In college, I took a Canadian fiction class; we read Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Mordechai Richler, Timothy Findley and Robertson Davies — all strong writers who combine a sense of narrative with an occasional innovative fillip. They were all solidly established in their careers by the time I read them. We also read portions of Margaret Atwood’s critical textSurvival, which argues seductively (and reductively) that the central preoccupation of Canadian fiction is “survival and victims.” Considering the Canadian winters, Atwood’s thesis invoked for me images of trappers around dying campfires trying to pen a few lines before they froze to death.
At the time, I felt pretty certain I knew what the Canadians were up to, what it meant to be Canadian. Only recently did I become less certain, when a Canadian friend recommended some fiction to me. He suggested authors and books I’d never heard of, many of which had been published in Canada but never picked up in the U.S. I mail-ordered one or two, found that I liked them, then started asking for more names. I looked at publishers’ catalogues, read books by the writers who had blurbed the books I liked best. At some point I found Hal Niedzviecki’s Concrete Forest, an anthology of “The new fiction of urban Canada”; some of the stories and excerpts gathered in that led me on to longer works. Over time I built up, very unsystematically, an eccentric, non-textbook sense of contemporary Canadian literature.
I’ve got a few dozen Canadian books sitting on my desk now, teetering in stacks beside my computer. Most are less than a decade old, and most I’ve read only in the last six months. Reading through them, I’ve come to three conclusions.
First, that current innovative Canadian fiction is often sophisticated, urbane, and transgressive, and has all the qualities it needs to compete with current American fiction. Indeed, many young Canadian writers seem hyperaware of what’s going on in contemporary American writing, and many seem to be writing for the American marketplace as well as the Canadian one.
Which led me to my second conclusion: a number of young Canadian writers seem preoccupied with America, almost obsessed with it. This is probably not all that surprising considering that they’ve often been educated in American creative writing programs and are sometimes publishing in New York. Not to mention the amount of American pop culture, American literature, and American commercial products we export to Canada.
And, finally, I came to realize that some of the best Canadian fiction is not primarily or overtly about Canadian identity, despite what my Canadian literature course had suggested to me. It is not interested in proclaiming what it means to be Canadian either to Canadians or to a larger world.
You don’t have to ferret out obscure writers to see Canadian interest in America. Indeed, acclaimed Michael Ondaatje’s early fiction reveals the same preoccupation with America that many young Canadian writers seem to have now. One of his earliest books, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), takes place in the American West, chronicling the life and death of the American outlaw. His Coming Through Slaughter (1976) is about American jazz musician Buddy Bolan and takes place in New Orleans.
Ondaatje’s take on Buddy Bolan and Billy the Kid is quite loving; he is interested in celebrating and embroidering American myths rather than in debunking them. In both books he assembles vivid and compelling narratives that remain grounded in the historical record and in contemporary accounts.
Yet younger Canadian writers with a similar preoccupation are rarely so loving. Take for instance Derek McCormack’s novella The Haunted Hillbilly. Like Ondaatje’s early work, the novella takes on an American icon, the granddaddy of American country music, Hank Williams Sr. But it does so in a way that not only eventually abandons the historical record but gives up realism altogether. The Haunted Hillbilly speculates about what Hank Williams Sr.’s country music career would have been like if his manager had been both a clothing designer and a gay vampire. American culture and myth becomes for McCormack the raw material for shaping a different vision, one that allows him to reprocess the popular culture that has come from America and export it as something else. Under McCormack’s hand Nashville becomes an imaginary and fantastic place.
What McCormack is doing with America has precedents in American fiction. Robert Coover’s The Public Burning takes the Rosenberg spy trials and transforms it into a carnival in which the public executions are carried out under the guidance of Richard Nixon in Times Square. But Coover, writing as Nixon’s presidency is beginning to fall apart, has very deliberate, discernible political reasons for writing as he does. McCormack goes him one step further: there’s something arbitrary and gratuitous (but nevertheless appealing) about his deconstruction of Hank Williams Sr.’s career. He refuses to let it become “meaningful.”
In contemporary CanLit, a fascination with America tends generally to be less like Ondaatje’s respectful approach and more like Derek McCormack’s outright rewriting. But this fascination expresses itself on several different levels: ontologically, relationally, and stylistically. Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar develops into an oblique attack on the notion of what it means to be “American.” In two other writers, Steve Weiner and Hal Niedzviecki, the preoccupation manifests itself with the characters crossing the border between Canada and the U.S., moving from one country to another, with that physical movement thematically tied to transgression. In others, such as Peter Darbyshire, Zsuzsi Gartner and Lee Henderson, it comes across as an active struggle with contemporary American style — sometimes even with particular American writers.
Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar (1997) is about a film that may or may not have been made. The book consists of a screenplay couched in a series of explanatory and perhaps spurious texts. It is Nabakovian in gesture, with a little porn and international espionage thrown in for good measure, and features an odd obsession with/mockery of American culture. It begins with a preface written by “Michael Turner” in which he describes being approached by a Hungarian filmmaker to write a “screenplay about America” to be called A Bunch of Americans Talking. “Not only was I ambivalent about the form,” he says, “I was ambivalent about the country.” This is followed by an introduction by the filmmaker herself, who admits that, growing up, she had “an intense curiosity about America. America seemed so wild, so excessive, so sexy. . . . ” Now, however, she finds herself “scared of the insidiousness, the ideological, the infective potential that is America.” Indeed, this seems to be a good part of Turner’s point, for when the filmscript actually appears, what we find are a series of interlaced conversations among Americans in which everything seems hyped up and heavily market-driven. Sanitation workers pitch films, violence and generic gestures keep creeping into what seems to be just a series of ordinary conversations. In the larger world as well, America is like a fungus or a noxious gas, spreading everywhere. According to a Liberian (who is the product of an American character’s fantasy), “Like America, my village is now full of conveniences. And like America, my village is now rife with racism, sexism, class-conflict.” A good Marxist, Turner suggests that products are never valueless. Along with the conveniences provided by American products comes a whole tradition of discrimination.
The actual film in American Whiskey Bar remains a mysterious object. It, we are told, has been made, but by Klaus 9, a pornographic film producer, while the Hungarian filmmaker was in the hospital after having been beaten nearly to death. The film has never been shown publicly, and thus exists only as a buzz about an absent product. The only person who publicly claims to have seen it also claims to have been forced, under threat of death, to write a review that does not mention “any details regarding plot, setting, dialogue, characters, or talent.” As specific as he can get is that American Whiskey Bar is perhaps one of the “most disturbing portraits of contemporary American society I have seen in some time: a swirling mass of racist, sexist, classist bile — violent to the core, yet strangely liberating. . . . And I love it.”
Turner’s book is about the circling of different discourses around a central object that remains ambiguously defined and perhaps ultimately absent. He pokes fun both at America and at standard critiques of America, but ultimately the suggestion is that America is as empty of actual content as its products, that the image of America hides a great void. Yet he is not interested in juxtaposing this attack with what it really means to “be” Canadian. Like Derek McCormack, Turner’s interested in America as an imaginary space, but whereas McCormack’s appropriation is playful, Turner’s is sharp-edged political critique.
For writers like Steve Weiner and Hal Niedzviecki, America is not only the land of the free but also the land of transgression, of freedom from law; for both, to take a trip to America is to step outside of the social order.
Steve Weiner’s The Museum of Love is narrated by Jean-Michel Verhaeren, a young bisexual French Canadian who is prone to hallucination and who is progressively going mad. The book, like the best Philip Dick’s novels, confounds one’s ability to distinguish the real from the imaginary. You’re drawn into Jean-Michel’s phantasmagoric world, watching his mad and sex-crazed father and his religiously delusional mother. You move through a harrowing set of museums representing reinterpretations of the world and through a series of personal narratives told by lost wandering voices in a heavily French-accented English. This is delusional literature at its very best, bleak and unrelenting.
At crucial moments in the book, the narrator crosses the Canadian border, running away from his family and fleeing into America, traveling rapidly from place to place—Michigan, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska—sometimes waking up in a new town without any real memory of how he got there. The Museum of Love reads like a road novel gone wrong. Whether this is an actual crossing or if the America depicted is partly or completely delusional with America only a hallucinated idea is hard to say. America in Verhaeren’s case, comes to simultaneously represent freedom, an escape from family, and a further descent into madness. In that sense it is both a way out of a trap and simply a new trap.
Hal Niedzviecki’s Ditch is about Deb, a runaway involved in the darker URLs of the internet where she posts disturbing pictures of herself, and about Ditch, a boy, still living with his mother, who is obsessed with her. It’s a compelling and painful book about one lost soul dragging another soul down. When Ditch begins getting pressure from his mother and a counselor to buckle down, he withdraws all the money from his bank account, steals his work van, and he and Deb take off together, South, to America. But instead of either a trip into freedom or the kind of trip in which “a valuable lesson is learned by all,” Niedviecki offers a deathbound journey that comes across in the last pages of the book as a kind of maddened confusion, as if Ditch himself is never quite sure of what’s actually happened to him. In the end, it seems that America is less the land of opportunity than the place where you go to be tortured and killed.
