By Ear, By Eye, By Heart: An Anatomy of John Metcalf’s Recent Fiction
by Kim Jernigan


It seems churlish to complain that there is anything insufficient about John Metcalf’s literary output. (It seems especially churlish to complain in the industrial language of output and production, language that would, or so I imagine, make him bridle.) His is, in fact, one of the most productive literary endeavors going, and he continues at it long after those of us less driven have retired from the fray and taken up knitting. You could fill a shelf with his own writing across many genres: short and long fiction, essays ranging from gentle memoir to polemic, textbooks, literary history, and criticism. You could fill several more with the magazines and anthologies he’s edited and the new work by emerging writers he’s seen into print, the neglected work by accomplished writers he’s returned to us. But those of us who came first to his fiction suffered a certain regret as more and more of his effort went into editing and, starting in the 1980s, his inspiration, or perhaps just his energy, for writing fiction seemed increasingly stoppered.

Happily, in the last dozen years, his fictive well has again filled, and he has begun writing and publishing a series of linked stories, most of them running to novella length, about a writer named Robert Forde. It’s no stretch to say that Forde is a hyperbolic version of Metcalf himself (it was a source of some small irritation to Metcalf that early Canadian reviewers of his work often unconsciously added an “e” at the end of his name, perhaps because it felt more British to them, his Britishness being cause of consternation to defensive cultural nationalists). Forde’s boyhood—and the boy is father to the man—was shaped, like Metcalf’s, by England’s pastoral landscape. Forde now lives in Ottawa, his practical, feisty long-suffering wife Sheila is Jewish, and he shares many of Metcalf’s own prejudices and predilections. But, as Metcalf has reminded many an aspiring writer, the lived experience that seeds a work of fiction is like the grit in an oyster. On the way to becoming a pearl, it is totally transformed by the writer’s art, his artifice: after a writer has written and rewritten a passage, tried this word and that, arranged and rearranged his sentences, worked to get the right rhythm and intonation, struggled to find and represent through language, image, and object the desired emotional tone, the achieved fiction bears faint resemblance to the “content” which prompted it. A fiction’s content, he concludes, is indivisible from its form, from the arrangement of words on the page:

This reworking “is not a betrayal of the writer’s personal experience…nor is it insincere. If we want the reader harrowed, appalled, frightened, full of sorrow—only artifice can do the job… . Writers don’t have to keep themselves honest. They have to keep themselves accurate. Accuracy is honesty.” (interview with Peter Hinchcliffe, The New Quarterly, XVI, 3)

There is much in the Forde stories to amuse as well as harrow me, but one of the things that most interests me as a reader is the way the stories enact their own intentions. Because Forde is a writer, and one fond of instructing the naïve or benighted amongst his acquaintance, he often makes aesthetic pronouncements, pronouncements that inform our reading of the stories. He is a bit like Chaucer’s Pardoner who, in the prologue to his tale, tells his listeners exactly how he contrives to fleece his congregation, and then, by God, does just that to the assembled pilgrims. Of course, neither Forde nor Metcalf is selling papal pardons or relics (though there are quite a few relics in these stories). What they are selling is a certain kind of aesthetic pleasure: “…to read well a reader must have some understanding of how the writing was achieved. It adds to one’s aesthetic delight just as the ability to read a score enhances one’s pleasure in music” (Hinchcliffe interview, above).

There are five Forde stories extant: “Travelling Northward” which first appeared in the Malahat Review and later in Adult Entertainment (Macmillan of Canada, 1986); “Forde Abroad” which first appeared in The New Quarterly (XVI, 3, fall 1996) and went on to win the gold medal for fiction at The National Magazine Awards before being published as a stand-alone novella by The Porcupine’s Quill (2003); “Ceazer Salad” (The New Quarterly 107, summer 2008); “The Museum at the End of the World” (The New Quarterly 112, fall 2009); and “Lives of the Poets,” the enticing beginning of which appears here. I am told there are two more stories in the works.

I’d like to take a gander at two of these, Forde travelling and abroad, in order to illustrate something of Metcalf’s writerly process, the way he works a story by ear, by eye, and by heart.

By Ear

Waugh is indispensable today because, for one thing, he is that rarity, a writer who cares about language. He knows that writing is an affair of words rather than soul, impulse, “sincerity,” or an instinct for the significant. If the words aren’t there, nothing happens.
—Paul Fussell on Evelyn Waugh, a writer Metcalf calls his “primary cultural hero,” and a credo in which he finds “something profoundly important about writing that is my credo, too.”


