31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 15: “What Saffi Knows” by Carol Windley

May 15, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Home Schooling

Home_SchoolingCarol Windley’s short story “What Saffi Knows,” from her Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted 2006 collection Home Schooling, kicks off with a palpable air of menace. “That summer a boy went missing from a field known as the old potato farm,” the story begins, and though the details of the boy’s disappearance remain tentative and opaque in the early stages, the language Windley uses to set the scene is heavy with foreboding. The opening paragraph presents us with “bog-orchids,” “thistles in their multitudes,” and “black lilies with a stink of rotten meat.” The imagery is of barrenness and decay, culminating in “stinging nettles” that are “blameless to look at … yet caustic and burning to the touch.” The nettles can be “brewed into a tea that acted on the system like a tonic,” prompting the recollection of a children’s rhyme: “Nettle tea in March, mugwort leaves in May, and all the fine maidens will not go to clay.” The tea’s properties may be healing, but it is impossible to ignore the little ditty’s insistence, in its final clause, on death.

The creeping dread in the opening is surely intentional, and fully appropriate for what follows. A crowd of people resembling “cutout dolls” gather in the potato field – further described as “untended” and “sequestered”; the wind blowing through the grass is “fitful” – to search for the missing boy, named Eugene Dexter. It is July 1964, and ten-year-old Eugene is the second boy in six weeks to go missing in the small Vancouver Island community. Details of the new boy’s disappearance are sketchy and frequently contradictory:

His jacket had been found snagged in a hawthorn tree beside the Millstone River, at the far end of the old potato farm. Or else it was a baseball cap that was found. Or a catcher’s mitt. You heard different stories. There was a ransom note. There was no such note. The police had a suspect, or, alternately, they had no suspects, although they’d questioned and released someone and were refusing to give out details.

The circumstances surrounding Eugene’s disappearance are narrated retrospectively, told in the close third person from the point of view of Saffi, an adult in the narrative present, but a girl of seven in 1964. As a child, we are told, Saffi “noticed things, she took things in, and to this day she can’t decide, is this a curse or a gift?” One of the things Saffi notices around the time of Eugene’s disappearance is a young boy who appears to be locked in the basement room of her family’s solitary neighbour, Arthur Dawsley:

He had painted his cellar window black, but he’d missed a little place shaped like a star and she could get up close to it and see a shaded light hanging from the ceiling and beneath the light a table with a boy crouched on it. He was a real boy. She saw him and he saw her, his eyes alert and shining, and then he let his head droop on his chest. Don’t be scared, she said; don’t be. He was awake but sleeping, his arm twitching, his feet curled like a bird’s claws on a perch. All she could see in the dim light was his hair, nearly white. He was wearing a pair of shorts.

What Saffi knows is that her next door neighbour (whom everyone in Saffi’s family refers to as “Arthur Daisy” on account of a mispronunciation the girl made of the man’s surname when she was not even two years old), “a man in his late sixties, a bachelor or perhaps a widower, a man seemingly without family of his own,” has in his basement a boy who resembles in all the pertinent details the missing Eugene Dexter. “Saffi was the only one who knew,” Windley writes in the story’s opening scene. “But who would listen to her?”

Who indeed? For seven-year-old Saffi is unable to convey her knowledge to her parents, who are too preoccupied to pay much attention to her in any case, or to any other adult in a position to take action to help the boy. She tells her aunt Loretta, “I seen a turtledove in the cellar at Arthur Daisy’s house,” something Loretta assumes to be a flight of fancy on the part of her young niece. The comparison is completely understandable: Loretta has just finished telling Saffi a story about a turtledove, and Saffi makes the association because of the boy’s fair hair, which is described as being so blond it appears almost white. Attending the search party at the story’s beginning, Saffi thinks she sees a turtledove, “its silvery wings spread like a fan,” but realizes belatedly that she is mistaken.

The turtledove, of course, is an emblem of peace; in Windley’s story it attaches to the boy as a means of locating his innocence, which is in stark contrast to the language used to describe Arthur Daisy. Saffi’s neighbour is portrayed as physically repulsive, with “colourless lips,” “stained teeth,” and “gums the bluish-pink of a dog’s gums.” He looks, Saffi thinks, “like the old troll that lived under the bridge in Three Billy Goats Gruff.” He is pictured working in his garden, cutting away at “blood-red roses” that he will take to the grave of his mother, who died of “a wasting disease.”

Arthur Daisy’s interactions with Saffi are presented in creepy, not-quite-predatory terms: he encroaches physically on her space and intimidates her into silence, then needles her with his favourite question: “Cat got your tongue, little girl?” At one point, he pinches Saffi’s arm and it “burned like a hornet’s sting.” He asks her to guess what he’s got concealed in his hand, an item that turns out to be “an old nail or a screwdriver or the sharp little scissors he used for cutting roses” – all things that could be pressed into service for violent purposes should one be so disposed.

The question Arthur Daisy asks Saffi – “What do you think I’ve got?” – is resonant with an earlier line in the story, when Saffi thinks that she must be careful prowling around her neighbour’s property: “Since he’d got the bird-boy, Arthur Daisy never stayed away for long.” Saffi knows what Arthur Daisy has “got” concealed in his cellar, but she is unable to communicate this knowledge. Her aunt misunderstands her, and when a policeman stops her mother for speeding while Saffi is in the car, the girl thinks she should divulge what she knows, but can’t bring herself to do so: “She hated herself; stupid, stupid Saffi, what’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”

The guilt and ghosts of Saffi’s childhood follow her into her life as an adult and a mother; she finds herself overly protective of her own children, never losing sight of them for even a second without succumbing to “a bleak, enervating moment of inevitability … as if she herself had vanished, as if the world was simply gone, all its substance and splendour disintegrating into nothing.” She notes the “indiscriminate growth and contradictory nature” of living things, “the small stink of decay at the heart of each flower,” and encourages her children to observe shattered robin’s eggs and dead animals: “Go ahead, look, she said. It won’t hurt you to look.”

What Saffi knows, however, is that it does hurt to look, especially if one does not have the language to convey what one has seen. “Memory was so imperfect,” the adult Saffi thinks. “The habit of reticence, of keeping secrets, was, on the other hand, easily perfected; it was powerful and compelling, irresistible.” Saffi carries her knowledge with her throughout her life, without any resolution as to the fate of the boy in the cellar. In retrospect, the adult woman even questions the veracity of her own childhood comprehension: “What was true and what was something else, a made-up story?” As for the rest of the town, “There were no answers, it seemed. It was a genuine and terrible mystery that infected the town like a virus and then suddenly cleared up, leaving as an after-effect an epidemic of amnesia.”

