Three new Quill reviews are now online, one each of a novel, a story collection, and a work of graphica. Guess which one I liked best?
The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.
The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.
The collection is the new release from Shelley A. Leedahl.
When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.
The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.
And the work of graphica is a startling collection of comics from Toronto resident Nina Bunjevac.
Bunjevac’s narratives explore displacement and urban ennui, with a distinctly Eastern European sensibility (the author credits Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev as an influence). In “Opportunity Presents Itself,” a Balkan woman is brought to America by her venal uncle. Hoping for a new life, what she finds is closer to hell on earth. In the collection’s centrepiece, a character named Zorka Petrovic (who resembles a female version of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat), becomes pregnant with a male stripper’s child. Her abject loneliness and longing for some form of basic companionship is heartbreaking.
The literary prize juries are spreading the wealth around this year. As is probably common knowledge by now, two sophomore novelists – Esi Edugyan and Patrick DeWitt – have been competing head to head for the three most important prizes for fiction in this country: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award. (They were both nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well: that award went to British novelist Julian Barnes.) Last week, DeWitt took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust award for his neo-Western, The Sisters Brothers. Yesterday, it was Edugyan’s turn at the podium.
Half-Blood Blues, a novel about jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin during the early years of the Second World War, won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The jury, composed of novelists Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman, and Andrew O’Hagan, selected the book from an uncommonly strong field of six titles, the other four of which were David Bezmozgis’s debut novel, The Free World; Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist; Zsuzsi Gartner’s sophomore story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives; and Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel, The Cat’s Table.
This year’s jury read a record 143 titles to come up with its shortlist of six, which was culled from a longlist of seventeen. The longlist included one title, Myrna Dey’s Extensions, selected by popular vote on the part of the general public. The jury ended up (correctly, in my opinion) ignoring the public choice and promoting a shortlist that ranks among the finest in Giller history. There wasn’t a dud title in the bunch: not a single book of which it could be said, “Yeah, that really doesn’t deserve to be there.”
Of the winning title, the jury had this to say:
Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that’s Esi Edugyan’s joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues. It’s conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes. Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy. Put this book next to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” – these two works of art belong together.
The win marks the second time Thomas Allen Publishers was responsible for bringing out the victorious book, the first being Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe in 2002. The win for Thomas Allen, and in particular its publisher, Patrick Crean, is particularly sweet, since they were responsible for rescuing Half-Blood Blues from oblivion when its original Canadian publisher, Key Porter Books, ceased operations at the beginning of the year. This year was also remarkable for being the second year in a row in which the country’s largest multinational, Random House of Canada, was completely shut out of the shortlist (Ondaatje is published by McClelland & Stewart, which is 25% owned by Random House). DeWitt and Coady are both published by House of Anansi Press; Bezmozgis is published by HarperCollins Canada.
Edugyan takes home the $50,000 grand prize, and each of the other shortlisted authors take home $5,000. One note: this does not, as some sources would have it, make the Giller the most lucrative literary prize in Canada. The Griffin Poetry Prize awards two separate purses (one Canadian, one international) of $65,000 apiece, and the newly minted Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction is worth $60,000 to the winner, as well as $5,000 apiece to the other shortlisted authors. Not that anyone’s counting.
This year’s shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a pumped-up six books, whittled down from a pumped-up, seventeen-book longlist – is surprising both for what it includes and, arguably, for what it omits.
Two of the six finalists were, in my opinion, foregone conclusions going into yesterday morning’s announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues have been receiving almost universal accolades, and have already found places on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist. The only thing arguing against their inclusion on the Giller list would be the jury’s conscious attempt to strike out in another direction. Really, though, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised that those two made the cut.
The same certainly can’t be said for Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of stories, Better Living through Plastic Explosives. (There were audible gasps in the room when the title was announced.) This is a second collection comprising a group of fictions that could best be described as dystopian satire: not the kind of thing that usually falls within Giller’s comfort zone. Its appearance on this year’s shortlist indicates strong support from the jury and a willingness to break out from the kind of kitchen-sink realism that tends to dominate CanLit awards lists. Love it or hate it (and readers have been divided: some adore the book, some quite definitively do not), it represents an unexpected, though not unwelcome, new direction for the Giller’s spotlight to point.