“Grapple them to thy soul, Martin,” he said, “with hoops of steel.”
“Pardon? What?”
Not ideas,” he said, waving his hands in a dismissive gesture. “Words.”
—Robert Forde to an aspiring writer in “Travelling Northward”

Peter Hinchcliffe, my co-editor for many years at The New Quarterly, once pushed Metcalf about this conviction, citing books of Waugh’s that were “silly” and “self-indulgent” and asking whether “machine tooled prose” [Peter’s phrase] “elegant writing that depends on precise (even precious) diction and exactly tuned cadence” is “the only good kind,” whether “mere elegance” is sufficient.

Metcalf, of course, takes umbrage at the notion that there is anything “mere” about elegance (“I admire elegance wherever it shows itself. Elegance isn’t dandyish. Mohammed Ali was elegant. Wayne Gretzky is elegant. I once had a neighbor who was elegant with a chain saw.”). He reminds Peter that “[h]ow something is written is what is written,” a “blindingly simple truth.” And he notes that he thinks of himself as a comic writer, and that “comedy needs elegance and deadly timing.” Poor Forde never gets that far in defense of his credo because his interlocutor loses interest and offers up the excuse of the lateness of the hour to make his escape.

Ah but the reader is a captive audience and so recieves the rest of what Forde had wanted to say. Being a fiction writer, he had offered up a story rather than an explication. He, Forde, had been shopping for a new tie in “one of those places that call themselves ‘clothiers’”—he delightedly teases out the images that word conjures—and the clothier directs him to the silk ties. After feeling a number of them, Forde finds one he likes, and then—this is the punch line, the line the wannabe writer misses—he is overcome with gratitude when the attendant says, “I see the preference, sir, is for silk with a slub.” It is, of course, the gift of the word “slub” that he’s grateful for. He repeats it twice to himself, aloud, and any reader who doesn’t share his delight in it should go home now.

It’s partly the sound of it that delights, that sibilant ”s” followed by the mellifluous ”l” (sensuous consonants which slide through the word ”silk” as well) then ending with the abrupt and unlovely ”ub.“ But the sense of the word also sings to us if we can hear the tune. Forde has chosen the textured tie, the one with imperfections (slub is the result of twists or lumpish bits in the yarn from which a fabric is woven). And this in turn says everything about what fuels Forde as a writer, about what makes him travel to give a reading in a nowhere northern town where he will be made to endure endless trivial conversation and to sleep in a godawful water bed and where he will be flattered into agreeing to read, unrecompensed, and comment on the manuscript of a writer of no talent and no real interest in whatever genuine criticism might come his way. What makes Forde do it is the question his wife puts to him before he goes and the one he puts to himself in a long sleepless night of the soul during which he offers successive, and progressively more honest, answers. But the answer the reader divines is that he is drawn by the opportunity to observe—an opportunity anticipated with great imagination and zest and then reveled in, at least in retrospect, as he imagines recounting the trip to Sheila. Forde makes the trip because he is drawn to the thick and the thin of things, to the texture of life in all its wild and weird variants. It is all, and I choose this word with some deliberation, material.

Words have a sound and a sense, and for those who trouble to access it, a history, or rather, two: an etymological history but also an emotional one. They can call up whole worlds; memories attach to them just as they do to objects. There’s a wonderful illustration of this in an extended scene in the story published here, a scene in which Forde is trying to call up “The Picture,” a memory from his childhood he uses to lull himself to sleep. In it, he is fishing for trout with his father. While they fish, his father is giving him various words: the thin red worm that is best for fishing is called a “brandling”; hazelnuts are called “cobs.” But the word Forde is straining for (without it the picture is “incomplete …  powerless”) is the word for a kind of hand-fishing his father is practicing. Straddling two rocks, his father reaches into the current and “tickles” the sides of trout suspended in the current, moving along their torsos until he gets his fingers into their gills and can lift them from the water. Finally the word comes to Forde—“guddling”—and again we experience that thematic enlargement that the word “slub” provides in “Travelling Northward.” Forde has been fishing for his long-dead father, and his hook is baited with a word.

And I’ve neglected the literary history of words, what we call allusion. When, in “Travelling Northward,” Forde responds inwardly to his host’s literary ambitions, recalling the earnest and heady conversations of his youth, “those hot boastful evenings” spent in the company of other young writers, none of them yet brought to silence or cynicism by poverty, loneliness, and neglect, he characterizes them thusly: “Those were the days he felt lordly in his poverty, the work beginning to appear in the golden magazines.” I’d hazard there’s an echo there of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” that lush and lyrical paean to childhood flown, and perhaps a sly hope that his (Metcalf’s) reader will remember that “golden” in the poem is repeatedly paired with “green”—in the poem evoking a pastoral landscape; in the story an untried writer. And in the closing paragraph, where Forde projects into the future when the stream of manuscripts from his importunate host has diminished to a trickle, we get: “And then after long silence would arrive something with a scarcely legible signature, flamboyant scrawl, unfamiliar. What would that something be?” After long silence—am I right to register there the title of Yeats’s weary rebuttal to those who “descant and yet again descant / Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song”: “Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young / We loved each other and were ignorant”? Forde answers his own question with a series of deflations ending with “The company Christmas card, perhaps?”

