Published in University of Toronto Quarterly - Volume 70 Number 1, Winter 2000/01- Letters in Canada.
To see more articles and book reviews from this and other journals visit UTPJOURNALS online at UTPJOURNALS.com.
Reviewed in University of Toronto Quarterly by NEIL BESNER
If the forty-two volumes sent to UTQ in 1999 are representative as far as
distribution by genre goes, then a disproportionate number of first books of
fiction by Canadian writers this year - nineteen - are books of short stories of
various kinds. This is worth thinking about, given what editors and publishers
know about the difficulty of selling short fiction. Another, less genre-bound
first impression: the thin allure of ground-zero realism, dirty, heartfelt,
brutish, or naïve, overwhelms some of these books' better qualities,
particularly the novels, by distracting the writers from attention to voice,
style, form, and, above all, language. Why should so many writers in Canada
begin their careers with a book of stories? The glib answers are just that:
among the most common, that short fiction is an apprenticeship on the way to the
master form, or that the limited stretches of time available at present to many
writers make the short story the most attractive if not the only possible form.
Regardless, some of our finest fiction writers, early and late in their careers,
continue to choose the short story form. Maybe writers continue to find rewards
for being faithful to the more flexible history of the story; short fiction has
always been more open to variation and experiment in mode, voice, and style than
has the novel, and the kind of experimentation that the story invites continues
to be important to Canadian writers, evidently, despite the vagaries of the
market. Taken together the books, editions, and collections here form a quick
but revealing survey of the contemporary condition of the genre. Alan Wilson's
Before the Flood too nicely illustrates one propensity: careful, solid,
competent writing, ringing the changes on the time-honoured theme, in Canada as
elsewhere, of a small-town boy growing up into a world seduced by false ideals
of progress that will betray its past and corrupt its soul. His version, set in
the Maritimes, is engaging, thoughtful, and sincere; but it is also laboured and
too cautious. I wanted more risk, or a memorable phrase, or a sentence that
echoed somewhere. There is nothing very wrong with the book, but more needs to
be right. A similar but more pronounced problem afflicts Rick Book's version of
the form - linked stories that trace xxxxx
university of toronto quarterly, volume 70, number 1, winter 2000/1
a boy's coming of age, these ones set on the prairies - in Necking with Louise. Authenticity alone, whether it be faithfulness to a feeling remembered, a setting reproduced, or the details of an episode itemized in painstaking sequence (as in the deke by skate stride account of the hockey showdown in `The Game'), will not in itself bring a story alive or sustain a reader's engagement. Debbie Howlett's We Could Stay Here All Night, however, shows how a quiet but highly skilled realism and a deft and unassuming style can grow, page by page, into a beautifully crafted and cumulatively powerful rendition of similarly linked stories. Howlett gives us a family of four living in Montreal amidst an intersecting array of depredations that eat away its integrity: from within, the drifting father and hapless mother falling out of love by painful degrees, creating a patina of loss that oversees the children's development; from without, forces such as the English-French conflicts in the Quebec of the 1970s, subtly rendered at the local level. Howlett can also be very funny, as in the wry depiction of her young narrator's first engagements with feminism (`New Women'); but what is most impressive is her fine management of tone and mood as she follows the girl's erratic path into adulthood.
I was intrigued by `Children of the Melange' and `Nataraj,' the very good opening stories of Raywat Deonanadan's collection, Sweet Like Saltwater. As he makes clear in his `Introduction,' Deonandan wants to trace the filaments of East Indian traditions as they are transubstantiated in North America, and also, as in the dreamlike cycles of narration in `Nataraj,' to call up old patterns of village life that predate the fatal migrations across continents and time. But the collection's force dissipates in mid-book with mishandled excursions towards fabular tales that fall a bit flat (`The Rhymer') and too-thin allegories (`On Germ Warfare and Bad Sex'); Deonandan is at his best when he draws from the material closest to his traditions. Unevenness of another kind besets Christian Peterson's affecting collection, Let the Day Perish; at his best, Peterson writes pungent and tensile prose, as demonstrated in the fine opening story `Heart Red Monaco,' which captures perfectly the sad recklessness of two young men slashing through the dawn in British Columbia around Quesnel; both are conjuring with scarred lives, drinking, toking up, haunted by lost or killed fathers. Peterson follows them as they climb a remote mountain to catch a glimpse of a rumoured recent eruption, or watch quietly one night as a woman strips and wades into a hotspring between them, then gets called back by an angry drunken husband. Always, the narration balances nicely along the air, often nearly violent, of pain and loss the characters generate, never dropping down to commiserate or rising above to judge, and the effect is powerful, moving us along to a finely realized ending. Caught in the taut cadences of this story I was eager for more, but the book does not sustain itself at this level; some of the stories sag and waft uneasily as the plot drifts, as in `Scout Island,' where the separate episodes, each nicely rendered, do not quite coalesce into a satisfying whole or tense against each other very effectively.
