31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 21: “Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada” by Ray Smith

May 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada

The title story of Ray Smith’s 1969 collection is a postmodern collage that neatly puts the boots to the kind of earnest Canadian nationalism running rampant in this country at the time. Subtitled “A Centennial Project,” the story traverses the nation from Cape Breton to British Columbia, with detours to Poland along the way, in the process touching on subjects as diverse as American hegemony, Expo ’67, and the literary technique of The Bible. Clearly, Smith’s story is not a typical piece of Canadian naturalism.

Commenting on the story in his introduction to the Biblioasis Renditions edition of the book, Smith says, “Large political enthusiasms (and there were lots about in the late sixties) seem to me to suffer loss of clarity, complexity, subtlety. ‘Cape Breton …’ was my attempt to retrieve and fix some nuances in a valid balance.” Readers unsympathetic to what Smith calls “soi-disant originality” may find little apparent balance in his story, which appears on its surface to be a series of unconnected, technically discrete scenes. But “Cape Breton …” evinces a deep structure, not on the level of plot (there is no plot to speak of) but on a thematic level. The balance in Smith’s story results from the involutions of his sustained examination of power dynamics on several fronts: personal, national, and international.

This being a work of postmodernism, it is incumbent upon Smith to comment on his process in the story, and to draw his reader’s attention to its essential fictiveness. He does this in a snippet explaining how a friend “conned” him into a discussion of his interest in “compiled fiction” (this section, narrated in the first person, is associated with the author, although there is no specific indication that the narrator here is Ray Smith). In this section of the story, the narrator addresses the reader directly and then goes on to point out that the technical form is not new, but dates back at least as far as Ezra Pound. “Other precedents might be Francis Bacon’s essays, the Book of Proverbs … the whole Bible …” “Hey, that’s great,” the friend says. “But I hope you aren’t expecting to sell any of these compilations.”

This is at once a sly acknowledgment of a reticence on the part of Canadian publishers (and readers) to embrace technically challenging material, and an example of Smith’s humour, which is one of his most potent attributes. It is deployed throughout the story by way of biting irony (the reference to “Anti-American slogans like; ‘Give me liberty or give me death!'”) and absurd juxtapositions (“For Centennial Year, send President Johnson a gift: an American tourist’s ear in a matchbox”). There is also savage political commentary disguised as frat-boy badinage:

See, the way I look at it, your problem is that Joe Yank is the biggest kid on the block. Now I know you’re pretty friendly with him – him being your cousin and all – but someday he’s going to say, “Johnny Canuck, my boot is dirty. Lick it.”

Now then, are you going to get down on your hands and knees and lick or are you going to say, “Suck ice, Joe Yank”? Because if you do say, “Suck ice,” he’s going to kick you in the nuts. And either way, you’re going to lick those boots. It just depends on how you want to take it.

Those words, written in 1967, seem to have an uncomfortable resonance from the vantage point of 2010.

Indeed, much of “Cape Breton …” involves an examination of the power imbalance between Canada and the U.S. “Americans,” we are told, “are loath to fight without a divine cause,” which is becoming more apparent with each passing day. “With their divine cause,” Smith goes on, “the Americans would destroy our Armed Forces in one week.” And should we decide to fight back, what are the options open to us? Blowing up the Peace Bridge or mailing an American tourist’s ear to the U.S. president. Smith suggests that in the face of American hegemony, Canadian nationalism is a patent absurdity. Like the anonymous couple who decide that it’s better to declare their love for one another “even if it’s a technical lie,” Canadians are forced by circumstance of geography and economic and military might into a Hobson’s Choice: “Would you rather be smothered under a pillow of American greenbacks or cut open on a U.S. Marine’s bayonet?”

