The first time I heard Brian Fawcett read his work aloud, roughly a half-century ago, was at a writers’ meeting in Vancouver in the early 1970s. I still remember the violence at the core of the story he read. It was titled “Friends” and was a real-life folk tale about a brutal, profanity-laced fistfight in the back lots of Prince George, British Columbia, the northern Canadian town where Fawcett was born (in 1944) and raised.
The story offered an account of a hopelessly outmatched, hysterically foul-mouthed young man fighting a stronger, more skilful, more emotionally balanced opponent. Each time the outmatched guy was bloodily decked, he pulled himself to his feet and, screaming expletives, mounted another futile charge. The friendship in the title was obviously ironic, but it also hinted at a deeper combative element in relationships, at least relationships in that particular place.
The occasion for that initial encounter with Fawcett’s work, as I mentioned, was a writers’ meeting, one of a series of gatherings of mostly poets, held in the communal house where I lived with friends and fellow students in Vancouver. The house was on York Avenue, just a block above Kitsilano Beach in what was then a student-artsy district on the south shore of Burrard Inlet, the sheltered body of water that serves as the entrance to the city of Vancouver’s port.
It might be helpful to provide some background information here, given that I’m writing about mostly unrecorded events that happened long ago, at a time when poetry, and even “literature” itself, was more culturally significant in North America than it is today. The young writers, in their twenties and thirties, who met regularly to read their work to each other included George Bowering, George Stanley, Gladys (Maria) Hindmarch, Daphne Marlatt, Fawcett, myself, and various passing-through-the-neighborhood visitors.1
Most of us already had some experiences similar to the sessions we were now creating. Bowering, Hindmarch and Marlatt had all been associated with a group of home-grown Vancouver writers who, a decade earlier, at the beginning of the 1960s, were involved in the publication of a mimeographed poetry newsletter called, with mischief aforethought, Tish, a not-difficult-to-decipher anagram. Even Fawcett, for whom the writers’ meetings were a new experience, had, soon after arriving at university in the mid-1960s, also founded a student literary magazine, Iron, and then a sort of poetry newsletter, NMFG (“No Money From the Government”), at least one of which carried on into the period of the working sessions I’m discussing here.
George Stanley and I were “graduates” of a Sunday afternoon series of writers’ meetings held in San Francisco in the late 1950s and early 60s. It was presided over by an Orphic spirit embodied (or maybe I should say, “transmitted”) by the poet Jack Spicer, author of After Lorca (1957). Spicer was ably abetted at those gatherings by another virtuoso San Francisco poet, Robert Duncan, whose new book of poems, The Opening of the Field (1960), was about to be published in New York by Grove Press, the most coveted publisher of contemporary innovative writing. The incident I most sharply remember about the irrepressible Duncan is that during one of the poets’ meetings, while some hapless novice (me?) was struggling to spit out a recently penned ode, Robert was busily composing on the spot (or perhaps only making last-minute revisions to) a lengthy, major, political poem, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” which, upon freshly finishing it, he read aloud to the awe of the assembled company. (Oh, the Pindar line was, “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins.“) Both Spicer’s and Duncan’s books became early landmarks in an emerging national literary movement that went under the rubric of “The New American Poetry.”
I had first met Fawcett three or four years earlier through the friend with whom I was then living, the poet Robin Blaser, who was the third member of the San Francisco triumvirate that featured Spicer and Duncan. Blaser and I had come to Vancouver from San Francisco in 1966 so that Robin, who had been working as an acquisitions librarian at San Francisco State College, could take an English department teaching job that was available because of the rapid expansion of Canadian university education that occurred in the prosperous mid-1960s. Since there was an alleged shortage of Canadians qualified to take those jobs (an arguable claim), a flood of American academics emigrated to (or “invaded”) Canada to fill the newly available post-secondary positions, adding to the concurrent influx of younger Americans who had come to the country to resist (or escape) the American military draft and the U.S. war in Vietnam. Blaser, as it turned out, became Brian Fawcett’s professor (and literary mentor) at the newly-established Simon Fraser University, perched on a mountain in Burnaby, a suburb on the eastern boundary of Vancouver. But it wasn’t until the writers’ meetings a few years later that I actually got to know Fawcett.
The writers who participated in those working sessions weren’t a group in any formal sense, but we were animated by George Stanley’s half-humorous, half-manifesto-like notion of writing as Polyphonique Totalisation, which he suitably pronounced in French. (I think we were reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Search for a Method that year, hence the Frenchified tone of our mock-theorizing.) Stanley was also one of the American literati who had recently emigrated to Canada. The serious idea underlying his clever phrase was to break through a lot of genre and subject boundaries, to use any voice necessary (that was the polyphonic part), to follow any relevant digression, to “dig deeper,” to be self-reflexively aware of ourselves writing; in short, to write in a way that took account of the totality and fragmentation of the world, and to achieve a new and intense quality of authenticity. Well, impossible of course, but we produced a surprising amount of “interesting” writing.2
One of those interesting pieces, as I noted at the outset, was Fawcett’s story. What impressed me about “Friends” was the rawness and intimacy of feeling that it conveyed. The piece wasn’t autobiographical except in the sense of Fawcett being an observer of the events of the narrative, along with the other late adolescent onlookers present. Yet at the same time I heard the protagonist’s voice of obscene, unremitting rage as both a voice internalized by Fawcett as momentarily his own screaming id and, even more, as a usually unacknowledged element of the collective voice of the brutal, dark place that the story was presenting.
Afterwards, I went up to Fawcett and asked, “Got any more like that one?” At the time, I was publishing a series of mimeographed books of all the writers I knew in Vancouver. I had, coincidentally, “inherited” the mimeograph machine that had been used to print the Tish poetry newsletter, which symbolically, if nothing else, strengthened my tentative connection to the local literary scene.
Many of the Tish poets were or had been students of English Department professor Warren Tallman in the early 1960s at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Tallman was also U.S.-born, and had arrived in Canada early enough to be one of the harbingers of the “invasion” of academic immigrants. UBC was the other and older (and posher) research university in the region, located on the western edge of Vancouver, at Point Grey, which overlooked the waters of Burrard Inlet. I, too, became a student there upon my arrival in Vancouver a few years later, since it was necessary to account to the immigration authorities for my presence in Canada.3
It was under the guidance of Tallman that many of the Tish poets encountered the New American Poetry (NAP). Tallman was a charmingly mild-mannered, but persistent “missionary” for poetry. He became increasingly persistent, I should add, as he consumed bottles of Carling Black Label beer, and took a couple of puffs on his Belmont brand cigarette (I think it was) before unaccountably stubbing it out and piling up an ashtray-full of half-smoked cigs, while he generously hosted evening drinking sessions with grad students and visitors in the faculty lounge or at off-campus parties.
The poetry movement Tallman championed in this far-flung outpost of enlightenment was formalized by a 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-60, that made an unexpected impact in the American poetry world, as a lively alternative to the then dominant “academic” poetry of the day. The book was edited by Donald Allen, a San Francisco-based editor for Grove Press, who was also one of the editors of Grove’s house magazine, Evergreen Review. It so happened that Allen had been a classmate of Blaser’s, as well as of Spicer’s and Duncan’s, at the University of California in Berkeley at the end of World War II. (I became acquainted with Don through Blaser, who had been one of Don Allen’s advisers during the compiling and editing of the anthology.)
Tallman not only promoted the New American Poetry in his classroom and among his poet-students, but also organised Vancouver visits and readings by various of the movement’s leading figures beginning, I think, with Robert Duncan, around 1959. Many others soon followed. Poet Robert Creeley, the author of For Love: Poems 1950-1960 (1962) arrived to teach at UBC for a couple of semesters while working on a novel, The Island (1963), and eventually a steady stream of poets identified with the NAP presented their work in Vancouver, ranging from Allen Ginsberg, the “Beat Generation” author of Howl (1956), to Charles Olson, author of Maximus (1953; 1956).
Spicer, Blaser, and I were included in the roster of visiting writers (in summer 1965), and Spicer briefly stayed on in Vancouver to deliver a series of lectures about poetry in the living room of Tallman’s house (the talks were later collected in The House That Jack Built, edited by Peter Gizzi, 1998). Tallman and his then spouse Ellen, who also worked in UBC’s English Dept. (but as a lower-grade “lecturer” because she was a “faculty wife”), and their two children, lived in a large, rambling house, located in the middle-class neighborhood of Kerrisdale,that became a kind of cultural center, as well as the site of large parties for young Vancouver writers and the stream of visiting poets.4
The apotheosis of this literary ferment was the Vancouver Poetry Conference (VPC) in 1963, conceived and sponsored by Tallman, a several-week “course” of lectures and readings, officially hosted by the university, but that also sprawled across various venues in the city. It brought together many of the New American Poetry luminaries, including Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, Creeley, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen, and also featured Margaret Avison (the latter marked the rare presence of a Canadian poet, and a woman, among the headliners). The Tallman-hosted rolling festival became, as they say, “legendary” in local literary circles. Though some critics have argued that the fame of the VPC is in need of debunking, it retrospectively seemed (at least, to me) to inaugurate the intellectual arrival of the decade of the “1960s” in Vancouver (as distinct from the populist cartoony version, replete with “hippies” and the requisite “drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll”). One reason for recounting this bit of potted literary history is that for those of us who arrived shortly after, like Fawcett and me, it allowed us to walk into a thriving literary scene, one that provided a context in which to write and get an education (or, as we self-mockingly liked to say, become “edu-ma-cated”).
That 1963 poetry event in Vancouver was a catalyst for the more extravagant Berkeley poetry conference in California two years later, in July 1965, that marked the largest gathering of New American poets to date. Among other things, it was where Jack Spicer gave his last reading and lecture, on “Poetry and Politics.” He died the following month, at the early age of 40, of alcohol poisoning. The alcohol-induced stroke that felled him fatally garbled Spicer’s speech but, according to Blaser who was visiting him in the hospital a couple of days before his demise, Jack pulled himself together long enough for a final coherent utterance. He said, “My vocabulary did this to me,” then addressing Robin, added, “your love will let you go on.” That deathbed utterance seemed like such a too-perfect set piece — and given that Blaser was its only witness — a few local cynics alleged the story was apocryphal or Blaser’s esoteric invention. Spicer’s death, which, in its way, marked the end of an era in San Francisco poetry, was also part of the impetus that led Blaser and me to Vancouver. The foregoing, I think, provides sufficient context to make the story of Fawcett’s emergence as a young writer minimally grounded. (If necessary, I can return to more of the content of the New American poetry, insofar as it’s relevant to Fawcett’s writing.)5
For now, all that’s necessary is my initially serendipitous encounter with Fawcett and my proposition to publish a collection of his writing. The pitch was that the book could be an unpublished manuscript already in hand, or the writer could put together various uncollected pieces, prose or poetry, or a mix of both. “Think of it as a Selected Works,” I jokingly proposed to writers, many of whom were just starting out, adding — to quote Fawcett’s own later account of the project — the suggestion that “if we got that [selected writings] rite of passage out of the way at the beginning of our writing careers, we could then forget about it, and just write good sentences for the duration.”
Fawcett took me up on my offer, as had several other Vancouver writers. As a result, he had a first book, Friends (1971) — to be followed by many more over the course of a prolific writing career — and we had initiated what turned out to be a lifelong intellectual companionship.6
Most of my reminiscence (above) of the “polyphonic” writers’ meetings is cribbed from my introduction — “Cosmopolitan Intelligence” — to a book of Fawcett’s essays that I edited, Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney’s Cafe and Other Non-globalized Places, People, and Ideas (2003). Fortuitously, Fawcett wrote about the writers’ meetings as well, and about our friendship (or, as some contemporary wags refer to such complex relations these days, our “situationship”).
For Fawcett, the writers’ meetings were both a sanctuary and a first organized step into published book-length work. It was an initiation that answers the primary question we always ask with respect to authors’ biographies, namely, when did X first become a “real” writer? Just as I’ve noted, Fawcett also recalls that though we’d known each other casually for three or four years, we only became friends, as he describes it, “during a set of writers’ meetings that took place in Vancouver between 1971 and 1973, while my first marriage was falling apart and my nascent career as an academic was exposing itself as a non-starter. The bi-weekly writers’ meetings… kept me sane, and I was just smart enough to recognize that the most compelling source of sanity emanated from Stan.” Since I’m quoting from Fawcett’s essay, “My Joint Mind,” that he wrote for a “festschrift” (in my honour), you’re forewarned that he has loads of embarrassingly nice things to say about me. In repeating some of them, I guess I’ll have to swallow my false modesty and accept that some of his (exaggerated) praise might be true, as well as generally relevant.7
Fawcett observed that “there was a toughness to the meetings I’d never encountered, a careful disregard for the egos of the writers attending. ‘We’re here,’ I remember Stan saying, ‘to learn how to write better sentences.'” I don’t actually remember saying that, but it sounds like my style of pontification, so I probably did.
Fawcett was a few years younger than the other “regular” participants in those sessions, some of whom, like “the Georges,” Bowering and Stanley, had already published several books to some degree of acclaim. (Bowering had won his first Canadian Governor-General’s literary award in 1966 for poetry, The Gangs of Kosmos; a second would follow in 1980 for his novel, Burning Water). As Fawcett recalled, “I was in my late 20s at the time, and those meetings were a first in my life,” adding, “I was really learning how to write, and that was something I wanted more than anything. So, I committed to whatever was required to make those better sentences Stan spoke about, and I sensed, across our differences in outlook and background, that Stan was a unique ally, and maybe even a possible intellectual companion.”
The other prominent feature of the meetings that struck Fawcett was that they were “redolent with manifesto making, and that was also new to me.” He identified George Stanley, with his formulation of “polyphonic totalisation,” as the apparent “chief manifesto maker” present. For Fawcett “the key manifesto point” formulated itself as: “if you’re not willing to make what you write a public statement of your condition and your state of understanding, don’t write at all.” A number of things was packed into that aphorism. Among them: “No distinction between public and personal life was implicitly being counselled,” yet the point of this kind of writing was not a matter of “personal expression” of the self, or a therapeutic exercise. Rather it was an engagement with (or investigation of) the world, and it offered, Fawcett noted, “a writers’ politics in which you had to let everything you had and knew hang out in sentences that were as sharp as a knife.” Or sentences as ragged and digressive as a mind processing one perception after another, to paraphrase another contemporary manifesto-maker, Charles Olson. That is, there’s not just one way to write a “better sentence.” Eventually, for Fawcett, the idea of “a better sentence” became a kind of metaphysical entity, the answer to the question, “For a writer, what is the purpose of life?” Obviously, to write better sentences.
While Fawcett’s memories of the writers’ meetings in Vancouver are central to his literary beginnings, the eponymous broader subject of his essay is the notion of our joint mind. The first thing Fawcett emphasizes about this peculiar symbiotic relationship is the differences. “Neither our friendship nor our intellectual companionship arose out of a commonality of interests or similarities in our respective characters,” Fawcett writes. “Persky was born in Chicago, and the roster of his identifications includes being Jewish, homosexual, and a committed social democratic citizen. He’s also left-handed and plays tennis the way you’re supposed to. I’m a blue-eyed Anglo heterosexual liberal anarchist from northern British Columbia who plays tennis like a ping-pong player… We couldn’t be more different in outlook, social and domestic habits, and temperament. He is reasonable, calm, and philosophically temperate, while I am, er, not.” The point is, we were not joined at the hip, but at the brain.
If there’s anything I would add to that list of contradictory characteristics, it would be Fawcett’s extensive practical skills and knowledge, compared to my (possibly “learned”) helplessness and a fuzzy sense of reality that was more akin to that of a 19th century impressionist painting than Fawcett’s orderly sense of the reigning algorithms, or “orders-of-the-day,” as he often referred to them. For some reason, I paid insufficient attention to Fawcett’s skill sets (maybe dismissing them as alpha-male “guy stuff”), but his practical abilities included dealing with various kinds of machinery, a rough knowledge of forestry practices, engaging in some serious neighborhood gardening (about which he eventually wrote a book, The Compact Garden (1992)), and, more broadly, the possession of methods for investigating large social systems.
The jobs he worked at, mostly in his youth and early adulthood, ranged from the provincial forestry service when he was a late adolescent in Prince George, then a decade or more in civic and regional planning offices, and finally, a spell teaching humanities in federal prisons, all of which required specific practical abilities. After that, Fawcett could depend upon the security of his family’s business, which was rooted in his father Hartley’s entrepreneurial ventures — he had held franchise rights for the distribution of various soft drink brands as well as owning a plant for manufacturing ice cream — during the mid-20th century boom years in Prince George. This later evolved into a holding company run by Fawcett’s older brother. Thanks to that, it was eventually possible for Fawcett to devote his working time to writing, becoming, in his mid-forties, a minor member of the rentier class. Since I’m not concerned here with the personal details of our relationship or Fawcett’s private life, let me just succinctly note that our friendship was as contentious as it was affectionate, which was also true of several other of his relationships. The operative principle could be summed up in William Blake’s famous aphorism, “Opposition is True Friendship.”8
“What we share,” Fawcett says, explicating the workings of our joint mind, “is a belief in the political, personal, and even erotic necessity of writing clear sentences that neither minimize or inflate the weight and reach of what is being said. We also agree, after long and very different experiences within the world, that human curiosity — which is neither an inheritance nor a burden but an elusive and always mobile privilege — hinges on the clarity of written language to secure and articulate it.”
That “mind” featured multiple facets, ranging from shared responses to our readings of dozens of other writers (e.g., John Berger, V.S. Naipaul, Marguerite Duras, Italo Calvino, Czeslaw Milosz, Richard Rorty, and a very long et al.) to editing each other’s writings (and even writing passages in each other’s books), and naturally it evolved and changed through different periods of our lives. “During the mid-to-late 1980s,” Fawcett recalled, “we began to meet intermittently to talk about what we were writing and why we were writing it, and the sense of trust in one another’s judgment of things began to deepen. I’d see problematical passages in what he was writing in manuscript and he saw parts of the books I was writing the same way…” As our personal circumstances altered over the years — in 1991, Fawcett moved from Vancouver to Toronto, “for romantic reasons,” and I began to spend part of each year in Berlin, Germany — the joint mind adjusted itself to changed conditions. “With the aid of computer files and email, an intense personal and editorial correspondence between us began. We were both,” Fawcett observed, “in our different ways and with our different motives, in exile from the cultural communities that we’d been part of. But we were also disaffected from those communities, and our bond… began to develop into a profound trust.”
Somewhere along the way, Fawcett had become a good, if admittedly “aggressive” editor, and I began to make use of that skill. We were freed from any obligation to mince words with each other as we argued about texts and writing and the state of the world. “[Stan] discovered that he could tell me when I was being an intellectual jackass without me showing (or feeling) even a trace of resentment — and why would I?” For my part, though I resisted (indeed, resentfully) his editorial suggestions, and we fought like cats squabbling over who got which bowl of breakfast crunchies, Fawcett was invariably right. At one point, I was writing a very amiable book called Reading the 21st Century (2011) about the most interesting books of the first decade of the new millennium, and having a perfectly good time doing so, when Fawcett pointed out (in a line-edit of the manuscript that featured shouting ALL-CAPS sentences and lots of exclamation marks!!!) that my nice book, unless it was put within a framework of the decline of reading and criticism (and of civilization as well) would make absolutely no sense whatsoever. After a requisite amount of balking and whining (on my part), I finally discerned the missing meme, as it’s called these days, at the heart of my discourse, which turned out to be, “Writing is flourishing; reading is in big trouble.” Once that insight firmly bookended and infused my text, I had a real book, a work with bite, rather than a merely pleasant entertainment, mainly thanks to our joint mind. (I could cite a half-dozen similar anecdotes, but this is the short version of a long story.)
