Some Thoughts on Canned Lit
Time is a blind guide.
Bog-boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin’s wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.
No one is born just once. If you’re lucky, you’ll emerge again in someone’s arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.
How vulgar that short sentence looks, how brutal in its Germanic bluntness when juxtaposed with the ornate, mythopoetic musings that prompted it. And yet, in their violence and brevity, those two short words capture the commingled frustration and exasperated wonderment that attends to reading passages such as the one above, which are, unfortunately, all too common among what gets lauded as the finest of this country’s literature.
Note the way the five single-syllable words of the aggressively aphoristic first paragraph slide ineluctably into the pile-up of modifiers in the second paragraph. Time as “blind guide” gives way to a character who is not identified except by the indirect poetic qualifier “bog-boy,” who “surfaces” into streets that are “miry,” a city that is “drowned.” The river’s gloom is “silty,” the gardens “luxurious,” the silence “subaqueous,” next to which the “long tail of terror” brushing the inside of one’s skull seems positively restrained.
Subaqueous silence? Really?
The excerpted lines above comprise the opening paragraphs of Anne Michaels’s 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces, which has, in the thirteen years since its publication, secured a place for itself as a canonical work of CanLit. The book, which Stephen Henighan described as “poetic wanking in stagy, forced diction,” has found its way onto university course syllabi, been made into a movie, and won legions of admirers among this country’s cultural cognoscenti. All this despite the fact that it is virtually unreadable.
Open the novel to almost any page, and a reader is confronted with a surfeit of forced aphorisms (“All things aspire, even if only atomically.”), self-conscious metaphors (“He constructed his own historical topography.”), baffling descriptors (“Now I’m not afraid when harvesting darkness.”), and sentences of almost defiantly poetic verbiage (“Every day I discovered another talisman of beauty, clues of the life you and Michaela shared: stubs of candles, hard pools of wax in shelters of rock in the garden where you must have sat together at night, no doubt your cleft of stone opened by flame.”). The writing is overwrought and obsessed with its own showiness, but for all that, it remains strangely lifeless on the page. Confronted with a world in which silence is subaqueous, the reader looking for a tensile engagement with language reels back in astonishment bordering on a kind of sinking despair.
Fugitive Pieces is emblematic of a persistent and virulent strain in CanLit: books that rely for their force and effect upon prose of heightened poeticisms and lyrical trills, language predicated upon an accretion of rococo metaphors and cascading adjectival phrases. The none-too-subtle condescension in such writing is easily identifiable by casual or occasional readers, whose impulse upon encountering it is likely to mirror the vituperative two-word epithet in this essay’s title.
Writing in The Globe and Mail recently, Michaels defended her prose style as a manifestation of her abiding respect for language, “a respect that has been forged out of the deepest despair of language, out of urgency and impotence.” Words, for Michaels, constitute “a moral question,” a “way of grasping at a truth,” and “an argument against loss.” This description of language’s function recapitulates the condescending tone that runs through her fiction, but it also illustrates what I take to be a fundamental misapprehension: there is no writer I’m aware of who would argue that language is unimportant, but instead of using language as a means to communicate emotional truth, Michaels brandishes it like a cudgel, the better to bludgeon her readers into submission.
Of course, it’s unfair to single Anne Michaels out for exhibiting this tendency. She is merely a foot soldier in an army of like-minded authors marching in lock step to the dictates of their leader, General Ondaatje. It would be wrong to say that The English Patient, Ondaatje’s 1992 novel, which won both the Governor General’s Award and the Booker Prize, created this breed of fiction in Canada, but it arguably solidified it. Reading the description of Almásy’s ineffable desire for Katherine, one detects more than a hint of Michaels’s poetic sensibility embedded in the prose:
Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.
