greenpeace before the reading and asked to make a comment about their good work. "These young people are doing good work," he said, then he read the section of Joshua Here and Now about Jesus being nailed to the stick.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Literary snob, c'est moi

I was reading my University of Toronto alumni magazine (Fall 2008) in the office the other day, when I discovered myself quoted in a profile of novelist Andrew Pyper: "He seems more intent on following Grisham than Faulkner."

The quote isn't recent (I haven't read anything by Pyper in nearly a decade and haven't got anything against the man), but you see the dichotomy? On the one hand, millionaire; on the other, Nobel Prize.

I came home and told my wife about my discovery. "I was quoted in the U of T alumni magazine."

"That's great!" she said.

I said, "The article gave me as an example of a literary snob."

She thought this was hilarious. "You?!"

There were pots on the stove. The kids were demanding attention. There was no time to explain that years earlier, before we met, in another century, I cultivated pretentions, hung out in smokey bars, listened to poetry. Discussed Sartre. Or was it Pynchon? Or that prose magician of my own generation, David Foster Wallace?

I was not always the patient, nurturing, earth-father of a family man that you see before you.

[And she wasn't always the pot-minding, laundry-tending super mom who can sweep through six rooms in a single bound to attend to a screaming child either, she would like you to know.]

Yes, I reviewed books. Mea culpa. I had opinions.

What is all of this about?

At the Salon des Refuses launch last month, Dan Wells told an anecdote about Mavis Gallant. When asked by an editor if she would be interested in writing book reviews, she declined, saying: "Nothing good can come of it."

I kind of felt that way when I saw my words bounced back at me. Nothing good has come of them.

[For the record, I've never written anything about Pyper's novel The Trade Mission.]

The article continued:

Pyper can't stand such snobbery, the divisions of writers into people-pleasers and artists. To his mind, too many literary types look down on storytelling, while lauding ponderously written navel-gazing. "The so-called beach reads actually take a lot of work ... as much refinement as, if not more than, 500 pages about gazing out to sea and memories-of-my-grandmother."

Pyper continued: "I'm not a Virginia Woolf, doing spontaneous and poetic noodlings, letting the vibrations of the universe speak to me."

Is this article implying the Faulkner wrote ponderous navel gazing? Does the typical beach read have more refinement than The Lighthouse? Is being compared to John Grisham really all that bad? Who implied that writing a beach read was easy? Is the difficulty of the writing process even relevant?

These latter questions cluster around the subject of this blog (attempts to define literature; whatever that is). The article says Pyper believes too many literary types look down on storytelling. One of them is the editor of Pyper's short story collection, John Metcalf, who has made a career as a sharpened literary advocate for short stories written in prestine prose.

For 40 years Metcalf has been trying to introduce Canadian readers to elegance. In 1982, he told Geoff Hancock, "Critics in Canada don’t have a horror of elegance. They don’t even know its there." He quoted Evelyn Waugh’s Paris Review interview:
I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language. And with this I am obsessed. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.
In response to that quotation, Metcalf said:

Now, that sentence, ‘I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language’ is a statement that many today would have difficulty understanding. They’re so used to the idea of literature being about something or of using literature as something else – as sociology, history, psychology, what have you. The idea that it’s a verbal structure in the sense in which a lyric poem, for example, is a verbal structure, is an idea that’s largely foreign now to most readers of novels – even intelligent readers of novels (Kicking Against The Pricks, 10).
Here is the essence of Metcalf’s project: To inculcate into Canadian letters an aesthetic that takes pleasure in rhetoric. Short stories, he insists, are "performance," not telling of tales. What should concern refined readers is the arrangement of the words.

Is this snobbishness? Maybe so, but snobbishness has an evil opposite, which is a sure killer of literary culture. Populism.

Myself, I think good storytelling is just fine (and Metcalf undervalues it), but literature is more than storytelling. Metcalf's critiques are a welcome reminder of that.

This blog post echoes some of the conflicts at the heart of the Salon des Refuses. Taking sides isn't the point of this post. Keeping the discussion going, and hopefully deepening it, is.

