Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lisa Moore

The strange literary comment of 2008, as I noted earlier, was the Calgary Herald's review of Alice Munro's Best Selected Stories (M&S, 2008):

To finish reading any of the stories in this collection is to be left hanging; surely, this is all leading to something, one supposes, but it never does, and then--The End. Dialogue is excruciating as characters discuss whether they would like tea, or say things like: "We have to get that movie back to the store. Maybe we should do it before we go to the beach." Aargghh.

The 2008 winner of this dubious non-award goes to Barbara Kay, who "preemptively reviewed" Lisa Moore's novel February in the National Post (July 15, 2009):

Novelists who are offended by bad reviews should suck it up, because it is infra dig for artists to shoot an honest messenger. But what about a reader who's offended by a good review? To whom does one take exception? I am Canadian, therefore wouldn't dream of ranting on anyone's website. Instead, while watching the Giller Prize-giving (on TV, because somehow I feel sure I will not get an invitation), I will discretely, but quite defiantly, frown.

The quotation from Kay's column gives the gig away. She wrote without having read the novel. She wrote in response to a profile of Moore that appeared in the Post, July 9, 2009, written by Katherine Laidlaw.

The Post's website (and Quill Blog) boasts many comments and responses to Kay's piece.

The point I want to draw attention to here, is that Kay and the Calgary Herald review make a common complaint. As the Herald's headline put it: "Plot eludes Munro."

Here's what Kay had to say about Moore's novel, after she'd read it, in a follow-up column headlined: "In search of exciting Canadian stories" (Sept 9, 2009):

This novel's heart is a woman endlessly describing in lyrical, highly polished prose how tired and yearning and horny she is. Art imitating reading: February is 99% writerly foreplay, 1% readerly orgasm. I'm not asking for Moby Dick, but surely a country of this size, prosperity and cultural maturity should demand more than that of its most-cosseted novelists.

She goes on:

Speaking of actual readers -- you and me, not the Giller judges -- in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Good books don't have to be hard," critic Lev Grossman asserts that the 21st century will see the reawakening of the plot-driven novel after its long, reader-unfriendly Modernist sleep.

So the fiction vs. fiction debate goes on, obscured by wacky generalities. (Are those who read and enjoyed February not "actual readers"? Is the Giller not already among the most populist of literary prizes?)

Some people read for plot; others have different literary sensibilities. Some people vote Republican; others have different political philosophies. Drawing paranoid, exaggerated constrasts between different types of books is not only unhelpful; it's dishonest.

The reawakening of the plot-driven novel? When has it ever been in decline?

There are many different ways to write a novel, and it has always been thus, and may it be forever so. Good readers, readers with a sense of literary history, learn to accommodate the full spectrum of approaches to writing: from plot-driven narrative, to the obscurely abstract (William S. Burroughs' cut-ups might serve as an example here).

Of course, we all have our preferred tastes, so there's no need for readers to perpetually sample the full spectrum. Equally, however, it is irresponsible to put-down those who would choose otherwise from yourself. Literature doesn't abide partisanship well, however much it appears to encourage it.


Which might seem like a strange way to begin a review of Lisa Moore's new novel.

I was going to begin it with this sentence: "February is Lisa Moore's best book so far." Then add an anecdote about how I gave that opinion to a friend and he asked, "Better than Open?"

"I didn't like Open," I said.


Well, I sort of liked Open. I wrote a review of it for The Danforth Review:

The ten stories in Lisa Moore's new short story collection, Open, play with the time structure of narrative to the point of exasperation. Or is it brilliance? This reader sometimes wasn't sure.

Of course there is no reason why a story needs to be told as it "occurs": first A happened, then B, then C. In fact, no writer of value would bother with such a rudimentary rolling out of details. But still, stories must be more than "an invention of randomness" (a quotation borrowed from mid-way through Moore's collection, p.113). Unless the writer has swallowed a gobful of post-modernism - in which case this reader is prepared to forgive incoherence if it is replaced with rhetorical brilliance. Which it sometimes is in Open, but not often enough.

I don't mean to give the impression that
Open is a bad book. On the contrary, it is a conglomeration of self-conscious technique. It is art, for sure. Just flawed art. It probably wouldn't be unfair to say it's art that just tries too damn hard.

Seven years later, what I remember about Open is that I thought some of the stories were brilliant; others frustrated me to my core.

Since then, I've read quite a bit more by Moore, and I don't fault her a moment for her lack of plot. In fact, I call February her best book, because it seems like the culmination of her vision. She has found a story that marries the strengths of her style, her empathy, her fierce local knowledge and pride ... and her significant talent and ambition.

Is February a uniformly brilliant novel? No. But when it's good, it's very good. Where it's less good, I would not describe it as "flawed art," as I did previously. I would just say that no novels are perfect.

I would also point to the following passage (p.238-9):

[John] has given a lot of thought to the nature of time and how a life can be over much too quickly, if you're not careful. The present is always dissolving into the past, he realized long ago. The present dissolves. It gets used up. The past is virulent and ravenous and everything can be devoured in a matter of seconds.

That's the enigma of the present. The past has already infiltrated it; the past has set up camp, deployed soldiers with toothbrushes to scrub away all of the now, and the more you think about it, the faster everything dissolves. There is no present. There was no present. Or, another way to think about it: your life could go on without you.

The structure of time, the implications of time, is perhaps Lisa Moore's primary narrative obsession. Contrary to the explicit meaning of this passage ("there is no present"), Moore's stories are hyper-focused on the eternal present. In February, Helen may have lost her husband in 1982, but she is also highly focused on the present. Moore's style and attention to the details of her character's specifics, focus the reader's attention on the here and now, while also allowing the past and future to resonate.

This is Moore's genius, and Kay obscures it with a misdirected misreading.

Perhaps ironically (in current context), after my review in TDR appeared (which was before Open was nominated for the Giller that year), someone wrote to accuse me of writing my review out of jealousy. I was accused of wanting to tear down the success of others. I hope that demon can now be put to rest. (Later, I sat on the ReLit jury that awarded Lisa Moore's Alligator that prize.)

There are many complaints about the culture of books (and reviews) in Canada. My number one whine is the attempt to find the "secret motivation," as if we were all simply writing in code, attempting to conceal hidden societies.

For my part, I take Barbara Kay on face value that she would prefer a CanLit of thumping endings; I would just argue that her desire for such an outcome causes her to obscure, like a politician, what others are up to. This may well make her a good op-ed columnist.

Myself, I want a diverse literary ecosystem. I also prefer writers, like Lisa Moore, whose work make take a couple of books to understand. There is more likely to be lasting value there, not merely entertainment.

But then ... that's the age-old debate, isn't it?
Post-script (Dec 21, 2009):
I have re-read the above and I fear it may suggest that I agree that February is weak in plot. I don't mean to suggest this. The plot is perfectly sufficient, IMHO.
Second, another tangential thought. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the novel should do what only the novel can do. To whit, telling a plot-driven story is easily told in a number of media, and likely better done (more powerfully put across) now in cinema.
To follow this line of thought, Barbara Kay is, therefore, quite wrong to insist that "real novels" (quotations mine) are plot-centric. True novels, to paraphrase Kundera, are unfilmable.
February, in its essence, is unfilmable. What makes it good, isn't plot. It's that 99% of writerly foreplay that Kay disparages.
That said, I want to end by affirming that plot-driven novels can be just as "novelistic" as Tristan Shandy, Don Quixote, and the other novels Kundera champions. His own The Unbearable Lightness of Being, of course, is a broadly known film. What it communicates, however, moderates from medium to medium.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Does Canada Matter?

How interesting to look back a decade later at this review. What was the crisis in 1999 that sparked such an earnest thesis? What is the crisis now?

If they don't get things right in Copenhagan, the nation state hasn't much future.

If anything, our government has drifted ever closer to "imperialism," and Canadians are ever more apathetic.

And a cure is ever more distant. Oh, happy days.


Does Canada Matter? Liberalism and the Illusion of Sovereignty
by Clarence Bolt
Ronsdale Press, 1999

[This review first appeared in The Danforth Review]

Oh Canada! Do you matter? From the evidence presented here, the answer is NO. For the entire length of its existence, back to 1867 and way earlier, Clarence Bolt argues, Canada has been a kid brother to the Liberal / Enlightenment / Modernist experiment - and the only way the country can save its sovereignty is to pull itself out of the tide of history. The unspoken assumption here is that Canada has never been independent, and never will be if drastic action isn't taken.