The Canadian geopolitical situation is juxtaposed with that of Poland, which has “survived despite the attentions paid them by their neighbours, the Russians and the Germans.” The Polish patriot Count Z. dies in battle, while Baron Otto and Prince Igor take up residence in his old office to partition the country over a snack of liverwurst and vodka. In Smith’s allegorical conception, patriotic self-actualization ends in death. (In this regard, note the absurd futility of the scene between Bill and George, who represent a comic debasement of the self-defeating antagonistic relationship between putatively friendly nations.)

In the end, Smith seems to imply that blind Canadian nationalism is like the virgin Judy, who goes to a party with the explicit intention of losing her virginity. Unable to find a willing suitor, she heads out into the street, where she is violently raped. Fortunately, her virginity is later restored “in a Venus-wide bath,” allowing her to repeat the process over again. Through it all, Judy is convinced that “she leads a sane, healthy, and well-balanced life.” And that, my friends, is one of the most damning indictments of the Canadian condition in our literature.

One from the vaults: Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat

January 25, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Some of you may recall my feeling of déjà vu upon hearing the lineup for this year’s edition of Canada Reads. It seems I’m not the only one who found the list this year a tad uninspiring. Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This was so disappointed at the lack of unexpected choices on this year’s roster that she set up her own “shadow” program, which she’s calling Canada Reads 2010: Independently. She recruited five literary folks – including yr. humble correspondent – to offer competing suggestions for “book recommendations out of nowhere, books I’d never pick up otherwise, that challenge my sensibilities, and that I might just fall in love with.”

The first book she read was Ray Smith’s Century, which was recommended by Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells. Since Kerry has set up her program as a competition, and given that I chose another book entirely for her to read, it’s probably not wise for me to admit this (although regular readers of this site will already be well aware of it), but I greatly admire Smith’s novel.

The second book Kerry tackled, selected for her by one Patricia Storms, is a collection of linked short stories by Carrie Snyder called Hair Hat. In my checkered past, when I was reviewing for the now-defunct Books in Canada, one of the books that fell into my lap was Hair Hat. My BiC review is reprinted below. I’d be interested to return to Snyder’s text and find out whether my reaction has changed at all; Kerry’s review gives me the opportunity to dig out my copy and do just that. In the meantime, here is my response circa 2004. (Hair Hat is not currently available in stores, but if either Kerry’s or my own review piques your interest, the author has copies of the book for sale through her website.)

***

Carrie Snyder’s volume of 11 stories is linked by the presence of a mysterious figure whose hair is sculpted into the shape of a hat. This nameless figure keeps cropping up – on a beach, in a donut shop, returning a lost wallet – but remains a peripheral figure, as though inhabiting the blurred edges of a photograph. Until, that is, the penultimate story in the collection, when the Hair Hat Man is brought front and centre.

Before becoming the focus of attention, he wanders aimlessly into and out of the lives of a seemingly disparate group of characters: a young girl consumed with guilt over her complicity in the drowning death of her best friend; a mother taking her two children on a day trip to the beach; a female graduate student who flirts openly at a bar in the presence of her boyfriend.

The connections between the characters are occasionally self-evident: the young girl with the drowned friend in the opening story, “Yellow Cherries,” reappears in “Comfort,” which tells the same story from the point of view of the girl’s Aunt Lucy. When the Hair Hat Man shows up at Lucy’s farm, he recognizes the girl as his daughter’s best friend in school; the two girls appear together in the collection’s final story, “Chosen.”

But there are less readily apparent connections running throughout Hair Hat. Absence dominates these stories: the characters in Snyder’s collection are all, in one way or another, missing something. The young girl in “Yellow Cherries” is haunted by the absence of her dead friend. The mother in “Tumbleweed” suspects her husband of being unfaithful, but engages in a program of avoidance and denial, and the husband himself remains absent throughout, never actually appearing in the story. The daughter in “The Apartment” loses her wallet, and in “Third Dog,” the titular canine, symbolic of a kind of malevolent destiny, hovers over the entire story, but never appears in it. The central absence in the collection afflicts the Hair Hat Man himself – it is no accident that the story in which he finally appears in the foreground is titled “Missing.” The way these characters deal with loss – both physical and spiritual – provides the thread that weaves these stories together, lending them a subtle thematic cohesion.

