Lost in the Wilderness of Nuance

By Gordon Lockheed | July 11, 2011

Somewhere in the wilderness of nuance that is Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists occurs this one: “And there appeared again that same look that often had appeared in her eye when speaking to Helen or me. In which, even in the semi-moment of its inception, we felt ourselves to be so extraordinarily loved that it took the breath out of us all at once, in a rush. Shot through with an affection so fierce that it mingled in us with an equivalent sense of terror: at the amount that we had already taken from her, and also from the world, which we feared that we would never quite be able, or willing, to return.”

I use the term “wilderness of nuance” in several senses, one of them self-inflicted.  I read the book on a Kobo, and can cite the passage only as 39 percent of the way through the book, or 5-7 of 11, given that Kobo, like other electronic readers, doesn’t observe pagination in any meaningful way, and you really can’t scroll back fast enough to avoid getting disoriented when you read a passage and think “what the fuck did that mean?” and try to establish some sort of context by flipping back a few pages and getting your bearings.

The other, more damning sense in which The Sentimentalists is a “wilderness of nuance” is that it is loaded with the over-the-top strain of emotionalized malarkey that conventional novels appear to have descended to in order to be, well, prize-winning.

I could cite a thousand passages from the book, and most of them would have properties like the one above: each is an interiorization of an external phenomenon—in the above specific instance, the narrator’s mother is responding to the removal of the narrator’s father’s half-built boat, which had been gathering cobwebs in a barn under the control of the mother for some years. Such specific details are usually very hard to liberate from the extravagant emotional speculations that are the spine of the narrative.

Take this one, which is, as far as I can tell, a description of a supermarket.

Then I’d stop at the grocery store, even though we never seemed to need anything. I liked the way that everything was so clean in there, and lit up as if from the inside, so that, though of course cluttered with many bright objects, it always appeared quite bare. Also, I liked the way that you could drift around in there with the other shoppers, in slow patterns, like birds, listening together to the constant hum of the music on the radio, which we hardly heard. Until, that is, a voice, in an authoritative burst, would interrupt to inspire within us a shared desire, which otherwise we could not have identified to be our own. I never came home empty-handed. (7-4 of 7)

At the risk of being pedantic, I ‘ll describe what’s happening here outside the system the novel is operating from:  These are the words of a young woman living with a crippled elderly man and a generally-drunk dying man in his 60s, so it seems logical to suppose that she does the grocery shopping. But never mind that. There’s the fatuous description of a supermarket, which are usually overlit, with high ceilings that give an artificial sense of airy, bright space. She thinks the Musak, which most alert persons understand all too well is corporately selected to be a soothing but not particularly intrusive incitement to shop, is a radio station. Then she describes the occasional announcements of products on sale that “inspire within us a shared desire” etc…

What bewilders me about this is the characteristic elevation of everything, even something as banal and contrived as a supermarket environment, which, in the logic of contemporary novelistic description, becomes an enchanted palace, into which the narrator is breathlessly tumbling, off the cosmic turnip truck of her um, will-to-emotionalize. Predictably, here she tumbles off holding a bottle of Dijon mustard “the voice” enticed her to buy, not the bright yellow hotdog mustard that apparently wasn’t on sale.

This is evidently the sort of human experience of the world that chain book buyers have decided that novels should provide to readers, and it was produced here by the specialized array of writing skills that the recent Giller Jury likewise deemed prize-worthy.

I don’t get it. I understand it well enough as what novelists now do, but I don’t see its artistic or social utility, not, at least as something worth sequestering in an art-form that once enjoyed vast ranges of expression and utility.

Skibsrud is what has come to be called a Creative Writing Mechanic. She has an MA from Montreal’s Concordia University’s creative writing program and The Sentimentalists was, as a matter of fact, her MA thesis, although one assumes it has since been extensively edited, even if there’s considerable evidence that it hasn’t been edited very carefully. I don’t know what sort of people taught her to write this way, but clearly, they taught her well, because this is a consistently constructed piece of writing.

