Edmonton’s Lynn Coady wins the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Hellgoing

November 6, 2013 by · 7 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoThirteen proved a lucky number for House of Anansi Press at yesterday’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala. Prior to this year, the publisher had seen eleven of its books shortlisted without a single win. The two Anansi titles shortlisted for the 2013 prize – Lisa Moore’s novel Caught and Lynn Coady’s story collection Hellgoing – brought the number of Anansi nominees to thirteen.

The publisher scored its first victory with the announcement that Hellgoing had won this year’s award. It was also the first time Coady has won the prize; she was nominated in 2011 for her novel, The Antagonist.

Coming a month after Alice Munro was announced as this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Coady’s Giller win is also a victory for Canadian short fiction, which has long been considered the poor cousin to this country’s novels, despite the fact that Canada boasts some of the finest practitioners of the form anywhere in the world. Coady is only the third writer to win a Giller for a collection of stories; Munro won twice (in 1998 for The Love of a Good Woman and again in 2004 for Runaway), and Vincent Lam won in 2006 for his debut, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Hellgoing is one of the first titles in Anansi’s Astoria imprint, a line devoted exclusively to short fiction.

This year’s Giller judges – Margaret Atwood (who was serving on her fourth Giller jury), Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem – selected Coady’s collection from a shortlist that also included Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada), Craig Davidson’s Cataract City (Doubleday Canada), and Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Twin (HarperCollins Canada). Moore’s third novel rounded out the five-title shortlist. In its citation, the Giller jury praised “Coady’s vivid and iconoclastic language, which brims with keen and sympathetic wit.”

Quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press, Atwood says that “it was difficult to arrive at a five-book short list, but once we got there it wasn’t too difficult.” The same article quotes Edugyan as saying that the jury process was “wonderfully amiable,” and that no one “put anybody in a headlock or anything like that.” And Lethem quipped that the jury chose the winning book while “in a drunken stupor,” a reference to yesterday’s other big Toronto-area news story, mayor Rob Ford’s confession to having smoked crack cocaine.

Speaking to the National Post, Coady expressed pleasure at the notion that her book was the one to break “the Anansi curse,” and went on to say, “I know what the Giller nominee effect is, but we’ll see what the next level is.”

The next level should be impressive. The $50,000 cheque for winning the prize is the precursor to what has become known as the Giller Effect, the sales bump a winning title experiences heading into the all-important Christmas selling season. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that a title can experience a jump in sales of anywhere from 200 to 400 percent following a Giller win. Indeed, Anansi president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan told the National Post that a reprint of 50,000 copies has already been ordered for the book. Good news for Coady, good news for her publisher, and – hopefully – good news for the future of the short story here in Canada.

Eleanor Catton wins the Man Booker Prize

October 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Eleanor_CattonAt twenty-eight years of age, Canadian-born, New Zealand–raised Eleanor Catton has become the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker Prize. Catton won for her second novel, The Luminaries, which, at close to 850 pages, is also the longest volume ever to claim the prize.

Of the winning book, chair of judges Robert Macfarlane said, “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances. It is a novel of astonishing control.”

According to The Globe and Mail, the author referred to her award-winning novel as “a publisher’s nightmare”: “The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but – even more egregious – astrologically impossible.”

In her acceptance remarks, Catton spoke about the difference between value and worth, which is cheering, but also somewhat ironic for an author claiming a prize of £50,000. Catton is also in the running for the English-language Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Catton’s win comes at an auspicious time: next year, the Man Booker Prize will change its submissions criteria to allow any novel in English published in the U.K. to be eligible for consideration, regardless of the nationality of the author. Previous rumours indicated that the award, till now restricted to authors from the U.K., Ireland, or the Commonwealth, was being opened only to U.S. authors.

We wait with bated breath to see whether the Scotiabank Giller Prize will follow suit.

We all live in Alice Munro Country

October 10, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Alice_MunroShe has been called “our Chekhov,” and is routinely cited as one of the greatest living English-language writers. She has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for fiction, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, two O. Henry Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. “Among writers themselves,” said Margaret Atwood, “her name is spoken in hushed tones.”

Today, those tones will be anything but hushed.

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the thirteenth woman out of 110 laureates. In a brief statement, the Swedish Academy calls Munro “a master of the contemporary short story.”

