Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sandra Birdsell

The Two-Headed Calf
by Sandra Birdsell
M&S, 1997

In August (1997), I saw Bob Dylan in concert, and the dude swung through a raucous set that included a little folk, a little country, a little blues, possibly even a little jazz. It was only rock and roll, but Dylan's category sifting impressed me.

In The Two-Headed Calf, Sandra Birdsell does the same. The collection contains nine short stories, which display the stunning array of Birdsell's talent. This is a damn fine book, and it's my early-money favorite to sweep the nation's literary awards.

Birdsell's book begins with two stories about a middle-aged mother and her recalcitrant daughter, and I feared that the collection was going to be stuffed with the bitter whining of the "sandwich generation" (caught between stay-at-home adult children and demanding, dying parents). Thankfully, however, the collection's middle stories take on broader narrative themes, tackling stories about ethnic heritage (Mennonite) and how families can perpetuate historical traumas in how they tell their stories (and ultimately how individuals live their lives).

Towards the end of the collection, I sensed another shift, as the stories there depicted some of the absurdities of modern urban living. A woman wakes up and finds her home besieged by angry homeless people who want to share her middle-class luxury (a large, mostly-empty house). There is something of Raymond Carver in these later stories, just as there is something of Alice Munro and Margaret Lawrence in the earlier ones.

It is my sense, however, that Birdsell has played with the categories established by these earlier writers, and made of their influence something of her own. If she is not already there, this book should vault Birdsell to the front rank of Canadian fiction writers. She demonstrates here a strong personal vision, a deep humanity, a sharp sense of humour, an ability to capture the absurd, the cruel, and the inconsequential. And she wraps it in a marvellous package: strong narratives driven by strong characters sketched in secure, lyrical, authentic language.

Some passages I found to be over written. Some passages I found to be too obvious echoes of other writers: Carver, Munro, Lawrence chief among them. On occasion, I worried that Birdsell was falling into the trap that mires too many of Canada's literary journals; that is, admiring and imitating the past, forgetting to forge ahead, break new ground, continue to chart the uncharted. From time to time, I found Birdsell's habit of shifting time frames annoying and confusing (her depiction of narrative time recalls the work of William Faulkner).

In the end, however, I decided that whatever weaknesses the book may have, it's strengths are multiple. This is a book that deserves both a popular and a critical audience. It may well set the basis for Birdsell's reputation.

This review first appeared in Paragraph (Winter 1997).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Douglas Coupland

Back in 1992, I apparently thought it was a good idea to write a review of Generation X in the form of a letter to Jack Kerouac. This review was first published in the University of Waterloo student newspaper, Imprint.


Generation X
by Douglas Coupland
St. Martin's Press 183pgs

With apologies to Natalie Merchant.

Hey, Jack Kerouac--

What a trooper you were, what a flash, a guiding light. Rummaging through the underside of America, seeking redemption, glory and truth, you were a novelist of solitary strength. "The Lonesome Traveller" in a lonely culture. A runaway dreamer.

You said yourself: "Am known as 'madman bum and angel' with 'naked endless head' of 'prose.'...Am actually no 'beat' but strange solitary Catholic mystic."

Ginsberg called you the "new Buddha of American prose," and all you wanted was "to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday (1959)."

I think of your mother.


Sir, it's 1992, and the heretic philistines that so tragically wretched away from you your dreams and visions, twisting them into soulless, commercial hedonism and uncharitable profit, hippie 'love' fests and preposterous imitations, man, they're still in charge.

Says beat-sister, Carolyn Cassady, loving wife of "On the Road" bodhisattva and mate Neal (Dean Moriarty) Cassady: "They were judging (you) Kerouac from his writing, and as a result jumping all over what they imagined his personal life to be. But they really didn't know the man, and they missed the point of all of his underlying motivations.

"He was very principled, shy, compassionate and sentimental, and never was advocating free love or drug abuse, which were attributed to him by the media and the hippie generation. And it killed him to be given the credit for inciting people to do anything they wanted.

"He was so misunderstood, and so sensitive it was too much for him to bear. He drank himself to death because he got famous for all the wrong reasons."


Therefore, Buddha legend, may I introduce Douglas Coupland, contemporary scribbler, Canadian and first time author of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, "a groundbreaking novel," says the "Los Angeles Times", though not exactly jazz prosody:

"In her small voice she was talking to the sun and telling it she was very sorry if we'd hurt it or caused it any pain. I knew then that we were friends for life."

Generation X addresses from the inside the insipid mall culture of American suburbia that you were ridiculing in The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Desolation Angels even as it was emerging on the landscape in Eisenhower's 1950s.

