Scotiabank Giller longlist features surprise inclusions, omissions

September 20, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

No one can accuse them of being predictable. Anyone who was trying to outguess this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury – made up of broadcaster Michael Enright, novelist Claire Messud, and novelist and short-story writer Ali Smith – likely spent most of the day scratching their heads over the 2010 longlist. Granted, most of the mainstays on CanLit prize lists don’t have books out this year, the exception being Jane Urquhart, who has indeed found a spot among the baker’s dozen announced today. I’d say she’s pretty much a shoo-in to make the shortlist, too, but if today is any indication of how things will proceed from here, such prognostication is foolish in the extreme.

This year’s jury tilted toward lesser-known names and smaller publishing houses, in the process passing over some of the best-reviewed books of the year, such as Miguel Syjuco’s Illustrado (which has already won the Asian Man Booker Prize), Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (winner of the Betty Trask Award and longlisted for the IMPAC and the Orange Prize), and Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize). In their place, the jury chose books by Johanna Skibsrud and Cordelia Strube, both of which were published in calendar year 2009, debut story collections by Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky, and a thriller set in Israel by Avner Mandelman, a virtual unknown here in Canada, despite having previously published two books with the small press Oberon. (Like Mary Swan in 2008, Mandelman’s new book doesn’t even have a Canadian publisher: it’s published by Other Press in the States and distributed here by Random House of Canada.)

Truly, this is one of the most bizarre longlists any Giller jury has produced. This is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The list in full:

  • David Bergen, The Matter with Morris (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Douglas Coupland, Player One (House of Anansi Press)
  • Michael Helm, Cities of Refuge (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting (Biblioasis)
  • Avner Mandelman, The Debba (Other Press)
  • Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists (The Dial Press)
  • Sarah Selecky, This Cake Is for the Party (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press)
  • Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)
  • Joan Thomas, Curiosity (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Dianne Warren, Cool Water (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Kathleen Winter, Annabel (House of Anansi Press)

At three nominations, McClelland & Stewart leads the pack, followed by HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press with two apiece. Like The Debba, Tom Rachman’s bestseller The Imperfectionists is published by an American house, The Dial Press, and distributed here in Canada by Random. The author is Toronto-born but currently lives in Rome.

The jury also tapped Douglas Coupland for his idiosyncratic Massey Lectures, Player One, which take the form of a novel. (Writing in The Globe and Mail, John Barber says this is “the first lecture series nominated for a literary award,” which is not entirely true: John Ralston Saul’s Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, won the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award.) Where Coupland’s novel is concerned, at least one person would beg to differ with the jury’s assessment: writing in the Telegraph, Ian Crichtley said that the book’s characters are “more like computer avatars than people,” and that they “become more long-winded the more dire their situation becomes.”

Of the longlist, the jury writes, “This is a vibrant and exciting list. We came very harmoniously to our final decision, which, in the ranging of its featured books between astonishing debuts and brilliant new work by already well-known, major Canadian writers, and between the historical and the contemporary, the traditional and the experimental, the long, the short, and the unexpected in both story and form, stands as a showcase in its own right of the vision, the energy, the internationalism, and the open-eyed versatility of contemporary Canadian fiction.”

The key word, of course, being “unexpected.” I had high hopes for this year’s jury, given that two out of the three members are from outside the country and thus not prone (one would expect) to fall back on the traditionally accepted verities of CanLit. And both Smith and Messud have boundary-pushing sensibilities, which led me to hope that we might see something a bit more out of the box emerge from this year’s prize. So far, the jury has not disappointed. This is a truly eclectic and, yes, unexpected list. If the jury maintains the courage of its convictions, the 2010 shortlist, which is to be announced on October 5, has the potential to be the most interesting group of books since 2006. Then again, we all know how things turned out that year.

Stay tuned.

Linden MacIntyre is Giller’s 2009 choice

November 11, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

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.

