Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading and Unread 2011

What follows is a list of books that are scattered about the house in various piles. They are the books I'm currently reading or had hoped to have started by now.
  • The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo
  • Autobiography of Childhood by Sina Queyras
  • Jew by D.O. Dodd
  • The Granta Book of the African Short Story, edited by Helon Habila
  • The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • Lament for a First Nation: The Williams Treaties of Southern Ontario by Peggy J. Blair
  • We Others: New & Selected Stories by Steven Millhauser
  • Fine Incisions by Eric Ormsby
  • Dead Babies by Martin Amis
  • The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard
  • Idaho Winter by Tony Burgess
  • Choosing His Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke
  • Algoma by Dani Couture
  • Shag Carpet Action by Matthew Firth
  • Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby
  • Drown by Junat Diaz
  • The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God by Etgar Keret
  • Emporium by Adam Johnson
  • The Return by Dany Laferriere
  • Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte
  • Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod
  • The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum
  • This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky
  • Reliving Charley by Dean Serevalle
  • Girl Crazy by Russell Smith
Part of closing out 2011. See ya'all on the other side.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coetzee, Vonnegut, Hitchens

Three dudes with last name monikers.

Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 2007

A Man Without a Country
by Kurt Vonnegut
Random House, 2005

Arguably: Essays
by Christopher Hitchens
Signal/M&S, 2011

"Declinism is making headway," Thomas J. Courchene writes in his revealing 2011 essay, Rekindling the American Dream: A Northern Perspective. In decline, of course, is the United States of America ("America's status as the sole global superpower seems contestable"), and the momentum of the concept is footnoted thus:

Among the many studies and articles that raise concern about the future of America are Friedman (2008), Zakaria (2008), Steingart (2008), Bremmer (2010), Fry (2010), Stiglitz (2010) and Rachman (2011). For a more sanguine view, see Fallows (2010).

W.H. Auden famously termed the 1930s "a low dishonest decade." What are we to call the aughts?

The three books under review here could easily be added to Courchene's bibliography, though Hitchens is "arguably" both sides of that question. (Incidentally, the opening sentence of Courchene's essay is, "American exceptionalism seemed unassailable as the world welcomed the third millennium." Courchene's "northern perspective," i.e., Canadian point of view, is that keeping America at the top of the heap is in our best interest. So this isn't an anti-American crowd we're talking about here; it's a group of essayists trying to figure out WTF has gone down.)

9/11, of course. Globalism, of course. The rise of the Chinese, of course.

And a bunch of decisions to deregulate the banking sector and go to war, and war, and war ... and now what?

Deciphering Vonnegut's title is simple enough: America has disappeared itself. One might suggest that this is the natural conclusion of Vonnegut's oeuvre. But let's not oversimplify.

One notable piece in Vonnegut's book is titled, "Here is a lesson in creative writing":

I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].
Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis].

You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted.

Vonnegut presents a number of prospective storylines and graphs (Courchene take note), and, yes, people do love some more than others. The American Dream is one people like: hard work and solid individualism leads to material success. Cue the strings!

Somehow, however, the 21st century has turned out to more of a downward curve. The Kafka storyline: We woke up and discovered we'd all been turned into bugs. I mean, we were broke.

Or we woke up to discover that America practiced torture. Wither the shining city upon a hill?

Coetzee's novel takes the form of essays on contemporary global topics (torture among them), supplemented with two parallel narratives about the narrator of the essays, his pretty typist and her boyfriend.

Thus there are fictional levels of "deniability" that the opinions expressed belong to the author himself, but I'm not going to discuss the mirrors within mirrors implications. In the space I plan to devote to these three books, I merely want to point out a common element. Struggle against absolutism; the conundrum of America in the 21st century; torture; the meaning of life.

Hitchens actually quotes from the Vonnegut book: "Commenting on Socrates' famous dictum about the worthlessness of the unexamined life, the late Kurt Vonnegut once inquired: 'What if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?'"

This question sums up the queries raised by Coetzee's novel as well. But it must be said that it is the contemporary context of all three of these titles that inflates the currency of the question. When the day-to-day vernacular includes "declinism" perhaps it is better to leave the stone of life's complexity unturned? All the better to amuse ourselves to death with our digital toys and swelling string orchestrated stories.

N'est pas?

No. Of course, not. Let's take a look at that torture question. Actually, let's take a look at Hitchens being tortured.

Hitchens can be both earnest and funny, and though the shock of seeing Hitchens waterboarded may strike some as humourous, it is not. (One is not boarded, he writes; one is watered. Also, he defies anyone to call this "simulated drowning;" one is, he writes, being drowned.)

Ever the dialectician, Hitchens provides both pro- and anti-waterboarding advocates their say, which returns me to Coetzee. The pro-side, Hitchens outlines, base their support of waterboarding on practical concerns. America is at risk, and we need to know information to defend ourselves. Coetzee, ever cautious of the manner governments claim the right and need for new abuses of power, includes in Diary of a Bad Year a note on Machiavelli:

Necessity ... is Machiavelli's guiding principle. The old, pre-Machiavellian position was that the moral law was supreme. If it so happened that the moral law was sometimes broken, that was unfortunate, but rulers were merely human, after all. The new, Machiavellian position is that infringing the moral law is justified when it is necessary.

And so here we find ourselves in the 21st century with low prospects of a way out.

Vonnegut is dead, and Hitchens is dying. I have not always enjoyed reading them. I have at times quarreled with them (with the them that is in my reader's head). I could not understand, for example, how Hitchens could be such an advocate of war in Iraq when the rhetoric (to say nothing of the decisions and actions) of the Bush administration was so inflated as to be fantastical. (Hitchens' essay on the journalism of Karl Marx in Arguably responded to my confusion in part. Marx (!) wrote vociferously in support of the Union during the American Civil War; he supported British Imperial intervention in India; he supported, in short, the modernization of the world, taking long-terms views over short-term consequences.)

Hitchens has been widely praised for his prose, and all I want to add here is that his essays can make me laugh out loud, and I wish more writers would sharpen their pens (or their iPads) and do the same.

I love Vonnegut's story schemes and graphs. I love this, too: "I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex."

Coetzee should only be taken in small doses. I believe he has a sense of humour, but it is dry as toast (actually, Diary of a Bad Year, at times, is hilariously self-deprecating) and only revealed on close reading.

To America, I say, good luck. We need you to bounce back. Send us your wearied, your wanderers, your writers. Harness your brilliant idealism ...

And calm the fuck down.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wandering the Earth: A Selected Stories Sampler

Wandering the Earth: A Selected Stories Sampler (e-book), published today at Smashwords. ISBN 978-0-9866206-3-8

And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

Table of contents:
  • Boys and Girls, Girls and Boys
  • Beginnings and Endings
  • Running with that Indian
  • Border Guard
  • Watching the Lions
  • Book of Job
  • Six Million, Million Miles
  • Yes, I Wanted to Say
  • Niagara
  • My Life In Television
  • Bonus Track: Hercules
Read these stories and more in:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Richard Outram

It's never too late to make a discovery.

2011 is the year of the short story, but it's also the year to discover Richard Outram.

Porcupine's Quill has published The Esssential Richard Outram, edited by Amanda Jernigan.

Guernica has published Richard Outram: Essays on His Works, edited by Ingrid Ruthig.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Steven Heighton

Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing
by Steven Heighton
ECW, 2011

Stealing from William Blake, W.H. Auden wrote (and abandoned) a slim book in 1939 that was eventually published and titled (after Blake's line) The Prolific and the Devourer.

I first came upon it in the late-1990s, shortly after a new paperback edition came out, and it dazzled me. One of my subterranean interests is learning about the moments of transition of individual artists. Think, for example, about Picasso and his different periods. Bob Dylan and the great variety of his career. Ditto: Shakespeare. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Margaret Atwood. Susan Sontag. Joan Didion. The Beatles (who did it all in seven years!).

The Prolific and the Devourer captures Auden on the cusp, or in the middle of, a great transition. WWII was imminent. Socialism was fading. Auden commitment to Christ beginning (renewing?). Full of aphorisms and deeply personal (internal) conflicts, The Prolific and the Devourer is a tremendous portrait of a deep soul undergoing change and grappling with what it means.

(According to Blake, the prolific are the creative, and the devourers the bureaucratic. Or as the back cover says: "In Auden's interpretation, the Prolific are those who produce: the farmer, the skilled worker, the scientist, the cook, the innkeeper, the doctor, the teacher, the athlete, the artist. The Devourers are the politicians who depend on what is already produced for their well being. The strongest and most bitter energies of the book are directed against the idea that art should serve a political cause.")