While the reaction from observers is likely to be raucous, the author’s own response was typically gracious and understated. A Canadian Press story in The Globe and Mail quotes Munro as saying she is “amazed and very grateful.” Also typically, Munro goes on to shift the focus off herself: “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

Munro has been a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, and this year the betting house Ladbrokes ranked her second in odds, after Haruki Murakami.

Although the 82-year-old Ontario author has been remarkably consistent in her themes over the course of a career that spans four-and-a-half decades and fourteen books (excluding anthologies and best-of retrospectives), she has not remained stagnant as a writer. In a Quill & Quire review of her latest collection, Dear Life (2012), James Grainger points out:

Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionistic form of storytelling.

Yet her subjects have remained the same: sexual politics, domestic violence – physical and, more often, psychological – and self-awareness in the lives of girls and women. “‘Dreariness of spirit’ is one of the great Munro enemies,” Atwood writes in the introduction to the 2009 volume My Best Stories:

Her characters do battle with it in every way they can, fighting against stifling mores and other people’s deadening expectations and imposed rules of behaviour, and every possible kind of muffling and spiritual smothering. Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness, and perversity.

Quoted on the website NDTV, Munro herself claims, “There are no such things as big and little subjects. The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”

In an interview with The Paris Review, Munro talks about the influence of Southern American writers on her own sensibility:

The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Munro has, over the course of a truly remarkable career, incorporated that influence, and also transcended it. Her stories rank as some of the most subtle, provocative work produced not just in Canada, but internationally in the past forty years. Previous recent choices of Nobel laureates have caused controversy, but it is difficult to imagine anyone with knowledge of world literature arguing seriously that Alice Munro is undeserving of the honour.

The term “Alice Munro Country” is typically applied to a small patch of land in rural Ontario; today, the Swedish Academy has ensured that designation has a much broader connotation. We all live in Alice Munro Country. And we are all immeasurably better for it.

***

I had come to Victoria because it was the farthest place I could get to from London, Ontario, without going out of the country. In London, my husband, Donald, and I had rented a basement apartment in our house to a couple named Nelson and Sylvia. Nelson was an English major at the university and Sylvia was a nurse. Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort had made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

– “The Albanian Virgin,” by 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro

UPDATE: I’ve been taking some heat on social media for stating that Munro is the first Canadian Nobel laureate, since Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec. For the record: I have never considered Bellow a Canadian author. He was raised and educated in the U.S., did all of his writing there, and is most closely associated with Chicago. He considered himself an American writer, as do I. But, for those who wish to argue, I acknowledge his place of birth as Canada, and have amended the above post accordingly.

Surprise inclusions, omissons characterize this year’s Giller shortlist

October 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoLeave it to Margaret Atwood to confound expectations.

If you’d asked me (or, likely, pretty much any literary observer) prior to this morning, I’d have said the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize was Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. A staggeringly ambitious book about Europeans’ first contact with Native Canadians and the collision of ideologies and cultures that led – for better or worse – to the creation of this country, Boyden’s story appeared as the quintessential Giller novel. Compared to Herodotus by Charles Foran in The Globe and Mail, called “a classic” by the National Post and “a magnificent literary beast” by Quill & Quire, The Orenda seemed like the book to beat this year for the most lucrative fiction prize in Canada.

At the announcement of the Giller shortlist this morning in Toronto, when it became apparent that Boyden’s novel did not make the cut, an audible gasp permeated the room.

Atwood and her fellow jurors – former Giller winner Esi Edugyan and American novelist Jonathan Lethem – culled from a longlist of thirteen titles a shortlist that is as surprising as it is intriguing. Only two of this year’s shortlisted authors – Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady – have been previous Giller finalists. Heavy hitters such as Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, and Claire Messud were left off the list of five contenders for the $50,000 prize. In their place are a genre thriller set in postwar Vienna, a story about the fallout from two brothers’ conflicted history, and a violent tale about a cop and a criminal in Niagara Falls.

The finalists for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)

Anansi is the only wholly owned Canadian press to feature on the shortlist. With two titles, this brings Anansi’s total nominations, over the twenty-year history of the prize, to thirteen. Thirteen in the year 2013 seems auspicious, but even if you’re not superstitious, at first blush this appears to be Lisa Moore’s year. She’s been nominated twice before – for her story collection Open and her first novel, Alligator – and this book, about an escaped drug runner who embarks on one last score, seems like the perfect confluence of accessible genre thriller and literary sensibility to nab the prize.

