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Category: CanLit

Hello Again, Plus Simon & Schuster’s Winter Survival Pack

It embarrasses me to say I haven’t posted here in almost a year. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how all of a sudden. Aside from freelance work, writing short stories, and teaching creative writing, I was having an existential crisis as a book blogger. I goggled at the piles of books sent me that I hadn’t yet read, was overcome with guilt, and also, unrelated to the guilt, began to wonder why I was reviewing. Which then made it increasingly difficult to review. I asked myself who really cared, who really read, what it really meant to be a book blogger in the grand scheme of the book world. Was it worth all the effort? Certainly, from blogging came new and exciting jobs, and a shitload of wonderful new acquaintances and pals, and of course, the great books. I’m very thankful.

But it’s hard to keep up, man. There are so many books, so many people. It’s a cool but overwhelming world. As for blogging, I do it for free, but it’s still a lot of effort and time because I want to give you consistent quality, and I’m a perfectionist who’s always trying to anticipate what everyone might respond. I fear sounding dumb or like a fraud or that I missed something essential in the writing. So I started lagging in motivation. In the meantime, I gained a sister, a dog, and ten pounds. I started smoking (after 13 years of having quit!) and drinking coffee. (Never mind the Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort and Gibson’s. Hard liquor has always been a given.)

But I missed blogging, after I stopped feeling guilty for not doing it. I’m not promising that I’ll be back every week, but I’d like to still contribute in some meaningful way to the book world. I may not publish long reviews anymore, but whatever I write, it will still be thoughtful.

UPDATE: One thing before I get to the fun stuff: it is completely coincidence that I decided to say hello again on the day that CanLit author and enthusiast Chad Pelley decided to shut down his popular site Salty Ink. Just so you know, he’s got a new endeavour called The Overcast. Check it out. I’m following it, even though I don’t live in the area. Newfoundland is an exciting contributor to CanLit and the arts scene.

To push off again, I’m starting light. Simon & Schuster created their Winter Survival Pack to promote some of their new books but also treat readers with other goodies in appreciation. What fun! And you, dear reader, can win this stay-warm kit!

The Kit includes:
- 1 pair of mittens
- 1 pair of reusable hand warmers
- Scented candles
- 1 pair of socks
- 1 hot water bottle
- 1 Simon & Schuster Canada signature mug
- 1 Sower’s Blend tea
- The Ultimate Survival Guide (Canadian Edition)
- The Demonologist
- The Troop
- The Best Cook Book Ever
- Chicken Soup for the Soul: Wonders of Winter

- Hyperbole and a Half
- Octopus’s Garden
- Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants

Go to S&S’s site Five Ways to Stay Warm for Winter and enter the contest. Good luck! PS. Hyperbole and a Half is a laugh and a half, I swear!

S&S Stay-Warm Prize Pack

S&S Stay-Warm Prize Pack

 

Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt: A Review

This is my sister’s copy. I made her buy it at the Anansi booth at Word on the Street in Toronto.

***

So the one thing I want to clear up first thing, because it comes up almost every time I recommend it, is that Ablutions is not Patrick deWitt’s new novel. We’re still waiting for that! It’s his first novel, published by Anansi (2009), labelled “brilliant,” “intense,” and “remarkable.” I’d never heard of it either until after The Sisters Brothers, but I bought it because of the description (“a dark, boozy, grimly funny tale of the sodden depth of the Los Angeles underworld”) and because Anansi published it. They’ve never let me down, not once. I also bought it without having yet read the major award-winning SB. In fact, I still haven’t yet read The Sisters Brothers, though I’ve sampled the writing more than once.

Ablutions, though—oh, I’ve more than simply read this book. I swear to you, reading it is living it. I had to look up from its pages now and then to re-situate myself because it felt so real, because I was so emotionally invested. And I don’t think that had much to do with the fact that it’s a second-person narrative (which has never worked for me until this book). It’s the way deWitt paints the scenes, the bar, the night, the haze of pills and gut rot of too much Jameson Irish whiskey, the interior of a magical 1971 Ford LTD (you never once get caught driving drunk). It’s also his writing style, clean and direct, no superfluous punctuation and adverbs. There are witty and unexpected similes (“the pills congregate in your fingertips like lazy students in an empty hall”). The cadence, much like poetry, is hypnotic and emphasizes with its perfect pitch and language both beauty and darkness.

