Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guy Vanderhaeghe

I have recently finished Man Descending (Macmillian, 1982; Stoddart, 1992), Guy Vanderhaughe's debut book and winner of the 1983 Governor General's Award.

It surprised me (it was a lot better than I expected), and I have been trying to figure out why.

It was funny, for one thing. For another, it delivers its 12 stories in a variety of voices, each strong, self-confident, fully developed. This is not an apprentice work, though it was written by a young man. It is also a work that doesn't bow before the usual Canlit idols: naturalism, grief, memory, history, romantic realism. Every twenty-five years later, it is (in places) strikingly politically incorrect.

Through the first few stories, the collection seemed to be about the failures of fathers: failure to provide security, failure to provide stability, failure to safeguard meaning. The complaints of youth against adults: the world doesn't makes sense. But this is a more complex book than that. The title is remarkably vivid, as is the title story, which isn't representive of the whole. I will explain why.

The protagonist of "Man Descending" is, strangely, like a later fictional character: Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of Richard Ford's trilogy: The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1996) and The Lay of the Land (2006). That is, he is dreamy. He is impractical. He is failing to chart a solid course through life. In this respect, he is different from earlier protagonists in this collection, who demonstrate high degrees of common sense and are startled when others don't do the same.

The collection ends with "Man Descending" and a sequel to that story, "Sam, Soren, and Ed." Ed is the protagonist of these two stories. Soren is Kierkegaard, the 19th century philosopher. Sam is the lead character in a novel that Ed is writing. The final two stories in the collection bring readers (and Vanderhaeghe's protagonists) fully into the modern world, and they persuade the reader to accept that within this world the old certainties are gone, meaning is fallen, and ambiguity is all around.

As well as being funny, this is a deeply serious book. Something else that surprised me.

I've already mentioned Richard Ford; I should also mention Douglas Glover. And also note that I'm not saying that Vanderhaeghe is a Canadian Ford, a practice I railed against earlier. But imagine you've never heard a Led Zeppelin song and then you suddenly do, and you think: "That sounds like something from the 1970s." That's sort of what I felt like reading this book. It sounded like a Richard Ford book. It had bits that reminded me of Salinger (the funny parts). The earnestness of some of the stories might have echoes of Carver.

Again, this is not to accuse Vanderhaeghe of stealing or in any way being a lesser (Canadian) talent. Instead, it is part of the surprise. He is a Canadian work aligned with the work of these others; it doesn't follow Margaret Lawrence or other prairie realists. It is harsher and also wilder than I had expected, and it is no less fresh now than it was then.

Vanderhaeghe is based in Saskatchewan, as Glover was, too, in the early 1980s. Glover has also drawn from eclectic traditions, studied deep in philosophy, and challenged readers to see the world as a shifting, complicated place. (The prairies: hotbed of modernism?)

It is refreshing to find that books still have the power to startle.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Canadian literature lives

Proving yet again that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, I am now prepared to proclaim the strength and health of Canadian literature using the same report that made me so pessimistic only a week ago.

The full report is online (pdf) -- and nearly 400 pages long.

On pages 181-192, the results of question #20 of the survey appear. Question #20 was "Please name some Canadian authors you have heard of, to a maximum of ten."

As the National Post reported, just 53% of respondents were able to answer this question, providing the name of at least one Canadian author.

However, the statistics reveal some trends that I found more hopeful. For example, the results show that the 1,502 interviewed for the survey were able to name 452 authors.

Margaret Atwood took top place, being named 22% of the time, but a category called "other" actually came out on top, taking 25% of the names. (Who's in other? Survey doesn't say.) [Ed. See comment below. Oops. Must be non-Canadians.]

The fact that there is such a diversity of names known in a sample of this size strikes me as a sign of a healthy literary culture -- at least within the small circles of readers who cluster around different clusters of local/regional authors. [Perhaps more a sign that people don't know who's Canadian and who's not. Does it really matter? An interesting topic for discusion!]

A couple of other trends can be seen in the deep reaches of the statistics. Along readers 15-19, for example, Eric Walters (7%) does nearly as well as Atwood (10%), though other (12%) beats them both.

Quebec, of course, provides a whole separate reading list. Michel Tremblay takes 18% in the province, but only 5% nationally. There are a number of authors that only show up in Quebec. Mordecai Richler, interestingly, does better in Ontario (6%) than in Quebec (1%), and Pierre Trudeau was named twice in Ontario and once in Manitoba/Saskatchewan; not at all in Quebec.

