Kate Cayley beats out heavy hitters to win the Trillium Book Award

June 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

How-You-Were-Born-Kate-CayleyThe $20,000 Trillium Book Award, given annually to the best book in any genre by an Ontario author, is one of my favourite Canadian awards, because it is always so defiantly individual. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 2009 jury that awarded the prize to Pasha Malla’s first story collection, The Withdrawal Method.) Whereas other awards often risk appearing formulaic, the Trillium seems focused entirely on merit and damn the torpedoes: recent winners have included Phil Hall (a poet) and Hannah Moskovitch (a playwright).

This year, Kate Cayley beat out established authors Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and Thomas King to take the award for her debut, the story collection How You Were Born. The fact the prize went to a work of short fiction makes me happy for reasons that go without saying. (Also for the record: I was a fan of Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress.)

Beyond that, Cayley’s book is published by the small literary house Pedlar Press. (Pedlar is based in St. John’s, but Cayley is a resident of Toronto.) There is a myth that large multinationals are responsible for publishing only tired, mainstream, run-of-the-mill books, whereas small houses produce nothing but brilliant work that withers due to lack of attention and readers. While neither is true in all cases, the last part of that – the lack of attention for books from smaller houses – is an unfortunate reality, so it is nice to see an independent regional publisher receive some consideration.

Whether such consideration is merited in this case is something I (shamefacedly) can’t attest to, not having read Cayley’s book (see above re: lack of attention to work from smaller presses, even on the part of people who should know better). That I now plan to search it out probably also flies in the face of my frequent criticisms of award culture; it would appear that awards really do help to sell books, for better or for worse.

The jury that awarded Cayley the prize was comprised of poet Helen Guri, novelist Cordelia Strube, and novelist James Grainger.

Other winners:

The Trillium also awarded its poetry prize last night, to Brecken Hancock’s well-received debut Broom Broom, a suite of unflinchingly dark poems published by Toronto’s Coach House Books. The $10,000 poetry prize is awarded annually (it alternates between English- and French-language titles) for a first, second, or third book of poetry.

Michel Dallaire won the French-language prize for his novel Violoncelle pour lune d’automne, and Micheline Marchand won the French-language children’s award for her book Mauvaise Mine. Both books were published by Les Éditions L’Interligne.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 30: “Gentrification” by Russell Smith

May 30, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Confidence

Confidence_Russell_SmithAnyone searching for evidence that Russell Smith is one of the strongest stylists working the CanLit trenches today need look no farther than the opening sentence of “Gentrification,” from the author’s new collection: “It was, if anything, getting worse, the intersection.” Any less brazen writer – which, these days, seems to be most of them – would place the subject at the beginning of that sentence: “The intersection was, if anything, getting worse.” This formulation is at once more obvious and less interesting, less musical, less teasingly cheeky. (In fairness, most editors, themselves lacking a certain brazenness, would automatically rewrite Smith’s sentence if confronted with his more idiosyncratic rendering.)

But from the outset, Smith has never been adverse to taking risks with his fiction. And “Gentrification” is nothing if not risky. Like most of Smith’s oeuvre, it falls in the broad category of satire, which is not a genre most readers find amenable these days. Especially the kind of satire Smith practices, which owes more to the harsh nastiness of Juvenal than the gentle wit of Horace. Then there is the story’s subject matter, which addresses the loaded issues of class, race, and gender politics in contemporary multicultural Toronto.

The focus of the story is Tracy, who lives with his wife, Morgan, in a roiling neighbourhood bounded by factories and rooming houses, and home to a cornucopia of races and ethnicities, including a community of Eastern European immigrants who “were taping up posters in their fantastic language, with lots of k’s and i’s, a language for warfare, and all the posters had the word ROMA at the bottom, sometimes with an exclamation mark, like a soccer chant.” There is also Francis Doyle, the aging Irish relic who still blithely refers to black women as “coloured girls” and Asians as “Orientals.”

And there are Deiondre and Teelah, the black women in question, who rent a basement apartment from Tracy and Morgan. Teelah is the more feminine of the two – she “actually dressed like a girl,” in Tracy’s assessment, which makes it easier for him to ogle her “puffy brown belly” and her “enormous round butt” with its “twist of thong rising above the hip.” Deiondre, by contrast, “look[s] like a boy” in black jeans and a hoodie, her hair done up in “wild and spiky” dreadlocks. The two women have a baby Tracy has never seen, though both he and Morgan have been privy to the child’s wails during the many violent arguments their tenants engage in.

The whole neighbourhood has been privy to the battles waged by Deiondre and Teelah, which involve screaming and cursing and slamming of doors and walls, and in one case fisticuffs and hair-pulling that spills out onto the street for all to witness. Tracy tries to intervene on several occasions, but is forestalled by Deiondre’s obstinacy and the indifference of the police.

Then there is Tracy’s own reticence to get involved – even in the face of prodding from his wife, who calls the situation “intolerable” – a reticence that springs, we can infer, from a nervousness around the perception of a university-educated white male making incursions into the lives of a black lesbian couple on welfare. Tracy knows they are on welfare because he sees the cheques that arrive in their shared mailbox; he becomes indignant when he sees Deiondre getting into a cab, which he feels – with vast reserves of self-righteousness and judgment – is an unconscionable extravagance for someone in her circumstances. (Significantly, the middle-class white man sniffs that taking a cab is something he “would never have done.”)

No doubt Tracy feels a misplaced sense of superiority regarding Deiondre and Teelah; the two women, nevertheless, fully comprehend the power in the way their situation might be perceived by an outsider, and exploit this to their advantage, playing music so loud it resounds throughout Tracy and Morgan’s own living space, then suggesting that Tracy is attempting to prohibit them from their own form of cultural expression when he goes to complain: “We have a right to enjoy ourselves just like you,” Deiondre tells him. “Even right here in Canada.”

Tracy’s conflicted attitude regarding Deiondre and Teelah has much to do with his desire to break away from the constraints of his social class and lifestyle and rub shoulders with what he considers to be a rougher, more exotic milieu. Whether he is allowed to indulge his base desires or forced to repress them depends on the situation and the availability of willing enablers. Morgan staunchly refuses to continue posing for nude photos that Tracy uploads to a softcore porn site as a means of securing a little extra cash, and one of the local Roma women rebuffs him when he tries to approach her with similar intentions. Yet Teelah flirts with him and a bartender talks him into ordering doubles when he goes slumming in a local dive bar.