Lynn Coady was nominated for her fourth novel, The Antagonist (actually her fifth book, counting the short story collection Play the Monster Blind), which makes independent publisher House of Anansi Press the only house with multiple books on the list (they also publish DeWitt). The final two spaces were reserved for relatively better-known names – The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40″ Canadian standard-bearer, David Bezmozgis, for his first novel, The Free World; and Michael Ondaatje, the only certified heavyweight on the list, for his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table.
What is notable about this list (besides the complete exclusion, for the second year running, of any titles from Random House of Canada or its imprints*) is the fact that the list is dominated by relatively reader-friendly, narrative driven books. Even the Ondaatje is by all accounts the author’s most accessible work in years. This is a trend with awards lists in 2011: from the Booker to the Writers’ Trust to the Giller, this year’s juries seem to prefer books with strong stories and an emphasis on character and setting over the kind of über-literary, stylistically challenging works that are often favourites for award consideration.
Perhaps as a corollary, a number of names that are familiar to Giller watchers failed to make the final six this year. Previous nominees Wayne Johnston, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Marina Endicott didn’t make it past the longlist, and 2007 champ Elizabeth Hay didn’t even make it that far. This year’s jury is clearly unafraid to look beyond the usual suspects, extending what can only be hoped is a trend inaugurated by last year’s jury in its shortlist selections. (It should be noted that despite the iconoclastic shortlist, last year’s jury chose the most quintessentially CanLit title – Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists – as the eventual winner: this is a trend that hopefully won’t persist.)
The presence of Annabel Lyon on this year’s jury led me to hope that more than one short-story collection might make the final cut (I’m disappointed not to see Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, which I quite liked, on the list, and I am left wondering exactly what Clark Blaise has to do to get some recognition in this country). Lyon is joined on this year’s jury by American novelist Howard Norman, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and thanks to a quirk in this year’s longlist selection process, the entire population of Canada.
The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on November 8.
*We’ll allow for the moment that McClelland & Stewart, which publishes Ondaatje, is not a de facto Random House imprint.
Sarah Selecky is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted story collection This Cake Is for the Party. She is guest posting on TSR on the final stop of her month-long blog tour. Here, Selecky discusses Annabel Lyon’s story “Watch Me.”
by Annabel Lyon (from Oxygen)
I read this story at least three times every year. I’ve been devoted to it ever since it came out in 2000. I go back to it when I’m spinning out at my writing desk, the same way you might hold on to a lucky stone you keep in your pocket when you feel anxious. The title has taken on another meaning for me, now. It’s like Lyon is saying, “Watch me – watch how I write this.”
The story is about family, responsibility, and what it means to be an adult. It makes you laugh and it breaks your heart, often simultaneously. And isn’t that an accurate way to evoke the spirit of family?
Here’s the story: Since the death of her husband, which happened years ago – we’re never told exactly how long it’s been, or how he died – Laura is getting on with life. She watches the young children next door when their parents disappear for days at a time. The parents are drug addicts; at least, that’s what Laura’s adult children think. They’re concerned about the situation next door, but they’re mostly worried about their mother, who is aging, and living alone. Laura will have nothing to do with their meddling. She seems immune to worry – or grief, for that matter.
Marie, Laura’s daughter, handles sadness differently – she pours herself Scotch with the energy of a pouting child. Laura’s son, Steven, tries to make things okay. He speaks to everyone in an easy, teasing manner, and his jokes rise out of the narrative like sparklers.
At the end of the story, this fractured family prepares to make a decision that will affect the family next door. It’s a hard decision, and there will be consequences. Marie thinks she knows best; Laura thinks she knows best. But when Marie tries to change everything, it is finally Steven who makes it happen. “We all love each other,” he says. “That’s how these things start.”
I return to this story to watch Lyon write dialogue, to watch her attention to voice and detail. It’s a showpiece of characterization: a deep, self-sustaining world of subtlety and detail mapped over 13 pages. The characters are real. They are so effortlessly and quintessentially themselves, especially Laura, with her unique way of speaking. This story has been one of my favourite writing teachers.
I leave you with a few small excerpts, so you can see what I mean.
Marie’s brother called to tell her the junkies were gone.
“Since when?” she asked.
“Two days,” Steven said. “But mum has their babies.”
“I know, Marie, but two days. She says she’s running out of activities.”
“Someone should report those people.”