Some writers - perhaps they are harking back to short fiction's fabular roots - continue to discern in the story a form well suited to teaching a lesson, returning to a moral seen from different angles; this is the aim that animates the stories in Barbara Scott's The Quick. The lesson, differently conceived in each story and skilfully drawn out, is that beneath each character's skull and skin there is a unique heart, a different soul, a complex feeling and spirit that must be attended to, no matter how strained its difficult passage into the world. Each story culminates in a revelation pointing to this important truth; the danger is that the insistent lesson will become repetitive, diminishing the force of the whole book, which begins to seem too didactic. Another strategic use for the form, as Brian Panhuyzen's The Death of the Moon demonstrates, is to experiment - with voice, plot, mode, setting - as if the writer were trying to establish his range; but here a different kind of problem arises when the reader cannot make of the widely varying stories any kind of whole. Panhuyzen's stories radiate outwards from no discernible centre, each one interesting on its own, but for such different reasons that soon the reader asks what holds the book together. `Marijke and Shonny,' the very good opening piece, skilfully depicts the brief reunion of two cousins in a smouldering summer matched internally by the veiled intensity of their attraction to each other; the next, `The Ninth Chair,' ventures into quite different territory, the undoing of a suburban family when the wife leaves, and dissipates its strengths when she reappears at the end as a thin speechless ghost; while the third story, `Hotter,' awkwardly narrated by a teenager whose vernacular imitates teen talk but sounds archaic and forced, sets out for other territory.
A more intriguing experiment unfolds in Robert Rawdon Wilson's Boundaries, and Other Fictions; the stories alternate purposefully between hard-edged realism and metafictional reflection, with skilful variations on both modes and much that lies between them. `Boundaries,' for example, the opening piece, brings a Canadian greenhorn and a smooth-talking, tale-telling American drifter together, setting their relationship in motion across a landscape charged with their attraction to each other, with the adrenaline of hitting convenience stores and making good their escape, and with the alternating tensions of American and Canadian cultural norms cutting across their cross-country drive. It is as if Wilson wanted to show these conventions in operation first - and he does, very well, here and elsewhere in the collection - and then to turn in various ways towards more reflexive and meditative pieces, `other' fictions - including seriously funny divagations like `Self-Enhancement,' a short inquiry into the hiring practices of a hypothetical English Department (at the `University of Ultima Thule') that in the space of a page and a half is left nonplussed at a brilliant candidate's `tattoo of a spider on his forehead' and at his reply to the question of what his current research entails: `carnivalesque emblems.' There is much afoot in this piece and in the whole collection, and its most admirable and engaging feature is the real spirit of inquiry and adventure that opens out its stories and excursions.
I read `Self-Portrait,' the first piece in Darren Gluckman's The Weight of the World and Other Stories with mild apprehension and a small smirk. It seemed slight, fey, a thin Borgesian derivation: a man meets his double, and they discover they are leading each other's lives, oblivious to each other until that moment. Eventually they brawl in the street and one, at once a suicide and a murderer, creeps home bruised and bloodied to his wife (their wife). But the next mini-fiction, `Photograph,' uses one page-long scene to draw a line in the sand between a couple that will only widen: the woman cannot accommodate her horror at contemplating a magazine photograph of a war scene from central Africa, in which corpses are shown with shoes on, while her partner cannot understand her obvious discomfort. In that disjunction lies the beginning of the end; they talk about the futility of the man's putting on his shoes that morning, with death a bullet away, but Sarah cannot get Kyle to share her unease, and the scene closes:
Kyle said I don't know, maybe you're thinking about it too much, they're
just his shoes.
But Sarah said no they're not just his shoes.
Kyle looked at the picture and shook his head again. He felt Sarah staring at him.
What's wrong? he said.
But when they left the coffee shop and were walking across the parking lot to the car, he knew that everything had taken a turn for the worse.
