“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”
The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”
The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.
Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”
At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”
The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”
Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”
Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”
Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”
Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”
Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”
He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”
“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.
“Books are here to stay.”
Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.
It’s a bit daunting to think that this marks the fifth year I’ve launched into a month of short-story posts. The first, in 2008, was held in August, to coincide with the Canadian Notes & Queries/The New Quarterly Salon des Refusés of writers excluded from The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories.
The idea was straightforward: each day of the month, I would select and write about one short story. By month’s end, I would cover as close to thirty-one stories as possible. (One story per day is always the goal, but it’s also important to be realistic about time pressures, other commitments, etc.) In the initial conception, I wanted to focus on the breadth of short fiction since the turn of the 20th century; subsequent iterations of this project have reached back even further, and have covered stories from Canada, the United States, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Japan, Israel, and elsewhere.
If the idea was straightforward, it became clear quite quickly that the execution would be anything but. Selecting stories, reading (or rereading) them, and trying to come up with something somewhat cogent and (hopefully) engaging to say about them on a tight timeframe proved challenging, but people seemed to enjoy the results of this process. (Indeed, the annual 31 Days of Stories is one of the most trafficked sections of TSR.)
So, once again charging in where angels fear to tread, I’m going to pledge to post on one story per day during May 2012. (The story month moved from August to May in 2010 as a means of piggybacking on Dan Wickett’s annual online celebration.)
Inevitably, there will be some overlap in authors, because it’s my damn site, and I’m the one doing the choosing. Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and James Joyce, all 31 Days of Stories alumni, will no doubt be making repeat appearances over the coming weeks. (I’ve often thought I could devote the middle two weeks of this annual endeavour to each of the fifteen stories in Dubliners to obviate the need to choose from among them: they’re all that good.) But, we’ll try to mix it up a bit, to include a healthy serving of stories in translation, and hopefully to spotlight some surprising or overlooked stories that deserve a wider audience.
Things kick off tomorrow, and continue throughout the month. Join me?
(The Short Story Month banner is by designer Steven Seighman.)
A Rage in Harlem. Chester Himes; $12.00 paper 978-0-141-19644-2, 214 pp., Penguin Books
It’s inexplicable why Chester Himes is not better known or more widely read today. The author’s ten hard-boiled crime novels featuring the detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones have been compared to Chandler, but have been largely unavailable in recent years. Penguin Modern Classics has done an invaluable service by reissuing three of them – A Rage in Harlem, The Heat’s On, and The Real Cool Killers in widely available, modestly priced paperback editions.
The first novel in the series, A Rage in Harlem (1957), was originally called For Love of Imabelle, but the alternate title stuck because, as Luc Sante points out in his excellent introduction, “it combined two nouns guaranteed to act as flint and steel in the mind of the average 1950s American drugstore paperback browser.” This attitude itself attests to the kind of pervasive and systemic racism that Himes spent most of his writing life protesting. Indeed, the author commented that “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.”
Himes’s version of Harlem is a seething, roiling place where passions – both violent and sexual – can erupt in a heartbeat, or the flick of a switchblade. In at least one instance in his novel, extremes of sex and violence are explicitly conjoined: a con man who has his throat slashed is described “jerking and twisting … in death convulsions as though having a frantic sex culmination with an unseen mate.”
Elsewhere, Harlem is depicted in terms that combine a brand of kitchen-sink realism with a dash of Daliesque surrealism:
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
It is by no means accidental that Himes insists on situating Harlem in a valley below the Hudson, or imagining the “city of black people … convulsed in desperate living” as existing underwater. It was white America that lived in a mansion on a hill; black Americans were jammed together in decrepit tenement dwellings where they eked out meagre existences, feeding on one another like “millions of hungry cannibal fish.”
