Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Interview: T.F. Rigelhof

T.F. Rigelhof is the author of Hooked on Candian Books (Cormorant, 2010). Gordon Lockheed has called it "a new, better way to read Canada's novels" (at least that's the headline over at Dooney's Cafe).

I interviewed Rigelhof by email in June 2010. We discussed his book (over two decades in the making), what he calls "OurLit," and many other rich topics.


Some choice quotations:
  • Why would I want to write a book that is easily classifiable when our literature isn’t?  
  • Despite the smug, hipper-than-thou, self-aggrandizing, socially irresponsible, intellectually vacuous posturings of such mischief-makers and petit-monsters of self-entitlement as Douglas Coupland, Russell Smith, and Stephen Marche, OurLit is more youth-oriented, urban-centric, racially and sexually diverse, socially complicated and outright comic than they seem to realize. And more deeply rooted in multiple strands of modernism.
  • Ressentiment is not simply resentment. It’s what Sartre called it “bad faith.” There’s a stinking heap of it in the continuing argument about who is and who isn’t, what is and what isn’t Canadian, who gives and who gets prizes in OurLit.
  • Literary culture—the processes by which books get written and read—is a dialogue, a co-operation between writers and readers who are working towards common purposes in good faith with mutual respect. Literary culture is, before all else, an exercise in civics.
  • My book is enthusiastic but not particularly optimistic. Novels are the best painkillers mankind has created, as James says, and as long as we’re alive and sentient, they’ll continue to do their work.
  • We’ll all need to elevate our pain thresholds enormously to find any kind of personal satisfaction in living through the wrenching changes of the next two decades as the world’s centers of population shift in more dramatic ways than the collapse of the Soviet Union has pre-figured. I’m convinced Canada will be in the foreground of the most crucial of those changes.
Some choice references:


See also Rigelfhof responding to comments by Stan Persky.


Your new book is Hooked on Canadian Books and subtitled "the good, the better and the best Canadian novels since 1984." I wonder if you could give us a quick introduction to your project - and how it came about.

When W.J. Keith published Canadian Literature in English in 1985, I thought (and still think) that he was right-minded in most of his critical judgments but wrong-headed in the narrowness of his approach to novels – he simply tracked the trajectory of a few “major” careers.

If you want to know what’s still worth reading in the works of the dozen novelists he analyzed in detail then (and the updates he provides in his revised edition of 2006), read him. He’s a very good critic, probably the most life-affirming one we’ve ever had in our academic world. He hasn’t had much competition – none since the death of George Woodcock.

In 1984, when I started keeping notes for what has become Hooked on Canadian Books, I wanted to cast a wider, more inclusive net than Professor Keith. I’d started publishing fiction in 1981 and by the time my first novel, The Education of JJ Pass, appeared in ’83, some very good novels were beginning to get published by previously unknown writers and taken seriously on their individual merits (rather than on the posturings and careerist ambitions of their authors) by non-academics.

This had much to do with the arrival in Canada of the literary agent Lucinda Varley, the man-of-letters Alberto Manguel, the promotional success of Jack McClelland’s Seal Books First Novel Award, and the start-up of The International Fiction List by the publisher Louise Dennys when she joined the firm of Lester & Orpen.

My own method of notetaking was directly influenced by 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939: A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess in 1984. This is the slow, dry introduction to Hooked.

The quick and dirty backstory is this: after several strokes and seizures at the end of 2007, I junked the book I’d been working toward for twenty-three years and started weeding my bookcases and notes in search of the novels I wanted to reread and write about while waiting for what ultimately became an eight-and-a-half hour craniotomy (to cauterize multiple vascular malformations) in November 2009.

Because the team assigned to me at the Montreal Neuro first attempted a less invasive procedure that failed and the actual operation took a lot longer to plan than originally anticipated (whatever becomes of my literary reputation, I’m guaranteed footnote status in neurosurgical history), I added to my program by reading novels published since an earlier stroke in 2002 that I hadn’t really noticed sufficiently.

Ultimately, I stopped counting. I’m probably three or four short of one hundred and fifty novels. Anyone who feels left out can say, “Oh, my masterpiece just slipped through one of the larger holes in his memory” except for a couple of writers who made it perfectly clear to me that they wished to be excluded: even though I admire their works, I’m not enough of a sycophant for their tastes. Fair enough.

A television interviewer told me she counted 88 individual novelists. I like that number since it’s the same as the number of keys on a piano. (I actually think I included about a dozen more than she’d counted: some authors are noted only en passant.)

If I were to classify your book, I'm not sure what I would call it. It contains pieces I'd call book reviews, others I'd call essays, also bits of memoir, as well as lists and lesson plans. The G&M review noted that yours isn't a "map-making" book, as if there were something lacking it taking an encylopediacal approach.

Meanwhile, the book's dust jacket flap calls it a "conversational survey of all that is good about our nation's literature," but one doesn't need to venture too far into the book before understanding that you also intend to throw some barbs. A lot has changed Canada and the publishing industry since 1984.

What I want to ask you about here is the your sense of how the terms of the conversation about Canlit has changed in that time. The G&M review notes that "there are those who doubt" that a systematic reading of Canlit is possible. I know that's not what you've attempted in your book, but I wonder about your sense of the Canlit conversation. For example, is consensus about what is "good, better, best" more difficult now than ever?

In musical terms, Hooked offers readers tonal variations on six modal sketches. If you listen to the Miles Davis Sextet’s Kind of Blue in any post-1997 re-issue with the bonus track included, you’ll get a fuller sense of how I’m improvising. I don’t mean to obscure my meaning or portentiously whack readers on the ear. It’s simply a fact of my life that I acquired Kind of Blue a couple of weeks before its official the day of its release, August 17, 1959, when I was fifteen and it became the aural wallpaper in my bedroom throughout the rest of my high school years.

If there wasn’t anything else I wanted to listen to, I had it playing in the background as I tried to write stand-up comedy of the kind then current in jazz clubs that I heard on hard to find records – Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer. I don’t mention Kind of Blue in the book but I do make the same point about the improvisatory nature of my writing with explicit references to Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008) and another musical double six -- the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

In my earlier essay collection, This is Our Writing, I talk about indebtedness to Ornette Coleman: he taught me to value spontaneity, following a line freely to find where it goes not where its been. There’s nothing in Hooked that I didn’t urgently want to write. If it seems weirdly constructed, it is weirdly constructed: it eschews chronology, the categories I employ are Levitin’s (but contain counter-intuitions or “ironies”) and it takes some working-out since who and what is not included is simply dissed as “careerist, nihilist, and merdiste.”

Why would I want to write a book that is easily classifiable when our literature isn’t? Or write anything at all about petulant Peter Pans and bumptious Bad Boys. Or, worse, self-inflated highly metaphysical guys who think they’re being really inventive while they solemnly reinvent André Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs or, in English, The Counterfeiters (1926) in which Edouard, the narrator, thinks about writing a novel called Les Faux-Monnayeurs that draws heavily from a diary in which he writes about thinking about writing a novel called Les Faux-Monnayeurs.

One last point about Kind of Blue: Jimmy Cobb is a good drummer and Wynton Kelly is a good pianist; Paul Chambers is a better than average bassist and Cannonball Adderley a better than average alto player; Bill Evans is one of the best jazz improvisers of all time. Playing with them brought out the best in Davis and Coltrane. And playing with Davis and Coltrane brought out the better in them.

I go to some lengths to talk about gradations of achievement in the novels discussed. There’s deliberate downplaying and sitting out in what I put together. And a lot of tonguing and more cheekiness than some people expect to find. I don’t know how brilliant or fast I am but some of my readers have been pretty dull and slow in response to what I’m doing. OurLit is robustly comic: it needs to be approached in that spirit more often than it is.

When Leonard Cohen introduces “Ain’t No Cure For Love” on his current world tour, he lists the half dozen mood altering medications he habitually took before he discovered that whatever he was thinking or doing, “Cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Canadians have much to be cheerful about even in the midst of misery and Lynn Coady’s cheekiness as a writer of OurLit isn’t exceptional in this regard – just funnier than the rest.

Canada has always been a strange, unusual place – more so than anyone other than a handful of naturalists noticed through much of its history. Have you read Christoph Irmscher’s essay “Nature Writing” in The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature (2004)?

Irmscher (who is the editor of Audubon’s writings and drawings) marks out the only logical starting point for any discussion of our literature: Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal, on the River Saint Lawrence, through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans; in the years 1789 and 1792, with an Account of the Rise and State of the Fur Trade (1801). If you start with Mackenzie and follow Irmscher’s reading guide, you’ll find no supporting evidence for Northrop Frye’s claim that humans have felt “silently swallowed by an alien continent.” What you will find is a “patiently repeated, genuinely amazed ‘What is here?’” and not “Frye’s puzzled ‘Where is here?’”

The ways in which our best novelists respond to their amazement with the whatness of Canadian experience has grown more interesting decade by decade through the second half of the twentieth century and through the first decade of the twenty-first as Canada is becoming increasingly sui generis among the nations of the world. I state this as fact – not as propaganda. I have immense gratitude for being born in Canada but it also deeply shames me that this country is so ungrateful to the contributions of so many of its citizens.

Starting out, I did try to write more conventionally: I did try to write An Atlas of Canadian Literature but I ended up feeling like an under-muscled Atlas trying to hold a world in place that was undergoing seismic shocks and volcanic eruptions and generally weird weather. What I opted for in the end is a book modeled on The Double Hook Bookstore in the sense that Judy Mappin’s shop occupied several rooms of a Montreal townhouse and different kinds of conversations took place in different areas.

The book is dedicated to Judy and her partners and staff. And also to the memory of Norah Bryant who was Chief Librarian at my local public library in the days when it too was an odd assemblage of spaces and Norah’s office was a wonderful place to discuss Commonwealth literature – her passion. But those were parts of a preliminary model: I added to it my personal eccentricities in shelving my own books according to what I understand from neuroscience about the ways our emotional intelligence is formed/deformed/reformed by the stories we’re told and the stories we tell.

I like the fact that when most people come up to me to talk casually about Hooked while I’m sitting at a neighbourhood cafe, they want to tell me about their favorite novels before they ask about mine. The same thing happens with e-mails. I also enjoy it when readers of my generation want to talk about what I’m doing in my book in relation to Daniel Fader’s famous polemic Hooked on Books and Tom Wolfe’s reprise and enlargement on some of its themes in Hooking Up.

I don’t write about the kind of intellectual impoverishment among the young that they do. We deprive our children of robust futures in different ways in this country than they do in the USA – mostly by giving ours piss poor sense of the country they actually inhabit by rarely assigning any books that speak to their actual condition. Students are regularly expected to read Catcher in the Rye for gods’s sakes and To Kill a Mockingbird. Why aren’t they reading Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts or George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue or any of a dozen other novels I suggest one place or another in Hooked?