Scotiabank Giller Prize, Book 5

November 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Fall. Colin McAdam; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $32.00 cloth, 362 pp., 978-0-670-06720-6.

fall_coverPrevious Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award (Some Great Thing)

Governor General’s Literary Award (Some Great Thing, nominee)

Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (Some Great Thing, nominee)

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Some Great Thing, nominee)

John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (Some Great Thing, nominee)

From the publisher: “A disturbing and unforgettable story of guilt, memory, and confused identity, Colin McAdam’s second novel is a work of power, pitch-perfect observation, and searing ambition. It confirms his status as a unique talent, one of the few living novelists capable of taking the modern novel and forging from it something startling and wholly new.”

From reviews: “[W]hat saves Fall is McAdam’s ability to upend the reader’s expectations of his narrators. Noel goes from awkward underdog to suspect; Julius, he of the unexamined life, becomes more sympathetic as he experiences loss. In his take on the boarding-school novel, McAdam offers a portrait of male adolescence that’s both empathetic and stylistically daring.” – Kevin Chong, National Post

“Though McAdam dabbles with the conventions of a psychological thriller, he never seems very interested in motivation, repentance or punishment; what fascinates him most is the brutal and brutalising environment of St. Ebury. He has written a sensitive, honest and horrifying portrait of everyday life in an elite, expensive boarding school, describing the fear, violence, longings and loneliness of confused adolescents confined in a parentless prison.” – Josh Lacey, The Guardian

“McAdam pursues interesting literary techniques here, making frequent switches in time as well as points of view, but thanks to his undeniable talent, we are engaged, rather than confused, by this.” – William Kowalski, The Globe and Mail

My reaction: Set in a private Ottawa boarding school called St. Ebury, Fall tells the story of a kind of bizarre love triangle. Noel, the bookish, quiet boy with the lazy eye is obsessed with Fallon DeStindt, the most beautiful of the few female students at the school. Fallon, known as Fall, is in love with Julius, Noel’s roommate, one of St. Ebury’s most popular boys. The central event in the novel is Fall’s disappearance, which has repercussions for both Noel and Julius.

Although McAdam sets up his story as a psychological thriller, it can also be read as a kind of postmodern exercise in narrative perception. The events of the novel are filtered through the alternating first-person narrations of Noel and Julius, with a handful of short sections narrated by William, who served for a time as chauffeur for Julius’s father. The two dominant narrative strands stand in stark contrast to one another. As befitting his studious nature, Noel’s sections are contemplative and carefully crafted. Julius, on the other hand, is relatively inarticulate and concerns himself mostly with the prospect of having sex with Fall; his sections are presented in staccato bursts of unattributed dialogue that read like David Mamet suffering from Tourette’s. Moreover, Noel is narrating his story from a distance of 12 years: now 30 and a lawyer, he was 18 when the events of the novel transpired. Late in the novel, he says, “I am writing all of this down because I wish to be more than a lonely collection of other people’s perceptions.”

The result of this approach is that events in the novel are frequently presented twice, from wildly divergent viewpoints. The central mystery – what happened to Fall? – is never definitively solved, but no matter: the plot isn’t the real draw here. McAdam is most interested in presenting detailed psychological portraits of his two main characters, and it is to the author’s credit that these frequently flout our expectations. The popular, fun-loving student turns out to be an inveterate softie, hopelessly in love with Fall, and (at least in the novel’s early stages) friendly toward the relatively outcast Noel. By contrast, the serious, quiet student is shown to have a nascent sociopathic streak: his quiet introversion belies a pulsing rage and what turns into a dangerous obsession with Fall. “I’ve often thought that quiet people are the most interesting,” Noel writes, “not because they can have thoughtful responses but because the louder world has generally suppressed them into some sort of perversion.”

