Fuck Books

Some Thoughts on Canned Lit

skin_of_a_lion englist_patient fugitive_pieces

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.

Fuck books!

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?

Fuck books!

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!


9 Responses to Fuck Books

  1. Amiththan Sebarajah says:

    In response, I’d like to post a seminar that i had given a couple of years ago on Anil’s Ghost, which, i think, echoes many of your points about vulgarity of poetic aesthetics especiially as they deal with issues that are rather critical and immediate. And so here it is:
    A Civil War in Writing:
    A critique on the problems of readership and historiography in Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost
    [Its] images [are] genuinely, eerily, almost inappropriately beautiful.
    The Toronto Star (in its review of Anil’s Ghost).
    The user is content.
    - Marshall Mcluhan Book of Probes,

    Working Thesis:

    Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, as a historiographic meta-fiction, manipulates temporal, spatial and narrative contingencies to re-produce and re-present the violence and terror of a specific historical moment in Sri Lanka, its on-going civil war. In so doing, the text ironically, and perhaps unwittingly, warrants two distinct readabilities that are, for the sake of simplicity though with caution, I shall tentatively term “informed” and uninformed” readerships. For the uninformed reader—one who is either partially or completely unfamiliar with the social, political, historical and cultural contexts of Sri Lanka or its various conflicts—the novel offers what is apparently a well-researched and seemingly sincere account of the conflict. The text employs various strategies to assert its authenticity; its numerous geographical and archeological allusions, its comparable proficiency or at least a familiarity with Singhalese, and its insistence on the merits of meticulous research (as implicit in the Acknowledgements) to excavate discernable “truths” all serve to strengthen its persuasion.. However, for the informed reader—one who is familiar with all or parts of various socio-historical contexts—Anil’s Ghost seems to be a “shameless act of appropriation, essentialism, distortion [and]/or blatant prejudice” (Kanaganayakam). Since such duplicitous readability inevitably provokes the question to whom—that is, to which readership—the novel makes its arguments, the purposes of its post-modern techniques, particularly its historiography and self-referentiality, are rendered problematic. This paper will argue, therefore, that depending on the informed or uninformed position of the reader, the self-referential elements implicit in the text both corroborates and contradicts the novel’s arguments about Sri Lanka and its civil war.

    Well before even one succumbs to the hypnosis induced by its “inappropriately beautiful”, brutally savage and potentially dangerous passages, Anil’s Ghost deploys a subtle rhetoric to blur the boundaries between historical authenticity and historiographic fiction. In the page containing bibliographical data, a decidedly ambiguous declaration troubles a careful reader:
    This is a work of fiction. Characters, corporations, institutions and organizations in this novel either are product of author’s imagination or, if real, are used fictitiously without any intent to describe their actual conduct. (np)
    In other words, the note promptly informs the reader that the novel essentially contains no ‘historical truths’, but if , in case, it does make any historically verifiable references, then all such ‘historical realities’ are unintentional. In short, the declaration seems to absolve the novel from any sort of responsibility, while deliberately aligning fact with fiction. Similarly, the scripter too makes an ambiguous statement illustrating that “Anil’s Ghost is a fictional work set during this political time and historical moment…while…similar events took place, the characters and incidents in the novel are invented”. Thus, the scripter makes a problematic link between historical fact and historical fiction. Such declarations seem to assert that Anil’s Ghost, while being ultimately fictitious, is nonetheless based on potentially historical ‘facts’. Such acts denote that at the very least, the novel is a literary analogy, a metaphor for a specific “historical moment”. While such ambiguity must signal all readers to approach this text with extreme caution, I will argue that its appeal to the uninformed reader as well as the scepticism produced within the informed reader both stems from the novel’s shrewd manipulation of history and historiography. However, such a technique is neither unique nor particular to Anil’s Ghost. It is a token of most post-modernist literature. Nor is there anything particularly dangerous or misleading about it when it is done purposefully to challenge dominant, master narratives of history or to illustrate that all historical facts are ultimately the result of competing versions of counter-histories. But, it becomes, problematic when a novel exploits historiography solely for the sake of its post-modernity, only to string together an aesthetically pleasing tale. Because the reality of the Sri Lankan civil war is not a contested issue, because the president was indeed assassinated by a suicide-bomber during a political rally, because the mass graves, the abductions, the killings and the ceaseless terror were so fundamentally, for all sensory assumptions of reality, legitimate to those who underwent, perished or survived them, such wanton claims to historical authenticity and historiographic mimicry are dangerous indeed for they run the risk of fictionalising unspeakable human atrocities for the sake of aesthetics. Whether or not Anil’s Ghost take this obscene risk is, of course, contingent on the particular readership and the functions of its post-modernity.