It is not elegance, then, that Metcalf is after in his language but exactness (though it’s well to remember that, in mathematics at least, elegance refers not to an ornate solution but to one which is “pleasingly ingenious and simple”). Or, as I hope I’ve illustrated, he’s after that delicate dialectic between exactness—a narrowing down—and richness, resonance, or suggestion—an opening out. He gets this sometimes through sound alone. A small example I’m particularly fond of: Forde (in “Forde Abroad”) describing the sound of a band adding to the general hubbub at a picnic for academics (in Eastern European parlance, “cultural workers”) at a conference in Slovenia: “The drummers’ peremptory rattings and tattings and paradiddles sounded through the roar of conversation.” ”Rattings and tattings” are both rhyming and onomatopoetic, and perhaps predictable in the context. But ”paradiddles”? I had to look it up. It turns out to be the musical term for a basic rhythmic pattern, originally from the Scots “didder,” to tremble (as a drum) or jerk from side to side. But it contains, not insignificantly, the word ”diddle,“ a vulgarism for having sexual intercourse with someone, and in this scene Forde, though he hasn’t fully admitted it to himself, is drifting towards a sexual encounter with Karla, a comely admirer (or a manipulative suck-up with rumored ties to the Stasi).

On the subject of elegance, it’s also worth mentioning that both Metcalf and Forde are as attracted to slang—especially off-color slang, the more inventive the better—as they are to archaisms, and that they sometimes resort to imprecision, as a way of signaling petulance, indifference, injury, or perhaps contempt. (Forde, for example, stung at being cut off mid-rhetorical flight, closes the door and “attaches the knob in it into the sliding thing.”) Forde also collects neologisms and advertising slogans, compilations of words that tell us more than they intend: “sign on a hotdog stand: EVC Food Systems. That was one Sheila would enjoy; he made a mental note to tell her.”

Sheila and Forde flirt and court, argue and assault one another, and ultimately reconcile, through linguistic play. They perform for each other. And that brings me to the idea of writing as performance, another of Metcalf’s aesthetic precepts:

“Everything in all the arts is artifice. It’s a performance. A game being played. It is the deliberate manipulation of the reader’s emotions and those emotions are manipulated by what you call “tricks” and what I would call rhetoric. One arranges words so as to cause the reader to react emotionally in the way desired.” (Hinchcliffe interview, italics mine).

When Metcalf insists that fiction is a matter of words, not ideas, ”words” is shorthand for rhetoric; it is not only words themselves but their arrangement that matters: into sentences, paragraphs, scenes, complexly orchestrated narrative arcs. He has written the book, or at least the essay (“Punctuation as Score” collected in How Stories Mean), on how to manage the cadence of a sentence, especially when trying to conjure speech. And he can conjure a character through his or her speech patterns alone.

By Eye

Images. I needn’t write at length about Metcalf’s methods and intentions around using recurrent but shifting imagery to build narrative tension in a story that is driven by feeling, by successive emotional states, rather than by the machinations of plot. I needn’t because he has done that himself in a recent essay in The New Quarterly (#127, summer 2013) titled “A Jeremiad Against Kim Jernigan.” What price vanity!—the essay was provoked by an editorial exchange around “The Museum at the End of the World,” one I had shared with him pretty much verbatim, wanting, I suspect, to show off how I had leapt to the story’s defense, insisting to my editorial confrère that “if you give up the need for narrative coherence and settle instead for emotional coherence, this is an engaging and moving read…” I was speaking to another reader’s prejudice rather than expressing my own (we supported the writing of the story with a Writers’ Reserve grant, published it alongside a lengthy interview with its author, and put it forward for a National Magazine Award), but that “settle” niggled. “No matter,” I told him, after reading the essay, “I’d be pleased to have my name associated, however ignominiously, with such a wide-ranging—and eye-opening—essay.” (The title belies his gracious nod to my years as the magazine’s editor—vanity assuaged).