Tim Lawlor points out that the train whistle cutting through the Harlem air in the novel offers a potent symbol of white capitalism that is similarly degraded and debased among the desperate denizens of the neighbourhood. “The fact that the train ‘thunders past overhead’ emphasises the futility of the situation: the black community are unable to stop something so established and powerful that relentlessly circles their city and traps them within.” Trapped inside the suffocating confines of their cannibalistic community, the men and women of Harlem have no choice but to turn to crime, which cannot end happily for them. It is also not an accident that Jackson, Himes’s hapless protagonist, works at a funeral parlour and spends much of the latter part of the novel trying to make off with a cache of what he believes to be gold secreted in the back of a hearse. The explicit images of death testify to the futility Lawlor identifies, a futility many of Himes’s characters fall victim to.
The rage – or righteous fury – that Himes felt about the institutional racism in America infuses his Harlem crime novels, but does so in a less overt or didactic way than in his earlier, non-genre novels, such as his well-regarded debut, If He Hollers Let Him Go. Much of this is due to the way in which A Rage in Harlem and its successors came to be written.
Himes was born into a middle-class family from Missouri, moved to Arkansas when he was twelve, then to Ohio. He was expelled from university for a prank and later arrested on an armed robbery charge, a conviction that came with a sentence of twenty to twenty-five years. He began writing in prison and published articles in various magazines, including Esquire. He was paroled after seven years and published his first novel in 1940, following which he spent a brief time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, an experience that solidified his hatred for American society. In the book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis writes that “Himes encountered an implacable wall of racism in Hollywood. As his biographer describes the incident, ‘he was promptly fired from … Warner Brothers when Jack Warner heard about him and said, “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”‘”
Following in the footsteps of black American writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes emigrated to Paris in 1953; he would never return to live in the United States. In France, he encountered Marcel Duhamel, the editor in charge of Gallimard’s series of crime novels, La Série Noir. Duhamel convinced Himes to write for the series and, in so doing, helped Himes find his mature voice, which was of necessity stripped of pretense and hauteur. As Sante writes:
Himes had been a difficult writer – difficult in his bitterness, alienation, obsessiveness, and self-consciousness, as well as formally difficult at time[s]. Now, however, the narrative conventions of the genre (“Make pictures,” Duhamel told him. “We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing”) forced Himes to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humour, to transfer his focus from himself to the diverse and particular inhabitants of an entire teeming world, to trade his defensiveness for a gleeful assault on all fronts, and to treat social issues with an apparent insouciance that would penetrate the defences of his readers. Popular fiction, popularly considered narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.
Sante’s reference to humour is significant, since in addition to its other merits, A Rage in Harlem is a very funny book. (As Flannery O’Connor once said of her first novel, “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”) Much of the novel’s humour is centred around Jackson’s twin brother Goldy, who dresses as a nun and sells the religiously motivated citizens of Harlem passes into heaven: “No one who noticed thought it strange for a Sister of Mercy to kick a cur dog in the ribs, enter a dope den, and quote enigmatic Scripture to reefer-smoking delinquents.” In other cases, the humour is situational, as when Jackson tries to escape the police by commandeering a horse-drawn carriage:
Jackson lashed the nag’s rump, trying to get away. The junkman ran after him in a shuffling gait. Both horse and man moved so slowly it seemed to Jackson as though the whole world had slowed down to a crawl.
“Hey, he stealin’ my wagon.”
A cop looked around at Jackson.
“Are you stealing this man’s wagon?”
“Nawsuh, dat’s mah pa. He can’t see well.”
The junkman clutched the cop’s sleeve.
“Ah ain’t you pa and Ah sees enough to see that you is stealing my wagon.”
“Pa, you drunk,” Jackson said.