In some young Canadian writers, America is present less as a place (actual or imaginary) and less as a concept/attitude and more as a kind of weight. The fact is that Canadian readers pay attention to which Canadians New York is publishing, what Canadian books The New York Times is praising, and so on. In the words of one writer, “People love you in Canada if you get any affirmation at all from the States — it’s the fucking holy grail.” With a country as large and as culturally active as Canada, this strikes me as either a sign of an odd nervousness that could be called a provincialness or a sign that Canadians genuinely feel that what is going on in New York has some relevance to what’s going on in their country, that they feel part of a larger culture that includes America.
Sometimes when reading new CanLit I had the impression that I was reading something that was trying almost too hard to fit into an American market. This can read as a hyperawareness of contemporary literary trends which may be, for all I know, as naturally prevalent in Canada as they are in America. Other times, it almost felt as though Canadian writers were actively possessed by specific American writers.
There’s nothing unnatural about Canadian writers feeling akin to American writers: influence is something that crosses national and temporal boundaries all the time. For instance, John Barth frequently cites Jorge Luis Borges as if he were a contemporary, but Barth’s gestures and those of Borges are ultimately quite distinct. Saul Bellow frequently groups himself with the 19th century Russian novelists, but you don’t have the same approach to morality in Bellow as you do in Dostoevsky. In America, it’s hard to underestimate the influence of Raymond Carver, but where that influence is most visible is in bad stories in undergraduate creative writing workshops; the good writers who admire Carver, such as Beth Nugent, have also digested him.
As I was reading CanLit, I frequently found myself feeling that some writers needed to digest their influences a little more. Take, for instance, Zsuzsi Gartner’s All the Anxious Girls on Earth. Her stories are well written and lively. She sometimes uses second person to good effect, but in a way that makes it very hard to separate her from Lorrie Moore or Pam Houston. The first story in the collection, “How to Survive in the Bush” reads very much like Pam Houston’s “How to Talk to a Hunter,” so much so that one gets the sense that Gartner is working through an anxiety of American influence. I wish I could say that by the ending of the story it had been worked through and that she comes into her own voice, but while there are inklings of a different level of playfulness than in Houston’s work, one always feels Houston hanging around, a ghostly presence. Yet a story like “Boys Growing,” about a girl’s odd obsession with three different boys, is clever without being too clever, and feels slightly mentally deranged in all the right ways. You feel influences here too, but she’s managed to sublimate them and get beyond them. All in all, though, the effectiveness of the collection is marred by the fact that when you’re reading a good number of the stories here it’s hard not to think of other writers.
One runs into a similar difficulty with Peter Darbyshire’s Please (2002), which is a lyrically absurdist novel-in-stories about a narrator’s floundering attempts to hold his life together. It reads more like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son than anything else even Johnson himself has written. The first story, “I Couldn’t Live Like That” opens with the narrator looking into the windows of houses, something that the narrator in Johnson’s “Beverly Home” also does. That, coupled with similar linguistic moves, a certain quirkiness of gesture, and similar attitudes between Johnson’s and Darbyshire’s narrators, makes the influence impossible to ignore.
A lot of American readers of my generation were profoundly impacted by Jesus’ Son when it appeared in 1992 and have been waiting for Johnson to do something like it ever since. Please is the book that’s closest to it, but it’s by someone else. Early in the book it was hard for me to fault Darbyshire for imitating Johnson so well, and three or four of these stories are quite superb. But as a novel it eddies too much, goes on too long, and never accrues into something larger. He can’t sustain Johnson’s lightness of touch. If Darbyshire had been able to begin with something that had the feel of Jesus’s Son and take it in a new or different direction, this would be a great book. But instead Darbyshire can’t manage to break away, or even inflect and slightly transform, his influence.
T.S. Eliot suggested that good writers are those who manage to steal from others without being caught. The problem with both Gartner and Darbyshire is that, despite real strengths in their writing, they’re too easily caught.
A final example, this one more hopeful. Lee Henderson’s The Broken Record Technique (Penguin Canada, 2002) is a story collection and first book, and was one of the things that got me thinking about Canadian literature again. Consisting of ten stories ranging from three to ninety pages long, this is a varied and quite successful collection. It does, however, raise the question of influence. At times it’s reminiscent of Rick Moody’s fiction, though Henderson brings in a few odd twists that help to excuse his shoplifting. It’s clear throughout that Henderson has read a great deal of contemporary American fiction (as well as Canadian fiction), and that he sees himself as involved in the larger tradition of North American fiction rather than as restricted to Canadian literature. And this is important: wanting to be published in New York is very different, I think, from thinking of yourself as a North American writer (rather than an American or a Canadian writer). Henderson’s language is incisive and relatively transparent, though often elegant and intricate, and Henderson is willing to take serious stylistic and emotional risks.
