Trillium shortlist emphasizes books by women

June 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The shortlist for the 23rd annual Trillium Book Award has been announced, and fully six of the seven nominated titles are by women. This is in stark contrast to the Charles Taylor Prize earlier this year, which featured four middle-aged white dudes as nominees. (One of those white dudes, Ian Brown, who went on to win the Charles Taylor Prize, is the lone male on the Trillium list.) The nominated books tilt toward established houses, and with the exception of Alexandra Legatt and TSR fave Emily Schultz, all the shortlisted authors are established names.

The shortlist is as follows:

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart)
Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon (Random House Canada)
Alexandra Leggat, Animal (Anvil Press)
Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (McClelland & Stewart)
Emily Schultz, Heaven is Small (House of Anansi Press)
Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)

Only two small presses – Anvil and Coach House – are represented; where the big guns are concerned, M&S is the clear winner with three nominations out of seven.

The full lists of nominees, including French language and poetry nominees, is online here.

The prize, which is administered by the Ontario Media Development Corporation and is open to Ontario residents, carries with it a none-too-shabby purse of $20,000. A public reading by shortlisted authors will take place on June 23 at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, and the winners will be announced on June 24.

Esprit de l’escalier, the Steven Heighton edition

November 26, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

Earlier this year, I published an essay in Canadian Notes and Queries with the somewhat adversarial title “Fuck Books.” In it, I expended about 3,000 words gassing on about the prevalence of a certain kind of pseudo-poetic, lyrical fiction that seems to dominate the literary discourse in this country. Two writers in particular – Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje – took it on the chin in that piece. (Of course, that essay was written before I read The Winter Vault, Michaels’ follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Fugitive Pieces; although my feelings about the latter novel remain unchanged, regular readers of this site may recall my surprise at how much I liked The Winter Vault.)

In the wake of the CNQ essay’s appearance, critics (myself and others) pointed out that not all poetic fiction is created equal. This is something that came to mind last night as I was dipping into the poet Robyn Sarah’s essay collection Little Eurekas. I came across a dialogue that Sarah had with Steven Heighton in the pages of another journal, The New Quarterly. The subject of the “paired talks” was “The Poet’s Hand in the Short Story,” and had I read it prior to writing my own essay, I might have reconsidered, since Heighton says almost everything I wanted to say, but in a much more concise and cogent manner:

To put things another way: while a literary novelist strives to get every sentence right, and a short story writer struggles with every word, a poet is actually attentive at the level of the syllable – attentive to every syllable’s length, stress, latent or overt music, onomatopoeic potential and so on. Over the course of a text, the meanings developed and/or stories conveyed are not separable from this interplay of syllables any more than the externals of a galaxy are independent of the microscopic dance of its atoms. Which is simply to say that poets strive to build texts from the micro-level upwards.

When it works, this molecular construction, this radical aptness of diction, leads to writing that feels layered, textured, mysterious, complex, and symphonic; where it fails, the results feel fussy, showy, effortful, pretentious, or, worst of all, static – a bevy of pretty phrases standing around preening and admiring themselves.

One way for the poet-writing-fiction to avoid this kind of vain stasis is to spin a compelling story – as does Cormac McCarthy – because poetic writing that leads narratively nowhere feels (at least to me) self-indulgent and idle, while similar writing that relates, or embodies, a good story simply adds to the text’s resonance and force. So lucky readers of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth get to savour both a compelling yarn and a bravura verbal performance.

The idea of a “compelling yarn” married to “a bravura verbal performance” is what John Barth was referring to in talking about the desirable combination of algebra and fire in fiction:

Let “algebra” stand for formal ingenuity and “fire” for what touches our emotions. … Formal virtuosity itself can of course be breathtaking, but much algebra and little or no fire makes for mere gee-whizzery, like Queneau’s Exercises in Style and A Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets. Much fire and little or no algebra, on the other hand, makes for heartfelt muddles – no examples needed. What most of us want from literature most of the time is what has been called passionate virtuosity …

Perhaps the fact that passionate virtuosity, the satisfying combination of a “radical aptness of diction” and a compelling story, is so rare is actually a blessing, for it makes the experience of encountering them that much more potent.

Linden MacIntyre is Giller’s 2009 choice

November 11, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

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.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 4

November 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The Winter Vault. Anne Michaels; McClelland & Stewart, $32.99 cloth, 342 pp., 978-0-7710-5890-5.

michaels4Previous Giller wins/noms: Fugitive Pieces (nominee)

Other awards (selected): Orange Prize for fiction (Fugitive Pieces)

Trillium Book Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Guardian Fiction Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Commonwealth Prize for the Americas (The Weight of Oranges)

Canadian Authors Association Award (Miner’s Pond)

Governor General’s Award (Miner’s Pond, nominee)

From the publisher: “Weaving together historical moments and the quiet intimacy of human lives, The Winter Vault tells of the ways in which we salvage what we can from the violence of life. It is the story of a husband and wife trying to find their way back to each other, of people and nations displaced and uprooted, of the myriad means by which we all seek out a place we can call home. Vivid in its descriptions of both the physical and emotional worlds of its characters, this breathtaking, deeply moving novel reveals the inescapability of memories, the devastation of loss, and the restorative powers of love.”