However, if Canada has never existed apart from the Big Brother's of "Liberalism", then the question must be not "does Canada matter?", but "is there any such nation as Canada?" This latter question echoes the absurdities of Philosophy 101 (do I exist?), and also Lucien Bouchard's off the cuff remark that Canada isn't a real country. Bolt seems to agree with Bouchard on this latter point, although they go in different directions after that - Bouchard believing Canadians should stop pretending they're a nation, and Bolt arguing that Canadians should get busy becoming one.

About three-quarters of the way through the book Bolt writes:

Canadians must leave the welcoming party for the new global order, although it will not be easy, since seldom in the history of humanity have subjects embraced imperialism as eagerly as in our time.

This could very well be the central quotation in Bolt's extended essay, since it will take a paragraph or two to unpack it. There is, of course, that weasel word "imperialism", which will require definition. There is also that (George) Bushian phrase "the new global order" and the metaphor of "the welcoming party." What is going on here? What is Bolt getting at? To answer those questions it is necessary to outline the broad scope of his argument.

Bolt borrows heavily from George Grant's analysis of Canada in his 1960s classic Lament for a Nation. Grant argued that PM John Diefenbaker had been Canada's last great hope, since Dief had stood up to the Americans and articulated a small-c conservatism that emphasized community values. With the fall of Dief's PCs, Canada fell solidly in line with the Liberal / Enlightenment / Modernist project represented most obviously by the U.S.A., but also by Western capitalism in general. "Liberal" here does not mean the Liberal Party, nor does it have any of the connotations of socialism as in "Ted Kennedy is a well-known Liberal." Bolt uses term Liberal as it became prominently known in the 18th-century, associated with such capitalist thinkers as Adam Smith and John Hume.

The 18th-century Liberals provided the theoretical framework for the rising industrialism of the 19th-century. They championed individual rights, particularly property rights, and the rights set out in the U.S. constitution to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Grant spent a good part of his career articulating the shadow side of this Liberal / Enlightenment dream. In particular, Grant pointed out repeatedly how Liberalism elevated technology to a force of nature, which "evolved" naturally and served as a rhetorical crutch for everything from public policy to environmental destruction in the name of development and "progress."

This is the argument picked up and extended by Bolt. We are now more than 30 years past Grant's Lament for Nation, and much of what he predicted has come true. Bolt uses Grant's prophecies as argument for turning back - his optimism is almost as tragic as it is naive.

The "imperialism" named by Bolt in the quotation above is the technological world-view first articulated by Grant, and now extended to the lasted dot-com stock craze. The "new global order" is the capitalist dream enforced by the World Bank on struggling "developing" nations around the world. The "welcoming party" is the unchecked optimism of the new breed "neo-conservatives" - who see big government as the enemy of the people, and taxpayers instead of citizens. Bolt rightly points out that these conservatives are actually old-time Liberals. There is little conservative about them. For sure, there is no John Diefenbaker in them!

A couple of years ago it was fashionable to ask, what happened to the left? Was there any left left? Perhaps there isn't. Perhaps Canada has ceased to exist, too - or maybe it never existed - though every day I witness bits and pieces of it. The newspapers are full of stories about "re-investing in health-care." Perhaps this is all Canada ever was ... a giant health-care plan ... with a national hockey team ... and a railway ... and a sea-to-sea hatred of Toronto.

Does Canada matter? No. But Bolt's visions of alternatives to Liberalism do terribly. And his articulation of our Enlightenment inheritance is a great gift. His nationalism, however, is misplaced idealism. We are all pawns in a larger game. (Didn't Leonard Cohen sing that?).... That's no way to say goodbye.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Bald-Headed Hermit

This is one of the funnest books I've ever reviewed. It remains a fixture on my shelf.

[Originally appeared in The Danforth Review]


The Bald-Headed Hermit & The Artichoke: An Erotic Thesaurus
compiled by A.D. Peterkin
Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999

Where would we be without sex? Nonexistant, obviously. More importantly, however, we would be without many of the words which make everyday speech poetic and ripe with extra-linguistic possibilities.

A.D. Peterkin, therefore, has provided a most essential service by compiling a garden's full of literary delights, a listing of all the dirty words you've ever heard of - and dozens more you can add to your vocabulary.

The introduction even includes an invitation to send in your own submissions to be included in subsequent editions, since "erotic slang, like sexuality itself, is in constant, frenetic, celebratory evolution, limited not by technology or actual practice but by sheer imagination."

The first word in the collection is "Abdomen": "A muscular abdomen has become a sexual status symbol and a source of obsession for millions of body-conscious men and women today." Alternatives include: "abs, alvus, Aunt Nelly, bay window, bazoo, front porch and gizzard."

The last word in the collection is "Wife": "Many of the terms for wife listed here show a playful ambivalence about married life - i.e., struggle and strife, awful-wedded wife." Alternatives include: "ball and chain, best piece, better half, block and tackle, chief of staff, lawful blanket, old bubble and partner."

Randomly selected from the middle of the collection (honestly!) is "Masturbation": "The 'hidden vice' is no longer hidden, as this rather lengthy list reveals." Alternatives include: "abuse, arm breaker, auto pilot, bachelor's delight, bananas and cream, blue-vein shuffle, cheesy rollback, cunt-cuddling, finger painting and four sisters on Thumb Street."

Many of the definitions are illustrated with photographs, most of which appear to have been taken in the early 1900s, thus adding a somewhat archaic, lost-in-time tone to the book - which is at odds with the "celebratory" tone of the introduction - suggesting any discussion of sexuality needs to be displaced into "history" before it can be safe, codified, controlled.

But then, is this a book about sexuality, or a book about language, or a book about the marriage of the two? From the above list, the latter must be the choice, though other interpretations are possible - and perhaps more interesting. From Dr. Johnson's first English dictionary in the 18th century down to the current day, every listing of words and definitions includes an implied ideology. The Bald-Headed Hermit is no exception.

What is its ideology? It is something more than celebrating sexuality as normal, natural and complex. It is something more than revealing the abundance of human creativity in relation to sex words.

Upon closer inspection it is perhaps an argument about the central role sexuality plays as inspiration for creative acts.

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar; at other times, however, a pen is more than just a pen. Words more than words. And the bedroom is the location of elaborate cultural productions....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beginnings & Endings

Ten years ago my first book, Thirteen Shades of Black & White (Turnstone Press, 1999) came out. Let's just say it wasn't a best seller.

I don't often get asked about it, but I did last night, because I met a CEGEP professor from Montreal who recently taught two of my stories to 17 year olds.

Apparently, they quite liked them. And they didn't like the Margaret Atwood story included in the same course pack.

Now Atwood is going to be the first Canadian to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I don't mean this as a slag at her. What the professor wanted to know was what else I thought her kids might like. What else her kids, often from working-class backgrounds, might relate to.

I told her I would think about it and get back to her.

Upon reflection, I wondered again why Canadian literature isn't able to connect with the teenage audience. Why it doesn't even try. Why the publishing industry creates "teen-themed" books that startle in their naivete. Especially when compared to the subway advertising we're bombarded with daily. Plus the mass marketing machines of popular movies, music, magazines, iPods, cell phones, etc. Teens live in complicated worlds. Why is teen fiction still so Archie and Jughead-like?

The best readers of Thirteen Shades of Black and White have been teenage girls. Which is not something I could ever have predicted.

For example, "Beginnings & Endings" is the title of the story taught at that CEGEP. It's about a teenage girl runaway who crosses paths with a 30-something man in a coffee shop. They get to know each other a little. They both come away from the experience a little bit changed. Yet nothing much dramatic happens. It's a story about a subtle meeting of two people who are each damaged, each moving cautiously and gently through life.

Of course, there is also sexual tension in the story. Are they going to come together physically? They each have the potential to take advantage of the other, but they don't.

"Things come together, then the come part." This line appears in my new book The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009). How things start and end is one of my narrative obsessions, appearing in various forms in high percentage of my stories.

I asked the professor if the girls understood the story better than the boys.