At the extremes of the book's range lie the macabre fantasy of the title
story (not its strongest, unfortunately), wherein a man is literally crushed by
the world's weight, pushed down through the earth's crust, and the closing,
longest story, of two aspiring actors who move to the Big Apple to try to make
it in the business. Here, Gluckman shows how he can draw out the development and
collapse of a relationship over an extended time, set in a pungently real New
York, and very well; the story is as effective in its way as `Photograph,' save
for the awkward ending, which I will not reveal. But The Weight of the World
shows that Gluckman has abundant talent that will no doubt develop in many
The answer to the question in Ron Smith's title, What Men Know about Women is, as the opening of the title story divulges, `Nothing. We know absolutely nothing.' The title is attractive, as is the opening, and the story's plot in summary is attractive as well: as four men, a father, his son, his friend Gus, and another young man who is visiting from Britain drive across the States on vacation, they ponder (and at times encounter) women, relationship, sexuality, desire - while the father reads Richard Ford's stories (`Rock Springs' chief among them) and meditates on fiction and experience. But the invocation of Ford's classic and the promising premise are not enough to carry the sheer weight of too many words, and this is a problem throughout this collection, intelligent and attractive as Smith's depictions of humanity are. The stories are perceptive, compassionate, probing, and shrewd; but I found myself at odds throughout the book, caught between admiration for the transparently decent and caring world-view that underpins all of the stories (Smith is particularly sensitive to the plight of aged characters struggling to get by, hemmed in by approaching death and their diminishing powers), but bogged down repeatedly in overwritten prose that does not breathe amply enough.
No doubt it is small of me to praise two books of stories and then ask that they be more than they are; but that's what I think and feel about two very good collections, Brenda Baker's The Maleness of God and Mike Barnes's Aquarium. Baker's collection has many virtues: she tries on different voices and does it well, from the laid-off parking-lot attendant in `The Progress of Man' to the interior consciousness of the artist in `Mobiles,' and the voices succeed because Baker gives us characters that she cares about - an old-fashioned virtue. Her stories pulse with crafted feeling, which means that her characters are both fictional and real enough to encourage the reader to care about what happens to them; and her plots are both artfully and causally shaped, so that events and developments are both believable and significant. My minor complaint is that her endings are almost always too neat, too prepared-for. The opening story, `Bathing Dad,' is representative. The narrator's father, an ex-swimming champion, has had a stroke, and is living in her house, where she first builds a tub that he can immerse himself in, then a pool in the backyard that he can `swim' in. It is clear that the father does not want to be kept hanging on after the next stroke, but that is what happens, so that we are more than ready for his final act when he drowns himself. This summary is brutally unfair to the complexities of the story, but the signs of the end are set in motion far from the end, weakening a very good story by robbing it of some of its complexity. All of Baker's stories engaged me, however, and if the autobiographical feel of `Mobile' is any indication - it would be nice if I were wrong, but ultimately irrelevant - she is very good at writing about art and artists, and I hope she writes more in this vein.
Like Baker's, Mike Barnes's stories are crafty and subtle, and like Baker, he is not afraid to try on different modes, voices, styles; as with Baker, with Barnes by book's end you know that you have been with one writer in several guises, and profitably. As with Baker, however, it is also true that I never felt at any point that a phrase, an image, a line was inevitable, arresting, the only way to say or write an event, a character, a gesture into being. `In Florida' is a good example of Barnes' strengths (it is also included in this year's Journey Prize Anthology) but also of a propensity towards neatly tied-off endings that threaten to thump rather than resonate. The story follows a retired Canadian couple newly arrived in Florida as they get acquainted with the colony and explore their new leisure time, he by keeping a journal, she by painting. The story turns on their coming to terms with their new condition and on their relations with the others in the colony, and closes by reiterating an earlier scene in which the couple surprises a turtle they had seen earlier crossing a path. Their response at story's end says too much, closing off the revelation that might have been more effective if it had been left more silent:
As they stood there, in the middle of the dusty road in the pink light of the waning day, they felt a quiet victory in what had just occurred. Each, for the first time, felt that the trip might prove to be a success; that, finally, sufficient grounds had been laid down for the retirement to proceed. Each suspected the other of feeling the same sense of triumph but they did not look at one another. It was easier to share the feeling by looking at the road.
Show. Do not tell. And the language here is representative, as is the
syntax and the style. Easy, clear, rhythmic, balanced. Not memorable; not
falling faintly, faintly falling anywhere. Yes, maybe it is unfair to tax Barnes
with Joyce, but it is also just to ask that the language do a little more than
point or refer; it would be nice if it gestured too once in a while. That said,
Baker and Barnes are better than simply good, and they are eminently readable -
maybe too readable. A title like All The Anxious Girls on Earth expertly signals
many of Zsuzsi Gartner's signatures: self-deprecating wit, biting hyperbole, the
sense - I think this is a telling one for Gartner's generation of writers - that
in a culture where style has replaced substance, appearance become reality,
character - particularly, but not exclusively, female character - must also be
written as a style: parodied, mocked, but rendered with deadpan accuracy.