And the idea of slumming is key here: Tracy flirts with danger and exoticism, but shies away as soon as the otherness gets too close or begins to frighten him. He can flirt with the overtly feminine Teelah, but does not know how to handle Deiondre’s aggressive assertiveness. He finds the Roma girls exciting – “their hair was so flowing and shiny,” and they “made themselves look hot with their pudgy little bellies and supermarket clothes” – but is wary of crossing a line that might put himself in any kind of personal peril: “it would be dangerous to get involved with a gypsy girl, in any way, as the men were quite possessive and violent.” Note also the gendered nature of Tracy’s courage: he is fine approaching women he considers “hot,” but steers clear of men he assumes are violent and the butch Deiondre. (In this regard, one might also note Tracy’s own feminine name – to say nothing of his wife’s more masculine one – something he himself remarks on in the story.)

Here the story tilts in the direction of one of Smith’s abiding themes: authenticity, and the lengths people will go to construct artificial identities to fool both outside observers and, crucially, themselves. Tracy may delight in the coming gentrification of his neighbourhood because it will raise the property value of his house, but he fears the concomitant flattening out of the social stratification that surrounds him, which will deny him easy access to the kind of faux grittiness he is attracted to. On the surface, he plays the role of the upwardly mobile urbanite, cooking vegetarian meals for his university friends and assiduously checking in on his wife’s temperature and the viscosity of her mucous as they attempt to get pregnant, but underneath it all exists a piercing need for a different, more apparently dangerous and exciting lifestyle.

This is why his final epiphany – that the internet offers him a whole range of opportunities to revivify his amateur photography business, “something Morgan wouldn’t be interested in … no matter how lucrative it was” – makes him so happy. He can rent a mailbox from a location “just across the tracks” and set up a photo studio in his basement (which he will paint “clean white”) now that his two abrasive tenants have finally decamped. The ultimate irony in the story is that Tracy pretends to desire an escape from what he perceives as the boredom of his proscribed existence, yet pulls back at the first sign of any real danger. The thing he most fears about gentrification is that it will make his surroundings more closely resemble himself.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 26: “Canadian Experience” by Austin Clarke

May 26, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Choosing His Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke

Choosing_His_Coffin_Austin_ClarkeMulticulturalism is a myth we console ourselves with. We pat ourselves on the back and bandy about bromides concerning tolerance, acceptance, and diversity, while continuing to engage in practices such as racial profiling by police and the preservation of institutional prejudices that prohibit certain groups equal opportunity for advancement. Not for nothing is the protagonist in Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach denied a restaurant promotion from busboy to waiter because “Tu es un peu trop cuit pour ça (you are a little too well done for that).” In other words, while the white diners will accept a dark-skinned busboy, they are more reluctant to do likewise for someone actually serving them food (notwithstanding the fact that the dark skinned man would still be the one doing the serving, not the eating).

This is the reality that many immigrants to Canada’s most populous city experience daily. The May 2015 issue of Toronto Life magazine featured a cover article by Desmond Cole focusing on the extraordinary number of times he has been stopped by cops in the city, not because he is a criminal, but because as a black man, his skin tone makes him an automatic focus of suspicion. Far from a refuge of tolerant acceptance, this is the quotidian reality many ethnic minorities face in Toronto the Good.

Austin Clarke has been writing about this aspect of the Canadian experience for more than six decades. Now in his eighties, Clarke is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.: he marched with Malcolm X and participated in rallies with Stokely Carmichael. Donna Bailey Nurse points out, in a profile for Quill & Quire, that in his rebellious heyday in the 1970s, the Toronto Star dubbed Clarke “the angriest black man in Canada.”

That anger is on display in his fiction, particularly in stories such as “Canadian Experience,” complete with its blisteringly ironic title. The story is about George, who, like his creator, is an immigrant to Toronto from Barbados. George has come to the city searching for the good life but has been rejected at every turn. Now in his thirties, George spent his first five years in Canada among the ranks of the marginally employed, bouncing around a series of menial jobs (the only kind someone like him could land). Having now wound up squarely in the category of the unemployed, he spends his time in the reference library reading room, scouring the newspapers’ job ads.

It is important to note that Clarke does not stack the deck in George’s favour. George lacks formal education (though “he still consider[s] himself well-read”), and was once fired from a job delivering flyers because, out of boredom, he simply dumped the advertisements in the trash. His supervisor, we are told, “did not trust immigrants” and “carried out a telephone check behind his back.” The implication here is that the supervisor is racist, which may or may not be true; what is clear is that George’s firing was for legitimate cause.

It is also clear that when George applies for a junior executive job at a Bay Street bank, it is a position for which he is manifestly unqualified. “The successful candidate,” the ad reads, “must have a university degree in business or finance, or the equivalent in business experience.” Given that George’s own “business experience” consists of neglecting to hand out the flyers that he then dumped in the trash, securing an executive finance job seems at best a stretch.

To score an interview at the bank, George fudges his education on his resumé, which he considers “a satisfactory and imaginative rendering of the facts.” He decides that, at his age, his “desperate circumstances” dictate he cannot be picky about the job he takes, notwithstanding that it is a “junior” position, where he feels he would be more satisfied with a senior job. There is egotism here, no doubt, and what an unsympathetic reader might consider self-deception. George’s illusions come crashing down when he actually visits the bank to attend his scheduled interview: he finds himself unable even to exit the elevator at the appropriate floor.

The scene in the elevator is telling. It is crowded with people who have been granted access to the corridors of power due to their earning potential and – not incidentally – the colour of their skin. As he ascends, he notes a man in expensive alligator shoes and a woman carrying a bag from a tony fashion store. (Earlier, George wishes his own pink shirt was cleaner for his interview at the bank.) When the doors of the elevator open on his floor, he is confronted with “glass and chrome and fresh flowers and Persian rugs and women dressed expensively and stylishly in black, with necklaces of pearls.” Frozen, he allows the doors to close and the elevator to continue its ascent to the building’s top floor.

Significantly, George feels much more comfortable – “braver,” in the words of the story – going back down. He recalls the end of his work day as a janitor at a building not unlike the one he is currently in: “He remembers the new vigour he used to feel at the end of three hours working with wax and mops and vacuum cleaners with Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese, going down the elevator. He will ride it to the bottom.” George is explicitly aligned here with subservient, manual labour, and his place in the social echelon is defined as residing at the bottom of the heap.