    At this juncture, we need to explore the function of the novel’s other post-modern trope of self-referentiality both from informed and uniformed perspectives. Since the novel has already established that events, incidents and characters are fictional though with historically demonstrable doppelgangers, it presents the uninformed reader with a predicament: if the novel is ultimately fictional, to what extent does it conceals or distorts actual events? Moreover, if the novel is finally a product of the author’s imagination, what techniques does it employ to represent Sri Lanka as “verbatim”, and Sri Lanka as the novel imagines it? To the uniformed reader, confronted with a plethora of Singhalese words that are largely left untranslated, and a panoply of geographical and archaeological data readily identifiable and can indeed be validated in world maps, the internet, or in the Culavamsa, if one is so inclined, the novel is the ultimate authority –or rather the base-text—on the Sri Lankan conflict, with which the reader must pits his or her awareness and ignorance. In his essay “In defence of Anil’s Ghost”, professor Kanaganayakam points out that an immigration lawyer in Toronto cited the novel as evidence to illustrate the political climate of Sri Lanka on the premise that it is a historical artefact on the conflict. The professor observes that “in such cases the novel is not simply a representation of the real. It is real to the extent that its accuracy cannot readily be questioned. In this case, the novel takes on the status of a document whose representation is sufficiently authentic to be considered a form of evidence”. This is precisely the danger that I speak to when I question whether or not the post-modernity of Anil’s Ghost is indeed misleading and if it is ultimately dangerous . Consider, for instance, how the novel make truth claims as its historiography is rooted in such unshakably western concepts of objective reality as geo-political determinacy and how it invokes rustic authenticity via its use of English-rendered Singhala.

    On the other hand, such bombardment of geographical and archaeological date, and even most of the Singhalese phrases produce an entirely different effect on the informed reader. Such a reader is hardly unfazed precisely because the text now offers something tangible to apply his or her native’s knowledge. Indeed it allows him or her to test and inevitably challenge not only the truth claim the novel seems to make but also its capacity for re-presentation as well. For instance, the initial dialogue between Anil and the driver at the airport upon her arrival produces multiple readings. Once landed in Sri Lanka, after having left it for “fifteen years” (Ondaatje 9), she immediately contemplates “drinking some toddy before it’s too late” (9). For informed and uninformed readers, this exchange has very different implications. Toddy is type of cheap, rancid, natural alcohol derived from the fermented sap of young coconut flowers. Typically, its consumption requires an idle curiosity, a highly acquired palate and/or desperate times. Naturally, as far as tourists are concerned, it is quintessentially a token of Sri Lankan folk culture as it were. In fact, Anil’s wish to drink some toddy is in many ways analogous to an Irish expatriate lusting after a pint of Guinness upon arriving in Ireland after a long exile. The scene is therefore both crass, and in short, a glorified stereotype. Additionally, at the risk of generalizing, toddy drinking is a social phenomenon closely imbued with class implications. Generally speaking, no middle class Sri Lankan, especially from such a respectable family as that of Anil, would ever consider drinking Toddy in public, except, perhaps in an adolescent rebellious mood. Furthermore, toddy tapping, is a vocation reserved especially for the poor and generally for those inhabiting the lowest social strata of all Sri Lankan races. Unaware of such cultural nuances implicit in this seemingly innocent request of Anil, the uninformed reader recognizes perhaps a nostalgic tendency in Anil. The informed reader is not so sure. How can she or he interpret this exchange since it seems ironic and improbable that Anil would want to drink Toddy after having shunned all things Sri Lankan for fifteen years and because it seems to wantonly reinforce a tasteless stereotype? On a metafictive level one naturally wonders whether the text is corroborating with its ideal, uninformed, western reader, to depict Sri Lanka orientalised according to western imagination. Perhaps perceiving the irony, again metatextually, the driver quips “Toddy…first thing after fifteen years. The return of the prodigal” (9-10). It seems that either Anil is unaware of such irony, or deliberately ignoring it. Again, on a metafictional level, this is the precise position of the reader as well. The uninformed is unaware of the local nuances, and the informed silently cringes at the insult. Thus, the text implicitly links Anil’s experience simultaneously though differently with both readers. Implicitly this exchange renders Anil liminal figure, positioned ambiguously and simultaneously as an insider and outsider to the Sri Lankan social historical condition in the eyes of her different readers.

