Saturday, February 7, 2009

Clark Blaise

Selected Essays by Clark Blaise (Biblioasis, 2008) is, one assumes, like any other "selected;" it is a greatest hits package. It also serves as a primer, introducing the author to new readers. It may even provide an exclamation mark; a final, emphatic statement at the end of a career (not that Blaise's career is over, mind you).

Edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers, the book concludes with a lengthy bibliography of Blaise's non-fiction. The list begins with "Neofascism and the Kennedy Assasins" (Canadian Dimension, 1967). Thankfully, the essays that precede the bibliography tend toward literary subjects, which hold up better over time than politically themed reflections.

I have only read one other Blaise title, Resident Alien (Penguin, 1986). I picked that up a year or so ago at a garage sale. Interestingly, the opening essay of Blaise's new book begins with a reflection on the author life, including reference to the fact that Resident Alien was about to come out. Blaise wrote that essay in his early 40s, living in Iowa; as he wrote, "unemployed (I should be saying, bravely, self-employed as a writer), with a son in university, a son in high school, and a wife who has just started teaching in Montclair, New Jersey."

He had been writing for 20 years by that point, born in the United States to a Manitoba-born mother and a French Canadian father, but he was only just finding his life's subject. As the Canadian Encyclopedia puts it:

Clark Blaise's fiction sympathetically explores various conditions of alienation, isolation and displacement. His characters typically find themselves (as he often has) at odds in a foreign culture and place. Their keen sense of wonderment at the sharply observed details of their immediate environment - oppressively eccentric or pedestrian, exotic or banal - emphasizes their private disorientation.

Or as Alexander McLeod wrote in Essays on Canadian Writing (2002):

... there is something remarkably original about Blaise's work. Blaise is more than just a local colourist who ferrets out the curious details of "marginal" communities in order to delight cosmopolitan readers. Rather, if we consider the full arc of his work, we see that for nearly fifty years he has been challenging the way that we understand the concept of place in contemporary Canadian and American literature.

As his most famous titles reveal, Blaise is a "resident alien" who cannot escape his twentieth-century "North American education." He is a child of his time and place, a direct product of this continent's postwar fascination with personal mobility. He is a writer who really did grow up on the interstate, at the train station, and in the airport. If we only reorient our perspective, it becomes apparent that Blaise's rootlessness is at least as fascinating, at least as unique, as the rootedness that we instantly recognize, praise, and appreciate in earlier twentieth-century writers such as Faulkner, O'Connor, and Welty.

In our Obama moment, we should be quick to acknowledge: there are writers who have been preparing us for this new world. Blaise is one of them. He has been ahead of his audience for some time. May they find him soon, and in some volume.

Blaise's father married five times. His mother taught school on the prairie as a young woman, saved her money, then took herself to Europe for training in design before fleeing Hitler's Germany for Montreal and a late marriage and family. Blaise was born in North Dakota, spent his childhood in the deep south and Pittsburgh. Moved an average of three times a year. Went to school with children of his father's mistresses. By grace alone, it seems, he remained sane and had the gal to present himself to Bernard Malamud, who was teaching a creative writing course at Harvard.

Later came continuing literary education at the University of Iowa (where he later taught, among other places) and marriage to writer Mharati Mukherjee. In November 2008, Obama called himself a "mut." As this YouTube video shows, that language is loaded and risky. But Blaise's bi-racial childhood (and Canadian/American identity) complicated with a personal relationship through marriage and fatherhood to the subcontinent. As a family, this situation isn't unique. But there are few writers who have written from within multiple identities and attempted to capture the distinctions and meanings of so many boundaries.

The essays return to this theme, again and again. He saves his harshest language for the racism his family experienced in Toronto in the late 1970s. (There is also strong feeling in his too short telling of the book he and Mukherjee wrote about the Air India bombing, including interviewing the chief suspects before their names where widely known -- and well before the public trial.) He is otherwise remarkably sanguine about all of the changes and accomodations he's endured and made. It sometimes seems as if the deepest wisdom he has to impart is his own survival.

Which is a way of saying that there is a fair amount of autobiography in the Selected Essays. The essays are of two types: personal and professional. Sometimes they overlap, as in Resident Alien, which includes essays about his childhood and short stories that pick up pieces of the autobiography and embellish with fictional detail. (Embellish is the wrong word, because the fiction is not dependent on the facts, but then this is part of the questions Blaise's work raises. In this way his work is related to that of his one-time teacher at Iowa, Philip Roth.)