From reviews: “The characters in The Winter Vault live in a world of intense emotion and ethical grappling, ‘an engagement of mind … almost shattering in its pleasure.’ Freed from the shackles of groceries and telephone bills, their essences appear distilled or concentrated on the page. Luckily this paring down, under Michaels’ sure hand, makes them not less human but more so.” – Alison Pick, The Walrus

“Michaels produces passages of lyrical beauty, and eloquently expresses her horror at human violence inflicted on the land and its inhabitants. Yet the novel’s emotional impact remains subdued, in part because Michaels at times allows her lessons – of botany, history, architecture – to overwhelm her story; and in part because of the abrupt narrative shift halfway through.” – Sylvia Brownrigg, the Guardian

“After that first meeting of our lovers, what ensues are a series of conversations between Jean and Avery in which they reveal their respective pasts to one another. It is these conversations – forming a series of highly plumed lyrical monologues – that make The Winter Vault work more like an epic poem than a novel. Think of the Arabian Nights, or the Odyssey, where characters incessantly tell stories about themselves and others; these are texts that carry whole cultures within themselves, and Michaels achieves something similar here.” – Steven Hayward, The Globe and Mail

“A friend of mine once described Don DeLillo’s Underworld as a book in which every sentence seems burdened by the weight of its own genius, and the same critique applies here: this novel is too systematic, too perfectly self-contained, too precious. Too often its characters sound like voices in a wispy philosophical dialogue, or a fragment of Kahlil Gibran … But beware: the reader who bites blissfully through these layers of frosting, expecting to find a soft, spongy filling, is going to wind up with a mouthful of shrapnel, sand and broken glass. By the end of The Winter Vault – hallelujah! – Anne Michaels has pulled off the ultimate trick of making us forget we’ve ever read a book like this before.” – Jess Row, The New York Times

My reaction: In 1964, husband and wife Avery and Jean Escher participate in the relocation of the sacred temple at Abu Simbel, which is being displaced by the building of the Aswan Dam. Jean gets pregnant, but her baby is stillborn. Returning to Toronto, the grief-stricken Jean (now separated from Avery) takes up with Lucjan, a Polish emigré artist scarred by the collective history of Warsaw’s experience during the war.

On one level, trying to describe the story in The Winter Vault is futile, because there really isn’t one. Instead of a traditionally novelistic narrative, Michaels has created a rumination, a meditation on violence and displacement, loss and memory, art and war. Whatever emotional weight accrues to the novel results not from a careful depiction of characters in action but from the way in which Michaels’ melancholic sensibility transforms the events of history into an extended metaphor for humanity’s connection to place and some abstract notion of home:

If you move his body then you’ll have to move the hill. You’ll have to move the fields around him. You’ll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children. You’ll have to move the sun because it sets among those trees. And move his mother and his father and his younger sister – she was the most admired girl in the country, but all the men died in the first war, so she never married and was laid to rest next to her mother. They’re all company for one another and those graves are old, so you’ll have to move the earth with them to make sure nothing of anyone is left behind. Can you promise me that?

It is to Michaels’ credit that much of this is done without recourse to the kind of baroque frippery that was so evident throughout Fugitive Pieces. True, Michaels can’t resist the occasional retreat into the self-consciously poetic (“He thought that only love teaches a man his death, that it is in the solitude of love that we learn to drown”), but for the most part, The Winter Vault is remarkably restrained.

There’s little point in complaining about the lack of an engaging story or conventionally defined characters. These things don’t interest Michaels. But even the most unsympathetic reader can’t help being impressed by the author’s deftness at handling the novel’s complicated chronology, nor can such a reader be blind to the chimes and resonances that play off one another in the narrative. Critics have argued with some validity that the second half of the novel does not possess the same force as the first; nevertheless, the contrast between the descriptions of the relocation of Abu Simbel and the reconstruction of Warsaw is illuminating, and carries with it an undeniable ironic power.

Heavily researched and lyrically rendered, The Winter Vault suffers from a surfeit of intellectualism at the expense of immediacy and vigour. The bone white and faded grey of the book’s carefully composed cover image are a perfect visual representation of its melancholic contents. “Some places are drenched in sorrow,” one of the characters says. Likewise, some novels.