Gartner's anxious young women are displaced and aslant in a flat and oppressive
post-world (postfeminist, postmodern, etc.) that they understand, wearily, all
too well, but that also terrifies them; Gartner is excellent at creating urban
flatscapes that both reflect contemporary Canadian cities - Vancouver, Toronto,
Calgary - and become a new way of perceiving them, which is one of the boons of
good fiction that too few of these writers bestow. All of this is a cumbersome
way of suggesting that Gartner has a distinct sensibility - more than a simple
edginess. I admit, however, that reading the whole book straight through
threatens to amplify and thereby reduce Gartner's distinctive voice to a parody
of itself, too much of a good thing. Better to read one story and return a few
days later. (This might be a good place to reflect for an instant on the
near-obsession in contemporary fiction with present-tense narration; it has been
growing apace over the last twenty years and is now a raging epidemic. Why does
using the simple past seem so quaint, so `conservative' to us now? Again, this
is not the place to pursue this; but someone should. Soon.)
I read Gartner and Debbie Howlett as the two finest extremes among these writers; Howlett for showing us just how powerfully the realist conventions of the genre can operate, and Gartner for providing the most exciting and arresting versions of her generation's sensibility. I'd guess that each writer would be excited by the other's book, and I'd guess that each has by now read Elyse Gasco's Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby, the collection I've saved for last, because no other writer of short fiction this year has published a collection that artfully raises as many questions, chief among them, how do we now read stories; how do we now understand storytelling; what are the relations, now, between the tale told and the telling voice; and most important, what are the contemporary relations between loss, yearning, and storytelling? A pervasive sense of loss mediated by telling weaves through Gasco's stories; many of them involve adoption and a search for lost or missing mothers, told from both child's and mother's points of view - an excursion wonderfully suited to Gasco's style (the stories continuously invite the reader to reverse that last formulation). Often, a story will point to narration itself as a key of sorts, almost flaunting the fictionality of the form as a kind of taunt: here is the opening of the appropriately entitled `The Third Person':
Here is an introduction. The fact is that sometimes it is very hard to get into a story, sometimes there is no smooth path to lead up to what has to be said. The road just ends, you have to hike for a while, and when you get there it's just a shack of a tale, with no running water. A good way to start is to say that there are many ways to hope and to leave. And there are many ways to be left. For instance, Elle's kind adoptive mother said to her: Here in the dictionary you can see that it says that left is towards the north when one faces east. That is the kind of thing Elle's adoptive mother would say.
If the story developed as parts of this passage at first glance might
seem to suggest - as self-reflexive posturing, as portentousness - the narration
might become simply faux-fashionable. But one of the magical elements in Gasco's
writing is the painful necessity and the painful clarity that inhabits every
page. By story's end, the `many ways to hope and to leave,' the `many ways to be
left' have been depicted so fully and with such utter and matter-of-fact
transparency that the opening generalization becomes iconic after you return to
this passage, wondering how or where this transmutation began. Is the
`kind'/'kind' juxtaposition intentional at the end of the passage? Where do
anger and irony go, what becomes of them when the narrator's eye and ear are so
firmly on herself, and yet the story still develops `out there' in our domain?
The answers are not obvious - there is valuable work to be done here for any
student of focalization or any disciple of Genette's - but the effects of
Gasco's tactics are gorgeously irritating at first, and then splendidly
revealing, once you surrender to her invitation to allow the storyteller to muse
on her narration, realizing that this is no mere game. Gasco makes prose poems
out of loss without ever seeming precious about it, and her stories are,
finally, as `accessible' as the most down-to-earth realist reader would require.
Extraordinary and everyday magic here: read no more than ten pages nightly, to
be taken with one ounce of good scotch alongside.
To return to where we began, The Journey Prize Anthology; this year's collection was selected by Sheldon Currie. It's not quite kosher to read these as first-time appearances in book form (accomplished writers like Mark Jarman have been at work for a good number of years, and his excellent contribution, `Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World,' actually first appeared in a book in his 1998 collection, New Orleans Is Sinking); nevertheless, assuming that this collection does provide a snapshot of the best writers currently at work, I'd have to say that the collection is surprisingly cautious, restrained, and well mannered - almost genteel, with a few dazzling exceptions, such as Alissa York's `The Back of the Bear's Mouth' and Jane Eaton Hamilton's `Territory.' There is not a story that is weak, I hasten to add, but, as exemplified in Barnes' `In Florida,' the stories tend to be solid, well-rounded, and competent - period. And that, by and large, is what this year's short fiction seems to be. Gasco, Howlett, Gartner, Hamilton, Jarman, and York are producing excellent work, on the evidence, and others - Peterson, Baker, and Barnes, for example - are writing some fine stories. That nineteen out of forty-one writers choose to write in the form, however, is a very interesting development that needs some attention.
It might seem a raw, crudely progressive, and numbingly quantitative
gesture to pause over a rarity, the year's one book of novellas, between
assessments of the short story collections and the novels, but this is the right
moment. Warren Cariou's gloriously entitled The Exalted Company of Roadside
Martyrs: Two Novellas is simply a wonderful book. How many great novellas do we
have, in Canada or anywhere else, and how many writers turn to it at all
regularly? Thomas Mann; Katherine Mansfield; García Márquez (Chronicle of a
Death Foretold); Bellow; closer to home, Gallant and Munro. Try to name five
more. And what a form it is: by turn expansive and hermetic, byzantine, baroque,
but suddenly, momentarily, lyrically transparent. And devilishly difficult.