If I had to pick one essay as the best, I'd choose: "Kerouac in Black and White." It's the only essay I've read about Kerouac that starts from the point of view of the end years of Kerouac's life. The lonely, angry, reactionary, and as Blaise makes clear, the overtly racist years, though it is a racism consistent and persistent throughout Kerouac's career. Kerouac engaged, explored and wrote about "the other" consistently and persistently, but the exploration didn't lead to reconciliation; it led to entrenched alienation and the ultimate failure of Vanity of Duluoz (1968).

Amazon provides the opening sentence:

All right, wifey, maybe I'm a big pain in the you-know-what but after I've given you a recitation of the troubles I had to go through to make good in America between 1935 and more or less now, 1967, and although I also know everybody in the world's had his own troubles, you'll understand that my particular form of anguish came from being too sensitive to all the lunkheads I had to deal with just so I could get to be a high school football star, a college student pouring coffee and washing dishes and scrimmaging till dark and reading Homer's lliad in three days all at the same time, and God help me, a WRITER whose very 'success', far from being a happy triumph as of old, was the sign of doom Himself.

Blaise provides the context:

An impotent, alcoholic, ruined, middle-aged, mill-town Franco-American living in Lowell, and finally in St. Petersburg with his jealously protective, corrosively ignorant and loudly bigoted mother, or with a wife he alternately loved and hated while tying to divorce, is not a candidate for progressive opinions on race, class, or sexual politics. Forget Kerouac in his youth, the beautiful boy with his breathless tales of breaking away from canadien catholicism nightmared in Doctor Sax or tapestried in Visions of Gerard; forget the trips he took us on, like swatted rubber balls on their widest orbit in On the Road and The Dharma Bums and Mexico City Blues before they crashed back to the paddle that propelled them. That was then; this later, much later.

Which Blaise later expands:

Race, in the normal American black/white sense, was never a reality for Kerouac, never part of his early personal history -- only a metaphor for freedom, or temptation. He carried his blinkered childhood within him like a malignant unborn twin,and a white, Catholic, lost, pure French empire was part of that childhood. But for the likelihood of Indian blood, which he (like most French-Canadians) embraced, Kerouac was pur laine, a proud, full-blooded, full-culture French Canadian: ("Go back,"he wanted to call to his Breton fishermen ancestors,"ils vous I . jouent un tour." That is, America's going to play a trick on you.) Against the backdrop of the Church, and his own monochromatic background, "Negroes" offered only occasions for sex, drugs and music. And since those are also occasions for merging identities, they specifically challenge the corrosive dreams of racial and religious purity. Gerald Nicosia, in Memory Babe, mentions that Jack would have married Mardou Fox, the heroine of The Subterreaneans, if she'd been white. A strange inhibition for a Beat. "Purity" rose up early, and late consumed him, his vulture-twin pouncing on a helpless host.

You can start to see here that in Kerouac, Blaise has a precursor: a French Canadian border-crosser who struggled with multiple identities and modernity ... but who failed (found in the end only bitterness and collapse), whereas Blaise survived and tells us things Kerouac never could.

His essays on Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, for example show Blaise is an intelligent interpreter of post-colonial literature(s). They also help contextualize his own biography, and our understanding of his ongoing fictional project, as Alexander McLeod has so capably outlined (quoted above). There is much substance in these essays to ponder; and to unsettle our assumptions, as good essays should.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to note that there is more than personal reflection and engaged musings on prominent post-colonial writers in this collection. There is also a series of short essays on the technique of writing short stories. We learn, for example, that contrary to most others, Blaise thinks the beginnings of stories are more important than their endings. These essays provide valuable advice and contributions to the literature of short story theory.

Nine years ago, Blaise and I shared a reading at a small book store in Vancouver. He was there with Mukherjee, and he read from The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (Viking 1987). I read a short story. I had never heard of him, or Mukherjee, or The Sorrow and the Terror. But I have never forgotten his reading (and I wish there were more about this book and the process of its research and writing in Selected Essays).

At the book store, Blaise had a humble presence, but the words he read betrayed a sustained ambition to engage a complex subject at the deepest level. I thought, he has done something remarkable. Something much better than what I had done.

These essays are often remarkable, too.

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