While Ablutions is a significant title, the subtitle—Notes for a Novel—is equally important, and is also, together with the style and narration, what makes deWitt’s novel original even though the idea of a person who hits rock bottom and seeks redemption is not. This is, after all, an almost quintessential human experience, yes?

But deWitt finds a rather ingenious way to tell the story. A bartender (“You”) in a once famous now seedy Hollywood bar is fascinated by his quirky patrons, and in observing them and their behaviour makes notes for a novel he hopes to write (new sections often begin with “Discuss…”). But as deWitt’s readers are apt to fall under the spell of his writing, so too does the barman begin to find himself sucked into the grimy underbelly of Hollywood barlife as he befriends some of the regulars (his characters for his novel). His curiosity but also his own vulnerabilities cause him to fit in too well. Soon, he’s swallowing pills like candy and drinking more whiskey than he serves his troubled customers. He’s vomiting silently in the toilet at home to mask his drinking and hangovers. When his wife leaves him, he descends further, spiralling into a liver-aching stupor and going on a casual sex bender. And at his lowest point, when all seems lost, he realizes he is trapped—by his job, his lifestyle, the desperate and needy oddities he spends too much time with—and will not survive if he does not break the spell of the underworld and his cycle of self-destruction.

Whiskey or no whiskey you are drunk and angry at yourself and you wonder why you are unable to help yourself and your mood is desperate and no pills will change this and so you take no more and you do not stop for single cans of Budweiser and by the time you pull over to sleep you are sick and in pain.

Crafting a rather dangerous but lucrative plan to escape, the barman thus brings the book’s title into play: he vows to go on a trip, away from the sinkhole of a bar where he works, the draining patrons, the stink of his life, and to abstain from substance abuse all the while. He means to perform ablutions, to cleanse himself and thus be free.

In fact this was its [the trip's] grand if overly dramatic purpose: To travel and see the world without any alcohol and to think of what was broken in your life and wonder clearheaded about the mending of these broken things.

This is, of course, easier resolved than done.

This is the story, then, of a man who struggles with not only the “impossible assistance” the bar patrons need and the depressing truth of their lives but also the realization that he is the same as they are and must somehow make the choice to change. His observations of characters tell us this (he sees through them), and deWitt’s use of the second person “You” reflects to us, the readers, the message that change is necessary. In turn, a story within a story, our barman, who is “You,” passes on this message when he writes to another barman (also “You”) on a napkin:

You are forty years old, a bartender in a bar in the desert. You hate the customers and the work but are trapped in the life as you have no other skills and have had no schooling or training of any kind. You have wasted your life drinking and doing drugs and sleeping beside women with hay for brains. You are alone and of no use to the world, save for this job, the job you hate, the job of getting people drunk. What will you be doing in five years? In ten years? There is no one who will look after you and you could die tomorrow and the only people who would care would be your bosses, and they would not be sad at your passing but only annoyed about having to interview new staff.

Your hair looks impossibly stupid.

The character sketches in this book are so vivid and true you’d swear deWitt sat at bars and simply wrote about the people he saw, but with uncanny compassion for even the strangest or most annoying among them. Each is like a Seinfeld character, all a bit off in some way: the guy who has a law-enforcement fetish, the cougar who wants to become your bosom buddy and seal the deal with a spit-enhanced handshake, the woman whose “pores emit a smell of chili dogs and french fries dipped in mayonnaise,” Junior the crack addict, Merlin, the geriatric fortune-teller. DeWitt’s descriptions of the regulars are like nothing you’ve seen since Dickens: they are rich and fantastic and funny and sad.