At the shortlist announcement, it was made explicit that the jury chose the five finalists at the same time they settled on the thirteen-book longlist – this was, arguably, a preventative strike against those who might have surmised that the jury changed its mind about David Gilmour’s longlisted novel, Extraordinary, after the controversy surrounding the author’s comments on a Random House–sponsored website last month.

What is clear is that this year’s Giller jury privileges books with strong narratives over more technically or stylistically innovative works. This year’s Giller shortlist comprises reader-friendly, plot-oriented fiction – stories told, as the jury statement that accompanied the longlist put it, in “remarkably familiar ways.” However, the books on this year’s shortlist – to say nothing of the shortlist itself – are not without surprise or interest, and observers will be paying close attention when the winner is announced at a gala dinner in Toronto on November 5.

UPDATE: A post on the Giller Prize’s Facebook page indicates that, contrary to the impression given at the shortlist announcement, the jury chose the shortlist “approximately one week after the longlist was announced.” The post goes on to stipulate, “This jury’s timing was unique to their particular judging process, which differs from every other Giller Prize jury and from other literary award juries and judging processes.”

Narrowness, curiosity, and the Gilmour Effect

September 26, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

David_Gilmour“When that review came out,” David Gilmour told National Post books editor Mark Medley in 2011, referring to a review of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel A Perfect Night to Go to China, “I went out looking for him.” The “him” in question was novelist and critic André Alexis, who had given Gilmour’s novel a less-than-stellar write-up. “I thought, ‘I’m going to beat the living shit out of this guy, and I don’t give a fuck what happens – this guy is going down.’ Because I know that that is a piece of personal vitriol. China was a beautiful book. Nobody but a guy who had a chip on his shoulder, or had some problem with chicks or something, would come after me for this book.”

Flash forward two years and one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Gilmour, not Alexis, who has “some problem with chicks.” On Wednesday, the Twittersphere was set alight by an installment of Emily M. Keeler’s “Shelf Esteem” series, which appears on the Random House blog Hazlitt. The series involves Keeler interviewing writers, editors, and other literary personalities about the contents of their personal bookshelves. In the course of interviewing Gilmour – whose latest novel, Extraordinary, has been longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize – Keeler noted the author did not have many books by women in his collection. Gilmour, who teaches literature to first- and third-year students at the University of Toronto, responded thusly:

I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Gilmour explains that he teaches Miller and Roth as a means of distinguishing between pornography and literature (fair enough), then concludes, “I teach only the best.” The clear implication is that “the best” does not, in Gilmour’s opinion, include “books by women” (other than Woolf), books by Canadians, or – bizarrely – books by Chinese authors. (Gilmour later claimed this was meant as a joke: I confess I don’t get it.)

We can argue about what constitutes “the best”: Gilmour identifies Proust, Tolstoy, and Chekhov as the high-water marks of literature, and you’d be hard pressed to find too many serious scholars who would disagree. However, by ignoring women, he is erasing from consideration such canonical writers as Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Lady Murasaki, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Edna O’Brien, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, and Isak Dinesen. By ignoring Canadians (he claims to admire Munro), he is eliding Atwood, Gallant, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Sheila Watson, Norman Levine, Adele Wiseman, Hubert Aquin, Robert Kroetsch, Leon Rooke, Austin Clarke, and Marian Engel. And by ignoring Chinese writers, he is missing out on Mo Yan, Eileen Chang, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, and Wang Xiaobo.

What is notable about these lists is how diverse the authors are in terms of style, themes, and subject matter. The most distressing thing about Gilmour’s approach to literature – especially as a teacher – is how narrow it is. Like David Shields, Gilmour seems interested only in writing that reflects his own experience back to him: “I’m a middle-aged writer and I’m very interested in the middle-aged writer’s experience,” he told Medley in a follow-up interview addressing the controversy that had sprung up around the Hazlitt piece. “I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body.”

Notwithstanding this protestation, Gilmour refuses to refer to Keeler by name, or even to allow her the designation of “reporter” or “interviewer,” instead repeatedly calling her “this young woman” and suggesting her motivation was “to make a little name for herself.” He also says that he was only paying her partial attention during the interview, distracted as he was by a conversation he was carrying on simultaneously, in French, with a (male) colleague: “I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” These remarks certainly testify to a streak of unexamined sexism, but I leave it to others to pursue this line of argument.