Skibsrud’s ostensible subject is a culturally cluttered and idiosyncratically dysfunctional family: a mother, two daughters (one of whom is the narrator), a Vietnam War-vet father, all of them attached to the elderly father of the war vet’s army buddy, Owen, who didn’t make it back from Vietnam. But equally important is the setting.  It is cleverly Can/Am, with constant and symbolic border-crossings. The crucial landscape is a small town named—also symbolically—“Casablanca”, which sits atop the unflooded portions of an artificially-elevated lake that hides, just beneath its surfaces, the ruins of the old settlement, thus putting the past cleverly just beneath the literal surfaces of the water, and symbolically, under every other surface, making it psychologically impossible for anyone to live successfully in either the present or the past.  No one in the novel does anything that is wholly of either world, and the narration is a kind of running commentary on this—of a certain narrow dispensation which always moves vertically from the actions, as if unwilling to let its readers forget for a moment that everything possesses nuanced undertones and currents.

Skibsrub makes this entertaining because she’s clearly very bright, but she also makes a lot of  minor errors in her description of the physical phenomena, maybe because they’re the least of what she’s been taught is important: as a Creative Writing program mechanic, she’s only interested in the sub-rosa undertones and currents.  The errors of description she does make—boats set up on two blocks instead of four, etc.—mercifully don’t reach the level of banal hilarity that typifies the work of, say, a novelist like Jane Urquhart.

Where you wish she’d pay closer attention to this range of verity is in the last (and best) part of the novel, where she tries to unravel the fog that is the mind of the narrator’s Vietnam War-vet father—and where you realize, despite the emotionalizing fundamentalism of the Creative Writing Program manual, that her story is actually about something: Skibsrub’s real-world father’s PTSD experience of the world. At the end of the book, she offers an apparently-edited version of a real enquiry transcript citing his testimony concerning a war atrocity he was witness to. Unfortunately, the skills her Creative Writing manual gave her betray her here. She has no idea what the do with the materials, and the transcript is loaded with pointless editorial confusions: a perpetrator of the atrocity cited in the transcript as a Lieutenant in one instance, as a Corporal in another; confusion over the real-world locations, a pointless back-channel subplot that has two (imaginary?) historians arguing over the scale of the atrocity, and an opaqueness about the verity of the transcript. Skibsrud sticks with her manual, interjecting still more incoherent philosophizing about the uncertain nature of memory, what we can know with certainty, and so on, and more or less losing—or undermining—the possibility of exact knowledge.

In her defense, I should admit that she’s going with a McLuhanized culture she’s still too young to see through, and that really, Peter Mansbridge and his crew of reporter-therapists on the television news aren’t doing any better. When you see some poor Japanese tsunami victim being asked on television how she feels about her situation, or you watch Mansbridge asking a field reporter what kinds of emotions the people in Slave Lake are experiencing about the wildfires that ripped through their community without the slightest curiosity about why there were dangerous forest fire conditions in the area before fire season began (I’d bet on dead pine trees killed by the pine beetle infestation currently crossing the northern boreal forests of Canada), you realize that we’re all in the hands of something that is as pernicious as it is ubiquitous. By transforming everything into vicarious and egregiously carmelized emotion, we’re trivializing the real-world suffering of others, and destroying any possibility of either justice or understanding. Empathy, warm and fuzzy and self esteem-generating as it may be, is useless without understanding. We’re witnessing the cognitive amateurization of Western literature, and the long-term consequences of it are likely to be extremely dire.

Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists is an artifact of this amateurization, and a fairly minor one despite the Giller prize, which I imagine, in the absence of any plausible explanation, the jury conferred on it because all the other acceptable contestants were less competently amateurized. That said, if The Sentimentalists was the best work of conventional fiction produced by a Canadian last year, the trouble that literary fiction is in with readers—declining sales, cultural irrelevance—is deserved.

July 11, 2011  1600 words


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