The 50+ demographic made up 603 of the 1,502 respondents, though Farley Mowat, now 87, did better in the 35-49 demographic (11%) than in the older crowd (8%).

Alice Munro didn't do well anywhere, appearing in only 2% of the lists, only slightly more frequently among women (3%) than among men (2%).

What does it all mean? God only knows.

It would seem that the literary culture, like so much else these days, has fragmented into a thousand points of light. That link is a joke, but the point isn't.

Mass media models are breaking down all over the place. I guess it's no surprise that national literary cultures are, too. Does that mean Canadian literature is dead? I think it's going to increasingly be hard for a broad popular knowledge to take hold around a new canon. On the other hand, the survey suggests there is knowledge about lots of different authors. That seems like a good thing, and it may even be an improvement; more people are getting read, even if the average number of readers each can expect is likely getting smaller.

I hope to take a look at the rest of the 400 page survey later. So much to read!


Calgary Herald takes a stand (January 8, 2009)

Comments on Bookninja

"Who forgot Canlit?" by Philip Marchand (NP, January 9, 2009)

"What can we do about it?" by Mark Medley (NP, January 10, 2009)

Writing on his blog following the study's release, Michael Bryson, a Toronto writer and founder of popular literary website The Danforth Review, said the news isn't that people couldn't name Canadian authors, it was that "Canada's literary culture clearly hasn't renewed itself." He has a point. Among the 20 authors most often mentioned, none is younger than 50 (Douglas Coupland, 47, checks in at 21st place). Of the top 13, six are dead.

"The nation's literary culture will not be renewed if the younger generation of writers isn't absorbed into popular awareness," Bryson said in an e-mail. "It is more astonishing to me that the general population seems not to have an awareness of the generation after the Sixties Generation (or that the Sixties Generation is so persistent even now)."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Rebecca Rosenblum

Did you happen to catch the funniest book review last year? The Calgary Herald’s reviewer had the following to say about Alice Munro’s Best Selected Stories (M&S, 2008): "Aargghh."

That’s a direct quotation.

Quillblog found the review lacking in, um, "sensitivity and expertise."

Though her tone was startlingly informal, the reviewer clearly felt distaste for Munro’s fiction, something which isn’t unique. An earlier selection of Munro’s stories, for example, provoked an even harsher, though more fully argued, response, which can be found here.

There is a reason, after all, that short story collections are difficult to place with publishers. The reading public for short stories has atrophied. As Steven W. Beattie suggested last year, readers "seem to have lost their affinity for the short-story form; readers no longer seem willing or able to engage with the particular demands and conventions of the story."

At the Salon des Refuses event in August, Beattie expanded on his point. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that readers have perhaps forgotten the joys of the short story, because short stories tend to remind us of life's ambiguities, and Oprah has grown rich selling the belief that all problems can be solved. Short stories don't provide a quick fix, and this frightens people. This is bad news for short story writers.

Or perhaps it is bad news for readers who enjoy short stories. Talking about short stories has become even less socially acceptable than selling heroin to school children. As the Herald’s writer so sharply put it: characters in short stories "do not grow; they merely hang around." "[T]hose idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements."

Here’s a longer quotation from Beattie, which I provide in response:

While dramatic conflict is at the heart of all fiction, as [Joyce Carol] Oates attests, the conflicts that attend a short story can often be more discomfiting, more unsettling than those in novels, precisely because they are not always – or even often – worked out over the course of a story. Short stories frequently do not present entire arcs or fully realized solutions, preferring instead to focus on a particular moment in time. As Rebecca Rosenblum has suggested, they focus on what was said and done, but often leave out the why.

Stories, more than novels, privilege language: the way the words on the page are organized to achieve effects that might be elliptical or elusive, but are nonetheless potent and moving and, due to the extreme concentration of words that the short form demands of a writer, can be much more immediate and visceral than in a longer, more discursive piece.

Neither is the short story tied to any single or definitive mode of narration. Readers who tend towards the Chekovian or Joycean mode of naturalistic storytelling, stories that work their way slowly to a subtle epiphany at the end, may risk forgetting that there is a whole range of approaches to the short form that different authors have attempted and experimented with. From the minimalism of Raymond Carver to the postmodernism of David Foster Wallace to the word collages of Donald Barthelme, the short story has proven to be an extraordinarily protean and malleable form, and it is in the innovations of a number of its practitioners throughout the 20th and 21st centuries that the short story has shown itself to be most vibrant and alive.