"Yes," she said. "But they are more mature at that age."

I'm not sure I agree, but I won't dispute this. All of the students, the professor told me, responded strongly to my stories. Why did I think that was?

On the one hand, I have no idea. On the other, this is the natural audience for the book. In many ways, I wrote the book I wanted to have read when I was a teenager.

I'm now 41, and the stories are still strangely finding new readers.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fiction vs Fiction

[It would please me if readers took the title to refer to Spy vs Spy]

It makes me spinny, the discussion about the place of "popular fiction" within "Canadian literature."

Today I discovered an article William Deverell published in The National Post (September 14, 2009). The article concludes:

The Brits knight their genre writers, the Yanks lionize them, but the Canucks (or at least our persons of letters) continue to treat them like unwashed in-laws tracking mud into the parlour. So sad.

The article begins with a poke at Marian Engle, who once told Deverell:

she occasionally enjoyed the "guilty pleasure" of reading a mystery. That sums up a common notion: A properly brought up Canadian is expected to feel guilty about reading a book that claims no pretension but to entertain. (I didn't feel guilty about reading BEAR.)

Mud in the parlour? Guilt? No pretension but to entertain?

I don't know how to reconcile these thoughts. Why the "sadness" about not being knighted or lionized?

Deverell quotes Andrew Pyper:

I bristle at prejudice. It's a problem in Canada -- constipation about what we call literature, a teetotal-ling Presbyterian reflex, guard the gates against the barbarians. Someone told a lie about literature in Canada early on, someone who prefers books that are morally obvious, quiet, settled. It's a lie that became institutionalized.

At first, this statement couldn't have made less sense to me if it had been written in Greek.
Generally, literature is known for its complexities, often its moral ambiguities. Whereas one turns to "genre writing" for "a book that claims no pretension but to entertain." To mix media, I give you on the one hand, WAITING FOR GODOT. On the other, STAR WARS.

What can Pyper be talking about?

Earlier in his article Deverell notes that Margaret Atwood (our pre-eminent literary lioness) has been won a crime fiction award (as did Carol Shields), yet William Gibson (our pre-eminent literary entertainer) hasn't won a Giller or a Governor General's Award.

Actually, what Deverell writes is that "it is to Canada's utter shame that William Gibson, with his vast trophy case of awards, has not been honoured in this country with a Giller or a G.-G."

Guilt? Shame? Am I detecting a theme? Is this too morally obvious?

Deverell is pissed off, no doubt. And I can agree with his assertion that readers have often been "made to believe that Hugo and Dostoevsky, Maugham and Conrad had not written crime and spy novels."

And yet it is not (just) the entertainment value of these works that have kept them in the hands of readers through the decades.

Deverell's focus also shifts within his article. He begins asking about the state of Canadian literature, quickly reframes his focus on the state of "popular fiction" within Canadian literature, and by the time he gets to the Pyper quote he's arguing that Canadian literature generally is "the cutting edge of blandness."

Actually, that last quote is attributed to Stephen Marche. It is also preceded by a quote from Douglas Coupland: "There is a grimness to CanLit."

Against this backdrop, Pyper's quote makes sense. Crime fiction, we are led to conclude, isn't grim or bland. It is the cutting edge of the anti-Presbyterian.

(Though one suspects the Calvinists would be more impressed with popular fiction's business model, than the economic viability of, say, short story cycles....)

Perhaps crime fiction is even the source from whence true literature springs?

No, Deverell doesn't go that far. He moves on to take a swipe at MFA programs: "too many wannabes are keener in being a writer than in writing." He also calls Ann Beattie "once a best-selling novelist," implies that Beattie's status has sunk because of an "overcapacity" of books, and has not a word to say about the dramatic shifts in the literary marketplace in the past decade: from the rise of internet book selling, to the post-9/11 rise of non-fiction, to other dramatic changes in popular culture (iPods, etc.) that are affecting book-buying habits.

Then he concludes that the Canadian literary culture is "sad."

And all this was generated by a line of thought about books that claim "no pretension but to entertain."

I found this article two days after Linden MacIntyre won the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His win was reported as a surprise. The "more literary" THE GOLDEN MEAN by Anabel Lyon had been the odds-on favourite.

Does this represent a shift in Canada’s "popular vs literary" fiction debate?

I hope so, if only for the futility it engenders in me.

I would like to see this polarization of categories avoided as much as possible. I don't think we need more "popular fiction" or more "literary fiction." Deverell’s article may, in fact, offer some pathways toward a readers’ covenant. We could certainly use fewer "grim" books. And "bland" and "morally obvious" is to be avoided. Even this literary snob would agree to terms of reference, such as that.

So what is this apparent disagreement about then? Is it more than just "spin"?


Long time readers of mine (okay, I don't have any) will notice that I have changed my tune over the past 20 years. I used to be firmly in the "literary" camp, but I am have drifted to "neutral."

"I am tired of literary log rolling," Douglas Glover told me once.

Me, too!

Also, I'm now married to someone with quite different reading tastes from mine. It was easy to stick to "first principals" when I wasn't married, when I didn't realize what such a negotiation all of life really is. Marriage is a great teacher (but I knew some of that stuff before...).

Which is another way of saying I'm not sure what Pyper means by "prejudice." We all have our assumptions, our tastes, our point of view. Prejudice, per se, isn't a problem. It's only a problem when prejudice is aligned with power and become discrimination.

Is popular fiction discriminated against? Arguably William Gibson deserves better. Deserves another trophy for his already heavily weighted trophy case.

On the other hand, recently I read on Lemon Hound a post (I can't find right now) that noted poetry is more than confession. How true, I remarked to myself.

Fiction is more than entertainment, I must conclude. My prejudice is deep within me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Death of the (Canadian) Novel

[First published in The Danforth Review, 2001]

The year would have been 1990. The Wall had just fallen. The Cold War was over. I was an undergraduate studying English at the University of Waterloo, and one of my professors told me the novel was dead. "It can’t be," I said. "I’m going to write one." I went to meet with him in his office. He called me a "reactionary." (Really!) Flustered, I went home and looked up that label in a dictionary: "one who supports movement in the direction of political conservatism or extreme rightism." Not me, I thought. I was just a confused kid trying to figure out how to write.

Later, I figured out that my professor proclaimed the novel dead he did not mean all novels, just the traditional, realist novel: the form usually associated with the Victorian Era of the mid- and late-19th century; the novels of Dickens, Thackery, and the Brontës. I learned this when I found his argument in a slim volume of essays on Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (subsequently lost), which referred to Ronald Sukenick’s influential 1969 title, THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL. There, Sukenick argued that a new generation of American writers (including Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Gary Geddis) emerged in the post-WWII era. This new generation of writers was suspicious of contemporary politics and the ability of language to represent reality.

Sukenick argued, in other words, that the novel was dead because reality was dead. Reality was unknowable. There was no connection between writing and reality, and the realist novel – and its attendant assumptions – was a sham. The novel’s claim to be a form of reportage was bunk. Journalism was a black art. All narratives were subjective. Every utterance was infused with rhetorical ambiguities, assumptions about the speaker and the audience, and unavoidable political implications. Marx had uncovered hidden forces in the economy. Freud had uncovered hidden forces in the mind. McLuhan had revealed the hidden structure of communications media. Novelists responded to these changes by telling different kinds of stories. American novelist John Hawkes, for example, famously claimed he tried to write without concern for plot, character or setting.

This was a new, and fascinating, argument to me, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it before. As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, the strongest literary arguments I encountered had to do with the definition of Canadian literature. What was it? No one seemed to know, but whatever it was it was doing better than ever. It had produced a couple of millionaires. After "coming of age" in the 1960s, it had finally "matured."

In the month or so after my professor called me a reactionary, he confronted his class with the question: "What is writing?" Is it an imitation of dialogue, and therefore a lesser art (which was Plato’s opinion)? Or was it some other thing? A mirror to the world, for example. Or perhaps a kind of lamp, illuminating a transcendent reality, as the Romantics believed. On the other hand, perhaps writing was just a string of arbitrary symbols with no relation to anything but itself, which was the post-modernist position.