For her part, the adult Saffi’s memories manifest themselves in anxiety disorders, depression, and exhaustion. She suffers recurring nightmares of Arthur Daisy’s shed, inside of which “it seemed there was a greater darkness than the dark of night.” In her dreams, the only sound that manages to cut through “the soundless well” is “the ringing of a shovel against the unyielding earth” – a memory of Arthur Daisy’s shovel digging into his garden, but also a suggestion, ever present and horrible, of a gravedigger’s shovel preparing the ground to receive a fresh corpse.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 9: “Oh, My Darling” by Shaena Lambert

May 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Oh, My Darling

Oh_My_Darling_Shaena_LambertThe title story in Shaena Lambert’s 2013 collection is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of them being its canny use of narration. The story manages a rare effective use of the second-person voice, though Lambert layers this with a level of self-reflexiveness that exposes the gears used to drive the narrative mechanism. By dissecting the second-person approach, Lambert shows it for what it is: veiled first-person. After all, there cannot be a “you” without an observing “I.” (This is true also of third-person narration, although the explicit authorial presence, beloved of the Victorians – consider William Makepeace Thackeray’s approach in Vanity Fair – is old-fashioned and outmoded; contemporary authors and readers tacitly accept the notion of a separate omniscient consciousness that allows the creator to fade into the background and get largely forgotten or ignored.)

“Oh, My Darling” begins with an anonymous voice addressing a woman named Vanessa. The first thing a reader notices is the tone: intimate, cloying, knowledgeable about the woman being addressed. The second thing one notices is a particular literary resonance. Here are the first two paragraphs of Lambert’s story:

Hello, Vanessa.

Such a lovely name, with that sensual V, and those three satiny syllables, Va-nes-sa. There will be none of the diminutive stuff for me. No Nessa, or Ness, or, dear God, the worst of them all: Nessie. What on earth were you thinking, letting them call you that? It reminds me of the Loch Ness monster. I can just picture your size-fourteen body, mottled and walruslike, plunging into the subaqueous depth of that Scottish lake. Living your invisible life.

If associative bells begin to go off while reading the above passage, they are absolutely intentional. Compare Lambert’s opening with the following:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

It’s all there: the syllabic pronunciation of the key figure’s name, the assessment of the various diminutive forms of address, and – not incidentally – the air of menace. If Lambert’s passage alludes to the famous opening of Nabokov’s most notorious work, it does so at least in part to evoke the reference, merely implied in Lambert’s version, to a murderer.

It transpires that the voice addressing Vanessa is that of a malignant breast tumour, “a five-centimetre invasive lobular carcinoma … cagily situated in your left breast, at two o’clock from the nipple.” Here, the narrator reveals himself (or, perhaps more accurately, itself) as the incipient murderer suggested in the story’s opening. And no wonder the voice should be so intimate: the tumour knows the woman it is attacking from the inside out.

But this is where the narration turns in on itself, initially by shifting from second-person (the tumour referring to Vanessa) to first (the tumour referring to itself), then by pulling the veil back even farther to reveal the story’s true narrator: Vanessa herself. “Here you sit,” the tumour says, “writing like the very dickens, attempting to expunge me from your system.” Lambert’s story is presented as the voice of a malignant tumour addressing the woman it is attacking, but this dark fantasia is actually filtered through the mind and the pen of the woman herself, who is writing the story as a kind of rebellion against the invader that has taken up residence inside her body, a villainous presence compared in the story to “a combination of Humbert Humbert and Jack the Ripper.”

It is certainly not necessary to know how Lambert came to write “Oh, My Darling” in order to appreciate it, although being aware of the circumstances behind its composition lends yet another level to the narrative. In an essay in Quill & Quire entitled “My Crow Self,” Lambert talks about the autobiographical genesis of her story. In 2012, the author was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her essay references a dream about a spider, which in turn prompted her to write a story about cancer. She began by addressing a letter to herself, in which she listed the treatments she had undergone to combat the disease: “Radiation. Tamoxifen. Exercise. Healthy diet. It felt good to draw up a list.” A list very similar to this one appears in the finished story.

The idea to personify the cancer as the villain in “Oh, My Darling” sprang out of the author’s own experience, and specifically from that writing session in a Kitsilano café. “I suppose I must have been shocked by how the cancer had been personified in the dark of my unconscious mind,” Lambert writes in her essay, “then wriggled into my hand and written itself into my journal. But as a writer I was electrified. I’d found the voice of my story.”

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 4: “Valerie’s Bush” by Nancy Jo Cullen

May 4, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Canary

Canary_Nancy_Jo_CullenAt the Toronto launch for her 2013 debut collection, Nancy Jo Cullen read the story “Valerie’s Bush.” Here are the first two paragraphs from that story:

In the communal shower of the hot yoga studio there were two women as bald as Barbie dolls. Another woman, who Val made to be at least five years older than she was, sported only a little triangle of hair on her pubic bone, her long labia hung below. The blonde woman showering immediately to her right wore a straight rectangle down the centre of her pubis.

Aside from a careful clipping close to her vaginal entry, because that’s just good manners, Valerie’s genitals were covered in a large, curly bush of hair. It had been almost twenty years since her pussy had been on the market, almost twenty years since she’d had to consider its attractiveness to strangers. In that time the natural look had fallen out of fashion, which Valerie was media savvy enough to know, but not alert enough to realize might affect a woman of her age.

Cullen got to the bit about it being twenty years since the character’s “pussy had been on the market,” then looked up quickly with an expression of commingled embarrassment and mischief. “My kids are here,” she said. Cullen’s comment was followed by what sounded like a teenaged girl’s voice rising from somewhere near the back of the gathered crowd: “Thanks, Mom.”

This anecdote tells you pretty much all you need to know about Cullen in general, and “Valerie’s Bush” in particular. The first thing to note is Cullen’s bravery: reading a story that begins with a graphic description of the protagonist’s hirsute genital area is a brave choice of material to foist on a crowd of staid, reliably uptight Canadian readers.

Second, Cullen, like her story, is deliriously funny. Indeed, “Valerie’s Bush,” which runs a brief seven pages, has at least two separate moments that elicit laughter: not small titters of amusement, but deep, resonant belly laughs. The isolated moments are pristine and perfectly timed, arising out of the uncomfortable honesty and forthrightness of the general situation the story explores.