This is something that has been determined for him, and there is nothing he can do to change it. His lack of formal education is a MacGuffin; in Toronto’s social hierarchy any access to the mechanisms by which he might better himself are closed to him. He is no more able to gain an office job in a Bay Street tower than the protagonist of Dorothy West’s story “The Typewriter,” who dreams of a corner office but ekes out a living as a janitor. If he displays a sense of entitlement in his idea that he should be allowed to simply walk into the bank and be given a junior executive position, it is only because others – with white skin and the resources to access private school education – are able to do exactly that.

Even Pat, the unemployed actress who lives in the same rooming house as George, manages to better herself, albeit in a more modest way. She applies for and gets a job as a waitress in a local restaurant “where a lot of television and radio types eat” – that is, she is granted the foot in the door that George is prevented from achieving.

It is significant to note that neither George nor Pat is named until late in the story; they remain anonymous for the bulk of the narrative, like the anonymous denizens of the city’s underclass. Pat is white, with ugly red cold sores on her back; George Elliott Clarke has suggested the red and white pallor of her skin makes her a stand-in for the ugliness that is Canada in Clarke’s story. This may be so, but the story also insists on a resemblance between the two characters: it is difficult for either a black man or a white woman to succeed, though the white woman has a marginally easier time of it due to the accident of her heritage.

The story’s final scene features yet another descent, this time into the subway, where George will take his life by throwing himself in front of a train. As he does so, he notes the “happy eyes” of the driver, who is gainfully employed and on his way home after the last run of his shift. In the final moments of the story, the engine’s headlights are compared to the sores on Pat’s back: if George Elliott Clarke is correct in his assessment, this final metaphorical moment sees Canada – in all its multicultural glory – ultimately flattening one of its hopeful immigrants for good.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 21: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller, revisited

May 21, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Every critic,” writes Philip Marchand in the opening chapter of his 1998 book Ripostes, ” … must feel, at one time or another, a bit of a fake. Every critic must sometimes suspect, upon feeling baffled by a book, that there are other, more acute readers, who have understood the author’s intentions – understood them, and relished the results. They are not baffled. But meanwhile, intelligence has failed you, the critic. In a few cases, it may have failed so badly that your remarks will serve to amuse posterity.” These comments occur in a chapter not incidentally entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” and they are comments that have long struck a chord with me.

Any critic tries – or, at least, should try – not to get it wrong. A critic’s first responsibility, after all, is not to posterity, or to the aggrandizement of ego or reputation, but to the work under consideration. Honesty is important, yes, but so is intelligence, and a willingness to see things that might be difficult or outside the realm of one’s own experience. One might call this latter quality, for want of a better word, empathy.

Of course, being human, there are times that critics will get it wrong. They will be working too fast, or dealing with pressing matters in their personal lives – a sick relative, the pressures of a job (most literary critics in this country not being able to make a living off their writing alone), insomnia, a recalcitrant landlord – that may make them less attentive than they should be. There is the ringing telephone, background noise from the café or (on those few days the weather will allow) the park where one has taken refuge to read, or any number of other distractions.

Elsewhere in his essay, Marchand comments on the anxiety that accompanies the “feeling that if I read a given paragraph with less than maximum attention I might miss the key to the whole book.” He applies this principle to novels; it works equally powerfully with short stories.

One week ago in this space, I chose to focus on K.D. Miller’s story “Magnificat,” from her 2014 collection All Saints. This was not my first encounter with Miller’s story: I had reviewed the collection for the National Post when it first came out, and returned to it again at the end of the year, when I included it on my selection of standout books for Quill & Quire. “Magnificat” was, to my mind, one of the strongest stories in the collection, and as I was putting together the list of stories I wished to focus on for this year’s 31 Days of Stories, it bubbled to the top. I reread it and crafted a post explicating my experience of the story.

My interpretation of the characters and events in the piece involved a reading of the older character, Julia, as a spinster who was innocent of sex and sexual encounters, and used the church as a substitute for such carnal matters. From my first encounter with the story, there was something about the final sequence that bothered me, but it was nothing I could put my finger on precisely. It was just a feeling that something was off, that I was missing something. This feeling did nothing to diminish my admiration for the story, or for Miller’s writing, which is among the finest and most subtle I have encountered in some time.

These, of course, are the very qualities that should have given me pause.

Yesterday, I was pleased to read a post at the blog Matilda Magtree. In addition to saying nice things about this site and its annual focus on short fiction, the blog’s author, Carin Makuz, offered an alternate take on the events of the story from my own:

Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a  survival technique.

Makuz references the scene in the story in which Julia is in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary, a scene I also pointed to in my own post to illustrate a different reading of the story and the character. That scene, I believe, should best be read straight, with the character longing for a kind of immaculate conception, a kind of idealized relationship in the realm of sex.

However, that reading in no way negates Makuz’s idea that Julia, far from being virginal herself, has suffered abuse in her past. As she follows Cathy and Gabe into the park, the words “be not afraid” go through her head, and Miller writes, “Strange. Those words haven’t gone through her mind for – well, not since she was a girl.” There is nothing explicit here, only a hint that something wrong, something far beyond the simple shock of following a young couple into a park and witnessing them having sex.

The key passage occurs on the second-last page of the story, after Julia has dragged herself away from the scene of the couple and collapsed onto a stone bench in the park:

Out of habit, she looks at her watch. She can barely see the hands, and in any case cannot remember what time it was the last time she looked. No way of knowing how long she had been in the park, then. How long it took. The thing that happened. The thing that was done to her.

Yes. Something was done. And it was done to her. She begins to cry. And she was terribly frightened by it. She has suffered something dreadful, she whimpers to herself. Something that ought not to have been done.

To what does this passage refer? What is the something that has been done to Julia – something that Miller insists was done to her, emphasizing this through the use of italics on the page? My own reading had this as a kind of transference: the it referring to Julia’s somatic reaction to the sex between Cathy and Gabe; the “thing that was done to [Julia]” being her recognition of a burning desire for the same kind of carnal knowledge, something that has passed her by in her life.

Yet does one not have to work hard to read the passage this way? Is it not simpler, more obvious, to read it as Makuz does, as indicating that Julia has been the victim of abuse (“Something was done. And it was done to her“)? She tells herself not to be afraid upon entering the park, not because she is trailing the couple and fears being caught, or is fearful of what she might witness them doing, but because the park was the scene of her long-ago violation. “She has suffered something dreadful … Something that ought not to have been done.” How much more explicit does Miller need to be?

