I’ll be damned

July 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Readers of my screed in the latest issue of Canadian Notes & Queries will be well aware of my antipathy toward a certain strain of affectedly poetic, overwrought Canadian novel. Novelist and visual artist Christopher Willard has suggested that my assessment of the tyranny of this kind of novel in CanLit does not hold for all cases, and cites Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog, which he calls “truly one of the most magnificently written novels [he’s] read in years.”

It might surprise some of you to know that I agree with Willard. Poetic language in itself is not the problem: the problem is self-consciously poetic language. Language that calls attention to itself, nudging the reader in the ribs and keening, “Look at me! Look at me!” For an example of the other kind of poetic language, take a look at a novel by Michael Kenyon entitled The Beautiful Children. It’s not a book you’re likely to hear much about: it’s published by the small Saskatchewan press Thistledown, and is unlikely to make much of a splash amidst the strum und drang of upcoming releases from Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Bonnie Burnard, John Bemrose, et al. But it’s worth seeking out: the parallel stories of an amnesiac journeying through a series of expressionistic landscapes and his son, who moves among the druggies that people their home city’s underbelly, are compelling, and manage to be simultaneously tough and sensitive.

My review, from the June issue of Quill & Quire, is online:

The Beautiful Children eschews the kind of naturalism that has become the default setting for most CanLit, but retains a focus on memory as a key determinant of a person’s identity. Sapporo’s endeavours to reconstruct himself involve repeated attempts to concretize fleeting images from his past. Absent this stability, he descends into a mental state that closely resembles madness.

The novel’s syntax is flayed to the bone; some readers may have difficulty orienting themselves within the expressionistic geography Kenyon has created. Sapporo travels “into a sky so large and blue above grassland so bald they must have been immediately connected,” en route to an unidentified desert. The language mirrors Sapporo’s own confusion, but readers accustomed to a more conventional form of narrative may find these sections off-putting.

One of The Beautiful Children‘s greatest strengths is the way its form and content are inextricably fused. The language is poetic because it has to be, but it never descends into the realm of showiness or ornament for its own sake. And who am I to complain about that?

Oh, and if you’re interested in my own feelings about Red Dog, Red Dog, you can find them here.

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