“Valerie’s Bush” features a woman of a certain age who, as the opening paragraphs suggest, has recently split from Margot, her long-term romantic partner. As a means of rejuvenating herself and metaphorically erasing Margot from her life, Valerie decides to undergo a Brazilian waxing procedure. This delicate operation, described in the kind of excruciating detail that calls to mind Steve Carrel’s cinema verité chest-waxing in The 40-Year Old Virgin, is responsible for one of the story’s two big laughs. (The other, which I won’t spoil here, involves a polished stone with highly sentimental meaning for Valerie.)

The story is almost distressingly intimate, in the first place as a result of the dipilatory procedure at its centre, but also because of the raw emotional territory it traverses. During her waxing, Valerie makes small talk with Ingrid, her aesthetician (who neglects even to introduce herself to her vulnerable charge; Valerie identifies her by reading her name tag). But small talk gives way to weightier subjects, and Valerie ends up confessing that the immediate impetus for her decision to wax her pubis was a meeting with Margot during which the latter confesses that her new (much younger) partner, Sue, is pregnant.

Cullen nicely counterpoints the awkwardness of the conversation between Valerie and Ingrid with the emotionally charged meeting between Valerie and Margot. Ingrid reacts with indignation when Valerie imparts her situation: “They wanted me to know first,” Valerie says, to which Ingrid replies, “What a crock of shit!” It is Ingrid who suggests a full Brazilian wax as a means of exorcism; though Valerie is initially reluctant (“Isn’t it kind of weird for a woman my age?”), she gives in as a gesture of defiance and daring.

Like some other stories in Canary, “Valerie’s Bush” is particularly good at handling its middle-aged character, a woman who never anticipated being on her own at this stage in her life, and who reacts with initial confusion and suspicion about the appropriateness of engaging in activities she associates with much younger people. Cullen also presents her protagonist in a manner that is completely unsentimental: “Valerie had no intention of making small talk with her formerly opposed to marriage – same-sex or otherwise – ex-partner when she could be home watching reruns of Criminal Minds.” In a very short space, the author captures the end of a relationship, and a hopeful new beginning for its wounded participant.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 3: “Varieties of Exile” by Mavis Gallant

May 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Montreal Stories

Montreal_Stories_Mavis_GallantAlthough she was born in Montreal, where she spent her formative years, Mavis Gallant fled the city for Paris at the age of twenty-eight to devote herself full time to fiction writing. She had worked for the Montreal Standard, at a time when a woman in the newsroom was a fabulously rare occurrance, but feared that she would become, in her words, “a journalist who wrote fiction along some margin of spare time.” She never returned. In his afterword to the New Canadian Library volume The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, Gallant’s longtime friend Mordecai Richler writes, “There is a story I cherish about Mavis. Once, I’m told, a naive young Canadian reporter asked her, ‘Why do you live in Paris?’ To which Mavis replied, ‘Have you ever been to Paris?'”

Despite her own self-imposed exile, she returned to her birthplace often in her fiction, and often in a baldly autobiographical mode. The suite of fictionalized autobiography featuring Linnet Muir, who serves as the narrator of “Varieties of Exile,” is gathered together in Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, a collection that won Gallant the 1981 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. Varieties of Exile also serves as the U.S. title of Montreal Stories, edited by the great Russell Banks (for more about whom, keep watching this space), and published by New York Review Books. (The Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart.)

Set during “the third summer of the war,” Gallant’s story depicts a Montreal proliferating with refugees, who are “a source of infinite wonder” for nineteen-year-old Linnet. Eschewing what she refers to as “plain Canadians,” Linnet locates her cultural touchstones in “films, poems, novels, Lenin, Freud.” Her references are mostly European: she reads the novels of Stefan Zweig, refers to married women as “Red Queens” because they remind her of the character from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and as a child plans to live for a time in each country in the world, beginning on a tropical island “because of the Swiss Family Robinson.” (The story is silent as to whether this refers to the John David Wyss novel or the 1940 Edward Ludwig film, though given Linnet’s general predisposition, one can infer the answer to this question.)

It is the foreigners populating Montreal that make the city bearable for Linnet. “They came straight out of the twilit Socialist-literary landscape of my reading and my desires,” she says. “I saw them as prophets of a promised social order that was to consist of justice, equality, art, personal relations, courage, generosity.” Absent the outsiders’ influence, the city appears drab and uninspired: “A refugee eating cornflakes was of no further interest.” If there were any doubt about the semi-autobiographical nature of Linnet vis à vis her creator, recall that Gallant caused quite a stir in her native country when, in 1946, she published an essay entitled “Why Are Canadians So Dull?” (a question, by the way, that still awaits an answer).

One of the expats Linnet becomes involved with is a British man she meets on the Montreal commuter train that ferries her to and from her dull office job each day. The man, Frank Cairns (note the telling surname), “belonged to a species of British immigrant known as remittance men,” youthful British males who had committed some offence to propriety – choosing the wrong profession, for example, or getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock, or, worst of all, being homosexual – and were paid off (or, in more polite parlance, offered a remittance) to leave the country and never return. Linnet’s view of remittance men is caustic and pitiless, verging on cruel, although probably wholly accurate for all that. She sees them as little more than overgrown children who have never had to work for anything, and thus would be incapable of making their way in the world absent the guaranteed income from back home.

Despite her jaundiced view of the English class system that allows remittance men to exist in the first place, Linnet falls into a kind of friendship with Frank Cairns: they begin meeting to exchange books, and he tells her about the trials of the British lower classes. “Frank Cairns was the first person ever to talk to me about the English poor,” Linnet says. “They seemed to be a race, different in kind from the other English.” Linnets’ socialist leanings render her empathetic to the British lower class – a different variety of exile – and endear Frank Carins to her. “His socialism did not fit anything else I knew about him,” she says. He “was something new, unique of his kind, and almost as good as a refugee.”

And yet Linnet’s relationship with Frank Carins is, in her own words, “riddled with ambiguity.” She is staunchly unimpressed by male bravado, and turns up her nose the first time she speaks to the British man, who offers her a book – The Wallet of Kai Lung – that “had been to Ceylon with him and had survived.” The “bait” in the reference to Ceylon – the implication that Frank Cairns is an adventurous man of the world who could impart much knowledge and experience to young Linnet – is ignored, and when she later accepts the loan of the book, she repeats, in a deadpan tone, the ironic line about it having been to Ceylon with him. Moreover, in conversation with Frank Cairns, Linnet gives vent to a previously untapped patriotism; she takes umbrage when he complains about receiving tepid coffee in a railway station café.