Again, the arguments intrigued me. They also undermined my confidence in Canadian literature’s "grown up" status. Northrop Frye had accused Canada’s writers of suffering from a "Garrison Mentality", of taking a defensive stance against the world’s larger artistic influences. But by 1990 it was out of fashion to call Canada a literary backwater. The 1960s had changed all that. The 1960s: when wave after wave of nationalist emotion was sweeping the land, and George Grant was lamenting the nation. For the first time, Canada had its own flag. Trudeau was about to burst on the scene. Then in 1967 (Pierre Burton’s "last good year"), Montreal’s Expo kicked the party into high gear. In the years that followed, the rising nationalist project attracted many literary stars of the era. Margaret Atwood’s SURVIVAL: A THEMATIC GUIDE TO CANADIAN LITERATURE dates from this period. So do the numerous university and college Canlit survey courses. The question "What is Canadian about Canadian literature?" dominated many people’s minds. To find their answers, most followed the thematic approach proposed by Atwood, herself a student of Frye. Canadian literature was born; the Garrision Mentality was defeated. Or so the story went.

The resulting irony, of course, is that at the same time as many Amerian novelists were giving up on realism – or at least challenging its outer boundaries – the strongest movement in Canadian letters was the push to define a nation. Post-modern approaches to literature could not aid in this effort; if fact, they tended to push in the opposite direction, questioning the very existence of reality itself. Thus the significance of post-modernism in Canadian letters has been significantly underplayed. What is Canadian about it? Nothing. Then how can it be of value to Canadian literature? The roots of this conflict continue today, and it has taken on a generational tone, as the younger generation of writers has abandoned the self-imposed duty of the older generation of writers to define and defend the nation. Writers as diverse as Michael Turner, Lynn Crosbie, Hal Niedzviecki, Natalie Caple, and Tony Burgess have brought a renewed sense of urgency to literary writing in Canada, and yet none have won any significant awards.

I started this essay with a story from my undergraduate days as a youngster trying to learn how to write. Let’s go back there for just a moment.

Like many young people, I thought of myself as a writer because I felt a compulsion to mark up blank pages. The decision to write was a recognition of an impulse inside: a recognition of an inner drive, like the drive for food, or sex. I pursued my compulsion the only way I knew how, writing confessional poetry at first, then made-up narratives, blissfully unaware of the aesthetic and political controversies I would soon confront. Such as being called a reactionary because I had named J.D. Salinger as someone whose writing I wanted to emulate. Like Holden Caulfield, the hero of Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, I wanted to attach myself to what was real in the world. I had no place for "phonies." I saw art as a means of transcending the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I had no sense of post-modernism or the writers I would soon come to admire: Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, and Terry Southern. I had just read Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, and I was filled with Kerouac’s Whitmanesque desire to burn, burn, burn. The novel was dead? Impossible! But I soon learned that in the bi-polar culture war world of the early-1990s sharp lines were being drawn. To many – like my professor – if you questioned the skepticism of the post-modernist position, you stood opposed to the progressive evolution of the 20th century.

And the fact is, I’m sympathetic to this position, as outrageous it sounds (and as ineptly presented as it was by my professor). On the other hand, I believe literature’s greatest gift to the world is the diversity of its riches. The novel is not dead (not even the realistic novel; which will never die). In fact – surprise! – there is little new about post-modernism, except its new schools of jargon and ever finer intellectual abstractions. Everyone from Cervantes, to Spenser, to Laurence Sterne qualify for the pomo All-Star team. The narrative strategies often hailed as the invention of the late-20th century crop of innovative writers have been around for centuries. Milan Kundera makes this explicitly clear in his excellent book-length essay, THE ART OF THE NOVEL.

The history of the novel has more than one line.

Even in Canada.

Kundera connects himself and other pomo writers like Rushdie back through time to the Spanish great Cervantes. The other line connects from Jane Austen, through Charles Dickens and the other Victorians, to today’s realist apologists, perhaps most strongly exemplified by Tom Wolfe and the other New Journalists. Each line is legitimate, strong, vital, interesting, challenging, rich with narrative potential, and a solid breeding ground for rewarding reading experiences.

Why don’t we usually see the history of the novel in Canada this way? The interference of nationalism in the literary process is one reason. Another reason is that there are partisans on both sides who refuse to include the other (my professor is a perfect example). The extent to which we allow this to continue undermines our ability to both understand our literary heritage and forcefully encourage the most innovative of our up-and-comers.

Friday, October 30, 2009

John Raulston Saul

Canada is a Metis nation, says John Raulston Saul.

He makes the startling claim in his book A Fair Country (Viking, 2008). It was also a thesis prominent in a lecture Saul gave this past Wednesday (Oct. 28, 2009) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he gave the 17th annual McCready Lecture, which I attended.

The lecture was ostensibly about visual art and architecture ... Canadian style. Saul structured it around a slide show of scenes and art from the new Frank Gehry-designed AGO.

It was the first time I had been to the new gallery since it re-opened late last year. It was, as all reports had promised, spectacular. And Saul began the lecture saying as much. And saying that everyone had said as much.

But, he said, he didn't think that people had really understood why it was so spectacular. Then he outlined his thesis.

It was because, he said, Frank Gehry, who had grown up around the corner from the Dundas Street gallery in downtown Toronto, had absorbed into his subconscious the culture of the orginal inhabitants of Canada, the Aboriginals, the First Nations, the Indians.

Just look at the staircases. They serpentine, Saul said. Snake-like. And we all know what snakes represent, don't we? They represent evil -- and knowledge. The Adam and Eve story says so. Except these staircases aren't evil, so they come from a different cultural tradition. One that sees snakes as benign. As welcoming and integrated with our human experience.

Saul went on to say that the Group of Seven aren't post-impressionists. They shouldn't be viewed as a failed extension of a dying European tradition. The Group of Seven are "all about movement," just like Gehry's snake staircases ... and the Aboriginal cultural tradition.

European "rational" art, Saul said, is about statis. Standing outside of nature. Rousseau's view of nature was going out into his ordered garden and viewing the moutain in the distance. Tom Thompson in Algonguin Park was trying to get in touch with a different tradition, a different reality. Not nature as something apart.

Saul showed an image of a sewn Iroquois pouch, depicting a "lake panther," a cat that lived in the water and stirred up storms with his tail. This is the creature, and the stormy water, that was stirring Thompson's imagination, Saul said.

He showed various slides of the art currently in the gallery, art from various Aboriginal communities, Canadian artists (hey, Emily Carr's paintings look a lot like Haida totem poles), and European traditions.

Then he came to Henry Moore. Now, anyone my age (41) who grew up in Toronto remembers going to the gallery and seeing the Henry Moore statues. First of all, there's a big one on the corner outside the gallery. There's also "The Archer" outside City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square.

Moore, we were told, was a great artist. A world-renowned symbol of Toronto-born success.

And he is all these things, Saul said. But in the old days one walked into the Moore gallery pretty much directly after entering (or so it seems in the foggy morass of my memory). One came upon Moore through the context of the Western tradition, said Saul.

Now the only way to get to the Moore gallery is after passing through the First Nations exhibits. One sees Moore as the culmination of an entirely different tradition.

Like Picasso, Saul said, Moore was trying to break the Western Tradition and take it new places. He was trying escape the Western Tradition ... and he did it (as much as he could) by reconnecting to the natural tradition of this land.

We are Metis nation, said Saul. He owe our true identity to our shared heritage with this country's Aboriginal people.

How do you like them apples?

Saul didn't address the fact that the "Metis" are included in the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes:

35. (1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
(2) In this Act, "aboriginal peoples of Canada" includes the Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples of Canada.

Which means, if we're all Metis, we all have "Aboriginal rights."

I'd be interested to know if Saul addresses this thorny question in his book.

In the meantime, I report that it was a provocative lecture. The audience listened keenly and responded warmly. The questions were respectful, perhaps too much so.

When Saul was asked how people had responded to his book, he said that he'd expected the Aboriginal community to be silent and the non-Aboriginal community to be outraged. Neither happened. (How he expected the Metis to react, he didn't say.)

Saul said that the book had been warmly treated by many Aboriginal leaders, and that the two most common responses to the book were:

  • "I've always thought that, but didn't know how to say it"
  • "I've never thought that, but I think you're right"

Saul said he thought that the country was held back by a lack of language to articulate its dept to the Aboriginal traditions which are part of our broad collective unconscious.