“It was, for both of us, like having access to another competent mind,” as Fawcett summed it up. “Our friendship became a working friendship in the best sense, without sentimentality, without flattery or dance: we were working with one another, and the product was better writing and better thinking.” The old saw about two minds being more agile than one was true, “and our different temperaments and different intellectual ranges made the joint mind larger than either of ours alone.”
The joint mind’s evolution was wide-ranging — sometimes engendering elaborate if seemingly frivolous literary games — but always focused and touchingly enduring, to the very end. At one point, as Fawcett remembered it, after “we argued every passage via email” of a book I was working on — Autobiography of a Tattoo (1997) — he gathered up the entire correspondence into “a 108,000-word samizdat manuscript” under the title Guide to the Intellectual Low Road. Fawcett then ran off an “edition” of a dozen copies (on a copier-printer) of this record of something that resembled editorial mud-wrestling, which “we circulated 12 copies of around the writing community — and promptly forgot about.” Other projects were less ephemeral.
Around the turn of the millennium — just before the Islamist terrorist attack in 2001 that levelled the World Trade Center in New York and senselessly killed some 3,000 human beings — Fawcett invented our longest-running literary scheme. Its timing in relation to world horrors was merely coincidental, I guess, but it always had for me the sense of being a reply to the unrestrained theocratic madness abroad at the time, and later, as an answer to populist ideas of “post-truth.” As Fawcett described this modest non-commercial endeavor, “in 2000, as public venues for serious book reviews began the descent toward mini-reviewing, and the outlets for lengthy essays dried up altogether, we created ‘dooneyscafe.com,’ an edited website ‘news service’.” The name came from a Toronto literary cafe, whose owner, Graziano Marchese, put up the annual fee for the website server in return for us posting a small photo of Fawcett’s neighborhood hangout, the eponymous Dooney’s.
The word “edited” softly signalled the joint mind’s opposition to the trendy notion of the “blog” (an abbreviation of “web log”) which had become ubiquitous on the then still relatively novel “internet” communication system. The joint mind somewhat prissily regarded blogs as unedited, rather sloppy effusions of personal expression. We preferred the edited text, in accord with our motto, “the book is smarter than the author,” since edited writing had the benefit of the hands and eyes of editors and readers. We also favored endless rewriting, and had no objection to technological improvements in compositional procedures. The Dooney’s website, which Fawcett and I co-edited, ran for over 20 years (and still nominally exists). It provided a platform for “long-form” work by Fawcett and me, and other writers, and served as a staging area for manuscripts we were working on that eventuated in various books. Given that we had set ourselves the task of writing about “the most difficult subject matter on the agenda,” Dooney’s proved to be a handy tool for joint minds.
Summing it up, Fawcett said, “The joint mind has since nursed me through a couple of serious depressions and infections of writer’s block” and the other ups and downs of a literary calling. “A couple of years ago, when a bout of poor health made me consider, for the first time, our respective mortality, I realized that the joint mind had become, for me, fully virtual: I could, without needing to consult Stan directly, deploy his intelligence on a piece of my own writing… It provides me with a larger intelligence than my own and it is no abstraction: it kicks me when I’m lazy, it prods me when I’m being obtuse, makes fun of me when I’m being a jackass. It leads me, if not quite into the paths of righteousness, then at least toward better sentences and better thinking than I would otherwise produce. And I’m utterly grateful for its intrusions because it makes me among the least lonely writers I know of.”
Within about a decade of the writers’ meetings, and the birth of our “joint mind,” Fawcett arrived at a crucial decision about our status as writers and made an important literary breakthrough in his own work. But before I get to that, this is an appropriate place to pause and explain what I’m doing in the text you’re reading.
This essay is, first and obviously, an elegy in memory of Brian Fawcett; second, it’s an early posthumous appraisal of his work as a writer; and, as well, it’s a partial “Fawcett-and-me” memoir of our relationship. This particular section is mostly about the thoughts underlying my sense of elegy, and it’s in accord with a notable compositional principle of Fawcett’s (and mine), namely, to make as transparent as possible the usually unarticulated author’s assumptions about how the “world” or “reality” works. Fawcett designated this often-hidden aspect of writing as simply the “subtext” (I tend to use the term “context”). In this instance, the subtext is a reflection on an unusual conjunction of contemporary events and patterns in the world, one of whose odd effects is to distance us from our own personal experiences, such as the death of a beloved friend.
Brian Fawcett died February 27, 2022, in Toronto, at age 77, after suffering for several years from a fatal lung condition, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. (Coincidentally, this essay arrives in time to roughly coincide with the first anniversary of Fawcett’s “disappearance,” to use a key term Fawcett employed in the subtitle of his Public Eye: An Investigation into the Disappearance of the World (1990).)
I was geographically far away from Fawcett’s death in Toronto, given that I was living in Berlin. I had settled there after retiring in 2015 from a several-decade career of teaching philosophy and politics at a community college (which evolved into a small university) in a suburb of Vancouver. I had spent summers and longer periods in Berlin since the early 1990s, arriving there shortly after the opening (or “fall”) of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, one of the emblematic moments of the “end of communism.” Immediately, I was attracted by the notion that Berlin was about to be at the center of a post-communist Europe whose boundaries were suddenly relatively fluid. I also found it to be a particularly comfortable and liveable big city (or Grosse Stadt, as they say in German), with a wealth of parks, waterways, thousands of linden trees, and built on a human scale of five-story apartment buildings with interior courtyards, in contrast to the skyscraper skylines and glass towers of most cities I knew. By 2022, a couple of decades after my early brief excursions, I had lived full-time in Berlin for several years. But if I was physically distant from the event of Fawcett’s death, I was “far away” in other ways, too, ways that characterize the present “moment” and override our own personal experiences.
Three days before Fawcett died, Russia, under its autocratic president-dictator, Vladimir Putin, had launched a full-scale, unilateral war against the neighboring country of Ukraine. The war felt palpably close, to me and many of my friends in Berlin. It was a war occurring geographically near Germany, just on the other side of Germany’s next-door-neighbor, Poland (which borders Ukraine), and it was a conflict that acquired additional immediacy both by its uncertain scope, and the threat from the Russian regime, as fall and winter approached, to reduce or even completely cut off the gas and oil resources it contractually supplied to an energy-dependent European Union.
Public attention was focused on the plethora of brutal deaths in Ukraine following the invasion; on Putin’s conduct of the conflict at a war-crimes level of atrocity (bombing hospitals, schools, civilian dwellings, carrying out hundreds of “extrajudicial” killings, and even flirting with apocalyptic catastrophe at a Russian-occupied Ukrainian nuclear power plant); and psychologically, on the shock of a war in Europe, something that had been considered unthinkable after more than 75 years of ostensible European “peace” since the end of World War II. Intermittent conflicts in the region in the intervening years seldom seemed likely to spread into the rest of Europe. Whereas this one, the Russian assault on Ukraine, threatened to spill over its borders into a full-fledged European war, or worse.9
Finally, a litany of other concurrent crises, in addition to the war — a global pandemic caused by coronavirus infection, now into its third year, which had already killed over 6 million people world-wide; a political situation of eroding democracies in the face of a growing number of authoritarian regimes around the world; and an even more encompassing, pending (or was it already upon us?), planetary climate disaster — contributed to that strange sense of alienation from personal events in one’s own life that I mentioned, even partially overwhelming something as intimate as a friend’s death.
What’s more, though Fawcett was a relatively prominent Canadian author, the dearth of obituaries in the Canadian press (apart from notices in his hometown Prince George newspapers) — perhaps merely a sign of the declining status of writing and writers — added to the impression that the state of the world had, more than normally, reduced an individual death, even of a semi-public figure, to a merely private sorrow for the grievers.
Coincidentally, there was, around the same time, another death that was geographically, if not personally, closer to me. My next-door neighbor in Berlin, Mrs. Sellenthin (or Frau Sellenthin, as she was known in German), died at age 93, on the weekend after Fawcett’s death. She had lived in the building where we resided, located in the Charlottenburg district of west Berlin, all her life, and her memories, as I’d learned in conversations with her, stretched back to the last days of World War II when conquering Russian soldiers had marauded through the courtyards and apartments of our five-storey dwelling.
I attended her funeral a week or so after her death, presided over by her similarly aged sister. It was only while tossing the customary handfuls of soil onto the grave, as I read the names on Frau Sellinthin’s family tombstone, that I realized that I didn’t know her first name (it was Margot, I later found out), something that, oddly enough, I hadn’t known despite our amicable relationship over many years. “She was a good neighbor,” I said (in German) to Frau Sellinthin’s sister as I passed her on my way back from the graveside to the little cluster of other mourners. My remark elicited a soft murmur from her that I took to be a sound of approval. At the same instant I realized that Frau Sellinthin’s sister, with the family plot in her line of sight, was also gazing at what would one day be her own grave. Perhaps, in writing this essay, I’m doing something similar.
I recount all this (and I’ll relegate my own eccentric ideas about death itself to an extended footnote) because those thoughts led me to here, to this particular text. Simply as a means of keeping the now irrevocably absent Fawcett present a little longer, at least in my mind, I began, at first inadvertently (and then as a conscious decision) to re-read a volume of Fawcett’s work. That, of course, is what the Roman poet Horace’s famous tagline, “Non omnis moriar,” refers to — that the author doesn’t completely die, because the writing continues to be alive. Imperceptibly, among whatever else I was doing at the time, the re-readings turned into a spring-summer project, as I finished re-reading a book of Fawcett’s and then began reading another, and then several more (and inevitably, in doing so, also re-read much of my own work, entangled as it is with that of Fawcett’s). The original predication of keeping an old friend present in imagination soon transformed itself into a new appreciation of an oeuvre I thought I knew. It’s as the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once put it, writing in his later years, that his era weighed upon him “as a host of voices and the faces of people whom I once knew, or heard about, and now they no longer exist.” All that they “can do is make use of me, the rhythm of my blood, my hand holding the pen, in order to return among the living for a brief moment.”10
Being a “rootless cosmopolitan,” as that type of person is pejoratively known (mainly in political circles), the conditions of my reading and writing tend to be provisional rather than ordered in a formal manner. I’m inclined to work from what’s at hand on my bookshelves and desk, although I have, of course, the contemporary advantage of the computer to augment the unreliability of faded memory. My desk is a child’s idea of a fortress: piles of books and papers gradually grow until I’m half-surrounded by its improvised walls. In short order, Fawcett’s books and my own were entwined in miniature towers and ramparts on my writing space, as they had been in our lives.
In the early 1980s, Fawcett made a fateful decision that reconfigured the way we saw ourselves as writers. “The day after my last volume of verse was published in 1982,” Fawcett recalled, “I had an experience that made me start over again as a writer.” The book, Aggressive Transport was, by standards of contemporary poetry publishing, relatively large, both in terms of pages and ambition, and Fawcett was proud of his work. He had already published, following Friends, a half-dozen volumes of poetry through the 1970s, and the new book promised a consolidation of his status as a poet. The moment his publisher-editor, Karl Siegler of Talonbooks, phoned to say that copies had arrived from the printer, Fawcett rushed down to the office to pick up a box of books to deliver to the few bookstores in Vancouver he knew would take them. “But just as I was about to enter the first bookstore, I stopped,” Fawcett recalled. “I couldn’t think of a single person who would really want to read my book… I didn’t go into the bookstore. Instead, I walked around the block and let the revelation sink in.”11
There was nothing wrong with his book, and Fawcett was prepared to appreciate its literary competence and other virtues. Nor did Fawcett have anything against those writing poetry, especially the poets whose natural metier really was the poetic line (rather than any form of prose), like George Stanley, Robin Blaser or Fawcett’s poet-friend in Prince George, Barry McKinnon. Rather, the problem was the place of poetry in the kind of society that North America had become in the later 20th century, and the “peculiar interrelations between contemporary culture, economics and technology that have emerged.”
“It is a great shame that most people have ceased to read poetry,” Fawcett lamented, “and a much greater shame that its methods are no longer practised in a disciplined way by citizens as part of their daily lives.” The latter part of that last sentence is probably a nostalgic exaggeration, but it was the case that poetry had devolved into a set of local, relatively isolated coteries, such that “today, fewer people read poetry than write it…” In fact, it had become, for other than a specialized readership, pretty much “unreadable.”
Fawcett’s shocking “modest proposal” at the end of his essay was to suggest that almost everybody commit to a ten-year moratorium on publishing any more verse. Or, as Fawcett said elsewhere, in his later “joint mind” essay, “Both of us, in the mid-1980s, stopped seeing ourselves as poets — I made a public proclamation that I was going to take a ten-year moratorium on publishing verse on the grounds that no one could read it anymore.” Fawcett had no objection to writing poetry as a private activity (he continued to write poems himself, “for the drawer,” as we say about not-for-publication work). However, he not only carried out his decade-long moratorium on publishing poetry, but never published another book of poems for the rest of his life. Instead, he started writing prose.12
It was a decisive move for someone who had grown up as a writer in the context of the New American Poetry. Despite Fawcett’s bold proposal for a general moratorium on poetry publishing (which in reality applied only to himself), most of his “Starting Over Again” essay was actually a defense of poetry. As Fawcett cautioned, in his account of ceasing to publish poems, “don’t get me wrong. I am not implying that writing poetry is a worthless activity… It is, for instance, a much better thing to be doing than selling drugs or real estate or dumping toxic wastes into our dying waterways,” he quipped. More seriously, Fawcett avowed that “poetry is a fundamental human activity, and has been since the origins of language.” He adds, “I’d take it a step further. Notwithstanding the use individuals currently make of it, poetry is perhaps the most profound manifestation of human imagination that exists, and it is one of the most powerful tools human intelligence has ever devised.”
In an essay that ostensibly abandons poetry, it’s characteristic of Fawcett to devote so much energy to poetry’s defense, and it signals his refusal to fall into the trap of becoming a rigid ideologue. Rather, poetry remained “a tool of historical, intellectual and emotional investigation” and what we call “tradition” is “the record of that investigation — not a museum of pristine aesthetic artifacts or a collection of eternal wisdoms.” In essence, “Poetry started because human beings needed more successful ways to perceive and think about the world — ways that would engage deeper complexities and prevent the violence that is the inevitable result of not being able to think successfully or relevantly… It’s an intellectual method, and we need such things more today than ever before.”
Although we may need poetry more than ever before, Fawcett was saying, we can’t have it because, for most people, it’s “unreadable” — that is, we’re living in a culture in which what we call “poetry” (as distinct from other linguistic modes, such as narrative, discourse and the “language” of mathematics) is accessible only to small, specialized, relatively marginalized readerships.
Fawcett’s shorthand term for the larger cultural change in which poetry was “unreadable” was the “Global Village,” a reference to the ideas of the Canadian communications and technology theorist, Marshall McLuhan. Coincidentally, it was in a Vancouver lecture (in 1958) that McLuhan introduced what became his “viral” slogan, “The medium is the message.” The transformation from a literate to a primarily visual and digital culture, it was suggested, would produce a democratized Global Village of information. A half-century before mass computer and cellphone usage was a gleam in its progenitors’ eyes, much less globally ubiquitous, McLuhan anticipated the shifting intellectual landscape. While Fawcett appreciated McLuhan’s prescient insights, he was also an early critic of them. Fawcett thought that McLuhan had failed to recognize the dystopian aspects of that virtual village, namely, that its globalized (corporate capitalist) culture brought with it a society focused on total consumerism, and the creation of a public mind that found poetry “unreadable.” This isn’t the place for a full reprise of the virtual dialogue between Fawcett and McLuhan; rather I’m simply pointing to Fawcett’s characteristic impulse to take on whatever ideas were at the leading edge of the cultural, social and political “conversation” at the given historical moment. 13
Nor did Fawcett’s turn to prose and a broader readership mean abandoning what he called his “New American education.” In an essay on that subject, Fawcett first dispels any misunderstanding that this absorption of the influence of the New American Poetry somehow constituted national disloyalty. “I have a new American education even though I’ve been a Canadian nationalist most of my adult life,” Fawcett avers at the outset. “That isn’t quite the same thing as being educated American and thus having, as some of the nuttier Canadian cultural nationalists… think, the same beliefs as George W. Bush or whoever the American villain-of-the-month is.”14
Rather, “it means that I was educated by Americans who were developing a set of ideas that originated (mostly) in the United States.” Fawcett added, “It also means that I think that writing is meant to have an effect in the world, and that it is most interesting when committed in the name of political values that are politically cosmopolitan rather than national or aesthetic” or parochial in some other way. As Fawcett remarks, “Such writing can, but is not consciously designed to, merely contribute to national identity.”15
Beyond Fawcett’s sense that “writing is meant to have an effect in the world” (which in part explains his turn to prose), the key item here is “cosmopolitan” (and “cosmopolitan intelligence”). It’s a term that so recurrently appears in Fawcett’s writings (and mine), that I’d better say something about what it is, and how it is distinguished from its counterparts. To immodestly cite my explanation of it in introducing Local Matters (2003), a colllection of Fawcett’s essays, cosmopolitan intelligence “is a civic and literary intelligence that resides in worldly polities, both actual and imagined. A universal polity is not necessarily a world city, much less a so-called ‘world class’ city. I’ve seen writers with cosmopolitan intelligence treat the small town or rural landscape in which they live as the center of the universe (the locus classicus here would be Henry David Thoreau’s Walden).
“It is an intelligence that pays attention to the specificities of the local, while valuing and measuring that specificity in the context of larger entities in time and space, namely, history and the world. Cosmopolitan intelligence, like all thinking, has ideological commitments, but is demarcated from fundamentalisms and totalitarianisms in that it does not view phenomena solely or primarily through an ideological lens. Rather, it tests its beliefs in actual experiences. It proposes a concept of the self which recognizes that self-expression is but the beginning, not the end, of individuality, and that its ethical measure is responsibility to others, the world, and to accurate language. The antagonist counterpart to cosmopolitan intelligence is parochial thought and, worse, forms of ignorance. By contrast, cosmopolitan intelligence is marked by curiosity, xenophilia, care for language, civility and humour.”16
In Fawcett’s essay on his American education, he duly nods to the influence of Don Allen’s New American Poetry anthology, which “offered a selection of American poets working in the roughly defined intellectual and formal line forged by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Its concept of poetics argued for a verse line and diction dictated by the individual’s ability to think, compose, and speak in normal speech idiom.”
