Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Maggie Helwig

Girls Fall Down
by Maggie Helwig
Coach House, 2008

It's the beginning years of the new millennium as the book opens:

The city is a winter city, at its heart. Though the ozone layer is thinning above it, and the summers grow long and fierce, still the city always anticipates winter. Anticipates hardship. In the winter, when it is raw and grey and dim, it is itself most truly.

People come here from summer countries and learn to be winter people. But there are worse fates. That is exactly why many of them come here, because there are far worse fates than winter.


It is hard to imagine this city being damaged by something from the sky. The dangers to this city enter the bloodstream, move through interior channels.

Girls fall down on subways, remembering the smell of roses before they collapse. Was it poison? They don't die, but they are the seeds of a growing fear. The War on Terror isn't named, and historical context is generally ignored. The Toronto of this book is a Toronto with ravines, subways, and streets like the "real" Toronto, but the geopolitical details of the early-21st century are ignored. There is no Bush, for example. No 9/11. Still, the atmosphere and mood undergirding all of the events of the novel is one of ever-expanding fear.

The atmosphere of the novel is a major feature, and a major accomplishment. The plot is simple. It features a triangle between a young man, a young woman, and her brother. All are thirty-ish.

The man, Alex, is a photographer with a degenerative eye disease. He's slowing going blind. The woman is Susie-Paul, who knew Alex when they were undergraduates, but then she "disappeared" for a decade, and they are reunited just as the girls start mysteriously falling.

Susie-Paul's brother is Derek, who is schizophrenic, and missing. Susie-Paul is desperate to find him. Alex assists. Along the way, they hook up and rekindle the complexities of their connection a decade earlier.

Helwig's prose is confident, direct, searing, and multi-voiced. It's excellent, in other words.

As the opening paragraphs quoted above show, parts of the novel are written by a narrator with a broad view and deep insight. These sections offset the third-person narration of the plot-driving portions; the sections about Alex, Susie-Paul, and Derek. Then there are sections that point the camera in random locations around the city, often focused on the behaviours of teenage girls. These bits are simply hilarious:

The first girl who fell, on the day it began.

She had come out of school with her friends, in her kilt and tie and red wool jacket, her thigh still feeling intangibly damp where the geography teacher had put his hand on it after class.

'Sid the Squid,' snorted Lauren as they walked down the steps. 'God, he's so gross. He's just made of gross. And his wife is a hog and a half, seriously, I mean, she weighs like a thousand pounds.'

'She totally could sink the Titanic with her ass. I'm not kidding,' said Tasha.

The strangeness of adults, their clenched little needs.

'Yeah, can you imagine them in bed?' said Lauren. 'Oh, oh, darling, argh, I can't breathe!'


'I just feel so cheated,' Tasha was saying. 'Because every year after sports day they have pizza, like every year, and then our year we just have chips and Coke. Literally like a single chip each. And you expect you're going to have pizza, you know?'

'I know, it's so cheap,' said the girl. 'It's like, hey, we're saving five cents, we're so awesome.'

'To me it's like a betrayal,' said Lauren.

In 2008, NOW named Helwig TO's best author. As perhaps you can infer from the maladies of the characters (degenerative eye disease, schizophrenia) and the image of the title, falling girls, this is a novel about social and personal disintegration. There are passages that question the solidity of identity. Isn't who we think we are just chemicals sloshing around in our brains? How can we say we "know" something when everything is always falling apart? Yes, the book has touches of DeLillo, but it's a tres contemporary Toronto book (not a US-lit knock-off), and it invites and deserves engaged Canlit contemplation.

Not all Canlit is focused decades backwards.This is a book concerned with what it means to live right here right now.

Alex has a project to take photographs of the city before he loses his sight, a kind of catalogue and capturing of reality. But it's a reality turned into images, a removed reality that their creator won't be able to access (see) once he's blind.

What of the rest of us? Are we watching? Paying attention? More than a little lost?

The city, says the God-like narrator (to be trusted? or feared?), "is a winter city, at its heart." Cold. Lifeless. Waiting, one hopes, for an eventual spring.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stacey May Fowles

Be Good
by Stacey May Fowles
Tightrope Books, 2007

Stephen Cain and Gregory Betts outline conclusions in Re: Reading the Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism After Modernism (University of Ottawa Press, 2010) that overwhelm me as overdue.

The volume of essays within which their work appears began as the annual Canadian Literature Symposium at the University of Ottawa in May 2008. Cain's essay is "Feeling Ugly: Daniel Jones, Lynn Crosbie, and Canadian Postmodernism's Second Wave." The Betts essay is "Postmodern Decadence in Canadian Sound Poetry and Visual Art."