(Reflect on The Pegnitz Junction for a moment.) This is a small part of why I
admire these two pieces so much: structurally they seem effortless (most
recently, I felt a similar operation afoot in Munro's The Love of a Good Woman)
but in fact the edifice is so elaborate but so seamlessly smoothed off and
polished that you cannot find the joins or the floors, never mind the rooms or
Both novellas attempt a lot and succeed brilliantly. It is fitting that the book is prefaced with an epigraph from Blake on what persuades an imagination in different eras to believe that a thing is what it is, because both novellas, `The Shrine of Badger King' and `Lazarus,' are about the strength and the province of belief - profaned by politics, narrow ambition, and a grand capacity for self-delusion in the first case, and entangled in a hopeless love, false and true ministry, and the institutions of marriage and the church in the other. `The Shrine of Badger King' brings the bleak reaches of northern Saskatchewan shimmeringly alive through the sad sheen of the `Minister's' narration telling his own story, the tale of a politician who betrays Badger - one Francis Cameron - and thus turns the small-town bad boy and drug dealer into a nemesis who haunts his whole career, topples his every rise, returning from the dead to destroy his vaunting ambition. Cariou's first wondrous talent is with voice: his narrator is at once a sleaze, a proto-realist, an ordinarily sad man, a dupe, a dope, and a manipulative schemer, a divorced politician contemplating his wrecked career, an enraged and obsessed madman bent on settling the score with Badger; and, but, even as we recognize all of these qualities, we are entranced with his story, because, as Kroetsch might put it, his voice makes it, and him, real. `Real,' though, in several registers: this is at once a morality play, a tall tale (and Cariou is very funny, at once wry and sly, alternating between absurdly hyperbolic event and finely managed deadpan dialogue), an allegory and a parable - without any of the levels clashing. It is exceedingly difficult to fathom how this could be a first book; Cariou writes with mastery, flair, and - yes - inspiration. And everything I've just said goes, differently, for `Lazarus.' In short, Cariou is prodigiously talented, and there is no book so fine in so many ways among this year's group.
Last, the year's novels. There is no single or simple category beyond the
generic to embrace them, but there are some interesting subcategories. Of the
thirteen under review, nine are by women; of those, five are either centrally
about abuse or allude to it. On the surface, Jodi Lundgren's Touched is a
powerfully written, painful and frightening novel about an undergraduate
student's breakdown and her mistreatment by the medical institution. But better
than that, Lundgren goes beneath the clichés of the situation (including a
student's infatuation with her English professor, he with her, and his
manipulative duplicities) to gradually reveal the young woman's abuse by her
father, so that the caring family worried about her condition at the beginning
is eventually revealed as its prime cause. Like many recent novelists who point
towards the hybrid nature of the form, Lundgren interleaves other kinds of texts
in her narration - official documents, medical reports, psychiatric assessments
- inviting the reader to assess the kinds of information they purvey or convey
and to measure their portraits of the protagonist against each other. There is
nothing fashionable or glib in her method, though, and the writing is
consistently charged and tense. Camilla Gibb's Mouthing the Words follows a
different path to a similar end; her protagonist's parents emigrate from Britain
to Canada, bringing with them the father's racist pathology, the mother's
twisted dependencies, and the girl's several imagined personalities - foils that
she flees to for counsel or comfort when her father abuses her. The novel traces
Thelma's gradual and erratic emergence out of this madness into a world in which
she can dispense with her imaginary allies and live within a newly constituted
self. Because Gibb narrates from a point of view inside Thelma's experience, the
novel is often instructively, disturbingly bleak, communicating Thelma's pain
directly; even her eventual emancipation is uncomfortably raw. A sensation just
short of eavesdropping gathered as I read, half-fascinated, half-horrified, but
always gripped tightly by the narrator's urgency. Reading William Lynch's Clouds
is like moving back through the haze of thirty years to find stand-ins for
Sartre and Camus in melancholy consort, huddled in a semi-abandoned hulk of a
motel outside of rainy Parksville, BC, where the narrator is holed up in his
dreary room, working on a play, waiting for a surprise visit from his long-lost
love, `G,' and obsessively getting himself through his claustrophobic days by
repeating a grim routine of dreary thoughts, acts, rituals. I know this sounds
deadly; surprisingly it is not, because Lynch is a very good stylist whose prose
moves in long, almost relentless swells (quirkily but instructively, long
passages often close with an increasingly obvious `I think') that become almost
soothing, almost comical, and certainly distinctive: he narrates in
paragraph-long waves, the commas creating a rhythm just off enough to call
attention to itself without distorting the sense.
