Sunday, August 10, 2008

Charles Foran

Join the Revolution, Comrade! This isn't quite what Charles Foran requests in Join the Revolution, Comrade: Journeys and Essays (Biblioasis, 2008). For one, note the lack of an exclamation mark. For another, note the deflating subtitle. Journeying is what this book is about, not insistence on the still point of revolutionary certainty. The book takes the reader on a warm, calm, reassuring meandering with a lively literary mind, though subjects as various as contemporary China, southern Ontario English-language usage, and "Adventures in Waynejohnstonland."

Unlike his Biblioasis stable mate, Stephen Henighan, Foran has not written a polemic. Like Henighan, Foran has a global view of the world, has spent a significant portion of his life abroad, and puts pressure on Canlit to report on more than well worn themes and suicide in the snow. While Henighan is often more interesting (he's more prepared to say the shocking thing), Foran is more persuasive (or at least less likely to provoke the reader to write "BS" in the margin).

At one point (page 109), Foran describes the protagonists of two of his novels as "feckless Canadian(s)." One could describe the narrator of his nonfiction as feckless also; however, it's just a ruse, isn't it? Just a Canadian rhetorical strategy? Not to be too self-aware. Too proud. Too keen. Or perhaps it's just a southern Ontario thing?

"Dumb as a sack of hammers," is the title of Foran's memoir about a southern Ontario childhood that doubles as a lament of the plain-mindedness of Upper Canadians. The essay begins by recounting a conversation Foran had with an Irish journalist in Toronto about Roddy Doyle's lively use of language in the Barrytown Trilogy. Why are Canadians such language bores? Maybe it's really only an Ontario thing? Why don't we say things like: "Don't go all Don Cherry on me"?

Good question.

Here's my primary criticism of the book. It's divided into three sections. I found the first section kind of dull. I would have made the second section the first section. The opening section contains six essays about China, the author's experience in Asia, memories about 9/11 and the Tiananamen Square massacre period and movies about Vietnam. None of these subjects is dull, but I guess I just found the tone of these pieces too reflective. Or at least too reflective for the beginning of the book. I found myself hoping the pace would pick up. Thankfully, it did.

The biggest value of the book is Foran's evident intelligence. Here's a passage that brings together Milan Kundera, Don Quixote, Douglas Glover and reflections on common weaknesses of literary criticism:

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera believes the legacy of Don Quixote has been denigrated by an adherence to the "imperative of verisimilitude" in the novel. He lays the blame on our fixation with realistic settings and chronological order. Douglas Glover qualifies Kundera by suggesting that literary realism is a technique which becomes problematic only when "someone tries to turn it into a definition." Glover admits, however, that this is precisely what "unthinking writers and journalist-critics" have done. Psychological realism, with its emphasis on credible plots and believable characters, is a major tradition in western literature. But it isn't the only one.

I found Foran review of Tariq Ali's novels of particular interest: "History in the quintent isn't a force above and beyond human agency. Civilizations don't clash; only individuals do, and they can always resolve otherwise."

This almost sounds like a southern Ontario insight. We can all work it out, can't we?

The review of Tariq Ali's work is in the third section of the book, which includes a review of Noah Richler's Literary Atlas of Canada, Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons and "American Fiction in the New Millennium." In these reviews, Foran shows his literary sense, his critical intelligence, his knowledge of historical and geographic contexts. In short, he is a more-than-able reviewer. I enjoyed these pieces most of all, and felt richer for reading them.

I would suggest that this is the revolution Foran would like us to join. Please become keen, reflective, intelligent readers and interpreters. It makes the journey so much more interesting. For everyone.

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