Ondaatje is not describing carnal lust or earthy longing in these sentences; such baseness can’t be contained by prose of this veneer. The emotions depicted throughout The English Patient are recondite and ethereal, the language used to describe them abstruse and florid. The English Patient anticipates Fugitive Pieces in both its World War II focus and its decorative prose style. But more than this, it lays the groundwork for the kind of fiction that has come to dominate CanLit in the years since its appearance.
The English Patient’s popularity, bolstered by Anthony Minghella’s Academy Award-winning film adaptation, paved the way for a decade and a half of fiction that is backward-looking and lyrical, in love with the sound of its own lavish poeticism, yet devoid of the immediacy and vigour that makes the best writing come alive. We have seen umpteen books set during the Great War, or the nineteenth century, stories of our military history or the pioneer experience, rendered in graceful, elegant prose, lacking relevance to all but a small cadre of like-minded writers and readers. We have seen sprawling fictionalized biographies of Norman Bethune (The Communist’s Daughter) and Rockwell Kent (The Big Why); stories of several generations of a Mormon family on a ranch in Utah in the mid-1800s (Effigy); and melodramatic soap operas about two sisters in the 1930s (Clara Callan). Notwithstanding the very real differences among these various authors, in their fidelity to history and to a carefully calibrated, lyrical naturalism, they all, to a greater or lesser extent, exist under Ondaatje’s long shadow.
If The English Patient solidified the position of this kind of novel within the literary culture, it did not constitute Ondaatje’s first foray into the realm of the self-consciously ornate. That would be his 1987 novel about the building of Toronto’s Bloor Viaduct, In the Skin of a Lion. Ostensibly a love story, In the Skin of a Lion focuses on the blue-collar immigrants who worked in construction and performed manual labour in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s: the “Macedonians, Finns, and Greeks” who “learned their English from recorded songs or, until the talkies came, through mimicking actors on stage.” Rough-hewn folk, in other words.
The novel’s main character is Patrick Lewis, the son of a dynamiter, who does manual labour on tunnels and waterworks, then gets a job as a pilot man at a tannery, one of three men whose “knives weaved with the stride of their arms.” The pilot men “worked barefoot as if walking up a muddy river, slicing it up into tributaries.” Note once again the intrusion of poetic imagery into the writing; Ondaatje rendering the nobility of his blue-collar characters through a heightened prose style. Yet how inappropriate is it to describe the dye men in a leather factory as follows:
This is how Patrick would remember them later. Their bodies standing there tired, only the heads white. If he were an artist he would have painted them but that was false celebration. What did it mean in the end to look aesthetically plumaged on this October day in the east end of the city five hundred yards from Front Street? What would the painting tell? That they were twenty to thirty-five years old, were Macedonians mostly, though there were a few Poles and Lithuanians. That on average they had three or four sentences of English, that they had never read the Mail and Empire or Saturday Night. That during the day they ate standing up. That they had consumed the most evil smell in history, they were consuming it now, flesh death, which lies in the vacuum between flesh and skin, and even if they never stepped into this pit again – a year from now they would burp up that odour. That they would die of consumption and at present they did not know it. That in winter this picturesque yard of colour was even more beautiful, the thin layer of snowfall between the steaming wells.
The dyers are imagined in artistic terms; they are “aesthetically plumaged” and had “consumed the most evil smell in history” – overwrought metaphoric language once again inappropriately abutting the quotidian details of men who “ate standing up” and “would die of consumption.” How is a reader to reconcile this presentation, especially when it is immediately juxtaposed with the image of sausage makers standing “ankle-deep in salt” and “squeezing out shit and waste from animal intestines”? What is the appropriate reaction to this aesthetic disconnect, this digression into hermetic artiness? A reader might set the volume aside, either casually or with more directed violence, two words resounding in her mind: “Fuck books!”