Not everything about Fall works equally well. McAdam displays a virtuosic flare for modulating tone: he is able to make readers laugh out loud one moment and shudder in discomfort the next. But he has a tendency to go overboard, particularly in the sections narrated by Julius. The idiosyncratic dialogue occasionally becomes overwhelming, and McAdam’s predilection for onomatopoeia can be distracting. (Sex, for example, is rendered thusly: “I’m gonna come already that’s so fuckin soft and warm and look … … Hoo. Hya. God. … HOOO. HOOOAA. Fuck.”)

Still, despite its evident flaws, Fall is easily the most entertaining and energetic of the five Giller shortlisted books this year. Not precisely a thriller, and not entirely a coming-of-age story, it is instead an intriguing hybrid novel: a story of memory and loss very different from the kind we’ve come to expect here in Canada.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 4

November 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The Winter Vault. Anne Michaels; McClelland & Stewart, $32.99 cloth, 342 pp., 978-0-7710-5890-5.

michaels4Previous Giller wins/noms: Fugitive Pieces (nominee)

Other awards (selected): Orange Prize for fiction (Fugitive Pieces)

Trillium Book Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Guardian Fiction Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Commonwealth Prize for the Americas (The Weight of Oranges)

Canadian Authors Association Award (Miner’s Pond)

Governor General’s Award (Miner’s Pond, nominee)

From the publisher: “Weaving together historical moments and the quiet intimacy of human lives, The Winter Vault tells of the ways in which we salvage what we can from the violence of life. It is the story of a husband and wife trying to find their way back to each other, of people and nations displaced and uprooted, of the myriad means by which we all seek out a place we can call home. Vivid in its descriptions of both the physical and emotional worlds of its characters, this breathtaking, deeply moving novel reveals the inescapability of memories, the devastation of loss, and the restorative powers of love.”

From reviews: “The characters in The Winter Vault live in a world of intense emotion and ethical grappling, ‘an engagement of mind … almost shattering in its pleasure.’ Freed from the shackles of groceries and telephone bills, their essences appear distilled or concentrated on the page. Luckily this paring down, under Michaels’ sure hand, makes them not less human but more so.” – Alison Pick, The Walrus

“Michaels produces passages of lyrical beauty, and eloquently expresses her horror at human violence inflicted on the land and its inhabitants. Yet the novel’s emotional impact remains subdued, in part because Michaels at times allows her lessons – of botany, history, architecture – to overwhelm her story; and in part because of the abrupt narrative shift halfway through.” – Sylvia Brownrigg, the Guardian

“After that first meeting of our lovers, what ensues are a series of conversations between Jean and Avery in which they reveal their respective pasts to one another. It is these conversations – forming a series of highly plumed lyrical monologues – that make The Winter Vault work more like an epic poem than a novel. Think of the Arabian Nights, or the Odyssey, where characters incessantly tell stories about themselves and others; these are texts that carry whole cultures within themselves, and Michaels achieves something similar here.” – Steven Hayward, The Globe and Mail

“A friend of mine once described Don DeLillo’s Underworld as a book in which every sentence seems burdened by the weight of its own genius, and the same critique applies here: this novel is too systematic, too perfectly self-contained, too precious. Too often its characters sound like voices in a wispy philosophical dialogue, or a fragment of Kahlil Gibran … But beware: the reader who bites blissfully through these layers of frosting, expecting to find a soft, spongy filling, is going to wind up with a mouthful of shrapnel, sand and broken glass. By the end of The Winter Vault – hallelujah! – Anne Michaels has pulled off the ultimate trick of making us forget we’ve ever read a book like this before.” – Jess Row, The New York Times

My reaction: In 1964, husband and wife Avery and Jean Escher participate in the relocation of the sacred temple at Abu Simbel, which is being displaced by the building of the Aswan Dam. Jean gets pregnant, but her baby is stillborn. Returning to Toronto, the grief-stricken Jean (now separated from Avery) takes up with Lucjan, a Polish emigré artist scarred by the collective history of Warsaw’s experience during the war.