Makuz is extraordinarily generous in suggesting that my own reading of the story is not wrong, merely a different interpretation of the events on the page. Perhaps. Though returning to the story now, having digested Makuz’s reading, the passage above appears to stand out as though in neon. Perhaps this is another instance of transference. Or, perhaps more likely, my earlier post must go down as one of those failures of intelligence that Marchand warned of.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 14: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller

May 14, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Writing is the way I pray,” K.D. Miller told fellow CanLit author Lori McNulty in the National Post. “I frequently have doubts about my relationship with my religion and my church. But writing? Never.” Miller’s substitution of an artistic impulse for the act of religious devotion is appropriate for an age in which believers and non-believers seem increasingly polarized. Mainstream or moderate adherents to any organized religion are often treated with suspicion from both sides – atheists on the one hand and fanatics on the other. Religious leaders are frequently exposed as hypocrites and charlatans, and science has provided convincing solutions for many of the existential mysteries that humans once turned to the church to explain. Doubt in sacred matters seems practically inevitable, as does the desire to find something capable of filling the spiritual void left by institutional religion’s demotion in our postmodern world.

Literature, of course, has always maintained a relationship to the divine: from the Medieval mystery plays and Dante to Bunyon and Blake, Flannery O’Connor and William Peter Blatty. The Western canon is replete with writers honouring and grappling with notions of salvation, sin, and institutionalized faith. In All Saints, her collection of linked stories circling around the titular Anglican church, Miller simultaneously extends this tradition and subverts it, writing not out of a position of blind adherence to a set of dogmatic beliefs, but from a deeply humanist perspective that attempts to examine and comprehend human nature’s essential conflicts and drives.

There are two women at the centre of “Magnificat” – one old, one younger – each of whom is grasping for something ineffable in her life. Julia is an aging spinster who has reached the twilight of her years with only the church as a steady companion. Cathy has had no shortage of male suitors, though many of them resemble Owen, the gormless poet who lives in her apartment building and whom she expends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid. At the outset, these two women appear separately, in alternating sections, but their paths intersect as the story progresses, leading to a climactic scene in a park that lays bare the malaise at the core of each character.

Thematically, Miller’s story addresses the nexus of the sacred and the profane. Julia is a devout believer, who attends All Saints regularly – as a balm, we come to understand, for the lack of companionship and emptiness she suffers in the rest of her life. She is afflicted by “an old melancholy” born of a realization that youth and experience have passed her by. “I did not take unto me a husband” is the motto she adopts for herself: “She liked to think the phrase take unto me gave her an ironic edge, and did not made her solitary state look like a choice.”

There are strong indications that Julia has remained a virgin; she is certainly censorious when it comes to matters of the flesh, and has been “disturbed by mention of sex and the Internet creeping into church services.” She is a staunch traditionalist, who prefers the evensong service “largely because modern liturgists have yet to tamper with it.” For Julia, religion should be “distant and monumental,” so as not to risk sullying itself in carnality and thereby reminding her of all that she has missed out on in her life. The church is a means of dealing with her loneliness, but only so long as it remains above and beyond the messy physical realm of human congress.

Of course, this is precisely the realm Julia is forced to confront by the end of the story. The instrument of this confrontation is Cathy, who is every bit as devoted to matters of the flesh as Julia is to matters of faith. Cathy is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with Gabe, a drifter who fills her need for a dominant sexual partner while neglecting her in every other aspect of their relationship.

Cathy, we learn, is a masochist who first noticed her proclivities as a schoolgirl, when she experienced a sexual response to being administered the strap as punishment for a transgression. In Gabe she discovers someone who will fulfill her need for abjection without hesitation or pity; his pick-up line on first encountering her – “Time you got what’s coming to you” – provokes a reaction by its resemblance to that long-ago school punishment.

Gabe is aware of Cathy’s sexual kink because she has confessed it – along with its origins – to him. Gabe “knows everything” about Cathy, while she remains ignorant about the details of his life and history. As a “professional house-sitter,” he has no fixed address; she doesn’t even know where to locate him on a consistent basis. This unequal power dynamic puts Gabe entirely in control, while Cathy worries constantly that he won’t call, or that he will:

He never says hello when she snatches up the phone, or even It’s Gabe – just dictates his latest address and hangs up. And that makes her afraid all over again – that she’ll find out the address doesn’t exist. Or that it does, but Gabe isn’t there. Or that he is there, but won’t fuck her, even when she begs. Or that he’ll have another woman with him. Or another man. Or that he’ll want to do more and more things that hurt. And that she’ll let him. Because it’s time she got what was coming to her.

Cathy’s neediness is a carnal mirror of Julia’s loneliness; the older woman follows the couple into a local park without being able to explain her motivation, finally stumbling upon them having sex in the dirt.

Here the symbolism in the story is actualized: Cathy’s earthiness is given a literal manifestation as the grass chafes at her knees and her “fingers dig into the dirt.” Julia, who is pictured crouching and (not incidentally) “clutching at herself,” appears to Cathy “in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s.” The association here is with the Virgin Mary, a figure Julia has been explicitly linked with in the previous scene.

This association is extended by the Magnificat hymn that Julia sings to herself having witnessed the act of copulation. The hymn is one of humility before God, taken from a passage in Luke’s Gospel following the angel’s revelation to Mary that she is to carry the Christ child in her womb. She visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (with a child who will grow into John the Baptist), where she declaims the words of the hymn. Here, Miller combines imagery of motherhood and devotion, while also engaging in comic debasement by having Julia appear barefoot, with her shoes over her hands.

Julia has removed her shoes because of a blister that has broken on her foot; the wound is a physical representation of her inner pain, as Cathy’s abjection is actualized by her tearing at the ground, though the younger woman also pictures herself “surrounded by angels.” In this moment, the sacred and the profane – which otherwise remain poles apart in Miller’s story – are united, and there is at least an implied transference between the two women. Each possesses aspects of character coveted by the other; their encounter brings them together in a fleeting, if ultimately unacknowledged, reconciliation.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 7: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

May 7, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

Stone_Mattress_Margaret_AtwoodThe issue of the Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine that hit newsstands on April 2, 2015, featured a cover profile of Canadian writer Andrew Pyper, who had just published his seventh novel, The Damned. The profile began in an odd way. Susan G. Cole, NOW Magazine’s books and entertainment editor, led by essentially slamming Pyper for writing what amounts to a ghost story: “Andrew Pyper pisses me off. Really, I just want to shake him. He’s one of the best writers we have: vivid images, page-turning narratives, complex characters. He writes so exquisitely, you wish he’d just settle in and write a conventional novel. Do us a favour – get real and stop wasting your time on genre fiction.”