Discuss Merlin. He is seventy years old, with close-cropped white hair, a long white beard, and desperate, deep-set grey eyes. He chain-smokes brown More cigarettes; they tremble in his spotted, hairy hands or hang from the corner of his lipless mouth and he speaks from behind a screen of smoke, his fingers interlocking like puzzle pieces, a visual aid to some astrological peculiarity or possibly a dirty joke. His teeth are jagged, yellow, and rodent-like, and when he laughs his neck is all veins and tendons and you force yourself to look for no reason other than it is a difficult thing to do.

His vocation is mired in the pall of alcoholic fiction but he claims to be involved alternatively in movie-making, real estate, stock speculation, and something called life coaching, which as far as you can tell is an ugly cousin to psychology requiring considerably less schooling. … Despite his many professions, he is usually broke and twice has asked you for small loans to tide him over until the banks open. “No,” you said flatly, and he bared his teeth and retreated like a crab into the shadows of the cold, smoke-filled room.

He is a man in crisis. He favors futuristic, multibuckling sandals and brightly colored nylon jumpsuits, but he is known to wear for business purposes a voluminous double-breasted sharkskin suit and tasseled wingtips. These meetings invariably go poorly and Merlin complains of his clients and investors, christening them chickenhearts and babyhearts and yellowbacks. On such nights as these he grinds his fangs and slaps at the bar, cursing the cruel machine called Hollywood with mounting venom until complaints are made and Simon is forced to intervene … [Merlin] is envious of Simon’s good looks and accent and he spreads a rumor that Simon was not born in cosmopolitan Johannesburg but the squalor of a desert scrubland, surrounded by “yipping pygmies and hippo shit.” Merlin was born in Cincinnati but affects an English accent while drinking.

(Forgive the amount of quoting. I can’t help it. My copy has more sticky notes jutting out of it than pages.)

At a mere 164 pages, Ablutions is heavily, imaginatively populated with the regulars at this Hollywood bar, but this isn’t simply a litany of character sketches. It’s through these people and the narrator’s observations of them—at first they are rather like circus freaks until the barman realizes his life mirrors their own—that we understand the plight of human inadequacy. These characters are strange because they’re longing, they’re making up for not measuring up, they’re dreamers, liars, desperate, lonely, mad. They are grown men and women, sad and pathetic, and we see this not only through our own compassion but that of the bartender.

Ablutions is purposefully raw. It is visceral. It is bad teeth, bad sex, gut rot you can smell, and apricot-coloured bile. It’s bloody and druggy and saturated with booze. At times it made me nauseated. Yet it is also funny and I often caught myself laughing aloud at the casually stated humour. I call this novel pure genius—for its structure, its characterization, its style, its message—which never comes across as preachy, by the way. I loved it. Aside from the writing itself, there was enough search for truth, enough realizations of truth in it to make me want to keep reading.

Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a bar or tasted Jameson’s or had shitty cheap sex or popped four or five pills to numb the pain; even if your spouse has never left you and you don’t have hepatitis and you have never met or loaned money to a crack addict; even if you’ve never done a thing You did, you’ll get this. You’ve thought crazy things you’d never admit aloud. You’ve done things you’d rather not say. You’ve been stuck before. You’ve proclaimed resolutions, performed ablutions. In a big way, You as a narrator works: You is Everyman. You’ll see in the end.

What is CanLit: The Illustrated Version

If you’d like to read yesterday’s post on CanLit, you can find it here.

In case you saw it and thought, “Hell no, that’s WAY too long!” here is the gist of it, in photos. Some people don’t want to have to do all that reading and instead prefer illustrations. No problem.

What is CanLit?

