31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 22: “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” by Clark Blaise

May 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Montreal Stories

Montreal_StoriesWhen we think of Montreal writers, we tend to think first of Mordecai Richler, the bard of St. Urbain Street. But Clark Blaise also mythologized the city in some of his best stories. As Peter Behrens writes in the introduction to the 2003 volume Montreal Stories, “Montreal functions like an (unreliable) heart within the body of Clark Blaise’s oeuvre: a treacherous, indispensable organ at the centre of his fiction.”

The parenthetical adjective is significant: the eye with which Blaise views the city is noticeably jaundiced. Take, for example, the bravura opening paragraph of the story “Among the Dead,” which reads, in part:

In a certain season (the late winter) and in certain areas (those fringes between the city, and the river that makes it an island) Montreal is the ugliest city in the world. Despite its reputation, its tourist bureaus, most of the island of Montreal will break your heart. … In this, Montreal is truly the Paris of North America. The same bleakness, the same bidonvilles stretching for miles beyond the city walls. Our dream has always been salvation and bonheur, even knowing that we’d ingested the worst of both worlds: the suspicions and ignorance of the petit commerçant, with the arrogant sprawl of America.

This paragraph testifies to Blaise’s often fractious relationship, in his fiction, with Quebec’s largest metropolis: himself a transplant from the United States, the author views the city from the critical perspective of an immigrant. It also testifies to his sublime, seemingly effortless technique.

Both aspects are on display in “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard,” which also blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (a quality Behrens refers to as a “deliberate and daring instability of form” that “anticipates writers like W.G. Sebald.”)

The young boy at the story’s centre is driven and purposeful (“That’s how it is with janitors’ sons,” he tells us), to the point of waiting for a bus at 4:30 a.m. to take him to his paper route after Greek immigrants overrun his own neighbourhood and shrink him out of a viable business. He is ten years old at the time. “After a few days I didn’t have to pay a fare. I’d take coffee from the driver’s thermos, his cigarettes, and we’d discuss hockey from the night before. In return I’d give him a paper when he let me off. They didn’t call me Curette for nothing.”

The nickname, given to him by the nuns at school, means “little priest,” and underscores both the resourcefulness of the boy and his essential otherness. His position as an outsider, even in a city that is teeming with new immigrants – witness, for example, the Greeks who move into the neighbourhood, encouraging their compatriots to snap up vacancies by using for-rent signs written only in Greek – is deeply felt, to the point that he wears a Boston Bruins sweatshirt to hockey games at the Forum. Unlike the hero of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, who wants a Canadiens shirt and is mortified to be given a Leafs jersey instead, Blaise’s protagonist wears the Bruins jersey almost as a coat of arms or an insignia declaring his status as an expat.

Regardless of the association professed by his clothes, the boy is a devoted aficionado of the Canadiens, especially their unstoppable forward, Maurice “Rocket” Richard:

I loved the Canadiens fiercely. It had to do with the intimacy of old-time hockey, how close you were to the gods on the ice; you could read their lips and hear them grunt as they slammed the boards. So there I stood in my Boston Bruins shirt loving the Rocket. There was always that spot of perversity in the things I loved.

Blaise describes the quintessential Canadian (and Canadiens) passion for hockey precisely; “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” pairs well with Mark Anthony Jarman’s “A Nation Plays Chopsticks” as two stories capable of defining, for those who may not entirely share the same degree of interest, what captivates hockey fans about the sport. For the boy in the story, it is not just a pastime, but verges on something almost religious: “[T]here was nothing in any other sport to compare with the spell of hockey. Inside the Forum in the early fifties, those games against Boston … were evangelical, for truly we were dans le cénacle where everyone breathed as one.”

The chronology is important because, as the boy points out elsewhere, this was the time that poor people could still afford a ticket to a Canadiens game at the Forum. Indeed, the first thing the boy tells us in the story is that his family was poor. “It was a strange kind of poverty, streaked with gentility (the kind that chopped you down when you least expected it),” he says. Although the boy is an only child, and thus “there was more to go around,” much of the family’s money gets drunk or gambled away by the patriarch (the alcoholic father being a tried-and-true CanLit archetype).