However, its spirit was not obsessed with the formal techniques of poetry. As Robert Creeley argued, “Form is never more than an extension of content,” undercutting most notions of academic formalism. And Creeley’s closest colleague, Charles Olson, sought a poetics focused not on the poet’s subjective state or self-expression, but rather on the energy generated by the poem’s encounter with the world. Similarly, Robin Blaser saw the poem as a particular “action in language,” and thus the poem was an event in the world. What marked a “new American poetry” poem from a contemporary “academic” poem was pretty much what we were after in the “polyphonic totalisation” writers’ meetings, with its concern for reformulating genres and personally “digging deeper.” While “Poetry makes nothing happen,” to cite W.H. Auden’s famous aphorism about the practical and political “uselessness” of poetry, for Blaser, poetry was a mode of knowledge and feeling (or an “intellectual method,” as Fawcett has it) that was distinct from, and more concentrated than other such language-based modes (story, narrative, discourse) and, as an “action” within language, it was, thus, by definition, itself something that “happened.” Or to put it in one of Olson’s broader manifesto-like aphorisms, “Art is life’s only twin.”17
Finally, in Fawcett’s “new American education,” there are the presence of the teachers. There were a variety of notable ones at Simon Fraser University (SFU), including composer R. Murray Schafer, and Olson scholar Ralph Maud, who was a prime faculty patron of Fawcett’s Iron magazine, but the lasting presence for Fawcett was Robin Blaser, whom he acknowledges in a dedication in Local Matters, as the teacher “who introduced me to the intellectual methods used in this book.”18
In the very first university classroom Fawcett walked into at SFU in 1966, at age 22, fresh from the frontier-like Prince George, and armed with a surprisingly substantial autodidact’s reading and a lot of native wit, he discovered that “my professor was a Genuine Card-Carrying Writer — the first I’d ever laid eyes on.” Blaser asked the students to produce a short list of what they’d been reading, if anything. “The Writer discovered that I’d not only been reading but reading a lot, and I discovered that most of my classmates didn’t think that reading was worth the trouble.” After class, “the Writer called me over and confided that he had met and talked to Jack Kerouac, the American novelist [and author of On the Road (1957)] I’d listed at the top of my favorites.” At first, Fawcett was slightly uncertain about whether to believe Blaser or not, but he was gradually convinced that Robin was not only on a first name basis with such members of the new insta-pantheon as Kerouac, but was also friends “with nearly all the contemporary poets I’d been reading since I was 16 or 17.” What’s more, in the dog-eared copy of The New American Poetry anthology that Fawcett had been toting around, his professor could be found in the table of contents.
Fawcett was impressionable in all the right ways. “Since I hadn’t encountered any writers while I was growing up, I hardly believed they were flesh-and-blood creatures. I thought live writers were going to be like Theseus and Heracles from Greek mythology: half-human, half-divine, or if not godlike, at least far beyond the human and mortal stuff I was made up of,” Fawcett recalled, decades later. “Blaser didn’t disappoint.” Just turned forty, handsome and sophisticated, Blaser “was immensely well-read… and was just reaching full command of his intellectual powers.” While Fawcett saw himself as a somewhat brutish small-town boy in the big city, “Blaser didn’t treat me as if I was a brute.”
“When he recognized that I really had read the books I’d listed and more, and when he’d talked with me enough to decide that I was going to be permanently thrilled by language and literature, he treated me as if I were a fellow intellectual and a co-conspirator in language.” And “within the first minutes of our relationship, he was challenging me to read more widely and think more deeply than I had. That first class with him was, I think, the most important moment in my entire education, both as a writer and as a human being. Hands down, it was the most thrilling one.” It was, to coin a phrase, pedagogy at first sight.19
Less than a year after self-imposing his “moratorium” on publishing more poetry, Fawcett turned up at his publisher’s office and presented Karl Siegler with a somewhat inchoate pile of manuscript. Fawcett acknowledges Siegler, who was the most consequential editor in Fawcett’s writing career, “for seeing this book before I did.” The collection of linked coming-of-age stories that Siegler “guided along” became My Career with the Leafs & Other Stories (1982).
In it, Fawcett returned to Prince George, as he would recurrently do, both in imagination and in person, for the rest of his writing life. His “homing instinct” proved to be quite literal. The stories, featuring recurrent boyhood and adolescent friends, are related with a deft touch and successfully reimagine the gradually widening perspective and voice of a kid growing up in the Canadian north. Whether Fawcett is recounting a small boy’s sense of the world, populated with adult “giants” and imaginary “elves” (who live in a tree across the street from his house), or early adolescence with its rival and potentially dangerous neighbourhood gangs and pick-up hockey games, its events are always unfolding within the imminent End of the World.
The form of that “end” promised to appear in a mushroom-cloud-shaped nuclear apocalypse. When Fawcett turns his family’s basement ping-pong table into a fortress and refuge from the shouted family drama upstairs (the fort’s walls, under the table, are made from cardboard cartons used to store the accumulating household clutter), the boy recalls it was a time when “it became a big fad to build bomb shelters for when the next war started and the Russians dropped atomic bombs all over the place.” His older brother points out, about the shelters, “They won’t work.” For mid-20th century schoolchildren there were atomic bomb drills, with the kids scurrying under desks away from the windows, as if that might protect them from the cataclysm. Three-quarters of a century later, the students of today, at least in the U.S., are subjected to “active shooter” drills in preparation for random mass school shootings by crazed “loners” armed with battlefield assault weapons.
There’s even a story in My Career where one Sunday when 10-year-old Fawcett is caddying for his golf-playing father out on the links, a U.S. “B-52 bomber, descending out of the invisible world of my imagination, flew over us at no more than 2000 feet” in the skies of Prince George. “A few minutes later it made an emergency landing at our small local airport and blew all its tires in the process.” In the week it took to get the B-52 back into the air, it was a major tourist attraction for all the locals. “Rumours flew both ways as to whether or not the plane was carrying atomic bombs,” to retaliate against or pre-empt the Russians’ first strike. Fawcett didn’t have any doubts about its cargo. “It was one of those planes, and because they wouldn’t let anyone go inside it, there had to be bombs in it. If the plane had crash-landed, there would have been nothing but a huge crater for 50 miles in every direction… When it flew over my father and me, I recognized what it was immediately and I thought the end had come.” His father, on the golf course, was a sort of stand-in in Fawcett’s mind for the golf-playing then American president, Dwight Eisenhower, who would probably receive such catastrophic news of a nuclear attack somewhere out on the fairway.
The book’s title story, about a stint with the National Hockey League Toronto Maple Leafs, comes at the end of the volume. Fawcett is now an around-thirtyish poet, in Toronto to give a poetry reading. In an absolutely pitch-perfect deadpan voice, Fawcett explains that “one of the first things I did when I got [to Toronto] was to drop down to Maple Leaf Gardens,” where the Leafs happened to be practicing that day. While sitting in the stands watching the team skating around the rink, Fawcett gets an idea. “I walked down to the equipment room, and politely asked a man who turned out to be the trainer if it would be okay if I joined the practice. ‘Sure thing,’ he told me, just like that. I asked if I could have a uniform to wear. ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘What number would you like?'” And with that, the shaggy-dog story send-up is underway.
Of course, in real life, you can’t walk into an equipment room and ask the trainer to let you join a practice with an NHL team, but the deadpan tone is so offhand that when Fawcett reports, “Minutes later I was out on the ice with the Toronto Maple Leafs,” you barely register as a reader that you’ve “suspended disbelief,” as they say in the fiction-writing trade. Eventually, Fawcett drifts over in the direction of coach Red Kelly, who’s behind the boards yelling instructions to the players in the scrimmage. “‘Mind if I take a turn?’ I asked as evenly as I could. ‘Not at all,’ he replied. ‘Let’s see what you can do.'” What Fawcett can do, with a bit of luck and the street smarts acquired in a northern Canadian town, is occasionally put the puck past the goalie into the net. It was a tricky shot that got the attention of coach Kelly. “‘Not bad,’ Kelly shouted. ‘Not bad at all.'” After the practice ended, Kelly asked Fawcett if he could drop by his office after the post-practice shower.
Jim Gregory, the general manager of the Leafs had joined Kelly in his office and asks Fawcett, “What brings you to Toronto?” “‘I’m a poet,’ I said, ‘here on business, doing a public reading.’ ‘No kidding,’ he said, looking reasonably satisfied with my answer.” In short order, Fawcett is signed to a part-time contract. In further due course, he’s assigned to a line with centre George Ferguson and one of the team’s two Swedish players, a guy named Hammerstrom on the other wing. (Devout hockey fans will no doubt feel a few memory receptors dimly light up at hearing these now mostly-forgotten names of ancient players, coaches and hockey executives.) And inevitably, Fawcett is on the ice, and in the game, busily dodging the opposing team’s “enforcer” goon and occcasionally making what the general manager praised as “some interesting moves.”
In addition to the tale of Fawcett’s improbable career with the Leafs, one of the central themes (or “conceits”) of this tall story is devoted to debunking the stereotype of the hockey player as a tongue-tied semi-literate guy barely able to deliver a couple of banal shibboleths about team loyalty and spirit during the between-periods TV player interview. The puck has barely been dropped when Fawcett remarks, “To my surprise, a fair number of the players knew who I was, and it turned out that some of them had even read my work.”
Later on, after Fawcett becomes friends with Ferguson, he reveals that the older veteran “taught me a lot of the basics of pro hockey, and I gave him books to read in return. I was interested in Rilke and an American poet named Jack Spicer… and he pored through everything I lent him. I always had books in my equipment bag and he dug through it regularly to see what was there.” Fawcett wasn’t the only one with more in his equipment bag than skates, hockey sticks, towels and an assortment of protective shin and hip pads. Various players “slipped large hardbound books into their equipment bags”; one rising star player, “everyone knew, was a big Henry James fan.” Another was “already heavily into Artaud” (possibly interested in picking up tips on the “Theatre of Cruelty,” which was not all that different from what went on out on the ice at times). Indeed, the locker room, in Fawcett’s telling, was practically a branch of This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, a well-known Toronto indie bookstore of the era that specialized in small press poetry and sports books.
After scoring a first period goal one evening, Fawcett is informed by coach Kelly that he’s been tapped for the between-period player interview with Howie Meeker on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. That’s when he makes his fatal mistake. Instead of reciting the requisite bromides about the virtues of “hard work” and team loyalty, Fawcett, not knowing any better, in response to a rote question, launches into a disquisition on Art and Civilization, making sure to include some fine points on CanLit, as well as mentioning literary critic Northrop Frye and novelist Margaret Atwood and their views on Nature as a trait in Canadian writing. Meeker, an all-star alumnus of the Stanley Cup-winning Leaf teams of the 1940s and ’50s, now elevated (or pastured out) to “color commentary” on TV is totally non-plussed, gobsmacked, and pissed off by this smartass rookie who happened to put one in the net. After the camera fades out, “Meeker turned on me. ‘What was that all about, you crazy sonofabitch?’ I began to explain, but he walked out of the studio without listening to my answer.”
Back in the locker room, a pall of gloom has settled on the team. “‘Geez, man, that’s the unwritten law of hockey,” Ferguson explains to Fawcett. “You’re supposed to pretend you’re really dumb… You talk dumb, talk about teamwork, and all that crap.” There’s even the possibility “that this whole business about us being stupid and inarticulate is an explicit policy of the Feds — right from the top.” But Fawcett is slow on the uptake. “All I did was to get Howie Meeker mad at me,” he says, trying to minimize the damage. “It’s a lot worse than you think. You’ll be blacked out,” Ferguson says, grimly. “No radio perks, no television coverage, and as little newspaper coverage as they can give you…” I won’t offer any spoilers here about the tale’s bittersweet denouement. The main thing that tickled Fawcett about the real-life effect of the story was how many readers came up to him subsequently and asked some version of the question, in tones of mixed awe and suspicion, “Did you really play for the Toronto Maple Leafs?”
While the title story of My Career with the Leafs is the virtuoso literary turn in the book, a less noticed gem in the collection, particularly for those interested in Fawcett’s life as a writer, is “An Interest in Bears,” an autobiographical account of how, at age 16, Fawcett became a serious reader. I won’t reprise the whole story, but it takes place at one of the local Prince George pool halls-cum-magazine stores. Fawcett is too young to get into the pool hall part of the establishment (and, worse for him, he looks young for his age, maybe closer to 13 than 16, much less than the required 18), and despite various failed ruses to gain entry, he’s stuck in the magazine section, pretending an interest in Field and Stream or some similar outdoorsy periodical, while trying to sneak a look at Sunbathing for Health, a nudist magazine.
Behind the counter, near the cash register, there’s a taciturn attendant named Jack Norris, who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, and was scribbling on sheets of yellow foolscap in between taking money for magazines, cigarettes, and pool games without paying much attention to the business end. “When you put your money on the counter he took it, made change, and pushed the cash register shut, without looking up.” (“Jack,” by the way, is a real-life figure, Bill Morris, who appears in a subsequent non-fiction Fawcett book, Virtual Clearcut (2003)). The two of them fall into conversation as Fawcett is reading an article about Kodiak bears in Field and Stream. Jack asks him, “Why are you reading that?” (instead of the rote query, “Are you going to pay for that?”). The adolescent Fawcett admits to “an interest in bears.”
That leads Jack to ask, “What kind of books do you read?” Though Fawcett is mostly reading trashy detective novels, he recalls he’d recently read Jack London’s Call of the Wild, the mention of which gets Jack’s attention. “Isn’t he wonderful to read?” Jack enthuses. All this encourages Fawcett to hesitantly ask which London book, in Jack’s opinion, is his best. “Martin Eden,” Jack firmly replies. “You should read it… You might learn something.” Eventually, Fawcett — in between failed attempts to cajole Jack into letting him into the pool room — asks, “What are you working on behind there?” “Jack gave me just about the most serious look I had ever seen on a human face, and then looked down at the pad of foolscap. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ he said.” That’s the start of what Fawcett recounts as the first serious mentorship he’s received in his young life, a guide to real reading and an inspiration for such lightbulb insights as “people read novels, they didn’t write them.” As Fawcett duly noted, people did all sorts of things — driving cars, making money, eating Chinese food, shooting pool, getting into fights. They even died. “But novels came from someplace else, far away and outside the possibilities of a small town like ours.” “An Interest in Bears” (which also includes some hallucinatory bears) offers a detailed and charming account of an intellectual awakening.
The reason I’ve stuck with this extended look at Fawcett’s debut book of stories for as long as I have, is not simply because it’s a forgotten book that deserves rediscovery (though it is), but because it’s one that answers a second question every reader of literary biography asks. If the first query is, When did X first become a “real” writer, as opposed to somebody who merely “wants to write”?, then the next question is, When did so-and-so emerge as a genuinely competent writer? (The final question in this trio, which I’ll get to in the next section, is, When did X come into more or less full command of his intellectual powers?) I probably should add that My Career with the Leafs is not only generally forgotten, but was forgotten by me. I read it, obviously rather cursorily, when it came out forty years ago, but it was only after re-reading it in the wake of Fawcett’s death, that I was surprised by its sure-footed quality as both storytelling and writing. Actually, there was no reason to be surprised, given what I knew of Fawcett’s abilities, but in the re-reading I found myself periodically pausing and muttering in admiration, like Coach Kelly, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
A couple of years and a couple of books of short-stories later (Capital Tales, 1984; The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie, 1985), Fawcett arrived at editor-publsher Karl Siegler’s once more with a manuscript. It consisted of a baker’s dozen of oddly-angled short stories, or what Fawcett dubbed “short philosophical episodes” and Siegler called “Global Village episodes,” accompanied by a long essay about, of all places and things, recent political developments in the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. I’ll get to the off-kilter stories, and the relevance of Cambodia in a minute, but the immediate problem for Fawcett was his heap of manuscript. “I had no idea how to make a book from it,” he realized. That’s when he brought the disparate pieces to Siegler.20
“He read it through and said, ‘You have a book here, but it isn’t acting like any book I’ve ever seen. Why don’t we run the Cambodia essay underneath the Global Village episodes, because this is a conversation between two subject matters, and they’re talking to one another in a unique way. So, let’s set up the text as a vertical conversation…’ That’s how the book was built,” Fawcett reports, assigning full credit to Siegler for coming up with both the intellectual insight into how the prospective book worked, and the formatting design solution that immediately snapped the text into place. The result was “a dual-text book with a difference. It doesn’t feature two different languages, but a primary text of short philosophical episodes that are printed across the top half of the page, with a book-length essay on Cambodia and related subjects running on the lower half of the page.”
Fawcett admitted, “Conventional literary readers find it confusing to read, and a few, I’m told, simply give up in frustration. But enough other readers have found it cognitively, culturally, and philosophically stimulating — and go on reading with sharper attentions than are usually brought to reading books these days. That’s why the book has survived.” Fawcett adds, “Until I wrote Cambodia I was a part-time writer of conventional short fiction, and an urban planner with an instinct that nearly all planning problems were actually unrecognized political and cultural problems.”
Fawcett’s nose for recognizing that planning problems were really political/cultural problems persisted right up until he abandoned urban planning altogether as not reparable (at least by him), but with Cambodia, he was no longer “a part-time writer of conventional fiction.” If urban planning ended in frustration and failure, going beyond being a writer of conventional fiction, more happily, eventuated in Fawcett blossoming into a cosmopolitan (or “international”) writer, as I came to think of him. I rated Fawcett as someone on the order of, say, John Berger, one of the writers we assiduously read. The London-born Berger, a novelist, essay writer, and art critic, who lived a good part of his life in a peasant village in the French Alps, was the author of the landmark Ways of Seeing (1973), a book (and television series) appearing the same year as he won the Booker Prize for his novel, G. A later volume of indispensable essays, The Sense of Sight (1985) was published the year before Fawcett’s Cambodia. (I’ll return to the question of Fawcett’s place among Canadian and world writers later, but this is a hint of where I’ll be going in evaluative terms.)
Now that the form of the book was resolved by the unusual strategy of a bifurcated page, we can turn to the stories and the underlying Cambodia essay themselves. In characterizing the stories (or “Global Village episodes”) in Cambodia as “oddly-angled,” I’m thinking of novelist E.M. Forster’s famous 1923 description of the poet C.P. Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” So were Fawcett’s slightly off-kilter tales. Just to convey something of the flavor of this text, it’s worth taking a look at the opening pages of Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. The sub-title, as we’ll see, is absolutely crucial to the project intellectually, and for the practical reason of attracting the attention of readers who might otherwise obliviously walk by a volume bearing only the name of a distant, obscure, possibly insignificant country.21
For those unfamiliar with Cambodia, except perhaps as the location of the world heritage site of the Angkor Wat and other temples, or whose memories of its political history have faded, it had an unusual if now mostly forgotten place in the half-century of U.S. imperialist “adventures” that followed World War II. Cambodia experienced, after a period of shaky monarchial rule in the 1960s and into the next decade, an internal communist revolution in the mid-1970s, led by the Khmer Rouge, as the Cambodian communist party was known.
The disruptive political upheaval was followed by an unimaginable cataclysm. Once in power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a horrific genocide in which the fanatical revolutionaries murdered an estimated two million of their own people, perhaps as much as a third of the nation’s population of 7 million inhabitants, for bizarre and seemingly unfathomable ideological reasons. It was the most extreme example of systemic evil since the Holocaust of World War II, when the Nazis murdered six million Jews. Nor was the Cambodian genocide the end of the chain of events. The Khmer Rouge revolutionaries were, in their turn, overthrown by the army of the neighboring Communist Party of Vietnam at the end of the 1970s, an internecine conflict unique in the history of supposedly fraternal communist parties.