Linnet compares the evolution of her character throughout the story to “freaky weather”; her changeability is predicated, in large part, upon her status as a woman in a society heavily dominated by male power and standing. When she marries as a minor, she becomes “emancipated” from her parents, but her new husband becomes her guardian under Canadian law. “Varieties of Exile” is, at its heart, a feminist examination of the difficulties a single woman living in wartime Montreal faced in charting a path for herself based on her own dictates and desires. Women, the story implies, form another variety of exile, denied independence or agency by a society organized unquestioningly along a masculine-dominated hierarchical structure. “Another thing I won’t be,” Linnet vows near the story’s end, “and that’s the sensitive housewife – the one who listens to Brahms while she does the ironing and reads all the new books still in their jackets.”

As a woman, as a socialist non-conformer (she refuses to enlist in the army when she realizes the recruitment form specifies service “of the white race only”), and as a writer, Linnet embodies numerous varieties of exile. The story of her tangled relationship with Frank Cairns reveals Gallant at her most cutting: “Varieties of Exile” will do nothing to dissuade those readers who claim to be put off by the author’s viciousness. Despite this, it is also one of Gallant’s funniest stories, though the humour is dry and occasionally nasty. The final moments in the story find Linnet ruminating on a manuscript about a remittance man that she has burned, something that bothers her intensely. “All this business of putting life through a sieve and then discarding it was another variety of exile,” she thinks. It is a variety of exile her creator – an anglophone woman in Montreal, a Canadian immigrant to France, and a fiction writer to boot – understood completely.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 1: “The Closing Down of Summer” by Alistair MacLeod

May 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Island: The Collected Stories

Island_Alistair_MacLeodAlistair MacLeod’s literary reputation is based on a total output of three books: two collections of stories (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun) and one novel (No Great Mischief). The fourteen stories from the two collections – along with two previously unpublished pieces – are contained in Island, a single-volume omnibus brought out by McClelland & Stewart in 2000. In addition, “To Every Thing There Is a Season,” one of the stories from As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, was released in a deluxe standalone holiday edition, and last year Random House Canada published “Remembrance,” a story specially commissioned by the Vancouver Writers Fest, as a digital single.

That’s it.

One novel and seventeen stories.

MacLeod harboured attitudes that are deeply unfashionable today. He knew that a writer is not owed anything by his readers – not a living wage, not respect, not adulation. He knew also that a writer owes readers the highest calibre of work the writer is capable of producing. He believed in publishing only when he had something worthy of publication. As a result, he was not prolific, but everything he did allow to appear between two covers is a polished gem.

And the enduring popularity of No Great Mischief notwithstanding, it is the short stories that glimmer brightest.

Set among the hardscrabble labourers of Cape Breton, MacLeod’s stories are steeped in Gaelic heritage and an oral tradition. His prose is often incantatory, charged by the rhythms of speech and the idiosyncrasies of local vernacular. His fidelity to a bygone method of storytelling has sometimes seen him smeared with accusations of being old-fashioned, but this misses the point entirely. The formal construction of MacLeod’s stories is precisely what gives them their emotional power.

Like much of the CanLit canon, “The Closing Down of Summer” focuses on memory, but MacLeod was not a chronicler of stasis; his stories and his characters may traffic in their individual and collective pasts, but those pasts are never far removed from present circumstances.

This confluence of past and present afflicts the story’s first-person narrator, a miner who “always wished to be better than the merely mediocre” but spent only a single year at university – “mainly as an athlete and as a casual reader of English literature” – before dropping out; he now imagines the next generation turning their backs on the hard life of manual labour for university, where they will “study dentistry or law and … become fatly affluent before they are thirty.” The sons of the narrator and his fellow miners will “seek out other ways of life which lead, we hope, to gentler deaths” than being crushed when a mine shaft collapses on top of them, or feeling their lungs seize up as a result of the foul underground air they are forced to breathe.

In typical MacLeod fashion, these ruminations lead to a staggering realization on the part of the narrator:

And yet because it seems they will follow our advice instead of our lives, we will experience, in any future that is ours, only an increased sense of anguished isolation and an ironic feeling of confused bereavement.

How heartbreaking for a father to want a better life for his son, but simultaneously to recognize the very way in which this sets the generations apart, erecting a barricade to understanding and camaraderie.

Nor is the reference to bereavement incidental. “The Closing Down of Summer” is a death-haunted story, on the level of incident, theme, and language. Ironically positioned as the opening story in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, the very title refers to something finishing or shutting down, and the story’s first words are, “It is August now, towards the end.” In two days, the men will get in their cars and drive to Toronto, and from there fly to Africa for a season’s work in the mines. The narrator knows that there is a good chance not everyone will make it back alive. Fifteen years ago, the narrator’s brother died in a Newfoundland mine, “crushed and broken amidst the constant tinkle of the dripping water, and lying upon a bed of tumbled stone.” Such danger is ever present for the miners, who are described as being “entombed” in the confines of their underground caverns.

Death is pervasive for the story’s narrator, and taints even putatively pleasant experiences back home in Cape Breton. After returning from a season in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, the narrator expresses surprise at hearing the music that has become popular while he was away. “There was always a feeling of mild panic then,” he muses, “on hearing whole dance floors of people singing aloud songs that had come and flourished since my departure and which I had never heard. As if I had been on a journey to the land of the dead.” And on calm summer days, during which the miners can finally expose their sickly white skin to the sun, the narrator’s thoughts turn to friends who have died on the job, and whose coffins lie “beneath the nodding wild flowers that grow on outport graves.”

“I must not think too much of death and loss,” the narrator tells himself, though the entire story stands as a challenge to this directive. Ends and beginnings elide into one another throughout “The Closing Down of Summer,” from the waning days of a lazy vacation season giving way to the beginning of a period of productive work or, potentially, a fatal accident.

It is particularly melancholy to read “The Closing Down of Summer” so soon after MacLeod’s own death, although there is also something comforting in the experience. The author was never sentimental about life’s harshness, and his burnished prose allows beauty to shine through even surpassingly dark material. “If I am to survive,” the narrator supposes, “I must be as careful and calculating with my thoughts as I am with my tools … I must always be careful of sloppiness and self-indulgence lest they cost me dearly in the end.” This comment could also serve as a manifesto for a writer who rigorously avoided sloppiness and self-indulgence in his writing. Alistair MacLeod may now lie beneath the nodding flowers of an outport grave, but his stories endure, the lasting legacy of a literary giant.

31 Days of Stories 2014: Introduction

April 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

“No one likes short-story collections,” claims Julian Gough in a recent interview with the U.K. Sunday Times. “They never sell, because it’s not a natural art form. You don’t want to read 20 short stories in a row by the same writer. It’s like eating 20 truffles in a row.”