I said earlier that the allure of gritty realism sometimes obscures what should have been a better novel. A case in point is Billie Livingstone's Going Down Swinging, a powerful story told in alternating chapters by Eilleen, a single mother riding the peaks and valleys of alcoholism, hooking, and determination in a fight against despair, and by her young daughter Grace. As we migrate back and forth between points of view (and from Toronto to Vancouver), two problems arise: it is notoriously difficult to create a plausible retrospective point of view when the character is very young at one edge of restrospection, because one slip and the narration will lift off to hover uncertainly between the adult and the child. This happens here too often. Second, the novel depends upon our coming to care about what happens to the mother and her daughter - to believe at some level in the characters' determination to make good; but the style threatens to defeat this purpose by cleaving to what their experience `really' looks and feels like at ground level. A more arch, comical, and knowing realism rubs rawly against some more interesting intentions in Evan Solomon's Crossing the Distance; at one level, the novel follows the trajectory of a strained relationship between two brothers, alternately close and alienated, as they pursue their careers, one as a popular TV talk show host, the other as a deluded and murderous missionary, bent on saving everything and everyone. They will come into violent conflict at novel's end; but before that, Solomon will take us on a scarifying tour of the (mostly Toronto) media - its influence, its corruption, its mores or lack of same, and at this level the novel develops as a dark madcap comedy, satirical and funny enough, to be sure. But if Solomon is after bigger game, as he appears to be - if he really wants to explore these brothers' relationship and where it has taken them - then the exposé of the media seems obvious and overdone. I enjoyed Elyse Friedman's Then Again, but wished that, given her fine comical eye and ear, she had done more with her material. Friedman gives us a wacky family reunion in suburban Toronto, called together by one of three siblings who has done fabulously well; the title alludes to his mad, painstaking recreation of their past - including hiring actors to stand in for their dead parents. Interlaced with this freakiness is the tale of the narrator's lost love for McCollum (both were refugees from their families), who left her permanently, it seems, and without a word when he walked in on her single episode of infidelity. The narration cackles and crackles with energy and wit, and the novel is diverting; but I was left feeling that an opportunity had been only half-seized. Catherine Simmons Niven, however, chooses another route in A Fine Daughter; she is one of the few novelists this year who moves successfully (and remarkably gently) beyond kitchen-sink, back-alley, or bartop realism to create another kind of imaginative frame, in poetic prose and through a plot that quietly but persistently hints at myth and legend as nourishing counterpoints to proper, upright codes of conduct. Niven gives us a small town community in western Canada with all of the foibles that Ross and Leacock and their descendants have alternately mocked or pilloried, east or west. Into the town comes a single mother who will bear her daughter and work at the general store; as the novel charts the citizens' perceptions of the woman and her daughter, we see the towns' hypocrisies slowly dismantled, propriety unmasked, stern morality upended in favour of more transparent attention to human needs for love, care, and nourishment. Forgive this pious summary and read the novel; it is a rewarding and deeply felt book.
At the back of my mind for the last several months has been an argument I have wanted to make about how fiction has long had a primary vocation to call up versions of the past and, just as important, to reflect on or indeed to create various meanings of `pastness.' I imagined attempting a taxonomy, but not necessarily a hierarchy, of modes for these versions and visions of the past and their significances; then, I thought, it would be useful to think of these operations in Canadian terms. But my original ambition seemed more and more impracticable as I considered this year's books, and what now remains is a fragment of the idea and six novels. Irene Guildford's The Embrace provides one exemplary crystallization of a recurring theme: the immigrant who returns to her homeland (or the successful immigrants who bring their less fortunate family members to their new-found home) will meet many forms of grief brought on by the passing of time, by the erosion of memory, by the clashes of disparate cultures, by expectations impossible to meet, suspicions easily aroused. These are the forces working through the Lithuanian characters in Canada and at home in The Embrace; Guildford's writing is painfully clear and her vision no less so: not only can you not go home again, you cannot maintain real contact with what was home, past or present. Neither of these pat platitudes, however, is sufficient to prevent the attempt or to predict exactly how it will turn out in individual human terms, as Guildford skilfully and gracefully shows us. Peter Hogg's Crimes of War poses a large contemporary question about the past and attempts an answer, but I was disappointed in the novel. The question is a familiar one: how should we judge war crimes, and what moral authority underwrites the legal pursuit? Hogg's war criminal is an old man, a widower living in Winnipeg who was an interpreter for the SS but also took part in the shootings and gassings of Jews; he is shown to be a loving human being, alone now without his wife, who has lived an upright life for close to fifty years in Canada. His young Canadian prosecutor, however, with his MA in history, a cynical civil-service mentality, and very little vision or morality, personal or political, is portrayed as a flat and embittered agent serving a bureaucracy he doesn't believe in. The case against Reile, the war criminal, collapses when witnesses die or cannot testify, so he remains `free'; meanwhile his prosecutor, Dennis, leaves the employ of the government (the unit is being shut down) and essentially fades away back into Toronto. I am aware that the novel intends to turn the question in a new direction, but I found the contrast between the two characters unconvincing, the implied case unpersuasive, and the vision of the past and the issue of responsibility for it at once laboured and thin.
