How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press
In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.
It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.
Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)
Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”
These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:
I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.
The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.
One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)
Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.
We live in interesting times.
If you’re of a literary bent, you’ve no doubt heard of the case of one Q.R. Markham, a writer whose espionage novel, The Assassin of Secrets, was pulled from shelves last week when its publisher, Mullholland Books, an imprint of the U.S.-based Little, Brown and Company, discovered that large parts of it were plagiarized from at least a dozen other sources, including novels by Charles McCarry and Robert Ludlum.
Markham is the pen name of Quentin Rowan, the co-owner of a bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. And his brazen attempt to pass off appropriated work as original to him apparently worked for a time: before the plagiarism came to light, Kirkus Reviews said that the novel “moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication” (although not recognizing why the territory was familiar, or from whence the sophistication derived); author Greg Rucka called the book “very, very, very smart;” and author Jeremy Duns referred to it as an “instant classic.”
Duns in fact corresponded with Rowan prior to the book’s publication, provided a blurb, and did an interview with the author, all without realizing that the book he was promoting was compiled from excerpts of other people’s writing, skilfully stitched together to form a narrative Duns himself admits was “coherent.” On his blog, Duns provides a heartfelt apologia, writing in part, “I really did enjoy the novel, which seemed to me to combine all the familar tropes I like about spy fiction into one book, but to use some wonderful imagery and language to do so. I gave it the best quote I could.” In a follow-up post, Duns reflects on what he specifically admired about the style of Rowan’s novel, before he was aware of how it was created:
[A] great part of the appeal of Assassin of Secrets, to me anyway, was what I felt to be its post-modernism, albeit in a very different way. It reminded me of several other novels – sadly, not the ones he plagiarized! It reminded me in parts of Cockpit, Jerzy Kosinki’s 1975 novel about a former spy called Tarden, which contains a lot of dazzling writing but reads as fragmentary excerpts. This is perhaps not all that surprising, as Kosinski has also been exposed as a plagiarist (long after he was published, and won many awards), and Cockpit is now thought to have been a compilation of pieces by several unknown writers Kosinski commissioned and then assembled, partially helped by a young Paul Auster.
It also reminded me in parts of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Like Cockpit, that film is compelling not for its plot, which is unfathomable or non-existent, but in the way it plays with our memories of and feelings for genre conventions. Both Cockpit and Mulholland Drive feel like dreams, where narrative rules are abandoned, leaving dead-ends that allow the reader or viewer to step in and find their own resonances.
Here we come to what is perhaps the crux of the matter. Duns admired what he presumed was the postmodern approach Rowan’s novel was adopting, an approach resembling both a novel that is itself suspected to be a work more of collage than original writing and a film that dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative. To readers of David Shields’ widely praised manifesto, Reality Hunger, all of this should sound strikingly familiar. Indeed, this brand of appropriation and stitching together of disparate works is exactly the kind of thing Shields supports: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize,” Shields writes at one point and, at another, “The novel is dead. Long live the antinovel, built from scraps.” Indeed, those two comments – out of a total of 618 short sections in his book – are among the very few Shields did not himself lift from other sources.
Markham/Rowan seems merely to have taken Shields’ principles and applied them to the spy novel – thereby exposing the “unbearably artificial” nature of this popular literary genre. As everyone – experts such as acclaimed authors, critics, and the editors at Mullholland Books – thought Assassin of Secrets an outstanding espionage novel, then should it not be embraced rather than withdrawn?
Duns disbelieves that Rowan was engaged in some kind of postmodern pastiche, a supposition that is supported by Rowan himself, who in an e-mail to Duns disclaims any such intention:
When I began to edit it for the publisher, that’s when things really got out of hand. I was being asked to come up with whole new scenes to fit into the already stitched-up old ones. It really was like making Frankenstein’s monster as people have commented. A kind of patchwork job. I’ve never really believed there’s such a thing as post-modernity, by the way. Having already committed myself mentally to this process of driving myself into the ground, through denial and magical thinking, I just wanted to make the best 60s style spy novel I could: with all the tropes and trimmings one expects.
So it would appear from the author’s own admission that the intent here was not to engage in a kind of knowing act of postmodern bricolage, but rather a willful attempt to deceive. Still, it’s worth asking the question: Does what Rowan did differ from what Shields did – and encourages others to do – in kind or simply in degree of intent? Shields quotes Picasso (without attribution in the body of the text itself, of course): “Art is theft.” He also quotes Emerson: “Genius borrows nobly.” Shields and Jonathan Lethem engage in wanton artistic theft and are praised as groundbreakers. Rowan does likewise and is raked over the coals. How are we to assure ourselves that the former is noble, and the latter ignoble? When is plagiarism justifiable as an act of artistic rebellion or innovation, and when is it just plain thievery?