Echlin, Lyon, and McAdam are in, Atwood is out

October 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s not the year of the flood after all. With Alice Munro’s book, Too Much Happiness, out of the running for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, all eyes were on Margaret Atwood and her dystopian “simultaneoual” to her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. But in the event, Atwood’s novel, The Year of the Flood, didn’t make the Giller shortlist. This year’s five, devoted exclusively to books from large publishing houses, are:

  • The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
  • The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
  • Fall by Colin McAdam
  • The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

The dedicated Giller-watcher will note that of the two men who made the longlist, both are included in the shortlist. The shortlist also represents only 2.5 publishing houses: Hamish Hamilton Canada, in its first year as an imprint of Penguin Canada, has two books, Random House Canada has two, and McClelland & Stewart (which is 25% owned by Random House) has one.

On points, this year’s list looks more interesting than those of the last couple of years, and, as usual, yr. humble correspondent will read (or, in the case of Echlin, reread) the five books and report back in advance of the Giller Prize announcement on November 10. Stay tuned: weeping and gnashing of teeth are sure to follow.

Giller longlist defies expectations

September 21, 2009 by · 5 Comments 

It didn’t take long for the grousing to begin. The Scotiabank Giller longlist had barely been announced before critics started crying foul. Where are the men? asks The Globe and Mail. (Same place the women were last year.) Where are the non-European writers, tweets The Walrus. (Was there a major novel by a Canadian writer of non-European descent published this year?) Indeed, last year, out of 15 longlisted authors, only three (Emma Donoghue, Marina Endicott, and Mary Swan) were women (Endicott and Swan went on to place in the shortlist). And seeing as Giller has in the past honoured Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji (twice), Vincent Lam, Austin Clarke, and Michael Ondaatje, the argument that there’s a white, European bias to the award seems like a non-starter (Giller is guilty of many sins, but that isn’t one of them).

There were surprises on this year’s longlist, beginning with the exclusion of Lisa Moore, whose second novel, February, was widely considered to be a strong contender to take the prize. Also absent from the longlist were Douglas Coupland (dodged a bullet there, hm, Panic?), Michael Crummey, Lori Lansens, Bonnie Burnard, John Bemrose, and Shinan Govani. (Just making sure you were paying attention.) In their place, first-time novelists Claire Holden Rothman and Jeanette Lynes nabbed spots, as did Martha Baillie, for a book published with the small Ontario press Pedlar. These could not have been considered safe bets by anyone trying to outguess this year’s jury, which is composed of author Alistair MacLeod, U.S. novelist Russell Banks, and U.K. author and journalist Victoria Glendinning.

Atwood and Michaels are, of course, represented. It’s likely Munro would have been too had she not taken her collection, Too Much Happiness, out of the running. But a number of the names on this year’s longlist are by no means intuitive. The dirty dozen, in full:

  • Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Martha Baillie, The Incident Report (Pedlar Press)
  • Kim Echlin, The Disappeared (Penguin Canada)
  • Claire Holden Rothman, The Heart Specialist (Cormorant Books)
  • Paulette Jiles, The Colour of Lightning (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Jeanette Lynes, The Factory Voice (Coteau Books)
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (Random House Canada)
  • Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada)
  • Colin McAdam, Fall (Penguin Canada)
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Shani Mootoo, Valmiki’s Daughter (House of Anansi Press)
  • Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing (McArthur & Company)

What is distressing, notwithstanding the jury’s assertion that the books “vary stylistically and structurally and connect with and extend a range of novelistic traditions,” is the preponderance of stories told in the same, blandly naturalistic style of most Giller-bait fiction. Really, the only stylistically adventurous title in the bunch is The Incident Report. Even Atwood’s futuristic dystopia employs the same flashback style that she’s been using at least since Cat’s Eye, if not well before. And if we had to have a novel about a freed slave on the list, I’d much rather it was Ray Robertson’s lively David than Jiles’s The Colour of Lightning.

Still, an interesting list. I’ll be watching for the shortlist, when it’s unveiled on October 6.

Brilliant satire from Anne Michaels

July 21, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

In the Atlantic‘s summer fiction issue, Anne Michaels has an inspired satirical piece about the globalization of writing and reading. It’s the kind of raucous, howling broadside that Jonathan Swift used to produce, and it’s one of the most hilariously subversive analyses of CanLit in years.

A few examples:

  • [T]oday we are entangled as never before – by the global consequences of our actions, small and large. A dolphin in captivity is taught to please a human audience and then, once released, teaches these skills to wild dolphins an ocean away.
  • We are marinated in our childhoods, in the places of our earliest memories. Even when a writer decides never to write overtly about his childhood – perhaps the food of that childhood is too hot and burns the tongue, or is too cold to be eaten with pleasure – nevertheless, for a writer, it is a metaphorical meal that must be eaten, if only in private.
  • Despite the ease with which we cross borders and enter the experiences of others, some truths will not change: love finds us wherever we are, a child is born in only one place, the ground where we bury our dead becomes sacred to us.
  • And where does a writer metaphorically wish to be laid to rest? In a book, in a reader.