Thus, shortly later (or contemporaneously), Auden wrote September 1, 1939.

Oh, it's alright ma (I'm only bleeding).

Anyway, Steven Heighton's new book, Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing, isn't like Auden's book. It doesn't capture an artist in transition. But it is also like Auden's book. It is a portrait of an artist. It synthesizes the energies of an engaged and deep-thinking writer into a slim volume that is highly readable, though dense, and well worth reading and contemplating.

At 74 pages (dedicated to John Lavery), the book had better be intense (I know you know what I mean); and it is.

Here's a direct quote from an interview with SH about the book:

OB: You also tackle the waning culture of professional literary criticism and the rising trend of writers reviewing one another in Workbook. Do you think it is possible for writers to review one another in an unbiased manner?

SH: Yes, so long as the writers in question aren’t friends or antagonists. If they are, an unbiased review is pretty much out of the question. That’s just human nature.

Of course, all reviews are biased on some level, but your question seems to be referring to personal, collegial, competitive biases, which are different from, say, intellectual or ideological ones.

OB: Workbook is refreshing in its focus on the writing process, rather than career-centric advice. How do you avoid getting too wrapped up in the business side of things?

SH: I’m not above that stuff, it’s just that the business side of things dismays me, so avoiding it is a breeze, like avoiding creamed corn, Coors Lite or reality TV shows. As for dispensing “career-centric” advice on the use of social networking to promote one’s work, avoiding that, too, comes easily, since my knowledge of the subject is nil: I don’t use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. In fact, they all sound really useful, but — as I argue in "Given to Inspiration,” one of the essays in Workbook — a writer needs to be cautious about overextending his or her already stretched attention span and “expending [more time] as a compliant, efficient functionary — earnest secretary to [one’s] own little career.”

OB: How different would Workbook have been if you wrote it ten years ago? Has your view on any of these subjects changed over the years?

SH: I doubt it would have been very different if I’d written it ten years ago. But fifteen or twenty? Here are a few lines (from “Memos to a Younger Self”) that would not have been in that earlier version — and their conjectural absence will give you an idea of the kind of material an earlier Workbook might have contained: “Squash the temptation to accentuate, poeticize, or wallow in the difficulties of the writing life, which are probably not much worse than the particular difficulties of other professions and trades. Take a tradesman’s practical approach to your development: quietly apprentice yourself to language and the craft, then start filling up your toolbox, item by item, year by year.” 

I quote this at length because I want to accentuate the notion of transition. Heighton, note, says that he doubts that what he has written would have been different 10 years ago. But 15 or 20? This is both encouraging and discouraging to me. I like artists that change a lot (Dylan) over artists who remain clustered around a stable identity (most others). (Though, let's argue; is this true? Is this fair?)

Part of me would would prefer him to say, My thoughts are always a-changing; I'm always alert to alternative interpretations and perspectives. But where is the grounding in that? Where is the argument? If literature is a lover's quarrel, what's the point? One must take a stand. All the world's a stage. Perform.

And Heighton, in this book, takes stands.

He is in favour, as the interview above indicates, of judicious (non-ideological) reviews (and I hope this counts as one).

"Complaint," he writes, "is not criticism."

He instructs us as follows:

Good reviews appreciate books on the level of execution, aesthetic integrity, and achievement. Mediocre reviewers judge books by the degree to which they "identify with" or like the main characters. Bad reviewers like only what they can imagine writing themselves and lash out at anything they can't understand or which threatens their vision.

This is commonsenseical, but it begs for rebuttal. What is "aesthetic integrity"? What is "achievement"? What, even, is "level of excecution"? The brevity of the book, on these questions, leaves a hungry wake.

Also, a literary polemic that takes a point of view and takes a shot at defining and defending a (type of) "literature" is not necessarily a "bad review" or unwelcome. The spectrum of literary critical achievement, I would argue, is broad and accommodating of multiple approaches. To be blunt, I have heard people disparage Carmine Starnino's criticism because it is "negative" without allowing any acknowledgement that he goes to pains to promote a particular critical framework. One can admire the sophistication of the framework (and the insights derived from the framework) without also buying into the framework hook, line and sinker.

I would argue (and I think Starnino would, too) that it is the clash of frameworks that is the point of critical dialogue. It is the point of criticism. The sophisticated reader acknowledges multiple frameworks. As in politics, the point ought to be the continuation of the dialogue; not the dominance or absolute commitment to any one point of view.

George W. Bush's "You're with us or you're against us" has no place in literature, or criticism. Or politics, for that matter.

But, now, where am I going with this? Is Heighton some kind of neo-critic? Is he exclusionary? Absolutist?

No, I don't think Heighton is a neo-critic or an absolutionist. He a believer in dreamscapes and roads less traveled. He believes in aiming high and warns of the danger of careerism.

He knows how to wear Al Purdy's shirt.

Let me say clearly, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it. I'm trying to define my argument with it, which is mild.

I started this review by mentioning my interest in artists in transition. I don't know if Heighton is in transition. I hope so. I wish he had told us more about his changes.

Change came, and is a-coming.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Greg Kearney, Matthew J. Trafford, Tim Conley, Brian Joseph Davis

Short story madness.

by Greg Kearney
Exile, 2011

The Divinity Gene
by Matthew J. Trafford
Douglas & McIntyre, 2011

Nothing Could be Further
by Tim Conley
Emmerson Street Press, 2011

Ronald Reagan, My Father
by Brian Joseph Davis
ECW, 2010

It used to be said (I mean, like, 10 or 15 years ago) that the Canadian short story was stuck in the lyrical pastoral mode. Barbara Gowdy may have been our Aimee Bender, and Lee Henderson and Zsuzsi Gartner pushed the envelope, but real innovation in the genre was elsewhere.

In 2003, Christian Bök edited an anthology of avante-garde Canlit, arguing that the experimenters have been here all along. And, of course, he was right, but the anthologies often excluded them, and the cultural arguments all but ignore them. (Though Margaret Atwood, always our guide, apparently, is a radical exception.)

In any case, rushing ahead, my point here is simple. In the dying days of print (and the YOSS) we are blessed with abundant richness of weirdness. Jeet Heer, in a perceptive comment, has called Gartner the "anti-Munro":

Pure nature does not exist in Gartner’s fiction. Her characters are immersed in a completely technological environment. Surrounded all their lives by a digital sensorium, when Gartner’s people encounter nature, they see it through the prism of the man-made world.

Each of the authors under review here could compete for the title of "anti-Munro," but the point here isn't to degrade one form of fiction making or to promote another; it is to celebrate some nifty risk taking and encourage more.

As fiction editor of The Danforth Review, there's a little thing I look for. Call it originality or whatever. I've never been able to define it, except all these writers have it in abundant richness. Kearney has appeared in TDR twice ("Bad Readings", "The Man Who Ate Babies") as has Conley ("The Watch", "Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism").

Onward. Book by book.

Pretty is Kearney's second collection, following Mommy Daddy Baby (McGilligan, 2004). I don't know how to say this, except to say it directly: Kearney must be the most family values alternative writer on the planet. There is tremendous tenderness, compassion, dependency and the related dysfunction between his characters, and also at times the starkest honesty and revelation of notorious truths. If we were to begin to define the "Kearneyesque," this is where I would begin. Kearney's stories combine an acknowledgement of other people as flawed, yet loveable, while at the same time harbouring an awareness of the alienation of individuals and the horrible burdens individuals bear that cannot be, ultimately, shared.

If Hemingway was all about grace under pressure, then Kearney does Papa one better.

An awesome achievement. (I'm not describing any details, because they're better left for readers to discover on their own.)

"The Divinity Gene" is the title story of the collection by the same name. It's a story about Jesus being cloned. It's a challenging read, but a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed. The collection overall, however, is more diverse than this summary of a speculative fiction might seem. While there is also a story about a mermaid, overall the collection is grounded in a contemporary reality that is refreshingly transparent. One story, for example, is about a gay young man who goes on a canoeing trip with straight buddies who shrug off his "otherness." Of course, also along on the trip is a dead man whom one of the friends has brought along because they needed an extra paddler. But stretching the reality boundary is very 21st century, n'est pas?