I confess that the slide show as interesting and compelling. I also confess that I agree that the country needs better words to admit its debt to the many diverse Aboriginal cultures that have grown, struggles, sustained themselves, died, revived and evolved as Canada has slid from colony to Empire to nation state to near dissolution to post-modern whatever we are now.

Somewhere out there Crow is laughing.

If you are Canadian, you need to know what this means.

At the same time, there's something wishy-washy about this thesis, too. I can readily agree, for example, with Saul when he says that Canada only survived its first couple of hundred years because the Aboriginal population helped sustain the Europeans in their midst.

Saul said, for example, that Canada's official military policy before about 1820 was based on the assumption that the country could not be held, because there were just too many damned Indians. Without First Nations military allies, Britain would have lost Canada to the United States in the War of 1812, for example.

Earlier, the Iroquois were rewarded with the Halidmand Tract for staying loyal to the Crown after the American Revolution of 1776. The Tract has more recently been in the news as the source of controversy in Caledonia.

This earlier graditude and dependency of the Europeans towards the First Nations, of course, gave way to policies of cultural eradication, Victorianism, and general stupidity. Which only in the past couple of decades have we begun to work ourselves out of.

Saul showed a painting of William (or was it Robert?) Baldwin, whose 18th house abuts the AGO, and who represented the European Tradition in 19th century Toronto. It was a painting of a Victorian gentleman in fine clothes in a fine chair. Saul said the painting was saying, "I'm not here." I'm not sure where I am, but I'm most certainly not in Algonquin Park. I'm not in nature, not part of nature; I am apart, away. In London, likely. I am there in my mind, if nowhere else.

This is a painting about the Family Compact, Saul said. The cultural elite that has never really left Toronto, though the new AGO is a sharp stab in its heart.

Toronto is like a little Belfast, Saul said. Strict, straight, plain. Presbyterian.

At this point, my interest was starting to wane. Saul, while an innovative thinker, was showing his age. My high school had 75 ethnic communities represented. That was more than 20 years ago.

Still, Saul had a point when he said the Family Compact lost political power, but maintained its cultural control. It packed the universities with its presidents and chancellors. It controlled the dominant strains of thought. It sought to align Canada with the European traditions. It didn't give a rats ass about Aboriginal cultural traditions or developing a unique made in Canada philosophy.

The made in Canada philosophy basket is where Saul has placed all of his eggs. He's been critiqueing European rationality his whole career, from Volataire's Bastards (1992) on, but A Fair Country has pushed his far more into the open, in the new, than he has ever been before.

"We are a Metis nation" is an unsustainable conclusion, in my opinion, but the basic structure behind that thought is sound. The Aboriginal cultural tradition ought to be ground into all of us. It ought to be alive in all of us.

If Saul is right, maybe it already is. It's just waiting to be given words.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Richard Van Camp

The Moon of Letting Go (Enfield & Wizenty, 2009) is Richard Van Camp’s second short story collection and his latest work to explore (in words borrowed from the back cover) "the notion of healing through individual and community bonds."

By which I assume the publisher meant "good sex and big laughs," because that’s what these stories are about. They’re also about honouring the "magic" of stories in those old time Indian ways.

I know some readers may stop at this word, "Indian," finding it incorrect. But I have chosen it deliberately and use it with the deepest respect. The alternatives – Aboriginal, Native, First Nation – do not convey the connotation I want.

I do not mean to convey the simplicity of stereotype or anthropological curiosity. I also do not want to convey a patronizing urban, modern smugness of knowledge about "the other."

What I want to convey is that while these stories depict contemporary situations, they also reach back to a mysterious kind of storytelling.

They honour the "magic," a word Van Camp uses in this book over and over.

Magic is something that cannot be explained; it is something by definition anti-modern, outside of reason or rationality. It operates by logarithms only understood by magicians. In this case, storytellers, of which Van Camp is clearly one.

Here is where I confess that Van Camp is also a buddy of mine. In 2007, he, Harold Hoefle and I took a trip to New York City. Richard and I went to Starbucks in Trump Tower. We walked through Central Park. We saw a punk band from mainland China play in a cave of a club in Greenwich Village (the opening band played Ramones covers; it was almost 1970s).

We also scooted all over town looking for Star Wars toys. We went to FAO Schwartz, one of the largest toy stores in the world, where Richard was unimpressed: "Is this all you’ve got?" He told me later: "You can get all that same stuff in Vancouver."

We wandered through Times Square, visited the World Trade Centre site, and went to the Museum of Modern Art, which had an airstream land yacht in the lobby (which reminded me of Ken Babstock) and an exhibit by Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. Walking around looking for a place for lunch, we passed HarperCollins. We took a group picture. Our future publishers, hey. (Give us a call, NYC!)

Okay, maybe this tangent into travelogue isn’t necessary, but the afterwords of The Moon of Letting Go includes a list of dudes who Richard says he "adore[s for] welcom[ing] me into the full grace of the blood in men." Harold and I are on the list. The fact that there is a list is testament to the type of man and the type of writer that Richard is. His stories are about "healing through individual and community bonds."

Hey ya hey. Let’s get on with this review.

The Moon of Letting Go includes 12 stories. The table of contents divides them into four sections: healing, medicine, teachings, and love. While this is a useful organizational structure, as a reader I found the categories blurry. Virtually all of the stories are about all four of those things, and more.

Like Van Camp’s earlier works – the novel The Lesser Blessed (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996) and Angel Wing Splash Pattern (Kegedonce Press, 2004) – this new book largely revolves around life in Fort Smith, North West Territories. It’s about First Nations people and communities in the north. It includes drugs, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and talking animals. It includes medicine men. It includes three buddies running naked down the highway after dark, honouring one of their friends who committed suicide.

As that image indicates, these stories often juxtapose humour with a slow boiling terror. The reader is left with the impression of a community struggling to find the right way forward. A struggle that is especially evident among the young people. There is a reaching back to the past (the traditional ways) as a means to find a path to the future. It is a path lit by stories, lighted by storytellers. Van Camp himself is deep in this role, telling the stories of his people caught in a moment of tremendous transformation.

I saw Richard talk about his writing once, at a First Nations cultural festival at Harbourfront in Toronto, and he spoke about the stress of modernity on Aboriginal communities in the north. His stories attempted to capture that. I told him afterwards that I had seen Mo Yan say something similar about his work. It was about capturing the stress of modernity on rural communities in China. Yan had said he had learned to write about that partly from William Faulkner.

Strange connections? Not at all. I keep going back to Richard in FAO Schwartz, looking for Star Wars toys, and asking a clerk at one of the largest toy stores in the world: "Is this all you’ve got?" What would Faulker say? Maybe, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." The future forces change upon us, and we must manage our legacies.

There’s a lot going on in The Moon of Letting Go. The stories are often fun to read. They are full of humour and optimism. But they are often raw, sexually explicit, darkly violent. The combination creates complexity – a high literary quality. The stories are not easily reduced or paraphrased. Ponder them with care.

With this book, Van Camp has continued to expand his vision and rededicated himself to an important project. Telling the stories of his people. Promoting the healing of individuals and communities. Creating literature worthy of readers, here, now, tomorrow, everywhere.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trudeau, Bono, Updike

[First published in The Danforth Review, 2006]

by John Updike
Knopf, 2006

In conversation with Michka Assayas
Riverhead Trade, 2006

Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada
by Max and Monique Nemni (translated by William Johnson)
Douglas Gibson Books, 2006

Teenage boys play at revolution. Not all wish to blow themselves up. Some go on to be rock stars and statesmen. This past summer (2006), I read three books and was startled by the interconnections.

In the first, John Updike decided one is never too late in life to strike out in a bold new direction. His new novel Terrorist imagines a teenage boy in New Jersey allows himself to be persuaded to drive a truck carrying a large bomb: twice the size of the bomb that brought down the federal building in Oklahoma City.

In the second, the front-man for the Dublin-launched, international super-group, U2, allows himself to be interrogated over a period of roughly two years by a French journalist with long-standing ties to the band. The result is as intimate a portrait as has yet emerged of the globe-trotting, world-saving, spectacle-wearing activist/singer.