The family’s poverty is what eventually drives them south across the border to the U.S., where the father hopes to land a job in one of his brother-in-law’s dry cleaning establishments. The job, needless to say, never materializes, and the family returns home in disgrace. The crossing of borders, Behrens notes, is another essential feature of Blaise’s fiction, but more importantly, the return to Montreal reinforces the family’s outsider status. They find the father’s brother, Réal, who had been enlisted to watch the apartment while the family was off pursuing its fortune, “very happily installed.” The ease with which Réal slips into “lifelong comfort and security” is in stark contrast to the boy’s father, whose idea of the good life  is “moving up to the ground floor where the front door buzzer kept waking you up.”

Finally, the attitude toward Montreal, like almost everything in Blaise’s stories is bifurcated. There is the authentic love of the home team and its captain, the Rocket, but this love must be indulged at one remove, from behind the screen of a Boston Bruins shirt. What resounds most clearly at the end of the story is the statement made by one of the residents in a house the family stops at on their way back to Montreal – “Man, you sure is crazy” – a statement the boy adopts for himself, wearing it “like a Bruins sweater, till it too wore out.”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 24: “Burn Man on a Texas Porch” by Mark Anthony Jarman

May 24, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From 19 Knives

What does it feel like to be engulfed in flames, to feel the skin of your face shift and melt into runnels and the flesh of your body char like burnt meat? Like this, perhaps:

I’m okay, okay, will be fine except I’m hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I’m burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape – am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke. … My face feels like a million hot rivets. I am yelling and writhing. One of my shoes burns happily by itself on the road.

The image of the lone shoe burning “happily” on the road is in stark contrast to the horrific violence of the unnamed narrator who has fallen victim to an exploding propane tank in his camper and now finds himself alight, running blindly without direction, “hoovering all the oxygen” in the air and unable to discern whether it is him moving or the flames that have overtaken him.

Mark Anthony Jarman wisely eschews any kind of naturalistic presentation in this story, preferring instead a more expressionistic approach to his chosen subject matter. From the story’s bravura opening sentence, which finds the unnamed narrator staggering through his campsite “with flames living on [his] calves and flames gathering and glittering on [his] shoulders,” readers are presented with a portrait of a ravaged, ruined man in short, impressionistic scenes that privilege language over plot, sense impressions over character development or setting.

Indeed, the setting for Jarman’s story is kept deliberately obscure. After undergoing a series of largely ineffective skin grafts, the protagonist, known only as Burn Man, retreats to the basement of his home, where he recruits an escort named Cindi to give him blow jobs by the murky light of the engine on his toy train. Even this is presented obliquely: “a slight woman in a parody of a nurse’s uniform does something for Burn Man, for Burn Man is not burnt everywhere, still has some desires, and the woman doesn’t have to touch anything else, doesn’t have to see me, has almost no contact, has a verbal contract, an oral contract, say.”

Burn Man discovered Cindi in an ad for escorts at the back of a local tabloid; he avoided the ad that read, “FIRE & DESIRE, Sensuous Centrefold Girls, HOT Fall Specials.” He rationalizes this by saying, “I don’t live in the metro area,” but the real cause of his avoidance is plain. Burn Man’s experience has become the central fact of his life, to the extent that everything is now associated with his disfigurement. To make money, Burn Man takes a series of part-time jobs that require him to dress up in head-to-toe costumes: a clown hocking flowers on the street outside the Bed of Roses flower shop, an ape delivering singing telegrams door to door, the Easter Bunny. He “can’t do Santa,” however. “I could definitely use the do-re-mi but the beard isn’t enough cover for my droopy right eye and melted cheek, the beard isn’t enough to save face, and also I confess to trouble with the constant Ho Ho Ho.”