In it, he traces the development of the imagistic movement in prose, demonstrates the impact of film on the developing aesthetic of the early modernists (Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene both reviewed films, Waugh wrote and performed in one, Katherine Mansfield played bit parts in them to support her writing, and Joyce had a disastrous short run as a cinema impresario in Dublin—who knew!). The essay also offers insight into the archipelago-like construction of “The Museum at the End of the World” which is the story toward which all the other Forde stories tend, and enumerates the stories’ concerns (he never says what a story is ”about,” only what it “is concerned with,“ ”concern” implying both engagement and anxiety, states of feeling rather than themes). And he ends the essay with a touching account of his early reading of Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” a story that clarified for him what a story could and should do.

He does, however, make good use throughout of my terms narrative and emotional ”coherence” as he describes the replacement of traditional plot, in his own writing and others’, with “a more fluid and natural seeming structure” and the specific alchemy by which “the accretion of images becomes the plot” [italics mine]. What I might add is a short account of how I see that shift managed in the two Forde stories I have already introduced.

But first an aside: in “Poor Rose,” Christian Lorentzen’s recent article in the London Review of Books debunking Alice Munro’s considerable reputation, he complains about her recurrence to certain themes, settings, constellations of characters, about the “verbal tics” that characterize her management of narrative time and voice, about her endless catalogues of outfits, meals, and dwellings. This after reading all ten of her collections in rapid succession—perhaps he got the Munro he deserved! But I put myself in the camp of those who take pleasure in returning to a writer as she enters her familiar fields and unearths new treasures. As Robert Wallace writes of Giacometti’s Dog, “It’s not this starved hound, / but Giacometti seeing / him we see. / We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough.”

I say this because “Travelling Northward” and “Forde Abroad” have very similar narrative arcs, and it is interesting to see how the later story in some ways advances and refines the narrative, as well as the narrative technique, of the first. Both stories begin with Forde and his wife Sheila arguing over a trip he is about to undertake, then introduce the peculiar characters who are to be his hosts or companions-of-the-road, the ordeals he suffers singly or in their company, and both end with a reconciliation, or rather an imagined reconciliation, with his wife, the kind of restoration of domestic harmony that is the familiar stuff of comedy. Though the comedy in Metcalf’s stories is used as acid to the alkali of affection (if I’ve got my metaphor right): the comedy keeps the underlying love story from toppling into sentimentality and is itself offset by an undertone of melancholy.

Much food and drink is consumed in these stories, and the humour and pathos—both—are sometimes sexual and often scatological. Humour, of course, tends naturally to the bodily, but the body is also, by Forde’s own account, “the corporal ark which housed his ability to write,” and the surface on which his emotional disposition, his concerns, are written. The pleasures but more importantly the woes of the body, the consequent intimations of diminishment and death, are central images.

But curiously, an intellectual construct, the stories’ narrative arc itself, particularly the repeating arc of “Travelling Northward,” become its dominant image. Metcalf, in his “Jeremiad,” disparages endings and epiphanies, the rule of cause and effect. What he is after in his own stories, he tells us, is “archipelagos, as it were, of brooding imagery” working towards an emotional culmination, which is not at all the same as a denouement. In the stories he admires, “there is a sense of continuum disrupted, then reestablished, and both the disruption and reordering are part of the beginning of the story.” Not surprising, then, that he favours circular forms, or more aptly spirals, since—as often in travel narratives—Forde returns home a changed, or at least chastened, man.

“Travelling Northward” begins with a domestic argument, fuelled by Forde’s need for coffee. Sheila expresses concern that he is squandering his creative energies on travel. Her tone is at first sympathetic, but as the argument heats up, it becomes accusatory—he is driven by vanity, by drink, by the hots for “arty-farty shiksas.” He answers with mock patience, explaining to her his more noble motives, his desire to foster any unformed “groping towards something,”any faint flicker of creative aspiration or interest in the outposts of civilization. Feh! (The whole exchange is managed with great verve and exquisite comic undercutting—you will want to read it aloud to anyone who’s handy).

Of course, the visit goes pretty much as Sheila predicted, and Forde finds himself in a cold bed longing for her and for home. A lesser story would have ended there, but then morning comes and the whole narrative artifice starts up again with the coffee scene, though now it is Forde’s host who has been negligent about meeting this, seemingly the most basic of his bodily needs, and it’s the host he softens towards (the guy’s name is Prunes) when he learns that Prunes and his whole forlorn book club make the trek to the airport because the bookstore there carries the only passingly decent selection in town. Within these gyres, these repeated, though altered, narrative arcs, are others: Sheila questions Forde’s motives and then he questions his own; Forde anticipates a scene, setting, or character imaginatively, and then he experiences it; a scene unfolds and then he imagines how he will narrate it later for Sheila’s delight. The gyre is never overt; it is an implied image: Things spin out of control, arguments escalate, culture spirals downward. Even the reader’s head spins: aside from his mastery of dialogue, its sudden shifts and feints, the cut is the cinematic technique Metcalf has most embraced, and the reader must be constantly alert to where the action is unfolding—in memory, imagination or in the lived moment—and be able to construct the narrative interfaces. There is lots of talk, little explication. But the image of a gyre is what, to me, gives emotional coherence to this story.