I have arrived at my final four hostages; each provides a different, complex, and satisfying version of the answer I alluded to above: how does fiction conjure with the past? To what ends? With what legitimacy, to what purpose, for whose benefit? How do fictional gestures and performances pastward relate to, correct, replace, subvert, enrich, or supplement history? In The River Midnight, Lillian Nattel recreates a fully rounded turn-of-the-century world - the late nineteenth century world of the shtetl in Poland - replete with every imaginable form of loving attention to each particular of that world. Her plot is constructed as a kind of Yeatsian gyre, returning purposefully over and again to its central moment - the various forces gathering around the pregnancy of the shtetl's midwife, Misha, who ministers with powerful love and lore to the community. It is remarkable how intimately Nattel knows this world - its languages, its social hierarchies, its customs and conventions, its weather, its seasons, the intimate details of its everyday life; but more remarkable still is the climate of feeling she has brought to life. At the heart of the novel, the Jewish soul of the community breathes through all of its incarnations, sacred and profane, while the poisonous social history of the era breathes its own deadly vapours over everyone and everything. In Nattel's version, the past speaks guilelessly, in flesh and blood, as if it were wholly and fully present and available to us, and naturally so. Yes: Nattel's version of the past is wholly and charmingly unproblematized, always already. More power to her.
In fact, a remarkable element in each of these four fictions is one governing assumption, a kind of first article of faith, never explicit but always at work: that the past is eminently available and that it can and must be brought to life - even though all forms of recollection, of material remote or more recent, are always subject to the fiction-making wiles of memory - to revision and suppression, alteration and erasure, knowing or unknowing fabrication. Joe Fiorito knows this and more in his bones, which is why his strikingly beautiful memoir of his father's death, The Closer We Are to Dying can be read as a fiction without distending our expectations of fiction or of memoir. Fiorito writes at the very edge where one becomes the other. It is ironic, and sad, that word for word, phrase by sentence, this book should be one of the best written of the year's fictions, because you might think that the more traditional and conventional fictions would show themselves more attentive to the primary, elemental forces of language than would a memoir. Fiorito shows, on every page, what should be obvious, but too often is not: that in a book, the most powerful evidence a loving and grieving son can manifest for his feelings at the imminent death of his father must rely, first and last, on his skills with language; Fiorito writes in such a supple and transparent idiom that clarity of feeling and clarity of expression seem to merge effortlessly on every line. This relationship between father and son is anything but simple: Fiorito gives us all the tensions, ambivalences, conflicts, and contradictions in his father's flawed character, as well as in his own feelings for him. At the same time, he vividly traces the history of his family from its origins in Italy through its forced and hurried migration to Canada. I cannot remember ever having read a more moving and powerful memoir.
From memoir's intimate relations with fiction to fiction's intimate relations with history: Malka Marom's Sulha and Martha Blum's The Walnut Tree provide fitting places to close. Marom tells us that the word `Sulha' means, in both Hebrew and Arabic languages, `a forgiveness, a reconciliation; a joining, repairing, making whole that which has been torn asunder - peace.' This majestic novel follows the painful progress towards various reconciliations - with country, with self, with memory, the past, and the future - of a sabra, an Israeli woman who has lost her fighter pilot husband twenty years earlier, crashed somewhere in the desert. Leora ventures into the tents of the Badu (the Bedouin) in the Sinai, where as a guest from an utterly foreign culture she witnesses this people's way of life at eye level. It is nearly impossible to convey how deeply affecting Marom's treatment is of Leora's extended stay: through Leora's depictions of the lives and life stories of the two Bedouin wives, Tammam and Azzizah, their husband, Abu Salim, and their extended family, Marom gives us a marvellously vivid and detailed sense of the continuing Bedouin presence in the Sinai (and, equally vividly, of the timeless presence of the Sinai itself). No other novel this year has the range and scope of Sulha, and I can well believe that it took Marom fourteen well-spent years to write it. Several kinds of loyalty to `The Land' - Israel - lie at the centre of one of Leora's dilemmas - whether to allow her son to follow in his father's footsteps and become a pilot in the air force. All of the novel's major currents run through the immediate conflict Leora is fighting through: most impressively, the contemporary and historical meanings of Arab and Jewish aspirations to nationhood are infused with new meanings through the enlarged perspective on the region that Marom gains by depicting the life and history of the Bedouin, and showing how ingeniously the Bedouin reach a `sulha,' an intricately negotiated compromise to avoid internecine bloodshed. As with Cariou's novellas, so with Sulha: it is exceedingly difficult to understand this as a first novel. There is simply too much going on too well, too many layers of history and myth clashing and cohabiting to magnificent effect.