In 2006, this guy

said that CanLit was this:

Unfortunately, people still believe him. I think that myopic view was outdated in 2006 and is indubitably irrelevant today. I say that CanLit is not only that (above, and note, that looks like a lot of books but is only 13 authors) but also this:

And that’s not all, of course. I can’t possibly own all the Canadian literature out there. (If you want to send me your CanLit for review, let me know.) But let’s take a closer look at what we have here, just to make sure we’re clear.

and

CanLit is not only the (old) literary canon, and not only about rural areas, small towns, and immigrants. It is not necessarily depressing and bleak and humourless and boring. It is not even stories that take place only in Canada. In my view, CanLit is anything written by a Canadian author.*

Thus, altogether now:

Like our country, comprised of a diverse mix of imaginative people from all corners of the earth, our literature should also be inclusive. As readers and writers, we have a responsibility to continuously redefine CanLit. A culture, and literature, that remains stagnant cannot survive. I suspect that the broader our view of CanLit, the prouder we’ll become of it.

***

Absent from photos: Miranda Hill’s and Sarah Selecky’s stellar and award-worthy collections Sleeping Funny and This Cake is for the Party, respectively. Hill’s book is behind these piles, with Michael Cho’s Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes and Sarah Elton’s City of Words: Toronto Through Her Writers’ Eyes, on the coffee table, as I just (regrettably) finished it, and Sarah’s book is with my sister in Yorkshire because Anne couldn’t bear to part with it before finishing. Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading is on display on a side table. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series and a few others by her, as well as Moodie and Traill, are also not in these photos, because I forgot to include them from the small shelf behind these piles you see in the photos.  Also absent are Vincent Lam’s Headmaster’s Wager, Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and Stolen, Anne Michaels’s Winter Vault, Jim Williams’s Rock Reject, Hilary MacLeod’s Mind over Mussels, Cary Fagan’s Valentine’s Fall, Andrew J. Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue, James King’s Etienne’s Alphabet, Katrina Onstad’s Everybody Has Everything, Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt, Shree Ghatage’s Thirst (*this is a tricky one. Shree and her family moved to Canada in the 1980s. Possible post: What is a Canadian Author?), Catherine McKenzie’s ArrangedHelen Humphreys’s Reinvention of Love, and Tony Burgess’s Idaho Winter. One last thing: Obviously, I haven’t included any children’s and YA literature here, although I do have some that’s Canadian. 

What is CanLit?

Recently, I was proofing a book of symposium essays on film and literature. One of the essays referenced a 2006 post in the New Yorker by Douglas Coupland, called “What is CanLit?” Curious—this is after all an important question—I looked up the article.

It begins:

“CanLit” is a contraction for Canadian Literature, and I’m often asked by writers from other lands, “Doug, what, exactly, is CanLit?” Basically, but not always, CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience. If the book is written in French, urban life is permitted, but only from a nonbourgeois viewpoint.

Haha, I thought. But not really. The joke is a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. Also not funny is the fact that this was written in 2006, not 1996, and that many people not only have believed this but still do.

Coupland continues:

One could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes. It is not a modern art form, nor does it want to be. Scorecards are kept and points are assigned according to how realistically a writer has depicted, say, the odor of the kitchen the narrator inhabited as a child, the sense of disjuncture a character feels at living in a cold northern country with few traditions versus the country he or she has left behind, the quirks and small intimate moments of rural Ontario life or, metaphorically, how well one has painted the feathers on the wings of a duck. CanLit is not a place for writers to experiment, and doesn’t claim to be that kind of place. CanLit is about representing a certain kind of allowed world in a specific kind of way, and most writers in Canada are O.K. with that — or are at least relieved to know the rules of the game from the outset and not have to waste time fostering illusions.

Anyone else’s scruff standing on end? He was writing in 2006, I remind myself. Because of course I’m thinking of the present, when I’m acquainted with so many Canadian authors who are not like this, who don’t write about these things; when I’m drowning in so much CanLit that isn’t at all how he’s described, or afraid to push boundaries, that is particularly (but not only) written by that new generation I keep going on about, the fantastic group that’s making (or made) Coupland’s nods to pop culture and satire cliché, that’s experimenting with form and subject, ever more brave, writing more short stories than novels, which in itself is sticking it to the traditional way of things. Importantly, they are being recognized with major awards and featuring in prominent non-literary magazines and generating international attention. Heck, this new generation, yes, like others before them, is writing stories that don’t even take place in Canada, let alone in rural Canada.