Here's a quote from Cain:

The postmodern literature that emerged in this country post-1986 is what I call "pessimistic pomo," a type of postmodern that, despite using many of the same textual techniques, resulted in texts whose primary ideological manifestation was nihilism, and that rather than rejoicing in the lack of epistemological centre and seeing this absence as a site for liberation and reconstruction, despaired at the futility of existence and lack of agency toward social and cultural change (105).

Here's a quote from Betts:

While early Canadian visual and sound poetry retained an avant-garde sense of history, a turn away from inherited traditions led rather quickly to a disillusioned sense of history and progress. This transition could be characterized as a shift from revolutionary decadence to postmodern decadence (169).

What is this? and what's overdue about it?

I must begin with the personal. Betts and Cain are speaking my language. They have articulated my experience; my perspective; my opinion. They have given words to a "reality" I absorbed without being able to define; or see; or step outside.

Post-1986, to use Cain's timeframe, is my entire, post-17-year-old adult life.

To be more specific, the short stories I was writing in the 1990s were rooted in the "despair" Cain gives voice to, and they were also motivated by a force Betts calls "a disillusioned sense of history and progress."

That's what "this" is; an acknowledgement of a cultural moment.

What's overdue about it? Maybe I'm over-emphasizing the significance of these essays.

One could argue, for example, that Mordecai Richler was always the existentialist, never the nationalist. So perhaps I'm only glad to find others promoting a tune I recognize. One that isn't new, only too often faint.

It's not that "urban fiction" hasn't had its supporters. Or its anthologies. Some of which I've been in.

It's just that the Canlit ethos is still struggling towards a sophistication that can accommodate internationalist influences without the anxiety of a self-loathing colonialism. A-hem. Apologies. (Did I say something? Can I keep my passport?)

A fair chunck of Re: Reading the Postmodern concerns reactions and responses to Linda Hutcheon's 1988 title, The Canadian Postmodern, which concentrated on the uncertainties innovatively (?) embedded within Canadian historical fictions. The past is not, you know, what it seems. Brilliant; or not so much.

Okay, so, like, eh (my internal hoser provokes me), as Betts points out, what Hutcheon found notable in 1988 was fading fast even as it was being published. A new, darker complexity was imminent, if not already encompassing.

And I include myself among the crowd of writers Cain lists as captured by this influence: Tony Burgess, Matthew Remski, R.M. Vaughan, Derek McCormack, Patricia Seaman, Andre Alexis, Michael Turner, Natalee Caple, Nancy Dembowski, and the two authors of focus in his essay: Lynn Crosbie and Daniel Jones (105-6). For good measure, I have to include also Matthew Firth, Sal DiFalco, Alexandra Leggat, Peter Darbyshire, Hal Niezviecki, Ken Sparling, and Kenneth J. Harvey.

There are others, of course, quite a field, actually, but I need to move on to what's supposed to be my subject here: Stacey May Fowles' Be Good, a terrific companion to Zoe Whittall's Bottle Rocket Hearts. Both are stories about being young and restless in Montreal at the turn of the century, or thereabouts.

Both represent a turn beyond "nihilism," though both muck around on the dark side. Whittal's protagonist is way too damn bouyant to be nihilistic; Fowles' characters never give up believing (or searching for) the authentic experience. Call it love, if you like. Or call it something other than endless drunken hell, mind-fucks, and so-called friends.

These novels by Fowles and Whittall wouldn't find a home in Hutcheon's 1988 postmodernism, but neither are they aligned with the 1980s/90s Jones/Crosbie. But they are part of a continuity, one that interests me, makes my synapses ping, ping, ping.

Fowles' characters are early-twenties, either in or just out of university in Montreal. Many are would-be bohemians floating on their parents' dime. As a generation, they were playing at being beatniks, because what else was there to do? Betts quotes Steve McCaffery about the 1960s' "utopian potential of decadence" (173), and McCaffery says: "Well, that utopian belief in a language revolution is long gone but at the time it was instrumental." My point is, Fowles' characters never had any belief in revolution. They just move into the future dreading that worst of all outcomes: becoming a suburbanite.

A plot summary: Hannah finishes university. She is in love with her roommate, Morgan, but can't tell her. Instead, she follows "boyfriend" Finn to Vancouver, where he won't let him move in with her and their intimacy ends. Meanwhile, we find out that Morgan isn't her real name and that "Morgan" has a profound gift for self-mythologizing. She also seeks out sex with men who hit her and hooks up with a man twenty years her senior, who knows what everyone seems to know about Morgan. One day she will leave.

The story does ultimately lead to a moment of heightened authenticity, but I won't give it away here.

All I wanted to say was, this is a groovy little book that fits snugly into a non-tradition tradition. "Isn't it pretty to think so," Hemingway had his protagonist say in The Sun Also Rises. The year was 1926, and not much has changed. Except that it has.