While this is obviously an enormous generalization, it’s one I’ve heard before in various contexts. Story collections are like the LPs of literature (as opposed to novels, which resemble concept albums – at least, I think so: I’m still developing that analogy). But for those of a certain age – that is, those who did not grow up in thrall to iTunes – there is a certain pleasure in listening to an album from top to bottom. Sequencing of tracks is important: songs segue into one another, play off one another, engage in dialogue with one another. There is pleasure to be found there, regardless of whether story collections or LPs constitute “natural” art forms (whatever that means).

On the other hand, there is Mavis Gallant, who would seem to be in agreement with Gough. Gallant was of the opinion that stories “are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” This, too, is a generalization, albeit not such an egregious one as Gough’s. Stories may not constitute chapters of novels, but there are certain volumes – Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women or Who Do You Think You Are?; Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love – that straddle the line between collections and novels, exhibiting all the properties of each form, depending upon how one views them.

Other collections (Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges or A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor) exemplify their authors’ individual concerns or sensibilities; still others (Savage Love by Douglas Glover is a prime example) include stories that range widely across different forms and genres. Indeed, one of the abiding attractions of the short-story form – including the short-story collection – is its malleability, something that should be evident whether a reader gorges on several stories at a single sitting, or parcels them out one at a time.

The protean nature of the form is one of the things that has always attracted me to short fiction, and it is one of the principles that has informed the month-long celebration of short stories that this site has engaged in annually for the past seven years. Writers, especially, are attracted to short fiction because of the challenges and opportunities it offers to experiment with style and technique and language; each year yields new examples of practitioners who are pushing the form in interesting directions and expanding our ideas about what a story can be or do. The Chekhovian model of naturalistic stories, characterized by Donald Barthelme as being “constructed mousetrap-like to supply, at the finish, a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated,” has been successfully subverted and challenged by authors as diverse as Borges, Kafka, Cortázar, Lydia Davis, Etgar Keret, and Barthelme himself (to name just a few story writers past and present who have eschewed the straightforward mode of storytelling predicated upon a small epiphany or psychological realization on the part of the protagonist).

One of the elements that allows for this broad field of experimentation is short fiction’s necessary reliance on a concentration of language, something that locates the story closer to poetry than to the novel on a spectrum of literary forms. (The critic Zachariah Wells once defined a short story as “a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin.”) Story writers also share with poets a penchant for metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, as well as a resistance to closure – all things that make timid readers suspicious.

For the courageous, however, for those possessed of a love of language and a sense of play, short stories provide a seemingly endless array of wonders and delights. During the month of May, it is my intention once again to spotlight what I hope will turn out to be a small cross-section of writing in the short-fiction form, drawing in writers from Canada and abroad, past and present, in English and in translation.

This year, inevitably, we must begin on a melancholy note, by turning our attention to a trio of literary giants who have died in recent weeks: Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, and Gabriel García Márquez. These will not be the only featured authors to have shuffled off this mortal coil, but we will also attempt to traffic a bit in the land of the living as the days go by. The hope is that at the end of the month, the stories that have been aggregated here might serve as a strong introductory anthology for people interested in exploring the form, or a springboard for further reading.

Responding to Gough’s comments on Facebook, novelist and short-story writer Elisabeth de Mariaffi wrote, “So short stories = the truffles of literature! Just as I suspected!” Over the next four weeks, let’s gorge on some truffles.

Remembering Mavis Gallant

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Mavis_GallantMavis Gallant taught me to be suspicious of adverbs. This was almost two decades ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Gallant was being interviewed by her longtime friend Mordecai Richler, and it seems to me the two must have had some kind of falling out just before walking on stage, because Gallant appeared brusque during the interview and Richler, as I recall, seemed uncharacteristically flustered. I don’t remember many details of the onstage discussion, but I do remember her counselling against the overuse of adverbs in writing. At the time, I was in my twenties, unpublished, and hopelessly naive.

Approaching Gallant in the signing line after the interview, I was terrified: if this woman could intimidate Mordecai Richler, imagine what she could do to the likes of me. Still, I screwed my courage to the sticking post, as the Bard says, and introduced myself. For want of anything more profound, I asked the famous New Yorker story writer why she thought adverbs should be avoided. “They weaken prose,” was her reply. She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t have to. Close to twenty years later, I still consider this among the most practical advice ever given me as a writer. Also among the most generous.

The inscription in my copy of the New Canadian Library edition of The Moselm Wife and Other Stories includes the date and place of this exchange: “Toronto, 27 October 96.” Although Gallant left Canada for Europe in 1950, and spent most of her adult life in Paris, a significant proportion of her fiction is set in her native country. A central cleavage in her writing is that between Europe and North America; if Munro is our Chekhov, Gallant has a strong claim to being our Henry James.

This is also apparent in the psychological acuity of her writing: Gallant pierces to the very centre of her characters with a precision that is almost eerie, and often unsettling. Gallant has been accused of being a cold writer, but I don’t think this is the case. She was, without question, ironic, and almost aggressively unsentimental, but her stories display great understanding of, and empathy for, the human condition.

Nor are they devoid of humour, as many careless readers have charged. Gallant’s wit was dry, and could be cutting, but it was always present. The author is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I can’t imagine writing anything that doesn’t have humour. Look at the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral, at a wake. It’s emotion, and in a way it’s relief that you’re alive.”

Gallant died yesterday in Paris, at the age of 91. (Richler was fond of quoting an exchange between Gallant and an interviewer who inquired as to why the Canadian-born writer chose to live in Paris. “Have you ever been to Paris?” was Gallant’s caustic response.) Ellen Seligman, publisher of McClelland & Stewart, referred to Gallant as “a writer of great courage and accomplishment.” Alice Munro cited her as “a constant influence.” Margaret Atwood said she was “funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs.” Michael Ondaatje, who edited a collection of Gallant’s Paris stories, called her simply, “my hero.”

Addressing Gallant’s work in the literary journal Brick, author Russell Banks takes umbrage with those who would categorize her as a “writer’s writer”: “For what is a writer’s writer, anyhow? Merely one who honours in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honoured principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writer’s writer. But only in that sense.”

In the afterword to The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, Richler calls Gallant “a first-rate storyteller” who “never ran with the CanLit hounds.” Perhaps her self-imposed exile (a word Gallant herself hated) accounts for why she was not immediately accepted in her country of birth; even today, despite winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Home Truths (1981), she is not as widely read as she should be. When Lisa Moore defended Gallant’s collection From the Fifteenth District on the CBC’s Canada Reads in 2008, her fellow panellists complained that they were unable to connect with the book, apparently assuming this to be the fault of the writing and not a limitation on the part of the reader.