Tim Conley, a professor of modernist literature, might possibly remind us that boundary challenging fiction has been as basic as language formation since, well, forever. Conley's latest, Nothing Could be Further, is at times Kafkaesque, forcing the reader to consider the competency of the narrator's reality receptors. At the same time, language itself is scrutinized, as Conley's often complex phrasing challenges the meaning, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "of what is is."Conley also challenges what a short story is, as some of these pieces are as short as a paragraph and many are as short as a page. Others are longer, however, and it isn't the length that determines their consistency. The Conleyesque is as specific as the Kearneyesque, but (at least to me) it defies more precise definition.

BJD is an icon and an acronym. Ronald Reagan, My Father is out there on the edge of viable comprehension. Some of it, frankly, was too much for me, and I struggle (when writing this) to remember a single concrete image. The cover (front, Ron; back, Nancy) dominates. There was a story about a self-publishing maven that was clever and astonishing. There was much wild cynicism, but also not enough tender consideration of otherness. Not enough of the Kearneyesque. At least, for my tastes (at this moment in time). But I still recommend the book. It is not, most certainly, not in the least, stuck in the lyrical mode.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Brian Fawcett, Shane Neilson

Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir
by Shane Neilson
Palimpest Press, 2011

Human Happiness
by Brian Fawcett
Thomas Allen, 2011

"I can't go on; I'll go on." - Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

Derek Weiler (1968-2009) had the above quotation tattooed on his forearm. As he explained on his blog, now only available on the Wayback archive:

I don’t really know why most people get tattoos – novelty? lark? body as canvas? message to the world? But anyway I know I got mine mainly as an act of defiance. I wanted to engage this treacherous renegade in some way, to remind it that it has to deal with me. And also to remind myself that this flawed, frayed skin I wear is mine for good. That this is what I have to work with, for better or for worse.

Weiler passed away in 2009 at age 40. He'd lived bravely for many years with a heart condition.

I was thinking about Weiler today, partly in relation to these two books, and partly in relation to my own life. This past week my wife heard medical news that affects us all. Last year, she had breast cancer and the associated treatments. Six months ago, we were told it was effectively gone, but now it has returned, this time in her liver. Doctors are hopeful, but we've entered an arena we don't want to be in.

We can't go on, but we must go on.

Gunmetal Blue and Human Happiness are both memoirs, both essay collections, both written by reflective, analytical, skeptical and humanistic literary men. In many ways, these are books written to address the stark conundrums of existence, the Beckettean quandaries.

Brian Fawcett's book is, at base, a memoir of his parents, Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surrey, who were, he maintains, "happier than most of their generation" (240). Shane Neilson's book is structured as a collection of non-fiction pieces, some of which are memoirs of his life as a general practitioner, some are essays on poetry, and some reflect on his time in a hospital psychiatric ward, where he was a patient for many months following a suicide attempt.

By way of critical summary, let me say that both books are incomplete and flawed, but they both also contain lovely moments, deep feeling and thought. They have bitten off massive subjects, and they are worthy of the authors' efforts.

There are a couple of images from Gunmetal Blue that keep returning to me. One is of a middle-aged man on a stationary bicycle, continuously peddling. He has prostate cancer. He's going to die, but he can't stop cycling. The other image is of the author attempting to throw himself out of the window of the psyche ward and being blocked by an orderly. Later, the author realized that the window is a metaphor. Does he want to continue his life or not? Only he can ultimately decide. (He is, in this respect, very different from the peddling man.)

The main images from Human Happiness concern the author's parents, whom he portrays in significant psychological and sociological detail. Each lived nine decades or more. They lived primarily in Northern British Columbia. His father was a self-made business man, his mother a home-maker who had breast cancer in her late-40s.

On the opening page of the book, Fawcett notes what happened the last time he spoke to his mother: "She announced that she hated my father." At this point, they'd been married 64 years. Within weeks, she'd be dead. Hartley, then in his 90s, would go on to remarry, starting his flirting at his late-wife's wake: "I have to arrange a housekeeper. I don't suppose any of you are going to look after me."

I was compelled by the portrait of Hartley and Rita. I liked them. I thought they were interesting. In full confession mode, however, there were portions about inter-generational conflict that left me baffled. Too simple. Brian's self-portrait comes across as a cliched baby-boomer. Too general. Uncompelling.

Shane Neilson, on the other hand, may well provide too much information for some readers. And too much variety for others. This is a book about overcoming a mental illness crisis, but it's also a book about the trials and tribulations of a young doctor, and also a book about the author's love of language and the potentially healing powers of poetry.

It's all interesting, but it doesn't always hold together.

The portraits of Neilson's patient congregants are classic character studies. Life is what happens, John Lennon sang, when you're busy making other plans.

I would like to write more about these two books; there is much within them to reflect upon; however, my life, these days, is elsewhere.

Onward we go.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Paul Quarrington, David Gilmour, André Alexis

Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life
by Paul Quarrington
Greystone, 2010

The Perfect Order of Things
by David Gilmour
Thomas Allen, 2011

Beauty & Sadness
by André Alexis
Anansi, 2010

Three gentlemen of Canadian literature. Three memoirs. One of them framed as a novel. One of them a celebration of life and critique of music. One of them a hybrid short story /essay collection.

One of them published posthumously.

Paul Quarrington wrote Cigar Box Banjo in the 12 months his doctors gave him after his lung cancer diagnosis. He'd already started it, but what had started as a reflection of his life-long interest (and career in) music became a reflection on the significant moments of his life and the strange space of his final year.

If you knew you had a year to live, what would you do? Quarrington makes it clear that he took his diagnosis as a gift. Of course he would have liked to live longer. Of course he was angry. But it could have been worse. He could have left with no chance to say goodbye, with no chance to do some of the things on his bucket list (such as record a song in Nashville with his childhood friend, Dan Hill).

And without that final year, we wouldn't have this book, which is imperfect but also more than charming. It resonates with life-force, and it serves as a reminder that the well-lived life is possible even in the most trying of circumstances.

This blog began in 2008 with a report of The Writers' Union of Canada's AGM. Specifically, it recounted a session on the writing life led by Quarrington, Nino Ricci and Wayston Choy. Quarrington repeated some learned wisdom: "Bitterness is the writer's black lung disease." Quarrington said: At the end of the day, there's the body of work. Be proud of it. Avoid careerism.

It was the only time I "met" Quarrington, and it was enough to understand that he is widely missed by friends, family and colleagues.

Reviewing his memoir in the context of other memoirs of the Canadian writing life, it is easy to conclude that Quarrington's is the cheeriest. Matt Cohen's Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, also written as its author was dying of lung cancer, for example, is rife with bitterness, though also interesting reportage from the publishing front lines.

David Gilmour's The Perfect Order of Things (Thomas Allen, 2011) trawls a series of traumatic events in its (unnamed, first-person) narrator's life. The reader is informed early that the book's 10 chapters will return the 60-ish-year-old narrator to the geography of a significant (usually suffering) event in his life.

The events include his father's suicide, his mother's death, lovers' quarrels, drug trips, multiple marriages and divorces, a murder, interviewing George Harrison, punching a book critic, and meeting Robert DeNiro outside the bathroom door at a Toronto International Film Festival after party.

The Perfect Order of Things
also recounts a life well-lived through trying circumstances, but its narrator is (a) masked by the armor of fiction, and (b) not dying. Trauma is portrayed in relief; it is distant and manageable. But let's not be glib. This is a narrator who knows what it means to endure. And he is also enthralled by life.

By which I mean, love. Both romantic and filial. Love makes all things endurable, and his enduring good relations with his ex-wives is commendable. The wound of the suicide and the parental abandonment masks all. There is no bosom to return to and the narrator grasps at alternatives.

Again, let's not be glib. The theme of this novel is suffering, and its resolution is the ordering of chaos. That is, its aesthetic ambition is true. And, I submit, its ambition is achieved. Though there are some truths I wished the narrator had come cleaner on, such as his relationship with mood altering chemicals.

Why the drugs? It's unexplained. They're just there, a comfort where comfort is needed. At one point, a new wife gives him two conditions: no women, no pills. Later he remembers there was one pill bottle he didn't dispose of. Not sure why. Not sure why he's remembering it now. But, boy, how handy.

I don't mean I wanted a more fulsome confession. That is delivered and unambiguous. What I wonder about is a different word: addiction. An acknowledgement of a deeper mystery. I didn't want a presentation of a 12-step cure, and I wasn't looking for a Naked Lunch tangent from reality, nor any Oprah-like restoration to the greater good.

I guess what I'm saying is that the drugs were not revisited as a geography of their own. They are simply there, and they seemed a topic (an activity) that needed a little more explanation.

But explanation isn't what this book is about. There is only, This is what happened and I'm still trying to make sense of it all. This reader was engaged and sympathetic. Others may be less inclined.