On one level, trying to describe the story in The Winter Vault is futile, because there really isn’t one. Instead of a traditionally novelistic narrative, Michaels has created a rumination, a meditation on violence and displacement, loss and memory, art and war. Whatever emotional weight accrues to the novel results not from a careful depiction of characters in action but from the way in which Michaels’ melancholic sensibility transforms the events of history into an extended metaphor for humanity’s connection to place and some abstract notion of home:

If you move his body then you’ll have to move the hill. You’ll have to move the fields around him. You’ll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children. You’ll have to move the sun because it sets among those trees. And move his mother and his father and his younger sister – she was the most admired girl in the country, but all the men died in the first war, so she never married and was laid to rest next to her mother. They’re all company for one another and those graves are old, so you’ll have to move the earth with them to make sure nothing of anyone is left behind. Can you promise me that?

It is to Michaels’ credit that much of this is done without recourse to the kind of baroque frippery that was so evident throughout Fugitive Pieces. True, Michaels can’t resist the occasional retreat into the self-consciously poetic (“He thought that only love teaches a man his death, that it is in the solitude of love that we learn to drown”), but for the most part, The Winter Vault is remarkably restrained.

There’s little point in complaining about the lack of an engaging story or conventionally defined characters. These things don’t interest Michaels. But even the most unsympathetic reader can’t help being impressed by the author’s deftness at handling the novel’s complicated chronology, nor can such a reader be blind to the chimes and resonances that play off one another in the narrative. Critics have argued with some validity that the second half of the novel does not possess the same force as the first; nevertheless, the contrast between the descriptions of the relocation of Abu Simbel and the reconstruction of Warsaw is illuminating, and carries with it an undeniable ironic power.

Heavily researched and lyrically rendered, The Winter Vault suffers from a surfeit of intellectualism at the expense of immediacy and vigour. The bone white and faded grey of the book’s carefully composed cover image are a perfect visual representation of its melancholic contents. “Some places are drenched in sorrow,” one of the characters says. Likewise, some novels.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 3

November 3, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The Golden Mean. Annabel Lyon; Random House Canada, $32.95 cloth, 294 pp., 978-0-307-35620-8.

imagePrevious Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction (The Best Thing for You, nominee)

City of Vancouver Book Award (The Best Thing for You, nominee)

Danuta Gleed Award (Oxygen, nominee)

From the publisher: “Exploring a fabled time and place, Annabel Lyon tells her story, breathtakingly, in the earthy, frank, and perceptive voice of Aristotle himself. With sensual and muscular prose, she explores how Aristotle’s genius touched the boy who would conquer the known world. And she reveals how we still live with the ghosts of both men.”

From reviews: The Golden Mean is a crisply written, painstakingly researched book, and Lyon ably inhabits ‘the greatest mind of all time’ – hardly a mean feat. This, then, is a virtuous work, though fibrous, fat-free and rarely what you’d call fun. But that is probably exactly as Aristotle would have wanted it.” – Cynthia Macdonald, The Globe and Mail

“Lyon’s singular gifts for description, character development, and plotting are on full display here, informing her unique and creative story. The novel is deep and rich in thought and accomplishment, yet it reads with the calming ease and influence of a cool summer breeze.” – Edward Carson, Quill & Quire (starred review)

The Golden Mean is certainly an audacious attempt to create a flesh and blood Aristotle, with intimate glances into his psyche. Again, Lyon takes risks with technique in pursuit of immediacy, chiefly in her use of present tense through most of the narrative. This prevalence of first-person present tense is infrequently used in fiction, and there’s a reason for it. It encourages self-consciousness on the part of the narrator, it tends to slow narrative momentum and it flattens out a multi-layered awareness of time. In this case it heightens the already formidable difficulty of creating believable historical characters in a world that is not our world.” – Philip Marchand, National Post

My reaction: When one conceives of the philosopher Aristotle, one is likely to imagine a noble, white-bearded man standing at the head of an auditorium and pronouncing carefully on matters erudite and weighty. One is not likely to imagine a man suffering from a cold and “constantly blowing great green skeins of snot from [his] nose.” Nor is one likely to picture the venerable man of ideas doing something as primal as performing cunnilingus on his wife:

I put my tongue just there, on the pomegranate seed, and the tendons in her groin go taut as bowstrings. Pity and fear, purgation, relief. My tongue, working. A substance like the white of an egg.