Some of the better stories include “Attempts at a Great Relationship” in which a youngish man named Eaton plays out, in Cooveresque fashion, five possible scenarios at a wave pool, hoping to find one which will help to salvage his failing relationship with his wife. Henderson integrates formal experimentation with an honest approach to the anxiety of human relationships. “Mirage/Fata Morgana” is a split story that is, on the one hand, about a retarded kid exploited into a singing career and, on the other hand, about a man abandoned by his wife who sees the retarded singer on TV and feels simultaneously moved and manipulated. It’s a tight piece about loneliness and about the struggle between sentiment, sentimentality, affect and fear.
In “W”, the longest story in the collection, a boy named Eliot is abducted by a man who looks exactly like his father, the abduction witnessed only by an electronic marmot. The story provokes a sort of quiet, muddled dread, the strangeness of the father’s doppleganger and of the marmot recalling the best of Philip K. Dick’s work or Jonathan Lethem’s near-future novel Gun, with Occasional Music. Like George Saunders, Henderson manages to present a seamlessly futuristic world in which the point, ultimately, is the people, the way in which they act and interact. It is very much to his credit that one develops almost as much sympathy for the marmot as for any of the human characters. Henderson is willing to leave a great deal open in the story, employing ambiguity to its best effect. Ultimately one comes away convinced that he has shaken off his influences and has a promising career ahead of him.
One thing I find interesting about Henderson is his ability to draw on tropes and techniques used in both metafiction of the 70s and in the more recent metafiction of Moody, McSweeney’s and Foster Wallace, and his attempt to push all these tropes and techniques in new directions. His work thus seems simultaneously familiar and relevant but also new, as something that’s beginning to open other possibilities along a line of writing that seemed in danger of being tapped out. The exchange thus becomes potentially two-way, with Canadian and American writers revitalizing each other and, ideally, learning from one another.
WRITING AND IDENTITY
My third conclusion near the beginning of the essay was that some of the best Canadian fiction is not about Canadian identity; that, I think, can partly be seen in the examples discussed above, in Canadian writers’ use of America, but there remains much more to be said.
There are, of course, Canadian writers who trumpet their Canadian-ness in the same way that some U.S. Southern writers trumpet their Southern-ness — certainly a lot of Atwood’s and Munro’s appeal comes from their overt Canadian-ness, their willingness to write about real places in Canada and life in Canada (though neither exclusively does this) — not to mention the appeal of a young writer like Michael Winter who writes brilliantly and quite unostentatiously about his native Newfoundland. But the majority of young people I’ve been reading stood out for not standing out. The characters ate the same cereals that Americans ate, when they watched T.V. it was often the same programs I can watch in Rhode Island. The movies they referred to were movies I’d seen, and were most often by American directors. Other than an occasional reference to a Canadian city or to nationalized health care, there was nothing that seemed “other” or alienating or prohibitively Canadian: no obscure references to ice fishing, socialized medicine or forest lore.
When I began searching for some cluster of essentially Canadian qualities among works by contemporary Canadian writers, treating it as identity literature, I didn’t find much cohesiveness. Atwood’s “survival and victims” mantra is comforting but not all that useful as a critical tool: let’s face it, almost any piece of fiction is about either survival or victims. However, I did discover that young Canadian writers do not often proclaim their Canadian-ness. Many are even trying to hide it. Or if they’re not hiding it, they’ve decided, barraged by American entertainment and commercial products, that what it means to be Canadian today can’t be completely sorted out from America.
This sense of connection to America is not reciprocated by an American interest in Canada. Very few American writers set their novels in the Great White North, and most of us would be hard pressed to think of Canadian imports that have had a lasting effect on American culture beyond SCTV and the MacKenzie Brothers. Pico Iyer rightly realizes that Canada is “a large blank space for too many Americans.” Not only do most American citizens have a hard time seeing themselves as part of the larger world; we have a hard time realizing there are other nations rubbing up against us that are worthy of our attention.
Even the most celebrated of Canadian literary writers suffer because of American myopia, from our inability to squint beyond our own borders. Sitting in a Q&A for Michael Ondaatje in March, I quickly realized that a good part of the audience assumed that Ondaatje lived in America. What’s more, many of the people who attend the Q&A only knew about Ondaatje because one of his novels had been made into a Hollywood film. There were far more questions about the movie than about any of Ondaatje’s works. A few audience members seemed confused: how could Ondaatje have been born in Sri Lanka and be Canadian? Isn’t he really Sri Lankan? One audience member even asked him how Canada felt about the fact that a good part of his last book was set in Sri Lanka, not Canada. Ondaatje smiled. “They don’t seem to mind,” he said.