The controversy surrounding André Alexis's Beauty & Sadness began prior to its publication with the appearance of an excerpt in The Walrus in July 2010 called "The Long Decline" and subtitled: Canada used to have a vibrant critical culture. What happened?

The sharpest point of the controversy regarded Alexis's claim that John Metcalf was the source of all that was wrong with Canadian literature.

Okay, let's not exaggerate. Here's a direct quotation: "If I had to blame any one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I'd blame John Metcalf" (209).

To this notation, the blogosphere erupted. And, frankly, I don't blame them (it?). Laying the fault of a culture at the feet of one individual is a silly claim. Though let's also reference the footnote attaches to this sentence: "It is, of course, rhetorical to blame any one person for attitudes that spread through a population. Metcalf is the purveyor of ideas that, at a certain time in our literary history, met with certain approval…"

An odd, uneven collection, Beauty & Sadness contains short stories, essays and first-person memoir. The disparate pieces are held together by the author's claim that this is the best way to present his aesthetic growing up; that is, coming of age; that is, progressing from the age of innocence to the age of disappointment.

And it is disappointment and anger that dominate this book, not beauty and sadness (though, fair play, those concepts get a lot of time on the field also).

David Gilmour's narrator is buoyed by love and infuriated by bureaucracy and meanness. André Alexis is buoyed by beauty and saddened (and infuriated) by ugliness and nastiness, a darkness that he identifies in others, but also within himself:

Worse, literary society -- the world of grudges, launches, and festivals -- is anti-literary in a surprising way. First, there is the petty gossip and the secret enmities. Here, it would be easy to point out the pettiness of others, but I'd like to admit to my own enmities. There are a number of my fellow writers whom I loathe. And, just to we understand each other, I'm not proud of my feelings. In fact, I'm dismayed to confront my dislikes, dismayed that I can still feel loathing at all, now I'm in my fifties, a time by which, unless I was misinformed, I should have acquired at least some wisdom. What is anti-literary about the loathing I feel is that it keeps me, in one instance, at least, from reading work that is demonstrably good. Demonstrable by me, I mean, despite my dislike for the writer (184-5).

The reader does have the feeling of being hectored at. (The Globe and Mail review calls this section of the book "stark.")

Yet, the short stories are good. The essays on Beckett and Ivan Illych are engaging, well-argued, cogent, and worthy of recommendation. There are also tantalizing moments of criticism that beg for expansion. Alexis's close readings of Russell Smith and Christian Bök, for example, are interesting, but they also beg for more.

As a memoir, this book frustrates. There is much brilliance here, but ultimately, it left me sunk with a feeling of disappointed incompleteness.

Quarrington's book, on the other hand, is less brilliant, but more satisfying, despite the fact that the author died before being able to complete it.

Gilmour's book, like Alexis's, is unconventional in structure, but it delivers more robustly on what it promises.

Some of the reviews of Beauty & Sadness have suggested that Alexis blames Toronto and the city's literary/media culture for his own experience of disappointment with the literary life. But I disagree. I don't think he blames Toronto; I think he is engaged in an honest attempt to capture the source of his feeling of disappointment, of his hope (dashed) that Toronto would be a better, more welcoming place to be a contemporary man of letters. And that analysis, in part, turns (bravely) in on himself.

However, as others have pointed out, the publishing world has transformed in the past quarter century. Alexis complains about the shrinking book review coverage in Toronto newspapers without providing the context that this is a global phenomena. But, yes, it's happening here, too. Or, more specifically, Alexis's disappointment is specific. His experience of loss happened here.

But the lack of global awareness is a weakness. It's as if Alexis's attempt to chart the local specifics of his experience has blocked avenues of analysis that would have added richness and relevance to the narrative.

It's a cliché, but still true; we live in an increasingly global world. Alexis's short stories and literary essays are alert to that fact. However, his memoir is too local and is over-burdened with personal grievance.

The current global mentor of the fiction-memoir is arguably Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. Trying to think about these three books in international terms leaves me wondering what foreign audiences would make of these titles.

Quarrington's memoir is warm hearted and deeply felt, but it's not genre bending. Despite it's introduction from Roddy Doyle, it's appeal is limited. Gilmour's novel is episodic and insightful, but muted. Alexis's mixed genre approach is interesting and often compelling, but the long whine about literary culture in Toronto is degrading and, at times, disturbing.

Coetzee cuts to the bone examining self and others, personal and social history, linguistic assumptions and traps. He shies away from nothing and can leave readers frightened and exposed. A memoir is not just an opportunity to learn about its author, it's also an opportunity to be challenged to look at oneself, one's world, one's narrative-making.

Gilmour's narrator mines a deep emotional vein, though the path he follows is quirky. The Perfect Order of Things is a novel, but it has the feeling of a life lived. It is a life well examined, but it also contains many loose ends. Of these three books, it is closest to Coetzee in spirit.

Which brings us to Beauty & Sadness. Yes, Alexis lays himself bare. But, to meet his starkness with directness, his complaints about the anti-literary struck me as anti-literary, and I'm left, ultimately, with the simple subjective. While there is much (brilliance) in this book I admired, in the end, however, I was left frustrated.

This isn't a life presented as well-lived; it's a life presented as having gone off of the tracks. "[N]ow I'm in my fifties, a time by which, unless I was misinformed, I should have acquired at least some wisdom," he writes.

Misinformed by whom?

If the word addiction is missing from Gilmour's book, the word depression is missing from Alexis's. The last sentence in the book, however, is "Drowned but still living is exactly how I feel."

The Globe and Mail review concludes that Alexis's subject is himself. "It is a vast, fertile terrain, its landscapes varied and surprising, and well worth exploring alongside him."

This is a conclusion I would like to agree with. However, Alexis doesn't strike me as one who welcomes fellow travelers. Or, any more, expect them.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

David Gilmour

How Boys See Girls
by David Gilmour
Random House, 1991

[Review originally published in Imprint, University of Waterloo, January 10, 1992. This is only the second book review I ever published. It's a document of its time. Lightly edited below.]

Mordecai Richler, to his credit, knows a good line when he sees one. In two of his essays, written 20 years apart, he recounts Hemingway's opinion of Henry Miller. Miller had once got laid in the afternoon and thought he'd invented it, said Hem. And, depending on which of Richler's essays you read, so have certain other fools who spout off about the originality of their sexuality.

David Gilmour, the CBC's film critic and second-time author, to his credit or not, has reinvented Henry Miller with his novel, How Boys See Girls. While there is nothing terribly original in love, sex, suffering, and ecstasy, the novel is a reminder of the chaos of trying to put together an eventful love life. The accompanying joy when it succeeds. The horror when it fails. And the need simply to get on with life when it's all over.

Bix, the novel's protagonist, is a 40-year-old professional speech writer with an erotic obsession for a 19-year-old street vendor. He courts her, wins her, loses her, suffers for her, gets back, leaves her, and, we suppose, lives happily ever after: "'I love you,' I whispered in her ear. 'Promise me you'll remember that. No matter what.'"

How Boys See Girls is a charming, self-defacing and honest book, surprising in these earnest if at times paranoid days of political correctness. Henry Miller, the king of phallic obsession, has been taken to task by feminists far and wide for his brutal portrayal of women as objects of desire. One wonders these days where to draw the line between erotic fantasy and the selfish abuse of power.

Gilmour dodges the question deftly, and the book sparkles because he does it so well. Holly, the love interest, is portrayed with sympathy and understanding. A high school dropout, she wants to go back to school. "'Do you know how attractive you are?' 'I'd trade it for a good job,' she said." She is a long way from one of Miller's "cunts."

The tension in the novel is generated not out of Bix's need to dominate his partner, as will Miller, but out of that genuine need for fulfillment through copulation. Bix is head over heels in lust, and the novel, as tenderly and sweetly as is probably possible, turns his graphic desire into art:

I stopped at the cluster of street vendor tables ... when a couple of tables away, a girl in a red sleeveless shirt lifted a bare arm and unconsciously, almost sleepily, scratched the damp hair underneath while she talked absently to a male customer. I stood transfixed, in a kind of nauseated trace. I wanted to put my tongue there; I wanted to hold her wrist over her head and lick the sweat from under her arm; taste the salt on my tongue. I wanted to lead her to the restaurant ... bathroom across the street and do the most extraordinary things to her.

And he eventually does. But could Miller have written this?

