Yr. humble correspondent is in an awkward position. Suffering from post-Giller hangover, this is the point at which historically I’ve complained about all the reasons why the jury made the wrong choice, and how once again the prize has reinforced a kind of bland, middlebrow notion of what CanLit is supposed to be. This year, I’ve been fairly vocal – both here and in various other venues – about the overall sombreness of the shortlisted titles, the narrow spectrum of sensibilities among the prize’s juries, and the increasing focus on spectacle at the expense of the books themselves. I have, in short, been in a fairly predictable, curmudgeonly mood for the last four weeks.
Nevertheless, those of you who have been following my reactions to the individual books on this year’s shortlist might have noticed that, although I had issues with each book, in general I found the list to be more worthy – both on the level of quality and on the level of technical diversity – than those of the last couple of years.
Going into last night’s gala, the clear favourite to take the prize had to be Anne Michaels, followed closely by Annabel Lyon. Of course, trying to outguess prize juries is a mug’s game (although sometimes a few people do guess right), but this year’s Giller field proved particularly tricky, since there was no clear stand-out and no one book that conspicuously didn’t deserve inclusion. There were books I liked less than others (The Disappeared), and books I liked more (Fall), but on the whole, and notwithstanding my general feeling of despondency while the process was underway, I have to admit that this year’s list was a strong one.
And as if that weren’t enough, the jury – composed of Canadian Alistair MacLeod, American Russell Banks, and British Muskoka chair–lover Victoria Glendinning – decided to anoint an existential thriller about a tortured Catholic priest trying to come to terms with the guilt he feels about his complicity in covering up the wrongdoings of his fellow clergymen. The material involving the close-knit community of Creignish aside, Father MacAskill’s spiritual battle in The Bishop’s Man would not be out of place in the work of Dostoevsky or Graham Greene.
Did the best book win? Who knows. “Best” is such a subjective term that it’s pretty much meaningless in these circumstances, a reality that MacIntyre acknowledged in his acceptance speech when he said that his presence onstage was the result of “an accident of consensus.” Still, The Bishop’s Man was one of my two favourites among this year’s Giller crop (along with Fall: you are more than welcome to chastise me for gravitating toward the two books by men), and it’s a book that exists (healthily, in my opinion) on the periphery of what has come to be accepted as the traditional CanLit novel.
All of which perhaps contributes to the rather odd sensation I’ve been experiencing since the announcement of the winner last night. It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it feels suspiciously like pleasure.
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.
The Disappeared. Kim Echlin; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $29.00 cloth, 242 pp., 978-0-670-06908-8.
Previous Giller wins/noms: None
Other awards: Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award (1997, nominee)
From the publisher: “From its first page, The Disappeared takes us into the land of kings and temples, fought over for generations. It reveals the forces that act on love everywhere: family, politics, forgetting. Universal in its questions about how to claim the past, how to honor our dead, and how to go on after those we love disappear, it is a story written in spare and rhythmic prose. The Disappeared is a remarkable consideration of language, truth, justice, and memory that speaks to the conscience of the world, and to love, even when those we love most are gone.”
From reviews: “The impossibility of closure after great crimes, no matter how many tribunals and truth-and-reconciliation commissions we may launch, is the subject of Toronto author Kim Echlin’s absorbing new novel, The Disappeared. Echlin, one of Canada’s finest prose stylists, approaches her subject with the delicacy and solemnity it deserves. In the end, though, it begs the question: Is a beautiful work of art, which The Disappeared certainly is, the appropriate response to a holocaust?” – Frank Moher, National Post
“The book, which can be read in a single sitting, builds toward a complex expression of annihilating loss and eternal love that is best experienced, in a sense, like the final act of a tragic play: as something inevitable and beyond the calculations of reason.” – Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail
“But at times the prose becomes overwrought and detracts from a deeper understanding of the Khmers’ experience. It’s almost a relief when Will, a gruff Canadian forensics expert, appears to help Anne in her search, muttering his hope ‘that our humanity might kick into a higher gear.’ This is an ambitious novel that almost, but not quite, reaches its goal.” – Julie Wheelwright, The Independent (U.K.)