The third book is Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada by Max and Monique Nemni, a vivid, densely researched biography of Canada's late Prime Minister. The authors had access to Trudeau's private papers, previously unseen, and what they uncovered was as shocking to them as it is strangely thematically linked to Updike's new novel.

No, the Nemnis don't suggest that Trudeau was a terrorist. But they do uncover evidence that Trudeau was a revolutionary, and not just a vague "pinko" as his critics in the 1970s used to call him. "Oh, yes. All that was known a long time ago," someone said to me, when I discussed what the Nemnis reveal in this book. No, actually; it wasn't. Trudeau had warm relations with Castro, yes. But what the Nemnis found in Trudeau's private papers was that he was, as they say in their title, a "son of Quebec." A nationalist, plotting Quebec's separation from Canada. By violent means if necessary.

This is the same Trudeau who out-manoeuvred Quebec's other favoured son, Rene Levesque, to repatriate the Constitution, following the defeat of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty association. The same Trudeau who championed the rights of individuals over the rights of majorities, specifically ethnic majorities. The same Trudeau who always claimed he had from the beginning gone his own way, had never accepted received opinion, had been from the earliest a rebel at heart. It is this last myth that the Nemnis dismantle most severely.

Trudeau, amazingly, apparently kept boxes and boxes of his schoolwork. He was Jesuit-trained as a teenager in Montreal, where he was a star student, routinely at the top of his class and rarely in trouble. His father died before he finished what we would now call high school, but the family was well taken care of financially by the inheritance his father left behind. Trudeau's life-long bond to the Catholic Church began early in his childhood, and his education was traditional for the period: highly religious. The Nemnis also find evidence that Trudeau submitted himself to the direction of church authorities well into his twenties, when he was at Harvard and still writing to the church for permission to read "banned books" (i.e., books placed on restricted reading lists by Rome).

Most shocking is the period between 1939 and 1944, when this books ends, just as Trudeau heads out of province to Harvard to continue his education. These years, of course, correspond with World War II, which, in Quebec, was a divisive, unpopular conflict. In particular, it was unpopular with the Catholic Church in Quebec, which was heavily tempted by fascist ideologies. "Corporatism" is the term the Nemnis tells us was the euphemism of the period, and Trudeau, by the evidence of his own notes, compares it favourably to democracy, which was considered weak, ineffectual, morally corrupt.

Now we are starting to align with the Updike's narrative in Terrorist.

Convinced by the Jesuits that the Allies were no more morally sound than the Axis Powers, Trudeau actively campaigned against conscription in 1942, making a fiery speech at a by-election rally that caught the attention of the press. The Nemnis argue that by this time Trudeau was against more than conscription; he was part of an underground network that was planning violent revolution. Thankfully -- and somewhat comically -- the plot disintegrated, and Trudeau stopped writing political articles and started writing about the joys of canoeing. He also went back and read Adam Smith again, and this time discovered currents in The Wealth of Nations that had been denied him by the Jesuits. He was on his way to becoming a Liberal Prime Minister, much later than anyone had ever expected.

The Nemnis have written a startling book, one all the more startling given the temptations towards violent political/religious action Muslim teenagers in Mississauga apparently face. I'm speaking, of course, of the recent arrests in the alleged plot to behead Prime Minister Harper, blow up the Parliament Buildings and cause other mayhem. When these arrests hit the newspapers, it was reported that John Updike said the arrests reaffirmed for him that the plot of Terrorist was plausible.

That a novel's plot is plausible is no doubt a good thing. The overall quality of the novel, however, is measured on other scales. How is the writing in Updike's new novel? I must say it's marvellous. I haven't read an Updike novel in years, and I will certainly be reading more. His prose is first-rate. His evocation of current reality is jarring for being so contemporary. Is it because it's Updike, and when I think of Updike, I think of the 1960s? Yes, I think so. Oliver Stone just this month (August 2006) is releasing a movie about the Twin Towers. We've already had a movie about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, following a revolt by the passengers over the 9/11 hijackers.

Either history is passing more quickly into art, or I'm not used to living in interesting times. As a GenX-er, I'd been raised on Baby Boomer nostalgia. Everything interesting has already happened. Everything of importance has already gone down. Evidently, not so. (Though I did see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in Toronto in July, and they sang 40-year-old anti-war songs and sounded very urgent and earnest and out-of-tune.)

Where is Terrorist weak as a novel? Some of the characters seem half-formed. Strangely, not the youthful Muslim protagonist. This character Updike has imagined in startling detail and his judicious quotations from the Koran show Updike has been diligent in his research also. The Secretary of Homeland Security, however, is a cardboard cutout, as is the Secretary's secretary. There is also an implausible connection between all of the key characters that is key to the resolution of the narrative. But the story, per se, is not why you should read this book. You should read this book for the beautiful prose and for the journey through the mind of the protagonist; to imagine with him what it's like to be a Muslim true believer in the homeland of the Infidel. A true believer and not a terrorist, because this boy is not converted to the cause until very late in the book, and only then through a bit of trickery. Would he have taken that step eventually, on his own or under the persuasion of a different leader-figure?

Interestingly, both Trudeau and Updike's protagonist are fatherless youths. Trudeau was led towards fascism by his teachers, both the individuals and the overall Quebec culture of his youth, yet he learned to read Adam Smith through re-opened eyes and eventually gave Canada, and the world, his towering legacy, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the end of Terrorist, ... well, do you want to know?

Stop here if you don't.

At the end of Terrorist, Updike's protagonist is not incinerated along with his cargo and dozens of innocents. His future is open to many options. One suspects, however, he will never be a rock star.

To some, Updike's novel has been controversial. The novelist Amitov Ghosh, for example, wrote in The Washington Post (re-printed on

With innumerable lives at stake, when Jack Levy finds himself faced with the task of giving Ahmad a reason to live and let live, he says: "Hey, come on, we're all Americans here. That's the idea, didn't they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans; there are even Arab-Americans." Not a word about humanity, family, friendship, sport, poetry, love, laughter.

It is as if a belief in American multiculturalism is the only good reason a human being could have for staying alive. Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this Earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to.

This is, in my opinion, unnecessary mean-spiritedness, "as if" nothing less than an overt denunciation of American exceptionalism is what is required. At the point in the novel highlighted by Ghosh, the protagonist does not want to remain alive, and it is not Jack Levy who convinces him to change his mind. It is the children playing in the back seat of the vehicle travelling beside him. The children who would be among those who would surely die if he triggered his bomb. Updike, the novelist, uses the children as a symbol of universalism -- not American multiculturalism -- as the saving grace. Shame on Ghosh for missing this point. The children must live. All children must live, including those tempted with blowing themselves up.

Which bring us to Bono: In Conversation.

"I'm all about the big idea," Bono tells French journalist Michka Assayas, stating the obvious: billions of dollars of debt relief, cheap AIDS drugs, food for all affected by famine, U2's Zoo Tour: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Yes, we know. Bono is all about the big idea. Make Poverty History. Je me souviens.

What we perhaps didn't know is that Bono was a motherless son, whose father had been a wanna-be musician who became (even before the death of his wife) a bureaucrat instead. His father equally tried to scale back his energetic son's ambitions: a job at the post office or the like. Nothing big. Nothing fancy. Don't expect too much from life. It'll help you survive. By the time he was twenty-one, Bono had blown that strategy to bits a million times over.

These micro-details about Bono's early life were new to me, as was the depth of Bono's Catholicism. For example, as a teenager Bono lived in a house run by the Church. It was home to a number of youths who were led in Catholic practice by a live-in Priest. The problem was, Bono had this little side gig: the band, U2. The Priest wanted him to give up the band and devote himself fully to the household and its mission: good works to the community et al. What's clear now, decades later, is that Bono has maintained the same pattern of living, even though he left the house of the Church for the house of rock and roll. He has gone from being a teenager in a garage band who helped with social causes around the corner to being the face of the world's biggest touring band and helping with some of the largest social causes around the globe.

As a social activist, Bono is surprisingly polite. Yes, he says history will judge the West harshly for its inadequate response to the AIDS plague in Africa. But one of the more compelling sub-plots of this book is Assayas' attempt to get Bono to say something nasty about George W. Bush. Time and again, Assayas offers Bono the opportunity to put-down the U.S. President, but Bono skirts such contemporary issues as the "War on Terror" and the war in Iraq and U.S. foreign policy in general by saying that Bush has stepped up to the plate on AIDS in Africa: "He gets it."