As Fawcett notes, the reader starting out to read Cambodia is immediately faced with a dilemma about how to proceed. At the top of the opening page is a story titled “On the Difficulties of Crowd Control,” and about two-thirds of the way down the page in a just slightly smaller font size, the numbered, 11-part Cambodia essay begins. If you’re like me in figuring out a reading procedure, you might take a quick peek at the lower part of the page and the opening line of the Cambodia essay (“We think we know what went on in Cambodia”) just to get an idea of what’s ahead, and then begin reading the “philosophical episode” at the top.
The “Crowd Control” story is an account of how students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, who were protesting the invasion of Cambodia by American troops in 1970, which had occurred just days before, are fired upon by militiamen of the Ohio National Guard who have been dispatched to the campus to monitor the student demonstration. “By the time the guardsmen stop firing their weapons, four students are dead and nine more are wounded,” Fawcett tells us. “The date is May 4th, 1970.” The killings at Kent State instantly ignited a nation-wide uproar in the U.S.
The Cambodian incursion, ordered by then U.S. president Richard Nixon, was an offshoot of the deeply bogged-down several-year-old war the U.S. was conducting in next-door Vietnam. It had “inherited” that war from the French colonialists who had previously governed (and exploited) the country, before being overthrown by the communist Viet Minh forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in the mid-1950s, at which point the war against the Vietnamese was handed over to the Americans (who had already been clandestinely supporting the French). The expansion of the war (by 1970 described as a “quagmire”) into Cambodia (and eventually into nearby Laos) sparked preparations for campus protests across the United States. But the murder of the students at Kent State immediately escalated the domestic aspect of the larger conflict to a new level.
I’ve already mentioned that these stories (of which “Crowd Control” provides a characteristic example) are not conventional. Rather than being organized around a “plot” and individual “protagonists,” or “chronological development,” the perspective Fawcett adopts is through the prism of various institutions, framing devices, and structural concepts that constitute the underlying reality of the story. So, we are talking about television, militias, and notions of “crowd control.” The story-cum-essay about the Kent State killings consists of reflections that focus more, for example, on how the camera angles of television reportage shape the public understanding of the events depicted than, say, a straightforward dramatic narrative of those events would do.
It happened that “a television crew from one of the local stations is present at the scene, and within hours the footage the crew shoots of the incident is being broadcast on nearly every television station in North America.” As Fawcett notes, “The camerawork isn’t the sort that wins prizes, but it has a peculiar spontaneity about it, perhaps because the shootings were as much of a surprise to the cameraman as they were to the demonstrating students.” The initial public outcry that ensues is rooted in the norms assumed even by politically indifferent ordinary citizens. The innocent students are “victims of outright murder. They are Americans, after all, exercising their God-given right to freedom of expression. Such atrocities of authority should not be possible in the United States of America,” says Fawcett, paraphrasing “common sense” reactions to the shootings.
Given the public tendency to amnesia, the furore soon dies down. “Later, cynics will state that the… killings cause the virtual collapse of the American student movement as a tool for social change.” Real life, they sneer, has visited itself upon the theoretical fantasies of academia, and a little live fire has “found out what the student movement is really made of.” But that’s, at best, only a half-truth, Fawcett points out. Because “it is also true that the movement to stop the undeclared war in Vietnam and Cambodia, in which students form at least a substantial part of the front line, has succeeded in hamstringing American military ambitions.”
But, as Fawcett says, “All such speculations… are now antiquarian,” even at the time of Fawcett’s writing, only a few years after the events to which he’s referring. Various theories of what it all meant are afloat among the rapidly fading empirical details. “Or maybe it was all a mistake, a stupid misunderstanding. A crowd, given the right camera perspective and angle, can be mistaken for a mob, and in the right circumstance, anyone with a little military training can become a killer — that’s what they’re trained to be, after all.” Fawcett thinks that “the reasons why so few can remember what happened” has to do, especially for Americans, with what they’ve seen on their ubiquitous television screens, which also tends to produce an almost instant amnesia, erasing both memory and imagination.
Television does this, he argues, by its surfeit of portrayals of death, which permeate both “news coverage” and its dramatic programs. “Most days you can see death on the evening news, occasionally quite graphically… You see the corpses, but the television news never seems to be quite clear about who or what is responsible for creating those corpses.” (Today, a half-century later, you can still see the corpses, now in Ukraine, but the “graphic images,” as they are euphemistically called, are accompanied by the equally euphemistic warning, “Some of the images you are about to see may be disturbing.”) When the prime-time programs come on, “you can see more deaths — usually highly dramatic, but fictional ones.” As Fawcett sums it up, “On an average day, violence and killing are going to be the fundamental content of television. Or if you think that overstates it a little, I can put it another way. Violence is the content that solves most of the problems that do get solved, whether you are watching the evening news or prime time dramatic programming.”
Years after the Kent State shootings, as Fawcett is writing in 1985, he tries “to imagine the last hours of those four students who died.” But he finds himself “cringing at such speculations… It is one thing to be in a war zone,” but the students “aren’t in a war zone, and they aren’t really belligerents.” They’re akin, in a sense, to the “Cambodian peasants who looked up into the suddenly clamouring skies and discovered that American B-52 bombers were dropping bombs on them.” The “crimes” of the Cambodian peasants are similar to those of the Kent State students: “Both appeared to be threatening violence to American imperial consciousness.” After all, Fawcett half-sardonically remarks, “It is hard for an American bomber pilot looking down through his bombsight to see that there is a difference between Cambodian peasants and the Viet Cong soldiers he is trying to kill.” Likewise, “a poorly trained and nervous National Guardsman… might have trouble seeing the difference between what he suspects are dangerous Commie Pinko Radicals and these nice American students who are thinking about what they’ll have for lunch after the demonstration…”
Fawcett points out, “The television cameras intrude right here.” The cameras “are supposed to establish the facts about our world, to tell us who is who and what is what. So what’s wrong with these cameras? Isn’t this the era of total information? Or is the mission of television different than announced?” In fact, as Fawcett recalls shortly afterwards, the cameras have changed their angle, and they only raise more questions about staging and crowd control. Less than twenty-four hours after the event, “the film has been edited into a more coherent package,” not necessarily for manipulative purposes (although that’s likely part of the motivation), but mainly to make it easier for viewers to get a simplified picture. The re-edited version moves at the speed of television, which is surprisingly slow because the simplification erases the complexity of the story.
The “action” sequence has been rearranged and cut back. “The guardsmen are seen firing their rifles, mostly into the air”; only a blurry clip depicts one of the students falling; the confusion of the soldiers, evident in the early “visuals” has been edited out, and “a National Guard spokesman with brass buttons and medals states with great gravity that an investigation is underway.” The follow-up TV reporter on the ground, with the now “empty green lawns and genteel buildings” of the university as his backdrop, “reports a rumour currently circulating that the first shots came from the direction of the demonstrating students… police are said to be investigating the possibility of a sniper…” In this case, the political motives are fairly obvious: the subliminal version of the report is grotesquely suggesting that the guardsmen didn’t really shoot and kill the students (or did so for understandable reasons).
I’ve again, as I did earlier, stayed with this “episode” as long as I have to make clear Fawcett’s intention to investigate what’s known as the “social construction” of reality rather than to exhibit the dramatic anecdote. This also spares me the task of examining the subsequent stories and each section of the Cambodia essay in the same degree of detail.
The stories, for all their considerable differences, will each employ Fawcett’s decentered perspective, whether it’s an episode about “universal chicken” nuggets and franchise capitalism at a strip mall just off the highway, or a comic parable about the biblical St. Paul and the futuristic Marshall McLuhan (and their camels) stumbling through the desert on the road not merely to Damascus, but to organizing information, believers and the Global Village. There’s a link, Fawcett hints, between the technique of St. Paul’s successful organization of the Catholic Church and McLuhan’s invention of the Global Village. In the “Huxley Satellite Dish,” Fawcett tells the story (which he insists is true) of how a remote village in British Columbia gets hooked up to a satellite television service based in Detroit, Michigan (whose time zone is three hours ahead of Huxley’s) and how this turns the life, schedules, concerns, and culture of the Huxleyans topsy-turvy. The 6 o’clock “Evening News” arrives in the middle of the afternoon. The folks in Huxley end up anxiously pondering the Detroit murder-rate, and worrying about whether something similar might occur in their own little town, for instance.
Even in a straightforward critique of franchise capitalism and consumerism, as portrayed in “Universal Chicken,” Fawcett takes a certain delight in adding an unexpected twist. In this case, it’s Fawcett and a burly middle-aged man both turning up, shoulder-to-shoulder, before the two urinals in the Universal Chicken men’s room. “There’s a strange phenomenon that sometimes occurs when men use a public urinal,” Fawcett notes. “Whatever its [cause], neither one of you can go.” Fawcett has a lot of fun depicting a literal male “pissing contest” in which neither of the players can pee. In this comic mini-scene within a sober analytic discourse, Fawcett casually demonstrates that he’s perfectly capable of writing plot, character and conventional prose, thus underscoring his choice to do something else.
The first numbered section of the underlying Cambodia essay is, as editor Siegler suggested, “in conversation” with the “Crowd Control” and other episodes above. “We think we know what went on in Cambodia,” Fawcett begins, only to immediately cast doubt on that assertion, and much else. Fawcett notes that the reputable National Geographic magazine now has a definitive article on Cambodia, replete “with photographs of the piles of whitening skulls fouling the rice paddies” and “walls covered with photographs of some of those who were tortured, made to write confessions and then killed — along with their families — because they could read and write, wore glasses, spoke foreign languages or erred in their interpretation of Khmer Rouge doctrine.” It’s the last half of that sentence that’s hard to take in.
In fact, the mystery of the genocide is never really resolved. For one thing, it’s simply hard to believe that mass murder on such a scale really happened, just as it’s hard to believe in the scope of the Holocaust in which the 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Indeed, the seeds of what’s known as “Holocaust denialism” may lie in the “unbelievability” of what happened.
More pragmatically, it’s hard to see what the practical advantage was to the fanatical revolutionary fundamentalists who decimated their own people. It could hardly improve the yield of the rice crop upon which the economy was based. Were the victims seen to constitute a threat to “revolutionary consciousness” just as the students (in the “Crowd Control” story above) were mistakenly thought to be a violent threat to “American imperial consciousness”? Fawcett’s take on the mysterious genocide is that “most of the victims… were killed merely because they could remember a different kind of world than the one the Khmer Rouge were attempting to recreate out of the rubble of the Vietnam War. Others were killed because they imagined a different kind of world,” period. Fawcett’s meme is going to recurrently be, “Memory and imagination were both capital offences in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.” What’s more, Fawcett will argue that a strangely corresponding phenomenon is happening to memory and imagination in the developed West, although without the blatant violence or overt ideology. Some subsequent critics of Cambodia claimed that Fawcett was flatly (and falsely) equating what happened in Southeast Asia with the effects of franchise capitalism and consumerism in the West, but that’s a simplistic misreading of the notion of “correspondence.”
If the previous decade was one in which figuring out what happened in a place like Cambodia still resonated with a substantial portion of the public (or the “counter-culture”), something changed in Western consciousness. When Fawcett says, “But this is the 1980s,” he’s referring, explicitly or not, to the “austerity” programs and the general “deregulation” of capitalism pursued by the new regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the U.S. and Britain, and the shredding of the “welfare state” model that predominated in our understanding of a desired polity since World War II. “That same demographic sector” of the previous era “has lost interest in public consciousness and has given up on conversation. People watch television instead… “
However, for contemporary North Americans, “memory is not yet a crime, and imagination, particularly if it has some entrepreneurial panache, is sometimes rewarded. But within a culture that is attempting to make individual memory and imagination superfluous, both are becoming political acts. God help us.” But this isn’t a God-help-us story, Fawcett insists. “This is a story,” as he reiterates, about memory and imagination, “and about the reorganizations of human intelligence that are about to leave us all in a new — or a very ancient — kind of darkness.”
It’s a story about what Cambodia means and why it is not an isolated historical aberration. “Cambodia is as near as your television set,” Fawcett says. Simultaneously, it is a story about corresponding developments at “home,” as well as personally. With respect to the latter, it is a story “about what it means to be intellectually and artistically adrift” in contemporary North America, “a hostile in the Global Village,” and finally, it’s about what must be remembered after “history has ceased, for the first time in three [centuries], to provide form to public reality.” This first section of the Cambodia essay is the overture, rehearsing the signature themes of the whole. The ominous reorganizations of intelligence “that are about to leave us all in a new — or very ancient — kind of darkness” echo through the textual space.
The succeeding section(s) of the Cambodia essay, which I’ll only skim here, explores the roots of our dilemma. If the reorganization of intelligence is “about to leave us all in a new… kind of darkness,” it makes sense for Fawcett to recall the initial difficulties he had as a student reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book “which provides the world with its first and perhaps most profound glimpse into the contrary nature of reality” in the modernist 20th century. That leads Fawcett to reflect on the barbarity of European colonialism in the Congo in the late 19th century, as exposed in revelations by figures as diverse as Conrad, Mark Twain and Roger Casement, and more generally, to consider the extermination of various contemporary kinds of consciousness, as occurred in Cambodia and, in more subliminal ways, in the U.S.
By the way, by now I’ve figured out for myself how to read Cambodia: I read a story or episode at the top of the page to its conclusion and then I go back to read a numbered section of the Cambodia essay. When I get to the end of the numbered section I’m reading, I go on to the next story. It’s minimally cumbersome (requiring only one additional bookmark), and it maximizes the sense of conversation between the upper and lower parts of the bifurcated page. It slows down the reading while at the same time intensifying the density of the subject matter(s), which has the effect of increasing the velocity of the text; hence, it becomes writing for people who “find television too slow.”
As Fawcett mentions in his “Joint Mind” essay, in the mid-to-late 1980s he and I had fairly regular face-to-face meetings to discuss our writing. A couple of those get-togethers addressed the various themes of what became Cambodia. I had just published a book about U.S. foreign policy in Central America during President Reagan’s administration. Fawcett had recently discovered why, in a university freshman literature class he’d taken 20 years before, he was so resistant to reading Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness.
At the time, it was the academic fashion to treat the “heart of darkness” as a psychological metaphor or even a metaphysical feature of human nature (the “darkness” at the “heart” of humanity). As a result of recoiling from such interpretations, Fawcett only seriously read Conrad several years later. But, as he explains in the Cambodia essay, even then, it was as the result of a fortunate accident. “I blundered into a little book written by Mark Twain in 1905 entitled King Leopold’s Soliloquy.”
The subject of Twain’s political pamphlet was the Belgium monarch Leopold II, whose Congo colony, which he treated as a private fiefdom, produced riches from its rubber plantations. It did so through a horrific system of exploitation of its indentured workers, which ranged from outright executions to beatings and torture, and perhaps most repulsively with respect to the latter, the widespread punishment of severing human hands. Fawcett realized, within a few pages of reading Twain, that he’d “seriously misjudged Joseph Conrad. The heart of darkness he’d written about had a physical location and was a complex of material events and consequences. It was secret, but it wasn’t psychological” or metaphysical. This revelation, in some ways quite simple, was transformative for Fawcett’s developing political understanding. The psychological interpretation diminished the “darkness,” the reality of it grounded that “darkness.”
As it happened, I had also reviewed a biography of Roger Casement, the otherwise obscure British diplomat in Africa who investigated and wrote a devastating expose of the atrocities in the Belgium Congo. Casement’s report was an early blow in what became the larger 20th century campaign against colonialism. In Fawcett’s and my “joint mind” colloquies about what we were working on as writers, my minor contribution to the discussion was to confirm Fawcett’s insight about the material reality of Conrad’s “dark places” in the world.22
There’s one other topic that requires comment to provisionally conclude any discussion of Fawcett’s Cambodia, and that’s writing itself. At a certain point in his “jeremiad against capitalism and the technology of mass communication as the destroyer of memory, imagination and, ultimately, civilization,” as one reviewer described the book, Fawcett announces, with respect to form’s relation to content, “This is an essay, a short story, a novella, a harangue, a poem, a rant — whatever is dictated by the necessities of my subject.” Elsewhere, he remarks, “You might have noticed that this book isn’t ‘normal’ fiction. There’s no plot, no dialogue, and the action is frequently off-stage, upstairs, in the past, or deferred because it is a threat to sanity and well-being.”23
The reasons for the inadequacy of “normal” writing are numerous. “First of all, like most of the profound historical events of this century, Cambodia takes place on a scale that is at once massive and covert. Second, its brutality was and is so extreme that it is unthinkable.” So, “dramatizing individual episodes will not capture the essentials of Cambodia. Such an approach will inevitably distort the issues by introducing lyric elements of pathos and character that are precisely what is absent in mass reality.” The conventional forms of fiction are inadequate to the subject matter. “A new method is needed,” Fawcett proposes. He argues that “the subject matter of most art is now limited and trivial, and most artists now operate as entrepreneurs of the topical.” Their successes and failures are almost identical to the reasons businesses succeed or fail — “accurate market location and fashion have replaced relevance and utility.” It’s fairly easy to foresee that this uncomfortable, impolite polemic is likely to be resisted by practitioners, critics, audiences and bureaucrats of art, which is probably one of the reasons that Fawcett will be less widely read than people like me think he ought to be.
In his retrospective essay, “After Cambodia,” Fawcett reiterates his critique of what and how writers are writing. “Conventional fiction didn’t seem an adequate response to a world in which global nuclear winter was only a few insane technical decisions away, in which millions of people had been murdered to protect the purity of harebrained causes and utopian ideas, and where millions more continued to starve or be shot to death each year when the means to prevent it were there if we wanted to use them.”
Fawcett “wanted to write a book that acknowledged the largest and most urgent realities of the world I was in — which in 1986 had had, every day for thirty-five years, fleets of bombers loaded with armed nuclear warheads within a few minutes of the point beyond which there was no way to recall them.” What’s more, “the world had also become — and this was important to me as a writer — a place in which everything could be and was communicated, but almost nothing essential to its survival was being seriously discussed.” The fiction then current was inadequate to the reality that needed to be addressed. Even the category of “fiction” might be inadequate. Or, if a broader category such as “writing” might be more capacious, there was the further problem of possibly being in a situation where the mode of communication (e.g., writing) was giving way to other modes (streaming visual narratives; mini-messages and 15-second cellphone-recorded “reels”). But insofar as “writing” was still an option, “I decided to write a book by arbitrarily selecting the most difficult subject matter I could locate, and to let that subject matter determine the form its narrative would take.”24
In choosing Cambodia as “the most difficult subject matter I could locate,” Fawcett didn’t feel impelled to personally travel to Cambodia to make an on-the-spot survey. Instead, he went to the library, and began to read the contemporary scholars who had already done the work. The mid-1980s, Fawcett noted, was a time when “a few people knew that something terrible had happened in Cambodia, but very few had a clear notion of what it was.” Among the scholars, Fawcett discovered Ben Kiernen’s research on the topic (eventually published as How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985)) and promptly wrote him a letter. Kiernen “responded instantly and provided me with a mountain of information he’d gathered, which wasn’t available anywhere. So, I began my research and quickly tapped into a pipeline of semi-underground materials that all the analysts were completely willing to share.” In addition to getting the facts on how the Khmer Rouge attempted “to restart the world as a warmed-up Stalinist gulag,” the two other things that became immediately apparent to Fawcett, and which provided the basis for his own book was “(1) that the erasure of individual memory and imagination was a recurrent political impulse throughout the 20th century, and (2) that the mission of television within Western cultures was to accomplish pretty much the same thing.”
Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow — the resultant mix of serio-comic stories and a multipart essay, which together provided a political and cultural critique that investigated the horrific events in Cambodia and the related ominous ones in Western-inspired “globalization” — – was Fawcett’s breakthrough book, and it was pretty much unlike what anybody else was writing at the time, which his editor-publisher Karl Siegler perceptively dubbed “investigative fiction.” It’s also the point where Fawcett comes into his full intellectual powers, with an ideas-per-minute rate that surpasses most of his contemporaries. If that satisfies the stages of a desirable critical biography — becoming a “real” writer, then a really competent one, and finally one working at full capacity — the only remaining question is, “Then what?” The possible answers to that question for every writer cover the spectrum, from a sustained fecund exercise of those powers, bounded only by the human condition, all the way to a gradual, even terminal, diminishment of them, and everything in between.
For Fawcett, the next decade was, if nothing else, energetically prolific. He wrote a sequel-of-sorts to Cambodia called Public Eye: An Investigation into the Disappearance of the World (1990), again using the device of the divided page, followed by Gender Wars: A Novel and Some Conversation about Sex and Gender (1994), which rounded out what had become an unofficial trilogy. In between the books in that project, Fawcett found time to put together a volume of his essays, Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times, and Other Impolite Interventions (1991), as well as a book about urban gardening, The Compact Garden: Discovering the Pleasures of Planting in a Small Space (1992), and as if all that wasn’t enough, he even managed to compile a sardonic portrait of his native land, The Disbeliever’s Dictionary: A Completely Disrespectful Lexicon of Canada Today (1997).
I’ll leave the survey of the “reception” of Fawcett’s work — through reviews, “Goodreads” ratings, sales, and literary prize nominations — to subsequent critical readers. It’s a little too soon to try to establish Fawcett’s posthumous “reputation,” either as a Canadian author, or one with a wider reach, and in any case this sort of ranking is so beset by contingencies both within and beyond literary considerations that premature speculation is of dubious value.
Editions of Cambodia, Public Eye, and Gender Wars were published in both Canada and the U.S. (Cambodia also had a British edition), but none of these books, as far as I know, made it into translation in other languages (thus limiting the possibility of them achieving an “international” reach). The reviews, which I’ve only superficially glanced at for this essay, often display the expected resistance to “experimental” writing; they include a smattering of those dreaded “mixed reviews”; and a few enthusiastic notices by a minority of critics and readers as a revelatory investigation of both political reality and the state of literature. I’m obviously among the “Happy Few” who regard Fawcett’s work as both remarkably prescient in terms of a macro-analysis of “globalization” and whose concerns remain relevant in the present, given that we’re still living in a social configuration that, if anything, is more precarious than when Fawcett’s writing first appeared.
In Public Eye, Fawcett plays on the familiar literary trope of the private detective and the genre of detective mysteries. The twist is to imagine a detective figure who investigates public and political crimes. The violence being perpetrated in these “mysteries” is against the “world,” rather than individual victims, and the villain is an ambiguous entity known as the “Akron Design Center,” which may or may not be a physical institution, but which generates such evils as “globalization,” “neoliberalism,” and “late capitalism.” As in Cambodia, Fawcett employs a divided page with a series of narrators for the stories on top, as well as the essay-commentaries below the dividing line. Both the overall conceit of Public Eye, and its range of narrators which extend from a tabloid reporter, to Public Eye himself, to the book’s author (who occasionally offers a critique of Public Eye’s own interpretations of geo-political reality), make it likely that all this might be more than a bit tricky for readers to navigate, and that it lacks the coherence that Cambodia achieves. Yet, as is true of most of Fawcett’s writing, it remains interesting for the scope of what Fawcett attempts to take on as subject matter. The same can be said about Fawcett’s subsequent book, Gender Wars, which attempts nothing less than to analyze the state of heterosexual relations (in North America).
None of the volumes of this loose trilogy made the shortlist for any of the significant Canadian literary honors then available. In that sense, they failed to establish Fawcett’s place as a major Canadian writer pushing the literary boundaries of both genre and subject matter, except for a coterie of readers interested in avant-garde writing, and the issues Fawcett’s books uniquely address.
This is not to say that no one else in Canada or elsewhere was trying to interrogate contemporary life in ways akin to Fawcett’s approach. For example, preceding Fawcett’s “investigative fiction,” George Bowering’s Burning Water (1980), a “post-modernist” comic historical novel about the arrival of George Vancouver on Canada’s west coast in 1792, with its sophisticated echoes of the work of the Italian literary eminence Italo Calvino, garnered the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in 1980. Even more widely-read, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, an imaginative extrapolation of Christian fundamentalism’s suppression of women in a foreseeable autocratic America, also won the Governor-General’s Award for fiction, in 1985, the year before Cambodia was published. Atwood’s book went on to become a 40-year cultural franchise: it was an international best-seller translated into multiple languages, and then transformed by film versions, and several successful seasons as a streaming TV series. Atwood’s subsequent “Maddaddam” trilogy offered further “speculative” fiction, beginning with Oryx and Crake (2003), a work focused on climate catastrophe and an apocalyptic decimation of the human species. The Handmaid’s Tale even elicited a recent literary sequel by Atwood, The Testaments (2019).
Similarly, in terms of critical cultural analyses, it would be wrong to think of Fawcett as merely an isolated voice offering a somewhat exaggerated critique of imperialistic violence as well as of consumerist franchise capitalism, or “neoliberalism,” the term leftist analysts popularly employed to characterize the current form of “globalized” capitalism. For instance, just to pick one not-overly ideologized example, it’s useful to remember that during the same year that Fawcett was writing his Cambodia essay, social critic Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) — a title that pretty much lays out the book’s themes of how triviality and public distraction are eroding the democratic polity.
Even earlier, there were other cultural writers, such as Paul Goodman, a novelist, social critic, and the author of Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Miseducation (1964), tracking youth and educational problems that anticipated some of the themes that would engage Fawcett. For that matter, it’s worth citing historian Christopher Lasch, whose The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979; 1991) argued that post-World War II U.S. capitalism, along with the rise of consumer culture, tended to produce a narcissistic personality structure. “Individuals’ fragile self-concepts had led, among other things, to a fear of commitment and lasting relationships, a dread of aging and a boundless admiration for fame and celebrity.” And of course we shouldn’t forget the abundance of political analysis, especially from the left, that critiqued American economic and social life. It ranged from Tom Hayden’s “The Port Huron Statement” (1960), a “New Left” manifesto written on behalf of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization, to the vast oeuvre of linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky, whose works educated a couple of generations about American imperialism and the role of mainstream media in supporting U.S. “hegemony.”25
Nor was Fawcett the only writer to point out the inadequacy of conventional fiction. Prominent Americans novelists, such as Philip Roth and Gore Vidal, both declared the standard novel and what Vidal sneeringly called “Quality Lit,” to be more or less over as a significant feature of the cultural landscape. So, Fawcett was hardly intellectually isolated. Several writers and thinkers among his Canadian peers, including Barbara Gowdy, Susan Swan, and John Ralston Saul, endorsed various of Fawcett’s books. As well, Fawcett was active in the Writers’ Union of Canada, and as a social critic in widely-read publications, such as Books in Canada and the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. One of the things distinct about his writing was that he innovatively combined literary genres to address “the most difficult subject matter I could locate” and argued that representation (in his case, through writing) was inseparable from the “world” or “reality.” Outside of Canada, the most prominent writer to recognise what Fawcett was up to was the American, David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). In that book, which is an argument about what literature ought to be in our time, he titles one chapter “books for people who find television too slow.” Among other things, it refers to Fawcett’s Cambodia and its top of the page “parables,” “all of which are concerned with mass media’s complete usurpation of North American life,” combined with the book-length footnote about the Cambodian nightmare. “The effect of the bifurcated page,” says Shields, “is to confront the reader with Fawcett’s point: wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge.”
Gender Wars (1994), which also presents a non-linear text, is probably more difficult to read than the previous books in that mode because the publisher-editor Fawcett was working with at the time (Somerville House Publishing) hired a “prize-winning” book designer. The designer decided that the book’s various parts should be printed in different colored inks and backgrounds (black on white, red or pink on white, black on gray screen), and instead of a simple line to separate upper text from subtext, he placed chunks of writing in different too-clever-by-half positions. To make matters worse, often a sub-text headline was printed in bold red ink on top of black and white text, rendering some sentences almost illegible. The total effect was positively baroque (to say nothing of reader-unfriendly).
Without attempting to determine here the degree of success of the written text as narrative and writing, Gender Wars is a serious and bold work, aspiring to Fawcett’s standard of taking on as difficult a topic as possible, namely, heterosexuality (within its contested status in the 1990s). The book’s main storyline recounts the amatory experiences of a protagonist named Fred Ferris, who is admittedly a kind of alter ego of the author, who, in turn, is the voice of the intertwined “conversations about sex and gender.” These mini-essays appear under such headings as “The Sexual Revolution,” “Testosterone,” “Head” (in the sexual sense), “Male Erections,” “Anal Intercourse,” and “Heterosexuals and Homosexuals” — just to give a partial listing. The book is, on the whole, a politically progressive and pragmatically sensible critique of sexism, “toxic masculinity” (to use a current phrase), as well as the “patriarchy,” and it displays an empathetic concern for the sexual pleasure of women, an attitude infrequently encountered in books about sex written by white heterosexual males.
My serio-comic role in this enterprise was to act as Fawcett’s chief adviser on homosexuality, and to suggest that the current real sexual mystery was heterosexuality itself. There was a long-standing anti-gay question still extant, “But what do you homos do in bed?” The pretence was that, for “normal” people, gay sexuality was simply unimaginable, when, of course, the faux-questioner knew perfectly well what same-sex people did in bed but wanted to make a political point about its abominable abnormality. As well as being Fawcett’s house expert on homosexuality, I was also, in the tradition of our friendship, a mischievous prankster. I tried to persuade Fawcett that the answer to the question about what homosexuals did in bed was that, in addition to the obvious, same-sex partners talked to each other like civilized beings, while snuggled up beneath the duvet. Fawcett was thunderstruck; apparently heterosexual bed-time was shrouded in silence and devoted to mere rutting. Mischief premeditated, I made no effort to disabuse him of this idyllic fantasy (since some of it was actually true).
Fawcett’s mini-discourse on “Heterosexuals and Homosexuals” begins: “This book concerns itself almost entirely with heterosexuality. For that, an explanation rather than an apology. As a perspicacious gay friend told me recently, the only sexual mysteries left are the heterosexual ones. He admitted to being completely befuddled by what [male] heterosexuals think about sexuality, and about just exactly what they do in bed — aside from, he jokingly added, being depressed about it afterward. He was exaggerating, but only a little. Heterosexuality in the 1990s is confusing, and heterosexuals are more confused than my gay friend.”
The essay goes on to suggest that homosexuality is “probably most usefully approached not as an aberration from normality, but as one of humanity’s more adaptive wonderful inventions.” At the same time, Fawcett doesn’t neglect to point out homosexuality’s biological excesses (which drove a sexually-transmitted-infection epidemic), and its dubious claim to provide the key feature of personal identity, comparable to tribal or ethnic identities. When challenged about why he doesn’t engage in homosexuality if he thinks it’s so great, Fawcett sensibly replies, “Because I don’t feel like it.” Beyond its balanced reflections on sexual preference, Gender Wars is also consistently sane and measured on a host of other sexual topics.
Finally, a few words should be said about Fawcett’s stand-alone essays. He published two volumes of them, originally written for various literary publications in the 1980s and 1990s, and he continued to write and post such dispatches on the dooneyscafe.com website for the next 20 years, from its inception in 2000 until his death. Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times, his 1991 first collection of essays, is worth taking a look at, simply because it provides a possibly more accessible entrance to Fawcett’s mind and writing than some of his genre-bending books.
The essay collection tracks mainly cultural issues, and its critical thematic is “that most of us are failing to accept the public and private responsibilities inherent in the intellectual and political methods that secure” the democratic tradition. If the process of renewing that tradition remains dynamic, we get “political democracy (warts and all) and individual creativity. Where it doesn’t, it seems to me, the result is arbitrary authority, ideological fundamentalism, and social violence.” Throughout the essays, Fawcett hews to the principle stated earlier, namely, “a belief in the political, personal, and even erotic necessity of writing clear sentences that neither minimize or inflate the weight of what is being said.” Further, such articulation — “which is neither an inheritance nor a burden, but an elusive and always mobile privilege” — is inseparable from the reality we’re constantly re-describing. That last notion was put in slightly more formal terms by philosopher Hilary Putnam in his dictum that “elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start.”26
Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times begins, appropriately enough, with “Starting Over Again,” Fawcett’s essay on declaring a moratorium on publishing more poetry, which was discussed above (in section 4 of this essay). He considers the always relevant Sartrean question, “What Is Literature For?”, and offers critiques of prominent writers and thinkers. He always begins with recognizing the writing virtues and intellectual acuity of his subjects, and then, as in “Something Is Wrong with Alice Munro,” (the Canadian short-story writer and future 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature), Fawcett turns his attention not so much to “Alice Munro the person or writer, but… the conditions of literary culture that can make a talented but somewhat antiquarian miniaturist our most revered living writer.”
Just as Fawcett provided critical readings of Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village” for its political blind-spots, and even challenged the late work of the New American poet Charles Olson for the dubious claims of its “cosmology,” his essay in Unusual Circumstances on “Noam Chomsky and the ‘Actual Record'” shows no hesitancy in taking on saints and sacred cows. Fawcett is prompt to recognize Chomsky’s strengths, giving him full marks as a linguistic theorist and as “the most persistent critic of American foreign policy” over the last several decades. There is no “denial of the general brilliance or even the accuracy of Chomsky’s analytical powers, or of the well-researched and penetrating truths of his many pronouncements concerning the evil of American imperialism.” So, why is it that he doesn’t fully “trust” Chomsky?
Fawcett offers one immediate example when he calls out what he regards as an important “serious error”of Chomsky’s many analyses. Unsurprisingly, it’s on a topic that Fawcett knows something about. “Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia for some time after nearly everyone else in the world (including [most] everyone on the political left…) recognized that the Khmer Rouge were a brutal Stalinist lunacy that not only lost control of their murderous impulses on a mass scale, but never had a coherent method in the first place,” Fawcett argues. As it happened, many political analysts were slow off the mark to understand the situation in Cambodia. What Fawcett distrusted in Chomsky was his “cavilling retraction from his original supportive position… without any substantive admission of error or show of vulnerability or remorse.”
Further, charged Fawcett, Chomsky’s “fallback position was revealing and perhaps typical. The Khmer Rouge psychosis of 1975-79… was purely the product of the brutal U.S. bombing of Cambodia that ended in 1973,” or so Chomsky seemed to be saying. “At no point did [Chomsky] attempt to account for the excesses of the regime on its own terms, even though the evidence makes it clear that what took place was as much a product of the [Bolshevik] model of political organization and authority as a psychotic overreaction to U.S. actions.” Fawcett regarded Chomsky’s behavior around the Cambodia situation as exhibiting a characteristic flaw of his larger political world view. My reason for citing Fawcett on Chomsky extensively here is because even decades later, during Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Chomsky had little altered his position about the monocausal source of such conflicts.
In Chomsky’s then most recent book, about “state terrorism,” which Fawcett was reviewing, he notes that Chomsky speaks “solely about the state terrorism inherent in U.S. foreign policy.” Fawcett complains of a tendency “to paint the entire governmental structure of the U.S. as a series of interconnected mafias self-consciously dedicating themselves to mayhem and crime.” While Fawcett is no fan of the U.S., particularly not its foreign policy and military ambitions, the unrelenting view of America as an always proto-fascist polity “does seem excessive” and one-dimensional. “However bad the U.S. has become,” says Fawcett, “it still ain’t Nazi Germany, and it isn’t Stalinist Russia. If it was, Noam Chomsky would have been silenced a long time ago.” I had similar intimations about this distortion in Chomsky’s grand overview, and was impressed by Fawcett’s prescient and heretical readiness to take it on.
The imperialisms of Russia, China and various regional dictatorships get little play in Chomsky’s global view. But for many contemporary Chomsky-influenced North American activists, the U.S. is worse than Putin’s Russia, notwithstanding Russia’s illegal violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and its war-crimes level of the conduct of a year-long war (including “extrajudicial” murders, the bombing of hospitals, schools and civilian infrastructure, and even a flirtation with nuclear catastrophe at occupied Ukrainian power plants, as well as ominous hints about the use of nuclear weapons).
In Chomsky’s numerous recent interviews and “interventions” about the war in Ukraine (the interviews can easily be found on YouTube if you’re interested), there’s always a dutiful, if slightly pro-forma condemnation of the “illegal, criminal” Russian invasion, but the underscored theme is a history of U.S. imperialism, usually leading to the conclusion that the U.S. and its Nato henchmen have “forced” Putin into war. There’s little discussion of Putin’s own preferred explanation of the war, promoting a semi-mystical nationalism justifying the invasion, nor is there much examination of Putin’s false charge that Ukraine is a fascist state in need of “denazification.” One could come away from such analyses almost forgetting that Russia had just led a massive unilateral military invasion into a sovereign neighboring country. This recurrent crack in Chomsky’s worldview and Fawcett’s mistrust of it, inevitably drew my attention during a year of elegizing Fawcett’s death while living in geographic proximity to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Unlike the Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen who discerned that “there is a crack, a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in…”, this “crack” conversely tended to obscure the light we needed.
Whatever one makes of the precise points of Fawcett’s arguments in his essays, his rejection of convenient orthodoxies and his willingness to think through literary and political “unusual circumstances,” make for a refreshing itinerary. His range is suitably wide. Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times, is able, for instance, to cogently discuss such esoteric matters as the exploitative use of athletes in the newest incarnation of Free Trade policies (at the time of writing, a famous hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, had just been traded from his championship-winning Canadian home team to a lesser American franchise for apparently purely commercial reasons). At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a shrewd 1991 updating of George Orwell’s famous essay on “Politics and the English Language.” Indeed, the spirit of Orwell, along with the aforementioned John Berger, can be felt recurrently in Fawcett’s investigative forays.
While rummaging through the sprawl of the internet after re-reading Unusual Circumstances, I stumbled on a rather grumpy essay (or perhaps an overlong letter to the editor) in the then extant Books in Canada monthly complaining that Fawcett’s book had been widely ignored by most major outlets reviewing significant books produced in Canada that year. I found myself nodding along with the article’s sensible argument and convincing presentation of evidence, until I returned to the byline, which I had somehow missed the first time around, only to discover it was, yes, by me. My campaign to remedy the “under-reading” of this particular Canadian writer apparently goes back a way.