“The Disappeared is ultimately a love story, which means that things don’t turn out well. Anne returns to Montreal where she is implored ‘for love’s sake’ to tell her story ‘before there’s nothing left.’ This sequence, shot through with heartache and loss, should serve as the cathartic apotheosis of the book. Sadly, it is betrayed by the sentimentality of what has gone before.” – Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire
My reaction: The final excerpt above is meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek, although not altogether. I’ve now read The Disappeared three times, trying this last time to understand what I’m missing in it that everyone else apparently sees. It is often the case that a person’s attitude toward a book will change with subsequent readings, because a second or third exposure to a book allows for a deeper understanding of the underlying structure. Whereas the initial reading is a journey of discovery, following the trajectory of the story to learn “what happens,” subsequent readings provide an opportunity to more closely scrutinize a novel’s texture, its patterns of metaphor, and language. Strange, then, that I should come away from a third reading of the text feeling pretty much exactly the same way I did when I read the book the first time.
There are distancing effects in Echlin’s novel – the predominant mode of narration, which favours the second person “you,” as though the book were a letter addressed to the protagonist’s absent lover; the fact that the entire story is told in flashback from a distance of 30 years – which perhaps prevent a complete engagement with the story. Very little is dramatized directly; Echlin’s preferred mode is one of bald recapitulation:
You got up then and took your chapei from the corner of the room and unwrapped it. You sat on the bed cross legged and you lay the instrument across your lap and plucked the two strings. You sang an old folk song about yearning for the time of the monsoon winds, oan samlanh, yearning to go to the festival with your love, wearing a new phamuong, oh dear one, going together to the festival with your love.
The spareness and incantatory rhythms have been noted approvingly by numerous critics; my own feeling is that this mode of narration frequently becomes tedious:
I did not believe and yet I knelt with the others and watched the smoke of the incense twist toward the roof. I did not want to leave. I had nowhere to go. I wanted comfort. The end of the rains. I did not believe and yet I was there.
But all of these technical concerns are subordinate to the evident sentimentality of the writing, from the obvious reference to “the call of a vulture” during one of the protagonist’s final interviews with a Cambodian government official to the overheated language used to describe the lovers’ attraction to one another: “That night, I knelt face down on the bed, knees spread, and I gave myself to your love”; “We pledged ourselves to each other with our bodies”; “I received your touch, you received my relief as if we were giving agonized birth to each other.” Such overwought passages denude the story of a great deal of its power; language more appropriate to a Harlequin romance sits uneasily alongside descriptions of one of the worst genocides in modern history.
The Disappeared is unquestionably an ambitious book, but it nevertheless failed to connect with me. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll have a different experience the fourth time around.
It’s not the year of the flood after all. With Alice Munro’s book, Too Much Happiness, out of the running for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, all eyes were on Margaret Atwood and her dystopian “simultaneoual” to her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. But in the event, Atwood’s novel, The Year of the Flood, didn’t make the Giller shortlist. This year’s five, devoted exclusively to books from large publishing houses, are:
- The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
- The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
- The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
- Fall by Colin McAdam
- The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
The dedicated Giller-watcher will note that of the two men who made the longlist, both are included in the shortlist. The shortlist also represents only 2.5 publishing houses: Hamish Hamilton Canada, in its first year as an imprint of Penguin Canada, has two books, Random House Canada has two, and McClelland & Stewart (which is 25% owned by Random House) has one.
On points, this year’s list looks more interesting than those of the last couple of years, and, as usual, yr. humble correspondent will read (or, in the case of Echlin, reread) the five books and report back in advance of the Giller Prize announcement on November 10. Stay tuned: weeping and gnashing of teeth are sure to follow.