But this is now I’m talking about, and to be fair, I should be talking about books that were emerging in 2006. And then, certain I can prove there were tons of CanLit books that came out around 2006, and earlier, that also don’t fit Coupland’s idea of the mold (think John Lavery, Anne Fleming, Stuart Ross, Zoe Whittall, and, duh, Douglas Coupland), I think: Oh. WAIT.

The real issue is that Coupland, like others, thinks that CanLit, which he earlier said was simply a contraction for Canadian Literature, is synonymous with the Canadian literary canon, which has typically contained the same handful of writers who consistently won our literary awards over the past years until recently, and which apparently hasn’t changed an iota.

Even still, Atwood isn’t rural or non-experimental, nor has she ever been; Ondaatje isn’t at all barred by those limitations Coupland points to. The more I think of what may be considered canonical writers in Canada, the more I think this inaccurate and exclusive definition of CanLit refers to a mere two or three writers, say, Alice Munro and David Adams Richards and Carol Shields. But others do not feel this way.

The problem is no longer that CanLit is the way it was but rather that there are people who believe it still is the way it was. Yet our literature, let alone our country and our people and our experiences, has changed over the years; it is not still defined by Moodie and Traill, for God’s sake. To say that it’s still how it was is ignorant of the richness and success of our more recent literature and new faces of fiction, and is, in essence, saying that all the other Canadian writers who aren’t in the canon are not CanLit. What we have in Coupland is an author, a Canadian author who is well-known and loved, a major contributor in the Canadian arts, feeling separated from CanLit—which by itself is tragic and I’m sure still experienced by other Canadian writers—but, significantly, by his own flawed definition of it. He perceives himself excluded from Canadian literature with what sounds somewhat like bitterness (but also loftiness): “To be a Canadian writer,” Coupland writes, “doesn’t necessarily make one CanLit, and sometimes CanLit will place its clasp on writers who are only tenuously, legalistically Canadian. Am I CanLit? No. I’m Canadian and write books — some even about Canada — but with fiction I’m way outside CanLit’s guidelines.”

Yes, yes: he mentioned these so-called guidelines earlier, in his definition, but you’ve heard them before elsewhere: that in order to make CanLit, you have to write about alcoholism out east or teen pregnancy on the Prairies. You have to make setting the table sacred. But again I ask: When did the canonical Atwood ever follow the rules? This CanLit sounds like the nun I didn’t have in Catholic school who’d rap our knuckles if we wrote our letters outside the lines. At this point, and even in 2006, it’s a nonsensical, erroneous perception that CanLit has guidelines one has to follow to make it big. Ask Vincent Lam, who in 2006 won the Giller as a young full-time medical doctor and debut writer. Not one of the old boys, not rural fiction, no metaphorical ducks that I remember, not even a novel—and no mention on the Giller list this year. Because CanLit is a wide, deep pool of talent from which we have so much to choose.

Okay, so you get by now that I think what Coupland said is no longer relevant, nor was it back in 2006. However, obviously there persists the stigma of CanLit. Where does this come from? When does one first hear of CanLit? Usually in university, if not in high school, where they’re still teaching the same old books our parents, if not grandparents, were taught. Books that are exemplary stories, containing history and hardship and a gazillion paper topic possibilities. Why, I ask the students who come in to the bookstore every September looking for The Handmaid’s Tale and The Stone Angel and Fifth Business, who say they really don’t want to buy it or read it because they’ve heard it’s boring, aren’t they moving past this roster of books? Yes, they’re wonderful, and they’re classic, and they’re worth reading and discussing. But they are also dated and not solely representative of CanLit and notably dreaded by this generation of new students, and unrelatable in many ways, and sadly perpetuating this horrid idea of CanLit that Coupland is talking about. If we keep forcing students to read the same books, and they keep rolling their eyes at them, why would they think any differently than Coupland? Why would they bother to look at other literature written by Canadian authors, just as relevant, if this is what they think CanLit is? While I’m sure some teachers and profs are shaking up the CanLit list, I’m witness to the current sales of high school and university students. Why, overall, aren’t we revising the CanLit curricula? For the record, Coupland would be on my CanLit list.

