Canada Also Reads begins

March 1, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Over at the National Post‘s blog, The Afterword, the Canada Also Reads shadow program, meant as a compliment to CBC’s unbelievably boring official Canada Reads 2010, is underway. This week, The Afterword will feature two essays per day, each one defending a particular title. The climax occurs next Monday, when the eight defenders will participate in a live roundtable discussion about the selected books.

To kick things off today, blogger John Mutford offers a spirited defence of his chosen title, Steve Zipp’s 2007 novel Yellowknife:

Despite the strong Canadian setting, Yellowknife owes more to Mikhail Bulgakov than Alice Munro. Once readers give up on the notion of typical CanLit (which has all the thrills of a station wagon crossing the prairies), they come to embrace Zipp’s  eclectic and energetic style. By gosh, a book can be smart and funny at the same time, it can be experimental and readable, it can be exciting.

And, not to be outdone, yr. humble correspondent chimes in with a defence of his title, Mark Anthony Jarman’s 2008 short story collection My White Planet:

Poet and literary critic Zachariah Wells once defined the short story as a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin. This description is especially appropriate to the work of Mark Anthony Jarman. The pieces in My White Planet more closely resemble prose poems than traditional Chekhovian stories; conventional notions of character and plot are less important than the jazzy, jangling music of Jarman’s language.

The rest of my incontrovertible defence of Jarman’s work is up at The Afterword. In the meantime, here’s my Quill & Quire review, which reiterates and expands on some of the essay’s key points:

Mark Anthony Jarman’s new collection of stories is something of a rarity in Canadian short fiction. It does not follow the tried-and-true template of the traditional Chekhovian story, which prizes naturalism and a familiar narrative arc. Rather, Jarman’s stories more closely resemble the postmodern collages of Donald Barthelme.

Jarman’s focus is not on story in the traditional sense, and although a handful of the selections in the book do end with a character reaching a kind of epiphany, the author’s core interest resides elsewhere – specifically, in the delirious and courageous use of language to create startling effects.

The 14 stories in My White Planet display an author who is positively word-drunk, delighting in twisting language into bizarre shapes, pushing and straining to test its resilience and its torque. There is a palpable giddiness to many of these stories; Jarman writes like a free jazz musician riffing on a central theme, or like a Beat poet jiving to the rhythms of his prose: “They climb up sheepish and angry because they’re not from a ghetto. By not being deprived, they’ve been deprived. O to be born in a ghetto, to get jiggy with the rats and the rasta players.”

Throughout, Jarman’s imagination is robustly catholic, incorporating references from high culture and pop culture, often in playful juxtaposition. The title of the story “Fables of the Deconstruction” is a sly, Derridaesque pun on the name of an R.E.M. album, and its epigraph is from Francis Bacon. Nods to indie rock bands Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Calexico rub shoulders with allusions to Machiavelli and Othello.

The subject matter and tone of the stories are similarly wide-ranging, from the bleak opener, “Night March in the Territory,” which follows a group of soldiers on a trek through unmapped American territory, to “Kingdoms and Knowledge,” which follows a Canadian citizen as he navigates his way through London, England, while tending to his mother who is suffering in an Alzheimer’s ward there. And “A Nation Plays Chopsticks,” about an old-timers hockey league, may be the finest explanation for Canadians’ love affair with the game that I’ve ever read.

The stories in this collection may not be to everybody’s taste. Weighing in at just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read, but not easily digested. Some of the stories are more accessible than others, but the collection as a whole exemplifies Wallace Stevens’ comment that poetry should “resist the intelligence, almost successfully.” In these stories, many of which resemble prose poems, Jarman has taken that dictum to heart, and the results are challenging and surprising.

Stay tuned for more updates about Canada Also Reads, as well as the annual play-by-play of the official Canada Reads debates, which will be hosted here by Alex Good and myself the week of March 8-12.


4 Responses to “Canada Also Reads begins”
  1. I agree completely with your crossed out statement: Canada Reads is unbelievably boring. Not to mention hypocritical. Consider the year Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers was being championed. It was immediately booted off the Good Book island, not because it wasn’t good, but because it was “too challenging” for the “average Canadian.”

    If that’s the case, then fuck the average Canadian in the ear with a sentient dildo.

  2. patricia says:

    Hmmmm….almost makes me want to be average.

  3. spoobnooble says:


    – gym (11:00-12:00)
    – p/u milk, toilet paper
    – get fucked in the ear w/ sentient dildo
    – laundry

  4. John Mutford says:

    Great job with your defense. Good luck to you and Jarman’s book. I’m looking forward to reading it!