I put my tongue on her again. Don't think about making her come, I reminded myself. Just taste her, smell her, think about nothing else. A Zen blow job, as it were. When her breathing came faster and faster I ignored her. I maintained the same pace, like a robot tennis player. Indefatigable. Don't aim for the finish line. In a Zen blow job, there is no finish line.

No, Miller was too obsessed with his own transcendence. And there the difference lies (no pun intended).

I pushed it (the thought) in a bit further. While I was thrashing around in my sheets with the window open, in case she should come by, with the phone beside my face, in case she should call, she was on her back with her legs wrapped around him.

It was simply nightmare mindboggling, the enormity of it, a kind of wrecking ball right in the nuts.

It is entirely possible that Gilmour may find himself the centre of a discussion on gender power politics with the publication of this novel. How boys see girls, after all, is said to be at the root of many of our social ills. Gore Vidal, for example, has said, "Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Charles Manson ... a logical progression." Well, you know.

(Bix on his ex-wife): "Margaret believed, sometimes it was her undoing, that if you ignored unpleasant traits in people you liked, they got better."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Clark Blaise

The Meagre Tarmac
by Clark Blaise
Biblioasis, 2011

Masterpiece. That's a big word. In 20 years of writing book reviews I don't think I've ever used it, but I'm throwing the dart at Clark Blaise's new short story collection, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis, 2011).

Born in the USA in 1940 to a French-speaking Canadian father and an English-speaking Canadian mother, Blaise lived part of his childhood in French in Quebec and other parts in English in the USA. His entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia says he lived in "at least" 25 cities before he finished high school in Pittsburgh.

Determined to be a writer, in the 1960s he attended the famous writer's workshop at the University of Iowa, where he met his life-partner, novelist Bharati Mukherjee, and also Philip Roth, among other literary notables.

Primarily a short story writer, Blaise has often explored the period of this upbringing and his multiple identities and senses of self. He has also been an administrator of writing programs and a notable essayist and non-fiction author. He is currently the President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story.

The eleven short stories in The Meagre Tarmac continue Blaise's interest in the social construction of identity. This time, however, his characters are not exploring the two solitudes of North America's English/French divide. The characters in this book are nearly all Indo-American. The two solitudes on display here are the East and West. Also, cultural tradition versus liberal capitalism.

Post-Obama, are we post-racial? Blaise's book argues emphatically, no. But it's a no that is dense with complication.

In an earlier age, this book would be a lightening rod for an "appropriation of voice" debate. How can this white dude write from within the perspective of the Indo-American population? And he does it over and over, in precise detail, and so well!

Clearly, the author has experience of Indo-American culture through his in-laws, but (more importantly) he has brought to it a lifetime of experience, a lifetime of thinking through precise cultural differences, a lifetime of mastering the short story.

And it is a mastery, here, that ought to be celebrated. And read. And studied.

The table of contents includes a note: "These stories are meant to be read in order." The back cover includes a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates calling it "a novel in short story form." The reader can choose how she would prefer to proceed. The stories link and inter-relate, but you could probably skip about and still make sense of the whole.

Many of the narrators are older men, nearing the end of their prosperous careers in America, yearning to return to India (and complete a plan begun earlier in life), their minds seeking a simpler time, one when the supremacy of the elder male wasn't in question.

The collapse of patriarchy is a significant subtext. Over and over male narrators talk about loss of prestige. American is partly to blame. Western liberalism with the stress on the individual. Marriage is the metaphor that rises to prominence next. Marriage is how the family perpetuates itself. On the subcontinent marriages are arranged. How or whether marriages will continue to be arranged is a question that repeats through many of these stories.

Money is often discussed, but it is the challenges of the rich, not the challenges of the poor, that consume (no pun intended) these characters. America has held up its end of the bargain. The families moved from the East to the West to seek economic opportunity and were amply rewarded. In the process, to oversimplify, they lost their souls.

But then, there is no opportunity to return to the land of their youth, because the New India (Mumbai, not Bombay) is rife with corruption (see recent new stories) and booming with its own out-of-control capitalism. Where East meets West, West tends to win, and the ensuing complications (loss of identity, collapse of family, cultural fragmentation) follow.

Canadian geography features in the book. That is, some of the action takes place in Toronto and Montreal. But the Canada here is indistinguishable from America. The West is the West, though one Indo-Canadian family settles in Montreal and one of its sons becomes a high-ranking official in the Parti Quebecois! (Another son, a gay man and actor, makes his fortune in Hollywood.)

The women in this book are brilliant. Not just sharply drawn, exquisitely portrayed and smart (one thirteen-year-old girl is on her way to Stanford, if her father doesn't first take her back to India so he can marry her off), they are also emote sensitively and diversely. That is, there are traditional mothers, untraditional mothers, dutiful daughters, undutiful daughters, Western beauties seeking Eastern wisdom, Eastern women corrupted by … what? the West? No, greed. Corrupted by corruption. By human nature.

For "an exploration of the human condition" is ultimately where analysis of this book leads. The superficial (yet strict and real) boundaries of culture and tradition colour every page, but the underlying architecture of every story (in the book and always?) is built on questions about what it means to be human. La condition humaine.

What an old formulation! What risk of cliché! Yet, so it goes. It is what it is. Or as my seven-year-old says, you get what you get and you don't get upset.

Sadness pervades this book. As does beauty.

The conclusion is simple: read it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cheever: A Life

Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
Knopf, 2009

A late bloomer in nearly every respect, I have learned to over-compensate in the present for time lost in the past.

I married, for example, at the age of thirty-eight, picking up two children (then aged three and seven) in the process.

This enabled me to skip the early child rearing stages of sleep deprivation and diapers, while providing a strong masculine presence during later pivotal evolutionary moments of bed-wetting and night terrors, not to forget story time.

Similarly, I was well past the age of thirteen when I first slipped someone the noodle, but married life (when one isn't changing sheets or the dishwasher or napping) provides multiple opportunities for … um … yawn … what were we talking abou -- ?

Oh, yes. Hanky panky.

Which brings me to John Cheever. Short story writer. Novelist. Punch line for an episode of Seinfeld. And subject of Cheever: A Life (2009).

Hanky panky? Oh, me, oh, my.

First, though, the short stories. The reason Cheever is the subject of such an expansive (770 pages) and invasive (wait for it) biography, is because he is one of the best short story writers on the past century. Nach, ever.

The Stories of John Cheever (1978) is essential reading. To the extent to which Cheever: A Life brings us into better relationship with the stories, it is interesting. To the extent that it alienates us from the stories (and novels), it risks being anti-literature.

Put another way, I intend to review the biography here, not Cheever's life. The biography is a shaped, created, curated thing; the life is the wild process of lived experience. I have no intention of judging or interpreting Cheever's life.

In 1995-96, I was a graduate student of English at the University of Toronto and for half-a-semester I was part of a seminar studying literary biography. We read Boswell on Johnson, the whole thing, unabridged (1,492 pages with index). We read Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read two biography's of W.H. Auden for my term paper, Elspeth Cameron's take on Irving Layton, Rosemary Sullivan on Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Julian Barne's Flaubert's Parrot. We also read some of Freud's dream analyses (patient biographies) and speculated on whether biography itself could be an act of literature.

Writing the life of a writer is more complicated than it seems, we concluded. It is rife with temptation. Can you separate your response to the work from your response to the life, and vice versa? What connection is there, really, between the life and the work? Does your interpretation of the work colour your interpretation of the life? Does the life story have meaning apart from the work? Does our engagement with the work require any understanding of the life? If something is seen as negative in the life does that contradict things pleasurable in the work? Are we obliged to take new (possibly disturbing) information from the life into account in our analysis of the work?

And so on.

Ultimately, Cheever would become known as the bard of suburbia, a chronicler of the social mores of the post-WWII new American bourgeoisie. Stories such as "The Swimmer," "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" are classics secure among the deep roots of the American canon, ensuring Cheever an eternal reputation as a Great Writer.

That is, until he was reduced on an episode of Seinfeld to "a writer who was gay."

Gay? Cheever's biographer is clear that the writer never would have used the term. Yes, he had sexual (and romantic) relationships with men throughout his adult life. He also married young (and for life), raised a family, had sexual and romantic affairs with women. He made out, according to this biography, with his son's teenage girlfriend. He also had sex with a young man in his hospital bed as he lay dying (not the only male sexual relationship he was involved with at the time).

This hanky panky, the biography strongly suggests, began when Cheever and his brother shared a bed as teenagers. The suggestion is that the two boys mutually masturbated each other, and that Cheever's brother was the great love of his life, a man-bond that Cheever repeatedly tried to re-create.