This distinction – between genre fiction and what Cole refers to as “conventional novel[s]” – continues to hang around, like a particularly nasty chest cold, though it is getting harder and harder to draw as more and more writers insist on eliding it. Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One, is a zombie novel, as is All-Day Breakfast, the latest from Canadian writer Adam Lewis Schroeder, who has to this point confined himself to the apparently more respectable genre of historical fiction. (Cole singles out Helen Humphreys for praise as the kind of writer she wishes Pyper would emulate, apparently unwilling to admit that historical fiction itself represents genre writing.)

Never mind that Pyper has forged a lucrative career over the better part of three decades by insisting on the artificiality of exactly these barriers. Suggesting that writers who practice their craft in the areas of genre fiction are “wasting [their] time” immediately discounts at least some of the output of such diverse figures as Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, John le Carré, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elmore Leonard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan.

Not to mention Margaret Atwood. Pyper actually does reference Atwood in response to Cole, a comment Cole calls “provocative.” But it isn’t provocation: it’s a simple fact. Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, is The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist work of dystopian speculative fiction. Her recently completed MaddAddam trilogy of novels also constitutes spec-fic, this time with a healthy dose of environmentalism added to the mix. And the author’s upcoming novel, The Heart Goes Last, is also set in the near future.

In fact, the further on Atwood gets in her career, the less interested she appears to be in writing what Cole dismisses as “conventional” fiction. In his review of Atwood’s 2014 story collection, Stone Mattress, the critic Jeet Heer noticed this tendency, positing that before The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood “spent her main energies mastering and exhausting the possibilities of realism,” while thereafter “realism would become a minor chord” in the author’s work.

Atwood herself notes that the pieces in Stone Mattress are not stories at all but, as the subtitle attests, “tales.” This is not an arbitrary distinction. Atwood is deliberately staking out a position outside the confines of social realism, aligning herself instead with tellers of fabulous tales – Scheherazade and the Ancient Mariner, or Robertson Davies, whom Atwood quotes as saying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale.”

None of the nine entries in Stone Mattress constitutes a work of realism; “Lusus Naturae,” commissioned for Michael Chabon’s anthology McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, is an all-out allegorical fairy tale.

In terms of genre, the title story could reasonably be considered a work of noir fiction – it is a revenge tale, albeit told from a feminist perspective that is typical of its author. Its central figure, Verna, is a murderer. Or, to be more precise, she is what is colloquially known in crime novels as a “black widow”: a woman who marries men in a series and bumps them off one by one. Verna is careful to note that all of her victims die of natural causes, she merely helps them along, by leaving a double dose of medicine at bedtime, or offering “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire,” such as unhealthy food or too much booze. She entices them into sexual congress, knowing full well that their hearts or their arteries won’t be able to take it. Viagra, Verna says, is “a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure.”

Also on display here is Atwood’s unique brand of acidic humour, something critics – most of them men – have castigated her for, but an aspect of her writing that devotees recognize and appreciate. It is a strain of humour that stretches back at least as far as the 1971 poetry collection Power Politics, which includes the brilliant four-liner “You Fit into Me”: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye // a fish hook / an open eye.”

Sure, there is a strong element of nastiness in all this, but the viciousness is rarely misplaced in Atwood’s work. Consider what sets Verna off on her homicidal career: when she was a teenager, she was date raped, an experience that left her pregnant and a pariah. More than fifty years on, Verna encounters her rapist on an Arctic cruise; he doesn’t recognize her and tries to hit on her, she responds by forging a plan to kill him.

Verna’s plot to kill her assailant is also pure Atwood: the cruise ship is to make an unexpected stop at an area replete with stromatolites, “the very first preserved form of life on this planet.” A scientist explains to the vacationers: “The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome.” One such fossilized cushion becomes the weapon with which Verna bludgeons her rapist to death, following which she carries the rock back on board the ship for the other passengers to admire and, not incidentally, get their DNA on. “She’d read a lot of crime novels,” we are told.

Atwood, too, has clearly read a lot of crime novels, to say nothing of novels in any number of other genres. Though some devout science fiction aficionados have charged Atwood with being an interloper – a literary writer merely pretending an affinity for so-called lower genres – Heer points out that “[t]his accusation is refuted not only by the sheer volume of Atwood’s genre output, but also by the way sensationalistic plots have manifestly invigorated her work.” Atwood’s affinity for genre writing is evident in the joy she seems to glean from it. And why shouldn’t this be the case? It’s all a form of storytelling, after all. How could anyone presume that this was somehow a waste of time?

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 1: “Tick Tock” by Guy Vanderhaeghe

May 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Daddy Lenin and Other Stories

Daddy_Lenin_Guy_VanderhaegheCharley Brewster has a problem with his hands. They hurt, a pain that is agonizing and incessant. Some four decades ago, the volatile young man was something of a brawler, courting fights that landed him with five fractures to the bones in his hands. The last of these scraps ended with his antagonist suffering a fractured orbital bone and Brewster being sent to jail for two years less a day.

Older and putatively wiser, Brewster, now an assistant professor of English, has not been bothered by discomfort in his hands for forty years. The onset of his recent affliction, “a dull, background ache … lodged in the bones of his hand, broken by sudden bursts of acute, electric pain,” coincides with the arrival of a new couple to the apartment next door to his.

The first encounter with this couple occurs outside the building, as the two are unloading a U-Haul truck piled with furniture. The woman is a “waif-like bit of a girl,” with “a despairing, hopeless look” on her face and “enormous brown eyes swimming with tears.” The man is a giant, possessed of “a grotesquely swollen torso and a massive column of neck that tapered into a shaved head like the nose cone of a missile.”

It becomes clear in short order that the couple, Melvyn and Dina Janacek, are engaged in an abusive relationship, with the husband using his superior strength and imposing physique to threaten and intimidate his wife, and possibly to assault her physically as well. Brewster attempts to intervene, first by involving the police – who are unsympathetic to the plight of what they perceive as a haughty and arrogant academic with his nose out of joint – then, finally and inevitably, in the only way he really knows how: by using his tormented fists.

