Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mark Anthony Jarman

"Canada's answer to Barry Hannah" is how the Toronto Star described Mark Anthony Jarman on June 22, 2008.

Reviewer Derek Weiler wrote:

Readers of Mark Anthony Jarman will likely notice a recurring stylistic tic in his prose: the missing verb. In his new short story collection, My White Planet (Thomas Allen, 2008), the examples are many: "Her enclosed boat a tiny orange orb among mysterious green icebergs." "Her kind sad face by the icy shore, her long wrists."

The dropped verb is a trick with a purpose. It can embed us more deeply in the moment and give the characters' perceptions a greater sense of immediacy. At the same time, though, it suggests a certain aloofness, reminding us that Jarman won't settle for simple "this happened" exposition or conventional sentence structure.


He most strongly recalls the southern U.S. writer Barry Hannah, whose classic collection Airships (1978) has a similar range of subject matter and a similar interest in sharpened prose.

Not having read Airships, I take Weiler's word for it. He's an honourable man and an intelligent reviewer. I am surprised, however, that at this late date there's a need to "explain Jarman" by positioning him as an apprentice of Hannah.

Is this an example of measuring a Canadian's achievement against something foreign and therefore more "real"?

How many of the Star's readers can possibly understand what "Canada's answer to Barry Hannah" means?

On the other hand, we constantly hear Alice Munro compared to Chekhov. And we are all trained to "compare and contrast" as the best way to solidify argument and communicate meaning.

But still. In 2008, can't MAJ be compared to MAJ? That is, doesn't Mark Anthony Jarman have enough of a track record that we can presume he has "found his voice" and that his work isn't merely derivative of something someone else has already done?

I provide one example. Shane Neilson reviewed Jarman's 2000 short story collection 19 Knives and compared Jarman to Rick Moody. That review appeared in The Danforth Review, which I edit. After it appeared, in an email conversation, Jarman told me that he actually hadn't read Moody before writing 19 Knives. If there was a common influence between Moody and Jarman, it was more likely the zeitgeist. They were drinking the same kool-aid, in other words.

Literary influence is highly complicated and very rarely linear.

Weiler's suggestion, for example, that Jarman shares with Hannah a "a similar range of subject matter and a similar interest in sharpened prose" may well be true. But so what?

Weiler writes of Jarman's latest collection:

His work is similarly restless on the macro level: the stories in My White Planet show a striking variety. Some are historical pieces set during the Riel Rebellion or the U.S. Indian wars. Some evoke sci-fi tropes, like the one set on a polar research station that loses touch with the rest of the world. Others read like nothing so much as autobiographical reveries, the narrator ambling around New Brunswick (where the author lives) or London, England.

Riel references or not, Jarman is something of a misfit on the CanLit scene.
It's not clear what Weiler means by this claim. Presumably it has something to do with Weiler's belief that "Jarman places a premium on sheer linguistic energy."

Last week, in a post about Rawi Hage, I mentioned Nabokov's term "aboutness" and linked to an interview with Carol Shields, which included her opinion that "the language is always first."

In short, I don't think Jarman is "a misfit on the CanLit scene." That's a misreading of Jarman and a misreading of CanLit.

Douglas Glover, for example, is another writer of "sheer linguistic energy." He has also written an insightful essay on Jarman's fiction in Wild Writers We Have Known, a special issue of The New Quarterly (Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3; 2002). Glover's short stories could also be described using the words Weiler uses to describe Jarman's: they are "restless on the macro level." They go backwards and forwards in time and have all kinds of weird shit happening in them.

Isn't that what short stories are supposed to do?

Weiler ends his review this way:

The book is stronger than his previous, 2000 collection, 19 Knives, and I don't think it's because his actual prose has been greatly refined in the interim. Rather, I suspect, it's because in the new book, the prose has been more often married to consequential, urgent, and memorable evocations of character and mood.
This isn't my opinion, which is that 19 Knives is one of the great neglected books in the Canadian canon. I believe this, because when I read it I had one of those rare moments of astonishment. THIS CAME OUT OF CANADA? It was unlike anything I had previously read.

Of course, perhaps is it was exactly like Hannah's Airships?

I'll have to check that out.

I doubt it is, though. Jarman has been too consistent over too many books. His work is complex and serious -- and unique. He has created his own imaginative kingdom, as all writers worthy of deep comtemplation do. His work may sometimes lapse into self-parody as a result. It should be measured, in my opinion, against itself. Does it achieve its own goals? Which clearly require more than communicating "aboutness."

Jarman writes with a dedicated intensity, creates stories about a certain kind of masculinity, often places his characters in extreme circumstances and tests their "grace under pressure." Is he, therefore, a latter-day Hemingway? No, this isn't a useful thought-pattern.

We are all children of Hemingway, are we not? He wrote for The Toronto Star, after all!

Sorry, just a diversion and a joke.

Humour, by the way, is also a common element in a Mark Anthony Jarman short story. Perhaps that is another reason he is "a CanLit misfit." No self-respecting high-school teacher in Saskatoon would assign "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" (from 19 Knives), would she?

Here's how it starts:

Propane slept in the tank and propane leaked while I slept, blew the camper door off and split the tin walls where they met like shy strangers kissing, blew the camper door like a safe and I sprang from sleep into my new life on my feet in front of a befuddled crowd, my new life on fire, waking to whoosh and tourists' dull teenagers staring at my bent form trotting noisily in the campground with flames living on my calves and flames gathering and glittering on my shoulders (Cool, the teens think secretly), smoke like nausea in my stomach and me brimming with Catholic guilt, thinking, Now I've done it, and then thinking, Done what? What have I done?
Seriously, though. We must ensure that CanLit escapes the stereotype of being Pinch-your-nose CanLit:

Pinch-your-nose CanLit is the CanLit most Canadians teens were force fed in high school, swallowing it because it was good for them. No teen ever got indigestion from CanLit but few asked for second helpings until their literary taste buds matured.
Celebrating the pyrotechnical writers we've already got as home-grown talent (and not reducing them to imitations of others) is essential to this hope and process. At the same time, we should not shy away from looking at the broad range of literary influences at work in our literature. And all the other excellent writers that write elsewhere.

As Douglas Glover told The Danforth Review:

Whether Canadian literature is all it's pumped to be is not a question that interests me. On the other hand, there are some books written by Canadians I love.

That seems just about right.

1 comment:

Christopher Willard said...

The constellation of Canadian writers related to Jarman would include, as far as I've read, bp Nichols and contemporary writer Ken Sparling. Heading south, we find Leonard Michaels and Barthelme.

Anthony Burgess articulated your second point quite clearly, differentiating writers whose emphasis was on plot and those whose emphasis was on language. In the visual arts we call this, going back to Harold Osborne (Abstraction and Empathy in Twentieth Century Art) semantic information versus syntactical information.

There are many words used for this idea and this is not to suggest there is a clear cut dichotomy. Yeah, old hat, but worth repeating.