The novel’s humour bleeds from satire into absurdist farce, and frequently gives way to sudden violence in a manner that prefigures the films of Quentin Tarantino by more than thirty years. Himes also anticipates Tarantino’s affinity for colourful lowlifes and corrupt lawmen. But he does so within a milieu that, exaggerated and fictionalized though it may be, cuts an incisive line through the social and economic conditions that kept black Americans down in the pre-Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
The novel’s plot, concerning a trio of criminals who cheat the naive Jackson out of all his money, and Jackson’s increasingly desperate attempts to redeem himself, is almost beside the point. What is most important is the social canvas that serves as Himes’s backdrop, and the vibrant eccentrics who people his story. Ignore Bill Duke’s watered-down 1991 film version and seek out the Modern Classics edition of this potent novel. You won’t be disappointed.
The Toronto Public Library is smack in the middle of Keep Toronto Reading 2011, a month-long series of readings, events, and activities aimed at celebrating books across the city. In conjunction with the TPL festival, Jen Knoch of the Keepin’ It Real Book Club has been hosting a series of videos featuring bookish types recommending titles that have had transformative effects on their lives. I was invited to participate, and contributed a short video about one of the few books that I reread regularly: Flannery O’Connor’s corrosive and iconoclastic first novel, Wise Blood.
This past weekend, Howard Jacobson published an article in the Guardian bemoaning the lack of attention comic novels receive among literary critics and readers of “serious” literature:
The novel was born of restless critical intelligence, and it was born laughing. “It pleases me to think,” said Milan Kundera, in the course of accepting the Jerusalem prize for literature in 1985, “that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter.” If this is so, then talk of the comic novel is tautologous. If we are to be true to the form there will be only “novels” and they will be effusive with wit and humour; thereafter, to help the bookshops categorise, we can allow all the sub-species they have shelf-space for – the novel of distended plot and fatuous denouement, the novel of who cares who dunnit, the novel of what Orwell in his great defence of Henry Miller called “flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects,” the novel, to sum up, of anorexic mirthlessness. But let’s not forget that those are the anomalies.
As if to lend credence to Jacobson’s analysis, the Man Booker Prize jury, chaired by poet Andrew Motion, awarded The Finkler Question this year’s £50,000 honour, trumping the heavily favoured C by Tom McCarthy, and such heavy hitters as Room by Emma Donoghue and Parrot and Olivier in America by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey.
The Finkler Question is being touted as the first comic novel to win the award, which is not entirely true: DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is technically a satire, but it could be argued that the 2003 Booker winner is a comic novel (the distinction between satire and comedy is razor thin). Still, it’s nice to see a book that is not utterly morose and sombre walk away with a major literary award.
Of course, the second-guessing has already begun. On the Guardian‘s blog, Sarah Crown writes:
I – like quite a few others, if the comments on the books blogs are anything to go by – preferred [Jacobson's] 2006 novel Kalooki Nights; it’s difficult to shake the faint sense that tonight’s prize is somewhat in the nature of a lifetime achievement award.
Nevertheless, Jacobson’s win is a validation of Flannery O’Connor’s assertion in the introduction to the second edition of her debut novel, Wise Blood: “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”
It would appear that this year’s Man Booker Prize jury agrees.
Even as a child, I was distrustful of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of novels, which allowed young readers to decide the outcome of the stories by selecting one of a group of preset options. (If you want the hero to jump off the cliff, go to page 98. If you want the hero to bite the head off the bat, go to page 66.) From the time I started reading fiction, I understood intuitively that one of the reasons I gleaned so much enjoyment from the practice had to do with relinquishing control: for the duration of my reading experience, I put my own desires and predilections aside and allowed the author to take me on a journey. Perhaps the journey would not lead to the expected destination, and perhaps I’d be disappointed with where I ended up, but this too was part of the magic. In a very few cases, the author would see to it that by taking me somewhere I didn’t expect – or possibly even want – to go, my own narrow horizons were expanded, even just a little.
Times have changed since I read those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. Society has become more narcissistic, more demanding of instant gratification, more needy. People insist that their own needs and desires be met, and on their own terms, in virtually all transactions – social, professional, even artistic. The rise of the focus group has ensured that the mainstream movies coming out of Hollywood in the past three decades have cleaved to a boring middle ground, and the rise of first-person video games has solidified the idea that the viewer should be at the centre of the story and should be able to actively participate in determining the story’s outcome.