While it's easy to say that history will judge Bono harshly for oversimplifying his relationships with the rich and powerful, one anecdote might prove illustrative: Bono tells Assayas a story he heard from Harry Belafonte. Apparently Belafonte was part of the group around Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s when Bobby Kennedy was named by his brother to be the Attorney General of the United States. This was seen as bad news to those in the civil rights movement, because Kennedy was considered to be regressive on race issues. So there was much grumbling in the group around Martin Luther King. But King quickly put a stop to that: "Hasn't anyone got anything good to say about Bobby Kennedy?" No one did. So King told them to go away and not come back until someone had found something good to say about Bobby Kennedy. And what they found good to say about Kennedy was that he was close to his Bishop back in Massachusetts. The Bishop would be how they would get to Bobby Kennedy. The King group talked to the Bishop and the Bishop talked to Bobby Kennedy, and by the time Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 he was one of the leading figures fighting for civil rights in America.

In other words, people can change, if you give them a chance. It's a very Christian, forgiving approach; this belief in transformation. Bono has clearly taken it to heart, in every way that cliché implies. He is willing to take his message of the need for transformation into the corridors of power around the world, pleading his case with hard-line partisans of many stripes. He is a true evangelist, full of fiery truth and fed by the belief of the justness of his cause. Which is based on a universalism others fired up with big ideas (Bin Laden comes to mind, substitute also Updike's youthful protagonist and the Jesuit-brainwashed Trudeau) can't quite seem to grasp. He tells the story, for example, of visiting U.S. senator Jesse Helms, a hard right Republican. He had been told the visit would be a waste of time. He came away with an admiration for the man and a new ally in his cause.

Transformation is possible! That is the message of Bono's life. The other is that transformation is the goal; the Gospels of Jesus are the guide. The third message is that it's okay to party and live like a rock star (albeit one who married his high school sweetheart and speaks to former U.S.S.R. surpreme leader Mikhail Gorbachev "every couple of months"). Yes, he is a man of contradictions, our Bono: Paul Hewson. Acting out on Shakespeare's stage: the world. Playing it large. Not backing down.


Before I sat down to write this review, I didn't realize that each of these books was about someone who'd lost a parent. I wonder what that means. What I had wanted to do was connect the threads of these books: Trudeau's plotting with Updike's imagined terrorism, the confused nationalism of Quebec circa 1939-1945 with the confused ethnic "Islamofascism" that we've learned can germinate in places as odd as Mississauga, the transformative spirit that animates Bono with the "re-born" Trudeau post-1945 and the hope for Updike's protagonist at the end of the novel, which is the hope of all of us: that the children will live.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leaf Nation

I wrote the below after a trip to the U.K. in 2004. I thought of it this morning after waking up to find the Toronto Maple Leafs winless in their first seven games this season, a new record in futility.


To be a Canadian tourist abroad is to confront a common question: "Are you American?"

Recently, I was in Oxford, England, and a homeless person asked me this.

I had just given him the two pounds ($5 CDN) he said he needed for a bed for a night at the local shelter.

I said, "No. Canadian."

"Right," he said. "Cheers then."

It had been twelve years since my last trip to the United Kingdom. On that trip, the only mention of Canada in the newspapers had been a story about a British tourist mauled by a grizzly bear in Banff National Park.

On my recent trip, Canadian wildlife was again in the headlines.

HARVEST OF BLOOD was the headline in the Daily Mail, referring to the Ottawa-sanctioned killing of 350,000 seal pups in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.

That article ended by recommending Britons hit "the Canadians where it hurts – economically, by banning seal products or boycotting their country."

British tourism is worth about $2.5 billion, the article said. Profits from the seal slaughter were expected to be about $25 million.

At Paul Martin’s coronation last fall, Bono proclaimed, "The world needs more Canada."

The Irish rock star may feel that way. One must question, however, what the average Briton thinks of our country when the headline writers obviously can’t see beyond the stereotype of Canada as a massive nature reserve.

Thank goodness, therefore, for Canadian artists.

Doing a quick survey of an Oxford bookstore, I found titles prominently displayed by Margaret Atwood, Guy Vanderhague, Jane Urquart, Austin Clarke, Rohinston Mistry, and Yann Martel. Actress Neve Campbell graced the cover of the Sunday Times Culture magazine.

A Times feature on actress Isabella Rossellini highlighted her recent role in an avant-garde film by Winnipeg’s Guy Maddin.

Another article highlighted Vancouver’s jazz crooner Diana Krall.

Bono spoke about Canada as a beacon of light in the world. Spearheading the fight for cheap AIDS drugs in Africa. Leading the fight against landmines and helping debt-ridden countries find financial stability.

These roles do not garner Canada international headlines. A quiet, effective, internationalist approach to public policy is difficult to "sex up."

Canadians are famously proud of their hockey and slow to define their national identity.

No, we are not Americans.

Yes, we are a country with vast wilderness and abundant wild nature (except for the species we’ve wiped out, or nearly extinguished).

Before an evening at the theatre in London’s west end, I saw a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey for sale in the window of a shop near Covent Garden.

"The world is getting more Canada," I thought. Leaf Nation is expanding.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


The following is a short story I wrote a number of years ago. Probably about 2001.

I wrote it as a kind of challenge to myself. Could I write a story about a two-year-old protagonist? What kind of inner-conflict or dramatic tension does a toddler have?

The action in the story is partly based on my observations of my nephew, who was about that age at the time (and nearly eleven now).

The story is included in my new book, due out next month: The Lizard and Other Stories (Chaudiere Books).


The boy pointed at the boy on the bike and said, "Boy! Boy!" His mother smiled: "Yes, that’s a boy, isn’t it?" The boy didn’t think of himself as a boy. He was not yet two and all he knew of the world was love.

His left hand held a stick. He poked it into the ground and twisted until the earth turned over. He was in the park near his house with his mother, a park he visited at least once a day. He didn’t think any more of the snow that had covered the ground. It had come and gone before he had words. He thought only about the world and all of the things in it, each of them a wonder. He liked everything and was rarely tired.

The boy laughed and pulled the stick from the ground. A piece of dirt jumped out of the small hole and over the grass. The boy followed it with a quick twist of his head. He laughed again and stuck the stick back into the hole. The boy was always laughing, always learning new tricks. At daycare he’d learned to slide his little fingers into the corners of his mouth and pulling back against his cheeks. Over the past two days he’d performed this trick two or three dozen times, accompanying himself with a low growl.

Suddenly he pulled the stick from the ground and began to run. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" he yelled. His mother chased him. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the boy hadn’t had his nap. His mother wasn’t worried; she rested when he rested and soon he’d need a rest. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" the boy yelled. He ran in a crooked line, stomping his feet as if he were a monster or a giant.

Besides pointing to boys on bikes, the boy liked to point at dogs. His mother worried about the dogs. Some barked; some ran at the boy as if they were about to attack; some licked his face. The boy grabbed the hair of the long-haired dogs. "Woof!" he said. "Woof! Woof!" One dog ran circles around him as the boy laughed, spinning to see the dog. Inevitably he fell down. He fell down often. Today the park had no dogs. The boy ran with his stick. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" he yelled.

His mother chased after him.

The day before, the elderly woman who lived next door to the boy had told the boy’s mother that she had cancer. The doctors thought it was operable but they weren’t sure. The elderly woman had a daughter in Vancouver and a son in Indiana. The elderly woman’s husband had been dead five years. She often invited the boy and his mother into her house for afternoon tea. She didn’t have grandchildren and she told the boy’s mother what a pleasant young son she had. She bought the boy toys and knitted him sweaters.

The boy’s mother had told her husband about the elderly woman’s cancer when he got home from work. The boy sat on his lap. His father had just kissed him on the mouth. The boy’s mother said the elderly woman’s cancer might be operable.

The boy’s father asked, "What’s the prognosis if it isn’t?"

"I don’t know."

All of the boy’s grandparents were still alive. They all loved the boy tremendously and the boy’s father feared the day any of them might die.