“Tick Tock” is the best – and, not unimportantly, one of the funniest – stories in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s first collection of short fiction since 1992’s Things as They Are? The author won a 1982 Governor General’s Literary Award for his first book, Man Descending, another collection of stories, but is so well known as the author of the intervening “western trilogy” of novels – The Englishman’s Boy (also a GG winner), The Last Crossing (which won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2004), and A Good Man – that these days even Vanderhaeghe himself acknowledges precious few people remember he ever wrote short fiction.

The author of “Tick Tock” is older than the author of the stories in Man Descending, but no less pointed and pugilistic. The story examines postmodern masculinity in all its contradictions and vagaries. Descended from working-class stock, Brewster was launched into his academic career while in prison for assault, the beneficiary of a program that offers university-level classes to convicts. But he has never been able to entirely divest himself of his roots as a physical scrapper, notwithstanding the toll his advancing years have taken on his body.

Brewster’s conception of masculinity is certainly more straightforward than that of his girlfriend, Eva, chair of the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, who uses contrasting videos of Sting and Klaus Nomi to demonstrate to her students “representations of masculinities.” Eva is representative of the kind of postmodern ideologue much in vogue in academia these days; her media-saturated, pop-culture inflected classes score highly on Rate My Professor, whereas Brewster is subjected to borderline illiterate screeds by students who are appalled that he would demand their essays be punctuated properly.

Indeed, Brewster defines himself as a dinosaur (“your department’s sleepwalker” is Eva’s preferred term), and it is no surprise that the careerist Eva is the more successful of the pair. Nor that she is disdainful of Brewster’s own particular representation of masculinity, which she defines as “the bad hegemonic variety.” When in Brewster’s presence, Eva’s “homophobia and misogyny sensors” go off pretty much constantly.

The academic satire in “Tick Tock” is blisteringly funny – especially to dinosaurs like Brewster who still believe that university essays should be punctuated properly – but Vanderhaeghe is more subtle and more nuanced than a brief thumbnail sketch might lead one to believe. It is Eva, after all, who is ultimately effective in separating Dina from her abuser, while Brewster, reduced to his aging and aching fists as his only recourse proves absolutely ineffectual or, to use a more loaded term, impotent. Much of Brewster’s antipathy results from envy at Eva’s success: fifteen years his junior, she has already managed to secure a chair in a department, while he remains stalled at the level of assistant professor, biding his time until he can fade into retirement.

The final scene in the story, with its vaguely masochistic undertones, returns to the conception of masculinity as located in physical power, but inverts it, leaving Brewster subject to the depredations of a goon who, we come to realize, represents a distorted mirror’s image of the protagonist’s own younger self. This doubling motif – which persists throughout the collection – is absolutely appropriate for a story in a book titled Daddy Lenin: Janacek becomes a kind of surrogate son to Brewster, a reminder of the commingled potency and relative simplicity of youth and the diminution that accompanies getting old.

In its shifting ground, its satire, and its incisive probing of male psychology, “Tick Tock” finds its author firing on all cylinders. Readers familiar with Vanderhaeghe only through the western trilogy might be surprised at the author’s facility with a contemporary milieu and characters; fans of Vanderhaeghe’s earlier collections will simply be glad to have him back writing in the form after an extended absence.

Quill & Quire celebrates eighty years, bpNichol, bill bissett, the Kootenay School of Writing, and more

April 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

This year, Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing industry, marks its 80th anniversary. To celebrate, the staff has put together a compendium of people, events, moments, and memories from the past eight decades of CanLit. This being poetry month, I thought I’d share two of my own contributions – one about the sound poets bpNichol and bill bissett, the other about the Kootenay School of Writing – which help spotlight the extent to which poetry is among the most innovative and boundary-pushing forms of writing in this country.

There is plenty of other content available online at the Q&Q site, including classic CanLit covers re-imagined by Canadian book designers (David A. Gee’s revisioning of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is pure genius); Little Sister’s Books & Art and Glad Day Bookshop’s battle with Canada Customs for the right to import material deemed “obscene” by government enforcers; Gillian O’Reilly on the early days of Canadian kidlit; Linda Leith on the fertile ground of English writing in Montreal; and that time Stoddart Publishing brought an elephant to a book fair (third from top).

bpNichol and bill bissett sound off

One arguably incongruous fact about Canadian sound poet bpNichol is that in the 1980s he wrote for Fraggle Rock, the Jim Henson–produced children’s television program. Nichol is more famous for his contribution to Canadian postmodernism, employing a freewheeling style of concrete, visual poetry complemented by his contemporary, bill bissett. “i break letters for you like bread,” wrote Nichol as a kind of artistic manifesto, one matched by bissett ibpNicholn the lines, “what we can know writing pomes / is also th voice uv ths things speaking thru us.”

Of Nichol, bissett, and their ilk, scholar Gregory Betts wrote, “Postmodernism in Canada begins with this kind of revolutionary fervour.” The work was not without controversy: in the 1970s, a group of politicians banded together to protest awarding grants to certain poets – bissett in particular – whose work was deemed immoral. And the more traditional camp of Canadian versifiers frequently castigates the experimentalists for their loose style and their disregard of established formal approaches.

What often gets missed is the playfulness of the more determined postmodernists, their desire to sing in ways that may appear anti-melodic, but are nevertheless infused with a brand of unconstrained joy. “What I love about their innovations,” says poet Paul Vermeersch, “is that they come from a very puckish desire to upset the apple cart of traditional poetry, not in a destructive way, not to subvert the art form wholesale, but to extend it, to add to the sum total of what is possible.” There is a kind of gleeful naïveté at work in these writers; they are, in Vermeersch’s eyes “essentially uncynical about what poetry can be and do.”

Perhaps Nichol’s Fraggle Rock connection isn’t surprising after all.

Kootenay sounds a clarion call

“Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing has been a vital nexus of poetry in western Canada since its inception in 1984,” says poet and KSW alumna Nikki Reimer, “organized by and for writers who prefer to engage with vigourous and critical discourse around writing and writing practice.”

The collective, which quickly established itself in opposition to the nation’s dominant, hegemonic cultural establishment, was born “on the run” in response to the closure of the David Thompson University Centre, writes Clint Burnham in his book The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing. The DTUC had be(image: courtesy Kootenay School of Writing)en a victim of neoliberal cutbacks by the B.C. Social Credit government of the early 1980s; that conservative ethos was ripe for opposition in Vancouver, a city that Burnham notes had a strong anarchist tradition and was one of the seedbeds for the Canadian punk movement in the late 1970s.