Channelling this über-individualistic strain of the zeitgeist, The Walrus magazine is launching a Choose Your Own Adventure–type novel in its November issue. Written by Stephen Marche, the novel, Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period, will appear a section at a time, and readers will be allowed to determine the trajectory of the story by clicking their preference online.
The first part of the novel is online at The Walrus website. The rubric around the project reads as follows:
Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period is an interactive novel with hundreds of possible storylines and multiple outcomes. It uses a Web format to capture the reality of a young woman in Toronto in the early 2000s, allowing the reader to explore different aspects of Lucy’s life and times and the city in which she lives, while following her through the labyrinth of her various futures. Lucy’s fate, like our own, is up in the air, open to negotiation and sudden change.
The reader is then invited to read the story’s opening paragraphs, which find a woman and man in bed together, naked, apparently having just had sex. The writing here is supple and erotically charged, reminiscent of Marche’s debut novel, Raymond and Hannah. Much time is spent describing the man’s penis, which is first presented “sapping ultra-fine strands of liquid crystal onto a patch of coarse hair at his thigh” and is then compared to a “retreating snail mocking shamefacedly with its white lash of tongue.” Observing this, the woman’s “obscene mind” recalls her dead father, a startling and unexpected juxtaposition. We are then informed that the woman’s period is late.
The extract ends with the reader being directed to make the following decision: “Back down into the deepest sleep ever” or “Rise to greet the glorious new day.” Depending upon which choice the reader makes, a different passage, dramatizing a different set of circumstances, follows.
A press release sent out yesterday quotes Marche as saying: “This novel began with a simple idea, that in novels the future is predetermined, but the future in real life isn’t. I wanted a way of capturing how life splits apart and how people have many possibilities inside them.” This is an intriguing premise from an author who has dedicated his writing career to expanding the scope and the form of the conventional novel. However, the interactive aspect of the novel still puts too much control in the hands of the reader, who gets to determine the fates of the characters. Granted, this is done on a limited scale: Marche is still in control of the writing, and the reader’s decisions can only direct them toward one story strand or another. Still, the reader’s decisions will be based on his or her own preferences about storytelling and narrative; these preferences may yet be subverted, but there is nonetheless a relinquishing of control on the part of the author and a handing over of power to the reader. Don’t like where one story stream takes you? Never mind: you can always backtrack and make a different choice until you find one more to your liking.
Flannery O’Connor, who knew something about how fiction works, once said that the writer is only really free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. O’Connor knew that not every reader would like the way a novel or a story unfolded; she also knew that that was none of her concern as a writer. Fiction is already interactive: the interactivity comes from a reader actively engaging with a text. Anyone who has ever reread a novel after several years have elapsed since her first encounter with it will be familiar with the experience of feeling that the novel has changed somehow, even though the words on the pages are exactly the same. It is not the novel that has changed, of course, it is the reader. This, too, is one of the things fiction can do for us. It can illuminate our own maturation, our own evolving responses to the world, and to an individual text.
Marche’s experiment is an interesting one, and perhaps the evolution of the novel online will open my own eyes to the new possibilities of a Web-based interactive form of fiction. At this point, however, I’m still fairly convinced that Flannery O’Connor was right.
Fauna. Alissa York; $29.95 cloth 978-0-307-35789-2, 376 pp., Random House Canada.
Predation is a recurring theme in the fiction of Alissa York. Her debut novel, 2002′s Mercy, opens with a cow being slaughtered, and contains scenes involving an owl attack in a bog and a pack of feral dogs. Her follow-up, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted 2007 novel Effigy, has at its centre a woman named Dorrie, the fourth wife of the vicious Mormon horse breeder Erasmus Hammer, who dreams she is a crow, circling over scenes of violence and horror:
Being crow, I should make my way back to the killing field. I might have to haunt the margins for a time if the humans are still at work. On my last circuit I winged all the way back to the circled wagons. Between here and there, the dog man’s pack hunkered over the dead. They were stripping the bodies, revealing even the blue-white underskins of their feet. One yanked a glitter-string from a female’s wrist. One plucked shimmer-discs from an overskin he’d peeled away. The crow eye sparked and buzzed.
