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A New, Better Way to Read Canada’s Novels

T.F. Rigelhof, Hooked On Canadian Books: the Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984, Toronto, Cormorant Books, 2010, 356 pp. HB, $32.00 

T. F. Rigelhof has been something of a secret Canadian treasure for a quarter century now, a Saskatchewan-bred boy of Volga Deutsch descent who has lived happily in Montreal for the last 35 years. He is a failed (or reformed) seminarian with both the intellectual rigour and the dry wit you’d expect of someone with his educational background, but he also possesses startling gifts as a raconteur along with the most infectious giggle in Canadian writing. In 1995, after a couple of semi-successful novels, he published A Blue Boy in a Black Dress, which was an account of his five year stint training to become a Catholic priest. The book is a small classic; the prose terse and angular, the thought restrained and elegant, and its indictment of the Roman Catholic Church is argued with gelid brilliance. It read like the work of a fine writer discovering his métier. It was followed, in 2000, by This is Our Writing, an eleven essay evaluation of Canadian writing that managed to be magisterial and deliciously witty at the same time. It was centre-pieced by a convincingly hilarious deflation of Robertson Davies and an equally convincing proclamation of Barbara Gowdy as a major force in Canadian Literature. Its prose has the same quickness that characterized A Blue Boy in a Black Dress, and together with Philip Marchand’s 1998 Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature, it signaled that Canadian writing had reached a new, more self-critical maturity.

Rigelhof was laying down some of the most disciplined, edgy prose being written anywhere in the country, and one wondered, with anticipation, what would next catch his sharp focus. But in 2003, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the left side of his brain, and everything changed. Aside from some right-side weakness in his right leg, the initial effects seemed minimal, and a full recovery seemed eminent.

His first post-stroke publication was a rethinking of the materials in A Blue Boy in a Black Dress: 2004’s Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief. The book was more than a hundred pages longer, and it moved differently; more sensuously, and with a kind of joyful leisureliness that told you that the writer was taking pleasure from each word he wrote, and each insight he uncovered. The result was a book that was arguably better than A Blue Boy in a Black Dress, but profoundly different—almost as if a different writer was at work, with a sweeter, wilder mind that swept through and over and around his materials instead of penetrating and deconstructing them. His reviewing, over the next several years carried similar cadences. His readings of different authors were more sweet-tempered and positive, and you got the impression that Rigelhof was a man deeply enchanted by being alive and able to read. He liked everything he came across, and what he described about the books he reviewed told us, often marvelously, about what they did achieve, and little of what they didn’t.

I know Rigelhof personally; well enough to have been able to talk to him about the cognitive changes the stroke wrought. He told me he now reads more slowly than before, and has more difficulty with dense ideation. He can handle both without diminished capacity, but it takes longer, and there is more labour involved. One of us, I can’t remember which, proposed the metaphor of a rearranged cognitive toolbox. It has the same tools, but when he reaches in, some tools easily fit into his hand, and others don’t. The hacksaws and box-cutters have sunk to the far corners, at the bottom.

At the end of 2007, there was another stroke, this time more serious (and happily, since resolved) that, I think, influenced Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984 (2010), and may even have made it possible.  It is a book that deploys all the tools in Rigelhof’s frankly enormous toolbox, and in a new and remarkable way.

Here’s what I think: Hooked on Canadian Books is, first of all, the best work of literary criticism ever written in Canada, and a literary masterpiece in its own right. Second, although its author is probably the most thorough reader of Canadian fiction we now have, this book is not an encyclopaedia of Canadian fiction. It is exactly as advertised: a reading of what Rigelhof believes are the good, the better and the best Canadian novels since 1984. It begins with the bracing premise that an abundance of interesting fiction has been written in Canada over the last 25 years, and then sets out to explicate it on the terms the novels themselves have set. Rigelhof is their mapmaker and guide, but what he isn’t prepared to be is a gatekeeper or a judge of their proximity to an ideal scheme. He reads and explicates the good/better/best for what they actually achieve, and discovers thirteen different ways of being good/better/best. Better yet, he does this in relation to world literature, not in reference to their conformity to the mind-numbing Canadian canon as taught within the country’s literature departments or to Chapters/Indigo’s widget merchandizing software and the mostly-pernicious literary prize structure invented to focus profits for it. Wise readers of this book will learn nearly as much from what novels and novelists aren’t discussed as from those that are.

So, what are the thirteen categories of excellence he deploys, and who are his favourite writers? The thirteen categories—which Rigelhof terms “Annals”, when you look carefully, deliberately defy simple categorization.  One of them, for instance, discusses inclusion envy, and is about where and when a Canadian novelists is “permissibly” Canadian. Another links Barbara Gowdy and Margaret Atwood to Henry James, and he is able, in another, to put Tim Findley and Nino Ricci into the same frame. In yet another, he yokes together Michael Ondaatje, Neil Bissoondath and Alberto Manguel. What Rigelhof is arguing with all of this, always, is the sheer multiplicity of the way it is possible to write well, and, not incidentally, the ways that it is possible to read.

His faves? Barbara Gowdy is clearly one of them, Margaret Atwood is another, Don Akenson and Mordecai Richler are a third and fourth. Joan Barfoot, Wayne Johnston, Joe Boyden, Doug Coupland and David Adams Richards rate highly, each for different reasons, and there’s even an appreciation of Russell Smith’s unique sensibility and skills, delivered in a couple of paragraphs, that would have sent any other critic in the country in a 4 wheel skid. But the list of what he likes is a very long one, and only partly because the notion that there’s a lot to like is central to everything he writes. There’s no discrimination between young and older writers—one gets the sense from both his coverage and his comments that he might even like the new kids on the block best.

Best of all, this book will show readers of Canadian fiction how to read in a new and infinitely more inclusive and satisfying way, one that dovetails accurately with Canada as it exists in the 21st century: multifaceted, diverse and idiosyncratic. It will offer receptive readers a series of new and more open reading strategies, along with a series of trails through the marketplace and its monolithic view of human reality.

Hooked on Canadian Books is a joyful book, delivered with a combination of economy and panache that communicates its joy in every sentence. It is a book that deserves to be in every Canadian reader’s library because of the way it makes Canada a bigger, more interesting country.   We’re lucky to have Rigelhof; it terrifies me that we came so close to losing him.

Buy this book. Get hooked the way he is.

1250 words March 27

Gordon Lockheed

Gordon Lockheed

Gordon Lockheed is a hard-to-find Toronto writer and the editor of www.dooneyscafe.com

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