Fawcett’s Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown (2003) is about a vast 50,000-hectare-plus “clearcut” of trees that took place in the 1980s in the Bowron River Valley, a huge, if visually unspectacular, boreal forest about 70 kilometers southeast of Prince George, British Columbia, Fawcett’s hometown. The official explanation for the unusual extent of the logging was that it was done to prevent a tree-killing insect infestation from destroying the forests of the entire region (an arguable assertion, according to some environmentalists opposed to the logging operation).
The clearcut was so large “that in the early 1980s orbiting astronauts were able to see it during the daylight hours,” Fawcett reports. “Foresters in northern B.C. claimed that, along with the Great Wall of China, it was the only human alteration of the planet that could be distinguished [from outer space].” What the spacemen saw was the 20th century’s largest contiguous forestry clearcut. If the Great Wall is among the human-made wonders of the ancient world, the Bowron clearcut might be counted as one of the man-made horrors of the modern world. Fawcett, who was then writing a column for the Toronto Globe and Mail, concluded a reporter’s visit to the Prince George Forest Service office in 1990, where he learned the details of the Bowron clearcut. That’s when he realized that a “book had become inevitable,” (namely, the one we’re now reading) and that “I’d been given a glimpse of the way things are, and I knew that, sooner or later, I’d have to try to understand why a clearcut as large as theirs could be invisible to everyone except astronauts and a few local forestry bureaucrats whose impossible job was to flatten and protect the forests of British Columbia all at once.”
Although the eponymous “virtual clearcut” is the ostensible subject of the book, it’s the sub-title — The Way Things Are in My Hometown — that turns out to be at the heart of the story. But the clearcut provides the investigative starting point for a seamless multi-layered narrative that seems to be, as one admiring review put it, “five different books in one: a portrait of a small city; a personal account of Fawcett’s return home with his son Max; an intellectual exploration of the relation between global economies and civic decline; a memoir of a writer and his small group of intellectual and artist friends; [and] an exposé of the politics and corporate ethics involved in resource management and extraction.” What’s notable about Fawcett’s memoir is how it weaves a lifetime of experience into both the classic literary trope of homecoming, and the prospect of an ominous near future of geopolitical and economic realities.27
Virtual Clearcut consists of four chronological narratives, spaced over a decade from 1990 to 2001, in which Fawcett periodically returns to the place where he grew up and, unavoidably, to the Bowron clearcut. It begins, after a brief prefatory overview, in the summer of 1990. “A hot, August mid-afternoon haze mirages bears and moose onto the shimmering pavement,” says Fawcett, as he drives along the highway heading toward Prince George. “A blond 11-year-old boy named Max perches on the passenger seat next to me, humming some popular tune that’s stuck in his head. He’s my son.”
The highway travels through a freshly logged patch of forest somewhere in the vicinity of the Bowron clearcut. While logging was a familiar enough sight to Fawcett, who had worked in the Forest Service for a couple of years in Prince George in the early 1960s, the sort of forestry work he’d seen in recent years was mostly on television, primarily “panoramas of steep coastal mountainsides cleared of trees down to the water’s edge. Panorama clearcuts make good television clips, but they’re typical of the medium’s preference for spectacle over detail.” The television coverage angers some people enough to prompt them to write a check to their local environmental organization, “but they render most of us too numb and helpless to do anything except go with the flow, which translates into supporting the job-giving corporations… because there don’t seem to be any reasonable alternatives.”
Fawcett pulls off to the side of the road to give Max, who’s the convenient foil for his father’s “lessons,” reminiscences, and thinking-aloud, a better look at the recent cut. As Fawcett points out in passing, “Logging isn’t pretty, not ever.” But, like most people, Fawcett is, in most circumstances, prepared to spare himself the gory details. And why not? “A clearcut is ugly from near or far. Worse than that, it is dull. There’s nothing to see or hear inside it because the trees have been removed, and that makes the sightlines a monotone of nothingness, even up close. The wildlife has fled, and the game fish have either suffocated or moved elsewhere because the waterways are fouled with logging debris or gill-clogging runoff.” About the only thing that doesn’t disappear are the mosquitoes and blackflies, and they’re not much fun.
“‘Have you seen logging this close up?’ I ask Max, who has stopped humming and is gazing out at the passing desolation with a look on his face halfway between bemusement and horror. ‘Oh sure,’ he answers. Then he stops and corrects himself. ‘No. Just on television. This,’ he admits, ‘is realer. It’s pretty gross.'”
Max asks where the “Bowering River” is, perhaps thinking of his father’s old writer- friend, George Bowering. “Bowron,” Fawcett corrects. “It’s up ahead a ways. It used to be a very beautiful valley, full of trees and fish and wild game.” The memory-flash about the once-upon-a-time valley inspires Fawcett to launch into a reminiscence about how a couple of Forest Service crews he’d been part of as a teenager in the early 1960s tried to canoe the wild Bowron, but we can skip the details of back-in-the-day (by the time dad finishes the tale of near-disaster on the white-water Bowron River, Max is rolling his eyes, and is ready to move on from the “olden days.”)
By now you’ve got enough of the tone and the context of the writing to get the idea that this is straightforward, almost conventional, but finely-honed prose with no avant-garde ambitions other than to be about everything. Even the politics are not tricky. In his brief prefatory remarks, the metaphor of the Global Village and its failures with respect to democracy reappears, as it does in most of Fawcett’s books, but the main issue is laid out without hectoring or convoluted arguments. “The Global Village’s recent shift in focus from culture and communications toward economics and the marketplace as the governing medium for human interaction has fostered the emergence of a darker identity that has come to be called ‘globalization,'” Fawcett says. He cites philosopher Richard Rorty, whom we both were reading at the time, on “the central fact of globalization,” which is “that the economic situation of the citizens of a nation state has passed beyond the control of the laws of that state… We now have a global overclass which makes all the major economic decisions… in entire independence of the legislatures, and… of the will of the voters of any given country.” Fawcett adds, “That phenomenon, and what it has done to Prince George, is the underlying subtext of this book.”
Fawcett’s son Max may be a handy foil on this road trip, a combination of pre-teen innocence and shifting attentions, but as is frequently the case in Fawcett’s writings, there’s something a bit more subtle going on. The 11-year-old boy, the child of a previous marriage who lives with his mother, is “on the doorstep of childhood’s glory year — still open-minded and fresh-eyed, but as capable physically as an adult,” Fawcett observes. They’ve been on the road just long enough to have gotten used to each other again, and they’ve already made stops to visit Fawcett’s parents (Max’s grandparents) in the temperate southern part of the province where they relocated after the boom years in mid-century Prince George, as well as Fawcett’s older brother Ron, who now runs the family business from a city in the province’s interior.
But Max and Prince George are the main reasons for this pilgrimage. “It’s my chance to show him where I lived when I was his age… In the next year or two, adolescence is going to capture him, and to him I’ll become an adult [instead of just “Dad”] and in many ways The Enemy. It could be 20 years before he’ll listen to anything else I tell him.” Although I intentionally avoid writing about Fawcett’s private life or character in this essay, one personal aspect of him that recurrently impressed me was the attention he paid to the matter of parenting his children. “Childhood’s sunny openness evaporates, and from behind it, the fogs of adolescence roll in, supplanting sweet certainty and security with unlocated desires, peer pressure, and cynicism. About the only thing that helps a kid navigate the fog is being able to read what’s etched on the pillars that hold up the sky while he — or she — is a child. As Max’s father I am, whether either of us wants it that way, one of the pillars.”
Now that we’ve located the map and the blighted territory of the text, I have to resist my temptation to follow every twist and turn of the narrative because it’s simply not practical to do so. Otherwise, as one of my favorite writers says, “we’ll be here all afternoon.” But the temptation’s there because the multiple stories are so coherently interwoven, and the leisurely pace of the writing is sufficiently inviting that the urge to linger is more than pro-forma politeness. But we’ll have to settle for what Fawcett is offered, a cold bottle of beer in the backyard of Barry and Joy McKinnon’s house on a summer evening in Prince George. Barry is one of Fawcett’s closest poet-friends, author of the strikingly-titled The The (1980), which was nominated for a Governor-General’s literary award. An age-mate of Fawcett’s, born in Calgary, Alberta, he’s taught English at the local College of New Caledonia in Prince George since the early-1970s.28
Other friends and acquaintances will soon be dropping by; Max has been introduced to Barry and Joy’s son (who’s about the same age as Max); and Fawcett and Max will be bedded down at the McKinnons as their base camp from which to reconnoitre the city and the clearcut. This is the place in the story where Fawcett slips in a thumbnail sketch of the history of Prince George as a typical rural resource-extraction town, which will provide a grounding for the casual conversations, more formal interviews, and excursions that make up the bulk of the book.
Fawcett notes that “at the end of the Second World War there were 4,000 people living in Prince George, including my family,” which was headed by his parents, Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surry, and eventually included four children. His father had been a travelling salesman for a meat-packing company in Alberta who, importantly, had “never taken well to supervision,” which led him to move his brood from Edmonton, Alberta to Prince George in 1942, two years before Fawcett’s birth there in 1944. “Supervision” is a codeword that’s recurrent in Fawcett’s writing to describe the general constraint on individual freedom that he saw as a pervasive feature of organized modern life, and to which he, too, was as temperamentally resistant as his father.
“Prince George offered freedom from head office in a land of seemingly endless financial opportunity,” Fawcett writes. The early part of Prince George’s post-war boom years featured independent logging and pulp-mill owners, as well as shopkeepers and small manufacturers who serviced the growing population of a frontier-like town based on natural resource extraction. Hartley Fawcett belonged to that first postwar quasi-independent entrepreneurial generation, acquiring an ice cream plant, a frozen food business, and the franchise for the bottling and distribution of a couple of nationally-branded soft drinks. A decade and a half after the Fawcetts’ arrival, Prince George had swelled to 14,000 inhabitants and 604 mills, nearly all of them locally owned and operated. The Chamber of Commerce boosters were envisioning a limitless future for a city that might grow to a hundred thousand dwellers or more, and sufficient dam and transportation infrastructure to support the burgeoning expansion.
The boom for the independent-minded first cohort of entrepreneurs was fairly short-lived and, as it turns out, rather typical of the pattern of development in such places. Although the local boosters described the stench of the pulp mills as “the smell of money,” soon enough, everyone else discovered that “the prevailing winds didn’t blow the perfume upriver the way the experts had assured the few who worried about it, instead draping over the town like a fetid blanket that rarely lifted for more than a few days at a time.” But in those early days, “there literally was a job for everyone who wanted to work, and the wages were good. Mill workers owned their own homes and could afford to fill their carports with Ski-Doos and boats and RVs.” The local mill owners and small manufacturers were getting wealthy on the increasing forestry harvest or the expansion of commercial services it fuelled. The pace of development accelerated, and the future, driven by rumors of fanciful projects, and what Fawcett calls a “let ‘er rip” mentality, seemed limitless.
Within a decade, however, the “corporatization” of towns like Prince George had altered the landscape. “The first fast-food franchises… arrived and quickly began to kill off the locally owned drive-in cafes and restaurants. Supermarket chains just as easily decimated the local grocers, and before long the same kinds of changes were affecting local manufacturers and suppliers.” The arrival of outside-city-limits shopping malls was just around the corner, and locally owned businesses were closing, while “the goods they once manufactured were being trucked in from Vancouver and points east.” Within the forest industry itself, the independents were overwhelmed by national corporations and changing technologies and processes (which included “clearcuts,” over-bidding on timber rights and a reduction of the labor force). A few specialized businesses, like a knowledgable hardware store, say, might survive, but most of the independent entrepreneurs and mill owners recognized that their best option was selling out, cashing in and moving on.
“My father was typical,” says Fawcett. “He got squeezed out of his ice cream and frozen foods business, then sold the soft drink plant and moved south” to the more temperate Okanagan Valley. “By 1968 no one in my family was left in Prince George,” including Fawcett himself, who, after a stint working in the Forest Service, had decamped for university. “Most of my parents’ generation did what he’d done: they took the money and ran. You can’t fight progress, they said.” Much of Virtual Clearcut is a rumination on that notion of progress and the question of whether or not it can be resisted. Each of the four parts of the book offers, well, not a “progress report” (pun unintended except for irony’s sake) but a fairly melancholy update of the situation some 30 or so years after the corporate takeover.
With the overview in hand, we can now get back to ground level. The next day, Barry McKinnon and Brian are off to lunch at their old pal Harvey’s combination coffee house, deli, and local arts and crafts outlet. The eatery is in walking distance, but in keeping with local custom, they drive over in Barry’s lately acquired pink pick-up truck. There’s a comic but affectionate portrait of Harvey as a former bohemian who’s decided to take a shot at becoming a respectable entrepreneur, now spouting slogans of business uplift. Still, he hints he’s willing to take a break from business long enough to join Barry and Brian on a trip to the clearcut in a couple of days. Barry, for his part, updates Fawcett on what’s happened at the college where he’s taught literature for 20 years, but is now reduced to instructing courses in what amounts to remedial literacy. The administration is oriented to downgrading the college into a vocational and business school, which means eliminating the humanities and anything else that might produce an informed citizenry. In any case, the recently founded nearby University of Northern British Columbia can be left to deal with more esoteric matters, like civilization and cultural literacy.
After lunch, Barry takes Brian over to the Forest Service office where, upon displaying his credentials as a representative of “Canada’s national newspaper,” Fawcett’s treated to a careful rundown on the rationale for the clearcut from the local forestry officials, who provide the sort of fawning attention accorded to potential bearers of “bad publicity.” Fawcett remembers his long-ago experiences in the “bush,” when novices received unadorned life-preserving lessons from laconic foresters unconcerned with faux-niceties. A couple of days later, Barry and Brian and their sons, joined by Harvey, the aspiring entrepreneur, are off for a camping trip in the Bowron clearcut, which, once there, Harvey accurately pronounces to be an “industrial riot.” Even the once-pristine lakes that served as their adolescent swimming holes are now befouled with litter and the debris of drunken hunters.
Each of the four parts of Virtual Clearcut contains a judicious mixture of semi-formal and casual conversational encounters with both officialdom and old friends and acquaintances, which gradually fleshes out an answer to the implied sub-title question about how things are in my hometown. In part two, “Alexander Mackenzie’s Supermarket, 1993,” Fawcett, on the strength of being the author of The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie, has been invited to give a talk at the ceremonies in Prince George commemorating the bicentennial anniversary of “corporate explorer” (as Fawcett dubs him) Mackenzie’s canoe journey — a first ever event for non-indigenous settlers — overland across Canada to the Pacific Ocean in 1793. Some outdoor recreation students and their prof from a university back east are re-enacting the canoe trip, and Fawcett gets to meet them at the Arctic Divide, a spot about a half-hour by seaplane north of Prince George. The Divide, Fawcett notes, is “the point of land beyond which the streams and rivers of this part of North America cease to flow north toward the Arctic Ocean and begin to run south and west into the Fraser River watershed and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean.”
Most of the section on “Alexander Mackenzie’s Supermarket,” is, as advertised, focused on the doings of the bicentennial commemoration. In addition to the events at the Arctic Divide, once Fawcett is back in town, there’s a longish interview with Paul Strickland, a reporter at the Prince George Citizen, about Brian’s upcoming lecture on Mackenzie, and some strategizing with another close writer-friend, John Harris, author of Small Rain (1989) and other books. He’s a long-time colleague of Barry McKinnon’s at the college, and will be providing the introduction to Fawcett’s talk. There’s an account of the public lecture itself, which is apparently passable, and sufficiently free of historical howlers or unnecessary rhetorical provocations, even though Fawcett sticks to his thesis of Mackenzie as a harbinger of the corporate future. Although Fawcett reasonably suspects that the entire ceremony probably is meant to serve more as a boost to local tourism than devotion to historical reality, nonetheless a good enough time is had by most.
In his preface to Virtual Clearcut, Fawcett notes that the text is “also, accidentally but unapologetically, a book about men. I have tried to depict what they think and how they act in the world,” in all their multiple public and private roles, including as “critics and apologists of globalization — even occasionally, as reasonable adults and citizens.” One of Fawcett’s major strengths here is his sure-handedness in quick study sketches of this relatively broad sampling of the local male population, from old-timer mill owners and restaurant proprietors, to clerks in failing shops, a few bureaucrats, to a fondness for competent, if taciturn outdoorsmen, and old friends, whose changing bodies and psyches over time are carefully registered. In a few brief sentences, Fawcett consistently gives readers a clear image of how these men look, their manner of relating to their surroundings, and of how they respond to their troubles and anxieties. On the whole, his assessments tend to be generous. The only people Fawcett pointedly leaves out of his account are local politicians, on the grounds that we’ve already heard their stump speeches often enough.
Another of the book’s strengths — the device that gives the text much of its texture — are Fawcett’s miscellaneous encounters, some fleeting and seemingly throwaway anecdotes, some comic, others significant and even emotionally intimate. Perhaps the most poignant of these meetings is the result of a spur of the moment phone call to check-in with Bill Morris, who happens to be home and invites Fawcett over for coffee.
“Right now?” Fawcett asks. “Sure,” Bill says, “Why not?” On the way there, Fawcett reminds us that Bill, long before his semi-retirement (from the real estate business), had been running Third Avenue Billiards and magazine store when Fawcett was a teenager, too young to get into the pool hall part of the establishment. Brian had often stopped by there to look at the paperback book rack that served as the city’s “bookstore.” Readers of Fawcett will remember a fictionalized Bill as the character in one of the stories in My Career with the Leafs who becomes the adolescent Fawcett’s first important mentor, introducing the boy to serious literature. It also turns out that during Fawcett family blow-ups that sometimes saw Brian fleeing the household and camped out elsewhere, Bill was good for no-questions-asked, no-obligations-in-return small loans, or what actually was a weekly “allowance,” until emotions on the home front simmered down. “He’s always been so lax about debts,” Fawcett remembers, “that it’s easy to forget they’re there,” and easy to forget, though shameful (as Fawcett admits), to check in with Bill when he’s in Prince George, given that “there’s almost no one [in his hometown] to whom I owe more” than his first guide into the literate world.
In person, “Bill is a slightly built man with a prominent Adam’s apple. He’s one of those people who has looked like his high school graduation photo his entire adult life: moppy brown hair, black-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses, his head tilted slightly forward as if he were trying to make a personable impression on the photographer but not sure he can bring it off. He’s changed as he’s grown older, of course, but only in minor ways: salt and pepper invaded the moppy brown hair when he reached his fifties,” the old glasses were exchanged “for gold-rimmed aviators, and his Adam’s apple grew. In the past few years his forward tilt has become a slight stoop, and he moves more deliberately now, as if he’s walking on eggs. But for all that, the sense that he’s trapped inside his high school annual remains, a kind of Dorian Gray without the burden of personal beauty but with the same reluctance to let time scoop him up and bear him away.”