“Someone did. Mum reported them to me and now I’m reporting them to you.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know I’m going this afternoon and you’re coming. Pick you up in an hour.”
“Oh, Steven.” She cut him off with the tip of her finger and poked her mother’s number.
“Beth?” Laura, her mother, answered. Beth was the woman junkie.
“Oh, Marie,” said her mother. “Now, I wish you had been here for lunch. I made this pesto salad such that the curtains smell of garlic.”
“How are things?”
“Well,” Laura said. “I’m surprised you can’t smell it down the phone, it’s that strong.”
“I can’t smell it,” Marie said.
“Mum?” Steven said.
“I need you to look at the washing machine. It’s thumping again.”
“Somebody needs to,” he said.
“Your father used to grease it with a little Vaseline, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Steven went downstairs and Marie sat next to Natalie.
“We have certain responsibilities here,” Marie said.
“Don’t start me,” Laura said.
Marie picked up a science magazine with her father’s name on the mailing label and began to read an article on robotics.
“I should cancel that,” Laura said, coming back into the kitchen a few minutes later. She opened the fridge and started pulling foods out and setting them on the counter. “I never bothered.”
“Don’t you dare.” Marie didn’t look up.
“Pumpkin,” Laura said.
“Remember when he gave me that microscope? Remember how he was the only one who ever called me Molly? Can I have his slide projector?”
“I gave it to charity.”
“Jesus,” Marie said. She started to cry.
“Stop that, chicken,” Laura said. “You have his armchair, his cushions, his good gloves, his antique typewriter and his bifocals.”
“I told you always to check with me first.”
“I have every right to dispose of my husband’s things. Now reach me the cilantro.”
Marie didn’t move.
“What did I raise?” Laura asked the ceiling.
(A version of this piece originally appeared in Quill & Quire.)
Apparently, there are prizes associated with this tour, courtesy of Thomas Allen Publishers. Click here to find out more.
Antanas Sileika has a complicated relationship with history. The author of the new novel Underground, a love story set among the Lithuanian partisans who fought the Soviet communists in the years immediately following World War II, Sileika has mined his own family’s past for material, but had to overcome his own discomfort with his heritage to do so. “I have this weird view of things,” he says, “this Lithuanian background, which when I was growing up was appallingly boring. You didn’t want to mention it. I didn’t even like the word.” Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Weston as part of what he calls “a pre-multicultural generation,” Sileika was acutely aware of a sense of otherness that attached to everything from his accent to his name. Until university, Sileika went by the name Tony; it was only in his post-adolescence that he began insisting people call him by his birth name. “I have these meek vestiges of uncoolness. But now that I’m older and smarter I realize you get your material wherever it is.”
Underground is the third book in a loose trilogy about the Lithuanian experience that also includes the story collection Buying on Time and the novel Woman in Bronze. The first book in the trilogy is about the suburban immigrant experience, something Sileika is passionate about defending. “To claim the suburbs are banal is a kind of hipsterism that drives me crazy,” he says. The second book is about a Lithuanian expat sculptor in Paris in the 1920s. For the culmination of the trilogy, Sileika felt that there was one more defining aspect of the 20th century he had to address: “I had dealt with the suburbs, I had dealt with art, and now I thought I had to deal with war.”
Sileika was helped in his research by a raft of recently published books about life behind the Iron Curtain. In particular, he credits Norman Davies’ Europe, Tony Judt’s Postwar, and – especially – Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands for exploring a time and a place that had largely remained unexamined. “The Iron Curtain is only now rising,” says Sileika, which made the subject attractive to him. “I thought, what we don’t know about here is the period in the immediate postwar. Nobody I knew, outside of Eastern Europeans had any idea about the partisan war, about the resistance. And it occurred to me that I’ve got something to say. I’ve got access to something to say about that war, and about the impossibility of choice.”
The “impossibility of choice” is a subject that weighs heavy on Sileika. The decision to drape his narrative in the garb of a love story was, in part, an attempt to highlight this impossibility. Much of the dramatic tension in the novel arises from the collision between personal desire and the march of history. “I’m particularly fascinated by people who have a series of bad choices,” Sileika says. The partisans in his novel, faced with the constant threat of capture, death, or betrayal, are confronted with numerous bad choices that only get exacerbated when mixed with affairs of the heart. “How do you express love in an impossible situation?” Sileika asks. “How does love even survive?” These are questions, he is quick to add, that hardly even occur to Canadians living in relative comfort at the start of the 21st century. “We live in a kind of history-free zone,” Seleika says. “We live in a Disney zone, where if you try really hard, you’ll get what you want. Whereas if you lived in Eastern Europe, no one gave a damn what you wanted. When history crushes you, it crushes you, and you’re lucky if you get out.”