Here’s the thing: I like Gilmour’s novels. I liked A Perfect Night to Go to China, I liked Sparrow Nights and An Affair with the Moon and The Perfect Order of Things. I haven’t read Extraordinary yet, but I probably will. I do not agree with Scott Carter’s suggestion that you must be in sympathy with an author’s character or ideologies to appreciate his work. And I have in the past admired Gilmour’s damn-the-torpedoes willingness to say what he thinks and not care whether people like it or not. (When he told Medley in 2011, “Writers don’t wish each other well. They wish each other death and failure,” I couldn’t help but suppose that, on one level, he was absolutely right.) And if, as a personal choice, Gilmour decides he’d rather not read books by women, or Chinese or homosexual writers, that is his prerogative.

But Gilmour is – adamantly and proudly – a university lecturer, charged with forming young minds and forging young sensibilities. This is a large responsibility, and anyone who undertakes it should be intellectually curious enough to at least remain open to the possibility of being surprised by a work of literature that exists outside his usual tastes or reading habits. If nothing else, in order to remain cognizant of the landscape of his chosen subject matter, it would behoove Gilmour to expose himself to the broadest possible array of writers, and to the possibility that what constitutes “the best” in literature doesn’t always equate with “what best reflects my life as I have come to understand it.”

In any event, saying one doesn’t like books by women is somewhat akin to saying one doesn’t like music: the category is so large, so diverse, so heterogeneous, that to paint it all with the same brush is virtually impossible. Willa Cather has as much in common with Renata Adler as Elmore Leonard has with James Joyce. And although, as Jared Bland points out, the Western canon is dominated by dead white men, it is nevertheless possible to admit women authors to the ranks of “the best” without sacrificing any standards of quality or importance. Ask English lit scholars what the finest novel in the language is, and a good number of them might say Middlemarch (nor do you have to enjoy it to recognize its inherent quality – trust me on this one). And there are those (myself included) who would argue that the first novel – Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, which remains in print to this day – was written by a woman, some 600 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote.

Gilmour claims he doesn’t teach women writers because he doesn’t feel “passionately” about them, or about their books, and those who wish to be exposed to these works can go “down the hall.” But it seems odd that someone like Gilmour – a novelist and teacher – who can be assumed to maintain an abiding interest in the human experience in all its forms, should not be able to find among women writers more than one short story by Virginia Woolf that he is able to care passionately about. This seems to indicate a lack of openness on the part of the reader, not a lack of quality or variety among writers. And after all, isn’t one of literature’s functions to expose its recipients to ideas, experiences, and perspectives that are foreign to their own?

It is this narrowness, this blinkered idea of what qualifies as most worthy of our attention, that is troublesome. This is something that, as Canadian novelist Amanda Leduc (yes, she has two strikes against her) points out, is shared by our award culture, which tends to crowd out different voices and approaches in the process of anointing “unknown stories” told in “familiar ways.” In this sense, the Giller Effect and the Gilmour Effect are not all that far removed.

Given the tenor of Gilmour’s comments, it is appropriate to give a woman the last word. Here’s Leduc:

I love books. I believe in books. More importantly, I believe in the fact that books have long lives that transcend any kind of initial attention. And I agree with Gilmour when he says, in the Hazlitt article, that “the shadows on the pages move around” in great literature. Truly good books always do that – you notice different things your second and third and even fourth time around. Great art is never static.

But what happens when the view of great art itself becomes the thing that does not change? As a result of his refusal to read anything by women (or by writers who are Chinese, or Canadian, or whatever), does David Gilmour then, in essence, make himself into that Andy Warhol painting that looks the same on every view? Essentially he’s telling us the same story, here, that we heard in the article in 2011. It’s just a little more pointed, a little more specific. (And backed, apparently, by the University of Toronto.)

Bodies in motion: Craig Davidson’s Cataract City

September 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Cataract_CityMy review of Craig Davidson’s new novel, Cataract City, from today’s Globe and Mail:

Craig Davidson is one of this country’s great kinetic writers. Whether his focus is on bare-knuckle boxing or the lithe grace of racing greyhounds tearing along a straightaway, Davidson’s stock-in-trade is describing bodies in motion. There is a brute physicality to his writing that immediately sets him apart from his CanLit peers, many of whom prefer rumination and stasis to vivid action. It is no accident that one of the words that reappears throughout Cataract City, peppering the prose like a syntactical signpost, is “torque”: This underscores the almost palpable energy with which the author infuses his writing.