What’s changed in the way we talk about books in the past twenty-five years? Locally, in Montreal it’s now possible to achieve national and international recognition without moving to Toronto. For a very long time, Mordecai Richler was the only English language writer anybody at the CBC had on their Rolodexes – the non-automated Palm Pilots of yesteryear. Writing about Montreal was a very bad career move even if you did it brilliantly. Ask Trevor Ferguson about what happened to Onyx John (1985)! The only newspaper job Carole Corbeil was offered in Montreal was as a telephonist in Classified Ads at the Gazette. It drove her to Toronto – no bad thing in retrospect – because she created Voice-over (1992) out of the tension between the two cities and made great art and some money doing it.

It wasn’t easier for new voices coming from elsewhere in the country – David Adams Richards was consistently misread, Wayne Johnston was barely readl, and Joan Barfoot was read for the wrong reasons when she was read at all. For too many readers, the novelists who counted could be seated comfortably in a Greyhound bus parked at Dundas at Bay with plenty of room left over for the leading poets and dramatists. Now you can barely shoehorn the novelists and short story writers who matter into a Boeing 737. We have more conversations about books and they’re wider-ranging.

Okay, those are the positives. When I say that Canada is increasingly sui generis among the nations of the world, I’m not ignoring the darker side of Canadian experience. We’re not the nice, polite, apologetic aw shucks white folks of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café and never have been: and we’re not the flip side of that image either – the narrow-minded, solipsistic, simplistic, one-dimensional, monosyllabic, beer-soaked, lowest-common-denominator nutcases that Don Cherry represents.

Before pushing forward in the direction of what we are, let me clarify what I’m not. Bruce Meyer, the G&M reviewer who describes himself as a professor of English at Georgian College, describes me as a “retired professor of literature from Montreal’s Dawson College.” Doesn’t that sound nice! Another reviewer referred to me as a professor emeritus and don’t that sound just tres grande! What I am is a longtime CEGEP teacher with cognitive disabilities who can no longer control a classroom, has exhausted his disability insurance, and was forced to retire four years earlier than expected to a smaller pension than I was anticipating.

Georgian College offers university-accredited courses; Dawson doesn’t. Meyer may or may not have the right to call himself a professor of English: Dawson College has teachers and that’s all I was in a wide range of courses and programs. And that, as Emmy Lou Harris not so nicely but ever so melodiously sings, is “all I ever wanted to be” as a wage earner – a guy in inner city classrooms teaching immigrants, children of immigrants, grandchildren of immigrants how to read with greater comprehension, write with greater accuracy, and converse in public with greater confidence despite the civil wars, genocides, and neo-imperialisms that have disconnected them from the greater parts of their families.

I did teach university for four years as an Instructor at the beginning of my professional work life and that was more than enough. As were the seven years of university that left me a set of comprehensives and a thesis short of a Ph.D.

The best lessons I learned both about teaching and about writing came out of George Grant’s seminars at McMaster. It’s only in Lament for a Nation that Dr. Grant succeeded (and succeeded brilliantly) in writing the kind of book he urged me to attempt – he realized long before I did that my métier – if and when I ever got my act together – would be to speak colloquially to Canadians of aspects of our national life without importing terms foreign to our political conditions and educational needs.

My academic training is as an historian of ideas (first in Western philosophy, then in Roman Catholic theology and Biblical studies, then in European humanism, then in the dominant post-Vedic cultural values of the Indian sub-continent that reached their apogee with Sidhartha Gautama, the Buddha. I am an accidental authority not an academic one when it comes to the Canadian novel. I do tell the story of how that happened at the beginning of Hooked and the role Judith Mappin’s Double Hook Bookstore played in that process.

Enough about me, more about why I say this country is sui generis. Despite the smug, hipper-than-thou, self-aggrandizing, socially irresponsible, intellectually vacuous posturings of such mischief-makers and petit-monsters of self-entitlement as Douglas Coupland, Russell Smith, and Stephen Marche, OurLit is more youth-oriented, urban-centric, racially and sexually diverse, socially complicated and outright comic than they seem to realize. And more deeply rooted in multiple strands of modernism.

Here, let me quote myself on Marche who drew considerable attention with “Raging against the tyranny of CanLit” in The Toronto Star on October 20, 2007. My comment on him what irks him is this:

“While it’s the duty of every novelist who believes that novels “that do not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence” are worse than useless (Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, revised edition, 2000), to weigh up existing talent and create a readership for himself (yes, it’s alpha males who rush to these judgments), what’s insulting in Marche’s self-serving are his off-hand colour-blindness and anglophilia (among the old men of the first generation, Austin Clarke is alive and well and flourishing as is Josef Škvorecký), and lack of rudimentary historical perspective. Hasn’t he read at least enough of Coupland (whose views on CanLit 14 months earlier in the New York Times blog—cited above—are paraphrased closely enough to imply some causal relationship) to know that Atwood (and Leon Rooke, Clarke Blaise, Keath Fraser) as well as the other writers he does name are pre-Boomers who have largely given way to an established generation of actual Baby Boom writers (born between 1946 and 1957) that is doing some of its best work under pressure from Coupland’s own excellent-at-innovation Generation X (born between 1958 and 1968) as well as Marche’s Generation Y (born between 1969 and 1980)? And has he read enough Atwood of the early, middle, and later periods to judge her as he does? Her talent remains robust; Michael Ondaatje is the only established author whose career has entered the day-out-of-night of Planet Hollywood where every new book reduces his legacy. Marche takes the cheap shot, the one he knows he can fire off without burning up his own career: Atwood has better things to do than piss on his natterings but Ondaatje’s friends at Brick and elsewhere might just help his career along in some way that’s sweller in his imagination than in reality.

Yes, there are bad Canadian novels. There have always been bad novels everywhere they’re written. And yes, some of them have too much setting and too little plot but this isn’t peculiarly Canadian any more than the limiting of plots to “recovering from historical or familial trauma through the healing power of whatever (most common)” which, for example, might define Twain and Tolstoy; “uncovering historical or family secrets and thereby achieving redemption (close second)” which, for example, might define Dickens and Dostoevsky; “coming of age (distant third place)” which, for example, might define Conrad and Goethe. More than a century ago in “The Future of the Novel,” Henry James complained about the gross quantity of bad American and British novels—stories and characters that lacked both variety and vividness—but blamed the mediocrity of writers, the laxness of readers and the timidity of editors for their proliferation. James bemoaned the aversion to risk-taking on all sides and, specifically, the failure of both Anglo-American writers and readers to embrace adult life and examine sexual relations in straightforward ways. He placed the greatest blame on the timidity of editors who invariably seem to fasten on female adolescents as their “ideal” reader. Female adolescents or the adolescent that remains firmly botoxed in women uncertain of maturity remain the favourite targets of Manhattan’s editors. Such readers are no longer sanctimonious—those who find their way past the Young Adult vampire fantasy sections of Big Boxes of Books and don’t stop at the shopaholic pyramids—devour the less-than-adult sexual relations that Heather O’Neill delivers in Lullabies and Marche attempts to service in his own debut, Raymond and Hannah (2005).

As a critic of our literature, Marche is a pissenlit (dandelion): as a novelist, does he have anything to offer? Raymond and Hannah has a plotless sex scene in an empty apartment that moves a hook-up to a somewhat committed relationship over a cottage weekend setting that are both worth reading: they are fine, compact, lucid short stories shoehorned between a novella about Hannah’s attempt at discover Jewishness by moving to Israel and studying at a yeshiva with a Rabbi who once was a fisherman in Maine that involves a lot of typing of the kind Nino Ricci (see below) does (whenever he forgets he’s a mature married man and not a morose grad student). While Raymond works at a doctoral dissertation in Toronto on—quelle surprise!—Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Hannah comes of age as Raymond doesn’t."

I guess that’s what you mean by one of my barbs! Reading Marche, I fall into some kind of time warp – it’s 1955 and he’s attempting to bestride Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself as a bull-rider without any grip on the other ballbusters in the room. If you want to know what’s happening in our country that makes it (and it's literature) utterly distinctive, you must sit down and read Adderson, Alexis, Bissoondath, Bush, Choy, Austin Clarke, George Elliott Clarke, Coady, Cole, Corbeil, Coupland, Durcan, Endicott, Gowdy, Greer, Hage, Heighton, Highway, Hill, Lai, , Bruce MacDonald, Robin Maharaj, Mootoo, Morrissey, Kevin Patterson, Rau Badami, , Robertson, Eden Robinson, Elizabeth Ruth, Brad Smith, Timothy Taylor, Priscilla Uppal, Vassanji, Whittal, Michael Winter. And that’s only a partial list! Until people do read them and read them as a matter of course, conversations about OurLit won’t shift to the realities upon which reliable critical judgments can be formed. God help us, we'll be stuck in Robertson Daviesville.

In 2006, the NY Times ran a feature about "the best" American novel since 1980. They asked 125 prominent literary figures to pick a single title. I'm going to ask you an unfair question now. If you were to pick a single Canadian novel since 1984 as "the best," what would you pick and why? (I have a guess about what you will choose.)

That’s easy – my own Hooked On Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984! Why? Because it contains “engrams” of all other candidates! I mean “engrams” as Aby Warburg used the term. (I discuss his library and his intellectual ambitions at some length.)

But to take my tongue out of my cheek and propose this seriously, I’d have to be delusional and consider myself as author of Hooked to be entirely imaginary and all the books I discuss to be works of my imagination. I’m not delusional. These books do exist and are as robustly independent-minded, distinctive and distinguished as I say they are. I’m not a one book or even one author sort of reader.

What’s your guess?

I thought the book you would pick was Solomon Gursky Was Here. Ah, well.

That’s a pretty good guess. Today, in fact, I can’t think of a better one unless we’re playing the desert island game. If I could only take one Canadian novel with me to a desert island, which one would it be? There are any number I wouldn’t have to take because I know their particular worlds so well I can think myself back inside them whenever I want even though details elude me.

Solomon Gursky is such a book. Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless is another and what a shame many readers avoided it because of what they thought it might be rather than what it actually is. Maybe now that people are becoming aware of the abductions of children in Haiti after the earthquake by well-intentioned emotional dimwits, it will find a more responsive readership.

The book I can’t carry in my head, the one I’d have to carry into exile with me is Don Akenson’s An Irish History of Civilization. Brian Fawcett says it’s “a global classic, even if no one figures it out for a decade or so” and he’s absolutely right. And if Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy are novels, it’s a novel – all 1524 pages of it.

