An Alberta Tall Tale: The Studhorse Man

Studhorse-Man3Robert Kroetsch stands out as one of Canada’s most unique and talented story-tellers. Canadian literary culture lost something when he died two years ago. Kroetsch is one of those strange beasts that is both a great poet and a great novelist. Normally, you are good at one thing and not so hot at the other, but Kroetsch belies this trend. There is a great website that catalogues his work and makes a number of interviews and media clips available to the public.

Anyways, I picked up a lovely copy of The Studhorse Man when I was in Alberta a year ago and I finally pulled it off of the shelves. This is a raucous, rowdy and raunchy tale of a studhorse man who is trying to keep his rare breed of blue horse alive by impregnating any good mares he can find as makes his way across Alberta in the last days of World War I. Hazard Lepage, said studhorse man, is a larger-than-life character who becomes a hero of sorts in the novel even as he becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to breed Poseidon, the blue stallion. As with Kroetsch’s other novels, there is an element of the ridiculous in this novel as Lepage ends up travelling to Edmonton in a train-car full of bones, starts a stampede of horses through Edmonton’s streets in a blizzard, loses his clothes in a schoolhouse fire but somehow manages not to freeze to death, and then ends up sleeping with almost every woman he meets. I wouldn’t call Kroetsch’s writing magic realism because that term has a specific cultural history just like Kroetsch’s writing draws on the frontier tradition of tall tales. Because that is what The Studhorse Man reads like at times: a rambling, alcohol fuelled narrative told at a grungy bar under dim lights.

Yet what made The Studhorse Man most interesting for me wa s the narrative structure that Kroetsch employs. Lepage doesn’t narrate the story nor does an impersonal third-person. Instead, we have Demeter Proudfoot, a cousin of Lepage’s fiancee Martha, who tells the story from an empty bathtub in an insane asylum. Demeter’s relation to Lepage slowly becomes apparent over the course of the novel and it provided intrigue to no end for me. It’s almost like a mystery novel where the writer dangles something intangible in front of you without really showing his hand. What it also does is leave readers constantly questioning how much of the story we are told actually happened (Demeter is unreliable to say the least) and how much is fabrication. Yet this kind of shifting narrative fits perfectly with Alberta’s wild west climate in the early part of the 20th century. And, given the ludicrous and slap-dash politics currently animating the province, it continues to fit as a kind of provincial narrative/allegory.

I highly recommend this book for Alberta readers, but be warned that there is plenty of reproduction in this novel.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Studhorse Man. 1969. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004. Print.


Postcolonial Tragedy: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

can-you-hear-the-nightbird-call-by-anita-rau-badamiI read Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? for a course that I am TAing. I was not sure what to expect, but found myself blown away by Badami’s writing. The material is very explosive and she nimbly moves across three different characters and narratives to weave together an amazing story about violence, displacement, immigration, and trauma. The novel, set in India after partition and Vancouver, deals with the fallout from the British carving up of the subcontinent into a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. The problem with these rather arbitrary lines is that they left Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in many areas without a home and massive amounts of violence ensued. Badami’s novel is particularly interested in the plight of Punjab, a rich fertile region that had a strong sense of identity before conquest by British imperial forces in the mid 19th century. It has since been divided up between various countries and turned into a bloody battleground. The novel also takes up the Sikh fight for a homeland against Indira Ghandi’s India, culminating in the Air India bombing of 1985.

Part of my amazement stems from Badami’s ability to keep the narrative engaging despite the heaviness of the material that she is dealing with. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by historical atrocity, yet Badami does not allow this happen even as she gives a few shocking moments that are quite hard to read.There is a humanity to the novel that is enjoyable yet also extremely plausible. The three main characters – Bibi-ji, a Sikh woman who stole her sister’s husband, Leela, an educated Hindu woman who escapes Bangalore by marrying Balu, a chemistry professor who is working in Canada, and Nimmo, a Sikh woman who may or may not be Bibi-ji’s niece – are textured and complicated. I felt myself completely drawn into their world and the tensions they experience.

At the same time, I am not quite sure what to do with the novel as Canada appears in a far from illustrious light. I have my own conflicted relationship with the country, but the history that Badami narrates puts paid to the sense that multiculturalism is anything but a kind of benign racist indifference. The Air India bombing of 1985 in which all 329 people on board the plane were killed, including 268 Canadians, making it, in the words of Stephen Harper, the worst mass murder in Canadian history. Of course, Harper`s words came in 2010, 25 after the bombing. This is the problem. It took nearly 20 years for Canadian officials to recognize the bombing as a Canadian tragedy! Brian Mulrooney, Prime Minister in 1985, actually called the Indian prime minister to send his condolences despite the fact that the people on the plane were primarily Canadian citizens. For reasons that are highly suspect, Mulrooney and his aides saw the victims as Indian despite their Canadian passport. And here`s where multiculturalism loses much of its lustre: for although it recognizes other (non-white) cultures as valuable, they are always only other cultures, or not Canadian. Although it is easy to condemn the Sikh bombers of Air India Flight 182, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? makes an easy condemnation much more difficult as it details the long and complicated history of violence between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in India. This violence also traveled into Canada as the bombers were Canadian, asking questions about how CSIS, the RCMP, and the Canadian government were caught so unaware.