Despite his evident investiture in his subject, Sileika was initially reluctant to write about it, because it presented him with unremittingly dark material. “You’re looking into a kind of heart of darkness. I have no idea how people work in places like Holocaust centres or oncology wards. It’s very, very hard.” Indeed, Sileika intended to do extensive research for the book (he also reads Lithuanian), but found he had to cut this short. “I was going to read all the books on the subject; I read about 35, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
As if that weren’t enough, while he was writing the book, his son shipped off to fight with the Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan. “I wrote this book under extreme further stress because my son was in Afghanistan. So every day that he’s in Afghanistan as a front-line soldier, when I go out into the street in the morning, I look up and down to see if someone’s waiting for me.” The circumstances of Sileika’s personal life found themselves reflected in the material he was writing about. “I was writing about people who are in a kind of hopeless situation, and I felt hopeless myself.”
Given all of this, it is unsurprising that Sileika bristles at the suggestion that historical fiction is somehow an invalid or shopworn mode for writers to adopt, a suggestion that has been floated many times in Canadian critical circles. “It crops up in Russell Smith’s piece last year in Quill & Quire, it comes up from time to time in the Globe, or in the literary press: ‘We are so tired of the typical Canadian historical novel.’ Which gives me pause on all kinds of different levels.”
Sileika, who is the artistic director at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, becomes decidedly animated when confronted with the suggestion that historical fiction is the default setting for Canadian novelists. “The first problem is: who do you mean? Tell me six historical novels that you think are unjustifiably praised. Most people won’t name names, and I think, ‘You cowards.’ And the next problem is: what is it about the past that we should be ignoring? When all our output is about now: all the magazines, all the newspapers are about now. So to say that we shouldn’t be writing historical fiction is a bit hard to maintain.”
What is it that bothers us about historical fiction, Sileika asks. “Is it Elizabeth Hay’s novel about the Depression where the woman rises from the pillow and there’s a halo of dust around her? Is that what bothers people – that romantic thing? Or is it Jane Urquhart’s landscapes? If you read Jane Urquhart carefully, she’s very interesting in what she does with landscape. Most people don’t think about landscape. In fact, we’re stupid about landscape. She’s being smart about landscape. What’s the problem with that?”
“Why do people write historical fiction?” Sileika asks. “Well, why do they write romance or science fiction? Can you imagine suggesting to le Carré that he give up espionage?”
Moreover, Sileika suggests, historical fiction is in many ways harder to write than fiction set in the present, because the writer has to pay constant attention to historical detail and language. “When I think of the language of the past, and of a foreign place, this is also very tricky. Annabel Lyon had all of her characters [in The Golden Mean] saying ‘Fuck this’ and ‘Fuck that,’ which is a type of effect and it’s interesting in that way. My attempt was to strip all present expressions away and try to get to a version of a very direct language. But given that one must struggle more with the language, why should this elicit disdain? It continues to perplex me.”
Still, says Sileika, “I’m keenly aware that I have an anachronistic view of fiction, an old-fashioned view.” That “old-fashioned” view is predicated upon the idea that fiction should be about big subjects: war, love, death. This is another reason why the situation in postwar Lithuania proved so attractive: “It’s so dramatic there. All decisions have major consequences.”
Yet, for all of that, Sileika is also keenly aware of his distance from the events he is describing in the novel, and does not shy away from interrogating the relative comfort that has allowed him to write the story in the first place. “I ask myself this question: if I had relatives who died in the Gulag or lived in horrible conditions and I live here in luxury, what does this mean? How is this possible? Did people have to die for me to enjoy my chicken cutlet down at the St. Lawrence Market? Is history that perverse?”
Ultimately, Silekia likens his experience in Canada to being in exile. “I have a place far away which I can have access to, but I’m not of it.” And this exile, for the author, is something of a double-edged sword. “People of my generation are cast away in paradise. There’s no going back there for me. There is here, which is very important to me. … I’m still figuring these things out. It’s a project under construction.”