Crass commercialism does not create meaning is the message the media philistines missed. On the Road is a celebration of the freedom of the individual soul, not an amoral masturbatory fantasy chasing the self-interested greed dreams of bummed out middle America.

Generation X has the same message, but by the Nineties much of the hope has faded. Witness the distant clouds and infinite horizon line on Coupland's cover.

The narrator, Andy:

Okay, okay. I'm being one-sided here. But it's fun to trash Tobias. It's easy. He embodies to me all of the people of my own generation who used all that was good in themselves just to make money; who use their votes for short-term gain. Who ended up blissful in the bottom-feeding jobs--marketing, land flipping, ambulance chasing, and money brokering. Such smugness. They saw themselves as eagles building mighty nests of oak branches and bulrushes, when instead they were really more like the eagles here in California, the ones who build their nests from tufts of abandoned auto parts looking like sprouts picked off a sandwich--rusted colonic mufflers and herniated fan belts--gnarls of freeway flotsam from the bleached grass meridians of the Santa Monica freeway: plastic lawn chairs, Styrofoam cooler lids, and broken skis--cheap, vulgar, toxic items that will either decompose in minutes or remain essentially unchanged until our galaxy goes supernova.

Wow. Maybe more like garage rock than jazz, more Neil Young than Dizzy Gillespie, but Crazy Horse is more likely a direct influence anyway. Fantastic.


Ray Manzarek, the Doors' keyboardist, has said if you'd never written On the Road, "the Doors would never have existed;" and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, "I don't know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something with my life--or even suspected the possibilities existed--if it weren't for (you) Kerouac opening those doors."

Such an influence! Bob Dylan says you turned him on to poetry; "Rolling Stone" credits you as the muse for "the careening, word-jammed songs of Bruce Springsteen's first three albums." Then there's Mr. D. Coupland.

In The Dharma Bums you sat atop a mountain divining cosmic inspiration from solitude among the forest trees and the rhythmic, patterned clouds streaming across the clear blue canvas of a sky. Coupland divined his inspiration from a lonely sojourn in the California desert.

Like Dharma Bums, Generation X is a novel about isolation. Social, material, and spiritual. Andy, Dag and Claire, "X"'s heroic triumvirate, have dropped out of the rat race to heal their wounds and find their own meaning.

"I've got my own demons," says Dag, "and I'd prefer not to have them trivialized by your Psych 101-isms. We're always analyzing life too much. It's going to be the downfall of all of us."

In other words, leave me alone. Bret Easton Ellis covered similar territory in 1984's Less than Zero, and Jay McInerney followed Ellis with Bright Lights, Big City. But both Less than Zero and Bright Lights were filled with satirical stabs at over the top yuppie indulgence, whereas Generation X takes a minimalist, outsider's approach: indulgence is for fools.

Coupland's outlining the New Bohemia, re-defining subterranean. Hey, Jack--of the San Francisco beat boys, you were the biggest. You understand, huh? The brightest light of the shadows.


You were dead, of course, by the time Woody Allen made "Annie Hall". At one point in that film, Allen, a standup comic, addresses a university audience: "I dated a woman who worked for the Eisenhower administration," he says. "I was trying to do to her what Eisenhower was doing to the country."

In 1958 you were addressing students yourself, Hunter College to be precise. And, says "Rolling Stone"'s Martha Bustin, in your speech, recorded for posterity on "The Jack Kerouac Collection," "one hears with heartbreaking clarity an artist making a clown of himself, a speaker whose dreamy, eloquent, inappropriate speech falls on deaf ears."

Kerouac: "Live your lives out, they say, nay, love your lives out, so when they come around and stone you, you won't be living in any glass house--only glassy flesh."

Yeah! Those were the days. Heading out on the highway, looking for adventure. Those things meant something, then. Before everyone went overboard, became opulent. Before Bret Easton Ellis filled us in on how comfortably numb everyone was.

Generation X: "'I just get so sick of being jealous of everything, Andy' There's no stopping the boy. '--And it scares me that I don't see a future. And I don't understand this reflex of mine to be such a smartass about everything. It really scares me. I may not look like I'm paying any attention to anything, Andy, but I am. But I can't allow myself to show it. And I don't know why.' Walking up the hill to the memorial's entrance I wonder what all that was about. I guess I'm going to have to be (as Claire says) 'just a teensy bit more jolly about things.' But it's hard."

Oh, yes. Sometimes it's very hard.

Generation X: "'I think he thinks about getting blown up too much. I think he needs to fall in love. If he doesn't fall in love soon, he's really going to lose it.'"