I side with Moore and Banks and Atwood and Munro and Ondaatje in thinking that Gallant was not just one of the best short-story writers of her time, but one of the best writers, full stop. She was a consummate artist who remained true to herself and her vision, in the process helping to define an entire literary genre for future generations. And she taught me to be wary of adverbs, advice I still try mightily to heed. Sometimes I fail, but I trust that, wherever she is now, Gallant will find it in her heart to forgive me.


The conviction that she was married against her will never leaves her. If she had been born royal it could not have been worse. She has led the life of a crown princess, sapped by boredom and pregnancies. She told each of her five daughters as they grew up that they were conceived in horror; that she could have left them in their hospital cots and not looked back, so sickened was she by their limp spines and the autumn smell of their hair, by their froglike movements and their animal wails. She liked them when they could reason, and talk, and answer back – when they became what she calls “people.”

She makes the girls laugh. She is French-Canadian, whether she likes it or not. They see at the heart of her a sacrificial mother, her education has removed her in degree only from the ignorant, tiresome, moralizing mother, given to mysterious female surgery, subjugated by miracles, a source of infinite love. They have heard her saying, “Why did I get married? Why did I have all these large dull children?” They have heard, “If any of my children had been brilliant or unusual, it would have justified my decision. Yes, they might have been narrow and warped in French, but oh how commonplace they became in English!” “We are considered traitors and renegades,” she says. “And I can’t point to even one of my children and say, ‘yes, but it was worth it – look at Pauline – or Lucia – or Gérard.'” The girls ought to be wounded at this, but in fact they are impermeable. They laugh and call it “Mother putting on an act.” Her passionate ambition for them is her own affair. They have chosen exactly the life she tried to renounce for them; they married young, they are frequently pregnant, and sometimes bored.

– “Saturday” by Mavis Gallant

Fast, raw, and nasty: Nick Cutter talks about The Troop

February 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The_TroopLast month, I posted a review of a forthcoming horror novel by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter; that novel, called The Troop, is an early contender for one of my favourite books of the year. In advance of its February 25 publication date, the author agreed to answer some e-mail questions about the origins of the novel, the use of violence in fiction, and the appeal of the horror genre to both writers and readers.

Where did the idea for The Troop come from?

I got the idea from a fortune cookie, if you can believe it! No, no, that’s a lie. It was from a Star Scroll that I bought at a Mac’s Milk. Okay, that’s a lie too.

The best I can tell you is this: A few years back I was at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and they had an exhibit on water. How we use it as a species, how it’s used around the world … and the things that live in it. There was a tiny little area set off one side of the sprawling exhibit, a dark little room with a videotape running on a loop. A doctor talking about the little creatures who take the villain’s role in this book – one of those roles, anyway. I was fascinated. The novel kind of popped into my head.

Why write a pure genre novel under a pseudonym?

Well, it was more my agent’s idea than anything. I love genre stuff. Horror, thriller, pulp, noir, sci-fi and fantasy, you name it. Some of my closest friends in this city either run or write for ChiZine, a genre press I know you’re familiar with. My first books, as you also know, were written under a pen name – they were horror, too.

Now, in that case my mother actually found a half-written novel on my computer, the snoop that she is (this was back when I was in undergrad; I was staying at their house over the summer, so I suppose she was somewhat entitled …) and saw this revolting, violent, nasty novel and said: You absolutely cannot drag the good [family name] through the mud; if you insist on publishing this, for Heaven’s sake do it under another name! That makes my Mom sound like a character from Downton Abbey, which she is not, but anyway, I acquiesced, despite the fact that my family name is not really “good” – we’re a family of knaves and rum runners, carpetbaggers and scoundrels, happily and admittedly so, so it was weird to hear my mother make the request.

The “Nick Cutter” pen name is a similar situation. My agent felt that there should be some separation between literary stuff and genre stuff, so this was the idea we settled on.

I just don’t want anyone thinking it’s because I’m ashamed of my work in this field, or put less work into it or anything like that (though I suppose that’s the reason why people might not use their real names …) Long story short, it’s rather easy to discover who Nick Cutter is.

You had pretty much been “outed” by the national media well before the novel was published. Did the public revelation of your “true identity” rankle with you?

Not at all, for the reasons above. Horror was my first love. I think this would be even less of an issue if my most recent novel hadn’t been nominated for a literary prize. But I haven’t ever written any book thinking awards would be in the cards. I don’t give any thought at all to any of that. The whole “literary” side of my career has been a surprise, right from the word go. I truly thought I’d be a horror writer. I wanted that, which is why this novel means a lot to me.

You wrote a previous horror novel, The Preserve, under a different pseudonym; that novel also dealt with a group of male characters in a horrific situation that was manipulated by humans. What is the attraction of this situation from a writer’s perspective?

I think, most simply, a lot of my horror ideas conform to standard tropes. One of the most common and workable ones is: take these characters, isolate them, introduce a threat, and let nature take its course. You can find an endless number of horror books and movies that follow this very simple and highly effective formula. It’s great because of course they can’t get external help, their civilities towards each other break down, dissension sets in, fear and paranoia grip them, and sooner or later the Devil comes out to play. Backgrounding all that is the story of how those characters came to be there, suffering the way they are. It often compounds the horror to know that other people – their actions, their callousness, their evil – put those characters in that terrible situation.

There are human villains in the novel, but the chief villain is, so to speak, “environmental.” Why did you choose this approach?

The primary idea was to create a villain you couldn’t outrun. You couldn’t run out of the spooky house; you couldn’t escape the basement where the terrors lurked. This monster lives under your skin. You carry it around with you. So the only real hope is that you don’t let it get inside.

Horror fiction often reflects the pervasive social fears of the time: giant mutated ants as metaphors for nuclear fallout in the 1950s, or vampires as metaphors for AIDS in the 1980s. Is contagion a key terror to be exploited by horror writers in the new millennium?

I imagine so. I think things like environmental devastation and the like will have more of a role in horror going forward; they certainly do in my stuff.

Before it was rampant consumerism or the Red Threat or stuff like that; it proved a fertile ground for horror. Now I think you look around and see the ways in which the life we’re living doesn’t quite seem sustainable, and there’s no agreement on how to tackle some of these monolithic problems facing us as a species – those things put the fear of God into me.

Nick_CutterAny time you feel helpless in the face of a vast, unquantifiable, and unbeatable force, there’s horror there. So The Troop echoes that just a little bit – though honestly, I didn’t write it with any kind of political or social motivation. I just wanted to write a fast, raw, and nasty fireballin’ horror book like the stuff I read as a teenager.

I find that nowadays so much of the horror is done by literary writers who kind of segue into it (mea culpa), and there’s always some kind of political allegory, or some kind of arch irony to it: this is horror, wink-wink, but smart, thinking people’s horror, not the kind of stuff you’d find on the drugstore spinning racks.