At the end of my book, in an open letter to a former student, I place Atwood’s Year of the Flood alongside Akenson’s History as large and difficult books. Atwood’s is less than a third the length of Akenson so I obviously mean large in a larger sense. It has had very little impact to date, especially with the Giller jury. Once people read Akenson, maybe they’ll figure Atwood out.

Admirers of Year of the Flood might attribute its spurning by a Giller jury that selected Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man to what Atwood calls the Tall Poppy Syndrome—the levelling social attitude that cuts down the meritorious as presumptuous, attention seeking, or without genuine achievement. But her metaphor is too botanical, too bloodless even if it was first used by Aristotle (who chose sweet corn to the flowering source of opium).

Benjamin Franklin Fairless, president of United States Steel Corporation, was more Grimm-ish, closer and odder in fellowship to Atwood’s old friend Matt Cohen who liked to quote Fairless: “You cannot add to the stature of a dwarf by cutting off the leg of a giant.”

I think it goes deeper than that, as did Matt. We both read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard under the guiding hand of George Grant in our McMaster days. I quote both on the subject of ressentiment. Ressentiment is not simply resentment. It’s what Sartre called it “bad faith.” There’s a stinking heap of it in the continuing argument about who is and who isn’t, what is and what isn’t Canadian, who gives and who gets prizes in OurLit.

Values always shift, even the ones someone or other is always wanting to designate “essential” to “national identity.” Fifty years ago, Tommy Douglas—Father of Medicare—was “unCanadian” and the virulently anti-democratic RCMP was ever so Canadian (as long as we weren’t socialists or Native or Métis). Literary culture when it is pursued in good faith is about the processes through which the implicit is made explicit—ugliness is exposed to beauty, falsity is undermined by truth, bad is thwarted by the good.

Literary culture—the processes by which books get written and read—is a dialogue, a co-operation between writers and readers who are working towards common purposes in good faith with mutual respect. Literary culture is, before all else, an exercise in civics.

Okay, I’ve got that out of my system. I’ll put aside the soap box I haul out in a dozen or so mini-essays called “Annals of OurLit” in the book. My own tastes are clearly defined but there’s little that’s definitive about this book. It’s an argument or the start of one. In asserting “this is so about such and such novels and their makers, isn’t it?”, I’m asking for a reaction.

For me, the greatest strength of our literature is that our leading novelists – with very few exceptions – aren’t part of any established hierarchy. They’re outsiders – just think of the amazing array of writers with real world training and occupations (such as medicine) outside the literary world and the academic one – and that outsider status cloisters and protects their work in the way that jazz musicians are cloistered. And that opens up possibilities for them to be various and vital in ways Yanks and Brits no longer are.

Our storytellers can be as spiritual, cerebral, motivating, moving, idealistic, improvisational as they want. Especially, when it comes to detailing what Pico Iyer called “imaginative multiculturalism” in his famous essay “On the Promise of the New Canadian Fiction.”

Iyer defines this as a multiculturalism that can be “known only at the individual level, where people understand that it is only in the imagination that we can begin to penetrate the Other (or to allow the Other to penetrate us)”— it’s multiculturalism based on shared beliefs not shared roots, it’s a defence of the natural order and human nature against ideology and the politics of identity.

Why does this matter? When we read our storytellers like this, it keeps us from blaming “global warming” or “bad politics” for what is happening. We are destroying ourselves by depending on an an expand-or-expire agro-industrial empire—a crackpot machine—that the specialists cannot comprehend and the managers cannot manage.

Our writers – at their best – do not submit to this system but to standards raised, though not necessarily made, by themselves. In this, they’re much closer to Cervantes and Shakespeare, the Bible and Homer, Conrad and James – as I repeatedly point out in Hooked and in every review I write these days. I’m not in the habit “of turning up a new Conrad, Faulkner, Thomas Mann, or Henry James around every corner” as some say I am.

What I am doing is showing (whenever possible and wherever it’s apposite) that our best novelists are working out their own resolutions to older problems in new ways but in continuity with the greats of the past.

Steve Heighton, for instance, has figured out in his new novel how the eighteenth century device of multiple points of view (that Conrad re-popularized) serves specific moral purposes and isn’t merely a Creative Writing MFA impress-the-panel thesis project.

At the beginning of The Dyer's Hand, W.H. Auden remarks that he's "never written a line of criticism except in response to a demand;" meanwhile, "all the poems I have written were written for love." As you've already hinted, in Canlit criticism is written more for love than profit. Yet, where are the critics? As you've noted, the past quarter-century has been a rich and lively period in Canadian letters, but decent, engaged critics are few. First, do you have a comment about that? Second, am I missing something? Are there some Canlit critics and titles you'd recommend?

A whole generation of readers and writers has been betrayed by the waxing of Cultural Studies and its practitioners. If you don’t know what I mean by that, read the British critic Terry Eagleton’s later writings, especially After Theory (2003), his indictment of the rejection of any and all “absolutes” in literary studies.

Eagleton asserts – sanely – that each of us lives in a body that cannot be “owned” because nothing was ever done to acquire it and nothing short of suicide can be done to be rid of it. Our bodies and their deaths provide the focus for literary activities or they perish. (His argument for Christianity is delicious – “one of the best reasons for being a Christian, as well as a socialist, is that you don't like having to work, and reject the fearful idolatry of it so rife in countries like the United States.

True civilizations do not hold predawn power breakfasts.”) I don’t and won’t read anyone who denies death in order to earn their daily bread – and there’s no greater denial of death than the advocacy of ideological and/or aesthetic purity, is there?

Bruce Serafin, the founding editor of The Vancouver Review and a full time postal worker, grappled with death his entire life and produced two books of literary essays – Colin’s Big Thing (2003) and the posthumous Stardust (2007). Stardust contains a critique of Canada’s literary magazines that’s sharp, funny, devastating, and should be mandatory reading by the magazines section of the Canada Council but evidently isn’t.

Serafin’s work is wildly uneven – at his best, he wrote “passages of the best prose ever written on Canada’s west coast” according to Brian Fawcett who knows west coast writing better than anyone I’ve ever encountered. But Serafin’s gift was not only to write well but to write provocatively and he elicited a piece of criticism by Fawcett “Serafin’s Stardust: Losing the best Canadian writer no one knows about” (posted on Dooneyscafe.com) that’s better than anything written about any Canadian writer than most of us have ever likely read.

I’ve been reading Fawcett more assiduously and arguing more with him (mostly inside my own head) than I have with anybody else since 1984. Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times and Other Impolite Interventions (1991) is still very much worth reading for its insights into Douglas Coupland’s first literary efforts and Margaret Atwood at mid-career. It’s a good starting point for reading your way through his many postings at Dooneyscafe.com.

Most of what I read by way of critiques of Canadian writers I pick up here and there on the internet and you’re right that decent, engaged critics are few and far between. The universities produce such people only by accident, it seems. And our national media give them no room to flourish. For much of my writing life, The Toronto Star was the only newspaper to have a full time book columnist – Philip Marchand. His Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature (1998) is essential reading. As is his book on Marshall McLuhan.

I’d also recommend John Metcalf’s two volumes of literary memoirs – An Aesthetic Underground (2003) and Shut Up He Explained (2007). The latter contains “The Century List” – Metcalf’s selection of The Best Forty Canadian Short Story Collections of the Twentieth Century. I love arguing with it. As Brian Bethune of Maclean’s has said of my own Hooked, “there’s something that makes you want to throw it at a wall.” I shake my head at his exclusion of Rick Rofihe’s Father Must (1991).

Rofihe is the third Canadian – Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant – to have signed a “first right of refusal contract” with The New Yorker. Unfortunately, he fell into a deep pothole on the road to success. (He now publishes exclusively on the internet) but the 16 pieces in Father Must have all the qualities Metcalf teaches us to admire in lesser known, lesser talented writers.

Another book I like a lot because of my own passion for Cervantes is Douglas Glover’s The Enamoured Knight, a book-length meditation on Don Quixote and the formation of the novel.

The future. I know your book is more a reflection on the recent past, but one thing that surprised me is you didn't comment on some of the dramatic technological/market changes that have played havoc and been a powerful shaping tool of Canlit and publishing globally during that time. I thinking of things like the rise of online book selling, the internet generally, the rise of the big box booksellers and the rise of international media megacompanies and the drive to push blockbuster books (almost exclusively some would say).

More recently, the swift dominance of hand-held digital devices and the i-Pad, as a singular and powerful example, may literally push books right off the shelves. Others, like Philip Roth, are saying the end of the literary novel is nigh. Your book, on the other hand, is optimistic. Presumably not just about the Canadian novel but about literature generally. I don't mean to be a death eater, but what are your thoughts? Are we in an End of Culture perfect storm?

I do actually comment on the rise of big box stores, their obliteration of independent booksellers, and Indigo’s reinvention of itself as a Martha Stewart cerebral accessorizing consumer outlet, a Walmart of mental furnishings and the transformation of public libraries into infocenters. My comments are brief, obviously easy to overlook but pointed. I pay considerable attention to Henry James’s thinking about the future of the novel which I think is more accurate than Philip Roth’s in its final prognosis.

Roth is correct in forecasting the end of literary novels as bestsellers and their authors as celebrities but both those phenomena owed a great deal more to Henry Luce’s suborning of American literature to the political aims of his Time-Life empire than Roth, one of the last knights in its end games, considers.

My book is enthusiastic but not particularly optimistic. Novels are the best painkillers mankind has created, as James says, and as long as we’re alive and sentient, they’ll continue to do their work. We’ll all need to elevate our pain thresholds enormously to find any kind of personal satisfaction in living through the wrenching changes of the next two decades as the world’s centers of population shift in more dramatic ways than the collapse of the Soviet Union has pre-figured.

Since I’m convinced Canada will be in the foreground of the most crucial of those changes, I’m enthusiastically promoting those writers who seem to me to be the surest guides to Iyer’s “imaginative multiculturalism” – multiculturalism based on shared beliefs not shared roots, the defence of the natural order and human nature against ideology and the politics of identity, a fully human engagement with the Other.

As far as hand-held digital devices go, I’ve seen enormous changes in delivery systems for every form of communication in my lifetime. The latest system neither thrills nor offends me.

Final question. It was going to be: What do you think of HARRY POTTER? But I decided on something more personal. If I was gonig to pick a single best title from the past twenty-five years, my choice might be Douglas Glover's THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CAPTAIN N. I was really struck by that book, and Glover's work generally, as material that wrestled with familiar Canadian tropes in wholly unexpected ways. Particularly ways that didn't defend a Canadian nationalism, but complicated it, wrestled with it, forced it to confront international pressures, literary theory, philosophical concepts, the whole shebang. So if I had to pinpoint a disappointment with your book, it's that I would have been interested in hearing your take on that book and Glover's work in general. So, in the spirit of conversation, I'm asking: What do you think of Glover's ouevre?