Now there's an answer to everything.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Robert Fulford

The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture
by Robert Fulford
House of Anansi Press, 1999

Ever since 1961, CBC Radio has co-sponsored "The Massey Lectures" with Massey College of the University of Toronto. In recent years, the House of Anansi Press has published them, and they have been widely popular as well as often engaging and provocative. In November 1999, the CBC broadcast the latest series of five lectures, these by the Toronto-based journalist Robert Fulford. Fulford, who was for 19 years the editor of one of Canada's most prominent cultural institutions, Saturday Night Magazine, chose as his topic the social role of storytelling, which he views as static throughout history.

Fulford writes:

Stories survive partly because they remind us of what we know and partly because they call us back to what we consider significant. Hansel and Gretel reminds us how helpless we felt as children. Anne of Green Gables reminds us of the power of imagination in a world that tries to deny its value. Huckleberry Finn reminds us of the individual's duty to defy the rules of an unjust world.

Fulford begins his first lecture with the unsubstantiated assumption that "narrative began its life on earth in the form of gossip." He then proceeds to illustrate how storytelling (and storymaking) is central to what it means to be a human being, and he is surely right to argue we would have no knowledge of ourselves if it weren't for the stories we tell. The question must be asked, however, about why this assertion even needs to be made.

Over five chapters (representing the five lectures) Fulford provides a competent survey of storytelling in the Western tradition through history. He also outlines many of the issues and challenges (i.e., like postmodern criticism as represented by Foucault and Derrida, for example) that have either undermined or enhanced that tradition, depending on your point of view. Unfortunately, there is little here that is new, original or startling.

Take, for instance, the above quotation from Fulford. Everything he says is true enough, but these are also the statements of a generalist. It would be easy enough to come up with two dozen reasons why particular stories survive, and why the works Fulford cites continue to be read. The issues are altogether more complicated and interesting than Fulford illustrates. In fact, Fulford seems to almost go out of his way to avoid controversy (a sad legacy of the "Red Tory" civility the Canadian cultural community would be better off without).

Fulford tips his hat to both feminism and postmodernism, saying their critiques of "master narratives" have led to a more just world. However, his constant moderation towards what he defines as the cultural centre undermines his credibility as a philosopher king. He articulates his Aristotelian mean, but leaves us hungry for more particulars, more meaty argument. If God is in the details, Fulford is a non-believer.

Fulford's five lectures include an overview of the role of stories in individual lives; a look at how historical narratives are structures; an examination of stories and journalistic conventions; a glance in "The Cracked Mirror of Modernity"; and an intriguing illustration of how Leonardo DiCaprio's character in "Titanic" inherited his cultural significance from the Romance narrative tradition most powerfully captured by Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe.

Readers looking for a quick introduction to the challenges facing narrative as we move into the 21st century could do worse than to read this book. Anyone looking for an extension of arguments already made better elsewhere had best turn their gaze to another place.

First published in The Danforth Review.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

George Elliott Clarke

The review below first appeared in The Danforth Review some time ago. I first met GEC at the University of Waterloo around 1991. He visited a writing workshop led by writer-in-residence Greg Cook. He lit up the room, charmed everyone, and left a lasting impression. Since then, of course, he has published many books in many genres and created a complicated legacy (and he's not done yet). As I'm reminiscing, I might as well add that I once ran into GEC at IKEA. Poetry lives in language, but poets live in the real!


by George Elliott Clarke
Polestar, 2001

Some of the poems in Blue, George Elliott Clarke's latest full-length poetry collection, first appeared in Execution Poems, a chapbook published by Gaspereau Press (2000) and reviewed by Geoffrey Cook in an earlier edition of The Danforth Review.

Here is what Cook said about the poems in that earlier collection:

With all this language, you get, of course, a defiant, exuberant, provocative black-on-white (titles-in-blood-red) spirit dance of politics, racism, religion, psycho-sexual song and grumble, all whipping the reader on. Shocking, comic, controversial, a liberation of both fact and fiction for the sake of song, Execution Poems gives a nastily clear image of “how history darkens against its medium” (from “Childhood II”).

Here is what Clarke says in a brief introduction to Blue:

These poems are black, profane, surly, American. Their bitterness came honestly. US-torched, I wept these lyrics twixt 1994 and 1999. I confess: The Great Republic's fiery liberty set me blazing. An incendiary dérèglement charred by brain black.