The fact is our literature has been too easily labelled and corralled into genres – not only children’s books but science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction and so on. Which is why the recent breakthroughs of Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean and Mary Novik’s Conceit, both historical fictions, are thrilling beyond measure.
I read these words with no small degree of bafflement, especially on the day that Kate Pullinger was announced the winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. Pullinger, author of contemporary novels such as The Last Time I Saw Jane and A Little Stranger, took the prize for her latest novel, The Mistress of Nothing, her first foray into historical fiction (if, that is, you don’t count her novelization of Jane Campion’s The Piano, co-written with the filmmaker). Prior to The Mistress of Nothing – which, depending upon what you read, took Pullinger anywhere from 10 to 15 years to complete – the author had a deep distrust of the genre. When she was in town last month for the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, she told the National Post:
It’s a kind of genre I feel ambivalent about … The thing that I don’t like about historical fiction is when the writer has done a lot of research, and then they feel like they’re damned if they’re not going to put it all in there. Every bleeding detail. As a reader I find that tedious. I know a lot of readers really like that about historical fiction – they want to know what type of button is on the suit jacket.
And yet here she is: a writer of contemporary fiction who wins a major Canadian award the first time she dips her toe into historical waters.
Nor is she alone in this. A quick survey of the past nine winners of the Governor General’s award shows six books (Clara Callan, 2001; A Song for Nettie Johnson, 2002; Elle, 2003; The Law of Dreams, 2006; Divisadero, 2007; The Mistress of Nothing, 2009) that are set in the distant past or that have significant historical content. Two others (A Complicated Kindness, 2004, and The Origin of Species, 2008) are set in what could reasonably be called the recent past. That leaves all of one – David Gilmour’s 2005 winner, A Perfect Night to Go to China – that has a contemporary story or setting.
And yet Joan Clark finds it “thrilling beyond measure” that two recent historical novels have received popular recognition. Has no one pointed out to her that historical fiction is the default setting for Canadian writers? Just think of some of the books that have garnered large amounts of attention over the last ten years: The Big Why, The Communist’s Daughter, Effigy, The Trade, The Navigator of New York, The Stone Carvers, Three Day Road, Gratitude, The Book of Negroes, The Sealed Letter, The Outlander, The Last Crossing, The Boys in the Trees, Blackstrap Hawco, and so on. Granted, there is a very wide spectrum of writing there, and even someone not predisposed to the genre can likely find something engaging among those titles. (Yr. humble correspondent, for instance, greatly admires The Boys in the Trees and Blackstrap Hawco, and quite likes The Outlander, while not being partial to The Communist’s Daughter and finding The Navigator of New York almost unreadably dull.)
But the idea that historical fiction has been ghettoized in this country is so far from my own experience as a reader and a critic as to be virtually incomprehensible. Especially since there does seem to be a very real prejudice against some of the other genres that Clark mentions, such as mystery and – in particular – science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer). This could be one explanation as to why all of this year’s major prize juries passed over Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Year of the Flood, the author’s own disavowal of the speculative fiction label notwithstanding.
And the virtual hammerlock that historical fiction seems to have on our country’s literary imagination is problematic to me, not so much because there’s anything wrong with historical fiction per se, but because of what the genre’s stranglehold on our literature implies about our present situation. The fact that so few stories are written about the way we live now suggests that there is nothing of value worth writing about in today’s society: no drama, no earth-shaking conflicts, no cultural upheavals or societal paradigm shifts that might provide worthy material for fiction.
Which is, if you’ll pardon me, absolute rubbish. In the same nine years that the books listed above were published we’ve lived through 9/11, two terms of the Bush administration, SARS, the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, a technological sea change that has rivaled anything since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the London subway bombings, the arrest of the Toronto 18, the election of Barack Obama, the trials of Conrad Black, Bernie Madoff, and Kenneth Lay, the rendition and torture of Maher Arar, the death of Robert Dziekanski after being Tasered at Vancouver’s airport, etc., etc. Surely something over the last nine years could have been sufficient to capture the imagination of our literary community.