Ooops! I owe Douglas Glover an apology. And you. And other readers. Glover has published three novels in addition to his critique of Cervantes, his essays, his five story collections and even though his first novel, Precious (1981), was on the short list for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and his third, Elle (2005), won the Governor General’s Award, I always think of him as a short story writer and one of the really good ones. And I admire him as a critic as noted above.

In his short stories, he’s at his best, his saddest and funniest when he is most Beckett-like. I should have made it plain in Hooked that Glover like David Carpenter and Audrey Thomas and Alistair MacLeod and Leon Rooke and …. who else am I missing out ? – are all writers whose novels cause problems (generally structural ones) for readers that their stories don’t.

If you reread what I quote Burgess saying about the necessity of a parabola in a novel (at the beginning of Hooked) you might see what I mean even if you disagree. The other, and more critical problem, is that all of theses writers lack restraint and gratify self-indulgence when they write at length and editors let them get away with it, time and again.

But Glover is owed a larger apology than the others because The Life and Times of Captain N. dropped below my radar. Blame fans like you! I’ve bought at least three copies over the years and let students borrow them and they’ve never been returned. I didn’t have a copy at hand and got sidetracked trying to figure out why Elle attracted the attention it did. Obviously, I couldn’t respond to Elle and quite forgot about the virtues of Captain N. You should have the last word. Tell me what do you think of Elle?

I’m tempted to give the last word to my wife (a not uncommon occurrence). I suggested Elle to her and she loved it. Thought it was hilarious. I liked it, but I didn’t admire it as much as The Life and Times of Captain N., which is one of the very few Canadian novels I consider a tour de force. I’d put Solomon Gurksy in that category, too.

But what did I think of Elle? It was an exercise in voice and an elaborately told joke. Elsewhere I’ve called Glover a Canadian dissident. I like the critical undermining of our nationalism – maybe the particular southern Ontario Protestant nationalism (Red Tory, United Empire Loyalism) that is both Glover’s heritage and mine.

I like the playfulness of the language and the historicism of Elle. The reader isn’t locked into history. One passage I remember notes how hundreds of years after the action a highway will pass across the same spot of land. I find that fun to read, and also a good reminder that the reverse it true, too. Where there are now highways, there were once hunting parties and canoes. Taken from a literary point of view, our writing can’t be based on imported tropes; it needs to be indigenous and wild.

I like your OurLit. It is, whatever it is.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ryan Knighton

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark
by Ryan Knighton
Knopf Canada, 2010

See also - http://www.ryanknighton.com/

The premise of this memoir is straightforward: blind man becomes a father. How will he handle this new stage in life, this new role, and the swaddling infant he can only see in the faint fragments available to the one per cent of his sight that remains?

Because this new, blind father is Ryan Knighton, readers will not be surprised that he handles the situation with humour, grace, and a reflective self-consciousness that takes small, private moments – like diaper changing, or helping a toddler find a lost plush toy using only the encouraging sound of her murmurs – and renders them more broadly meaningful.

Knighton’s previous memoir, 2006’s Cockeyed, told the story of his early life: his adventurous youth and his discovery, at 18, that he had retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive, inherited disorder that slowly closes the visual field, leading to tunnel vision and, often, total loss of central vision. At the beginning of this new memoir, Knighton has only a tiny remnant of sight remaining, with which he hopes to be able to see the glint of his child’s eye.

Though he’s an English teacher at Capilano University, Knighton also has lots of tattoos and a punk rock attitude. The author’s punk ethos, however, is rarely on display here. More prevalent is Knighton’s struggle to come to terms with fatherhood. Knighton’s own father exited his life early, and Knighton sharply dismisses him from the narrative. The author clearly adores his stepfather, although he features only peripherally in the book, as does Knighton’s extended family.

Knighton’s “vision” of a father as provider is complicated by the limits of his own abilities. He picks up his daughter to give his wife a break and walks into a doorframe. He takes the girl outside and loses her in the snow.

In the end, however, Knighton has less to say about fatherhood than he does about being a partner in a functioning marriage. Knighton’s wife, Tracy, is the true hero of this book. Knighton praises her repeatedly, and deservedly so. Ultimately, the book is a testament to the power of partnership, humour, and optimism.

Review first published in Quill and Quire.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tony Burgess

Maybe you saw the movie. Yes, zombies and all. Or maybe not zombies. The following is quoted from Wikipedia.

At Rue Morgue's 2008 Festival of Fear expo, director Bruce McDonald stressed the victims of the virus detailed in the film were not zombies, calling them "Conversationalists". He described the stages of the disease:

There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it's words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can't express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.

One doesn't want to give too much away.

The following review and interview with the author first appeared in The Danforth Review.


Pontypool Changes Everything
by Tony Burgess
ECW Press, 1998

Oh, me. Oh, my. What a book we have here. A book about a zombie infestation in southern Ontario circa now, which empties out cities and makes citizens fearful of the language they speak. Pontypool Changes Everything provides yet more evidence that the newest generation of Canadian writers have moved away from the sickly National Project encouraged by arts funding council bureaucrats and post-Expo '67 flagwavers to a rainbow of experimentation of the most rewarding kind.

Burgess displays nary a trace of Northop Frye's "garrison mentality" in his loopy cannibalistic tale, the sequel to his earlier success, The Hellmouths of Bewdley, and second in a trilogy recently completed with the release of Caesarea. The only garrison in this novel is the one Burgess' characters build (physically or mentally) to ward off the flesh eaters and their language-based disease.

If you're wondering what it all means, you're probably asking the wrong question. The best fiction is more than meaningful, it's interesting. Provocative. Quizzical. Threatening to those who refuse to question the assumptions that underlie the quotidian. That is, the everyday.

Pontypool Changes Everything gets beneath those assumptions. It provides a startling new vision of the world that stares out at us from daily newspaper headlines and the bland repertoire of television programming. It is the best kind of novel and a tasty book to read.


TDR: In the past number of years, you have published the Pontypool Trilogy and a new short story collection, Fiction for Lovers. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Tell us a little bit about your background and how these books came to be.

TB: So I recognized early that something was wrong, I was definitely not having the same experience as other people around me, which would just be what it was except there was this peculiar making in the middle of it. Is that sensible? I may just be describing a creative impulse or something, however, I remember (and am aware of it still) being terrified. These were the beginnings for me. Being preschool age really, and feeling that the world was flinging itself to pieces but also noticing that it wasn't. I used to draw at this age, horrible violent, busy pictures that my parents would hide from people and worse. So for me all the elements, the project had begun then, later it became extreme lifestyles (hello) and, you know, lots of very, very disorganized living.

Writing these books is a relatively recent thing for me. They have all the elements that I remember clearly from a young age. In fact, I would have to say, I didn't properly come up with what I write, but I have been vigilant about the space where they are produced. It's a primal, rapid and feral place. Very quick, very awake. Scare the shit outta me. That much is true. Whether and how I can make it meaningful to anyone is another question. I can tell you I have failed miserably trying to make myself here at times and have paid direly for trying. I have a duty to ensure that readers don't understand entirely what I write in order to remind me and them that the book isn't really for us in the end.

Later, later you think about what formally you may have done, or who is thinking like you, you work in the family resemblance, you pretend it's behaving like literature cause you are roughly playing in that puddle. But the project hasn't changed at all for, like, ever. It was always this thing exactly. No content to speak of. The content (which includes style; who separated those two anyway?) degrades pretty rapidly, all of the books are phatic noise.

TDR: I was trying to think of an adjective to describe your fiction, and I couldn't think of one that suited. Your work has elements of slasher films, post-apocalyptic nightmares, science fiction, horror, and high-minded literary styling in the vein of William S. Burroughs. In your work, zombies haunt small-town Ontario and the populace is infected by an language-borne virus. I see much of this as a metaphor for frightening unseen forces that may or may not be influencing our lives and our world. There's also much humour; I want to make sure I don't forget to say that. Were you surprised to find yourself writing stuff like this ... or has this always been your modus operandi? (and how do you make sense of it? what are you '"up to"? if that isn't too blunt and reductive a question).

TB: No, no surprise that I write like this. Oh wee. Each of the elements you mention matter to me...except, you mention metaphor in your question and I don't really think in terms of metaphor...it goes to this: metaphor is a device (distracting) for looking at this world, and usually about the experience of being a person. Well, neither of those things are particularly interesting to me. I'm not what you'd properly call a person. When I'm writing I grant myself exceptional powers. Sometimes I want to write in a substandard fashion but have the occulted ambition to physically change the immediate vicinity of the book. Now, you might say "so what? You're fuckin nuts!" but I'm now going to be curious to see what I end up writing. This is partially what I've learned from badly made horror films. There are places that realize the unrealizable. We just don't notice it because it looks like failure.

Do this: rent "Phantasm" or "Tool Box Murders" or something and suspend your disbelief like you never have before. Believe that it is the world, not an incompetent version. (You will, because it matters to you, believe that somewhere along the process you'll meet your world again anyway, right? So don't worry, metaphorization is a stable insidious program.) Then that forks off for me this other question: if I'm not making metaphors, then what exactly am I dragging back here? Here's an intense experience that yes, did happen in the world, but it is alien to the world, so please, what can we do with it? Put it this way: I came by those books I wrote honestly.

TDR: I wonder if you could tell us about a couple of writers whose work makes you howl at the moon and what you like about them. What kind of work do you find yourself drawn to?

TB: The writers who made the biggest impression on me I read as teenager: Jarry, Leautreamont, Apollinaire, Genet, Robbe Grillet, Gide ... I also enjoyed modernist manifestoes, futurist, dadaists etc. I was young enough to hear in them a tall clarion. now I read, really, physics, but only physics that's over my head. I also like occult memory technicians: Ramus, Fuccini, Bruno Lull ... Later on I did a major in semiotics and enjoyed it lots. I think mostly of Genet, though. Everything is in Genet.

Also: Charlotte Bronte: Shirley. Because it starts out so stable then distorts in mysterious ways ... characters vaporize and duplicate, dog bites infect out of the dark, people slip into narcotic winters ... very nice.

TDR: I saw David Cronenberg speak at Ryerson recently. He spoke about how he was fascinated with insects when he was a kid, how complex and strange they were. He said you don't need to go into outer space to find alien life forms. They're right out there in your backyard. He said one of his themes is making the gross seem beautiful (not just "seem" but "be beautiful"). Making people see more of the world immediately around them. This might be a odd lead-up this question, but here goes: What do you think of the photos NASA is beaming back from Mars this week? does it look anything like your backyard?