Clarke then lists the poets he considers his precursors ("I pursued poets who immolate themselves in the inferno of witnessing"): Syl Cheney-Coker, Wanda Coleman, Henry Dumas, Allen Ginsberg, Irving Layton, Ezra Pound, and Derek Walcott. Clarke: "I craved to draft lyrics that would pour out - Pentecostal fire - pell mell, scorching, bright, loud: a poetics of arson."

Exhausted yet?

To accuse Clarke of heated, overblown rhetoric would be, of course, to miss the point. He has chosen his words deliberately; he knows what he is trying to achieve; and he succeeds. He is following Keats: "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be True" (quoted at the beginning of the book). Which makes Blue a historical curiosity. Clarke is blatant in his use of High Romantic tropes and supremely unanxious about his more immediate modernist precursors, notably Auden: "Poetry makes nothing happen." How interesting, how odd, how wonderful and dangerous all at the same time.

Auden had ample reason to reject Romanticism (even if he didn't manage to escape its shadows), and we should be wary of the exuberance of many of George Elliott Clarke's narrative voices. Of course, Clarke's rhetoric is anything but simple - and he's capable of layering his ironies with the best of the best - but still, let's be careful. Clarke begins Blue with the warning that he's seeking "a poetics of arson", after all.

Here is Clarke ("Calculated Offensive"):

To hell with Pound!
What we desire is African:
Europe is so septic, it seeps poisons.

Why abet the mass murderers
and the famine- and munitions-makers?
All Plato and Aristotle ever did
was waste Nat Turner's time.

A machine spewing
fat-assed assassins,
piss-sipping whores,
Chaplinesque Napoleons,
porcine professors analyzing feces!

Who needs all those hymns printed on toilet paper?
Put Europe to the torch:
All of Michelangelo's dripping, syphilitic saints,
all of Sappho's insipid, anorexic virgins.

Use the Oxford English Dictionary
and the Petit Robert for kindling.

I like this poem. I think it's very funny; it articulates - albeit somewhat narrowly - an important cultural struggle; but it's also obviously problematic. On the one hand, it is a "calculated offensive"; it is an act of rhetoric, a heated wail of premeditated anger and contempt. (Interestingly, it also assails one of the poets Clarke names as an influence in his introduction.) That is - let me say it clearly - it should not be read literally: "Put Europe to the torch," etc. In our post 9/11/2001 world, perhaps we are more sensitive to words like these. On the other hand, Auden wrote his warnings about Romanticism in the context of the Second World War. That is, we have been given ample warning. Perhaps Clarke ought to have given greater weight to Wystan's cooling influence.

A "poetics of arson" isn't something we should celebrate unconditionally. Blue is a book we should celebrate, and Clarke is an author who should be read deeply - and (in some cases) be deeply read against. In many of the poems in Blue, Clarke has staked out a deliberately provocative position. His provocation should be taken at face value as a challenge to the communities Clarke lives in - not just the Canadian literary community, but Canada coast-to-coast, particularly the nation's many supposedly race-blind citizens. Blue is many things: the blues, sensuality, the high sky overhead. It is also a bruise - and a reaction. It is a book that should be read, debated, studied, and challenged.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Leon Rooke

Below is a review I did of the "best stories" of Leon Rooke and an interview that first appeared in The Danforth Review. There was a second "best of" Rooke; some overlap, some not. When you've written over 300 stories, putting together a single "Selected" is kind of tough.

Great advice: "Allow your friends a high degree of slack."


Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke
by Leon Rooke
Thomas Allen, 2001

From Leon Rooke's story "The Heart Must From Its Breaking":

Mary, the Farmer

See that horse? He told me. And pointed off. I went on shelling my peas.

Don't you have one iota of sense, I told him. That there is the supernatural.

The supernatural appears frequently in the stories selected for Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke. It's not always as blatantly presented as in the above example, but it's never far from the surface. Rooke's narrators report on a world full of mystery. Rooke fuses ordinary events with strangeness, and gives strangeness the solidity of the ordinary. "That there is the supernatural," says Mary, the Farmer. Don't make a big deal out of it. Don't be so surprised.

In an interview in The Danforth Review (see below), Rooke said he had published 300 stories so far in his well trod career with "another fifty or so piling up from the desk and floor." Painting the Dog contains 17 of them. Are they really Rooke's best? I'm not sure. What I can report, is that I liked some of them more than others. And some of them were very good indeed.

Which ones did I like best? and why? Early Obscenities in the Life of the World's Foremost Authority on Heidegger (1995) and The Only Daughter (1985). Placed side-by-side these two stories show both the range of Rooke's talent and the recurrence of his dominant themes. Both focus on domenstic relationships. Both revolve around a lone girl child. Both girls are testaments of sanity and intelligence in a world sliding off the rails (betrayed by adults?). Both stories offer the hope of resolution. However, the former (as its title suggests) pushes post-modern boundaries, involves intellectual discourse, and is self-conscious about its own telling. The latter, meanwhile, set in the rural southern USA earlier in the 20th century, is probably the best William Faulkner imitation I've ever read.