Hair Hat is not, however, simply a collection of short fiction thematically unified by a concern with absence and loss or an examination of the specific responses and repercussions these states have on a particular group of characters. The book is avowedly a collection of linked stories, and it is the very linking device – the presence of the Hair Hat Man himself – that ultimately sinks the collection.

Unlike Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, or Michael Winter’s One Last Good Look – linked story collections which are actually variations on the traditional Bildungsroman – Snyder’s stories are yoked together in a way that is highly artificial and intrusive. Snyder’s preferred mode of storytelling is mimetic naturalism of the “kitchen sink” variety, but the eccentrically coiffed interloper who keeps reappearing seems for most of the book’s duration like a cartoonish figure; he feels out of place and is distracting for the reader. Even when we are finally made privy to the Hair Hat Man’s story, his essential ludicrousness is inescapable. The longing and loss that his story insists on is overwhelmed by the reader’s curiosity about how he sleeps and what kind of styling mousse he uses.

It is clear that the author intends the Hair Hat Man’s unorthodox appearance to act as a catalyst of sorts for the other characters in the book, a means of dragging them out of the ordinariness of their lives and forcing their situations into sharper relief. Here is Lucy’s reaction to the Hair Hat Man in “Comfort”: “His presence, his hair hat, were uncalled for, an accident, a misfortune, a blemish on an otherwise clean, calculated day that should have held nothing but the ordinary reminders and warnings.” But even this feels forced and heavy handed, and is insufficient to make the character seem like anything other than an artificial authorial imposition binding together stories that would have been better left discrete.

Lost in the narrows

September 11, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Barbara Kay and Lev Grossman seem cut from the same cloth. Both of them, in their own ways, disdain what they perceive as “difficult” novels. Kay, whom some of you may recall took issue with a generally laudatory (or, in Kay’s own words, “gushy”) assessment of Lisa Moore’s second novel, February, recently published a column in the National Post decrying Canadian literature that she claims is “dying in beauty.” For Kay, Moore is, “like so many others of her sensitive, creativeworkshopped-to-death ilk, a writer’s writer privileging an artistic, leisured rendering of memory and feeling over prole-friendly dialogue, action and, above all, plot.”

In this, she echoes Grossman, whom she name-checks in her article, and who, in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, criticized the modernists for neglecting plot and inculcating the idea that literature has to be difficult in order to be valuable:

The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did. One of the things they broke was plot.

To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the Boy’s Own war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in The Mill on the Floss and spat out The Sound and the Fury.

Grossman takes issue with the “discipline of the conventional literary novel,” which partakes of “a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience,” and asks, “Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?”

Both Kay and Grossman are rehearsing the distinction that Jonathan Franzen draws (in his 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult”) between the “Status model” of fiction and the “Contract model.” The Status model is premised upon the idea that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” According to the Status model “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” In the Contract model, by contrast, the writer offers “words out of which the reader creates a pleasant experience.” For adherents of Contract, “difficulty is a sign of trouble,” which “may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity or his literary-club membership ahead of the audience’s legitimate desire for connection.”

Obviously, both Kay and Grossman are Contract adherents. Kay holds little truck with novels that are “dying in beauty,” novels in which the technique or the language is an end in itself. Similarly, Grossman approves of Cormac McCarthy’s late-career digression into genre fiction, and applauds the normally prolix Thomas Pynchon for writing a straightforward hard-boiled crime novel. Where both of their arguments fail, however, is in their implicit assumption that “difficult” writing – writing that demands to be appreciated on its own terms – and pleasure are mutually exclusive. Franzen, himself an admitted Contract person, acknowledges this stumbling block when he adumbrates the extreme end of Contract thinking:

Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.