The Aristotle of The Golden Mean is earthy and vulgar, swearing up a storm and content to describe the way in which he engages in all manner of human excretion and evacuation – spitting, pissing, shitting. He is also unrepentantly sexist – he believes that “[t]he hierarchy of the state mimics that of the household, where men lead and women and slaves obey, as nature has fitted them to do.” He is startled when his mistress claims to have had an orgasm: “My father had taught me what she claimed to experience was not physically possible.” (He performs cunnilingus on his wife not to give her pleasure, but to investigate her secretions.)

In other words, Lyon goes out of her way to humanize Aristotle, to bring him down to size. So, too, Alexander (who will become Alexander the Great), the philosopher’s charge, who as a young man is almost equal parts bravado and insecurity. Lyon also intimates that each of her characters suffers from mental afflictions that have only recently been given names: bipolar disorder in the philosopher’s case, post-traumatic stress disorder in the soldier’s.

But this insistence on her characters’ earthiness does not prevent the kind of lyrical turn of phrase that is typical of many historical novels: “The first snow of the season comes whispering late one grey afternoon …” Nor does it save us from passages that devolve into didactic disquisitions on the history of the period:

The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren’t. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?

The Golden Mean is a difficult book to like. Lyon’s technique – narrating the story in the first person and using predominantly the present tense – is solid, though for a writer who has been almost universally praised as an exceptional craftsperson, the repeated appearances of misplaced modifiers (“Pythias stood in the doorway with me in her new dress”; “[Callisthenes will] serve Alexander on his expeditions as official historian”) are distracting at best.

No doubt the novel contains memorable scenes: the young Alexander severing the head from a corpse to use as a prop in a play because he feels it will heighten verisimilitude, or an extended sequence involving Aristotle’s experience as a battlefield medic, the apotheosis of which is a gruesome set-piece in which the philosopher’s quest for empirical knowledge and the soldier’s bloodlust find common ground. But despite Aristotle’s moods, which he tells us “[whiplash] from one condition to the next, from black melancholy to golden joy,” corresponding passion on the narrative level is only intermittent. Aristotle preaches the virtues of the golden mean, the middle ground between two opposing extremes. Lyon’s novel wants to traffic in extremes of emotion and action; more often it seems to occupy a kind of “muddy middle range,” to quote one recent critic of CanLit.

Why Leah McLaren is smarter than me

October 28, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

It’s award season in book world. Short lists for the Triple Crown of Canadian literature – the Governor-General, the Giller and the Roger’s Writer’s Trust – have all been announced and the jury selections pored over like tea leaves in a mug. Ah, the comforting brew of Canadian literary culture. High in antioxidants, low in caffeine.

Like everyone else, I have followed the coverage and pondered the obvious: When exactly did Douglas Coupland find time to write another novel? Who does Annabel Lyon’s hair? Is Margaret Atwood pissed?

One thing I have not wondered, however, is which of the anointed books to add to my shelf, worthy efforts though I’m sure they are. You read that right: This fall, I won’t be reading any of the books that are nominated for Canadian literary prizes. And I don’t feel guilty about it either.

from The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 24, 2009

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 2

October 24, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The Bishop’s Man. Linden MacIntyre; Random House Canada, $32.00 cloth, 410 pp., 978-0-307-3570-9.

n313069Previous 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.

The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

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.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 1

October 18, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The Disappeared. Kim Echlin; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $29.00 cloth, 242 pp., 978-0-670-06908-8.

kimech-721843Previous 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.

Echlin, Lyon, and McAdam are in, Atwood is out

October 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

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