The bad pun about saving face is indicative of Jarman’s willingness to engage in levels of dark humour in his story. One of Burn Man’s jobs is playing the Mighty Moose mascot for the local hockey team; he thinks it would make sense to get into a brawl with Raving Raven, the opposing team’s mascot:

All the skaters were scrapping, Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part One” booming on the sound system, and then both goalies started throwing haymakers. I thought the mascots should also duke it out – a sense of symmetry and loyalty. I banged at the Old World armour of that raven’s narrow, serious face, snapped his head back. Hoofs were my advantage.

At the bar afterward, Raven and Moose engage in “shop talk,” comparing abrasions and laughing about their fight. Jarman immediately shifts gears, however, returning to the more serious existential question of the universe’s apparent indifference, and the resultant lack of agency that human beings can ultimately exert over their fate:

Don’t fuck with me, rummy beard-jammers and balls-up bean-counters snarl at every bar on the island, as if they alone decide when they get fucked over. I could advise them on that. I didn’t decide to have the camper blow to shrapnel with me curled inside like a ball-turret gunner.

Jarman’s insistence on language as the driving force in his story allows him to negotiate such breakneck turns in tone and focus without once losing control; his brief, elliptical character study dances and flickers, like the flames that lick at Burn Man’s flesh. Burn Man rails against the injustice of his situation, and succumbs to his righteous anger by picturing himself attacking the doctor who advises him to imagine his ruined face as “a convenience, not an ornament”: “Thanks for that, Doc. Maybe I could take a razor to him, see if he still debates function versus ornament after I’ve cut him a new face.” And yet Burn Man is able to find a kind of solace in the memory of an unexpected kiss on a Texas porch years before; “I am a product of light, of hope,” he thinks, and longs for “the right fire” that will reverse his disfiguring scars and return him to wholeness. “Perhaps God will have mercy on me in my new exile,” Burn Man thinks. And after exploring the depths of anger, fear, and loneliness, his final epiphany is an optimistic one: “Ours really is an amazing world.”

Canada Also Reads begins

March 1, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Over at the National Post‘s blog, The Afterword, the Canada Also Reads shadow program, meant as a compliment to CBC’s unbelievably boring official Canada Reads 2010, is underway. This week, The Afterword will feature two essays per day, each one defending a particular title. The climax occurs next Monday, when the eight defenders will participate in a live roundtable discussion about the selected books.

To kick things off today, blogger John Mutford offers a spirited defence of his chosen title, Steve Zipp’s 2007 novel Yellowknife:

Despite the strong Canadian setting, Yellowknife owes more to Mikhail Bulgakov than Alice Munro. Once readers give up on the notion of typical CanLit (which has all the thrills of a station wagon crossing the prairies), they come to embrace Zipp’s  eclectic and energetic style. By gosh, a book can be smart and funny at the same time, it can be experimental and readable, it can be exciting.

And, not to be outdone, yr. humble correspondent chimes in with a defence of his title, Mark Anthony Jarman’s 2008 short story collection My White Planet:

Poet and literary critic Zachariah Wells once defined the short story as a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin. This description is especially appropriate to the work of Mark Anthony Jarman. The pieces in My White Planet more closely resemble prose poems than traditional Chekhovian stories; conventional notions of character and plot are less important than the jazzy, jangling music of Jarman’s language.

The rest of my incontrovertible defence of Jarman’s work is up at The Afterword. In the meantime, here’s my Quill & Quire review, which reiterates and expands on some of the essay’s key points:

Mark Anthony Jarman’s new collection of stories is something of a rarity in Canadian short fiction. It does not follow the tried-and-true template of the traditional Chekhovian story, which prizes naturalism and a familiar narrative arc. Rather, Jarman’s stories more closely resemble the postmodern collages of Donald Barthelme.

Jarman’s focus is not on story in the traditional sense, and although a handful of the selections in the book do end with a character reaching a kind of epiphany, the author’s core interest resides elsewhere – specifically, in the delirious and courageous use of language to create startling effects.