Beattie goes on to provide examples of the broad range of short story writers practicing in Canada. None of whom have a reading audience anywhere near as large as Munro’s.

It is not the best of the times and the worst of times for short story writers. It is simply the worst of times. Though for short story readers, hope springs eternal. Regardez Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once (Biblioasis, 2008), a book Beattie called "the most exciting first book of short stories by a Canadian writer since Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades [1968]."

I read this book over the past couple of months. I didn’t want it to end.

Winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award, Rosenblum’s debut consists of 17 stories in just over 200 pages. The dominant theme is youth. The stories are quirky, light, intelligent, funny, well-written, absurd, amusing, insightful, clever, urban, urbane, lovely, contemporary, remarkable – in short, they offer much rewarding reading.

The stories made me remember my twenties with something other than bitterness, which is an achievement, believe me. They made me aware of opportunities of youth that I hadn’t thought of before. What I mean is, Rosenblum has a unique vision, powerful enough to make the old seem new again. She achieves what only the first rank of story writers achieve. She makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.

Here’s one moment. Trinity, a pretty girl, says to her friends at a party: "You know, certain people in the sixties thought orgies would have become de rigeur by now, replacing parties like this entirely. Isn’t it weird that after all this time, we’re still repressed? This evening doesn’t even have orgiastic elements."

This is a book about coming of age in the 1990s. It may well be the best book about that experience. I say 1990s, because I don’t think this is a post-9/11 book. The young people in this book are too smart and self-aware not to have noticed that the Bush years were different. Darker. Meaner. They tracked a downward trajectory. The outside world, one hopes, is now harder to ignore. We have left our contemporary Jazz Age behind and have long since taken on new challenges.

I don’t mean to suggest that Rosenblum should have written a different book – or that she should have changed as much as a word. I just don’t think this is a book about our current moment. It seems to capture the anxieties of the young of a period of our recent past, now gone. It is extremely well-written (and edited and published). Cudos to all who had a hand in it. Many are waiting to see what you will come up with next.

The Calgary Herald’s reviewer probably wouldn’t like it, though. Too many subtle moments. Too many well turned metaphors. Too much humour that’s quirky and not slapstick. Too much emotion that’s suggested, not overt. Too many characters bathed in ambiguity, not drawn to represent moral certainties.

Every once and a while someone shows again that the short story form is not exhausted.

Rebecca Rosenblum has done it. Hooray!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Canadian literature is dead; long live Margaret Atwood

So it has come to this: half of our fellow citizens cannot name even a single Canadian author. But that’s not the devastating news.

The devastating news is that Canada’s literary culture clearly hasn’t renewed itself. Consider, for example, how The National Post reported the above poll results:

Forty-seven per cent of Canadians were unable to name even one of the following Canadian authors, unprompted: Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Margaret Laurence, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Alice Munro, Michael Ondattje, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields.

Take a look at that list again. Now imagine it is 1989. Has nothing changed in the past 20 years?

Here’s another way of looking at that list:
  • Leonard Cohen (1934- )
  • Robertson Davies (1913-1995)
  • Timothy Findley (1930-2002)
  • Margaret Laurence (1926-1987)
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942)
  • Alice Munro (1931- )
  • Michael Ondattje (1943- )
  • Mordecai Richler (1931-2001)
  • Carol Shields (1935-2003)
That is, of the nine writers the NP considers prominent, only three are still alive … and the youngest was born in 1943. None were born post-World War II.

The Post reported that the three writers Canadians were most familiar with were Margaret Atwood (1939- ), named by 22 per cent of the respondents; Pierre Burton (1920-2004), named by 8 per cent of the respondents; and Farley Mowat (1921- ), also named by 8 per cent of respondents.

It is difficult not to conclude that Atwood is Canadian literature. No one else need apply. No wonder the Globe and Mail is closing down its book section (and moving what’s left of it online). Literature in Canada is what happened in the past, unless it’s written by MA.

A massive cultural amnesia has blanketed the land. As far as the popular imagination goes, no writers followed the Sixties Generation. Not even the Mann Booker Prize (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, 2002) or the Oprah Book Club (Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, 2001; Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, 2002) have penetrated this willed ignorance.

And the situation appears to be getting worse. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of young people, the Post reported, couldn’t name a single Canadian author. Not even Robert Munsh.

The horror! (Okay, maybe things aren’t as bad as all that. We still have the Griffin and the Scotiabank Giller, right?)

Still, the National Post can’t name a single Canadian author born in the last 65 years?