Yet, conversely, too many Americans wouldn’t question the right of an American writer to write about places outside of the U.S., in the same way that they would have no difficulty accepting the U.S.’s “right” to interfere in the destinies of other countries. Let’s go back to Pico Iyer, who thinks that the “deeper fact about Canada” is “that it was thinking about globalism and pluralism, the possibilities of multiculturalism, long before the rest of us knew the terms existed.” For Iyer, the most interesting work being done in Canada today is by writers of mixed background who acknowledge Canada as “the literal birthplace of the global village;” for this reason Ondaatje is one of his exemplary authors. Ondaatje’s The English Patient assembles an international cast of characters in Italy and the Sahara. His Anil’s Ghost moves between Sri Lanka, South America, and Canada, with Ondaatje writing effortlessly about all three places. Something like Anne Michaels’Fugitive Pieces, which at once declares its Canadian-ness and asserts a connection of Canada to larger world events, ends up being highly praised precisely for that. But paradoxically, such literature is still very much about Canadian identity; it’s just defining this identity as globally conscious rather than as a concern for one’s own geography and local community. As in “Oh, the Canadian writers, they’re the ones that know so well how to position themselves in relation to the larger world.”
But in between work highly focused on Canada itself (from Atwood’s Surfacing to the continuing heavy output of Canadian historical fiction) and work that acknowledges Canada as part of a global community lie a number of different writers, such as those who I have discussed, for whom a declaration of identity is not the chief purpose of the work. Derek McCormack is about creating a speculative alternative to the actual world, one which operates in terms of intensities. Michael Turner is interested in parodying concepts of American identity but not about asserting a Canadian self. Lee Henderson is about style and form and the way both interact with affect. Steve Weiner and Hal Niedviecki are interested in the collapse of certainties about self, and both refuse to build a sense of self up again.
Even when they do talk about globalism, these writers do so in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit the model of what globalism is or should be. Michael Turner is best known for The Pornographer’s Poem, the winner of the Ethel Wilson B.C. Book Prize and one of The Globe and Mail’s choices for best books of 1999. A national bestseller in Canada, it reads like Sex, Lies and Videotape though it ends much more darkly than Soderberg’s movie. Beginning with a surprisingly sympathetic narrator coming of age and filming his first pornographic film in Vancouver and ending in dire circumstances in London, it has the kind of global stretch that Americans have learned to expect from Canadian writers, though Turner’s choice of topic — pornography as a cross-cultural connector — almost makes it seem like he’s mocking global fiction.
And what, in any case, is home when we talk about writing? Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera stated that the first country a writer belongs to is the country of writing itself. Ondaatje, with his control of the sentence, with the care he gives to the sounds and rhythms of his prose, always locates himself extremely effectively in the country of writing. Iyer’s emphasis on globalism allows him to ignore the fact that while Ondaatje does write global texts (or, as I would argue, very good fiction which happens to be partly about globalization) along the way he’s written other sorts of books.
American publishers (and by consequence readers) have been prepared for certain kinds of Canadian writers but not for others. Something that declares its Canadian-ness and/or asserts Canada’s connection to larger world events, flies, while something that waves its Maple Leaf less enthusiastically falters. But the more I’ve read, the more convinced I’ve become that it’s better to talk about a lot of younger Canadian writers not in nationalistic terms, but instead part of a larger notion: North American writing. “American literature” and “Canadian literature” are, in the end, artificial constructs, useful as a way of beginning to sort things out, but flawed. Nationalist notions of literature favor certain ways of looking at writing, and also encourage the notion that writing is about a particular sort of identity.
The Michael Turner character in American Whiskey Bar says, somewhat sarcastically, of Canada, that “identity through a national literature has always been the given. . . . ” Why should a proclamation of identity be the given for either American or Canadian writers? To think in such terms can certainly gets us to some good writers, but it also causes us to dismiss writers whose emphases are not on identity but on style, on affect, on the creation of a unique world or on something else entirely. Of course there are other subcategories for such writing — innovative, experimental, fabulist. In America we tend to recognize such categories for our own writers, but when we go looking for a Canadian writer, we too often put the emphasis too strongly onCanadian to the exclusion of all else.
If we can learn to think of both American and Canadian literature as subcategories of a larger North American literature, perhaps we can begin to see the influences passing back and forth and begin to glimpse international literary trends and movements that have very little to do with national boundaries.