Springing into Something Else
Books Under Consideration:
Beautiful World, Where Are You; Sally Rooney, (Knopf Canada2021)
Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2021)
Nothing Could be Farther from The Truth, Christopher Evans (Anansi, 2022)
Vagabond, Ceilidh Michelle, (Douglas & McIntyre, 2021)
Apart, a Year of Pandemic Poetry and Prose, Courtney Bates-Hardy & Dave Margoches, eds, (Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild 2021)
Some years ago, after encountering some internet chatter on the then new literary phenomenon, I read Sally Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends and found it more promising than accomplished. It seemed to be a product of a minor talent, adjudged and packaged by agents, editors and publicists as their best hope for the next big thing. Her subsequent story, Normal People, seemed to hit the popularity charts on a rocket-like trajectory, becoming what the biz calls a word-of-mouth bestseller, and its video adaptation, courtesy the BBC, one of the most talked about of the season. All somehow missed by moi, until, that is, the steamroller of publicity surrounding her third washed over me without apology.
Beautiful World, Where Are You found its place on my reading table, vying with several other intriguing titles for my attention. I picked it up on several occasions, finding it almost immediately turgid, both in its narrative unfolding and its regular rhetorical bombardments. And oh yes, its plodding character development. Whether it’s Felix, the feckless boozer and warehouse picker, or Alice the successful novelist hiding from her shameful fame, Eileen the paycheck-drawing literary journal editor bingeing on low self-esteem, or Simon the tall, handsome, and some might say debonair, hero from every romance novel of the last century, the personalities drawn from her localized Irish culture preferences seem less like clichés that a critic might spotlight than vacuous non-entities suffering from Rooney’s oft stated failure (in many interviews) to create situations and characters beyond her life experience, sticking, as they say in creative writing classes, with what she knows.
The ponderous, and indeed relentless, emails between Eileen and Alice that regularly punctuate the narrative sections, raise the spectre of almost every coming of age novel where over-educated and failure-to-launch Millennials mix it up with the crème de la crème of poets, philosophers, artists and musicians without gaining much insight into their inner selves and soul purpose beyond the convenient clichés of their cultural moment. They chatter about life, the universe and everything but resist the challenge of fully embracing that life and getting on with it.
That Rooney has the right stuff, or at least some of it, is not in dispute. Some brief descriptive passages can really knock the ball out of the court, hinting at the promise of more extended future triumphs, but many young prose stars have this in spades, and I can only attribute the fawning reception of many mainstream articles to a desire not to offend the industry’s creation of star power, at least not yet. As Caleb Crain mentioned in a recent article in the Atlantic, “I suspect that many readers will miss the ruthless speed and economy that Rooney displayed in her first two books…” I’m not entirely sure I saw it in the first place, but maybe I fell to napping in all the babble.
A final gripe would be the pages and pages of text without any paragraph indentation, an endless stream of verbiage that throws in description, dialogue and rumination without space or pause, resulting more in headaches than illumination. Such innovation seemed bracingly revolutionary fifty or more years ago when rebels rocked the castle walls of modernism but now merely tries the patience of those who dutifully scaled those walls and got inside.
One of those intriguing titles was Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit’s newest collection of essays. Focusing almost completely on George Orwell’s love of gardens and their cultivation and then contrasting his loving delight in such with the darkness of his later and now legendary dystopian fictions, Solnit replays many well-known elements of his biography, spotlighting at every turn his devotion to nature in all its glories while serving up roses as the star attraction.
The cottage industry of Orwell criticism and appreciation, long recognized and often gently mocked as praise for St. George, continues unabated. Each devotee must find a new angle from which to view the icon. Rebecca Solnit, that impressively productive champion of the essay form, has settled on roses. Eric Blair, as he was known to his friends and intimates, appears to have been a lifelong afficinado of flowers, bushes and trees, and nature’s bounty in general.