The only problem being that nowhere is it written that the consumer of fiction actually does rule, at least not in the way that Kay and Grossman would have it. If a reader runs up against a “difficult” book, or a book that doesn’t play by conventional rules or act in the way the reader thinks it is supposed to act, perhaps the fault lies not with the obstreperousness of the writer, but with the narrow prejudices of the reader. A reader who assumes that plot-driven novels are the only kind that can give pleasure will not be won over by books like Century by Ray Smith, in which the main source of pleasure is revelling in the author’s technical mastery. Nor will they gravitate toward McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where what happens is infinitely less important than the author’s exuberance in the uses and possibilities of language.

In her assessment of February, Kay locates “[t]wo feeble points of what-happens-next ‘tension,'” and the dismissive quotation marks around the final word indicate that for Kay, even these two moments were pallid and underwhelming. But as a writer, Moore has never been all that interested in conventional approaches to things like plot or suspense. For Moore, language has always been more important than plot; the tension in Moore’s writing exists in the technique itself. To not recognize this says more about the narrowness of a reader than about the inherent pleasurability of Moore’s writing.

Ultimately, both Kay and Grossman suffer from an artificially proscribed view of the pleasures literature has to offer. For them, a novel is only enjoyable if it does what they want it to do (which is, finally, to behave like other novels they’ve enjoyed in the past). Such a reader will never be able to derive pleasure from books like Ulysses or Wise Blood or Hopscotch, because these are novels that demand to be met on their own terms. In order to find pleasure in them, readers must abandon their preconceptions and open themselves to an experience that is unfamiliar, foreign, and, yes, possibly even difficult. They are novels that require work, but their rewards are commensurate with the effort a sympathetic reader is willing to put into them.

Ray Smith’s melancholy century

July 3, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

centuryIt’s hard to know where to begin a discussion of Century, Ray Smith’s corrosive 1986 novel, which was reprinted in 2008 as part of Biblioasis’s Renditions series. The book was first unleashed on an unsuspecting readership following a 15-year silence from the author. Smith’s first novel, Lord Nelson Tavern, appeared in 1974, five years after his debut, the story collection Cape Breton Is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada (1969), a technically difficult volume that has been characterized variously as “postmodern” and “experimental.” Smith himself has professed that following Cape Breton, he wanted to make his books more accessible to a general audience.

Century‘s accessibility to a reading public weaned on the novels of Jane Urquhart and M.G. Vassanji may not be entirely evident. As a writer, Smith has always been more concerned with language and technique than with the niceties of plot, setting, or chronology, and this is certainly true of Century, whose time frame shuttles backward and forward, ultimately encompassing a little less than the titular hundred years; rather, it spans the neatly anagrammatic period between 1893 and 1983. Even the book’s generic classification is dubious: Smith calls it his best work “as a novelist,” but Century‘s six parts discard most of the conventions typical of chapters in a novel and more closely resemble self-contained stories. Indeed, in his preface to the Biblioasis edition, Charles Foran tries out various labels – “novel, or collection of linked stories, or sequence of fictions” – before finally deeming the book “unclassifiable.” The closest description Foran can muster is to call the work a “tonal labyrinth.”

Century‘s first section, “Family,” is composed of four parts loosely linked by characters related to one another via birth or marriage; the second section, “The Continental,” follows the American Kenniston Thorson as he travels through Europe, eventually alighting in Germany during the interwar period. The New World traveller in Old World Europe was a favourite of Henry James, but Smith is not at all interested in the master’s brand of psychological realism. Instead of abandoning the postmodern roots he laid down in his debut, in Century Smith actively underscores the fictiveness of his narrative right from the get-go. The book’s opening line – “In the night, Heinrich Himmler came to her as she lay waiting for sleep” – is tinged with a kind of morbid Gothicism, which becomes yet more fanciful and creepy when it is made apparent that the events being narrated occur in the spring of 1976, and the figure of Himmler is actually a spectral apparition that exists on the border between nightmare and waking.