Where does a writer metaphorically wish to be laid to rest? In a reader. Great stuff. Really, really funny. This brand of blistering satire is woefully rare in the pantheon of Canadian literature. Too often our writers present themselves as relentlessly sombre and sober, refusing even the merest hint of witticism for fear that they will be labeled frivolous. We desperately need more writers courageous enough to follow Michaels’ example and give themselves over bodily to the sort of rollicking, hysterical …

… Sorry, what? …

She’s serious?

Oh, my.

CNQ launches new website

June 22, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

CNQ76coverSMALLThe new issue of Canadian Notes and Queries is out, complete with a brand-spanking-new website. Yr. humble correspondent has a couple of pieces represented on the new site, both of which find me in a characteristically cranky mood.

The first, from issue #75, is a roundup of the 2008 Scotiabank Giller shortlist, including commentary on the winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce. Essentially, the piece argues that, notwithstanding the vaunted newness of the five nominated authors, by awarding Boyden’s novel the big prize, last year’s jury in fact behaved exactly the way the vast majority of Giller juries before them did:

Set largely in the north, Through Black Spruce focuses on a fractured family riven by alcohol and drug abuse. From its opening lines, the novel offers sentences burnished with simile and metaphor:

When there was no Pepsi left for my rye whisky, nieces, there was always ginger ale. No ginger ale? Then I had river water. River water’s light like something between those two. And brown Moose River water’s cold. Cold like living between two colours. Like living in this town.

The narrator here is Will Bird, a comatose Cree bush pilot confined to a hospital bed in Moose Factory. From his coma, he narrates his story to his two nieces, Annie and Suzanne. Will’s narration is cast in the mode of rugged naturalism, but the naturalism is constantly larded with images that, although presumably meant to be evocative, actually come off feeling artificial and unconvincing. Living “between two colours” is only one example. In the frozen north loneliness “grew like moss,” memories “can’t be burnt or drowned,” and winter “settl[es]” on the land, “laying herself out over the forest and the muskeg and the water.” In a similar fashion, Will recalls his youth: “I believed that the northern lights, the electricity I felt on my skin under my parka, the faint crackle of it in my ears, was Gitchi Manitou collecting the vibrations of lives spent, refuelling the world with these animals’ power.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with using metaphoric language to develop character or heighten narrative; what is troublesome is the notion that this approach is somehow new or groundbreaking in the context of Canadian fiction. In its citation, the Giller jury – made up of novelists Margaret Atwood and Colm Toibin and Liberal MP Bob Rae – stated that in Through Black Spruce “Joseph Boyden shows us unforgettable characters and a northern landscape in a way we have never seen them before.” That we have seen such characters before – and in just such a northern landscape – will be obvious to anyone possessed of even a passing familiarity with Canadian fiction. Notably, the frigid loneliness of the north provided the setting for last year’s Giller champ, Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air. Beyond that, Through Black Spruce would fit comfortably on the shelf with such accepted CanLit mainstays as The Temptations of Big Bear, Tay John, and Wacousta.

The second piece, titled “Fuck Books,” appears in the current issue (#76), and takes up a related theme. Building on a formula that teasingly appeared in Nathan Whitlock’s debut novel, A Week of This, the essay argues that CanLit’s penchant for highly stylized, pseudopoetic writing is antithetical to creating a vibrant literature that is able to fully engage with the reading public. Two authors in particular find themselves in the crosshairs, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels:

Fugitive Pieces is emblematic of a persistent and virulent strain in CanLit: books that rely for their force and effect upon prose of heightened poeticisms and lyrical trills, language predicated upon an accretion of rococo metaphors and cascading adjectival phrases. The none-too-subtle condescension in such writing is easily identifiable by casual or occasional readers, whose impulse upon encountering it is likely to mirror the vituperative two-word epithet in this essay’s title.

Writing in The Globe and Mail recently, Michaels defended her prose style as a manifestation of her abiding respect for language, “a respect that has been forged out of the deepest despair of language, out of urgency and impotence.” Words, for Michaels, constitute “a moral question,” a “way of grasping at a truth,” and “an argument against loss.” This description of language’s function recapitulates the condescending tone that runs through her fiction, but it also illustrates what I take to be a fundamental misapprehension: there is no writer I’m aware of who would argue that language is unimportant, but instead of using language as a means to communicate emotional truth, Michaels brandishes it like a cudgel, the better to bludgeon her readers into submission.

There’s also material from last year’s notorious Salon des Refusés (which, incidentally, includes my review of this year’s Trillium Book Award-winner, Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method), book reviews by Michael Carbert, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Kerry Clare, among others, a feature on small presses by Andrew Steeves, and on the future of the book by Jack Illingworth. Check out the site, then go subscribe to the mag.