Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eh?
T.F. Rigelhof, Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984 (Cormorant, 2010).
I’m pretty sure that Canadian literary critic T.F. (Terry) Rigelhof doesn’t think that History is just “one damn thing after another,” to recall Arnold Toynbee’s gripe about other historians. But Rigelhof certainly seems to believe that the CanLit subdivision of Literature is one damn great Canadian novel after another.
His survey of good, better and best Canadian novels of the last quarter century (1984-2009), Hooked on Canadian Books, is about as exuberant as one can get without dependence on illicit consciousness-enhancing substances. (Speaking of which, the familiar echo of the title, although Rigelhof doesn’t mention it, is derived from Daniel Fader’s work of the mid-1960s, Hooked on Books, a polemic as well as a project to improve literacy, particularly in impoverished communities where many young people were/are “hooked” on drugs.) The Montreal-based Rigelhof, formerly a teacher at Dawson College, offers “reader-friendly approaches to recent Canadian novels in English that expand the narratives of your own lives — yielding diversion, solace, perspective, comfort, counsel and insight…” His paean to Canadian fictional long-form prose is frankly intended as “a celebration of novels written in English by Canadian writers that made a difference in this reader’s life and have the power to do the same for you.” Although that last phrase is a bit evangelical for my tastes, Rigelhof’s good intentions are duly noted.
The virtues of Rigelhof’s project are considerable and obvious. It’s nice to have a knowledgeable reader finally put in a good word for Canadian novels. The downside may be that there are just too many good words. As in the old cowboy song about herding “little dogies” on the homeland range, “seldom is heard / a discouraging word.”
Rigelhof serves up thumbnail sketches of roughly 150 good-to-best recent Canadian novels, confidently confers the Nobel Prize on Margaret Atwood well in advance of the event (“Expect to see Atwood awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature sometime around her seventy-fifth birthday in 2014”), and declares that Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock (2006), a book of linked-stories to which Rigelhof accords honourary novel status, is “to be reckoned among the finest contributions any Canadian has made to world literature.” The problem of praise that Rigelhof doesn’t quite resolve is that of hyperbole, as he turns up a new Conrad, Faulkner, Thomas Mann, or Henry James around every corner.
So, who are the good, better and best Canadian writers? And conversely, who are the not-so-good, lousy, and worst Canadian novelists? The following sentences contain spoilers — I think that’s the new conventional warning one is supposed to post in advance of any discussion of content:
Well, according to Rigelhof, just about everybody who’s anybody is pretty damn good, from relative newcomers like Zoe Whittall, author of Bottle Rocket Hearts (2007), right on through such more familiar names as Douglas Coupland, Jane Urquhart, Austin Clarke, Steven Heighton, and Lawrence Hill, all the way to, about 300 pages later, Rawi Hage, author of Cockroach (2008). Rigelhof reserves his uncurbed enthusiasm, however, in addition to the previously mentioned Atwood and Munro, for Joan Barfoot, Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, David Adams Richards, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Barbara Gowdy. Admittedly, it’s hard to discern the faint line between everyday upbeatness and wild enthusiasm in Rigelhof. He makes it all sound almost too good to be true.
And who’s not so great? Well, this is a bit trickier. The reader has to figure that out for him- or herself, in a sort of crossword puzzle fashion, by filling in the blanks with books and writers Rigelhof either hasn’t mentioned or has only referred to glancingly. I think the main target is Michael Ondaatje and the so-called “lyric novel,” but Rigelhof is dodgy about his dislikes.