S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission: notes toward a Canadian nouveau roman

September 13, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Permission_ChrostowskaPermission is a book that could not have been published in Canada. Literally.

Composed as a series of twenty-seven e-mails sent by a character named Fearn Wren to an anonymous recipient over the course of one year, the novel, by York University professor S.D. Chrostowska, came out earlier this year from U.S. publisher Dalkey Archive Press, the house that has also been responsible for re-releasing notoriously difficult texts by authors such as William Gaddis, William H. Gass, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The last association is appropriate, since it was Robbe-Grillet’s theories of the nouveau roman that called for an overthrow of the traditional conception of literature as a repository of the kind of naturalism practised by Balzac and Stendahl. Robbe-Grillet’s influence (and that of his major supporter, Maurice Blanchot) is apparent throughout Permission, which indeed cleaves closer to a European than a North American (or British) literary tradition.

The novel updates the epistolary convention for the digital age, but not in any obvious way. Nowhere does the reader find the ungrammatical, symbol-laden syntax employed in text or instant messages. Rather, the e-mails that make up the narrative – if such a term can be applied to Permission – are written in sentences that often run to the academic and the abstract. Permission is a novel of ideas, but the ideas it is interested in are not the clichéd modern obsessions over humanity’s increasingly tedious relationship with technology. Instead, the novel is concerned with the nature of identity in a more universal sense.

“My concern with making meaningful life choices in pursuit of well-defined goals cast me naturally in the role of self-observer,” writes Fearn Wren, who, at this early stage in the novel, is identified only as “F.W.” And yet, as a “self-observer,” the narrator is not entirely lucid or reliable. The life story that unfolds is replete with gaps and lacunae: it appears that the author of the e-mails is a native of Warsaw who went to university in America, but these bare facts don’t really tell us much, and they must also be taken on faith as we have no supporting evidence to verify their veracity. (It becomes apparent toward the end of the novel that even the name “Fearn Wren” is a likely pseudonym.)

Instead of the normal biographical detail that would proliferate a character-driven novel of a more recognizable sort (what Holden Caulfield referred to caustically as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”), we are given extended meditations on the nature of silence, the Holocaust, imprisonment, and the significance of North American native tribal masks. “The objects that caught my attention,” Fearn Wren writes, “were the so-called Speaker and Echo masks, which at one time played a role in the potlatch, or giving feast.”

The notion of speech and echoes is resonant throughout Permission, as is the idea of gifting. Recalling Lewis Hyde, Fearn Wren positions the e-mail missives as gifts requiring no response; indeed, the silence from the implied reader is taken as “permission” to continue the correspondence. “Permit me to write to you today, beyond today,” reads the first line of the first e-mail. The narrator characterizes the writing project as “an experiment in giving,” and goes on: “I want nothing in return, nothing tangible – only permission to continue this spectral writing, so disembodied and out of place, so easily disavowed.” The intimate relationship between writer and reader, the nature of authorship, and the faith that written material, sent out into the world, will find a receptive and sympathetic audience, are central to the e-mails that develop over the course of a calendar year, gradually – almost accidentally – resolving themselves into a book-length narrative.

“My own identity,” Fearn Wren writes, ” … is random and immaterial.” This, too, recalls Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman philosophy. Fearn Wren is not a character in the traditional sense, just as Permission does not feature a story in the traditional sense – that is, the sense in which these things are normally understood (and taught) as springing out of a naturalist, realist mode. In his 1956 essay, “A Future for the Novel,” an essay that testifies to its author’s continued relevance to contemporary literary criticism, Robbe-Grillet writes:

As for the novel’s characters, they may themselves suggest many possible interpretations; they may, according to the preoccupations of each reader, accommodate all kinds of comment – psychological, psychiatric, religious, or political – yet their indifference to these “potentialities” will soon be apparent. Whereas the traditional hero is constantly solicited, caught up, destroyed by these interpretations of the author’s, ceaselessly projected into an immaterial and unstable elsewhere, always more remote and blurred, the future hero will remain on the contrary, there.

It may not be possible to call Fearn Wren a “hero” in any conventional sense: as the central figure in Chrostowska’s novel, the character is subject to a kind of progression, though nothing remotely resembling archetypal notions of journey or growth; even the figure’s real name remains a matter of dispute. And yet, the consciousness of Fearn Wren (or, perhaps more accurately, “Fearn Wren”) remains, inexorably and undeniably, there.