The Seinfeld episode was called "The Cheever Letters," and it revolved around a box of love letters supposedly written by Cheever to his male lover. (Read the script for the episode).

ELAINE: (Turns to George, he is now reading a book) Hey, what are you reading

GEORGE: Oh, uh, "The Falconer" by John Cheever. It's really excellent.

ELAINE: (To Jerry) John Cheever, you ever read any of his stuff?

JERRY: Uh, yeah, I'm familiar with some of his writing. (George shoots Jerry a smirk, then returns to his book) Alright, (Hand the check to Elaine) look, we gotta get back to work. We just had a big breakthrough here.

ELAINE: (Folding up the check) Ok, I'll leave you two alone.

Interviewed for the biography, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David said the show used Cheever as the letter writer because "he was a well-known writer who was gay" (672).

Which brings us back to the question of the life versus the work. And the question of the biography itself is a work of literature.

No, I would argue. This one is not. Though it is a remarkable work of research. (For the record, I believe the graduate class would have concluded that most biographies of writers are not literature either; many are not even decently written and contain bad criticism. Bailey's book is free of those latter two complaints.)

Boswell is read over and over because (a) through him we have a Johnson we would never have had otherwise (true of all biographies that are more than derivative), but also because (b) it is a Johnson worth knowing, an expansive, rollicking, self-contradicting, complicated mass of a human life. In other words, Johnson becomes a literary character within a literary narrative created by an author. It is not merely reporting or interpreting; it is creating. Sophisticated creating.

The biography of Cheever is arguably a sophisticated creation also, and the Cheever presented is a self-contradicting complicated mass of a human life, but in years (i.e., centuries) ahead readers will not return to the biography to encounter the literary Cheever (as they do with Boswell and Johnson); they will go to Cheever's short stories.

Because it is in the stories (and novels) where the self-mythologizing Cheever emerges, or rather disappears into the deepest mysteries. There is no doubt that the biography illuminates certain aspects of the fiction. The hints of homosexuality, for example, can no longer be read as ambiguous.

The details of Cheever's sexual adventurism, however, is altogether too much. For one, it encourages the reduction of Cheever's oeuvre to a Seinfeldian conclusion: he was a writer who was gay. Yes, gay. Let's use that word. And then? Does it matter? Do we care? We are not literary if we do not take our analysis or aesthetic discussion beyond that point.

Cheever was a man who cloaked his sexual identiti(es); yes, this is relevant. However, he was also a man of New England with a mythic sense of self and formal, proto Edwardian ideals about proper behaviour. He was, in other words, a man of many personal contradictions, and his self-analysis of his contractions is on display in the stories and novels. And, again, the stories and novels soar to the level of creation above mere reporting. They are infused with imagination and conveyed through a unique rich use of language.

A John Cheever story is a John Cheever story.

In art, he achieved a singularity of voice and purpose (a distinction) and, for this, he will be remembered. Forever.

In the quest for penile stimulation, he started early, and he finished strong. So what.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jessica Westhead

And Also Sharks
by Jessica Westhead
Cormorant, 2011

The narrators and characters of Jessica Westhead's And Also Sharks are an irritating bunch.

They are narcissistic, alienated, unhappy, and searching in all the wrong places for solutions to what ails them.

In short, they're just like many people you know.

But these folks are characters in a book and you can laugh at them without worrying that they will call you up in the middle of the night or corner you in the elevator lobby at work next week and ask you WTF were you thinking.

WTF are they thinking, is the binding theme of this short story collection. The lost puppies presented here (who are often naïve,helpless, innocent, and drifting wildly) include
  • a couple of women with trouble in the "O" department
  • an office worker whose dog died, whose colleague has cancer, and whose co-workers live vicariously though the suffering of others
  • a young man who wants to believe that he had healing powers in his hands whose best friend takes him to a photography show, then mugs a photographer and his assistant in the parking lot
  • an office worker who lusts after a colleague's wife

The stories, in other words, are Carvereque in their minimalist approach. It's not what happens in the stories that's significant so much as what doesn't happen. The significant event that the characters are anticipating that never arrives. The withholding of expectation rather than its delivery. Which isn't saying there's no payoff.

The stories are well-written, clever, wry, funny, and disturbing. Like the Raymond Carver story, "Neighbors," where one couple house sits the others' apartment and bit by bit moves in, assuming their neighbours' lives, Westhead's stories have a complexity that belies their seemingly simple presentation.

The stories challenge the reader to delve beneath the surface of things. Where there be sharks. The stories are like anthropological studies of contemporary madness. Are these individuals making poor choices or are the pressure points of social expectations too strong to break free of?

Here's one narrator and a particularly funny/odd passage:

But then Elba had a stillborn baby, your former best friend tells you, and instead of, say, making the experience into something meaningful by making it into art, such as the woman could have bought a baby doll, one of those very lifelike ones, and spun a cocoon-like structure around the doll with her loom, as if to represent the baby being in a pupa, something far-out but ultimately meaningful like that, she just stopped going to art openings and stayed home all the time. And eventually when she started coming around again, all she wanted to talk about was her dead baby. And come on, if you're not going to translate that event into a narrative that people can understand, or even that people have trouble understanding but then they can at least refer to as an artist's statement, then where is the value in life's sad times?

(from "Brave Things That Kids Do," p69-70)

Westhead's talent for understatement is, ahem, an understatement. The stories commit to a larger weird-world vision (Tim Burton-like) and their significant success stems from their ability to see the weirdness through to meaningful, if not always logical, conclusions. As a result, reading Westhead is like reading with electrodes attached to the sides of your head.

And I mean that in a good way. Her world is our world, and it's shocking.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dimitri Nasrallah

by Dimitri Nasrallah
Esplanade, 2011

A novel of immigration. A narrative that transacts with Canada, but it is not about Canada. A novel that explores multiculturalism, but it is not bound by Trudeau- or even Mulroney-era pieties. A novel about the New Quebec that doesn't mention nationalism (or at least Quebecois nationalism). A novel of immigration that speaks to the world.

Niko is a boy born in Lebanon during that country's civil war in the 1980s. His father owns a camera shop. It's bombed. His mother writes scripts. She's killed. The boy is six, and what is the father to do? They scramble to find a way out. They make it first to Cypress, then a small Greek Island. Nobody wants them, and their money is running out.

Taking advantage of the best offer available, Niko's father ships him to Montreal to live with his late-wife's sister. He promised to come for him as soon as possible, then he takes a job on a cargo boat. The job provides money, but it doesn't get him any closer to Montreal. His passport has long since expired. He seems permanently cut off from his son, so he signs up for the first boat heading for the Americas. If he can only get across the Atlantic, he will walk the rest of the way. The boat, heading for the southern hemisphere, sinks and Niko's father drifts in the ocean until he is rescued.

There are other major plot points that I won't give away. As you can see, however, while the book may be titled after the boy, a great part of the story is about the father. Once the father is lost in South America, though, the reader's focus returns to Niko, now a teenager and shoplifting food in Montreal. His aunt and uncle are anxious to secure their citizenship, so that they can finally begin anew in their new country. Eventually, they all conclude that Niko's father is dead, but an unlikely reunion is on the horizon.

Written in swift, clear prose, this book clips along nicely, covering vast personal, political and geographic territory. It is also a tremendously tender book. Love pulses from cover to cover. The pain caused by the separation of individuals, both physical and ideological, is the subject and cause of the book. Niko and his father are separated by geography. The warring factions in Lebanon (and elsewhere) are separated by the failure to recognize each other's humanity. In the various diaspora's around the world, these differences do not disappear, but they are more easily contextualized, minimized, and set aside in favour of more essential human bonds.

Niko is a lovely novel and a significant achievement by a young writer with much to say.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Playlist: James Brown

I had some fun the other day on Dani Couture's blog, creating a short story playlist.

Long story short, I can't believe I didn't include any James Brown. So to make up for that error, I've created a special James Brown playlist, 12 videos.

I saw JB twice, once at the Ontario Place Forum in 1992 and once at Casino Rama in 2005. At Rama, they kicked him off the stage. Clearly, they wanted the audience back in the casino, spending money, but JB wanted to keep playing, so his final song ("Sex Machine") went on for 15 minutes. Then he complained that he had to leave; they wouldn't let him play any more. The dude was 72 years old.

The videos I've picked are from all over his career. They include videos from The Blues Brothers and a movie everyone should see, When We Were Kings.

Ali and JB. Giants. Super bad.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

ReLit 2011 - Short Story Long List

The ReLit Awards: Ideas, Not Money.