Hard Rain Falling. Don Carpenter; $21.00 paper 978-1-59017-324-4, 308 pp., New York Review Books.
Although Don Carpenter’s eight finished novels and two collections of stories received critical acclaim during the author’s lifetime, almost all of them are out of print today, and Carpenter can hardly be called one of America’s best-known literary luminaries. New York Review Books, which in the past few years has become an invaluable resource for bringing renewed attention to unjustly forgotten or overlooked literary works, did a great service by reissuing Carpenter’s coruscating first novel, 1966′s Hard Rain Falling, in 2009.
When critics discuss the novel (if they discuss it at all), they tend to refer to it as a crime novel or a prison story. Jonathan Lethem, a longtime admirer of Carpenter’s, calls Hard Rain Falling “one of the best prison novels in American literature,” but this is reductive in the extreme. Indeed, only about one-third of the book, which tells the story of orphan and drifter Jack Levitt, takes place in reform school, or later, San Quentin. The balance of the novel follows Jack as he meanders through various encounters in pool halls and dive bars, eventually settling into a domestic story involving Jack’s attempt to redeem himself by marrying and fathering a son. The San Quentin material, which forms the central third of the novel, is convincingly rendered, and would certainly have been controversial in 1966 due to its overtly homosexual content, but nevertheless accounts for only one aspect of a much larger, more ambitious narrative.
Richard Price comes closer to the mark when he refers to Hard Rain Falling as “a beat-era book of disaffected young men devoid of On the Road euphoria but more poignant and gripping for its fatalistic grounding.” It is, however, not only the lack of euphoria that sets Carpenter’s novel apart from On the Road. Kerouac, who was raised Catholic, was always quick to point out that the Beat Generation was “basically a religious generation,” and that what the characters in On the Road were pursuing was a kind of spiritual enlightenment. John Clellon Holmes recognized that Kerouac’s characters were “on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. Though they rushed back and forth across the country on the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side.”
Jack, by contrast, is not possessed of a spiritual vision. Quite the contrary: his early experiences at the orphanage have rendered any notion of spiritual transcendence fanciful at best.
At the orphanage they had gone to religious services every Sunday morning in the dining room and listened to different preachers tell them that God loved them especially because they were orphans and that they had a hard lot in life, but the hardness of their lot gave them a precious opportunity to be particularly saintly in their conduct, to be obedient, to be moral, without having placed in front of them the temptations toward sin that come to children who have sinful parents around them, tempting them away from the path of goodness by their bad example; how they, the children of the orphanage, were the results of the sins of their fathers, and yet at the same time had this great opportunity to lead blameless, uncontaminated lives of purity and virtue; to obey the rules and be especially beloved of Jesus Christ, who Himself disowned His own Mother and made Himself into an orphan, so to speak … But it did not take much thinking on their part to see that if Jesus Christ and God approved of the administration of the orphanage, in fact preferred it to home and parents, then they were the enemies of the orphanage children because if that hollow cavity in their souls was the love of God then God was the murderer of love.
Later on, while incarcerated in San Quentin, Jack thinks that “there has got to be a God, because only an insane God could have created such a universe.” Jack’s blasphemous philosophy is based in a repudiation of spirituality, not a Kerouac-like pursuit of it. Early in the novel, as if to underline a fidelity to his almost anti-religious worldview, Jack’s teenage yearnings are described in precise, earthly detail:
He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognize that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour (he had only recently learned how to drive, and he loved the feelings of speed and control, the sharpness of the danger). He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with his whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How High the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps.” That was what he wanted. So it was up to him to get these things.
Jack’s dearth of spiritual belief is bundled up in the fact that he is unable to “milk a little self-pity” out of the realization that “nobody was going to drop out of the sky” to give him what he wants. Rather, Jack understands, “it was up to him to get these things.” Like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, Jack pursues freedom, but unlike Dean, he does not do so in any kind of mystic capacity. Still, Jack is not without what he calls a “vision” for his future, a vision that he feels involves “a wildness in itself, a succession of graduated pleasures and loves and joys.” Conceiving of himself as a “cynical optimist,” he imagines that his “vague” and “childish” hopes are preferable to those whose lives have already been laid out for them:
If they seemed too noisy, too wild, too defiant, perhaps it was a little out of desperation, because lying before them were endless years of dull existence, shabby jobs, unattractive mates, and brats with no more future than themselves.