This formula is not original to me. In his debut novel, A Week of This, Nathan Whitlock puts the thought into the head of his protagonist, also (perhaps intentionally recalling Ondaatje?) named Patrick, who runs a sporting goods store in the small town of Dunbridge, Ontario. In the novel, Patrick’s wife, Manda, who works at a call centre, goes to the library in search of “a novel that they’d been talking about on the radio for a week now, one about the building of the Bloor Viaduct in Toronto.” Whitlock is cagey about the year in which his novel is set, but anyone familiar with the inaugural iteration of the CBC radio program Canada Reads will be able to position the year as 2002 (In the Skin of a Lion won the first edition of the annual radio contest that year). Manda can’t find the book and asks one of the librarians for help. “Turns out she had the author’s name wrong: not enough As and too many Os.” The payoff comes when Manda shows Patrick the book she’s borrowed from the library:
“I’ve been trying to read this,” she said, picking her library book off the floor and holding it out to Patrick. “And you know what? It put me right to sleep. Look: I’m only twenty pages in and it’s boring as all hell.”
Patrick read the back cover. He made a face like he was reading about some unnecessarily strange and useless animal, something that only lays its eggs every twenty years, and in some ridiculous place like the tears of a horse. The look only intensified when he opened the book at random and read a few sentences. He quickly closed it again, and after taking a peek at the author’s photo out of a sense of morbid curiosity, he handed the book back, a truth he had believed since he was a kid – fuck books – having once again been affirmed through direct experience.
Whitlock is not disparaging his characters for their relative lack of education or literary sophistication; their experience is more likely the rule than the exception. And it’s not hard to see why. When a character in Ondaatje’s novel tries to immolate Patrick by dousing him with kerosene then dropping a match, which “fall[s] like a knighthood towards [Patrick’s] shoulders,” the disconnect between the form and the content is startlingly apparent. How does this disconnect manifest itself with a casual reader, or a reader not predisposed to Ondaatje and Michaels’s particular brand of overt poeticism? It manifests itself in precisely the way Whitlock suggests, affirming through direct experience the unspoken impulse: fuck books.
Of course, this whole matter would be academic if the brand of books deplored by Whitlock’s characters were not the ones that get all the attention in this country: the ones that receive splashy review coverage in the major newspapers and win the high-profile literary awards. This is the “CanLit orthodoxy” that Douglas Coupland bemoaned in a notorious 2006 New York Times article. It is this orthodoxy, established by the Boomer writers who still retain dominance over the country’s bestseller lists and awards shortlists (along with their younger acolytes: the year that Alissa York was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Effigy, Whitlock pointed out on the CBC that York is a young writer, but that she writes like an old one), which sets the terms of reference for what this country reads. It is an orthodoxy that Coupland calls “bankrupt,” and that Stephen Marche has similarly excoriated as “the oatmeal of world literature.”
And it is an orthodoxy that is resolutely antithetical to anything resembling innovation or experimentation, mired as it is in the same old stories that look back to an idealized history that probably never existed, stories told in deliberate, ponderous prose. There is no place in this orthodoxy for a writer like Lisa Foad, whose brash manifesto at the beginning of her story collection The Night Is a Mouth – “Realism is for beginners” – could sound a clarion call to a new kind of writing, were it able to make itself heard above the cacophony of mythopoetic blandness.
The CanLit orthodoxy makes no space for a writer like Rebecca Rosenblum, whose debut collection Once is a far more effective – and affecting – portrait of blue-collar experience than anything in In the Skin of a Lion. Notice the way Rosenblum employs sparseness and repetition to capture the combined monotony and pressure of a labourer’s days in the story “Fruit Factory”:
I wake up and it’s dark. I wake up and it’s dark. I wake up and it’s dark. Saturdays are the hardest. Tomorrow I can spend unconscious, face down, ignoring the world. Today I kick out of the sheets, wavering onto my feet. I’m alone this morning, but the bed smells like salt and pine, like him. My stomach is sliding. The floor is sliding and I have to catch myself against the corner of the bureau. Tomorrow I can spend unconscious. Tomorrow I can spend unconscious. Today I don’t have time to wash my face.