The impressionistic scene being described is that of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an 1857 slaughter of a wagon train by a group of Utah Mormons and Paiute natives. Witnessing the grisly tableau from her crow’s-eye view, Dorrie imagines the relationship between the natural predation of the wild and the more vicious human kind:
See how the humans cache their kill, how they bow and scrape, swinging their heavy tools. Soon shallow patches have been scratched, and the dragging of bodies begins. Like weasels hoarding mice, they pile dead upon dead, dusting them with not enough earth to dissuade a fox kit. Some do even less, dumping corpses in gullies and concealing them with clumps of grass.
In her waking hours, Dorrie is much prized by her husband for her skill as a taxidermist; she takes the animals that Erasmus kills for sport and returns them to a lifelike state. At the novel’s opening, Erasmus brings Dorrie the bodies of a family of wolves he has killed. As the book progresses, a recurring leitmotif is the presence of a lone wolf scouring the Hammer homestead, trying to locate his lost pack.
The uneasy relationship between wildlife and the humans who prey on it reasserts itself in York’s latest novel, Fauna. The setting has shifted from 19th-century Utah to present-day Toronto, and in place of Erasmus there is Darius, a troubled young man who, calling himself “Coyote Cop,” blogs about what he perceives to be the scourge of the city’s coyote population. His blog posts, which become ever more violent and provocative, attract the attention of Stephen, an ex-soldier who suffered a heart virus while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Stephen’s medical condition cut short his military service; he now spends his days working at Howell Auto Wreckers, a wrecking yard in the Don Valley ravine that does double duty as an ad hoc animal sanctuary.
The sanctuary serves as the gathering point for the book’s cast of human misfits: in addition to Stephen and Guy, who owns the property, there is Edal, a federal wildlife officer currently on stress leave; Lily, a homeless girl who prowls the city at night rescuing birds that have flown into the lighted buildings of the downtown core; and Kate, a worker at the Annex Canine Rehabilitation Centre.
Each of the characters bears a wound or an absence of some sort. Some wounds, like Stephen’s defective heart, are physical; others are emotional; still others, a combination of the two. Lily cuts herself to mark the days she’s been on the streets: “Tonight being her fifty-seventh night of freedom, she’s partway into a group of five. The fifth cuts are the tricky ones, slashing down across the previous four. They require a deeper breath, an extra-steady hand.” Kate is trying to recover from the death of her lover, Lou-Lou, from “a massive brain aneurysm.” Since Lou-Lou’s death, Kate, who had never been able to confess the true nature of her relationship to her conservative parents, “had entered an underwater world,” where she “was walking, sitting, lying on the ocean floor.” Kate and Lily find solace with each other, impelled by their mutual love of dogs.
The character with the most shattering home life is Darius, whose troubled mother Faye dies after a fall in the bathtub, leaving him in the custody of his grandmother and his religious zealot grandfather, who insists that an extra place be set at the dinner table for the Son of God: “Every time Grandmother stood up to clear, she took Jesus’s full plate first, carrying it in both hands and tipping the untouched portion into the garbage pail. It hardly seemed fair, given that Darius had to eat every scrap he was served.” Darius’s grandfather’s spine is defective and he needs his wife to tie a board to his back in order to stand straight, something Darius witnesses one night when he gets up to go to the bathroom.