    The function of such irony—rather that which is inherent in self-referential or metafictive moments is prevalent in the story—proves difficult to discern precisely because it means differently for the informed and the uninformed. Consider, for example, the exchange between Sarath and Anil en route to the newly discovered skeletons at Bandarawela.
    [Sarath]: “You know I’d believe your arguments more if you lived here, he said. You can’t just slip in, make a discovery and leave”.
    [Anil]: ‘You want me to censor myself’
    [Sarath]: I want you to understand the archeological surround of a fact. Or you’ll be like one of those journalists who file reports about flies and scabs while staying at the Galle Face Hotel. That false empathy and blame. …
    [Sarath] “That’s how we get seen in the West. Its different here, dangerous. Sometimes law is on the side of power, not truth”. (44)
    This exchange is rife with post-modern self referentiality. We can read such an exchange as an argument the text makes for the sake of its own rhetoric, to reinforce its persuasion for the uniformed reader. In this specific exchange, the uninformed reader, the outsider, metafictively participates in the text’s argument through Anil. From the position of the informed, Sarath insists that to understand the situation one must comprehend the “archeology”—meaning, the various contextual contingencies—of the “fact”. It is as if Sarath intentionally seeks to diffuse and give contextual meaning to such a simplistic, though aesthetically pleasing remark as those that Anil makes in the previous page “reason for war is war” (43). It seems that Sarath, the informed participant of this conversation, wants to assert that without knowing the contingencies of “truth” or such universally applicable “truisms” such as “the reason for war is war” (43) are both dangerous and misleading. It would seem, then, the novel is making a claim against itself, as if wanting to resist being seen a certain way, according to popular Western assumptions of South East Asia as a place for “flies and scabs”.

    But, on the whole, the novel offers no such contexts for the civil war. While the uninformed reader may extrapolate that at the midst of all this chaos, the government is more culpable since the task of Anil is to indict the government with mass murder after all, the text remains reserved and rather neutral in its politics. It reduces the intricate ethnography and complex ethno-history of the Sri Lankan civil war into something according to a UN profile of a civil war country situated anywhere from North East Africa to South East Asia: “It was a hundred Years’ war with modern weaponry, and backers on sidelines in safe countries, a war sponsored by gun-and drug-runners. It became evident that political enemies were secretly joined in financial arm deals” (43). Indeed, despite its poetry, the universality implicit in such eloquent simplification of geopolitically specific and complex historical moments is evoked in the very first pages of the novel. It is not until half way down the page do we realize that this moment in Anil’s past has happened not in Sri Lanka, but rather in Guatemala (5) In retrospect, this historical moment, if we chose to ignore the reference to Guatemala, reads identically to one occurring simultaneously in Sri Lanka, or any country torn by civil wars for that matter. For, Anil’s ghost, in its opening page, seems to make the argument that, at best, human atrocity is universal, and, at worst, one human tragedy is allegorically identically to another. The later, of course, not only deprives socio-historical and socio-cultural context of “atrocity” but also denies the victims, their very humanity. Ironically, Anil continues to insist that “one village speaks for many villages. One victim speaks for many victims” (275),but even after positive identification, the now resolved mystery of Sailor fails to indict the government.

    Similarly, the potential solution proposed by the novel’s placid passivism too yields contrasting readings for the informed and the uninformed. The reconstruction of the vandalized bodhisattva and Ananda’s final act, “this sweet touch from the world” (307) both alludes to, the uninformed reader, a humanist approach to this seemingly senseless violence. This compassionate gesture implicit in the Buddha image and explicit in Ananda’s touch is obviously a desirable scenario and the reader can readily accept it as a plausible one. However, for the informed reader, the resurrection of the Buddha image speaks something altogether different than compassion. To him, it speaks of race riots, anti-minority sentiments and even invokes the resurgence of those various forces of evil that roam the bloody streets of Sri Lanka. Even the Buddhist monks, sworn to a life of retreat and compassion, were heavily involved assuaging religio-ethnic hatred. The resurrected Buddha, within the Sri Lankan historical context of ethnic divide, does not offer a compassionate alternative. Rather, it signals the resurrection and indeed the continuation of violence. The uninformed reader need only to look at S.J Tambiah’s essay, “Buddhism Betrayed?” to get a glimpse of the extent to which Buddhist monks and Buddhism itself was engaged in fostering ethnic divide. With respect to this alternate perspective on the resurrected Bodhisattva, Ananda’s gesture seems not as one of compassion but one of hopelessness. The novel’s proposed solution then, with the proper context, seems futile and pathetic.