TB: Of course, the first thing you think looking at those pictures, is well, um ... sorry NASA, but I coulda taken that shit drab picture with a week and winnebago (which is a bit like complaining at the gallery that your four year old coulda painted that Pollock). It's interesting listening to the adjectives, `amazing' `stunning' etc. as if the thing itself must be actualized using terms that are greatly different than the thing we see. It is `dull' so call it `astounding'. keep the distance between these two words growing and we will come to understand it is merely a vast space that makes this meaningful. 3D glasses to view a desert? I’ve attached pictures of my back yard [winter] [summer].

As for making the gross beautiful, yes, there's lot's of reason for doing that ... one is to shake off readers you don't like. It's a good vetting process.

TDR: Do you have a question you'd like me to pose to you?

TB: Ask you questions about the books ... or? gimme a clue.

TDR: I guess I mean, is there something you'd like to talk about in particular? I could ask you a question about [whatever it is] ...

TB: I’m thinking ...

In the meantime, look at this photo of me as a child on an Italian man's small pony in our backyard in Bramalea.

TDR: While you're thinking, maybe I could ask you about that complicated relationship: the book review, the book, the author, Virginia Wolfe's "ideal reader" (or maybe in this case ... the difference between Tony Burgess's ideal reader and Tony Burgess's actual readers). What has been the general reception of your books? How do you feel about the reviews of your work? What's your relationship with your books like once you've handed the manuscript to the publisher for the last time?

TB: Well, there's two exclusive experiences - writing the book then handing the book over (I insist that they are exclusive and they behave so). Writing the book is peculiar, private, hermetic and ... hmmm ... how do I put? ... naive. Handing it over is climbing up into the general desire not to have a bad experience today. Those are two very different things - I assure myself while I’m writing that no reader will ever touch it, and if they do, they will never get the copy I’m writing, they'll get their own smelly book bought copy. The ideal reader is never human. (There are things I insist on and I write to those things. I know insisting doesn't make it so, but it definitely changes the behavior of the book).

When the book goes away from me, it's pretty simple; it kinda ceases to exist...the book I wrote has already been received perfectly, it is already enormously popular and extremely funny to its intended reader (not me) ... so when it goes out, like I said, it's this other thing, this me searching daily for not bad experiences. `Oh, you read my book?' `Can't imagine you liked it' and, then pleasantly I discover they did. If they didn't they're just going to be nice.

Reviews have been a bit surprising. I'm surprised by the people who seemed to enjoy them as much as they do. That helps me terrifically to have a not bad day. If I get a bad review, usually someone saying I'm foolish and offensive, it bothers me less than I expect it to. I probably am foolish and offensive. I remember once being interviewed for Ponty and I was doing this bit at the time about how much I exploited my own incompetence to do all these fantastic things. I had a fairly sound shtick running at the time and was trotting it out with ponies for the fella. When the review-interview came out he said I was an incompetent writer. At first, I'm like, ouch, then I thought, hmm ... ok. That's pretty funny, as I read on, I realized that it was a fairly good review and the jarring use of the word `incompetent' was possibly meant for me to read. It also stood as a critical word, how could it not?

I don't read or look much at the book when it's got covers. Feels a bit alien and there's little I can do about what it does. I look for good conversation and friendly people. I like to think of someone finding the book in a cabin where they're staying, shoved on a small book shelf with five other books. In time, they are forced to read it and when they come back to work they can't forget this unsound little read and finally have to ask somebody, "have you ever heard of this...?" and the somebody says "no" and the person spends weeks trying to privately shake this book that, as time goes by, they're not sure they ever read at all.

TDR: Fiction for Lovers is a slight deviation from your previous work. For one thing, it features you and your family as characters. I enjoyed the new book a lot, by the way. I was curious that your narratives had moved closer to home, if in fact they have. There's some wonderful tender moments in the new book. Tenderness isn't something I remember from the others. Are you becoming more domestic? How do you feel your work is changing? What are you working on now?

TB: Hmmm ... well ... I'd like to oblige, but several of the more homey stories were drafted up before I wrote Pontypool ... All the books to me have always been about first home - that's whole bigger matter that tracks through to this one. Funny you should say that though, because I was thinking that Lovers was the coldest of the books. I'll catch up with this question later.

TDR: Cool. I'm interested you hear you expand on this....

TB: ... I think that this, Fiction for Lovers, is the coldest of the lot ... but I couldn't really say ... The others have themes of strange home, leaving home, trying to return home and making, like Satan, a home out of yourself, but in this one the me is actually at home, so a signal is automatically sent. And that signal is, ok, now we will finally deal with ourselves and it will be good for us, i.e., the stabbing and the feeding of people to dogs.

Also, it is the point in the music where I should say hi to Corm. I'll probably give him a shout later this mornin' ... but I'm sure he'll like the `hello'. Hello Corm! He secretly despises me, but I don't care. In fact, I like his books so much, get this, and this is true, when I went to Wales recently I had him promise that if the terrorists get me, that he'd write a book and publish it under my name. I made him swear and seeing as it's a death wish, he's gotta honor it, right? Doesn't have to be a good book, just get it out fast. So, hey, since you know about the pact, you pressure him to do this when the terrorists get me. In fact, fuck it, he should have one ready to go, don't you think, just in case? You're right. I gotta call Corm.

p.s. Corm is Derek McCormack.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Michael Holmes

This review is one that I think I didn't get right. It appeared in Quill and Quire in 2000. Interestingly, the digital version that I've kept is different from the version on the Q&Q website, which must be the final edited version. I've posted both versions below.

What didn't I get right? As a reader, I wanted a sense of uplift, even something small, something to signify a sense of hope. I didn't find it. I didn't like not finding it. But isn't that a problem in the reader, not the book. The book is of a dark genre, and as a representative of that genre it succeeds.


Watermelon Row
by Michael Holmes
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000

The great novels of the gutter (think Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Kerouac’s Subterraneans) share the following characteristic: their narratives move from despair to hope, from fallen state to redemption. If this seems too Christian, then substitute a movement from chaos to meaning. The gutter novel typically takes its readers on a journey through the prisms of hell – emotional, physical, and psychological – to a new understanding.

Toronto writer Michael Holmes’ debut novel, Watermelon Row, fits into the above category on account of its swirling brutality. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, however, its paucity of realization is its ultimate downfall. While Holmes succeeds in creating a tale of sound and fury, he fails to signify a renewed world order that can be pulled from the chaos.

Watermelon Row follows three male protagonists (Peter, early-20s; Scott, late-30s; and Ed, mid-70s) through a 24-hour period during which each of their hellish lives swings from bad to worse, and then toward an almost coincidental resolution. The local strip club, which all three frequent, links the men and their stories. The characters use machine-gun profanity and share a penchant for abusing just about anyone who dares to get close to them.

Emotional reactionaries, Holmes’ protagonists run on automatic pilot, the nerve endings of their damaged personalities exposed for all to see. The story, like the writing, is overly literal and lacking in imaginative power. It was Shelley who said that we need darkness to make the stars shine bright. Readers who persist through the nihilism will find little spark of meaning in this novel’s multiple conclusions.


[below, the original, unedited version]

The great novels of the gutter (one thinks of Henry Miller’s TROPIC OF CANCER; Burrough’s NAKED LUNCH; Kerouac’s SUBTERRANEANS) share at least one characteristic. Their narratives move from despair to hope, fallen state to redemption. If these metaphors are too Christian in their connotation, substitute then a movement from chaos to meaning, complete with a journey through the multiple prisms of hell – emotional, physical, psychological.

Toronto writer Michael Holmes’ debut novel, WATERMELON ROW, falls roughly into the above category. Holmes’ gutter novel follows its three protagonists (one low-20s, one late-30s, one mid-70s) through one twenty-four hour period during which each of their hellish lives swing from bad to worse towards a loose fitting, almost coincidental sense of resolution.

The local strip club serves as the narrative device which links the men and their stories. The men are also linked by their machine-gun profanity and their penchant for abusing just about anyone who dares to get close to them. The phrase men behaving badly is too weak to apply here. The souls of these men went down with the Titanic. They are emotional reactionaries, running on automatic pilot, the nerve endings of their damaged personalities exposed for all the world to see.

Just as Jesus, however, refused to give up on the tax collectors and prostitutes, readers who persist through the nihilism will find a spark of meaning in the novel’s triple conclusion. The movement is not towards stability, but to a moderated chaos.

In STORY, his bible for screenwriters, Robert McKee writes: "scripts fail for one of two reasons: either a glut of meaningless and absurdly violent conflict, or a vacancy of meaningful and honestly expressed conflict." Holmes’ novel suffers on both counts. He succeeds in creating a swirling tale of sound and fury. He fails to signify a level of order that can be pulled from the chaos.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Peter Darbyshire

Count me among the readers eager to receive Peter Darbyshire's new novel, The Warhol Gang (Harper Collins, 2010).

I first read Daryshire in a chapbook called The Paris Connection: Stories, published by Shelagh Rowan-Legg's Thirteenth Tiger Press.

I reviewed that chapbook, and wrote:

Peter Darbyshire's contribution, "Paris Isn't a Love Story," injects both a masculine presence and a skeptical voice (as the title suggests) into the collection. Set in Canada, the story centres on a couple who are moving to Paris. Unable to take his gun with him, the husband gives it to friends who have dropped in to say goodbye. Paris is more distant in this story than in the others, both as a symbol and as an aesthetic influence. This story is distinctly American - somehow able to join Carver and Tarrantino.

While the other stories in this collection very near bleed Romantic transendence - i.e., Paris is a place where alienation is overcome - Darbyshire's characters do not overcome their silences. Springsteen sang, "There's a darkness on the edge of town." Darbyshire's characters live in that darkness, infected by the absurdities of the contemporary sit-com. On the way home the friends get stuck in traffic:

"Jesus Christ," I said. "Paris." I couldn't stop laughing. I reached into the box and took out the gun. Cait didn't say anything else, just kept on watching me.

Paris is a moveable feast. Its value lies in its flexibility, this collection shows. Three of the four writers here still find vigor in Paris's well worn metaphors. In Darbyshire's story, Paris is an unexamined "other". It is tempting to say if Paris didn't exist, writers would have to invent it. Then again, perhaps they already have.