Friday, September 5, 2008

TDR Fiction issue #24

With this issue, TDR begins its tenth year. It's hard to believe, but a glance in the mirror confirms I'm going grey.

Is this from an overdose of short stories? Not at all. After ten years, the most enjoyable part of this little enterprise (for me, anyway) is selecting the fiction we publish.

Each of the stories submitted is a unique creation of the person who wrote it. For this issue, I reviewed 198 stories. Okay, they weren't all great, and I didn't read each one through to the end. But every time I begin preparing a new issue I am heartened by the flood of emails from hopeful writers.

Life abounds out there on the e-horizon. People are daring to write, daring to risk the rejection of submission, daring (in the first instance) to honour the daemon of the creative impulse. Make a mark against the darkness. Leave a legacy.

Twenty-four issues ago, I confess, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I didn't know what I was doing as an editor and had only the rawest qualifications. Some would say my ability to recognize excellence is questionable (nearly every issue, someone who's been rejected lets me know of my error -- though many more do the appropriate thing; say "thanks for your time, dude").

I've tended to assume that over time I was learning what I liked by choosing stories to place in TDR, but I don't think that any more. Now I think that the stories in TDR represent a prismatic overview of the short story form. They aren't limited to a particular aesthetic. They showcase the variety of which the form is capable.

I know this may sound self-serving, but there it is. With this issue, I have found eight stories (double the usual number of late), and I was so pleased by the richness of this grouping that I couldn't bring myself to cut the number down any further.

These editorials, BTW, began when the Canada Council suggested I write editorials to let readers know something about my aesthetic. My aesthetic, it turns out, is: Whatever works; surprise me. I like all kinds of stories. I'm most impressed if you can make me laugh.

Many of the stories in this new issue did that immediately. Others worked on me with a more subtle humour. Though Tim Conley's story, frankly, I'm not sure I understand.

Here are the stories once more. Please read them. They're great.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jonathan Bennett

Entitlement by Jonathan Bennett (ECW, 2008) is a plot-driven encounter with one of Canada's richest, oldest, most entitled (and fictional) families: the Aspinalls.

A well-paced story with a thumping ending, Bennett's second novel occasionally lapses into sociological telling-not-showing about the meaning of wealth in Canada. It is saved, however, by its strong, compelling characters and clear, direct prose.

The novel is framed by the quest of a biographer to tell the story of Aspinall family, old, Upper Canadians who -- in the words of the patriarch -- manage to perpetuate their wealth and influence because Canadians don't really know they exist. Americans worship their capitalists, and the British gossip endlessly about the Monarchy, but Canadians kind of just assume that we're all pretty much the same. The rich amongst us benefit from this anonymity, this novel suggests. They just keep doing what they do, and no one bothers them much.

The biographer in the novel is sort-of trying to excavate this silence, though it's not immediately clear why she thinks there's a story to tell (there is, but she doesn't discover it until later).

I imagined the biographer as modelled on Stevie Cameron, but I hope the author of On The Take (Random House, 1995) was ... well, a little more intrepid, alert, smart and gutsy ... than the biographer presented here. There's a certain simplicity to Bennett's characters in this novel, embodied by (but not limited to) the biographer character. This simplicity grounds the novel's presentation of Canadians as passive, willing dupes to the super rich.

Are the Aspinalls supposed to be the Irvings? the Reichmanns? the Thomsons? the Westons?

None of the above. But one does note it's been many years since Peter C. Newman's The Canadian Establishment has had a new edition.

What are those rich people up to, anyway? National Post readers know; they provide glory for the rest of us. This novel takes that point of view, too; then twists it.

Back to the plot. The biographer discovers, and interviews, Andy Kronk, a working-class hockey player whose puck skills "earned" him a scholarship at Lord Simcoe College (UCC?), where he befriends the youngest Aspinall, Colin, a contemporary Oscar Wilde. Perceptive readers will pick up quickly that things won't go well for Colin. Twenty years later, Kronk tries to reconstruct the story.