The 14 stories in My White Planet display an author who is positively word-drunk, delighting in twisting language into bizarre shapes, pushing and straining to test its resilience and its torque. There is a palpable giddiness to many of these stories; Jarman writes like a free jazz musician riffing on a central theme, or like a Beat poet jiving to the rhythms of his prose: “They climb up sheepish and angry because they’re not from a ghetto. By not being deprived, they’ve been deprived. O to be born in a ghetto, to get jiggy with the rats and the rasta players.”

Throughout, Jarman’s imagination is robustly catholic, incorporating references from high culture and pop culture, often in playful juxtaposition. The title of the story “Fables of the Deconstruction” is a sly, Derridaesque pun on the name of an R.E.M. album, and its epigraph is from Francis Bacon. Nods to indie rock bands Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Calexico rub shoulders with allusions to Machiavelli and Othello.

The subject matter and tone of the stories are similarly wide-ranging, from the bleak opener, “Night March in the Territory,” which follows a group of soldiers on a trek through unmapped American territory, to “Kingdoms and Knowledge,” which follows a Canadian citizen as he navigates his way through London, England, while tending to his mother who is suffering in an Alzheimer’s ward there. And “A Nation Plays Chopsticks,” about an old-timers hockey league, may be the finest explanation for Canadians’ love affair with the game that I’ve ever read.

The stories in this collection may not be to everybody’s taste. Weighing in at just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read, but not easily digested. Some of the stories are more accessible than others, but the collection as a whole exemplifies Wallace Stevens’ comment that poetry should “resist the intelligence, almost successfully.” In these stories, many of which resemble prose poems, Jarman has taken that dictum to heart, and the results are challenging and surprising.

Stay tuned for more updates about Canada Also Reads, as well as the annual play-by-play of the official Canada Reads debates, which will be hosted here by Alex Good and myself the week of March 8-12.

Canada Also Reads

February 12, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

So, between deadlines in my day job, the ongoing tawdry spectacle of the Toronto City Hall sex scandal, and John Mayer’s dick, my attention has been elsewhere recently, as you might have surmised from the sparse posts going up around these parts.

But, fear not: yr. humble correspondent has not been idle. Behind-the-scenes work has been ongoing on a variety of fronts, one of which you may already be aware of: I’m marching into battle as a member of the National Post‘s Canada Also Reads panel. This is a cool idea on the part of the guys who run the Post‘s Afterword blog. Like many of us, they were disappointed by the lack of surprises in this year’s official Canada Reads list, and they decided to inaugurate a shadow competition, featuring books that had flown under the radar and deserved more attention. I have the honour of defending Mark Anthony Jarman’s stellar 2008 story collection My White Planet, which somehow came and went without the flurry of accolades it so richly deserved.

It’s got some stiff competition, though. There are seven other books on the list, being defended by some pretty powerful advocates. The Afterword’s shortlist in full:

• Writer and critic Steven W. Beattie defends My White Planet by Mark Anthony Jarman (Thomas Allen Publishers)
• Author Tish Cohen (Inside Out Girl, Town House) defends The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (HarperCollins Canada)
• Singer/songwriter Andy Maize (Skydiggers) defends Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (McClelland & Stewart)
• Poet Jacob McArthur Mooney (The New Layman’s Almanac) defends The Last Shot by Leon Rooke (Thomas Allen Publishers)
• Blogger John Mutford defends Yellowknife by Steve Zipp (Res Telluris)
• Author Lisa Pasold (Rats of Las Vegas) defends You and The Pirates by Jocelyne Allens (The Workhorsery)
• Author Neil Smith (Bang Crunch) defends Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Knopf Canada)
• Author Zoe Whittall (Holding Still for as Long as Possible) defends Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles (Invisible Publishing)

While I’m admittedly biased, I think this list is far more interesting than the CBC’s official list. Today on the Canada Reads website, Flannery, the CBC’s blogger, discusses the joys of reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees for the first time, experiencing the twists and turns of the plot without prior knowledge of where the story would take her. For me, this is exactly the problem with the 2010 Canada Reads lineup: pace blogger Flannery, the list has very little that’s surprising at all. Fall on Your Knees is a known quantity, a book that has already been given the Oprah Book Club seal of approval. Similarly, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X has lent its name to an entire demographic, and its language is pervasive in our culture (does anyone out there not know what a “McJob” is?). Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s richest and most visible prize for fiction. The Post‘s list, by contrast, contains books I’ve never even heard of before, and I find that refreshing.