Later, I reviewed Darbyshire's first novel, Please (Raincoast, 2002) and interviewed him.
None of that, however, prepared me for this new book, which must be one of the most accomplished satire's to come out of this country. The reviews so far have drawn comparisons to the works of Chuck Palahniuk, George Bataille and Kathy Acker, and I'm pretty sure I saw a review citing the influence of Orwell.
The blurb on the back cover from Lee Henderson raises the specter of Don DeLillo, and that's the name that kept returning to me as I read this book. DeLillo creates an eerie sense of a world not only gone crazy but heading for collapse. I'm thinking of White Noise, in particular. Orwell's world of 1984 is already over the edge. The world of The Warhol Gang is arguably over the edge, too, but I'm going to suggest its only an inflated version of our own late capitalism.
It's hyperreality, in other words, not something father (far) out (man).
I've always been skeptical of the idea of "late capitalism." Later than what? But I don't know how else to describe this book. It's like No Logo on acid. Darbyshire's knife is aimed straight at the heart of the marketplace. Everything in this book is commodified. The only logical conclusion I can think of for the society of The Warhol Gang is collapse. Does that make Darbyshire a Marxist? Maybe only a super smartypants.
The book is funny, disturbing, and has a great cover. People kept stopping me and asking what I was reading. Which is funny, too, given how central it is to the plot that everyone and everything is turned into a "product."
So what is the book about anyway?
A young man (nameless) gets a job at a market-research company. The company gives him a code name, Trotsky. This is the only name the reader knows him by. We know very little about his background. He is a university graduate in search of employment. His job prospects appear not too good. He is, in other words, very GenX. He is also, in other words, generic.
Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, we might note, was highly specific. It was his specificity, in fact, that got him into trouble with Big Brother. He wanted to be himself. He didn't want to be a cog in the wheel.
"Trotskty," on the other hand, doesn't have an antagonist. He's not fighting against evil. He is more like Gulliver on his travels. Lost in a strange land. Compared to Winston Smith, he is a child. (Hopefully its clear here that I don't mean in age; I mean in his thinking and actions. He's juvenile, narcissitic, incapable of connection to anything larger than himself, though he yearns for that something "more.")
On page 102, Trostky says, "I have no idea what's going on."
On page 152, he says, "I've never felt so alive."
On page 190, he tells his sort-of girlfriend, "There's more to life than fame." (She replies, "No there's not.")
On page 209, he says, "You can't fight a war against a department store."
On page 289, he says, "I think my mind is broken."
On page 309 (the last page), he says, "I don't know who I am."
This is not the sort of novel where a protagonist goes through a series of trial and emerges a new, better person. This is the sort of novel where a protagonist goes through a series of trials and ends up back where he started, only a little worse for wear.
But what happens?
The job our (anti)hero is given involves getting naked and sitting in a pod (I imagine it like a tanning bed). Images are projected onto the inside of the pod, partly controlled by the mind of the person in the pod. The images are of products that don't yet exist. The company is attempting to get ahead of the consumer demand curve. Or it's trying manufacture the consumer demand curve. Or its just manipulating the hell out of consumer behaviour.
Exposure to the images in the pod deteriorates the protagonist's mental health. The experience has a similar effect on the other characters who enter the pods. The connection to the essential self weakens. The protagonist feels that he is becoming the people he imagines himself to be while in the pod. The boundary between reality and fantasy blurs. See again the definition of hyperreality.
To reestablish the connection to "reality" (the only word Nabokov reportedly said should always include quotation marks), the protagonist is advised to buy stuff. This works for a while, then it doesn't. Influenced by a popular television program about violent accidents, the protagonist starts visiting real accidents. He watches people die. He intervenes, holds their hands, takes their keys and visits their apartments. He is aided in this mission by a police scanner, recommended to him by a mysterious stranger.
He meets more mysterious strangers and discovers that they are the "resistance." Later, he meets the leader and asks what they are resisting. Everything, is the answer. And thus also, nothing. There is an element of The Matrix in this section. The leader doesn't tell "Trotsky" that he's "the One," but that's what happens. The protagonist, through a series of accidents, enables the resistance to go big time. To get a better brand. The Warhol Gang.
In 1960, Philip Roth gave a lecture on American literature that was later included in Reading Myself and Others (1975). Roth said/wrote:
The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and our culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
J. G. Ballard later went further, claiming that realist fiction had shot its bolt. In 1988, he told the Palm Beach Daily News:
Few of today's serious writers could be thought of as realists in the strictest terms, our environment is so filled with fiction already -- television, advertisting, politics -- that life is a huge novel we're all living inside. The techniques of realistic fiction are simply not adequate to describe it. Only the resources of a fairly bizarre imagination and disturbed mind are capable of making sense of the world today.
In response to this point of view, Tom Wolfe published an essay in 1989 in defense of literary realism. The world wasn't any simplier in Dickens' day, he essentially said. The techniques of the realistic novel (and lots of on the ground research) are enough to suit any novelist worthy of the name.
Darbyshire has more in common with Ballard than with Wolfe, that much should be clear by now. We should note Ballard's comment (from 1988!) about how much of our environment "is so filled with fiction already." Darbyshire belongs with those novelists who are writing fiction about the fiction of our "reality." He is not, a la Roth, trying to make the world "credible." He is showing, among other things, how in-credible the world is.

How uncredible it is.

"Trotsky" doesn't get connected back to his essential self, but the idea of "return to the real" animates much of the action in this book. With its precursors (The Matrix, 1984), The Warhol Gang might be read as a story underlaid with a desire to "return to the garden" (i.e., Eden). If only we could get out of our hyper mediated "reality" and back to simpler times when ... what? Consumer trends weren't manipulated by market-research? 
No. I don't think Northrop Frye could pin this one on The Great Code. For one thing, the resistance is corrupt. Not only does the Warhol Gang within The Warhol Gang erupt into a Charles Mansonesque fury; it also starts getting recruits to sign a contract and begins licencing its activities.
Again, this is a GenX perspective. There is no latent Sixties nostalgia here. The revolution ate its young long ago, and now you can buy the merchandise.

Ten years ago, I noted that Darbyshire's characters live in Springsteen's "darkness at the edge of town," "infected by the absurdities of the contemporary sit-com." In The Warhol Gang, Darbyshire has gone deeper and darker. It's a book that ought to frighten us, at least those of us not amusing ourselves to death.



I put this note below because it's in the nature of an aside. How does this book fit into Canadian literature? Note none of the references above cite anything Canadian.

Richler's Cocksure is the only "go to" book I could think to reference.

Elsewhere, I've noted the sad fate of satire in Canadian literature. We have no DeLillo or Ballard. (Or do we? Out there hidden and obscure.) (Does Cronenberg count?)

Which is strange in the land of McLuhan, Innis et al. Didn't Canadians invent media studies?

 Ah, thoughts for another day. Right now, I think my mind is broken.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ken Sparling

Ken Sparling has a new book out from Pedlar Press (2010), called Book. I've read it. I can't say I understood it. It had something to do with God.

Years earlier, I interviewed Sparling twice and reviewed his first book. I've published the results of those encounters below.

In 1996, Sparling told me: "I wanted to celebrate my life," he says. "The little mundane day-to-day crap that goes on." It may not mean a lot to other people, but "this is my life," he says, "and I like it."

Book continues that project.

See also:

This review first appeared in Paragraph (Spring 1997).

Ken Sparling
Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall
Knopf, 1996

Last year (1995), Milan Kundera wrote in his collection of essays, TESTAMENTS BETRAYED: "most novels today stand outside the history of the novel: [they are] novelized confessions, novelized journalism, novelized score-settling, novelized autobiographies."

It is Kundera's passion that today's readers (and writers) associate the novel too closely with the 19th century. According to Kundera, too many of today's novels "say nothing new, have no aesthetic ambition, bring no change to our understanding of man or to novelistic form."

Kundera wishes to remind us of the novelistic tradition that preceeded the Romantics. "The freedom by which Rabelais, Cervantes, Diderot, Sterne enchant us had to do with improvisation," he says. Kundera also promotes Kafka as a writer who was able to use the novel to a startling new purpose.
It may be early yet to compare Ken Sparling's debut novel, DAD SAYS HE SAW YOU AT THE MALL, with the work of one of the twentieth century's undisputed heaviweights; however, like Kafka's masterpieces, Sparling's book challenges exactly because it does not behave as we might expect.

Sparling's novel has a playfulness that Kundera would enjoy, a tumbling, head-over-heels silliness that provides the foundation for everything in the novel that's serious. And there's lots of that, too.

Sparling, the former editor of the Toronto literary journal, BLOOD AND APHORISMS, has great trouble sustaining a narrative. His book is written in short segments, ranging roughly from one to 10 sentences. The longest sections barely roll over onto a second page. The effect is that we view the life of the narrator (also named Ken Sparling) through a strobe light, viewing Sparling-narrator through a burst of scattered, apparently random incidents.

The question, of course, isn't: why hasn't Sparling written a more "normal" (i.e. 19th century) novel? The questions are, rather: what does Sparling's technique allow him to achieve? and is it successful? The set of possible answers to the first question rivals the stars in number. To the second question, I can say simply, Yes.

Sparling's novel works. It may even work extremely well. (Only time will tell.) One of the features that makes it work is the emotional ambiguity Sparling captures brilliantly in the narrative voice. Like Kafka's narrators, Sparling-narrator is aware of immense forces that mysteriously manipulate his life, though where Kafka's narrators are paranoid, Sparling's narrator is bemused.

One passage reads: "The universe keeps striking the same note. I suddenly realize there has only ever been one note. The difference is, I used to wait to hear the other notes. THEY'RE COMING, I thought. There was this wonderful sense of possibility."

That "sense of possibility," I think, is the popular hope that the 20th century would provide a technological solution to the ills of human history. It hasn't, of course. In many ways, in fact, the 20th century has compounded the problems we inherited from our ancestors. You can almost hear the smirk in the voice of Sparling-narrator as he contemplates the possibilities History was supposed to provide but didn't.

DAD SAYS HE SAW YOU AT THE MALL is as much about cultivating an attitude as it is about telling a story. Part of that attitude is a type of besmirched alienation at the end of a chaotic century. Another part of the attitude Sparling cultivates is the affection between father and son, a tender warmth that grows as the book unfolds. This is the true heart of the book.


This article first appeared in Id Magazine (July 1996).

A sociology professor who said that he believed in "the good" inspired Ken Sparling, the Toronto-based author of the recently released novel, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, to a life of literature.
Well, sort of.

"Part of what drove me to write my book," says Sparling, "was a dissatisfaction with day-to-day dialogue."

Sparling says that he was dissatisfied with the relativity he found at university. Literature reaches for something deeper than mere opinion, he says, as we talk over a picnic table beside Mel Lastman Square in North York.

Sparling has given up his lunch hour as a public relations officer at the North York Public Library to discuss his life in the burgeoning Toronto literary scene.

I ask him if he hopes to re-create in literature "the good" that his professor promoted. He shrugs. Not one for grand pronouncements, he says he simply wanted to record in an interesting way the everyday events that fill contemporary life.