Leon Rooke is what Kurt Vonnegut would have turned out like if he had never gone to war. Both writers are concerned with big themes, but where Vonnegut obsesses on the arbitrary, Rooke obsesses on the mystery.

TDR asked Rooke why he writes so many short stories. Here was his answer:

Why? Other than it is a beautiful form? Other than the enticement to enter a flood of hugely diverse human lives? Other than a desire to explore a form the full properties of which have yet to be realized? Other than a writer's submission to the sheer, witless power of language, the invitation given to the writer, say, in a simple declarative sentence such as "A white dog was walking the beach"? Whose white dog? Why? What does the dog do next? Would not any sensible person who is a writer rather be tracking that dog than remain where one was before language had that dog put in an appearance?

Rooke's stories overflow with curiosity for unexplained situations. Sometimes this results in sharp, sustained insight; sometimes it results in peculiar speculation about the marginal and the odd.

Take the story Saks Fifth Avenue, for example. That story begins:

A woman called me up on the telephone. She was going to give me twenty thousand dollars, she said. I said come right over, I'm not doing anything this evening. Then I went back into the living room where my wife was, seated on the sofa with her nail files and paint, painting her nails. I wanted to keep it to myself for a bit.

Right there Rooke lays out the whole story. The narrator has been offered $20,000. He confronts his wife with his silence while waiting for his money to arrive. The story is framed by the offer and the arrival of the money. In between Rooke explores the dynamics of a marriage in tension. Is this interesting? To me, it seemed a little like shooting fish in a barrel. A little too easy, is what I'm saying. On the other hand, the story has one of Rooke's trademark narrators, who looks at the world with big-hearted bemusement. And I like Rooke's narrators. But sometimes I want them to be more, well, like David Foster Wallace's narrators.

Sometimes it seems like Rooke's narrators are playing with their uncertainty just a bit too much, like they want to keep "it" to themselves "for a bit." Like the mystery isn't really a mystery, but they need to pretend that it is, just to get by, or just so they can make it to the end of their story. Shakespeare said, "The world is but a stage." Rooke might say life is just a story, held together by the mystery behind all things. The story is held together by the mystery. Without the mystery, why bother?

Rooke has already earned his spot in the Canlit canon as one of the nation's literary innovators. In his review of Painting the Dog in Quill & Quire earlier this year, Nathan Whitlock questioned how innovative Rooke actually was. The short answer might be more than most, less than some. Every reader can make his or her own decision about that question. For certain, Rooke has made a mark worth noting. He has written more than few stories worth reading. He has staked out a literary universe that is uniquely his - and worth the visit.

This review and below interview were first published in The Danforth Review.

TDR: First the biography. You are U.S. born, and have been in Canada quite a long time. What do you consider the major peaks and valleys of your autobiography so far?

ROOKE: Writing about the self has never held even the smallest attraction for me, so I think I will largely by-pass this question. My personal peaks and valleys can be defined pretty much the same way as those of any other party. As for highs and lows in the writing life, the lows one always recognizes, whereas the highs--unless very high indeed--mainly pass unnoticed.

TDR: Next, moving from the biography to the work. I’m not sure how you feel people attaching labels to your work, but “post-modern” seems to easily apply, which places you strongly on the strange side of Canadian literature though in the comfortable company of your American contemporaries (Pynchon, Vonnegut, et al). Canada has been called “the most post-modern country in the world,” but its popular literature tends to turn away from anything radical. Do you think Canadian publishing has a tendency to domesticate its stranger writers (and have you felt such pressure)? Or do Canadian writers domesticate themselves (and for what reason)?

ROOKE: Interesting point, that Canada is the most post-modern on the planet. Maybe so. Maybe France and Italy contend. I likewise find it weird that (not only) popular literature but literature here in all its major forms remains among the most insular on earth. What a peculiar contradiction. I am pretty sure it is writers who domesticate, or strangle, themselves, and the publishing industry should not be blamed for this. Nor should the the rather timid taste of the general public be blamed.

TDR: Ken Sparling told us your writing has an "earnestness" which attracts him to it. He defined earnestness as a way of handling individual characters as though they are all trying to do good, no matter how misguided they wind up looking in the face of the plot they wind up on. What do you think about that characterization of your characters and their worlds?