And when Fawcett drives up, there’s Bill Morris, standing in front of his recently built over-sized garage adjacent to the old house. Bill leads Brian into the familiar dwelling, where Bill lived all his life with his parents (now deceased), and which he’s currently thinking of selling. They settle at the oilcloth-covered kitchen table, Bill pours a mug of coffee from an old percolator (which Fawcett tops up with as much cream and sugar as possible to temper the stark brew), there’s a bit of chit-chat, but as a “confirmed bachelor,” Bill’s personal affairs remain as opaque as ever. Fawcett briefly tells us that “confirmed bachelor” is “code for something adults of that era didn’t talk about, probably because most of them weren’t very clear what the ‘confirmed’ part involved.” When Fawcett asks what he’s been up to, Bill breezily replies, “Oh, nothing much… A little this, a little that.” A lot of social card-playing (his game is the once-fashionable “bridge”), “some real estate, though I’m officially retired now.” Almost nothing happens, which is part of the point of nailing down ordinary life.
The highlight of the conversation is Bill telling Brian an unspectacular anecdote about a realtor-friend. Bill is visiting him and the man asks if Bill wants to smoke, but Bill has quit, as many people were doing at the time. No, I mean smoke, says the man, and he pulls one of those clear supermarket produce bags out of his briefcase, and “damned if it isn’t jammed full with marijuana.” Turns out that this unprepossessing but respectable real-estate agent has been smoking weed every day for the last 30 years. And that’s the point. The guy has been stoned through the whole thing (a.k.a., “life”). “Yes. All the time. ‘Buzzed’ as he puts it,” Bill concludes amid a cascade of chuck-chuckles. And that’s it. The anecdote seems like an almost throwaway sketch, yet it hints at a sort of offbeat profundity, or further testimony, as writer John Berger once put it, “to the always slightly surprising range of the possible.”29
As they go out to the garage to get Brian’s car, Bill says doubtfully, “I’ll try to make it up to your little talk.” “Or maybe I’ll drop around again before I leave,” Brian replies. “How’s that?”
“Bill’s smile lets me know he’s not coming to my lecture and that my counter-lie evened things up just fine. I catch a glimpse of him in the rear-view mirror as I’m pulling away. When he thinks I’m no longer looking, he lets his posture sag. I suddenly see a little old man: comfortably at home, at rest atop the forest of eggs that has been his life.” Later, as I’m riffing through the pages of Virtual Clearcut, I notice, just after the title page, that the book’s dedication page says, “To the memory of Bill Morris (1926-2001), citizen, friend, connoisseur of life’s slapstick.”
There’s more, but that’s pretty much enough. In part three, “The Buddy System, 1996,” which takes place both in the clearcut (now displaying some green shoots of planted seedlings) and in town, the narrative is about a kind of reconciliation with a long-estranged childhood friend, Don White, who appeared in several of the stories in My Career with the Leafs, and who is the one other person that I ever heard Fawcett refer to as someone with whom he felt “joined at the mind.”
Part four, “Elm Trees, 2001” is partly located in Barry and Joy McKinnon’s bucolic part of town, where a long-ago unexpectedly successful planting of elms now provides shade for the neighborhood. The tinge of mellowness is intentional as Fawcett, often accompanied by Barry, meander the streets of a ghostly downtown as they perform a verbal post-mortem on the fate of Fawcett’s hometown.
From a writer’s point of view (well, from my point of a view as a writer), Virtual Clearcut is as close to a perfectly written book as you can get. There’s seldom a false note struck, Fawcett’s views about the clearcut and the town are tempered over a decade-long composition, and the political message remains consistent: there’s a sort of perverted “progress,” which is measured in terms of a global economics that removes the local natural resources of a place to their ultimate markets and delivers the profits to far-away international corporations who seldom reinvest those profits back into the local economy. I don’t know how many other readers saw The Way Things Are in My Hometown as being as close to “perfectly written” as I do, but some relevant judges thought it good enough to award it the Writers’ Trust of Canada prize for non-fiction in 2003. That’s because the book is not only about the hollowed-out way things are in Prince George, but the way things are in almost everybody’s hometown.
I’m going to skip the full rundown on Human Happiness (2011), even though it’s one of Fawcett’s most significant books, because I think that by now we have an adequate sense of what Fawcett’s writing is about, and, since this isn’t a full-scale critical biography, anything further risks pointless repetition. The book does have one of the best zinger opening lines around: “The last time I talked to my mother, she announced that she hated my father.” Considering that Fawcett’s mother, Rita, is 90 years old, and in the 64th year of marriage to Hartley Fawcett, that’s quite a summation of the status of a relationship. “‘Your father’s supposed to be back from [a nearby town] any minute,’ she said, when I asked about him. That’s when she dropped her bomb. ‘I can’t say I’ll be glad to see him, I think’ (here there was an auspicious pause as she considered what the right words should be). ‘I’ve finally gotten to the point where I hate him. He’s your father, but I really just hate him. So there.'”
Human Happiness is a full Monty presentation of the Fawcett family saga, complete with an account of a half-century or longer Oedipal struggle between Brian and his father, and a Darwinian competition, “fomented” by Hartley, with Brian’s older brother, Ron. This is one of those books where the reader is quickly compelled to take sides. I was immediately aligned with Fawcett’s mother, Rita, who seemed to me a sane and likeable person, who had successfully held a fractious family together, and along the (long) way had suffered a lot of heartbreaking experiences of her own. I never could forgive Hartley, though Fawcett did effect a reconciliation with him toward the end, when Brian’s father was in his mid-90s. But Fawcett’s introduction of Hartley pretty much makes the case: “At his best, he’d never been easy to get along with, he hadn’t mellowed with age, and in recent years, he was rarely at his best.
“He was a man who cheated at cards, practised selective deafness so he wouldn’t have to listen to anything he didn’t want to hear, and regularly pissed off the neighbors by pruning their trees and shrubs without asking [to preserve his view from his favorite chair in his living room]. Within the family, he had a long history of offering to lend money and then imposing humiliating conditions after the fact. He had a 35-year record of fomenting Darwinian contests between my brother and I whenever he got the opportunity… He did it, he said, to ensure the growth of his “business empire,” which he’d cheerfully tell anyone, whether they’d asked or not, was the Most Important Thing in Life.” (Hartley tended to speak in capitalized shibboleths.) Finally, “he also made a nuisance of himself at social gatherings by proselytizing right-wing political ideas barely this side of ‘shoot the poor,’ while trying to sell anyone who moved a foul-tasting dietary supplement called Barley Max…” Yet, despite all this, Fawcett, with surprising even-handedness, presents the story against the background of a running consideration of the concept of “happiness,” and argues that Rita and Hartley represent an example of human happiness (each in their own way, I guess you’d have to add). That’s as much as I have to say about a tale that several readers of Fawcett’s work regard as his best book in terms of both story and telling, and that garnered Fawcett a short-list nomination for an Ontario Lieutenant Governor’s award for literary excellence.
One distinctive literary device of the book is that Fawcett manages to persuade both Rita and Hartley separately to participate in late-in-life recorded long interviews, answering a wide-ranging questionnaire of Fawcett’s invention, that goes from queries about favorite flowers and colors to a lot of “what do you think life and happiness are all about?” questions. It makes readers (including me) regret that they didn’t talk more with their parents, and that so many parent-children relationships conclude with so much left unsaid and unasked.
I’m interested, unsurprisingly I suppose, in Fawcett’s working methods as a writer. In his early years, Fawcett produced one book after another in quick succession, but in the latter-half of his writing life, he maintained several works-in-progress simultaneously, often over a period of many years. As Fawcett himself explained it in an earlier interview with the Prince George Citizen, “[He] said he took about a decade to complete a book. He would get six or seven books on the go and worked on each one until he got stuck. Then he would shift over to another one, and while those were going, he would continue to be a journalist” or write essays. For instance, as he explicitly says a couple of times in Virtual Clearcut, he’s been writing that book for at least a dozen years.30
I mentioned earlier than I tend to work in a catch-as-catch-can style of “research” from what’s on my bookshelves and desk rather than in a more orderly fashion in libraries and archives. One day, while leafing through my copy of Public Eye, I found some loose papers in the back of the book, tucked under the jacket flap. One of them was an email print-out of a Fawcett letter to me, dated October 5, 1998. A couple of pages were missing, but the passage I was interested in, about Human Happiness, was intact. Fawcett starts the letter off by enthusing about his current reading, which both George Stanley and I had recommended to him, Irish writer Seamus Deane’s book Writing in the Dark (1996). It’s a novel, Fawcett reported, “at least 5 times as interesting as [and here he named the much-honored novel of the year] and works of the overabundance of novelists with names like [and here he named some of them], and yet constitutes far superior poetry.” It was so good he re-read it three times, “going over passages again and again, sometimes to see how he’d done it, and sometimes for the sheer pleasure of the language.”
Having delivered himself of this happy outburst, Fawcett turned to more mundane matters. “My 88-year-old mother’s two-week visit is over and done, and she is back in purgatory with my increasingly dotty father. The good news is that I enjoyed her stay, mostly, and that Hartlea [Fawcett’s young daughter] enjoyed it wholly. Further good news is that her brain is still intact, particularly when there’s something to do or teach… In the same spirit, I pumped her mercilessly for the practical information of which she has always been among my primary sources (how to make turkey stuffing, how to dry herbs in the oven…). And on the second [to] last day I did a formal and tape-recorded interview in which I asked her about 40 questions she’d never been asked before (e.g., Does god exist, and if so, in what form? How important is sexual happiness?How would you describe your politics?)… As she got comfortable with the nature of the questions, she got more articulate than I’d ever seen her be. Most interesting, her responses were unhesitant, unequivocal, and rarely uncomfortable. I guess age has its clarities after all.” Since the letter was dated 1998, and Human Happiness was published in 2011, I got a researcher’s little frisson of confirmation of Fawcett’s multiple works-in-progress-simultaneously working method. Sometimes, that little frisson is enough to make your day.
Three or four years ago, I wrote a poem for Fawcett’s 75th birthday. I rarely write even “occasional” poems anymore, but to give them a bit of continuity when I do, I organize them serially under the heading, “Sonnets About Orpheus,” (although they’re, at best, quasi-sonnets) to honor the mythological pioneer of the art. Almost all the poets I’ve known or known about have written an Orpheus poem or two in their literary careers: all the way from Ovid in the Metamorphoses, to Rilke, Cocteau, Jack Spicer, George Stanley, and no doubt, scores of others.
In the most familiar version of the Orpheus story, his songs, which he accompanies on a lyre, are powerful enough to make the trees dance, and compel the animals to listen in rapt silence, and maybe even to cause the stones to weep. When his wife Eurydice dies (of a snakebite), Orpheus goes to the Underworld to bring her back from the dead and succeeds in securing permission to return Eurydice to the living, with the proviso that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice while they are exiting the realm of the dead. But, by fateful accident, Orpheus looks back, and Eurydice disappears, leaving Orpheus abandoned at the gates of mortality. There are variant versions of the story and numerous additional episodes. In Jean Cocteau’s film Orphee (1950), for example, the poet receives his poems from a car radio, which inspired Jack Spicer’s notion that poetry was a kind of “dictation” from some unknown source outside the poet (for all we know, they could just as well be messages from the Martians).
Since the 75th birthday is regarded as a sort of landmark, the initiation of a very late phase of life in which we “locate” ourselves (in relation to our eventual death), I found myself thinking about those wooden map stands placed in parks, which often have an arrow pointing to the spot on the map where you are standing. The arrow frequently bears the assertion that “You are here.”
There are only a couple of other possibly obscure references in what follows: “according to Blaser” refers of course to Fawcett’s and my teacher, Robin Blaser, and a line in one of his poems suggesting that you can find the gods “at the end / of a sentence” where they are an adventure of the imagination (taking account of the enjambment that doubles the story — the gods are located both “at the end,” and “at the end of a sentence,” the basic unit of our reality). The line “hanged your harp on the willows in the midst thereof” is a reference to the biblical 137th Psalm, which begins, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remember Zion / We hanged our harps on the willows in the midst thereof. / For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song… saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. / How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The captive exiles refused, and weeping while remembering their homeland, they hung up their lyres in the willow trees that grew in the midst of the rivers of Babylon. “Endgame” refers to Samuel Beckett’s theatre play of that name, and to the strategies of the very late phase of the game of chess as well as to the very late phase of life. Here’s the poem:
Sonnet About Orpheus (Where)
You are here. At the end
of a sentence. Which is where,
(according to Blaser,) the gods are
an adventure. I thought that “here” meant
the period at the end of
“You are here.” The black dot, black
hole. But the arrow of “you are here”
points to something on a map, at
the entrance to the park, maybe
just the fork in the road, a cross-
roads, or the cave mouth
(of hell), guarded by the 3-headed dog
If this is the Endgame
you are free to say
anything you want. It is no longer
a dialogue. You could have
“hanged your harp on the willows
in the midst thereof” No one asked you
to bring back the dead.
Not even Eurydice. But you did.
— Stan Persky
A couple of days before Fawcett died, we exchanged farewell letters. They were both slightly semi-formal in tone, and yet meant to be ordinary emails like the ones we had exchanged for decades. Here’s a redacted version that I think I can share with you.
I began, a little shyly, “I think I’m better at saying ‘hello’ than I am at what might potentially be ‘goodbye’ “; duly noted that, “Naturally, I’m thinking about you”; then launched into a reminiscence of our “joint” writing career and the writers’ meetings where we got to know each other, and the “better sentences” we sought to write. I briefly reviewed his writings and our editorship of Dooney’s, and summed it up, “So, all in all, pretty good, I’d say, which is about as much as one could ask for,” then added, a bit coyly, “(You notice that I make no attempt to describe the strange ‘love’ involved in this half-century of intellectual companionship.)” “For the rest,” I said, “it’s just a normal Sunday morning in which I putter around in my head… within an increasingly creaky body.” And then, as we always did in our ordinary correspondence, I told him about whatever I was reading at the moment, picking out a couple of passages that I thought would amuse him — a lot of our exchanges over the years, it occurs to me, were mainly designed to entertain each other. The closer was, “And so it’s a perfectly ordinary morning, and I’m writing you a perfectly ordinary letter, except that you and I are exchanging salutations and potential farewells. Love, Stan.”
Fawcett, too, felt a bit awkward at the outset of his reply the next day, given that neither of us had much experience in this sub-genre. “I don’t know how to begin,” he says. But his embarrassment quickly dissolved, giving way to undisguised openness, “How lucky I am to have you as a friend for 50 years and to get the best letter anyone could have gotten at the end of a life.” Then he reported that he had done what we always did: downloaded the reading items I mentioned “even though I’m unlikely to get far into them.” He added, “I have, maybe, a week to 10 days left,” and he was sorting out whatever papers and unfinished manuscripts were on hand, with instructions about what to do with them for his literary executors, his son Max, and his editor Karl Siegler. “And, of course I’m reading.”
He was reading Vasily Grossman. “He’s the Soviet writer who wrote Life and Fate, the masterwork about Stalingrad that the Soviet authorities told him while he was alive wouldn’t be published for 200 years.” Fawcett notes that other writings of Grossman have recently appeared, particularly “the unfinished ‘novel’ he was working on when he died in 1964, Everything Flows, which has an astonishingly clear description of the Ukraine famine of 1931-33 (assembled from eyewitness testimonies)…It’s clear to me that he’s the greatest of the Soviet writers for his courage and empathy, and among the greatest writers of the 20th century, period.”
“Why I’m doing this in the last months and weeks of my life, who can say? I’ve felt compelled to know these things for a long time, my duty as a human soul, I guess. And I was never much of one for ‘aint we nice’ stuff.” And since this is Endgame, for real, there is no need to be coy. So, finally: “But I guess what I most want to say to you is that I could never have achieved any of this intellectual rigor without your influence and example, and that, really, that I love you and am deeply, deeply grateful for our 50+ year friendship. Love//bf.”
“You are here,” the arrow on the map says, against the plain irreparable truth, “You are not here.”
* * *
- In Gregory Betts’ recent book about Vancouver cultural movements in the 1960s and ’70s, Finding Nothing: The Vangardes, 1959-1975 (2021), the writers’ meetings described above are, oddly enough, not mentioned, in what is an otherwise thorough if idiosyncratic survey of the literary and visual arts avant-garde circles in Vancouver during that period. The title, Finding Nothing, is a tangential reference to Vancouver artist Michael Morris’s painting “The Problem of Nothing,” which is reproduced on the cover of Betts’ book. The painting is a memorable artwork of the era, but Betts’ book title may be slightly unfortunate as a governing conceit for the book, in that it lends itself to obvious misreadings, since many of us did in fact “find something.” Betts’ intention for his title is more complex than a simple literal reading would suggest, but it seems to me it remains problematic even after one understands all the nuances. The problem is about when footnotes are useful and when they’re a hindrance. Footnotes in an essay, as well as providing references, can be expansive, telling additional stories to the ones in the text, or help solve the perennial problem of how much “background information” is helpful to readers. But as they say about political slogans, if your bumper sticker (or meme, or book title) requires a footnote to explain it, you’ve got a problem.
- I can immodestly report that I provided one of the first examples of the kind of writing we turned out to be looking for, a sort of template of “totalisation.” It was a brief piece of hybrid narrative — traversing the blurred genre boundaries between story-essay-memoir — titled “Topic Sentence,” and its subject matter, fortuitously enough, was about learning to write essays in school at age 10 or 12, or more grandly, about the nature of writing itself.
In the compositional moment where there is no difference in time between then and now, I discovered that some well-meaning, long-ago teacher was trying to pump into my brain the idea “that in each ‘well-written’ paragraph there is one sentence — the ‘topic sentence’ — that succinctly conveys the ‘main thought’… ‘what the writer is trying to get across.'” Our job as apprentice scribes was to locate the topic sentence and obediently underline it. What’s more, “the well-written paragraph also means… the ‘well-behaved’ paragraph, just as we were meant to be well-behaved,” and the rules of composition, it turned out, were an unspoken microcosm of the entire social order. The eureka moment in my piece — even as I was breathlessly writing all this out, complete with digressions, tangents, and faint sheep trails of memory, in a kind of compositional delirium, as if taking dictation — was the discovery that in “real writing,” real life, there is of course no “topic sentence,” nothing to be underlined. Find the damn topic sentence, find it and underline it, I shouted into the chasm where all my now long-gone teachers resided. By the way, amazingly enough, so many years after the inculcation of that lesson, “the topic sentence lives on in introductory composition classes , only now it is rhetorically inflated as the ‘thesis statement.'”
Much later, Fawcett, writing about my mini-breakthrough essay presented at the writers’ meeting, saw that it took on two of the questions every contemporary writer faces, namely: “How am I supposed to isolate the subject matter from the myriad of things in which it is lodged? and, How do I elude the distortions of conventional exposition and its self-serving selectivity?” What “Topic Sentence” discovered, he argued, is that in the “political and psychological frame of postmodern composition, everything is allowed in because it’s going to get in anyway, and the writer’s job is to find forms that ensure that an enforced order of composition doesn’t exclude any possibilities.” The “topic sentence,” I had learned, concealed a “project” to promote a particular social order, and the investigation had revealed the possibility of a more “open field,” not just in writing, but in life itself. (Cf. Brian Fawcett, “Introduction: A Writer’s Education,” in Stan Persky, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (2007), which also contains the “Topic Sentence” piece.)