There is a piercing irony in the fact that Jack’s adolescent fear of becoming trapped in a life of domesticity and responsibility is realized after his release from San Quentin, when he meets and eventually marries Sally, the boozy ex-wife of a motion picture actor. The couple has a child, which Jack names Billy after his friend and prison cellmate (with whom Jack had a homosexual affair while incarcerated). Carpenter employs a number of ironic reversals in the novel’s final section, as Jack’s earlier lust for freedom and disdain for authority are supplanted by an incipient love for his son, which sees him taking a series of thankless jobs in order to raise enough money to support his family. When Sally becomes pregnant, Jack’s earlier dismissal of his own conception – “A penis squirts, and I am doomed to a life of death” – is turned on its head as he begins to see in his son the vague possibility of his own redemption. Sally, meanwhile, finds domestic life an unbearable constraint on her desire to socialize and run free; she frequently leaves Billy in the custody of a Chinese babysitter while she goes out drinking.
Jack’s existential malaise crystallizes in his terrified realization that there is nothing he can do to ensure that his child will grow up safe from the scourges of a fallen world:
It was an awful word. Nothing. It made him sick at heart. He refused to believe in it. He demanded that there be something he could do. He demanded that his love be worth something to his child. If it wasn’t, life was garbage. He had to rule out the idea that life was just a matter of accident, or percentages, because it was just too goddam much to stand for. Even if it was true, he was determined to live as if it were false.
This determination ultimately proves illusory, as it must for someone whose entire existence is vested in a rebellion against institutionalized order, a rebellion that begins in the orphanage and continues right through his stay in prison. At the end of the novel, Jack has not abandoned his pursuit of freedom, but his conception of it has changed substantially:
[The] freedom he had always yearned for and never understood was beyond his or any man’s reach, and … all men must yearn for it equally; a freedom from the society of mankind without its absence; a freedom from connection, from fear, from trouble, and above all from the loneliness of being alive.
This passage from the final section of the novel – a section titled, not incidentally, “Meaningful Lives” – puts the lie to those who want to reduce the novel to a mere crime story. The pervasive existentialism, so reminiscent of Dostoevsky (a writer Jack admires, because they both spent time in prison), is only one layer in a story that deals incisively with matters of class, race, and sexuality. George Pelecanos, in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, calls Hard Rain Falling a novel of ideas, which seems correct. “As in all good literature,” Pelecanos writes, “it attempts to answer the question of why we’re here and does so in a provocative way.” It is a powerhouse novel, which deserves to find a new audience.
Joyland: A Hub for Short Fiction is the brainchild of the estimable Emily Schultz and her husband, literary bad-boy Brian Joseph Davis. It’s an online repository of short fiction by writers such as Sean Dixon, Eva Moran, Lydia Millet, Stacey May Fowles, Nathan Sellyn, Jonathan Lethem, Lynn Coady, Rebecca Rosenblum and Sina Queyras. Last year, the CBC called Joyland “the go-to spot for readers seeking the best voices in short fiction” (which should be self-evident simply by the list of names preceding).
But this is Canada, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Canadian short-story endeavour must be in want of funding. Therefore, as part of the Scream Literary Festival, Schultz and Davis, “the world’s most incompetent capitalists” (their description, not mine), have organized a fundraiser that goes Wednesday evening at The Stealth Lounge here in Toronto. The Joyland Joy-a-thon offers a roster of high-calibre talent, prizes, and Joyland T-shirts (see left).
Break your mourning and throw off the black clothes for one evening as Joyland.ca and the Scream Literary Festival peddle eleven readers, raffle prizes, and, yes, T-shirts! Claudia Dey, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Stacey May Fowles read their own work from Joyland and Maggie MacDonald will perform a dramatic reading of a script by Bruce LaBruce. Helping out with cover readings are: Zoe Whittall, Kevin Connolly, Carl Wilson, Emily Holton, and Faye Guenther. And in a very special set, editors Lynn Henry and Michael Holmes read their own writers!
The event begins at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8 at The Stealth Lounge (above the Pilot), 22 Cumberland Avenue. It’s PWYC, but there’s a $5 suggested cover. Yr. humble correspondent hopes to see you there.