The importance of the KSW, says Burnham, is the way in which it functions as a place for poets “to talk about innovation in writing.”

“This was always the thing,” Burnham adds. “That writing was not just about having a career, or getting books out, but writing as an ‘expanded practice,’ as Michael Turner calls it, writing in the context of feminism (Lisa Robertson), or urban politics (Jeff Derksen), or film and art (Nancy Shaw). Writing that is unsettled (always looking for new forms) and unsettling (that resists canons, the academy, the market).”

“The collective, as the writer-run centre has commonly been known, has undergone too many iterations and divergent philosophical positions to sum up in brief,” says Reimer. “But its structure is unique among Canadian cultural organizations, and its commitment to labour politics and practice stands in refreshing opposition to the mainstream modes of cultural production in this country.”

Down in the depths: (super)natural dread in new novels by Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter

March 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It might come as a surprise to hear that Andrew Pyper, one of this country’s most successful writers of literary thrillers, cites Alice Munro as an influence. Though, to think about it, the comparison should not be entirely unexpected. There is, of course, the strong and frequently acknowledged streak of so-called “Ontario gothic” in Munro’s writing, and there is no doubt that the Nobel laureate’s stories frequently engage with some pretty dark subjects and themes. But more than that, Munro is well aware of what any good writer of horror knows: to elicit emotion, it is essential to invest your reader in your characters and their situation. You have to give your readers a reason to care.

The_Damned_Andrew_PyperThis is true of all writing, of course, but it is particularly salient in the horror genre, since writers of scary or supernatural stories require suspension of disbelief on the part of readers in order to pull off their effects. “There are certain prosaic tactics a writer can use to scare a reader,” writes Nick Cutter. “Perhaps most importantly, make readers care about the characters. A truism of all horror is: if you don’t care about the characters, it is unlikely you will care what happens to them.” Again, true enough across the board, but absolutely essential to the genre at hand.

Which is one reason why new novels by Pyper and Cutter are so deeply rooted in characters and their stories. Not the otherworldly terrors they fall prey to – although there are plenty of those to go around – but the dreadfully normal business of life: family, love, death, and loss.

On one level, the two writers could not be more different. Pyper has acknowledged an affinity for a quieter, more British strain of fiction that works on a reader’s psyche by increments, without resorting too effusively to overt violence or gore. Cutter, on the other hand, is something of an attack dog: his two novels (so far: there’s another one coming later this spring) assault their reader with snapping, slashing teeth and snarling aplomb. Yet there are undeniable similarities connecting the writers’ most recent offerings.

Pyper’s seventh novel, The Damned, appears two years after his previous work, The Demonologist. In addition to being the author’s most popular hit to date, The Demonologist marked a definite move into full-fledged genre territory. Pyper dipped his toe in the supernatural in his 2011 novel The Guardians, prior to which the terrors in his books were largely of this world. But with The Demonologist he dove in head first, and he continues to swim these waters in The Damned.

The new novel tells the story of twins – Danny and Ashleigh Orchard – both of whom die in a fire when they are sixteen years old. Except only one of them stays dead. Danny is revived and becomes a renowned exponent of near-death experience, writing about his encounter with heaven in a book he calls After. As a result of the book’s popularity, Danny meets other “Afterlifers” – people who have similarly died and been brought back to the mortal plane. One of these is Willa, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy named Eddie. When Danny falls in love with Willa, the restless spirit of Ash (who hates her full name and always goes by the diminutive – get it?) becomes jealous and determines to destroy the nascent relationship so as to keep her brother all to herself.

Though there is more to it than that – there are indications that Ash was murdered, and that she wants her corporal brother to investigate the crime and expose the culprit – the story is essentially a love triangle between Danny, his new flame (sorry) and his needy sister’s ghost.

Pyper’s tactic is to place Danny at the centre of the story, allowing him to carry the emotional weight. Danny acts as the novel’s first-person narrator, so everything is filtered through his eyes and his sensibility. In this way, Pyper grounds the novel’s more outré elements in a central consciousness readers can relate to: with one foot in this world and one in the next, Danny can act as a kind of tour guide to the other side, while never losing his essential connectedness to our messy physical realm.

The_Deep_Nick_CutterThis connectedness is essential in getting readers to accept the supernatural aspects of the story, which is something that Cutter exploits in The Deep, about a global pandemic called the ’Gets, the symptoms of which mimic a kind of jacked-up Alzheimer’s. The cure for the ’Gets may lie deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, though the team in charge of discovering it has lost contact with the undersea lab, the Trieste, and its chief scientist, the brilliant but egotistical Clayton Nelson. One of Nelson’s colleagues – Dr. Cooper Westlake – has resurfaced, but what has happened to him is not pretty (to say the least), leading the team of above-ground researchers to suspect something is amiss on the Trieste. They recruit Clayton’s brother, a veterinarian named Luke – to descend to the bottom of the ocean and investigate.

What Luke finds eight miles below the surface of the Pacific beggars description, but the scenes of gory mayhem Cutter allows himself will be familiar to readers of his debut, The Troop. But whereas that story featured an ensemble cast of Boy Scouts trapped on an island alongside a particularly nasty biological antagonist, The Deep shares an affinity with The Damned in filtering its story through the perspective of a single male protagonist.

Cutter also ups the psychological aspect in this novel by supplying Luke with a backstory about a young son who disappeared in a public park one fall day during a game of hide-and-seek with his father. The incident costs Luke his marriage – his wife blames him for allowing their son to vanish – and the commingled guilt and post-traumatic stress are what simultaneously drive Luke and haunt him.

It is significant that both these novels have father figures at their hearts: fatherhood has clearly had an impact on both authors, and their fiction reflects the heightened emotions inherent in finding oneself in charge of a young person’s safety. Danny and Eddie forge a bond as father and stepson, in part because the young boy can also see Ash and knows that Danny is not crazy. Luke’s despair at the loss of his son is a manifestation of every parent’s terror that something dreadful and inexplicable might befall their child at any time, for any reason, and there is little or nothing they can do to prevent it. By comparison, the imagined horrors of spectral twins and unnameable creatures from the depths seem almost mild.