- Since I was a military veteran, having served a hitch in the U.S. Navy, rather than a “draft-dodger” (but nonetheless an opponent of the American war in Vietnam), my tuition fees were mostly covered by what was known as the “G.I. Bill,” a benefit program for American veterans that provided education and training for whatever post-military futures they were embarking upon. The rest of my expenses were made up by easily available part-time jobs at the university: I shelved books in the library, worked as an essay marker, did a stint as a research assistant in sociolinguistics, and some teaching as a graduate assistant to one of the profs responsible for one of the large survey courses in the social sciences. I only mention this ancient abundance of opportunity for aspiring intellectuals to contrast it with the hollowed-out, administration-and-therapy-heavy universities of the present, where about three-quarters of undergraduate teaching is currently performed by “adjuncts,” “sessionals,” and teaching assistants rather than by regular faculty. Despite the creation of cheap teaching labor, the concurrent enormous increases in tuition fees have left a generation mired in what’s known as the “student debt crisis.” You can gather from my tone that I don’t regard any of this as progress in education or an improvement in public intelligence, although the full discussion of the decline in learning is an editorial for another day.
- Although I’ve only heard it mentioned anecdotally, I always thought that someone should claim for the record that Ellen Tallman (originally Ellen King) was the linchpin that held together the poetry scene (and circus) that Warren Tallman more or less presided over. Ellen had been raised and educated in the San Francisco Bay Area, was friends with Robert Duncan and other local writers, and likely had something to do with Duncan being one of the early New American Poets to visit Vancouver. When I became a student at the University of British Columbia, Ellen hired me as an essay marker for her students. In this unusual arrangement (which Ellen paid for out of her own pocket, since “lecturers” were not provided with “markers”), I was freed from any requirement to determine grades; rather, my job was simply to offer commentary on student writing as part of stimulating their interest in essay writing.
After her relationship with Warren ended, Ellen subsequently went on to become a locally well-known therapist, and her sexual preferences turned toward (I’m tempted to say “matured into”) lesbianism. (However, since I know that the present moment is a period of constricted humor about such topics, I’ll refrain from characterizing her development toward same-sex sexual preferences. I probably ought to issue one of those preemptive social media apologies in case I’ve offended anyone by thinking this thought.) For more, see Douglas Todd, “Tributes to Ellen Tallman, legendary Vancouver prof and therapist,” Vancouver Sun, October 23, 2008, and Noreen Shanahan, “UBC English professor helped found the West Coast poetry movement,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 8, 2008.
- For readers who wish to pursue an interest in the history of the New American Poetry, there are a number of poets’ biographies and collected works available. Among those about the San Francisco poets: Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century (1989); Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet, Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998); Jack Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (ed. by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian; 2010); Daniel Katz, The Poetry of Jack Spicer (2013); Miriam Nichols, A Literary Biography of Robin Blaser: Mechanic of Splendor (2019); Robin Blaser, The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser (ed. by Miriam Nichols; 2008); Robin Blaser, The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser (ed. by Miriam Nichols; 2006); Robert Duncan, The Collected Early Poems and Plays (ed. and with an introduction by Peter Quartermain; 2019); Robert Duncan, The Collected Later Poems and Plays (ed. by Peter Quartermain; 2019).
Although there is considerable scholarly writing about aspects of the New American Poetry, the glaring lacuna is that there isn’t, as far as I know, a history of this movement for a general readership. (It’s also difficult to locate a history of 20th century American poetry or a history of 20th century English-language poetry for a non-specialized readership.) Which, again, may tell us more about the role of poetry in contemporary English-speaking societies than it does about the merits of poetry or the coherence of poetic thought. (I’m told, by the way, that they do these things differently in other language speaking polities.) The sort of work I’m thinking of is what Sarah Bakewell did with contemporary existentialist philosophy, providing a popular narrative, while conveying, with sufficient rigor, the intellectual substance of existentialism in accessible prose. See Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (2016). Something similar is intended by Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (2022), an account of intellectual life in Jena, Germany from 1795 to about 1805.
There are recurrent historical moments and movements in intellectual and political life when, as William Wordsworth famously put it, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. / But to be young was very Heaven!” The New American Poetry may have been one of those “moments.”
- The “books” were pretty rudimentary affairs, mimeo’d texts on standard letter-size paper, stapled together, in editions of about a hundred or so copies. While this was the format for Fawcett’s Friends and Daphne Marlatt’s Rings, later productions became slightly more elaborate, and “book-like,” such as George Bowering’s Autobiology, with real bookcovers and binding. Eventually, this home-brew operation, partially growing out of the writers’ meetings, evolved into a basement-based small press in our communal house. That press, New Star Books (now relocated to the other side of town, but still in existence some 50 years later), was a fairly typical example of the development of local literary productions, particularly those involving poetry, in Canada and North America generally, in that burgeoning mid-20th century era in the arts.
- Brian Fawcett, “My Joint Mind,” in Thomas Marquard and Brian Fawcett, eds., “Let’s Keep Doing This”: Writings in Honour of Stan Persky (2018). By the way, my one-liner about this festive gift was, “I prefer festschrifts to eulogies,” given the obvious advantage that the former happens while you’re alive, whereas the latter doesn’t offer the subject any conscious benefits.
- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). For a quick reminder of Blake’s metaphysics, see the Wikipedia entry about this work of Blake’s and the circumstances in which it was written: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell.
- In point of fact, there had been a more recent European war, now somewhat forgotten, in the former Yugoslavia in the early and mid-1990s. Despite the insistence of many Yugoslavians that the deadly internecine conflict, complete with “ethnic cleansing” massacres, was indeed a war in Europe, many western Europeans condescendingly found it more convenient to consider the violence in soon-to-be former Yugoslavia as not really a European war, but as merely a continuation of century-old Balkan battles, especially since it was unlikely to spread into the rest of Europe. For a reliable account of what happened, see Slavenka Drakulich, The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War (1993). I visited Drakulich in Zagreb in 1993, and an account of that encounter appears in Stan Persky, Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (2014). Both books argue that the Yugoslavian conflict was indeed a war in Europe, which was subsequently confirmed by the accession to the European Union by several of the former Yugoslavian republics.
- In addition to notions of near and far, or close and distant, as related to mortality, there is also the distancing death itself provides, both literally and figuratively. The death of another person, especially one to whom we were close, is almost tautologically “unbelievable.” As others have frequently reported in similar circumstances, I couldn’t quite believe that Fawcett was no longer among us, or that an email letter from him (our most frequent form of communication) wouldn’t turn up in my inbox. In fact, we had exchanged farewell letters only a couple of days before his death.
My views about mortality are admittedly unorthodox. I’m particularly resistant — at death ceremonies, for instance — to someone making a well-meaning reference to the deceased as looking down upon us and expressing some attitude the speaker imagines appropriate to the departed. No, he’s not fondly gazing down upon us, I want to protest. I’m even mildly irritated by the well-wishing RIP (Rest in Peace) abbreviation linked to the name and dates of the dead person. It’s natural enough that we would metaphorically think of “rest” or sleep in connection with death. But the dead are not resting, in peace or power or whatever, because they are not there, or anywhere.
When it comes to views about death, my own are more in accord with those of Czeslaw Milosz. Writing about our enduring fascination with the biblical story of the expulsion from Paradise into the mortal world, Milosz says, “In our deepest convictions, reaching into the very depths of our being, we deserve to live forever. We experience our transitoriness and mortality as an act of violence perpetrated against us.” Or to put it in more mundane terms: That the dead are not here (and never will be again) makes no sense to me, and yet of course I know it’s true — but the truth is experienced as a disconnect. The process (living for a while, being dead forever) seems to me like a distortion of what ought to be the result of the evolutionary algorithms, especially once humans are operating from language-based minds that are able to self-reflect on our condition. The imaginary slogan of this imaginary philosophical position, is: “Live lives matter” (inspired, of course, by the political slogan of the movement that marches under the banner of “Black Lives Matter”). (The quotes cited here are from Czeslaw Milosz, Milosz’s ABC’s, abridged English edition, 2002. See also Stan Persky, “On Czeslaw Milosz,” in Stan Persky, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education, 2007.)
I’m tempted by the science-fiction fantasy of uploading your mind, self, or genome into a computerized “avatar” that in some way perpetuates your existence. It’s an impossible notion (well, impossible so far) that nonetheless makes more sense to me than dying, followed by nothingness. Other friends of mine exhibit a more reasonable acceptance of mortality.
I once took my writer friend Alberto Manguel, who was visiting Berlin, to see Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting, “Fountain of Youth” at the Gemaeldegalerie museum. As Manguel records, “It is a medium-sized canvas that depicts, in excruciating detail, a rectangular swimming pool seen in perspective full of happily cavorting men and women. Old people are arriving from the left in carts and wheelbarrows; youths emerge naked from the other side…” Afterwards, at a cafe, the painting led us, as Alberto recalled, “into a discussion of whether we would like to extend the time of our lives, if such a thing were possible. I said that the foreseeable end did not frighten or worry me; on the contrary, I liked the idea of living with a conclusion in mind… Stan, however, argued that living on, perhaps forever (provided he was free of sickness and infirmities), would be an excellent thing. Life, he said, was so enjoyable, that he never wanted it to end.” Actually (or on second thought), I was perhaps slightly less enthusiastic about life. I may have merely said that I preferred it to the alternative. While Alberto liked the notion of “living with a conclusion in mind,” I was irked by the idea of having to leave in the middle of a story, never knowing, say, how the Russian-provoked war came out, or whether democracy was doomed, or if human life on the planet ended in eco-catastrophe. In any case, Alberto left me with the Roman poet Horace’s tagline, “Non omnis moriar” (“I shall not completely die” or “Not everything dies.”). (See Alberto Manguel, “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Bathing in the Fountain of Youth,” in Thomas Marquard and Brian Fawcett, eds., “Let’s Keep Doing This”: Writings in Honour of Stan Persky, 2018.)
It was the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, another Nobel Prize-winner, who said, in a late interview, about the difference between life and death, “Death is a simple thing, now you’re here, and then you aren’t.” I don’t know if Fawcett fully shared my eccentric ideas about the metaphysics of mortality, but his sense of its finality was fairly close to my own, as evidenced by his instructions to his executors to forego any funeral rites or physical interment. (For the remark by Saramago, see Adriana Pitesa, “Jose Saramago: ‘Writers are no longer authors, but content providers’, ” Stray Satellite, 2010. Online at straysatellite.com/saramago.
- Brian Fawcett, “Starting Over Again,” in Brian Fawcett, Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times (1991).
- For reasons similar to Fawcett’s, but as a result of slightly different experiences, I also turned primarily to prose writing. Shortly after arriving at university in the mid-60s, I discovered I had a flair for campus politics as a “New Left” student leader, and the ability to turn a phrase in the student newspaper and the “alternative press.” But it wasn’t until more than a decade later, several years after the writers’ meetings that I took up book-length political journalism, and eventually other kinds of books. A collection of poetry and experimental prose, Wrestling the Angel (1977, published by Karl Siegler at Talonbooks) marked, although I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, my informal “farewell” to writing and publishing poetry. My first efforts in prose, beginning with Son of Socred (1979) were semi-pop accounts of local provincial and civic politics, with an editorial slant that favored Canadian social democratic policies. As a result of circumstances that needn’t be recounted here, I landed in Poland in 1981, just as “free trade unions,” grouped under the banner of “Solidarity,” were challenging the Communist government that was then running the allegedly “workers’ state.” Some of my reports on Poland appeared in the Vancouver Sun, beginning a sporadic sideline career in what’s known as Mainstream Media (MSM). Shortly after, a book of mine, At the Lenin Shipyard: Poland and the Rise of the Solidarity Trade Union (1981) was published, at roughly the same time as Fawcett’s first book of stories. Ever since, we mainly thought of ourselves as prose writers.
- See Gregory Betts, Finding Nothing, for his discussion of McLuhan; Brian Fawcett, “Marshall McLuhan Twenty Years Later,” in Fawcett, Local Matters; and “The Entrepreneur of God,” in Brian Fawcett, Cambodia: A Book for People who Find Television Too Slow (1986).
- See “How I Got a New American Education,” in Brian Fawcett, Local Matters.
- Fawcett wasn’t the only Canadian writer to profess such attitudes; a decade earlier, George Bowering had taken considerable flak for his affinities to American modernist writing and, like Fawcett, was similarly resistant to kitsch sentimentalities about being insufficiently Canadian.
- See Stan Persky, “Cosmopolitan Intelligence: An Introduction,” in Brian Fawcett, Local Matters (2003). Fawcett’s essay, “Why Writers Write: A Reconsideration,” in the same volume, also addresses the notion of cosmopolitanism, as well as offering a generous examination of “reasons to write.” One of the reasons for spelling out some of these distinctions is its relevance to the present era of “post-truth,” where not only forms of intelligence, but an inter-subjectively shared notion of facts, evidence, and truth have been subsumed by an array of fantastical conspiracy theories, and the norms of facticity have often given way to denialism about criteria for reasoning.
- The New American Poetry was unapologetically intellectual at a time when authors like Richard Hofstadter were cogently lamenting Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). The 1960s, among other things, marked a resuscitation in the U.S. of the notion of the “public intellectual” as distinct from, say, the academic specialist. Correspondingly, the poetic “tradition” that the New American Poets subscribed to (or more accurately, invented for themselves, as every generation does) was both international and historically wide-ranging, moving beyond the parameters of the conventional notion of the literary “canon.” And to top it off, in at least a few of the lecture amphitheatres and seminar rooms of the 1960s, students and younger writers, such as Fawcett, occasionally had before them, the mind and person of people like Robin Blaser.
One notion of the New American Poetry (or more precisely, of Charles Olson’s epic-length Maximus) that was taken to heart (and head) by the Tish poets, as Gregory Betts points out, is a “geopoetics” in which language “unveils the unique energy of a particular place” — in this instance, Vancouver. As George Bowering explained it, “Olson told us to dig exhaustively into our local concerns. We began to do so, and the geography, history and economics of Vancouver became the grid of our poetry.” In doing so, this use of one line of investigation advocated in American poetics yielded (ironically or not) a lot of Canadian “content.” However, the specifics of the local were not intended to be confined to a provincialism. Here’s where Fawcett’s use of the term “cosmopolitan” in his essay about a New American education comes into play. (Gregory Betts’ Finding Nothing discusses “geopoetics” and cites George Bowering’s anecdote about the use of that notion by the Tish poets.)
- See the dedication to Robin Blaser in Brian Fawcett, Local Matters.
- See Brian Fawcett, “Robin and Me: The New American Poetry and Us,” in Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett, Robin Blaser (2010).
- See Brian Fawcett, “After Cambodia,” in Fawcett, Local Matters. In this section of the essay, unless otherwise noted, I’m quoting from the text of Cambodia and from the retrospective essay by Fawcett about the book.
- Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was a Greek poet, noted for both his historical and homoerotic poems. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt and lived there his entire life, a member of the considerable Greek diasporic community that had settled there. The memorable description of Cavafy’s tangential relation to the universe is found in E.M. Forster, Pharos and Pharillon (1923).
- See Stan Persky, America, The Last Domino: U.S. Foreign Policy in Central America under Reagan (1984). The book was inspired by a trip I made to Managua, Nicaragua at the tail-end of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979 to visit my writer friend, Margaret Randall, who was working at the Ministry of Culture at the time. Randall’s book about women in the Nicaraguan revolution is Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (1981; 1995).
In literary circles, there’s a long-standing debate about whether Conrad’s politics are imperialist or anti-imperialist. My views on the controversy can be found at Stan Persky, “Dark Places,” dooneyscafe.com, December 17, 2007.
The book about Roger Casement I reviewed is Brian Inglis, Roger Casement: Biography of a Patriot Who Lived for England, Died for Ireland (1974). In addition to being a crusader against colonial atrocities perpetrated against indigenous peoples, Casement, having retired from the diplomatic service in 1913, made efforts during World War I to acquire German military aid for the 1916 Easter Rising that sought to gain Irish independence. He was arrested, charged with high treason, and executed. Before the trial, the British circulated excerpts from his “Black Diaries,” which described his homosexual activities. The release of this material was intended to, and succeeded in undermining support for clemency for Casement.
A useful account of Belgium’s colonial horrors can be found in Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998).
- See Jonathan Kirsch, “Eloquent Anger Over Sorry Civilization,” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1989, for the brief characterization of Fawcett’s Cambodia cited.
- I think it might be useful to record here Fawcett’s view on the relation of ideology to meaning, given that his writing recurrently addresses the question of how to write about politics without falling into sectarianism. Fawcett made an important distinction between people who were “ideologues” (sometimes he called them “Bolsheviks”) and those who weren’t. Ideologues were people who more or less automatically filtered all experiential phenomena through a fairly rigid pre-held framework of ideas, in order to deduce a “politically correct” interpretation of the experience or events they were trying to understand.
Then there were those (maybe we can call them “pragmatists,” just as a placeholder) who, having a “worldview” (which we all do, of course), nonetheless tried not to impose (or at least tried to be conscious of) their ideological pre-suppositons when taking account of the empirical data before them. This is a fine, but crucial distinction when it comes to political and philospohical arguments, and marks the difference between ideologically-commited far leftists (the “Bolsheviks”) and more pragmatic (or moderate) leftists who occupy a broad range on the political spectrum, from left social democrats to various forms of liberals.
Unsurprisingly, the far leftists regard the social democrats’ claim of attempting to put some distance between phenomena or experience and the ideas of their “worldview” as a rather pitiful and irresponsible self-delusion. The social democrats, while recognising there is no such thing as “raw” phenomena (that is, completely non-ideologised phenomena), nonetheless think it is possible to encounter and analyse phenomena such that it can alter or change your ideological pre-dispositions to some extent. They regard the far leftists as dogmatic in their resistance to the notion of “changing one’s mind” about something. The impasse is fairly obvious: if you already possess the “correct ideological line” about all phenomena, then “changing your mind” or retaining an ironic stance toward your own beliefs is merely sloppy, “wet,” and ultimately, dangerous non-thinking.
In case you’re wondering whether this distinction matters or is merely an arcane bit of logic-chopping, we need only look to the historical fact that hundreds of thousands of people were executed in the Soviet Uhion in the 1930s for their alleged failure to adhere to the “correct line.” The same was true in Cambodia in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge murdered an estimated 1.5 to 1.9 million of their fellow Cambodians. (By the way, when I say that Fawcett made an “important distinction” or believed X, or “held the view that…,” such statements should be read with a degree of caution, given the “joined at the mind” ambiguity about which of the two of us laid claim to a particular view. With respect to the importance of the notion of those “in the grip of an ideology” versus those more ideologically open, it’s safe to say this is a distinction we jointly made.)
- See Wikipedia, entry for “Christopher Lasch.”
- Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (1990).
- See Rob Budde, “The Cut You Come From,” Canadian Literature 187 (2005).
- The laconic remark justifying skipping over details of a story in the name of narrative pace is from J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003).
- John Berger, “The Storyteller,” in Berger’s The Sense of Sight (1985).
- See Christine Dalgleish, “Obituary: Award winning Prince George writer dies,” Prince George Citizen, March 4, 2022; and Max Fawcett, “Breaking rules was one of writer Brian Fawcett’s favourite pastimes,” Toronto Globe and Mail, May 11, 2022.