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.