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.