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.
The Bishop’s Man. Linden MacIntyre; Random House Canada, $32.00 cloth, 410 pp., 978-0-307-3570-9.
Previous Giller wins/noms: None
Other awards: Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-fiction, Evelyn Richardson Prize for Non-fiction (Causeway: A Passage from Innocence)
CBA Libris Award (The Long Stretch, nominee)
From the publisher: “From an award-winning writer and one of Canada’s foremost broadcast journalists, comes a deeply wise and moving novel that explores the guilty minds and spiritual evasions of Catholic priests.”
From reviews: “Some readers might find MacIntyre’s frequent timeshifting a distraction, but by and large the author handles the various decades of his tale deftly. And as a native Cape Bretoner himself, he brings the region and its residents vividly to life. MacIntyre’s examination of a troubled priest’s life will earn the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.” – Nicholas Pashley, National Post
“In his latest novel, The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre tackles the disturbing topic of sexual abuse of children, a subject easily given to theses and tirades, lectures and judgments, all thinly veiled as fiction. MacIntyre, his engrossing tale told through the eyes and experiences of Father Duncan MacAskill, sidesteps these pitfalls to deliver a serious examination of the theme with the page-turning energy of a thriller.” – Frank Macdonald, The Globe and Mail
“In Father MacAskill, MacIntyre gives us a Christian anti-hero, a man of faith who is first of all a man, in a story that meshes humour and down-home charm with the raw underbelly of human imperfection.” – Angela Narth, Winnipeg Free Press
My reaction: Father Duncan MacAskill is called names like the Exorcist and the Purificator because of his particular function, which is to make problems disappear. Specifically, Father MacAskill serves at the pleasure of his bishop to relocate priests who have been accused of sexually abusing young boys. But when the bishop learns that “damned insinuating lawyers” have been asking questions about how such matters have been handled and suggesting that MacAskill has been complicit in a cover-up, the bishop decides to get the priest out of the way until matters blow over. So MacAskill is reassigned to the Cape Breton parish of Creignish, a stone’s throw from where he grew up on the Long Stretch Road.
MacIntyre has set himself an undeniably ambitious task. He’s dealing with heavy thematic material, and the collision between MacAskill’s sense of guilt over what he increasingly comes to see as his complicity in the crimes of the church and his fraught personal history in the land of his childhood is borne out over a complex structure that weaves back and forth in time and travels from small-town Cape Breton to Toronto and Honduras.
The best parts of The Bishop’s Man involve MacAskill’s existential crisis, arising from his “instinct for guilt,” whereby he attempts to negotiate a moral path without sacrificing either his fidelity to his church or his essential humanity. In his job, MacAskill has been privy to every manner of rationalization and excuse for morally reprehensible conduct (the bishop resolutely refuses to refer to boys molested at the hands of priests as “victims”), but it is to MacIntyre’s credit that the character himself never loses his essential humanity. MacAskill’s interior monologues are potent and moving:
You want it to be true. You find comfort in the eyes, reassurance from the heavy hand that he has laid upon your shoulder, the sombre voice that speaks of collegiality, of character. He has been a mentor. He has been an exemplar. He is what you, in your pious dreaming, wanted to become. Revered, respected by lay and ministry alike. A priest who is also a Man. And thus you are reassured, all too easily. You agree, eventually: some time away will be restorative. And your bishop is prescient: it was in Honduras that your mission first came into focus; you saw, among the poor, the human fate as our Redeemer saw it, etched in lines upon the faces. I could see my mission in their eyes, the hope I represented. The bishop said I’d see the living faith the way it used to be. And he was absolutely right.
This interior struggle recalls Doestoevsky, and the tension it carries makes portions of The Bishop’s Man read with intensity and a kind of existential terror.
But the book is overlong (at 400 pages, it’s easily the longest of the five Giller shortlisted titles), and the priest’s moral dilemma is so compelling that the more personal sections of the book seem relatively pallid by comparison. The material dealing with Father MacAskill’s sister Effie, his best friend Sextus Gillis, and Sextus’s father, John, was covered in MacIntyre’s first novel, and its recapitulation here is unnecessary and only serves to draw attention away from more dramatically provocative material.
As an existential thriller, The Bishop’s Man works well, but it unfortunately suffers from a bit too much fat on its thematic bones.
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.
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.