ROOKE: Well, one has to be earnest, which is to say, serious. What is the contribution apt to be if one says, oh, I am just fooling around? Naturally, a party often is just fooling around. The curtain opens and there's a guy buried up to his neck in sand. A basic situation where, when the idea first comes, clearly the author is just fooling around. The pursuit is to find something of value within the fooling about, and not to have foolishness as the final result. Ken's take is pretty much straight on.

TDR: One of the more interesting literary collaborations in the past 25 years was the writer/editor collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Recent years have seen a debate about how much of Carver is really Carver and how much of Carver is really Lish. Some people think Carver was the real genius; others lean towards Lish. To borrow a term from Sparling: Carver might be the earnest one, and Lish the cynic. What do you make of this debate? In your opinion, does the Carver/Lish conflict represent a significant aesthetic cleaving? In what way?

ROOKE: Both occupy a genius zone. Carver's stories before Lish crossed his path are nost unlike those of the later period. Was Carver at one point in trouble? Did Lish assist. I think so. One difficulty I have with your appraisal is that I don't see Lish as a cynic. In any event, he served Carver well. There is considerable heart within Lish's cynicism. He is evangelistic in his zeal for excellence. I've sat in, for a week or so, on his uninterrupted, vastly eloquent, spiel: his call is for the writer to align him\herself with the best, and the best is always in alignment with humanity's summons. The Carver stories, by the way, published after his death -- especially the fine one about a dying Chekhov -- is Carver through and through. Lish was there, but when he wasn't, Carver was.

TDR: You've worked in a number of genres, including drama and novels, but your greatest measure of output seems to be short stories. Any idea why that might be.

ROOKE: Yes, some three hundred published stories now. Another fifty or so piling up from the desk and floor. Why? Other than it is a beautiful form? Other than the enticement to enter a flood of hugely diverse human lives? Other than a desire to explore a form the full properties of which have yet to be realized? Other than a writer's submission to the sheer, witless power of language, the invitation given to the writer, say, in a simple declarative sentence such as "A white dog was walking the beach"? Whose white dog? Why? What does the dog do next? Would not any sensible person who is a writer rather be tracking that dog than remain where one was before language had that dog put in an appearance?

TDR: George Murray suggested we put this one to you. Any advice for sustaining literary friendships over the long term (given the competitive environment, the seeming inevitable jealousy and bitterness, and the constant, exhausting ego-stroking most writers require in order to feel even partially actualized)?

ROOKE: One, remember all gets sorted out in a time beyond our own. Two, remember no one forced you into this field. Three, even the most vaunted should recognize that there are people we have never heard of who are better than any of us. Four, allow your friends a high degree of slack.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Matt Cohen

Uncommon Ground: A Celebration of Matt Cohen
Edited by Graeme Gibson, Wayne Grady, Dennis Lee and Priscila Uppal
Knopf Canada, 2002

Typing: A Life in 26 Keys
by Matt Cohen
Vintage Canada, 2001

Earlier this year (2002) Knopf Canada published Uncommon Ground: A Celebration of Matt Cohen, a collection of memories and essays about Matt Cohen. Now, I've never read anything by Matt Cohen, but I did meet him once when he was writer-in-residence at the Metro Toronto Reference Library and I was an unpublished fiction writer looking for some advice. This was about 1998, a year before he won the Governor General's Award for his novel Elizabeth and After. And a year before he died.

I had been to see over a half dozen writers-in-residence over the years, looking for advice from people more advanced in the craft. Of all the people I'd asked for advice, Matt Cohen was the least helpful and the least friendly. It made me wonder if he was the most honest. (Maybe everyone else was just being encouraging because that was part of their job....) He came across as if he wasn't interested in meeting people, or at least in meeting me. I told him I had some publishing credits in little magazines, and he said, "Well, it looks like you've had some success." He didn't seem to know what to tell me, and I left him feeling befuddled.

After I finished Uncommon Ground, I had a similar feeling. Just who was Matt Cohen? It seems from the memories recorded in Uncommon Ground that he was many things to many people. A difficult person to get to know. An iconoclast. A loner. A contrarian. A self-hating Jew.

That last description is one Cohen gave himself in his memoir Typing: A Life in 26 Keys. The memoir is referenced all through Uncommon Ground. It is a touchstone for many of the writers, as if it demanded a response. Many of Cohen's friends were apparently shocked by the bitter voice Cohen chose for his memoir (he wrote it in the last months of his life as he was dying of cancer). Robert Fulford reviewed Typing when it first came out and called it "a hate letter from the beyond." In his contribution to Uncommon Ground, David Homel says Cohen finally came clean in Typing, saying publicly for the first time what they had said to themselves privately many times: Canadian literary culture is anti-Semitic.