"I wanted to celebrate my life," he says. "The little mundane day-to-day crap that goes on." It may not mean a lot to other people, but "this is my life," he says, "and I like it."

Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, Sparling's first novel, is the culmination of a life-long obession to write. The novel has also dramatically changed his life.

People he hasn't seen in 20 years have been calling him since Philip Marchand reviewed Dad Says in the Toronto Star. And Sparling says that his wife, who didn't read the manuscript until it was completed, has been looking at him differently.

He is also incredibly, incredibly happy.

Sparling's literary career began when he published a story in the Toronto-based literary magazine, Blood and Aphorisms, a publication Sparling later edited for 16 months before a falling out with the publisher.

Sparling says former B&A editor, Sam Hiyate, suggested that he send his stories to The Quarterly, the New York City literary journal edited by editorial legend Gordon Lish. Lish, the former fiction editor of Esquire, played a leading role in promoting the careers of Raymond Carver and Leon Rooke. Lish took an interest in Sparling and played an instrumental role in arranging Sparling's book contract with the U.S. publishing house, Knopf.

"I was trying to figure out what to do with my writing," Sparling says. All that he could write were short pieces that seemed disconnected from each other. Sparling found that The Quarterly was "right up the road from where I wanted to go."

Lish was publishing short, "postcard" prose pieces, packed with intense language and a poetic sensitivity. He arranged for Sparling to write a collection of stories for Knopf. "And I tried," says Sparling. But it eventually became clear that he was writing a novel.

Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall consists of a series of incidents, illustrated in segments between one and ten sentences in length. The book reads like Jane Austen fed through a strobe light. A sense of the larger whole emerges once you get past the first twenty pages, though you're never really sure where you are.

The narrator (who is called Ken Sparling) works in a library (like the real Ken Sparling), but he provides few clues about context. Events are described, but not interpreted. Emotion is hinted at, but not explored.

Sparling (the author) says he admires writers like Albert Camus. The Stranger impressed him, he says, because Camus simply told the story and didn't laden it with a lot of psychological interpretation. Sparling has achieved a similar concentration on "the facts" in Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall.

"The book makes it sound as if my life is pretty drab sometimes," says Sparling. "But it is pretty drab sometimes. Still, it's interesting to me."


The below interview in from The Danforth Review (2003).

1) What are you reading right now? Anything inspiring or disappointing? (What characterizes books that inspire / disappoint you?)

I like books about misfits. I just finished reading Word Freak about the world of competitive Scrabble. When I mentioned to the great poet and literary critic, Cooper "Esteban" Renner that I was reading it, he asked me, flippantly, whether Word Freak would become a movie like Searching for Bobby Fisher, which I'd never seen, so I reserved it at the library and just finished watching it. Loved it.

Deborah Solomon's Utopia Parkway, about Joseph Cornell, knocked me on my ass. Not because it was an amazing piece of writing. It was certainly great as a work of writing, the way a bio should be in that you didn't notice the writing. But Cornell's endeavours captured me entirely. I think that book and the idea of Cornell it painted for me had a real influence on my new book. The other guy whose life and work are of interest right now to me is Henry Darger. All this stuff has been opened to me by Derek McCormack. Besides being my editor, he's been a real friend and an inspiration. And Beth Follet, another great friend (who just happens to be my publisher), also mentions interesting writers and artists. Whenever I've been talking to them, I run back to work and search the library catalogue for books they've told me about.

There's a great, relatively new work about Darger that is huge and costs more than I can afford. I was wandering through the Reference Library's copy for days on my lunches, when I finally realized I was going to have to buy it, so I called up Derek and he picked me up a copy from Book City, where he works. I don't buy books until I've read a library copy. If I love them, I buy a copy. I buy maybe two, three books a year.

Many of the best stories I've read recently have been young adult books. "The Witch in the Lake" was very cool. I read that to my kid, who's eight. He said it was scary but wanted me to keep reading it to him every night while he had his tub. I love to read aloud to the boys. I love the drama of it. Doing the voices. Those young adult books are all very dramatic. Mark, my twelve-year-old, doesn't have me read to him anymore. He makes me read (to myself) the books he's doing at school so I can help him with his essays. Cowboys Don't Cry was a surprisingly good book, considering the potential the story had for turning out to be drek. He also just did Romeo and Juliet - in Grade Seven, can you imagine? Jesus. I couldn't get through it and I'm forty-something years old. Anyway, I did read some of the important passages. The balcony scene. And that drunk guy who makes fun of Romeo was pretty funny. You know, I always feel like if I haven't read all of Shakespeare I must be a loser or something. How can I call myself a writer if I haven't read all of Shakespeare? Anyway, it can't hurt that Mark is doing this stuff at school and I'm forced to at least skim through it. Then I can act like I know what I'm talking about when another person tells me how much they loved Shakespeare when they were in high school. I always think people must be lying about that. Even my wife says she loved Shakespeare, and she's not a big reader. She likes Maeve Binchey and stuff like that. I think she listened to Shakespeare on records when she was in high school. Her and me went to see Taming of the Shrew at Stratford years ago and that was fantastic, but it was because the actors were so engaging. I had no idea what the hell they were saying most of the time. Neither of us had read the book. Anyway, now when Romeo and Juliet comes up in conversation, I can go, "Oh yeah, and what about that Nurse?" and shit like that. Most people just want to tell you all about what they love and their theories, etc., so they don't listen to you anyway. As long as you can name a couple characters, you can fake your way through. I've always been a big faker, but lately I just think, fuck you, I don't have to listen to your shit. Is that from getting older?

I was reduced to tears by Road to Terabithia, which I know has been around a while, but I just read it. A lot of what you wind up reading has to do with who you know, and I know a lot of children's librarians, so I wind up reading these kids books. I also got a copy of Jean Little's Willow and Twig and that made me cry, too. That one I got because the Children's Advocate at the library, Ken Setterington, was going for dinner with Jean Little and my older son, Mark, has been collecting autographed books. Setterington told me to go pick up a couple of her books and he'd get them signed. I whipped over to Mable's Fables and picked a couple up, and "Willow and Twig" was one of them. I just picked it up one day when I had a rare few minutes to read and no book on the go.

Sometimes I go upstairs where I work here at the reference library looking for a particular book and I'll invariably come down with something I wasn't looking for. The best, most astonishing find I've made is Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills by William Saroyan. Reading that was the most exciting fiction reading experience I've had since I read Blood Meridian many years ago.

I love grabbing a book off the shelf at the library and reading a couple pages at random and then putting the book back. Sometimes I succumb to the temptation to bring the book down to my desk for a while, but I'm never moved by these books as entities at my desk the way I am when I know I've only got a few minutes and I plunge in where ever the book falls open, read, close the book and put it back. It's a bit like listening to French CBC. When a great piece of music comes on, I don't go, oh, I've got to get this, who is this by, because I can't speak French and I know when the announcer comes on, I'm not going to have a clue what he says about the piece. So I can just enjoy the piece without a lot of inner conversation about how much I'm enjoying the piece.

I picked up a Best Bet seven day loan library copy of Dave Eggars' new book You Shall Know Our Velocity because it's such a beautiful object. I took it with me to the sub shop where I was getting a meatball sub for my kid who was competing in a swim meet in Etobicoke, and while I was standing in the sub shop waiting to be served I read a few pages and decided Eggars wasn't about to pull it off again, like he did in his first book, which was smartalecky, but nice, too, and sad. This one seemed just smartalecky. I dropped it back off at the library on my way back up to the pool.

I have to mention The Man Who Loved Children, because, like Saroyan's book, no one much seems to know about these books and they have been important in my life. It's hard to believe how moving the experience of reading a certain book can be at a certain time in your life. It's something you take with you for the rest of your life. Something that rises up and moves you in ways real occurrences in your life don't always. Falling in love with my wife and having kids has given me experiences emotionally more beautiful than reading great books, but not much else has. Watching my kid compete at swim meets. My younger son's gorgeous drawings of monsters with little dots all over them. But most everything else people pursue seems ugly and horrible to me, just soul-destroying. In particular at work, where every meeting, every piece of writing, is nothing but garbage. No one likes doing it, but everyone keeps doing it. I don't get it.

I could mention a few other books, ones like Crow Lake which I really enjoyed reading, but what would be the point? These books everyone knows about, they win awards, get reviews, so there's not much point in talking about them in a situation like this, is there?

2) Pedler Press is using a quotation from Hal Niedzviecki about you that befuddled me. The quotation is this:

This is a man [you] whose own subconscious presence is trying to edit him out of the story. This is a man who tries to bridge the divide between artistic hubris and the beautiful details that connote the pointlessness of everyday life. This is a man who through his work suggests that there is a different way to approach life. A way in which you become consumed by your own divisions, even as you relentlessly seek a way to record and separate the truth, without making it a lie.

Okay, what the heck is Hal on about here? Evidently, your publisher thinks there's something to this quotation because they're using it in their marketing materials. A double question: What do you think of Hal's quote? How would you summarize [untitled]?

The exquisite poet and venerable human being M. Sarki once emailed me a quote that shifted something inside me, almost violently. I liked the feeling. I'd felt it before, and I hope I'll feel it again. I emailed back to him and said, "That's beautiful, Sark, but what the hell does it mean?" He emailed back and admitted he had no good idea what it meant, but he said he thought it had something to do with getting the words wrong. Which didn't actually clarify much for me, but made me love Sarki even more.

It was Sarki who turned me on to the poems of Wallace Stevens and Eugenio Montale.

The brilliant writer and editor and all-around nutbar Gordon Lish once wrote that when he had a hunger for poetry he went looking for poems by Stevens and Sarki. He said he didn't know what they were talking about a lot of the time, but he knew he was reading beautiful poetry. Couldn't that be enough?

Listen, Mike, I don't quite know what Hal was trying to say when he wrote that passage you want me to interpret - Hal probably didn't quite know what he was trying to say, either - but it moves me. Maybe because it's a tribute to me. Can you not hear the love in it? I like to think it's a beautiful passage exactly because Hal has, for a moment anyway, given up trying to make everything perfectly clear. I love a writer who goes on trying to say something while at the same time admitting the whole enterprise is practically hopeless.

The guy who reviewed my new book for Quill and Quire hated it. You could hear the anger in his voice. He seemed mad that I didn't tie things together.

It won't work if you just give up trying to tie things together and go at it randomly. What hurts in a beautiful way are those moments you meet someone willing to admit they aren't sure, but who continues to struggle to understand.

As for a summary of my book, why in God's name would anyone want to summarize a book - especially a book they've written. I wrote a whole book because I was incapable of making a summary of whatever it is I was trying to make happen. If I could summarize this thing inside me, I'd already be dead, Mike. I hate summary. Fuck summary.