Stay tuned for further discussion of Canada Also Reads in general, and My White Planet in particular. And yes, once again yr. humble correspondent will provide a play-by-play commentary on the official Canada Reads debates, which run March 8–12. We’ll see if we can entice Alex Good back to participate as well.

More soon.

Like a big book club

July 1, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

In honour of the 142nd anniversary of Canada’s national inferiority complex Canada Day, The New York Times‘ op-ed page today features a clutch of transplanted Canadians, such as Seán Cullen, Bruce McCall, and Kim Cattrall, lamenting the things they miss about their home and native land. (Yr. humble correspondent’s favourite: creative director Lisa Naftolin misses the “u” in colour.) Among those represented is Sarah McNally, the proprietor of the Manhattan branch of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Bookstores. McNally cops to missing Winnipeg’s winters (?!?), but she also misses something she refers to as “CanLit”:

I miss the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds. In America we tend toward novels published specifically for one narrowly interpreted demographic. CanLit is an unassuming place, very welcome to immigrant writers, and since it doesn’t dice up readership according to profile there is a national conversation about literature, like a big book club.

It’s true that much American writing is ghettoized – rightly or wrongly – into what McNally refers to as “narrowly interpreted demographic[s]”: think chick lit, think technothrillers, think whatever it is Jodi Picoult writes. In large part, this is a result of the size of America’s population. With 300 million people, there is an authentic mass market in the U.S., unlike here in Canada, with a population one-tenth the size. If we have a more monolithic literary culture, this is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.

But McNally elides the downside of CanLit’s stranglehold on our national literary output: the stultifying sameness of the majority of books that are pumped out of the CanLit mill. We use the term CanLit, not in a nerdy way, but rather as code for a particular kind of book: muted, historical, domestic, naturalistic. CanLit calls to mind sepia tones and boxes of faded photographs, woodsmoke from the back yard and the sound of music held at a distance. CanLit is pretty and precious, eschewing dirt and jagged edges. It is never profane, bawdy, or raunchy.

CanLit is welcoming to immigrant writers, but in a melting-pot fashion that seems more appropriate to an American mythos than that of our vaunted Canadian mosaic. Rohinton Mistry may set his sprawling sagas in Bombay; M.G. Vassanji may set his in Pirbaag. But in their adherence to an historical focus and a naturalistic approach, Mistry and Vassanji might as well have been born in Toronto or Halifax. The metafictional gamesmanship of Shahriar Mandanipour, author of the well-received novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, would not find a comfortable home in the echelons of CanLit. It’s no accident that Mandanipour, an Iranian, has taken up refuge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Montreal or Vancouver. (True, Montreal has Rawi Hage, but back off: I’m trying to make a point here.)

Similarly, America can boast a literary culture in which Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy all sell in good numbers; that diversity of authors and approaches does not exist in our “big book club” north of the 49th parallel. Or rather, it does, but it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what is usually understood by the term “CanLit.” When most people in this country talk about CanLit, they are referring to Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, not Mark Anthony Jarman, Lisa Foad, and Matt Shaw. (“Who?” I hear you ask. “Exactly,” I respond.)

McNally is correct to isolate CanLit as a national, monolithic catch-all for our literature, the “big book club” that dominates our literary discourse, and more often than not ignores the diversity of output that goes on below the surface of our cultural consciousness. McNally and I differ only as to whether or not this is a good thing.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.