At the heart of this book is the relationship of Andy and Colin. They live as brothers, yet are star-crossed. Colin is gay, loves Andy; not gay, Andy can only be Colin's platonic ideal.

Bennett's last novel, After Battersea Park, told the story of twins separated at birth:
Part mystery, part love story, Jonathan Bennett’s debut novel deftly examines fractured identities, families and cultures in a tale that spans one year, three continents and two generations. As William and Curt conflate and dissolve they wrestle with the twin masters of memory and truth, reason and passion. Here is a contemporary portrait of two men bound by blood and lies, but liberated by a chance to be both whole and wholly understood.
A thematic summary of Entitlement would also focus on the challenges of emotional connections between men. Bennett is a deft explorer of this continent.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets

The sonnet, says Wikipedia:
is one of the poetic forms that can be found in lyric poetry from Europe. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song." By the thirteenth century, it had come to signify a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history.
The "Canadian Sonnet" is, presumably, one of the forms many permutations.

Is there anything Canadian about the "Canadian Sonnet"? If there is, only a foolish reviewer would attempt to isolate it in Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, edited by Zachariah Wells (Bibiloasis, 2008). That is to say, this is not a nationalistic collection. The editor offers no thematic synthesis -- such as suggesting that Canadian sonneteers reflect the country's deep relationship with its geography, or some such claptrap.

The editor does suggest, however, that the poets "understand the glory of Canadian identity is its prismatic variety." Canada is like a prism? You are never quite sure where the light is going, or coming from? Wells expands:
Something that strikes me, looking at the roster I've assembled, is the sheer number of immigrants and emigrants peopling this anthology -- border-crossing poets who can't be confined to the national or regional boxes we tend to put them in. This is reflected by the formal variety of the poems and it says a great deal, I think, about the portmanteau portability and cosmopolitaneity of the sonnet, a poetic form whose protean history is a (sometimes) gentle rebuke to hidebound provincialism.
I think by "hidebound provincialism" he means "the way Canadian literature has commonly been viewed."

Gentle rebuke? There is a more ferocious project underway here, I suggest. But it is humbly framed, and it is also largely left to speak on its own.

The reader is led to read these sonnets as examples of the form, not as chunks of the nation.


Two sonnets from the collection to reflect upon, picked at random:

DELIRIUM IN VERA CRUZ (by Malcolm Lowry)

Where has the tenderness gone, he asked the mirror
Of the Biltmore Hotel, cuarto 216. Alas,
Can its reflection lean against the glass
Too, wondering where I have gone, into what horror?
Is that it staring at me now with terror
Behind your frail, tilted barrier? Tenderness
Was here, in this very retreat, in this
Place, its form seen, cries heard by you. What error
Is here? Am I that forked rashed image?
Is this the ghost of love which you reflected?
Now with a background of tequila, stubs, dirty collars,
Sodium perborate, and a scrawled page
To the dead, telephone disconnected?
... He smashed all the glass in the room. (Bill: $50)


The sky is Reckitt's Blue of the bone
And the pavements catch,
For a redbrick house with a deershead
Porched, I watch,
It would have had big windows, curtains of ecru lace ...
And a matching African violet.
On the verandah there a lion (window-box)
Leans head and mane on the topmost pane,
(I fear to rile it.)
Moonlight falls through the trees in patches of ecru lace ...
Ah there's the house with the unicorn;
(Voodoo Man, Voodoo Man,
Won't you cure me if you can?)
The Voodoo Man said, Lift the latch.


This is as lovely and humane a collection of poetry as you are likely to find. The content is prismatic, an excellent image of the variety within.

Yes, there are nature poems, and there are poems about tides, rocks, trees, lakes and regrets. But there are poems about sex, too. I didn't see any poems about skyscrapers or the beauty of the DOS operating system or "Why I love my iPod," but one must leave room for a sequel.

I spent a couple of weeks attempting to think of something sharp and critical to say about this book. I didn't come up with anything. I confess that I have met ZW and found him keen in wit and intelligence and generous in spirit.

But if I could think of something cutting to say about Jailbreaks, I would.


Good work, Zach. This is a model of what an anthology should be.