“I was also staunchly anti-artistic,” Fearn Wren writes at one point, here perhaps standing in for the author to a degree. “I could not stand straight-faced aestheticism and urbane pastimes, I wanted no part in accepted avant-gardes.” There is an almost defiantly anti-artistic aspect to the way in which Permission unfolds: it interrogates accepted notions of what constitutes a novel and what is expected of a reader in response. And yet, it is also in its way defiantly literary: unlike much of what gets passed off as “innovative” writing, it is virtually impossible to imagine Permission existing in any medium other than the one in which it has been cast. Its lack of scenes, plot, and character development force the reader to return to the words on the page, to actively engage with the ideas being put forth, and to wrestle with the intelligence behind their creation.

Permission is quite obviously not intended for a mass audience. In a literary environment ever more sympathetic to the infantilizing tendencies of boy wizards, sparkling vampires, and adolescent dystopias, there is not a huge clamour for the kind of formally and intellectually challenging writing Chrostowska engages in. Yet it is frustrating that the author had to go outside the country to have the book published. There are a few domestic houses – Coach House Books and BookThug spring immediately to mind – that do take chances on aesthetically challenging work (Coach House more in the area of poetry, although last year’s story collection Cosmo by Spencer Gordon was a bracing retort to the naturalist tradition of storytelling that continues to hold sway in this country). But the days when Jack McClelland would publish Beautiful Losers even though he admitted the novel frankly baffled him seem long gone.

“All I can say is that I think it’s an amazing book,” McClelland wrote to Leonard Cohen in 1965. “I’m not going to pretend I dig it, because I don’t.” Beautiful Losers remains in print to this day, and is widely considered a Canadian classic. Without courage similar to McClelland’s, what will our classics look like fifty years from now?

Not fully replicated in Canada

June 20, 2013 by · 4 Comments 

The values of international modernism were also not fully replicated in Canada: the Great War tended to stimulate Canadian nationalism in the arts in a way alien to most English and American modernist writers. For example, the corrosive alienation about patriotism and national feeling found in works like Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) or Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or in American expatriate Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) was not present to the same degree in the work of many of the young Canadian writers and artists who had come of age in the trenches during the Great War, men like poet John McCrae or man of culture Talbot Papineau (who both died during the Great War), artist A.Y. Jackson, or historian Harold Innis. Canadians had tended to emerge from the war with less of the wholesale cynicism of young British, French, and German and American veterans.

– Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press

Here’s a question, and it is meant in all sincerity (because I don’t have the answer): Has Canada ever experienced a period of literary modernism? We have our postmodern writers, clearly: Ondaatje, Coupland, Kroetsch, Heti, Lent. But has Canadian writing ever truly engaged with modernism?

Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers has modernest elements, as does the poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen, bill bissett, and bp Nichol. And in the visual arts we have mid-20th-century abstract expressionist painters such as Riopelle and Borduas.

But it’s probably safe to say that high modernism never caught on in Canada to the extent that it did in Europe or America. I wonder if Campbell is correct in her assessment that part of the reason for this is a less cynical, more patriotic demeanour among our cultural creators. And if this relative lack of cynicism was present in the past (compare, for example, Morley Callaghan’s novels and stories to those of his contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce), is the same true now?

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 31: “Crossing Boundaries” by Yvonne Vera

May 31, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals

Why_Don't_You_Carve_Other_AnimalsDescribed by The Independent as “the greatest writer of the post-independence era in Zimbabwe,” and the “most consistently productive among Zimbabwean authors in English,” Yvonne Vera died in Toronto in 2005 at the age of forty. Born in what was at the time South Rhodesia, Vera had returned to Toronto, where in the 1990s she acquired a doctorate at York University, to undergo medical treatment for the meningitis that ultimately claimed her life. Vera’s five novels and one story collection are mainstays on post-colonial studies reading lists, and she is remarkably consistent in her themes: the asymmetrical power dynamics, both racial and gendered, in Zimbabwe during and after decolonization.

“Crossing Boundaries,” the first (and longest) story in her 1992 collection Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, is somewhat atypical in that it features a pair of white characters in among the black “natives,” though as Anna-Leena Toivanen admits, the whites in the story are “admittedly rather caricatured.” The pair are colonial settlers: Charles, the landowner, and his wife, Nora.