    Also, through Ananda, it seems the novel is making another case for its rhetoric metatextually. Like Ananda, the artist who gives a compassionate face to this one face (of sailor) which stands for all faceless victims, the novel too seek to put a human face to unspeakable violence. In so doing, it seems to me, that it makes the argument that art can somehow transcend, and perhaps even transcend violence. While Ananda’s facial reconstruction indeed results in a positive identification it amounts to nothing more than the mutilated body of one of the novel’s most enduring characters. Sarath, one who acutely loves country despite its schizophrenic penchant for bloodshed, one who instinctively understand that to help Anil will cost his life, makes the ultimate sacrifice for what is otherwise an empty jesture by the artist (of Sarath, as well as Anil’s Ghost). For all its arguments for art and its transformative properties, all that remains is yet another tortured Sri Lankan corpse. What then, I ask, is the purpose of Anil’s Ghost’s aesthetics? Is this merely post-modernity for the sake of post-modernity? Can Art ever be the justification for itself especially with respect to historical representation?

    Works Cited and Consulted
    Derrickson, Teresa. “Will the ‘un-truth’ Set You Free? A Critical Look At Global Human Rights Discourse in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost”. LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory. 15.2. Jan 2004. p131(21).
    Kanaganaykam, Chelva. “In Defense of Anil’s Ghost” Ariel 37.1. Calgary: Jan 2006 .p5(22).
    Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. Toronto: Vintage, 2001.
    Rati, Manav. “Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and the Aestheticization of HumanRights”. Ariel. 35.1-2. Calgary:. Jan-April 2004. p121(19)
    Scanlan, Margaret. “Anil’s Ghost and Terrorism’s Time”.
    Studies in the Novel (Univ. of North Texas, Denton) (36:3) [Fall 2004] , p.302(15)

  2. James Wayne says:

    Fugitive Pieces was the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever read. And it won the big awards. Of course, that’s my opinion. There must be somebody out there who enjoyed the story. I wonder how many people who praised that steaming pile actually finished reading it, though.

    The sad thing is it seems writing isn’t considered “literary” or publishable by many Canadian presses unless it’s boring in the way that Fugitive Pieces and other such stories are “great”. And that’s too bad. There’re many writers who won’t catch a break because of that foolishness.

  3. Jesse says:

    Ranting about the composition of the CanLit canon can be therapeutic. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of internal bickering, often very personal, that drives people away from literary criticism and CanLit. A few comments:

    1. The convention of reading books cover-to-cover has wasted too much time that could have been spent reading a better book. If it seems like crap, stop reading and move on! (for other tips, see “How to Read a Book” by Adler & Van Doren).

    2. George Elliott Clarke writes some of the best prose and poetry in Canada. Hands down.

    3. Will Ferguson is quite clever and funny. Is he too old to be part of the new breed?

  4. Josh says:

    A confession: I actually enjoyed Fugitive Pieces; it was actually the only novel in a CanLit course I liked but even I found the start insanely overwrought.

    .. and was never able to get through In the Skin of a Lion;l I know people who loved the movie since it meant they didn’t have to read the book.

  5. Fuck you!

    How ornamental is the exclamation mark turned right-side-up? How different the sentiment in courier than sans serif? How white in the comment box.

  6. Natalia says:

    I don’t disagree with you, but I stopped reading about halfway through after I noticed how many times you use derivatives of “poetic” as pejoratives. Is there something inherently wrong with poetic language? Or do you feel the word efficiently sums up your own particular biases? Either way, it’s alienating.

  7. tera patrick says:

    Fuck you.

  8. Selene says:

    So are you saying we should embrace the Snookies of the world as our new “literary” heroes???? *cough cough* Not a poetic word in the bunch (something about the “washcloth moving over his privates”?)

    Indeed, let’s ban all sense of poetry, theme, Big Ideas, and gawds forbid, metaphors and images from the language! Reality TV writing for all! How about the novelization of _Burlesque_, for starters? No more sweating over form or content, no more furrowed brows as we try to decide if the writer is telling us we’re stupid, no more “boring” writers telling us “boring” stories in language we hate…In fact, why bother to read books at all?

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