“Forde Abroad” is in many ways a recasting of the earlier story, though the imagery’s no longer covert. Forde has grown in his understanding of the dynamic of the opening argument, recognizing (and even flattered) that Sheila’s resistance to his travels is fuelled by jealousy—though she now has more cause to feel it. Forde has an admirer, someone he will meet for the first time at the conference he is to attend. Though he claims his interest is purely literary, he furtively studies her photograph, and has worked the closing of his letters to her— initially around matters literary in which he delights to instruct—around from “Affectionately” to “Love.” We sense he is at least open to her charms. But make no mistake, this is comedy not melodrama. When Sheila drops him off at the airport, she mutters something in Yiddish: “Az der putz shtait ligt doss saichel in tuchas.” He demands a translation and she hurls it at him: “When the prick stands up…the brains sink into the ass.” It is both prediction and curse. I hesitate to give away too much for those who have yet to read the story. Suffice it to say Forde encounters two boggy masses, one with sexual innuendos and one scatological…

The cinematic cuts here are not just to avoid unnecessary explication: several key points in the turning of the plot are themselves eliminated. And so we must read the imagery to know what has happened (“the accretion of images becomes the plot”). On his arrival from the airport, Forde spots a kind of crane that, he’s told, mates for life. The bird is clearly there to a purpose, so the delight of the closing image when Forde’s driver takes him to see the bird at his nest is less in the narrative surprise than in the staging: the way in which the birds perform speaks both to the dynamics of his own the marriage and to his maturing literary aesthetic.

By Heart

When I say Metcalf writes “by heart” I mean to suggest two things: first, the important place he gives to memory, both personal and historical. Forde abroad, stirred by seeing for the first time a gentian flower, an image he has only encountered on the page, calls up a poem by D.H. Lawrence that he learned by heart when he was sixteen and just coming into himself. His recitation leads to an exchange about the mysterious interplay between sound and sense. Elsewhere a sighting of fritillaries brings back a flood of memories of his rural childhood. Such memories, perhaps idealized, are almost always restorative. He works hard to remember the names of things, words also having the power to conjure. And he regrets his sons’ lack of an historical sense, regrets the “utilitarian present” where [I’m shifting now to Metcalf’s own voice] the past “is often degraded, desecrated, obliterated, forgotten.” “The Forde stories,” he says, “are, in essence, Forde surveying the wreckage.”

Which brings me to my second suggestion, that Metcalf writes from the heart. He is a comedic writer, none better, but not a satirist. Forde rails against other people’s follies and vices, but he is also atuned to his own, and his sense of his ridiculousness and pomposity, of his petty grievances and vanities, can be redemptive. When he moves from comedy, he falls most often into an elegiac tone. This is different from bitterness and despair. There’s lamentation and regret, a longing towards the pastoral landscapes of his youth, but there’s also celebration, a sense of life’s abiding interest.

And when Forde surveys the wreckage there’s someone at his side. The stories are both lamentation and love story. The comedy precludes any sort of easy sentimentality where love is concerned, which in turn allows the love to mature. Forde abroad happens upon the perfect gift for Sheila, a facsimile of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a book carried to Eastern Europe after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and passed from hand to hand, from generation to generation. He imagines her bringing it to celebrate the next Seder with her parents in Toronto, imagines her father pontificating on the sacred texts and her mother interrupting to contradict him or to redirect the conversation towards some frothy bit of celebrity nonsense, “and within minutes everyone would be shouting and on it would go, on and on it would go…” But there is nothing in the feel of this passage to suggest dysfunction. It sounds to my ear what I think it is to Forde, a jolly scene with everyone exuberant and engaged and with a reassuring predictability and continuity, much like that represented by the Haggadah.

Forde and Sheila’s arguments in these early stories are a kind of verbal entertainment, for them as well as the reader, a rhetorical duel where the language elicits exasperated delight even when the barb stings. But their relationship settles into a companionable affection in the later stories where, tellingly, they travel together and where they communicate in the abbreviated, coded language of the long-married. Such easy intimacy and the assurance of being understood is a consolation when the Barbarians are at the gate.

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