Finally, The Walnut Tree: let the last word here be about Martha Blum's superb novel. I have been searching my experience for a novel like The Walnut Tree without any success. Blum's rendition of history, beginning in the town of Czernowitz (Austria/Hungary) in 1921 and ending in western Canada in the 1960s, moves principally through its depiction of the life and times of an impassioned and headstrong character, Süssel, and her memories of growing up in a wealthy, privileged Jewish family which is subjected to every imaginable terror as successive waves of Germans and Russians overrun the town and environs. Süssel's experience encompasses every reach of the history of the era, personal, political, public and private, and Blum writes with a memory alive to every tremor that preceded each catastrophe for Süssel and the accompanying cast of characters. Like Sulha, The Walnut Tree is suffused with the sense of a convulsed past that still fibrillates in the present; like The River Midnight, The Walnut Tree insists that its sense of the past is not only real, memorable, and significant, but that its very acts of recollection are as inevitable as they are imperative. Would that more of the novels published in 1999 had the same sweeping ambition, or at least demonstrated a similar willingness to reach towards the possibilities these last four fictions so powerfully, variously, and memorably embrace.
Baker, Brenda. The Maleness of God. Coteau. 282. $16.95
Barnes, Mike. Aquarium. Porcupine's Quill. 146. $15.95
Blum, Martha. The Walnut Tree. Coteau. 316. $16.95
Book, Rick. Necking with Louise. Red Deer. 152. $9.95
Cariou, Warren. The Exalted Company of Roadside Martyrs: Two Novellas. Coteau. 268. $14.95
Currie, Sheldon, sel. The Journey Prize Anthology. 184. McClelland and Stewart. $18.99
Deonandan, Raywat. Sweet Like Saltwater. 113. TSAR. $15.95
Ellis, Madeleine B. A Song of Lillia. Essence. 530. n.p.
Fiorito, Joe. The Closer We Are to Dying. McClelland and Stewart. 322. $29.99
Friedman, Elyse. Then Again. Random House Canada. 190. $29.95
Gartner, Zsuzsi. All the Anxious Girls on Earth. 200. Key Porter. $18.95
Gasco, Elyse. Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby? McClelland and Stewart. 238. $21.99
Gibb, Camilla. Mouthing the Words. Pedlar. 186. $21.95
Gluckman, Darren. The Weight of the World and Other Stories. Exile. 96. $17.95
Guildford, Irene. The Embrace. Guernica. 150. $15.00
Hines, Anne. Fishing Up the Moon. 248. Pedlar. $19.95
Hogg, Peter. Crimes of War. McClelland and Stewart. 230. $32.99
Howlett, Debbie. We Could Stay All Night. Porcepic/Beach Holme. 160. $16.95
Hutchison, Don, ed. Northern Frights 5. Mosaic. 260. $18.95
Isaac, Douglas. Altered Biography: The Womb Years. 164. Arsenal Pulp. $16.95
Brothers Quenon, Paul, and Plante, Guerric, and Father Kelly, Timothy. Holy Folly: Short and Tall Tales from the Abbey of Gethsemani. Black Moss 132. $17.95
Lambert, Barbara. The Allegra Series. Porcepic/Beach Holme. 192. $16.95
Livingstone, Billie. Going Down Swinging. Random House Canada. 326. $29.95
Lundgren, Jodi. Touched. Anvil. 166. $12.95
Lynch, William. Clouds. Exile. 136. $19.95
Marom, Malka. Sulha. Key Porter. 564. $27.95
Nattel, Lilian. The River Midnight. Knopf Canada. 414. $32.00
Niven, Catherine Simmons. A Fine Daughter. Red Deer. 238. $16.95
Panhuyzen, Brian. The Death of the Moon. Cormorant. 214. $19.95
Petersen, Christian. Let the Day Perish. Porcepic/Beach Holme. 136. $16.95
Pollock, Mary Jo. Summer Burns. Insomniac. 158. $19.99
Ray, Doris. The Ghosts behind Him. Caitlin. 218. $16.95
Robertson, Murdoch. A Touch of Murder Now and Then. Caitlin. 264. $18.95
Scott, Barbara. The Quick. Cormorant. 148. $19.95
Sellers, Peter. Whistling Past the Graveyard. Mosaic. 228. $18.95
Sinclair, Roy. Paper Trees. Caitlin. 374. $15.95