The big clue is that Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces (1996), a best-selling, multiple prize-winning (Books in Canada First Novel, Trillium, Orange, and Guardian prizes), highly “poetic” novel of the era, goes absolutely unmentioned. It’s true that Rigelhof doesn’t mention Jane Rule, William Gibson, George Bowering, or the urban crime writers William Deverell and Lawrence Gough, but that’s not because he’s trying to tell us something about what he doesn’t like, it’s just that he’s somewhat weak, in this case, on West Coast writers. (And it should be noted, speaking of the West Coast, that Rigelhof does turn up occasional unexpected gems, like Prince George writer John Harris’s 1989 volume of stories, Small Rain, even though Harris’s book is not actually a novel). Rigelhof’s exclusion of Barry Callaghan, Leon Rooke and a few other middle-rank Canadian novelists who are best known in central Canada is likely more of a literary judgment call, although that’s not absolutely clear, rather than the accidental misses that are bound to accrue in any book of this kind. But the absence of Michaels seems significant.
A second clue is Rigelhof’s treatment of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi (2001). Rigelhof asks, “Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t love Life of Pi?… Simply put, I prefer fables more opaque and animal-free.” In the muted registers of Rigelhof’s tones of disapproval, this rates as savage denunciation. Nonetheless, Rigelhof accords Martel’s novel a standard vignette description among all the other thumbnails of good-to-best tomes, devotes a separate positive one paragraph sketch to an earlier Martel book (oddly, a book that not’s a novel), and then further fudges the matter by including Life of Pi in a proposed curriculum that Rigelhof offers as a sort of wrap-up conclusion.
As for Ondaatje himself, the prize-prone, critic-proof, acknowledged star of Canadian fiction is mentioned, and praised for his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, as well as earlier fiction and poetry. But the three most recent, widely-read and celebrated novels that Ondaatje has written in the last 20 years are handled gingerly. Two of them go unmentioned, and the most famous, The English Patient (1992) is only treated in passing by reproducing a paragraph of critical acclaim by the international critic Pico Iyer, while leaving it uncertain whether Rigelhof is endorsing such praise. At one point, again in passing, Rigelhof refers to “the overwrought musings and amusements of Ondaatje and his imitators.” In any case, none of Ondaatje’s three latest novels is accorded a good-to-best thumbnail sketch of its own.
Given that I too have been unable to work up any enthusiasm for these “lyric” or “poetic” novels by Ondaatje and others — I tend to think of them as souped-up postmodern Gothic Romances — I don’t disagree with Rigelhof’s exclusions, glancing blows, and muted politeness, but I would have been happier if Rigelhof had simply come out and said why he thinks that these reader-beloved, million-copy-sellers aren’t very good, especially since they are all works that have been treated by publishers and critics as “Quality Lit” (to use Gore Vidal’s slightly condescending category for such work).
I’m relatively sympathetic to Rigelhof’s project of accentuating the positive, but if he thinks Ondaatje, Martel and Michaels are over-rated, now’s the time to say so. Such an evaluation wouldn’t exactly be a shock. Hasn’t former Toronto Star literary critic Philip Marchand already done a lot of the groundwork (or gravedigging) in his reflections on Canadian literature, Ripostes (1998)? But that sort of thing doesn’t seem to be within the range of Rigelhof’s temperament. In the end, then, the only prominent novelist we know for sure that Rigelhof doesn’t think is minimally good is poor Anne Michaels, and we know that only by her absence.
As for writers of a previous generation who are no longer with us, a subject only lightly touched on by Rigelhof, he seems to suggest that Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, and Timothy Findley will probably receive less attention from posterity than they got during their lives. Mordecai Richler, however, as demonstrated once more in his final novel, Barney’s Version (1997), was as significant a writer as most of us thought, Rigelhof affirms. Again, all of this, apart from the praise of Richler, arrives by indirection, more than by way of explicit judgment. This sort of critical caginess is not the only problem with Hooked on Canadian Books.