***

Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter will be appearing in Toronto tonight – Friday the 13th – as part of the Dark Side II: Highway of Horror Tour. Tonight’s event, sponsored by ELLE Man, takes place at the Spoke Club, 600 King Street West, Toronto. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets $35.

Spin control: Mark Bourrie’s new book on muzzling scientists, manipulating media, and stamping out dissent in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa

March 4, 2015 by · 3 Comments 

Kill_the_Messengers_Mark_BourrieFor anyone interested in the federal Conservatives’ preferred method of getting unpopular legislation through the court of public opinion, Bill C-13 is instructive. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act received Royal Assent on December 9, 2014, though its passage was not without hiccups. Sparked by uproar over the heinous cyberbullying that led to the deaths of teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the bill sought to stiffen penalties for crimes such as non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images, child pornography, and so-called revenge porn.

Fair enough.

But, bundled in with those laudable goals were a whole raft of other changes to the Criminal Code that will, in aggregate, have the effect of eroding citizens’ privacy by, in part, allowing police to request that internet service providers voluntarily hand over user information without having to secure a warrant or any kind of judicial approval.

Some of the opposition to the bill was predictable. University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs last November; Geist pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Spencer decision had likely already rendered parts of Bill C-13 unconstitutional even before it had become law. Secondly, Geist suggested that the provision for voluntary disclosure of user data has dangerous implications for privacy and the expansion of state surveillance powers: “The provision unquestionably increases the likelihood of voluntary disclosures at the very time that Canadians and the courts are increasingly concerned with such activity. Moreover, it does so with no reporting requirements, oversight, or transparency.”

Resistance, however, also came from less obvious sources. Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association – a group that could reasonably be counted among the Conservatives’ support base – was quoted by the CBC as saying that Bill C-13 comprises “the most draconian step towards police interference in people’s lives since George Orwell revealed the potential for it when he wrote 1984.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, appeared before a House of Commons committee to voice significant criticism. Though she applauded efforts to protect victims of online abuse, she stopped short of endorsing the new sweeping powers of surveillance and warrantless spying:

I don’t want to see our children victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of the privacy information of Canadians without proper legal process. We are Canadians with strong civil rights and values. A warrant should be required before any Canadian’s personal information is turned over to anyone, including government authorities. We should also be holding our telecommunications companies and Internet providers responsible for mishandling our private and personal information. We should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety.

If someone like Carol Todd – who has every right to be fully supportive of enhanced tough-on-crime legislation – is willing to voice such criticism of a proposed crime bill, people should listen.

Todd’s testimony is quoted in Mark Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, a blistering, lacerating account of the Conservative government’s attempts to solidify power in Ottawa and to eradicate criticism or opposition to the sweeping changes it has been imposing upon the country. Bourrie systematically lays out the various ways in which Harper has centralized power around the Prime Minister’s Office in an attempt to control the government’s message and reduce criticism. These include (but are certainly not limited to) the imposition of a taxpayer funded government propaganda machine, which spent in excess of $100 million on ads promoting the Tories’ Economic Action Plan between 2009 and 2014 and saw the launch of a YouTube channel, 24 Seven, run by the government and intended to “replace the mainstream media with words and images that are under the complete control of the prime minister and his staff”; the revision of history by focusing assiduously on Canada’s martial experience as a warrior nation (what author Noah Richler has termed “the Vimy Myth”) and slashing budgets at Library and Archives Canada; the assault on evidence-based decision making, in part by dispensing with the mandatory long-form census; and the attack on scientists – even those in the government’s employ – who contradict the party’s core message.

Bourrie-Mark

Author Mark Bourrie

This last area has become extremely important to the Harper Tories, especially given one of their core constituencies: the oil companies working to mine Alberta’s bitumen-rich tar sands. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “It has become routine … for the federal government to prevent senior environmental and climate scientists from speaking to journalists about any environmentally sensitive subject.” Bourrie provides specific examples of this phenomenon in action, including the infuriating case of David Tarasick, a researcher with Environment Canada, who published an article in the esteemed journal Nature detailing his discovery of “one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic.” “Media handlers in Tarasick’s own department gagged him for two weeks,” Bourrie writes. “When a Canadian reporter asked for an interview, Tarasick wrote back in an email: ‘I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.'”

Perhaps even more infuriating, though the government’s media relations department was unwilling to provide access to Tarasick himself, they were more than happy to supply the media with sanctioned talking points, which they then indicated could be ascribed to the scientist. “The department, it seems, wanted to interpret the scientist’s findings and write them into its own words, then put those words into Tarasick’s mouth.”

Bourrie also details the ways the Harper Tories manipulate the rules and regulations of parliament to ensure compliance with their agenda, repeatedly proroguing the House – including once, in 2009, when the minority Conservatives were all but assured of a non-confidence vote as the result of a threatened coalition between the Dion Liberals and the Layton NDP – and invoking closure to limit debate “on almost every important piece of legislation.” The list of bills subject to closure that Bourrie provides is chilling, particularly given that the Conservatives employed this tactic again around Bill C-51, the government’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has called the act “sweeping, dangerously vague, and ineffective,” and, in a staggering show of unity, no fewer than four former prime ministers have come together in opposition to the bill as written.

All of this, Bourrie convincingly argues, constitutes nothing less than an assault on the democratic principles this country was founded upon. To his credit, Bourrie, an historian by training, does not ignore the fact that other governments have acted in similar ways, citing in particular the federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris’s conservative provincial government in Ontario. However, Harper’s Conservatives and their counterparts around the world are taking this style of governance to a new and dangerous level.

The problem, as Bourrie suggests in the opening pages of Kill the Messengers, is that once these systems of governance become entrenched, they will be practically impossible to dismantle easily. If citizens care about continued access to the mechanisms of a healthy democracy, the time to act is now, in a federal election year. Otherwise, we can resign ourselves to continued erosion of our freedoms and decreased availability of the kind of unbiased, impartial information required to make informed decisions about our future and its leadership.

Absent that, we can expect more propaganda disguised as news, increased corporate influence on public policy, and fewer and fewer democratic freedoms. And as Bourrie implies, it isn’t as if the Harper Tories don’t fully understand what they are up to. Communications Security Establishment Canada, the government agency tasked with cyberspying, has a budget of $300 million annually and last year was the beneficiary of a new 72,000-square-metre headquarters in Ottawa.

The CSEC mailing address, Bourrie points out with a straight face, is Box 1984, Station B, Ottawa.

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