Well, hi ho. That is certainly a grand claim. It was one of the reasons why after finishing Uncommon Ground I went back to the bookstore for Typing. I needed more information. I wanted to get Cohen's side of the story. Does he say Canadian literary culture is anti-Semitic? Not really. What he does do is make some swipes in that direction:

Many of those writers now considered to be our greatest - Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro - gained unprecedented audiences, sales, international recognition, and most of all a dominant place in the Canadian public imagination. All of them were writing out of a conservative, small-town, restrained, Protestant tradition that found a tremendous echo of self-recognition across the country (p157-8).

The implication in the above quotation is that Matt Cohen is not included in the list of Canadian greats. Canadian literature found a way to exclude him. He was Jewish. Being Jewish, Cohen was - in his own words - "a person in exile from nowhere." The Canadian public imagination could not find a way to accommodate him.

(A question: Margaret Atwood is "small town"?)

It should be noted, of course, that Cohen's list fails to include Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, and Leonard Cohen, all Jewish, all Canlit icons. Also, others have noted the conservative tastes of the Canadian book-buying public without playing the race card. Furthermore, Uncommon Ground makes clear that throughout his career Cohen had many admirers. He made his living from writing (no small feat). His talent did not go unrecognized. He won the GG, for g-d's sakes! (Plus much of his oeuvre was conservative, small-town, and restrained....)

Ah, well. It seems Matt Cohen was a complicated person full of contradiction. These are often fine attributes in a writer. If they make for a difficult biographic summary, so be it. The work lives on, demanding reading, demanding interpretation. And it is here that Uncommon Ground proves to be an invaluable resource. In Uncommon Ground, the many lives of Matt Cohen live a comfortable co-existence. Greg Hollingshead extols Cohen's common touch for the common people. Margaret Atwood notes the continuity of Cohen's engagement with magic realism. The clips of interviews with Cohen show his engagement with his own mythologizing - and his trickster side. In one interview he says he writes while high on drugs. In another interview he says he made all of that up.

After reading that, one turns to the memoir not sure what to believe. Typing provides insight into the writing life. It also provides images of the Toronto literary scene from the heady days of emerging Canlit in the late-1960s to a portrait of a bizarre meeting with a booze-soaked Jack McClelland. McClelland asks him to go "back to the well one more time" and churn out another book about small town Ontario. Cohen claims he often made up the narratives of his novels on his way to the publisher's office to ask for his next cash advance.

What is not included in Typing is Cohen's career as Teddy Jam, the author of numerous books for children. Uncommon Ground "outs" Cohen as Teddy Jam, confirming what was apparently a widely held secret. (Teddy Jam? Sorry, I've never heard of him....) Typing is a circumspect account of Cohen's "life in 26 keys"; it's also often very funny, as Cohen's black humour punctuates almost every page. It made me wish I could have gotten to know him, but Uncommon Ground convinced me he was unknowable. As every life is, quite possibly.

Live the mystery, the mystics say. Cohen certainly did that.

First published in The Danforth Review.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Josef Skvorecky

Review from Quill and Quire, December 2000.


When Eve Was Naked
by Josef Skvorecky
Key Porter Book, 2000

Writers of fiction often cringe when readers attempt to draw connections between the life of the writer and their art. Josef Skvorecky’s recently released story collection, When Eve Was Naked, however, not only perpetuates this confusion, it encourages it.

Fiction – even good fiction like Skvorecky’s – apparently sells too slowly under its own label and requires the beefier tag of true-to-life-prose.

Skvorecky’s life-in-stories contains 24 strongly crafted episodes, ranging from his childhood in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia, through that country’s Nazi occupation to the Communist coup in 1948 and Skvorecky’s later days as a professor at an Ontario university.

The three repeating themes of the collection are the sexual domination of women over men, the idiocy of ideological systems, and the saving power of art, particularly jazz. The stories are, in other words, traditionally romantic, relying on the standard inherited tropes of individualism and sexual and esthetic transcendence.

As a result, Skvorecky’s best stories, like “The End of Bull Mácha” (written in 1953), swirl in a brew of joy and terror. His weaker stories, those based on the fictional “Edenvale” campus west of Toronto, lapse toward the nostalgic and sentimental. They also make a poor ending to the collection, however true to life they may be, as they lack the backdrop of moral struggle behind many of the earlier tales.

The subtext of Skvorecky’s fiction, and his life outside bound covers, might well be that terror is good for art, while suburban contentment is not.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

W.O. Mitchell

From the November 1999 issue of Quill and Quire.

