Hidden wildlife

August 10, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 8: “The Comforts of Home” by Flannery O’Connor

May 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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.”

Total effect, redux

March 30, 2010 by · 6 Comments 

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.

The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

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.

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