Rosenblum’s story is steeped in the rhythms of modern urban reality; the drumming beat of her sentences reflects her character’s lived experience. This is writing that sizzles and snaps, largely because it appears almost completely unadorned. In today’s CanLit, that in itself counts as an innovation.
One person who takes umbrage with the idea that there is an unacknowledged literary orthodoxy in this country is Elena Rabinovitch, who serves as the books editor for the Women’s Post. In a recent column, she takes Coupland to task for suggesting that “CanLit is about representing a certain kind of allowed world in a specific kind of way.” Rabinovitch name-checks close to a dozen authors who buck this trend in Canada, authors such as Madeleine Thien, Ibi Kaslik, Randy Boyagoda, Claudia Dey, Pasha Malla, Alison Pick, Heather O’Neill, and Craig Boyko. These authors, Rabinovitch says, “are part of a new breed”:
Whether their work is called CanLit simply because they’re Canadian, or something else that conveys the impossible-to-categorize nature of their fiction, one thing is certain in my mind: Young Canadian writers are still feeling the need to tell their stories . . .
Fair enough, but consider this: Elena Rabinovitch’s other job is administering the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Now ask yourself how many of the authors she names have been shortlisted for the award? Give up? Not one. To be fair, Rabinovitch does mention Rawi Hage, whose two angry novels about war and the immigrant experience were both shortlisted for the Giller. Both lost. Of course they did. Hage’s novels do not look to an idealized past for their content: they are aggressively contemporary, in a way that may make many Canadians, so settled in their unexamined complacency, distinctly uncomfortable.
Consider the unnamed narrator in Hage’s second novel, Cockroach, who roams the nighttime streets of an expressionistic Montreal, imagining himself a giant insect crawling amongst the nooks and crannies of an unsuspecting populace’s interior environments:
Towards midnight I entered Le Fly Bar on St-Laurent. Like an insect I was drawn to the bar’s lantern shapes and the dim light through the window. I like faintly luminous places with invisible tables that just sit there and listen to the defeated moans of conquered chairs. I like dark passages that lead you to where everything comes from (the cases of beer, the milk for the coffee, the crates of bread). I like dirty places and sombre corners. Bright places are for vampires.
The immigrant experience that Hage dramatizes in Cockroach is very different from the one Ondaatje sees. There is no blue-collar nobility in Hage’s vision, only “dirty places and sombre corners.” And yet how evocative are the “defeated moans of conquered chairs”? Or the “dark passages that lead you to where everything comes from”? Hage is astute enough to know when and how to deploy appropriate metaphors to enhance his admittedly nihilistic material. Yet a novel that tears at the heart of our vaunted multicultural platitudes is not the kind of novel that the orthodoxy – so staunchly entrenched and beholden to a litany of soothing bromides – is likely to embrace.
Another author Rabinovitch points to as anti-orthodox is Nino Ricci, who, like Hage, has been shortlisted for the Giller. But it is telling that Rabinovitch mentions Ricci’s 2008 novel The Origin of Species – which was shut out of last year’s shortlist – in making her case. The Ricci novel that was shortlisted, 1997’s Where Has She Gone, is much more easily recognizable as a work of traditional CanLit. It would appear that the orthodoxy is not in much danger of crumbling any time soon, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
And that’s a shame, because Rabinovitch is right in her assertion that there is a wealth of talented writers in this country creating innovative, exciting works of literature. I would add Rosenblum and Foad to the list, along with Sean Dixon, Stacey May Fowles, Kenneth J. Harvey, and Mark Anthony Jarman. But these writers rarely grab the spotlight, either because of limited marketing budgets or, more frequently, because they exist under the shadow of another, more monolithic kind of CanLit. The kind of CanLit that has come to dominate the discourse in this country. The kind that makes one want to scream: Fuck books!
Tags: Issue 76