Of course, dealing with the world as it is, in all its muddiness and ambiguity, is difficult and fraught with peril, since it leaves one open to criticism from vested interests on the right or left of the political spectrum, on one side or another of a given moral divide. It’s much safer to retreat into a kind of Romantic vision of a past that likely never existed, one that can be drawn with clear moral boundaries and that doesn’t involve personal risk, because it is so (apparently) far removed from our current situation. The trade-off, however, is contained in Stephen Henighan’s rather urgent warning: “No one will know how we lived.” As Henighan points out in his essay “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here’: The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel,” “The crucial obstacle to the extension of a significant novelistic tradition in Canada today lies in our inability to pull our own society into focus.”
Or perhaps we’re just not all that interested in “pull[ing] our own society into focus.” Perhaps Kim McArthur, Pullinger’s Canadian publisher, had it right when she told Quill & Quire: “We’ve found, as book publishers, that there is real interest in other places, times, and people. It’s a good escape in these times.”
Yr. humble correspondent is in an awkward position. Suffering from post-Giller hangover, this is the point at which historically I’ve complained about all the reasons why the jury made the wrong choice, and how once again the prize has reinforced a kind of bland, middlebrow notion of what CanLit is supposed to be. This year, I’ve been fairly vocal – both here and in various other venues – about the overall sombreness of the shortlisted titles, the narrow spectrum of sensibilities among the prize’s juries, and the increasing focus on spectacle at the expense of the books themselves. I have, in short, been in a fairly predictable, curmudgeonly mood for the last four weeks.
Nevertheless, those of you who have been following my reactions to the individual books on this year’s shortlist might have noticed that, although I had issues with each book, in general I found the list to be more worthy – both on the level of quality and on the level of technical diversity – than those of the last couple of years.
Going into last night’s gala, the clear favourite to take the prize had to be Anne Michaels, followed closely by Annabel Lyon. Of course, trying to outguess prize juries is a mug’s game (although sometimes a few people do guess right), but this year’s Giller field proved particularly tricky, since there was no clear stand-out and no one book that conspicuously didn’t deserve inclusion. There were books I liked less than others (The Disappeared), and books I liked more (Fall), but on the whole, and notwithstanding my general feeling of despondency while the process was underway, I have to admit that this year’s list was a strong one.
And as if that weren’t enough, the jury – composed of Canadian Alistair MacLeod, American Russell Banks, and British Muskoka chair–lover Victoria Glendinning – decided to anoint an existential thriller about a tortured Catholic priest trying to come to terms with the guilt he feels about his complicity in covering up the wrongdoings of his fellow clergymen. The material involving the close-knit community of Creignish aside, Father MacAskill’s spiritual battle in The Bishop’s Man would not be out of place in the work of Dostoevsky or Graham Greene.
Did the best book win? Who knows. “Best” is such a subjective term that it’s pretty much meaningless in these circumstances, a reality that MacIntyre acknowledged in his acceptance speech when he said that his presence onstage was the result of “an accident of consensus.” Still, The Bishop’s Man was one of my two favourites among this year’s Giller crop (along with Fall: you are more than welcome to chastise me for gravitating toward the two books by men), and it’s a book that exists (healthily, in my opinion) on the periphery of what has come to be accepted as the traditional CanLit novel.
All of which perhaps contributes to the rather odd sensation I’ve been experiencing since the announcement of the winner last night. It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it feels suspiciously like pleasure.
The Golden Mean. Annabel Lyon; Random House Canada, $32.95 cloth, 294 pp., 978-0-307-35620-8.
Previous Giller wins/noms: None
Other awards: Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction (The Best Thing for You, nominee)
City of Vancouver Book Award (The Best Thing for You, nominee)
Danuta Gleed Award (Oxygen, nominee)
From the publisher: “Exploring a fabled time and place, Annabel Lyon tells her story, breathtakingly, in the earthy, frank, and perceptive voice of Aristotle himself. With sensual and muscular prose, she explores how Aristotle’s genius touched the boy who would conquer the known world. And she reveals how we still live with the ghosts of both men.”