The grandfather’s peculiar affliction and his obsession with Jesus recall the Southern grotesques of Flannery O’Connor, a writer York acknowledges as an influence on her own work. But the grandfather – who keeps a spare belt on hand for the specific purpose of beating his wife and grandson – is one of the few O’Connoresque characters in Fauna; unlike York’s previous two novels, the element of Southern Gothicism is downplayed here. This is not to suggest that Fauna is by any stretch ordinary: on the contrary, with its band of forgotten misfits, its setting in the literal hidden valleys of Toronto, and sections that are narrated from the perspective of various animals (foxes, skunks, coyotes), Fauna is passing strange, and all the more bracing because of it. Although it invokes classics of animal lore – among them The Jungle Book, Watership Down, and Wild Animals I Have Known – it is startlingly original in its approach and its execution.
York’s writing, as always, is pristine, and over the course of three novels she has developed an admirable ability to juggle multiple perspectives and plotlines. However, the novel’s resolution is too neat to be entirely satisfying. The various storylines come to conclusions that are too tidy, and when the reason for Darius’s antipathy toward coyotes finally becomes apparent, the psychology involved is too simple to be entirely credible. Moreover, a number of characters – a stripper Stephen chances upon in the park one day, the restaurateur who gives Lily a job as a “dish pig” – appear in the novel fleetingly, only to vanish again without any payoff.
Still, Fauna represents a simultaneous extension of recurring themes and an intriguing departure for York. It is structurally ambitious and the author displays a tight control over her language and patterns of metaphor. The novel falters in its final stages, but that in no way diminishes the general enjoyment the story offers. York has written a truly odd book; it is a testament to her skill as a writer that it works as well as it does.
From Everything That Rises Must Converge
In his critical study, Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction, Miles Orvell suggests that it would not be improper to identify – without irony – a group of O’Connor’s writings as falling under the rubric of “charity stories”:
These might include “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Comforts of Home,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and even The Violent Bear It Away. All of these works deal in some way with a character whose sense of virtue is expressed through acts of charity – often involving a guest brought into the house: What do we do with the guest? Do we reform him? Let him be? Throw him out? Educate him? Give him gifts? These are the questions the stories seem to ask, and beneath them is the larger question – What is charity?
In “The Comforts of Home,” the interloper is a 19-year-old named Sarah Ham (note the surname), who has been incarcerated for passing bad cheques. The mother of a 35-year-old history writer named Thomas takes pity on Sarah (who refers to herself as Star Drake) and hires a lawyer who secures the girl’s parole. After the crotchety old woman who has agreed to give Sarah board kicks the girl out for drunkenness, Thomas’s mother takes her in over the objections of her son.
As with many of O’Connor’s best stories, “The Comforts of Home” employs an ironic mode; the irony here is vested in the character of Thomas, who is one in a long line of O’Connor intellectuals held up for scorn and ridicule. In this case, the irony involves Thomas’s repeated assertion that he will not abide Sarah’s presence in the house, because in his eyes she represents immorality and dissolution. “Thomas was not cynical,” we are told, “and so far from being opposed to virtue, he saw it as the principle of order and the only thing that makes life bearable.” Sarah, whom Thomas refers to as the “little slut,” represents, in his eyes, the antithesis of virtue and order. His mother, meanwhile, is possessed, in Thomas’s estimation, of “the best intentions,” yet is blinded by her charitable impulses; her tendency is “to make a mockery of virtue, to pursue it with such a mindless intensity that everyone involved was made a fool of and virtue itself became ridiculous.”
Thomas considers himself a model of virtue and purity, but for him, virtue must exist in moderation, because “a moderation of good produces likewise a moderation of evil,” something that Thomas feels his mother would understand “[h]ad she been in any degree intellectual.” The irony is that while Thomas proclaims himself virtuous, his propensity to withdraw from what he sees as an excess of charity on his mother’s part renders him practically ineffectual; he is paralyzed and unable to commit to any action, good or bad: “Thomas had inherited his father’s reason without his ruthlessness and his mother’s love of good without her tendency to pursue it. His plan for all practical action was to wait and see what developed.”