In the story’s opening scene, James, one of the native “squatters” on the settlers’ land, has come on behalf of his brother to ask Nora for more land to farm. This scene is instructive, both for the way it is constructed and for the way it illustrates Vera’s thematic preoccupations. From the opening line of the story, Vera employs a lyrical approach that relies on metaphor and imagery, but note how the comparison evokes violence right from the outset: “James spoke as if opening a wound, cautiously and painfully.” Without context or setup, this sentence immediately has the reader on guard, fretful as to the specific subject of this interchange. Further on in the paragraph, thunder sounds, thusly: “A whip cracked above, wrapping painfully around their exiled souls.” Here again is an image of physical anguish, and one that at least implies the notion of corporal punishment meted out by whites on black slaves in American history.

At this point, of course, we still do not have any understanding of who these two people are, other than the fact that one of them is called James. It soon becomes apparent that even this is not as clear-cut as it might seem: James is not the man’s birth name (or, as Vera puts it in the story, his “native” name), but rather a name that Nora has bestowed upon him because she finds his real name too difficult to pronounce:

She had named him James. She claimed “James” was easier on her tongue than his native name, which she did not try to learn or understand. He held his old name between his lips whenever he encountered his new name, and in this way he expressed a power and authority over his identity.

The ability to name someone is a key indicator of power and independence in many black cultures – this motif crops up in the work of Toni Morrison, as well – and the power that James cedes to Nora by allowing her to change his name is significant. “Namelessness was what she gained for him by her alienating manner of identification.” This namelessness is literal in Vera’s story, since readers are never told what James’s original name is. We, too, know him only by the name the white settler woman has chosen for him.

The other significant matter is that James makes his petition to Nora and not Charles. He does this because he is more confident of a receiving a favourable response from her, even though it is technically not her land to give. There are several shifting layers of power dynamics at work here: black and white, male and female, colonizer and colonized.

The story’s opening scene is canny in the elliptical way it unfolds: James is hesitant and humble in his approach to Nora, fearful of the “proposal” he has for her. Nora is pictured taking refuge behind a piano, which she uses “to protect herself against him.” The fear and hesitation, along with the explicit use of the word “proposal,” initially puts the reader in mind of a nervous suitor hesitantly proposing marriage. That, of course, would imply a relationship that, should the proposal be accepted, meant that man and woman were social equals (in theory, at least: Vera is a feminist writer, who has much to say about the gendered nature of power, especially in Zimbabwean culture).

However, James is not there to propose marriage, but to ask that his brother be allowed to farm a portion of the white settlers’ fallow land. The humility with which he makes his approach indicates a distinct power imbalance, one that strikes even him as incorrect: “Why was it necessary for him to be humble, to beg, to ask for something that perhaps belonged to him?” James’s family live as squatters on the colonials’ property; they pay no taxes, but act as manual labourers for Charles. When the white settlers took over the land, the native inhabitants were given a choice to either leave or stay on in what amounts to indentured servitude. James’s family, including his aged, invalid father, chose the latter. It is telling that Vera refers to both classes of blacks as “exiles.”

This is a word she also uses to describe Nora, who detests the African heat, and dreams of returning to England. But Charles remains committed to the cause of colonialism, to bringing English civility and efficiency to the country and its people:

Charles clung to his dry contempt of the natives, whom he separated from the land itself.

“If given the land, the natives would not even know how to use it.”

The irony here is thick. Charles expresses contempt for the country’s natives and their putative inability to live off of the land he himself is responsible for ejecting them from. That the black population had been doing just fine prior to the English arrival never seems to cross his mind.

In the background of Vera’s story are repeated references to a “bush war” that is being waged by native factions, a rebellion that will ultimately result in decolonization and, in the fullness of time, the rise of the Mugabe regime. This is a matter for another day, and indeed, Vera became a passionate critic of Mugabe’s government. “Crossing Boundaries,” however, focuses on the inequalities and irrationalities inherent in the colonial mindset. It is a fitting introduction to a writer who is not nearly as well known in her adopted country of Canada as she should be.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 30: “Whale Stories” by Théodora Armstrong

May 30, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility

Clear_Skies_No_Wind_100%_Visibility“Whale Stories” is an ambitious, audacious work of short fiction, told in third-person limited perspective from the point of view of William, the son of a woman who – with William and his younger sister, Miriam, in tow – has fled her home in the city to set up a bed and breakfast on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. William’s father is a geologist who travels frequently for his work; he is currently “somewhere in New Brunswick,” or so William supposes.