The woman who is haunted by the ghost of the dead Nazi is named Jane Seymour, and her story is related in the first person by a novelist who has not published a book in ten years. He begins writing Jane’s story on a Friday in 1983 and, he says, “story it is, fiction.” The insistence on fiction qua fiction is typical of the postmodernist, but Smith adds layers of ambiguity to this account. “Although there never was a Jane Seymour,” the novelist tells us, “there was a young woman in a bar.” This young woman, we are told, travelled to Barbados over Christmas, and while she was there she killed herself. The novelist appropriates the suicide for the fictional Jane (which is, after all, what novelists do), but this incident also has echoes in a later story, “The Garden of the Hesperides.” In that story, the male narrator recalls his daughter, Jane, who committed suicide while the family was travelling in Barbados. The memory of his daughter’s suicide prompts another, earlier memory, in which little Jane approaches her father in his garden and demands, “Daddy, Daddy, tell me a story!”

This business of making stories is central to one of Smith’s pervasive thematic concerns in Century: the responsibility of art to rescue morality from a debased world. And make no mistake: the world of Century is debased. (“Do I then blame myself?” thinks the father about his daughter’s suicide, “Or this murderous century?”) Debased, and shot through with darkness. The book begins with the ghostly Himmler advancing upon Jane through “the unfamiliar dark,” and ends with “chill in the swirling dark all about.” This is the world as it is rendered throughout the book: cold and frightening, full of rape and murder and betrayal, all of it consigned to a vale of darkness. It is art, Smith suggests, that is able to wrest meaning from the darkness of modern life, but only if it is able to get beneath the surface of human existence. This idea is clarified late in the novel by Toulouse Lautrec, who drinks with the American Kenniston in a Parisian dancehall:

There is at the centre of painting an apparent paradox: painting is an art which takes surfaces for its immediate subject and uses surfaces for its medium. But the only art worth the fleas on a streetwalker’s crotch is art which deals with essences. In some cases it is the essence of generality, in others the essence of a particularity, but always it is essences. How this paradox is to be explained is the central question of all aesthetic theory in regard to painting; and how it is to be solved in practice is the central problem for all painters.

Extrapolating from painting to the written word, Century argues for solving the problem of surface vs. essence by dispensing with the recognizable elements of naturalism and retreating – if that is even the proper word – into a realm of pure language, of texture and technique. If there is a proper metaphor for what Smith’s sentences accomplish it has less to do with the visual arts than with music. The various pieces in Century, with their echoes and reverberations, their layers of images and ideas, resemble the prose equivalent of a symphony. It is appropriate to call the book a novel, because its effect is cumulative: the various parts (movements) are ultimately in the service of a single aesthetic purpose. The book has internal integrity: the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts in isolation.

If Smith’s novel has been unfairly ignored in the pantheon of important Canadian literature, it might be because of its unfamiliarity, but it might equally have to do with the pervading sadness of its vision. The novelist in the opening story finds a kind of salvation in his writing, but the father who is his doppelgänger later on comes to a much more contingent conclusion:

These little trips will help me to bear what I know is coming, but the real solace will be my imaginary garden. Surely the green of it will comfort me when the jumbo jet next disgorges me, and again I will gaze upon the running sores, the twisted limbs, the clutching brown hands, surely cool breezes from it will restore my soul when next I walk into the lazy, swirling colour, the drifting red dust, the blinding light, the hot, sweet breath of Africa.

Surely?

The forlorn tentativeness of that last one-word interrogative suggests that perhaps even the imagination, which is the wellspring of all art, is insufficient to counter the corruption of modernity – an unsettling thought in a novel whose last word is “lost.”

Still, the experience of reading Century is bracing, even 23 years after it was first published. Its pervasive sense of melancholy in the face of a fallen world may even carry greater impact in our post-9/11 society. In any event, it remains sui generis: a strange, searing work by one of our finest literary practitioners.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED: Ray Smith’s first novel, Lord Nelson Tavern, appeared in 1974, not 1976 as originally written. TSR regrets the error. (Thanks, Mark.)