There is an additional level of irony at play regarding Thomas’s specific reaction to Sarah’s sexuality. Sarah is a flirtatious girl – a “nimpermaniac” according to Thomas’s mother, a “moral moron” according to Thomas himself. Rather than being disgusted by Sarah’s sexuality, however, Thomas is terrified of it. When his mother orders him to drive the girl back to the old lady’s house where she is boarding, Thomas is rendered literally mute when he finds himself alone in the girl’s presence: “At his desk, pen in hand, none was more articulate than Thomas. As soon as he found himself shut into the car with Sarah Ham, terror seized his tongue.” When Sarah appears in Thomas’s bedroom doorway at night, he repels her from his room by holding a chair out in front of him “like an animal trainer driving out a dangerous cat.”
Following the incident in his bedroom, Thomas issues an ultimatum to his mother: either the girl leaves or he does. This sequence is also shot through with irony, this time involving a blurring of the line between Thomas and Sarah:
“I keep thinking it might be you,” [Thomas's mother] said, her hand still on her jaw. “If it were you, how do you think I’d feel if nobody took you in? What if you were a nimpermaniac and not a brilliant smart person and you did what you couldn’t help and …”
Thomas felt a deep unbearable loathing for himself as if he were turning slowly into the girl.
“What did she have on?” she asked abruptly, her eyes narrowing.
“Nothing!” he roared. “Now will you get her out of here!”
It does not take a committed Freudian to recognize Thomas’s self loathing, “as if he were turning slowly into the girl,” as resulting from a sublimated sexual desire for her. His violent reaction when questioned by his mother about Sarah’s state of undress – “Now will you get her out of here!” – is his attempt to repress what he considers to be his baser instincts in a (misguided) attempt to remain true to his idea of morality and uprightness. And yet the narrative will not allow him to escape from this sublimated desire. When he goes to plant a pistol in the girl’s purse so that the town’s corrupt sheriff (with whom Thomas is in collusion) will have an excuse to take her back to prison, the scene is presented in frankly sexualized language:
He grabbed the red pocketbook. It had a skin-like feel to his touch and as it opened, he caught an unmistakable odor of the girl. Wincing, he thrust in the gun and then drew back.
Sometimes, a gun is just a gun. Other times, it is a symbol for something else, something made abundantly clear by the description of the way Thomas “thrust” the object into the “skin-like” folds of the purse. After a triangulated scene featuring Thomas, his mother, and Sarah, in which Thomas accidentally shoots his mother, the sheriff bursts in to find Thomas and Sarah standing over the body as though “the killer and the slut were about to collapse into each other’s arms.” Although the sheriff misreads the scene he has stumbled upon, there is no denying the extension of the sexually charged language that has been pervasive throughout the story, nor its implications for the characters of Thomas and Sarah (“the killer and the slut”).
While confessing that he finds the plot of “The Comforts of Home” “one of the least convincing O’Connor ever devised,” Frederick Asals concludes that the figures of Thomas and Sarah are meant to be taken – at least on one level – as doubles, obverse exemplifications of a single psychological impulse:
In Jung’s language, then, Sarah Ham is the “anima-projection” of which Thomas is the “persona”; psychoanalytically viewed, the two characters are complementary figures, obverse doubles, alter egos. The arrival of the girl thus inevitably exacerbates all those psychic tensions which have lain dormant beneath Thomas’s bland exterior.
There is an indication in the story that the mother understands this – “I keep thinking it might be you,” she tells her son – as, on some level, does Thomas. His self-loathing arises out of a sense that he is “slowly turning into the girl”; although he explicitly avows his goodness as against Sarah’s evil, the story actively resists this reading, implying instead that the two characters are psychological reflections of one another.
The psychic tensions in the story run deeper than any thumbnail exegesis of this kind could possibly do justice to, and in any event a psychoanalytic reading of the story is only one of a number of possible approaches one might take in discussing it. Regardless of whether Asals is correct in finding the plot overly contrived (I tend to disagree), the story is nevertheless a crystalline example of O’Connor in her high ironic mode, a bitterly funny dissection of a complex morality, and a mordant comment on the old adage that “charity begins at home.”