It becomes fairly clear as the story unfolds that a rift has developed between William’s parents. Whether they are in the process of divorcing is not made entirely explicit, but there is no question that husband and wife have reached an impasse of some sort:

Their mother’s walks were a habit now and came after dinner without any announcement. Miriam and William were never invited along and knew not to ask. For the first few evening walks, Miriam would clutch the porch railing and cry, believing their mother was never coming back. But now they barely blinked as she quietly escaped the house. Every once in a while, though, William still followed her, but always at a distance, watching her from the forest. He would crouch behind the tall ferns, his breath shallow and painful in his chest. She stopped at a different spot every time, and when she found her spot, she would sit on the beach and sink her hands deeper and deeper into the sand, staring out at the water. Sometimes she sat for a couple minutes and sometimes she sat for an hour. The longer she sat at the beach, the greater the chance she would cry.

Armstrong’s tactic in this story – reminiscent of Henry James or L.P. Hartley – is to relate the parents’ experience through the prism of a child, who is incapable of comprehending the full import of what is transpiring. The children’s mother is clearly struggling – she hasn’t been able to outfit them with curtains, a kitchen table, a television, or a doormat – but she tries to put the best face on things for the sake of William and Miriam. “His mother kept saying this was her dream,” Armstrong writes, “something she never could have done if she was still living in the city with William’s father.” At the bed and breakfast, William’s mother says, “instead of opening their home to one traveller – his dad – she could now open it to all of them.”

William’s father, it seems clear, was an absentee parent even before the trio decamped the city for the Sunshine Coast. “When they moved, they left all of his father’s clothes and books. His mom said it was easier for their father’s work if he left his things in the city.” This seems like fairly obvious prevarication on the mother’s part, but William remains oblivious to the implications of his parents’ situation.

Or, so it seems on the surface. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the boy suffers a kind of separation anxiety resulting in manifestations of anger and acting out. On a walk by the beach one day, William encounters a boy who is staying at the bed and breakfast. The other boy has piece of Styrofoam he has been trying to float like a boat; William takes a stick and demolishes it, then threatens harm to the boy himself: “Don’t follow me or I’ll stab your neck.”

In his room, William keeps a collection of rocks his father has given him, but the rocks serve as much as symbols of their impersonal, distant relationship as they do reminders of his father’s presence. Sometimes, when the two were reunited at the airport following one of the father’s excursions, William had to wait for his gift, “aware the entire time of the hard lump pressed against his chest as his father carried him to the car” – a hard lump, that is, where he might otherwise feel the beating of his father’s heart.

His father’s absence has rendered William rigid and calcified, a loner who fancies himself a kind of pioneer on the order of Robinson Crusoe. Unbeknownst to his mother, William has been digging a hole on the beach in the hopes of catching something – “at least something small … and if he was lucky something bigger.” How significant that William’s project is a hole, a literal void. And more: a void that he masks or covers over by placing deadfall across the opening.

William lies to Miriam about the hole to prevent her from exploring in the area and possibly falling into his trap. He tells his sister that there is a beached whale decomposing on the shore and she must stay away. The image of the whale is fanciful – William says it has had “its eyes pecked out, and … it stank so bad you would throw up on the spot if you went anywhere near it.”

This fantasy is much more palatable than the reality William discovers upon inspecting the hole one morning: an injured dog, one of the pack of wild mutts that roams the area, lies broken and dying in the film of water at the bottom. Confronted with the painful reality of the injured canine, William is at a loss: he always imagined that whatever he captured in his hole would already be dead when he found it. Moreover, an old dog keeps watch over the broken body of the younger canine, “tongue hanging out sleepily, spotted belly exposed.”

The symbolism here – of a young mutt in distress and the elder dog that refuses to abandon it to die alone – is obvious, even to William: mere animals take care of their own, in a way William’s father seems unable, or unwilling, to do with him. William reacts to this unconscious realization by burying the injured dog alive. Whether his action constitutes a metaphorical erasure of his father (or, indeed, himself) is open to interpretation. Certainly this is one possible way of reading the story’s final lines, in which he tells Miriam (who has witnessed what he did) that the whale he had concocted has disappeared. In any event, his anger and sense of betrayal have reinforced in him a notion that his father’s disinterest implies: it is far easier to destroy something than it is to create it. “It only took him twenty minutes to fill the hole,” Armstrong writes. “Much less time than it had taken to dig.”

« Previous PageNext Page »