W.O.: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Beginnings to Who Has Seen the Wind, 1914-1947
by Barbara and Ormond Mitchell
McClelland & Stewart, 1999

When Quill & Quire printed a list of the top 40 Canadian novels of the 20th century earlier this year, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind ranked seventh. Renowned as one of Canada’s great storytellers at the time of his death at age 84 in 1998, W.O., as he was affectionately known, left as big a mark on Canadian literature as any member of his generation. However, this first volume of a scheduled two-volume biography of W.O.’s life does little to tell us why.

His son and daughter-in-law have done an admirable job in collecting the minute details of W.O.’s early life. The authors tell us of the premature death of W.O.’s father, the steady influence of his authoritarian mother, his failed attempt to join the Canadian Olympic team as a diver, and W.O.’s years as an actor and salesman of assorted goods from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end.

The authors document W.O.’s deserved reputation as a colourful liar and teller of tall tales, silently raising the question: what would the old man have thought of this version of his life’s story, which seems to diminish where it ought to expand and which consciously turns away from mythologizing one of the country’s great yakkers, instead presenting him as fossilized history?

This is not a bad book. On the contrary, the authors have done the country’s literary community a public service. It would have been nice, however, if the work did not so often read like the work of a dutiful son repaying a debt. It would have been nice if some of W.O.’s lies could have been left intact and he had been preserved more completely as a personality sprung forth from his imagination and pegged high on all the end-of- the-century book lists.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jack Hodgins

My review of two Jack Hodgins novels, from Quill and Quire (April 2010).

See also Jack Hodgins' website.


The Master of Happy Endings
by Jack Hodgins
Thomas Allen Publishers, 2010

The Invention of the World
by Jack Hodgins
Ronsdale Press, 2010

Jack Hodgins’ literary career has spanned more than three decades and resulted in a Governor General’s Literary Award (for the 1979 novel The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne) and the author’s induction into the Order of Canada. This spring will see the publication of his eighth novel for adults, The Master of Happy Endings, and the republication of his first novel, The Invention of the World, which originally appeared to critical acclaim in 1977.

These two books are separated by more than 30 years, and much else besides. The Invention of the World is a wild, ambitious romp. Inspired by magic realists like Gabriel García Márquez, the novel moves back and forth in time over the span of a century, and tells the stories of the inhabitants of a single plot of land on Vancouver Island. One part of the novel is set in the 1970s and centres on Maggie Kyle, who runs a boarding house and rents out cottages on her property. The other recounts how the house and cottages came to be built by Irish settlers led by a messianic giant named Donal Keneally. (One of Kyle’s boarders is Keneally’s elderly final wife.)

The Master of Happy Endings is more conventional. Set in the present, it follows the adventures of a single protagonist through a series of obstacles, leading to a final climactic problem, which is successfully resolved. The protagonist is Axel Thorstad, a retired high school English teacher and widower who offers himself up for “adoption” to a family with a youth in need of tutoring. A lifelong “servant of love,” Thorstad is a nearly Bellovian character. He ruminates on Chaucer and postulates frequently about the meaning of life. He is modern, ironic, and self-conscious, unlike any of the characters in The Invention of the World.

The earlier novel, in fact, is hobbled by mythology and earnestness, though portions of the book remain sharp and compelling. In particular, Maggie Kyle is a memorable character, and the passages introducing her and the menagerie of lively characters that surround her contain the best writing. However, the back story that explains the odd mission and mythological origins of Donal Keneally, who is a homicidal mix of brawn and genius, hasn’t aged well.

Ultimately, The Invention of the World fails to convince. Scenes in the novel’s present seem realized; scenes in the past seem forced. The two never integrate into a convincing whole, though the ambition of the novel is clearly evident throughout.

The Master of Happy Endings suffers no such failure. Thorstad joins the family of a former student whose teenage son has a small recurring part in a television drama in California. The ex-teacher agrees to accompany the youth to the Golden State, where he is largely unsuccessful in preparing the boy for his final exams. However, he reconnects with a former colleague whom he last saw nearly half a century earlier. They once shared a beachfront cottage for a week before she hit the big time as an actress and married another of their colleagues. Thorstad finds the (now ex-) husband in a nursing home and ruminates on all that has been lost and all that has never been.

What The Master of Happy Endings lacks in gravitas, it makes up for in strong storytelling and powerful characters. Hodgins’ latest novel is a testament to the notion that the secret to a happy ending may well be not worrying too much. Thorstad is high on life’s rich pageant. His exuberance rubs off on the reader.