Well, I loved that kind of horror! Still do. And I find when it gets politicized or diffuse, the way some literary horror can be, it’s not disturbing or scary to me. It’s defanged and more palatable, but that’s not what I wanted to write. I don’t think that King and Barker and McCammon, my horror idols, had those motivations when writing, or those constraints. There are outliers like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is very literary and experimental but still scary as hell. Anyway, I decided not to bother trying to split that particular atom. Old-school horror. That’s what I went for.

Like most of your work, The Troop is a strongly masculine book: there are no female characters in it. Why do you gravitate to the masculine perspective and experience so insistently in your fiction?

Oh, I think probably because I wanted to keep it in a zone of experience that I knew and felt confident with. If I’d used a troop of Girl Scouts, it would have been a disaster because I really can’t claim to know how they’d think and it would have come off as some awful Judy Blume pastiche. I have no real idea how teenage girls think or behave in private with each other. So I just stuck with what I knew, and was able to cast my mind back to those days when I was a Scout, hanging out with other boys.

One book that has strong resonance in The Troop is Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, especially in a scene in which one character attempts to divest himself of what has infected him by cutting it out with a Swiss Army Knife. Did you have Smith’s novel in mind as you wrote The Troop?

That’s a great question and a good catch. You and my editor have eagle eyes. I read The Ruins when it came out years ago. Loved it. When it came to writing The Troop, I wasn’t consciously aware of that resonance, although there’s a difference in that the character who cuts himself is goaded into it by another character, whereas in The Ruins that character acts alone. Regardless, the resemblance is definitely there.

Scott Smith blurbed The Troop; in fact, other than my agent and father, he was the first person to read it. His blurb probably helped sell it. He also gave some really great edits, which I implemented before the manuscript was subbed. After he bought it, my editor brought up this scene in relation to The Ruins. I had to hustle to the bookshelf and read the book again, and yes, there’s definitely a similarity. I couldn’t believe Scott hadn’t made note of it, actually. So I didn’t have Smith’s book in mind as I wrote, but for that specific scene, a debt is due.

The violence in the novel is plentiful and graphic. As a writer, what is your relationship with, and your attitude toward, violence in fiction?

It’s great! I dig it!

In all seriousness, if it serves a point I’m all for it. I spoke about this somewhere else, when someone asked if I’d gotten the “tone” of the book right. I said that I wasn’t sure I found the right tone, really, but it’s impossible to find the tone that suits every reader. If I’d softened some of it, the real horror lovers (at least lovers of a certain type of horror) would’ve said I’d chickened out instead of going for the jugular; and since I wrote it the way I did, no holds barred, you’ll have some readers saying I went too far. It’s a no-win situation, so I just wrote it the way that felt most natural to me.

Y’know, there’s kind of a sentiment in CanLit (at least as I interpret it) that you ought to gloss over or find a poetic distancing device to describe horrific events. I remember reading some book, can’t remember the title, that described a mortar blast dismembering someone, and it was painted in such a distant way, metaphors of flowers blooming and paper dolls ripped apart and whatnot, totally uninvolved and distanced from how the event would actually unfold. It felt like a huge cheat to me, a lie and a bromide to a certain readership who could only accept reading about such an event if you painted the outside corners of it, poeticized and almost romanticized it.

I think that’s cheap, and it’s kind of weak-willed on both an author and a reader’s part. If you’re gonna write it, write it. Don’t gloss it or weasel it or try to turn something rotten or terrible or terrifying into something palatable and sane and cleansed. Or do that, but don’t get pissy when someone else takes a different tack on the same scene, one that paints it in what may be its truer, unflinching colours.

Anyway, that’s me bitching and complaining. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole. I don’t want to throw shade on anyone, or on my nation’s literature, which by and large I love. All of which is to say, some scenes in the book were tough to write but they felt like vital scenes, true to my sense of the world. But people’s tastes are gonna vary on that, and that’s totally fine and understandable.

What is it about the horror genre that interests you as a writer? What keeps readers returning to the genre?

I love to be scared. It’s a masochistic impulse. Sadly, the more you try to push that fear button, the more dulled it gets from overuse. It’s harder and harder to scare people. So what keeps people returning, I imagine, is what keeps a heroin addict returning to the needle: that familiar rush. Problem being, at least an addict knows he’ll get a rush. A lot of books probably disappoint on that level.

Do you worry about being dismissed as a serious writer on the basis of your genre fiction?

When I consider the individuals who would dismiss me or anyone else on those grounds, and consider the fact that I don’t really give a shit about the opinions of such individuals, it doesn’t worry me at all, no.

Will you continue to write pure horror fiction alongside your more “literary” output?

The market will make that decision. If the books tank, I won’t be allowed to continue at all. If they do okay, I’d happily keep writing them. If one stream runs more fruitfully than the other, I imagine I might flow with it. I have a mortgage to pay off!

Strong nerves, strong stomachs, no quarter: Nick Cutter’s The Troop

January 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The Troop. Nick Cutter; $29.99 cloth 978-1-4767-1771-5, 368 pp., Gallery Books

The_Troop(Note: This is an early review from an advance reading copy. Simon & Schuster Canada will release this title in February.)

Some novels comfort readers, snuggle with them and stroke their hair and whisper reassuringly that everything will be alright. Other novels come at their readers with a sledgehammer. The Troop, by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter, is the second kind. The book, about a group of five boy scouts who, along with their adult scoutmaster, go camping on an uninhabited island off the north coast of PEI, where they are beset by a stranger carrying a mysterious – and highly dangerous – contagion, is billed as “a novel of terror,” but this is somewhat akin to calling Ebola a minor skin irritation.

Cutter wastes little time on the niceties, setting up his scenario and sketching his characters in quick, broad strokes. He is much more interested in ratcheting up the tension, something he begins doing in the opening chapters and continues more or less remorselessly for the next three hundred pages. This is a book that works best if a reader knows little or nothing about the plot going in, so suffice to say that as the nature of the threat facing the boys becomes clearer, Cutter inserts scenes and set pieces that are more and more outrageous, more and more over the top.

Thanks to various national media outlets, it is by now an open secret that Cutter is actually Craig Davidson, whose 2013 literary novel, Cataract City, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Many critics, in describing that book, used the word “mature,” which seemed to be code for “restrained.” In his earlier literary work under his own name (one previous novel, The Fighter, the novel-in-stories Sarah Court, and a collection of stories, Rust and Bone) and a pure horror novel called The Preserve, also written under a pseudonym, the author had indulged in scenes of violence and machismo that were rare in CanLit and felt – to a certain sensibility, at least – like a breath of fresh air. These were not absent from Cataract City, but it was clear that Davidson had worked to tone down his more overt tendencies in the area of explicit gore.