Admittedly, there haven’t been a lot of books about Canadian novels of late and, given the general decline in reading and reviewing, there aren’t likely to be a profusion of further assessments of Canadian fiction in the immediate future. So, it might be thought churlish of me to complain about the idea of a book about Canadian writing that’s confined to novels. But my worry is that by “privileging” the Canadian novel (as they used to say in “pomo-speak”), readers will be left with the impression that Canadian writing simply is the Canadian novel. Rigelhof doesn’t even extend his purview to the whole of Canadian fiction, leaving out the sub-field of Canadian short stories, which many people regard as the country’s most accomplished and distinctive form of fiction. Since Rigelhof clearly admires the work of Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, both known as short story writers, it’s something 0f a puzzle as to why volumes of short stories are excluded. Presumably, it’s just a matter of space and economy. “The Canadian short story requires a course all to itself,” he says, or presumably, a book of its own. But surely Rigelhof could have dropped a dozen or so of the thumbnails of not-totally-great novels and replaced them with discussions of short fiction, in the name of comprehensiveness if for no other reason.
But of course a notion of “Canadian writing” isn’t limited to fiction. The real argument with Rigelhof’s conception is whether there’s something about Canadian novels (their distinctiveness, or superiority) in relation to Canadian non-fiction, to say nothing of Canadian poetry and drama, such that we are better served with a book restricted to recent Canadian novels rather than a broader view of Canadian writing. To give Rigelhof his due, he does make an effort to stretch the boundaries, including such writers as Don Akenson, author of An Irish History of Civilization (2005), and my partner-in-literary-mischief, Brian Fawcett, author of Gender Wars (1994). But both of them would be included in any book about contemporary Canadian writing, whether or not you tried to shoehorn them in as occasional novelists. Rather than inclusive contortions in the name of a particular genre, I’m of the view that a critical book about the whole range of Canadian writing would be far more helpful than a more or less conventional presentation of the novel, the novelty of Rigelhof’s sustained enthusiasm notwithstanding.
I suppose the preference may be just a matter of opinion and taste. And I probably should declare a minor conflict of competitive interest here, since I’m currently working on a not dissimilar manuscript about writing from around the world in the first decade of the present century, a manuscript that embraces a broader notion of “writing,” and even feels compelled to apologize for its failure to include poetry, drama, and perhaps other forms (graphic novels? screenplays?). My preference is guided by my own reading practices, and those of most of the people I know.
Even if I restrict myself to national writing (and I must admit to being a little suspicious about the very notion), if somebody asks me, “Read any good Canadian books lately?”, my first thought isn’t necessarily going to be about Canadian fiction. I’m more likely to name Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007), Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 (2002), Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2006), Terry Glavin’s Waiting for the Macaws (2006), Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008), or any of a half dozen other non-fiction works. Not to be coy about it, I think that one of the crucial critical judgments about Canadian writing of the last quarter-century is that its non-fiction, including that undefinable genre-bending writing that goes by the unsatisfactory name of “creative” or “literary non-fiction,” has been more relevant to our understanding of ourselves, and less subject to the industrial orders-of-the-day than most (but of course not all) of our fiction.
The last Canadian novel I read was Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean (2009), a much-praised, multiple-prize-nominated historical fiction about Alexander the Great and Aristotle, but I didn’t particularly like it (although other members of my book club with whom I read it thought it was pretty good). In any event, I’m sympathetic to the notion of paying more attention to Canadian writing, on the grounds that it tells us something interesting about where and who we are, and I gravely murmur my agreement when others point out its relative neglect and urge the inclusion of CanLit in Canadian high school curricula. But national writing and/or novels is not really the way I read, and I’ve come to think of the almost exclusive emphasis on the novel in critical books about writing as rather regressive.
A further problem with Hooked on Canadian Books is its organization. I found it confusing. It eschews chronology completely, even though Rigelhof hints that something especially good has happened to the Canadian novel in the last decade (the Canadian books that Rigelhof cites run at a ratio of about 2-to-1 for the last ten years compared to the previous decade and a half; that is, about 90-100 are from 2000-2009, and only about 50 from 1984-1999). Instead, he groups the books he discusses in various oddly assorted categories (and again, not in any chronological order). The categories include “novels of friendship,” “coming to terms with the past,” women novelists (presented under the ironically questioning heading of “novels of comfort and love?”), and a section about “novels of joy and redemption,” which mostly seems to include “ethnically diverse” novelists, from Ondaatje and Neil Bissoondath to M.G. Vassanji and Rawi Hage. A series of essays called “Annals of OurLit” intersperse the run of thumbnail vignettes that make up the bulk of the text.