Ravenna Gets, Tony Burgess (Anvil)
Ronald Reagan, My Father, Brian Joseph Davis (ECW)
This Ramshackle Tabernacle, Samuel Thomas Martin (Breakwater)
All Those Drawn to Me, Christian Peterson (Caitlin)
World News Story, Michael Woods (Book Thug)
Three Deaths, Josip Novakovich (Snare)
I Still Don’t Even Know You, Michelle Berry (Turnstone)
Recipes From the Red Planet, Meredith Quartermain (Book Thug)
Punishing Ugly Children, Darryl Joel Berger (Killick)
Mystery Stories, David Helwig (Porcupine’s Quill)
The Mountie at Niagara Falls, Salvatore Difalco (Anvil)
I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore, Anne Perdue (Insomniac)
The Devil You Know, Jenn Farrell (Anvil)
Mennonites Don’t Dance, Darcie Friesen Hossack (Thistledown)
Sex in Russia, Kenneth Radu (DC Books)
The Young in their Country, Richard Cumyn (Enfield & Wizenty)
High Speed Crow, Sheila McClarty (Oberon)
Bird Eat Bird, Katrina Best (Insomniac)
The Doctrine of Affections, Paul Headrick (Freehand)
The Meaning of Children, Beverly Akerman (Exile)
Faded Love, Robert N. Friedland (Libros Libertad)
Bats or Swallows, Teri Vlassopoulas (Invisible)
There is No Other, Jonathan Papernick (Exile)
Missed Her, Ivan E. Coyote (Arsenal Pulp)
Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)
Icebreaker/ Auricle, Alisha Piercy (Conundrum)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

So You Want To Write Short Stories

This is a brilliant synopsis of the current "short story universe."

Everyone* says this is a bad idea
*publishers, booksellers, Steven Galloway, critics, David Mount, magazine editors

Step 1 - Try writing something else
Step 2 - Decide ‘new media’ are the short story’s new best friend
Step 3 - Find the Curators
Step 4 - Collaborate
Step 5 - Bypass the gatekeepers?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Susanna Moodie

This essay first appeared in Paragraph (Summer 1997).

Defying the black flies: The Romanticism of Susanna Moodie

In (1995-96) I attended a graduate course at the University of Toronto called "Romantic Constructions." The purpose of the course, according to the course catalogue, was to "address Romanticism as a cultural phenomenon, as reflected both in late eighteenth/early nineteenth century writing, and in the writing and cultural expressions of our own moment."

Midway through the first term, an event occurred which influenced my choice of topic for my term paper: the federalists narrowly defeated the nationalists in the second Quebec referendum. I became interested in exploring a part of the Canadian psyche that I had previously all but ignored: the 19th century. Susanna Moodie easily came to mind.

I had never read Roughing It in the Bush, but I was aware of Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie. More importantly, I knew that in Survival, her thematic guide to Canadian literature, Atwood had linked Moodie's sense of imprisonment in the Canadian wilderness with a sentimental Romanticism incompatible with black flies and mosquitos. A study of Moodie's "Romantic constructions" seemed like an excellent choice for my term paper.

Moodie came to Canada with visions of Woodsworth's daffodils floating in her head, I saw myself saying. "But the Canadian wilderness breeds only survival instinct," I would quote Atwood. Amongst the bears and the bugs there is no room for sentimentality, I would say. The Canadian wilderness stopped Romanticism dead in its tracks.

The reality, of course, was somewhat different, as I soon discovered. I had to alter my thinking, sometimes drastically, and when I was done I could only say that Atwood was mistaken. Here's why.


On July 1, 1832 a twenty-eight-year-old Susanna Moodie, her husband, J.W. Dunbar Moodie -- whom she had married the year before -- and their infant daughter, set sail from Edinburgh for what was then the British colony of Upper Canada (Moodie, 1991, viii). Over a century-and-a-half later, Moodie is firmly fixed among the early members of the Canadian canon. But who was she? Critics have constituted Moodie in a variety of guises, as Carol Shields has noted:

Moodie is often reduced to the role of microcosmic, schizophrenic citizen. To others Mrs. Moodie is a spoiler, an educated woman, snobbish and dour, who carried to the land of opportunity a baggage of already corrupt literary mannerisms (1).

Of one fact, however, the critics are generally agreed. Moodie was temperamentally unfit for pioneer life in Canada. In Survival, Atwood generalizes this conclusion to Canadian literature as a whole. Atwood writes: "Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature, they are always suspecting some dirty trick. An often-encountered sentiment is that Nature has betrayed expectation" (49). Atwood argues that the emotion "may be traced in part to expectations which were literary in origin." Atwood says of Roughing It in the Bush (and other nineteenth century Canadian texts) "the tension between what you were officially supposed to feel and who you actually encountered when you got here -- and the resultant feeling of being gypped -- is much in evidence" (50-1).

My research indicates, however, that Atwood overstates and oversimplifies the case when she claims that Roughing It in the Bush is a catalogue of "Mrs. Moodie's determination to preserve her Wordsworthian faith" despite "the difficulty she has in doing so when Nature fails time and time again to come through for her" (51). Atwood is here perpetuating the myth of Canada's hostile wilderness. "If Wordsworth was right," Atwood proclaims, implying that Wordsworth was wrong, "Canada ought to have been the Great Good Place. At first, complaining about the bogs and mosquitoes must have been like criticizing the authority of the Bible" (50).

It is true that Moodie's descriptions of the landscape of Grosse Isle and that surrounding Quebec City provide examples of the conventional Burkean response to nature popular in the Romantic period (25-38). Moodie informs the reader how she was "blinded by the [landscape's] excess of beauty" (26) and inspired by the scene's "melancholy awe, which becomes painful in its intensity" (27). Moodie responds to the natural world here in the terms laid out for her by her culture: nature is beautiful and sublime, nurturing and terror-filled.

Yet to attribute to Moodie a simplified Burkean (or Wordsworthian) approach to nature, as Atwood does, is clearly inadequate. Moodie's autobiographical novel of her life in the Canadian backwoods includes some of the stock responses to the natural world conventional of her period; however, Roughing It in the Bush is also stocked with the complications presented to those conventions by the Moodies' New World habitat.

Many of Moodie's complaints, for example, have nothing to do with a hostile natural world. Instead, she often complains about the indecorum of someone of her class and sensibilities living in the backwoods (14, 526) and of the greed of unscrupulous land speculators, whom she continues as late as her introduction to the 1871 edition of Roughing It in the Bush to blame for cheating her and her husband out of the money they brought with them from England (527).

The myth that a hostile wilderness is predominant in early-nineteenth century Canadian literature, however, lives on. Les McLeod, for example, is following Atwood when he argues that Romanticism implies the importance of nature and the individual,

. . . [which] posits a beneficent, harmonious and ideal interaction between man and nature. In Canada, when a persona attempts to experience nature in this way, when, so to speak, he or she attempts the pathetic fallacy, the overture is rebuffed, and the persona becomes self-aware in nature (1).

Other critics, like Alec Lucas, find it sufficient to simply restate Moodie's "preconceived view of nature, a Wordsworthian view" (150), as if it were a banality. Atwood, however, is easily the chief propogandist for this view of Moodie. In Survival, Atwood depicts Moodie as a disciple of Wordsworth with "a markedly double-minded attitude towards Canada" (51). Atwood quotes the following passage from Roughing It in the Bush to support her claim:

... The aspect of Nature ever did, and I hope ever will, continue: "To shoot marvellous strength into my heart." As long as we remain true to the Divine Mother, so long will she remain faithful to her suffering children.

At that period my love for Canada was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell -- his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave (Moodie, 135).

Atwood says of this passage: "Those two emotions -- faith in the Divine Mother and a feeling of hopeless imprisonment -- follow each other on the page without break or explanation. If the Divine Mother is all that faithful, we may ask, why are her children suffering?" (51). The answer, of course, goes back to the roots of Judeo-Christian mythology, back to the earthly paradise -- Eden before the Fall -- that Raymond Williams argues in The Country and the City the western literary tradition has been attempting to recreate for hundreds of years (12).

Atwood's question, therefore, is too broad to say anything meaningful about Moodie's response to her wilderness homestead. The question distorts the relationship between humanity and nature in Wordsworth's poetry, since it implies that in Wordsworth's "Great Good Place" nature protects humanity from suffering, a position that an examination of Wordsworth's poetry does not sustain. Wordsworth's poetry contains the same "double vision" towards nature that Atwood identifies in Moodie.

