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. 

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