By contrast, there is nothing restrained about The Troop. Operating within a genre context, the author has allowed the darker side of his imagination to run riot, infusing the book with moments of Grand Guignol and body horror that recall Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, as well as David Cronenberg’s early film Shivers and Eli Roth’s cinema debut, Cabin Fever. The writing is propulsive and the momentum fairly unstoppable. Once this book has you in its grip, it doesn’t let go.

What is most surprising in this regard are the moments of real tenderness that appear in the novel. A camaraderie develops between certain characters, leading in one instance to a moving scene in which they rescue a group of newborn turtles they have stumbled across. Elsewhere, one of the boys relates the story of a school project that involved carrying around a bag of flour as though it were a baby to teach the responsibilities of parenting. The boy, who is overweight and prone to sweating, carried his “baby” around diligently until the sweat from his hands soaked through the bag and it split down the middle. “I’m just saying that sometimes the more you care for something, the more damage you do,” the despondent boy concludes. This is an observation many more self-consciously literary novels would fail to arrive at. And there is an almost aching poignancy in the payoff involving a fictitious online persona the same overweight character creates to make himself appear more handsome and worldly than he actually is. What is most impressive is that these moments don’t feel like awkward authorial intrusions, but arise organically out of the context the novelist has created and developed.

Make no mistake, however: Cutter’s main concern resides with the horror aspects of his story, and he gives no quarter in this regard. Readers will require strong nerves and even stronger stomachs to endure some of what this novel throws at them, but there is a real energy to the writing, and it is clear that the author is having one hell of a good time, something that proves (pardon the pun) contagious. The Troop does not fall into the category of ironic, postmodern horror that was popular at the movies in the 1990s; rather, it is a straightforward, no-holds-barred tale of terror that starts strong and builds relentlessly to its conclusion. It is one of the goriest, gooiest, most gleefully grotesque novels to appear in a long, long time. Popular fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

The perfect storm: CanLit’s risk aversion, government grants, and Shteyngart-gate

January 10, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

If you were on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you might have noticed an odd occurrence. It was American writer Gary Shteyngart channelling Rob Ford.

The author of the novels Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, as well as the newly released memoir Little Failure, was in serial-apology mode. His infraction? Canadian media had picked up on an interview Shteyngart and author Chang-rae Lee did for the website Vulture.com. That interview, a lengthy discussion that touches upon everything from dystopian literature to the immigrant experience in America to the authors’ affinity for fast food, caught the eye of the Toronto Star‘s Dianne Rinehart for one brief exchange in which Shteyngart addresses his experience as a juror for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize:

GS: Fiction is good. If it had a readership, it would be even better, but it’s good.

NY: What do you think, then – should it be subsidized?

GS: Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is. Now, I’m as leftist as can be –

NY: No, you’re not.

As any seasoned CanLit observer knows, the only thing more egregious than attacking the country’s granting system is equating that system with a resultant lack of excitement in the nation’s literary output. Indeed, there may be a false equivalence here: if there is a general lack of risk-taking among Canadian writers, grants from the government may not be the root cause.

In any event, the knives came out pretty quickly. Dorris Heffron, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, was quoted in the Star as saying that Shteyngart’s comments were “ignorant,” and Lynn Coady, who won the 2013 Giller, called his remarks “a lazy fallacy.” (Coady went on to temper her comment, joking that “Mr. Shteyngart has no idea of the beer-sodden hours that have been whiled away here in Canada by writers bemoaning the inscrutable tastes of our funding bodies” and saying that she forgives him for “talking smack about Canadian writing.”)

The blowback led to the first apology from the American writer:

This was followed by several others, in quick succession:







What all of these have in common is an obvious humour, something also apparent (but typically missed by many) in the original Vulture interview.

The other thing many observers missed is that Shteyngart had a point. He may have mistaken the culprit, but it’s hard to argue against the notion that vast swathes of CanLit do play it safe, often more safe than is either necessary or desirable. Naturalism remains the dominant mode in Canadian fiction, and most readers gravitate to books that tell familiar stories in comfortable ways. As an establishment prize, the Giller has a vested interest in privileging this kind of writing, and a quick glance at its two-decade history will show that, with very few exceptions, these are the kinds of books that win. Even in the year Shteyngart was on the jury: whatever adjective one wants to apply to Will Ferguson’s thriller 419, “risky” is probably not the first that springs to mind.

The same is true of Terry Fallis’s gentle satire The Best Laid Plans, a book that Heffron singles out (along with the recent CBC Television adaptation) as an example to counter Shteyngart’s assertion. Praising Fallis’s novel for its riskiness seems passing strange, especially when there is authentically provocative work being produced in this country on a fairly regular basis. Last year alone saw the appearance of Douglas Glover’s Savage Love, Norm Sibum’s The Traymore Rooms, Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography, and Cynthia Flood’s Red Girl Rat Boy, all stylistically innovative, thematically challenging works. None of them was nominated for the Giller. Colin McAdam’s formally ambitious novel A Beautiful Truth, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, was also shut out of Giller contention. As was Permission, S.D. Chrostowska’s startling nouveau roman, a novel so risky it had to be published outside the country, by the American press Dalkey Archive. As Adam Pottle pointed out on Twitter, “Some Canadian writers take risks. They just don’t get noticed.” Pottle should know: he’s the author of Mantis Dreams, a stylistically audacious debut novel from 2013 that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of.

So while it is not true that CanLit as a whole is risk averse, it is probably true that the vast majority of books that get noticed fall into this category. There are exceptions – Coady’s Giller champ, Hellgoing, for example, or anything by Alice Munro (whose work is far more subversive than most general readers seem to realize) – but the books that gain traction in this country, by and large, don’t push the envelope too far. As poet and critic Sina Queyras quipped on Twitter, “The only thing worse than someone taking a cheap shot at CanLit is when they get it right.”

Though, it might be possible to argue that the one worse thing is the hyperbolic, wounded response to this type of cultural criticism. As Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey put it, “Hey, guys, someone insinuated that we are overly self-conscious and parochial, let’s get really upset, that’ll show him.” Or as Coady wrote, “‘And with that, the Canadians never let themselves be troubled by the Big Bad Cultural Inferiority Complex again.’ *closes storybook*.” We might close the storybook, but it would be best not to place it back on the shelf just yet. As this most recent tempest in the CanLit teapot goes to show, this is one story we love to hear over and over again.

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