From reviews: “The Golden Mean is a crisply written, painstakingly researched book, and Lyon ably inhabits ‘the greatest mind of all time’ – hardly a mean feat. This, then, is a virtuous work, though fibrous, fat-free and rarely what you’d call fun. But that is probably exactly as Aristotle would have wanted it.” – Cynthia Macdonald, The Globe and Mail
“Lyon’s singular gifts for description, character development, and plotting are on full display here, informing her unique and creative story. The novel is deep and rich in thought and accomplishment, yet it reads with the calming ease and influence of a cool summer breeze.” – Edward Carson, Quill & Quire (starred review)
“The Golden Mean is certainly an audacious attempt to create a flesh and blood Aristotle, with intimate glances into his psyche. Again, Lyon takes risks with technique in pursuit of immediacy, chiefly in her use of present tense through most of the narrative. This prevalence of first-person present tense is infrequently used in fiction, and there’s a reason for it. It encourages self-consciousness on the part of the narrator, it tends to slow narrative momentum and it flattens out a multi-layered awareness of time. In this case it heightens the already formidable difficulty of creating believable historical characters in a world that is not our world.” – Philip Marchand, National Post
My reaction: When one conceives of the philosopher Aristotle, one is likely to imagine a noble, white-bearded man standing at the head of an auditorium and pronouncing carefully on matters erudite and weighty. One is not likely to imagine a man suffering from a cold and “constantly blowing great green skeins of snot from [his] nose.” Nor is one likely to picture the venerable man of ideas doing something as primal as performing cunnilingus on his wife:
I put my tongue just there, on the pomegranate seed, and the tendons in her groin go taut as bowstrings. Pity and fear, purgation, relief. My tongue, working. A substance like the white of an egg.
The Aristotle of The Golden Mean is earthy and vulgar, swearing up a storm and content to describe the way in which he engages in all manner of human excretion and evacuation – spitting, pissing, shitting. He is also unrepentantly sexist – he believes that “[t]he hierarchy of the state mimics that of the household, where men lead and women and slaves obey, as nature has fitted them to do.” He is startled when his mistress claims to have had an orgasm: “My father had taught me what she claimed to experience was not physically possible.” (He performs cunnilingus on his wife not to give her pleasure, but to investigate her secretions.)
In other words, Lyon goes out of her way to humanize Aristotle, to bring him down to size. So, too, Alexander (who will become Alexander the Great), the philosopher’s charge, who as a young man is almost equal parts bravado and insecurity. Lyon also intimates that each of her characters suffers from mental afflictions that have only recently been given names: bipolar disorder in the philosopher’s case, post-traumatic stress disorder in the soldier’s.
But this insistence on her characters’ earthiness does not prevent the kind of lyrical turn of phrase that is typical of many historical novels: “The first snow of the season comes whispering late one grey afternoon …” Nor does it save us from passages that devolve into didactic disquisitions on the history of the period:
The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren’t. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?
The Golden Mean is a difficult book to like. Lyon’s technique – narrating the story in the first person and using predominantly the present tense – is solid, though for a writer who has been almost universally praised as an exceptional craftsperson, the repeated appearances of misplaced modifiers (“Pythias stood in the doorway with me in her new dress”; “[Callisthenes will] serve Alexander on his expeditions as official historian”) are distracting at best.
No doubt the novel contains memorable scenes: the young Alexander severing the head from a corpse to use as a prop in a play because he feels it will heighten verisimilitude, or an extended sequence involving Aristotle’s experience as a battlefield medic, the apotheosis of which is a gruesome set-piece in which the philosopher’s quest for empirical knowledge and the soldier’s bloodlust find common ground. But despite Aristotle’s moods, which he tells us “[whiplash] from one condition to the next, from black melancholy to golden joy,” corresponding passion on the narrative level is only intermittent. Aristotle preaches the virtues of the golden mean, the middle ground between two opposing extremes. Lyon’s novel wants to traffic in extremes of emotion and action; more often it seems to occupy a kind of “muddy middle range,” to quote one recent critic of CanLit.
It’s award season in book world. Short lists for the Triple Crown of Canadian literature – the Governor-General, the Giller and the Roger’s Writer’s Trust – have all been announced and the jury selections pored over like tea leaves in a mug. Ah, the comforting brew of Canadian literary culture. High in antioxidants, low in caffeine.
Like everyone else, I have followed the coverage and pondered the obvious: When exactly did Douglas Coupland find time to write another novel? Who does Annabel Lyon’s hair? Is Margaret Atwood pissed?
One thing I have not wondered, however, is which of the anointed books to add to my shelf, worthy efforts though I’m sure they are. You read that right: This fall, I won’t be reading any of the books that are nominated for Canadian literary prizes. And I don’t feel guilty about it either.
In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.
So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?
I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.
It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.
Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.
The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.
What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.