An article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail advocated moving away from the practice of assigning classes of schoolchildren a single book to study and toward allowing students to exercise more choice in their reading material for school:
Reading for pleasure – and not because there’s an essay due tomorrow – has been linked to scholastic achievement. Some education researchers have argued that means letting students – particularly in middle school and especially boys – freely choose what pages they want to turn.
“There’s this belief that if you are going to go to a college you have to read certain things,” says Gay Ivey, a professor of reading education at James Madison University in Virginia. “When you think about the kinds of things that very successful, educated, productive people read in their adult lives, they aren’t breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy of The Scarlet Letter.”
True enough. They also aren’t breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get their hands on an algebra textbook, but this doesn’t seem to deter educators from assigning math problems to students. This is where the argument that students should be allowed to choose what they read in school falls flat: it assumes that English literature – unlike, say, math or chemistry – is a subject that requires no familiarity with its background or history. The history of the English novel stretches back to the 18th century, to Defoe and Richardson and Fielding. The history of the novel stretches back even further, to Cervantes and Lady Murasaki. Beyond that, modern English literature can’t be understood without a firm grounding in the classics: in Dante and Homer and the Bible.
Of course, teachers of English literature in middle school classrooms won’t want to hear this, precisely because their students are steeped in the ephemera of modernity – in the X-Box and World of Warcraft and text messaging. Teaching students about the past, and having them immerse themselves in worlds that may seem foreign to them, requires work: it requires teachers to actually teach.
“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning,” wrote Flannery O’Connor in an essay titled “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade.” That essay was first published in the Georgia Bulletin on March 21, 1963. It is not hard to imagine O’Connor’s response, 47 years later, upon reading the following in The Globe and Mail:
Pam Allyn, a literary expert and the author of What to Read When who runs an organization that educates teachers, agrees that the time has come to abandon the class novel – leaving it to selected high school English classes designed to teach the classics. While some teachers can be effective with the approach, she says that often students tell themselves: “I have to get through this book. I’ve got to learn to understand it the way my teacher wants me to.” That can be boring for good readers, she says, and “devastating” for struggling students.
It’s not hard to imagine how O’Connor – an incisive and uncompromising social critic – would have responded to such a statement, because her likely response is contained in her 1963 essay:
In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter into the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.
Of course, finding any modern students who even know who John Hersey is, let alone have read any of his books, would be impossible. The modern-day equivalent is likely Stephenie Meyer or the Gossip Girl novels, which should illustrate just how far “the reverse evolutionary process” has regressed us as a culture.
And there are no doubt all sorts of educational theorists (and others) who will work themselves into fits of self-righteous lather over O’Connor’s assessment of children “too stupid now to enter into the past imaginatively,” but this seems to me to be self-evident. The Globe article underscores this when it states that students assigned To Kill a Mockingbird or Wuthering Heights “were turning the pages not with anticipation but with groans.” Not that this is the students’ fault – or, at least, not entirely. It is the responsibility of teachers to convince their students that history – even the history of English literature – did not begin on the day those students were born. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide students with the tools necessary “to enter the past imaginatively.”
This is important because culture, like anything, does not exist in a vacuum. Students can’t understand where we are today if they remain ignorant of where we’ve been. Teaching the classics is not merely a sop to parents who believe that “what makes a more educated person is if they can quote Hamlet,” in the words of one educator quoted in the Globe article. Rather, it provides essential background for understanding how our society has evolved and what has brought us to our current historical moment. Students may find such inquiry boring (although a good teacher should be able to render it infinitely less so), but that is not material. The purpose of education is to foster knowledge, understanding, and character, not to reinforce attitudes that students already hold.
O’Connor has the last word on pretty much everything, so it is appropriate to give her the last word here:
The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, though the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the culture of many lands.
And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.
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.