As a reader I’m just as important as the writer to that CanLit definition. Readers also perpetuate stereotype. It’s unforgivable that Coupland’s view is a real perception, that the perception has made authors feel frustrated and limited, that there are Canadian authors who feel they can’t find their place in Canadian literature, who think that to be a Canadian author doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a CanLit author. And it’s equally unforgivable that we’ve allowed others to shape our impressions and reading of Canadian literature. As righteous as this sounds, I’ve never seen CanLit the way Coupland defines it, perhaps because I was one of the lucky ones to like CanLit enough in school to seek out any Canadian authors and read them and see outside that canonical box. Thomas King, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Douglas Coupland, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Rohinton Mistry, those are just a few I was reading outside Coupland’s definition, back in the nineties. Back then, these authors were kind of fringe writers: daring, experimental, humorous, satirical, exotic. (Now they’re quintessentially Canadian, which should say something.)

Also, over the past few years, I’ve seen evidence of openness in publishers and what they choose to print and put their money behind, in awards juries, in winners, in the spread of literary festivals and their rosters, in the rise of independent publishers and their authors, in book reviews and literary magazines and what they cover. Canadian literature, and not just a handful of trusted authors, is being read all over the world, even recognized in international prizes like the Frank O’Connor award and the Booker, and our reach is still reaching. Having two international judges on our Giller panel is a good sign of that, and of the fact that we are no longer naval gazing.

I know that the struggle of Canadian authors to be noticed is real. Witness the panic as award season approaches, the disappointment when a book doesn’t make a list, the blog posts and articles about how so many good books go unnoticed, the author’s fear that their book will not draw attention, will likely be released to minimal fanfare because it’s with a small press or not going to be marketed the way a major Canadian author would be.

As I work on my own writing with the goal of being published, I’m sensitive to this, but I insist on writing what I want and that my short stories, if ever they are published, be considered Canadian literature. I am a Canadian writer, and as the latest Canada Reads contest says, even if I’m writing about India, I’m still eligible to be considered as such. That, simply, is to me what Canadian literature should be: not about Canada necessarily but written by a Canadian.

I have on what I consider my CanLit shelves seven Douglas Coupland novels, nestled between Joy Kogawa and Nicolas Dickner. There is no alphabetical order to my shelves, no cliquey grouping; I just place all my Canadian authors together. A mixed bag, just like the country. If it’s written by a Canadian author, it’s all Canadian literature to me, regardless of the topic and style. That’s what I appreciate about Canadian literature, what I call CanLit: the diversity of voice. While Coupland accuses CanLit of being small and stuffy, he too is making statements about our culture, using details we can relate to, like the atmosphere in a Staples store, the depression of a directionless middle-aged man, the monotonous daily life in a work pod. He’s just as much Canadian literature with his observations of our culture and modern living as Atwood with her political and environmental underpinnings and Choy with his immigrant experiences. Whether he likes it or not, Douglas Coupland is as much a CanLit author as the stingy mummies with the “insider pass.”

To be Canadian is to always be searching for meaning, place, purpose, in our own country, in the world. I think all humans do this. The details in our writing are not only what make us relate to each other, but what place us in time and sensibility. Ultimately, we write about the human experience, not just the Canadian one. But that Canadian experience, because of our origins and changing culture and constant questions of identity, and our observations of daily life (which Coupland details quite effectively in his own novels), as well as our ability to imagine outside our boundaries, defies being boxed by its very definition. So why must we insist on limiting it? Canadian writers are daily redefining CanLit. If we’re paying attention, there’s no way we could think like Coupland.

***

Coupland’s article goes on to talk about literary funding for young Canadians. Of course I support it, and every book I’ve read recently by a young Canadian has, wonderfully, grant acknowledgements in it. Other than that, I don’t know enough about the situation to comment, and it’s likely changed since 2006 (unlike the stigma of CanLit).

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