3) A few years ago you wrote a review of this web site for Broken Pencil in which you said some not so nice things about an author interview we did. You also made some general comments about how difficult it is to make a literary interview interesting. You've also said to me that there's one particular literary interview you really liked (my memory says it was one The Paris Review did with Albert Camus .... is that right?). And yet .... here we are doing a literary review. Maybe you could say a bit about some of your favorite literary interviews ... and why you think it's so hard to do a good one.

The interview you're talking about was with Louis Ferdinand Celine. In that interview, I could hear Celine trying to work something out, something that disturbed and angered him. Same as with Celine's books. I can hear, beyond any content Celine chooses to cover, the hunger and the determination not to settle for anything that kills the hunger. What Celine eats, and, by extension recommends we eat, is something that just increases the hunger. You get a taste, you want more. What I like to hear in an interview is the struggle to arrive, the restlessness of knowing you'll never arrive.

But most important, Celine never tells anyone what to eat, he just steps out into the world and eats it in front of everyone. To me, that's the crux of it there. He could have ate in private, never stepped into the light and revealed himself. But he ate in front of the world, and that's what makes his eating a recommendation. The act of eating is the recommendation. Eat what you need to eat, he says, but for god's sake, eat in the light.

I interviewed M.T. Kelly for Blood and Aphorisms years ago and the interview ran as a straight Q&A, which was my favourite form of interview at the time, probably still is, although I haven't spent a lot of time reading interviews lately. The Kelly interview was a good one. Quite different from the Celine. Kelly mainly related anecdotes: the first story he ever got published; the details of the magazine that took it; the editor; the letter of acceptance - that sort of thing. But, what I think I liked was that Kelly wasn't talking to me. He wasn't talking to some potential audience. He was talking to himself. He did the interview for himself, as another manner of working something out. He stood, through the interview, as an action in the world, a recommendation for action. Not that he said: "A young writer should do this or that." Not even by extension, as in "I decided my book needed this or that." But by actually standing before an audience and continuing with the struggle that occupied him as a manner of living his daily life.

Same with Celine. He seemed locked inside his own head in the interview, but he seemed entirely unafraid of being locked in there, not afraid to try to work things out in front of the world without capitulating in the least to that world.

I think I told you about my professor at York, Alan Blum, and his answer to the ridiculously naive and wonderfully candid question asked by the nineteen-year-old guy who apparently turned out to be this 43-year-old guy you are interviewing. "Do you really think there is such a thing as the Good?" I asked. Blum hesitated, then said, simply, "Yes." So, I've been searching for the "Good" ever since, and it occurs to me lately that Alan's answer wasn't so much a directive to look away from him and find the good out there in the world somewhere, but more a directive to hear the simplicity of the answer in contrast to his incredibly restless lectures, or the scrawl he scribbled on my papers saying, "Say more." He'd see deep into the thing, and then question what he'd seen, going even deeper, always deeper. What he was recommending wasn't in the definition of a set of words he chose to speak, but in the act of questioning everything. How can there be a "good" if you're never satisfied to settle? How can you commit to an idea of "good" without coming to an end? I think that if you hear that question in any talk, literary interview, literary work, literary review, someone's conversation with a dog, then you're hearing something worth hearing.

4) Yes, this is the second time I've interviewed you (first was for the now defunct ID Magazine out of Guelph after Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall (1996)). I'm trying to be more of a pain in the butt this time. And so ... I must tell you I got a giggle out of your former professor's advice to "write more." Seems to me your Quill & Quire reviewer was saying the same thing, and Hal was saying you're compulsively moving in the opposite direction.

Next question: Last Friday, I spoke to a high school class in Montreal about a short story of mine that they had read. They wanted to know, above all else, whether the story had anything to do with my life. The details of the story are all made up, so I said, "No, this story has nothing to do with my life." But, of course, you can't separate the life from the writing. Or can you? How would you answer the students' query?

This question, more than your others, makes me feel like you, or your readers, might want to treat me like I have some sort of inside track on writing. Like I might know something other people don't and that an interview is a place to share something akin to jewel-like possessions that others think I might have, might even be refusing to share. I don't like this feeling. I don't like the temptation this question makes me feel to act like I have an answer. I don't have an answer.

I was initially going to say I don't care one way or the other whether or not it is possible to keep your life out of what you write. And I don't care, really. But to simply say so doesn't seem like enough. I want people to stop acting like they need the missing piece in order to move forward. I want people to stop believing that some expert somewhere possesses knowledge they need in order to live a better, more fulfilled life. Because believing this ultimately forces the "expert" to recommend - irregardless of the content of what he or she recommends - possession of knowledge as the way to a better, more fulfilled life.

I don't want people to look to me for answers. I want them to look with me to the world - and maybe not even for answers, but for something more beautiful than answers, which, as it turns out, are pretty ugly, don't you think?

The Russian chess master Boris Gulko once said: "For me chess is finding ideas - beautiful, paradoxical ideas."

Same for me, Mike, but with writing. When I come upon some beautiful combination of words, some unexpected, paradoxical literary moment, that's what really does it for me. Gulko said it well when he called it "finding" ideas, because it is definitely finding, as opposed to making or creating. It's almost like an accident and when it is successful, the process is more like listening than writing. It's like hearing something unexpected beyond what's contained in the individual words.

I even experience this doing the daily Jumble in the Toronto Star. When I've looked and looked at six letters for a long time and given up and then gone back and then suddenly the word just jumps out at me, it always makes me laugh with delight. Like I've been given something. (I often do the Jumble while walking from work at the Reference Library to the Valumart in the Manulife Centre to get some food for lunch, so if anyone see some goofball walking along Bloor Street staring intently at a little square of newspaper and suddenly laughing, it's me.)

When you hear something beautiful in words that have arrived, through your pen, on the paper in front of you, it's like some power beyond you has created this beauty. I was going to call it a 'higher power', but I don't want you to think I am invoking some notion of God. Maybe I am. But the important thing about this beauty coming from somewhere beyond the writer is that it then stands beyond everyone and is available that way - as a thing beyond us all, a thing of the world in the sense that the world presents itself to us without asking our permission.

The writer stands and looks upon this beautiful thing, and this standing and looking is the writer's recommendation to the reader. This is the pith of the literary work: the writer's recommendation embodied in his act of standing and encountering beauty. He calls upon the reader to stand and encounter beauty, and in so doing recommends a version of beauty that is beyond both writer and reader and so cannot be possessed by either, but only witnessed. It is a version of beauty that stands only in the moment both reader and writer give up any claim to ownership. It is within the fall from ownership that this beauty might suddenly leap out of the void.

Beauty cannot be given - or owned. The literary work is not a gift by the writer to the reader, because the writer never possessed it any more than the reader will ever possess it. Beauty is beyond transaction, which is probably why so many writers continue to squirm within the confines of the world of publishing. The packaging and selling of a work of literature is so at odds with the act of witnessing recommended in the true literary work.

The question that high school kid asked you, the one you've brought to me, might be seen as a look toward the problem of witnessing. Can a person, a writer, see something in the world that is just the world, something not coloured by experience? That's the problem the literary work investigates most deeply. So I guess I care about the relationship between the writer's writing and the writer's life more deeply than I might have thought. I care about the problem of witnessing the world as it develops through the relationship between the writer and the written. I care about the writer as a recommendation to sustain the look that is witnessing - the look that believes in a beauty that transcends experience.

So when that kid in Montreal asked you that question, he was asking for help. He was asking if there is something like pure witness. It's a question very similar to the one that naïve kid asked Alan Blum so many years ago: "Do you really think there is such a thing as the Good." The kid who asked you your question was saying: "Are you trapped in your life the way I am? Because if you aren't, you can't help me. You can't even understand me."

Of course, we all feel trapped in our own lives at some time. So the question becomes, can we, you and I, writer and reader, student and teacher, interviewer and interviewee, stand together against this problem of wanting to be witness from within a life that colours everything it witnesses? Or is that colouring something akin to an incurable disease that isolates us irrevocably from ever standing together at all?

When Hal said it looked to him like I was trying to edit myself out of my life, what he must have been seeing was my plea to others to look away from me toward the world. What he saw was me recommending a look which doesn't detect beauty so much as erect it for a brief moment through the looking itself. Beauty is itself a moment that can be sustained only as long as the deliberation to look away together can be sustained. How long could that possibly be?

5) Dogs or cats?

6) What's one question you'd like to ask yourself? (and possibly the answer....)

I'll start with question six, since I couldn't get that site of catvdog to open. I'll try again after a bit.

Here's my question: Is it possible to get things working so that structure grows out of adventure? In other words, is there an alternate world where adventure isn't a matter of setting something up and then experiencing, like bungee jumping, or riding a roller coaster. Adventure is entering a place where structure hasn't ventured and structuring your life on the fly.

This question comes more out of my work at the library than my writing. In my writing, I think I've continued to ask that question again and again. How can I come into the writing structureless and yet wind up with something as structured as a book. It works both ways. How can I maintain the adventure, yes, but also, how can I withstand the pressure to settle inherent in structure. How can I embrace structure to the extent that a book - or story, or book review, or even an interview response - results, yet at the same time continue to walk away from the structure that suggests itself constantly throughout the adventure, and threatens to cause me to settle (for that structure as a way of arriving at a wholeness without suffering the chaos of being unwhole).

But in my efforts to make my living work well on all levels, I've had, finally, to address the problem of structure vs. adventure in my library working life, because it seems to me if you want to stand as an example of a good life, it has to permeate everything you do, as much as that might be possible (or impossible!).

It's a much more challenging problem at work, actually, because there is such a huge, unquestioning reliance on structure among many of the people I work with, in particular the managers, who are, now that I think of it, like structure incarnate. I find myself constantly challenging structure (I'm talking about policy, guidelines for writing documents, guidelines for answering media queries, that sort of thing, all written out ahead of time, all designed to defeat the possibility of surprise).

What really makes it challenging is that, when I question structure, I'm seen by my coworkers as someone who wants chaos, who wants to defeat structure altogether, and I find myself answering these accusations by actually taking on the role of the champion of chaos. Which I don't think accomplishes anything. I don't want to introduce chaos in order to defeat structure, but, rather, in order to defeat unthinking reliance on structure.

In answer to the question cats or dogs (even though I haven't seen the website you pointed me to) I'd have to say cats, because cats seem willing to live much more structureless lives than dogs, and yet remain beautiful in form and movement. Dogs are just dopey and require great amounts of structure in their lives. Cats seem to structure themselves, based on their needs and the daily course of their lives; dogs seem constantly to require guidance - witness the endless walks in the park, the huge, almost undefeatable desire to sleep on the master's bed.