Biographies, of which there have been a few, tend to concentrate on his eviscerating social analysis of the poor and downtrodden, as in Down and out in Paris and London & The Road to Wigan Pier, the confrontation with the competing political ideologies of the thirties, Anarchism, Fascism, Communism, and what’s that other one, oh yes, Democracy, as in Homage to Catalonia, and that deeply disturbing dystopian evocation of Stalinism, 1984, with more than a couple of nods to the dark side of colonialism and imperialism, as evinced in Burmese Days. And in a disquieting note, one can trawl through the index of Michael Shelden’s 1991 authorized biography Orwell, looking for any mention of gardens or roses and come up empty handed, as I just did, moments ago. Perhaps Rebecca might explain this away as yet another tiresome example of that disturbing contemporary ailment, ‘mansplaining’, but I suspect she just dug more deeply into the diaries and letters than others.
The continued delight of her expository prose, exemplified in many previous titles, over twenty as far as I can see, aids and abets her meandering gaze as she slips into many side trips, inspired by the flower in question: its cultivation throughout history, its swapping from culture to culture and its current mass market role in Mother’s Day and Easter, when millions of bunches, mostly of buds that will never bloom, are airlifted en masse from the vast factory greenhouses of Columbia to the markets of urban prosperity thousands of miles distant, leaving behind the underpaid and overworked wretches of capitalist globalism and depositing more than their fair share of carbon along the way.
Like many of her social activist colleagues Rebecca has a number of bête noirs which raise their heads in most of her output and this collection is no exception. While I often find her focus to be wrong headed and ill-considered, the fluent drift of her thought and the charms of its svelte expression continue to stimulate and provoke. If you are a new arrival to the overflowing basket of her cultural contributions I might recommend her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence as pure reading pleasure while this work might be more rewarding to the confirmed Orwell lover.
Some, if not all, that I found lacking in Sally Rooney’s work I discovered in spades as I read through the short stories of Christopher Evans in his first collection for Anansi, Nothing Could Be Farther from the Truth. A basket overflowing with alluring little beauties, whether sweet or spiteful, Evan’s fictions fling themselves into the far corners of literary reach without sacrificing the gloriously ruddy nub of the everyday. Characters come face to face with their confusions and fears without the torments of self-pity and whining above and beyond the call of duty other storytellers all too easily indulge in. The mad conflicts of daily life propel themselves into unseemly collisions without the wind-up mechanisms of motivation insisted upon in the creative writing courses that Evans has bravely survived to disseminate the many variations on his darkly comic vision we see here. The ghosts of Latin American magic realism are deftly evoked in A Dissection of Passion, satiric jabs at New Yorker profiles in The Passion and Fugue of Edward Frank (by one ‘Jane Gopnik’), the power fantasies of male students in You, The Truthteller, the smooth transition from realism to surrealism in Over the Coffee Table and Down the Hall and I Don’t Think So.
I was charmed and suitably diverted by all the entries in this magical mystery tour of fictions by this rising star. His giddy enthusiasm and seemingly limitless reach remind me of Zsuzsi Gartner and Lisa Moore. But the sprinting of young turks does not always morph into the enduring vision of the long-distance runner. But I suspect Evans could be the exception that proves the rule. Highly recommended.
I have a fatal attraction for memoirs, as perhaps you have noticed, and this time around it’s Ceilidh Michelle’s Vagabond. After a first novel, Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, Michelle has turned right into the popular memoir genre of young folks trying to escape a less than chirpy childhood to venture into the big bad world and finding that it easily lives up to its reputation. Fleeing Nova Scotia for the dregs of working-class Montreal, a drug dealing boyfriend, the apartment from hell and those bone chilling Montreal winters, thence onto her sister’s couch in rainy Vancouver where Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi tempts her to the spiritual life in a California ashram, or at least check it out. There she is welcomed as a visitor but not quite as a devotee, whereupon she resorts to her cash free last choice, the homeless shuffle in exotic locales such as Slab City and Venice Beach. And there she sleeps rough, – the boardwalk, overgrown back gardens, parking lots and the like, getting chummy with the scruffy and smelly clientele that capitalism reserves for its reservoir of the useless.