The boy’s mother watched the boy run across the park. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" He waved his stick, threw it, then fell forward onto his face. The boy’s mother waited for the wail. The boy was tired and she expected him to start crying soon. The boy lay on his stomach, silent. He rolled over and laughed as his mother approached.

"Had enough?" she asked, picking him up.

He laughed again and kissed her. Then he slapped her cheeks.


Saturday, October 3, 2009


Instead of a review of Quickening by Terry Griggs (Biblioasis, 2009), I offer a reading of the title story, "Quickening."

A first-person monologue, this eight-and-a-half page story recounts a childhood of disaster and self-discovery on Manitoulin Island.

The female narrator, who is unplaced in time (we don't know how old she is, where she is, or why she is telling this story), begins by telling us when she was five years old her cat Remy was reduced to a pile of ash by a devil.

Or as she puts it:

A creature burrowed up through the earth, pushed into the lodge through a loose floorboard in the closet, and walked down the hall into the living room breathing balls of fire that landed like tossed sunwheels on the couch, in the curtains. I was five and carrying my losses to date lightly, easily. Then something got Remy. A grey tabby dispersed like ash. That he had "wandered off" was the official word. I couldn't believe it. Not Remy. Not from me.

The truth of the "official word" and the children's truth of the imagination is the central tension of this story, which recounts a number of incidents but has only a vague plot.

If there is a "story" to this story, it's about the narrator's family's ill-fated luck. And the narrator's position and growth within it. Loss is the repeating image of the story. Remy, the cat, is lost, but so is the lodge, their livelihood. Then the grandfather gets married, silly old fool.

Here's a cluster of words from the story I underlined in search of a pattern: wayward, guilty, troubles, disgrace, descent, failure, muted, deleted, gone, lost, vanish, cruelty, raging, black, choking, fiery, wrong, hopeless, lose, inedible, disturbing, bizarre, unreliable, horrified, scary, not to be fathomed, infiltrator, unholy, missing, sorrow, clouds boiling black and murderous.

A number of times, the narrator asserts how wise she was at five: "I was five but I wasn't a fool -- what the years add to knowledge of cruelty is only detail."

In other words, reader, you can trust this story. It is truthful, not fantasy.

Yet it is rich with the magic images of childhood. It includes a baby snatched up by a bald eagle, who's shot out of the sky by the baby's mother. It includes a boy flying a kite that gets caught up in the propeller of a low-flying aircraft. The boy is lifted into the high limbs of a nearby tree.

The narrator tells us:

Don't be deceived by childhood. You can be five and know that something is about to be born, something scratching inside you, batting around your insides like a cat playing with your guts. ... You will be delivered of yourself, you think, but this takes years.

The story ends with the narrator leaving childhood forever. She begins school:

I didn't want to go. ... No amount of begging brought me my passage back home. No one came to rescue me, not even my grandfather who could usually be trusted in matters of rebellion and escape. I was powerless, as we all were. Even though our cheeks were still masked in baby fat, sorrow was plainly visible on them.

This is a quirky story made delightful by the odd perspective that frames all of the action. We don't know where this narrator is now, but we know she experienced a great loss. Her story is told with lively wit and keen self-assurance.

But one wonders if there isn't an element of self-deception also.

Why "Quickening"? Two definitions from Wikipedia:
  1. Quickening is a phenomenon in the Highlander films and television series. When an Immortal is beheaded, there is a powerful energy release from their body which is called a Quickening
  2. In pregnancy terms, the moment of quickening refers to the initial motion of the fetus in the uterus as it is perceived or felt by the pregnant woman. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to "quicken" means "to reach the stage of pregnancy at which the child shows signs of life."

I think the meaning is this story is closer to #2 above. At five-years-old, the narrator is telling us, life began:

When I was five, birds appeared to me as lightly dressed miracles. Though even they had bodies made real by accident or disease: lung worm, heart failure, broken wings, severed talons, slashed eyes. It makes you wonder. We have all this material wound around us, this long constricting scarf of skin. Taut across the belly, holding in a rushing red sea.

Yet, with the beginning of school, we suspect that the narrator's magical life is also unfortunately ended.

This is a complex story and for some readers it is likely to be an unsatisfying one. It has one of those ambiguous endings that many readers find off-putting.

Readers who take pleasure in the intelligent use of language and who like to puzzle out meaning will be eager to look up more work by this author.

It's a worthy adventure.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Polanski etc

Geraldine Ferraro was the Democrat Party's vice-presidential candidate in 1984. Recently, she wrote:

Polanski was convicted of a serious crime in the 70’s. He chose to abscond to France and because he had money and connections, has lived a charmed life, unhindered by his obligations to society. The message is, rich guys can get away with anything … or wait — is it only rich guys with friends in Hollywood? The statute of limitations for rape does not toll simply because 31 years has passed. And victims cannot “forgive” the rapist. The criminal justice system is meant to protect all of us.

Ferraro led off her comment piece this way:

“A male is guilty of rape in the second degree when, being eighteen years old or more, he engages in sexual intercourse with a female less than fifteen years old. Rape in the second degree is a class D felony.”

That is the current law in New York. When I was prosecuting these cases in Queens in the 70’s the law required that the child be less than 14. The legislature tightened it. But there is no doubt that California had the same protections for children when Polanski was prosecuted in California for having intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. It still does.

This isn't the usual type of topic for this blog, but two weeks ago I went to work. It was a normal day. I took a bit of a different route, got on a streetcar, and picked up one of those free newspapers.

There was a story on the first page about a 10-year-old who had been sexually assaulted. Someone had been arrested. There was a photograph.

"Merde," I thought. I know that guy.

His case is now before the courts. One can presume innocence, but it's hard. It messes one up.

Quick on the heels of this, Polanski was re-arrested. His case is international.

I hadn't realized that once upon a time, he'd pled guilty. And I'm uncertain what to make of most of the commentary. The New York Times blog debate, for example, that the Ferraro quotation is lifted from, began by posing this:

While it’s clear that the film industry forgave Mr. Polanski long ago, should society separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior?

This strikes me as the wrong question at the wrong time. His re-arrest isn't about his art; it's about criminal acts he pled guilty to three decades ago.

At the same time, Polanski has unanswered legal questions that he'd like to see answered by the California courts.

Thirty-one years after his confessed criminal acts, due process has not unfolded.

If he had Michael Bryant's PR firm (and is it a stretch to say the ex-AG's integrity?), he would return to California voluntarily and let the process complete itself, fighting vigorously for his freedom, as he has every right to do.

Should we separate the work of artists from the artists themselves? Yes, of course.

But you don't get a pass on criminal action because you're an artist on the scale of Roman Polanski, or on the scale of the other dude.

The work can be assessed and reassessed over decades or centuries. But as individuals, we live in real time, and are accountable for our actions.

For the past three years, I've been tinkering away on a novel, and the justice system is a key element. The protagonist is a judge. He's old, weathered, tired, but he still retains his ideals. He believes in justice, but also that justice is flawed.

When I think about the justice system these days, I often find myself looking at it through the eyes of my protagonist. Or at least asking, "What would the judge think?"

About Polanski and the other newly accused he would think, let's test the evidence. Bring it forward and test it against the rules of the law. Do not try to win freedom through evasion. Be honest, steady and true.

Likewise, he would say that art based on lies is not good art. But art that tests the boundaries of truth may well be excellent.

He would say, "At the end of the day, a decision must be rendered."

Justice can be mean, cruel, and over-simplified. Or even just plain wrong (setting free O.J., for example). But within its boundaries, its systems of signs and laws, it imposes meaning. Art is a constantly shifting conflict of floating, destabilizing signifiers.

Art is about complicating meaning; the law is about clarifying it.

Do I have a point here? I wish I did.

Maybe it's: If you did the crime, you must do the time.

When in doubt, resort to cliche.

I keep seeing that headline about the 10-year-old girl. It makes me retch.

A police source said the victim was alone in the laundry room of a building shortly after the dinner hour Monday when she was allegedly taken into a stairwell.

"She fought tooth and nail as he tried to cover her mouth," a source said. "She put up quite the struggle."

I confess to wondering if it isn't all a misunderstanding. But the reporting so far points to other conclusions. I have met him and enjoyed talking to him, but I fear I don't know him.

The judge would say, that is what the justice system is there for. To sort shit like this out.