In "Michael," the shepherd loses his son; in "The Ruined Cottage" the cottager loses her husband, her children and eventually her life; in the first book of "The Prelude" Wordsworth says he "grew up/ Fostered alike by beauty and by fear" (ll. 301-2) before telling us how he was chased by a mountain after stealing a boat. Suffering exists within Wordsworth's natural world as it does in Moodie's. Moodie's representation of the natural world, therefore, does not contain the break from her Romantic precursors that Atwood would have us believe. Instead, Moodie fits into a tradition Atwood -- with her obsession for defining a Canadian literature -- was unable to see. Atwood oversimplifies Wordsworth's response to nature in order to construct a foil for her vision of the dominant theme of Canadian literature: survival.

As Mary Lu MacDonald points out, the myth of a hostile Canadian wilderness has no basis in the Canadian literature of the early-nineteenth century:

The question of why negative myth-making appeals so strongly to the modern Canadian psyche must be left for others to resolve. It is a present-day problem, the answer to which must come from present-day Canadians. As far as the literature written and read by our ancestors is concerned, the fact is that before 1850, with few exceptions, all the evidence points to an essentially positive literary view of the Canadian landscape (48).

Roughing It in the Bush does not catalogue Moodie's disillusionment with her Wordsworthian inheritance; it records her deepening understanding of the natural world and her place within it. Far from complaining about mosquitoes as if she were "criticizing the authority of the Bible," as Atwood claims (50), Moodie inscribes herself as one who learned to "defy" the mosquitoes -- along with the "black flies . . . snakes, and even bears" (329) -- and milk a cow despite her fear of the beast: "Yes! I felt prouder of that milk than many an author of the best thing he ever wrote. . . . I had learned a useful lesson of independence, to which in after-years I had often again to refer" (183).

We must admit, however, that the myth of a hostile Canadian wilderness remains a complication to any reading of Roughing It in the Bush. While Moodie's feelings about the backwoods may not be entirely negative, they are far from entirely positive. To be honest, we must say that Moodie responds to the backwoods with ambivalence. Her feelings about the Canadian wilderness echo her feelings about emigration. They also plug her into a Romantic environmental tradition that Karl Kroeber and Jonathan Bate have begun to articulate.

Kroeber argues, for example: "An ecologically oriented criticism directs itself to understanding persistent Romantic struggles to articulate meaningful human relations within the conditions of a natural world in which transcendence is not at issue" (38).

Kroeber claims that "too many intellectuals still work from an assumption that nature and culture are essentially antagonistic" (139). Kroeber argues for the suspension of "current presuppositions about humankind's inescapable discomfort within its natural habitat and the inevitability of mankind's self-defining antagonism to nature" (6). Kroeber argues that the Romantics would not have understood the nature/culture opposition as it is presented by critics like Atwood:

people of the Romantic era felt profound respect for and awe of the natural world. Because of that awe and respect their perception of possibilities for channelling, harnessing, directing parts of nature for the benefits of humankind was bewilderingly exciting (42).

We need to consider that when Moodie writes "the Upper Province was reclaimed from the wilderness" (534) she does not imply that the province was built in opposition to the wilderness, but that the wilderness was a partner in the evolution of the developing society. As Kroeber says of Wordsworth:

Wordsworth's profoundest discovery-creation was that we dehumanize ourselves most perniciously when we use our consciousness to separate ourselves from nature. The separation is disastrous because the natural environment is both the source and the primary sustainer of our singularly human power of consciousness, supremely manifested in our imagination (138).

Culture -- or human society -- cannot exist apart from the natural world. As Kroeber says: "Natural history and human history, however different, are inextricably intertwined" (119).

In Natural Supernaturalism, M.H. Abrams argued twenty years before Kroeber that the Romantics made use of the natural world to express age-old religious ideas within a secular frame (13). Abrams sees a "procreative marriage between mind and nature" in Wordsworth's poetry, a union which is "able to beget a new world," a new Eden (27). Abrams construction of Wordsworth's view of the relationship between humanity and the natural world resembles the Romanticism that Atwood says ill prepared Moodie for the settler's life.

An examination of Moodie's inscription of herself in Roughing It in the Bush, however, makes clear that Moodie's relationship with the natural world is not constructed on an assumption that the self is capable of uniting with the nature to create a new paradise. Moodie's view of the natural world is more complex -- and more practical -- than Atwood's projection of Abrams-like views on her suggests. As Kroeber argues: "the Romantic proto-ecological vision is no simple substitute for traditional religion" (119).

The relationship between the natural world and the human world in Roughing It in the Bush is neither idealized, as if humanity and nature were capable of being united in a perfect transcendent union, nor is it presented as a competition of opposites. For Moodie, the two worlds -- nature and culture -- are interdependent, and Moodie inscribes herself as one composed of an integrated nature-self and a culture-self. She is a lover of nature and one who finds meaning in the sensibilities of middle-class urban living. Roughing It in the Bush demonstrates that the latter has a stronger pull on her personality than the former, but Moodie's narrative does not destroy one at the expense of the other. Even after five years in the Canadian wilderness, living in an area she calls in one of her "jaundiced" moments a "cheerless wasteland" (274), Moodie is still able to write of her "dear forest home which I loved in spite of all the hardships which we had endured since we pitched our tent in the backwoods" (480).

According to Kroeber's Romantic proto-ecology, Moodie's ambivalence demonstrates that she understands the complexities of her situation; she is aware that the family's move took her away from her intensive, everyday contact with the natural world. Moodie knows that the move, which provided her with the means to recreate in Belleville a likeness of her English middle-class urban lifestyle, also cost her something; her period of new learning in the backwoods came to an end. Kroeber argues: "for the Romantics, the highest human attainment is to achieve and sustain intensely contradictory feelings" (5).

The paradox of Moodie's nationality becomes relevant here. Moodie's British audience is warned to stay home, yet Moodie proclaims "few people who have lived many years in Canada, and return to England to spend the remainder of their days, accomplish the fact. They almost invariably come back, and why? They feel more independent and happier here" (531). Moodie warns the English class "not only accustomed to command, but to receive implicit obedience from the people under them" (526) to remain in England, yet she celebrates Canada as the best chance for the "sons of honest poverty" (527) and predicts that "before the close of the [nineteenth] century, [Canadians will] become a great and prosperous people, bearing their own flag, and enjoying their own nationality" (534). In the above quotations, we see the primary complications of Moodie's character -- she identifies with both her British audience and her New World neighbours.

Moodie (as narrator) is dependent on the social and cultural traditions of the Old World, which provide her with coherent rules of behaviour and roles for persons of different social standing. The Old World provides her with her social and cultural norms, yet the Canadian wilderness -- both as itself and as a symbol of the resources available to build Canada's prosperous future -- feeds her hope.

Recounting a canoe trip by moon light, she writes: "In moments like these, I ceased to regret my separation from my native land; and filled with the love of Nature, my heart forgot for the time the love of home. . . . Amid these lonely wilds, the soul draws nearer to God" (340). Moodie (as narrator) is neither alienated from the natural world, as Atwood suggests, nor does she seek to unite herself with it, as Atwood implies is Moodie's aesthetic goal. Instead, she demonstrates proto-ecological values by inscribing herself as ambivalent to the natural world; she celebrates it -- and her life in the backwoods -- at the same time as she acknowledges how her circumstances have limited her ability to reconstruct in the New World a life that resembles her upbringing.

Kroeber notes a similar spectrum of emotion in Wordsworth: "Wordsworth's faith in life's intrinsic pleasurableness was held in conjunction with his antithetical awareness of nature as a dauntingly vast, ever-ongoing system implacably indifferent to the fate of particular parts of it" (47).

Susanna Moodie left Edinburgh for the New World thirty-four years to the day before Canada become a country. She remains, twenty-nine years after the country's centennial, a significant member of Canada's cultural legacy. Moodie's Romanticism -- and the proto-ecology embedded within it -- however, is too little understood.


Works cited

Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971.

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Kroeber, Karl. Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Lucas, Alec. "The Function of the Sketches in Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush." Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers. Ed. Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990: 146-154.

McLeod, Les. "Canadian Post-Romanticism: the Context of Late-Nineteenth-Century Canadian Poetry." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 1984 (Spring-Summer): 14, 1-37.

MacDonald, Mary Lu. "The Natural World in Early Nineteenth-Century Canadian Literature." Canadian Literature. 1986 (Winter): 111, 48-65.

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

---. Voyages: Short Narratives of Susanna Moodie. Ed. John Thurston. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1991.

Shields, Carol. Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Hogarth Press, 1985.