One result of this organization (apart from the fact that I can’t figure it out), is that Rigelhof doesn’t take up the various issues involving the decline of books in contemporary culture. You’d think, at a moment like this, when the statistics indicate that there’s a decline in book-reading generally (and especially among young people), when the importance of the novel (and maybe even its function in society) is greatly diminished, and when one doesn’t have to look very far beyond the nearest digital device to discern a cultural crisis (one that prominently includes problems with book reading), that a literary critic would feel it incumbent upon himself to address such issues. Rigelhof doesn’t. He writes as though we’re in the early 1950s, in the midst of the “paperback revolution,” the Golden Age of Middlebrow Reading, and we’re not yet worried about whether that new-fangled television is going to have an effect on literacy.
In reality, it’s one whole technological revolution later, and people not only don’t ask each other if they’ve read any good Canadian books lately, they don’t think much about book reading at all except in select circles. It does seem to be a problem hard to ignore, except with willful cheerfulness. “‘Oh, I think I’ll take my Canadian novel up deckside,’ said Walter, as the great ship Titanic went down.” Maybe Rigelhof, now that he’s got us all hyped up on the Canadian novel, just doesn’t want to bring us down by mentioning, as we Canadians like to say, the present unpleasantness.
Finally, there’s the text itself. It mainly consists of, as I’ve noted, what I’m calling thumbnail vignettes of a rather staggering number, about 150, of good-to-great Canadian novels. There’s a problem here too. The vignettes are not really “book reviews,” of the sort Rigelhof writes as a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail’s book pages and website screens. Instead, they tend to be more snippet-like, containing a simplified plot synopsis (of plots that often seem over-complicated), a chunky quotation from somebody’s review praising the book, and a summary enthusiastic remark or two by Rigelhof. Sometimes these thumbnails are illuminating (since, after all, Rigelhof knows a lot), and they’re meant, I think, to do just enough to invite readers into the novel at hand, but the cumulative impact of reading them feels like perusing a hundred publishers’ book jackets with their potted descriptions and strategically placed “advance praise” friendly blurbs.
After a couple hundred pages of Hooked on Canadian Books, you’re almost pummelled into submission. You think, Gee, Rigelhof has read ten times as many Canadian novels as anyone else, maybe he’s right, and it’s all pretty great. Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t. Then, fortunately, you have second thoughts. If it’s all so great, how come nobody I know has told me about this? Why hasn’t anyone pressed into my hands a copy of the latest Canadian novel by… well, whoever? Why haven’t skeptics like the aforementioned Philip Marchand run up a white flag from whatever Arctic ice floe he’s been exiled to?
About two-thirds of the way through Rigelhof’s book, one morning I opened my electronic copy of The New York Times and turned to lead critic Michiko Kakutani’s review of a prominent new novel. It begins: “This remarkably tedious new novel by Martin Amis… [assumes] that readers will be interested in a bunch of spoiled, self-absorbed twits, who natter on endlessly about their desires and resentments and body parts.” Kakutani’s unflinching job on Amis hit me like a breath of fresh air. After Rigelhof’s relentlessly ecstatic idea of litcrit, some old-fashioned slap-to-the-side-of-the-head criticism served to remind me that we’re not necessarily always living in the best of all possible literary worlds. That was the same week, by the way, that I read the latest Rigelhof review in the Globe in which he discovers another Canadian author who’s just as great as Joseph Conrad.
I’m prepared to believe that there are lots of competent, reasonably good novels written in Canada (but that’s probably equally true of everywhere from France to Pakistan), and that Canadian novels are no worse than Spanish or South African novels. But the underlying thesis here that there is something super-special about one genre in one medium-sized North American nation leaves me unpersuaded. Hooked on Canadian Books left me with the sense that the author could have done more with less… enthusiasm.
Berlin, May 27, 2010.