As you may have heard, Venice Beach has come a long way down from its sixties heyday when Ray Manzarek squatted down with college pal Jim Morrison on the sands and listened to him sing the poetic melodies of the several of the songs that wound up on the first Doors album, and is now the haunt of runaways, the transient, indigent, and hawkers treating the tourists to their trinkets. Michelle’s collage of the many she met and befriended in the chaos that she convinces herself is some kind of quest is fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. I say collage as the narrative is episodic in the extreme, encounters and interactions rolling indiscriminately into one another without the transitions ‘normal’ life imposes. Of course, this is a reflection of the intense but unfocused consciousness that the almost continuous drug high delivers to its users. But in perpetrating this conceit the author inducts her readers into the same trap, an abysmal confusion of character and identity as she dumps the conventions of the narrative line into a mish-mash of textures and impressions. Okay, so it’s all one and every moment is sovereign, but such anarchic fluidity can be more adequately managed.
Conversely, her descriptive powers are well up to the gutter grime she endures for the benefit of drug trips of every stripe and the seemingly endless promiscuity that works as some kind of oasis between the regular panics of random violence and exhaustion from hunger and thirst.
For example: “We sprawled out under the fig tree by the dog park, vodka drunk. Tonight I was comfortable. I was full. I knew the streets, I had my friends, and wasn’t that the feeling of home? Full stomachs and a place to sit? Usually I felt like a squirrely ragamuffin, ashamed and defiant in it. All of that was washed clean in vodka. I was baptized in the singing waters. I felt bold and tough, merry and beautiful. When the vodka got low, Alex and Jay came stumbling along as if they’d been cured by our dwindling supplies. They had the good LSD.”
Replacing the unsatisfactory home life with the movable feast, even the scaled down version, has its temporary triumphs. Shortly thereafter we see this: “As we walked along to buy smokes at the store, I trailed my finger across the white wooden slats of picket fences and over the prickly hedges that penned in perfect beach homes. Drifting easily from open windows came the sounds of glasses tinkling, a jazz horn, a sleepy piano. People danced lazily across their million dollar living rooms. A film of curtain pulled across a yellow pane. They wanted to be seen. I saw. I did what they wanted me to do: I longed. I wanted to sink my teeth into their lives.”
After a year of all this convivial calamity, when the reverse charge call is made from the San Francisco Public Library to the “precarious family, a family built on contracts and negotiations, long distances and misunderstandings” it is plain what Michelle now wants to savour, the once daring enterprise having collapsed into danger and disease. What is not clear is how much she is willing to work to achieve it.
While Lillian Necakov’s, il virus, an intimate, surreal journal of 78 days during, was first out of the gate in these turbulent times, Apart, a large anthology of over 200 pages and 70 contributors, chockfull of poetry, essays, memoirs and fiction, is the first Canadian literary production of this scope reflecting the years of the virus panic now seemingly drawing to a whimpering close. You can bet it won’t be the last. A more predictable agreed-upon theme would be hard to find. And with such a large crew of writers and modes of expression there will inevitably be highs and lows, with each reader finding their likes and dislikes as they progress through “the year”. My own peaks would be the essays by Sharon Butala and dee Hobsbawn-Smith.
It’s a touchy, tendentious topic and one expects frayed nerves and overwrought reactions rendered in tones of rage and sadness, but they are held in check here. Perhaps by editors smoothing out the rougher edges and perhaps by writers censoring themselves. After all, aren’t we the polite Canadians showing the world the efficacy of apologetics? I imagine a US or UK equivalent would be riper with rage, but time, as they say, will tell.
Some lost their precious relatives, some their livelihoods, some their favourite restaurants, others their precious freedoms. Few escaped unscathed. All were joined in uncomfortable strictures. Myself, I often joked about taking my ‘still legal walks around the lake’, observing the taped off benches and warning signs. We all have stories to tell and will be doing so for as long as the young folks, still to sprout, will listen to us. Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild is to be thanked for getting the ball rolling.
Gordon Phinn, Oakville, (Feb24/22)
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Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit. Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.
Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.
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