I highly recommend this book for fans of Canadian literature because it asks difficult questions of Canada.

Badami, Anita Rau. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007. Print.


Returning to a Master (Again): The View from Castle Rock

view-from-castle-rock_1Last year I had the pleasure of reading Alice Munro’s debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, and thoroughly enjoyed it. After finishing it, I vowed to spend more time reading Munro, so I picked up a used copy of The View from Castle Rock. While I think this is an exceptionally strong collection of short stories, for some reason I don’t think it as polished or accomplished as some of her other books. This might stem from the fact that these are “autobiographical” stories of some kind. In the Foreword, she talks about how she became interested in her family history and that the stories in this collection “were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person” (xiv). I know I’m not supposed to read these stories as autobiographical, yet for some reason I can’t help but do it anyways. And in doing it, it makes them something less than what they could be. Now, I’m not suggesting that autobiography is somehow less meaningful or artful than fiction, or that fiction is more powerful than truth. But I think that temptation to ask myself if this is really what Munro went through became an annoying sidethought that pestered me.

The first part of the book has stories about Munro’s ancestors and I’m not entirely sold on the strength of these parts. The title story is very strong, possibly the best in the book, but I found “No Advantages” somewhat ho-hum as Munro goes through her biography and explores the Ettrick Valley in Scotland. “Illinois” is strong in the sense that Munro shows her usual sense of ending that comes as a surprise yet wraps the whole story back in on itself. “The Wilds of Morris Township,” on the other hand, takes a step back and becomes a weird fable-like story of an in-bred family in Morris Township in rural Ontario. “Working for a Living” deals with Munro’s father’s fox farm and, in some ways, is like “Boys and Girls” from Dance of the Happy Shades, but in other ways is quite different. Maybe this first section felt too much like a formulaic CanLit novel: it deals with historical immigration to Canada, it shows how rough it was, and also how far along Canadians have come, all dosed in a kind of warm nostalgia that doesn’t demand too much of the reader. (This is probably a completely unfair assessment of this part of Munro’s book as she is far more nuanced than this caricature I’ve written suggests)

I felt that the second part of the collection which deals with Munro’s “childhood” works much better. “Lying Under the Apple Tree” is worth the price of the book alone. Seriously, this story is so good. It’s classic Munro in the sense that it deals with a young girl growing up in rural Ontario, dealing with her emerging sexuality and the complicated if constrained gender roles available to her. Here again, Munro pulls out a narrative swirl (it’s not a trick because it’s not meant to be duplicitous, yet there’s something showman-like about it) near the end of the story with Munro’s summer boyfriend and his employer Miriam McAlpin. I’m almost certain I’ve read “Hired Girl” before, a story which is set in the Muskokas where Munro worked as a hired girl at a summer cottage. This story has got all kinds of layers at work in it, and shows Munro’s many talents in character and setting. “Home” is heart-breaking as Munro’s father’s health declines and she is forced to bear witness to it.

Maybe I’m demanding too much of Munro. Maybe she can’t fill a book with solid gold, but instead needs to have some less than magnificent stories in between. And let’s be clear that those lesser stories would easily be the highlight of a lesser writer’s collection. Overall, The View from Castle Rock has some magnificent stories in it. It also has a kind of thematic unity in that it deals with one family’s history.

If you are already a Munro fan, then this book is for you. If not, I think I might look elsewhere first.

Munro, Alice. The View from Castle Rock. Toronto: Penguin, 2006. Print.

A Fitting Conclusion, But Is It Great?: MaddAddam

17262203I have a love/hate relationship with Margaret Atwood. I know that she is a very talented writer and has produced some very memorable books. In fact, I would even say she is one of Canada’s most important poets in the last 50 years. However, I don’t love her science-fiction, sorry her speculative fiction. It might just be that her insistence that she does not write science fiction is what irritated me into dislike. But I also think that she is just not a great sci-fi writer; she is a literary writer and this does not necessarily make her good at all genres.

MaddAddam is the final book in her post-apocalyptic series that includes Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Most of the characters in MaddAddam come from these two novels, but it is not necessary to have read them to understand the events of Atwood’s latest novel. In fact, she gives a good summary at the beginning of her novel to catch readers up. Toby, the novel’s main character and a former God’s Gardener, narrates most of the novel as the last survivors of a devastating plague attempt to keep themselves safe from two murderous ex-criminals. I mention God’s Gardeners because they form the core of The Year of the Flood and were the feature that set that novel apart for me when I read it. They are a cult-centred on a mixture of environmentalism, organic farming, and anti-capitalists. Atwood constructed a detailed mythology around them and even interspersed Year of the Flood with several of their hymns. In MaddAddam, she brings the two main groups at the core of each novel together by having former God’s Gardeners band together with MaddAddamites, an anti-corporate group who became involved with Crake in the first novel. Crake, by the way, was the genius renegade scientist who engineered the apocalypse and wiped away most of humanity. Not before creating a hybrid, gene-spliced humanoid race called the Crakers, whom also feature prominently in MaddAddam.

I guess part of my problem with Atwood’s science fiction is that it seems too mundane. Atwood insists that all of the technologies and events in her novels are rooted in reality. The first line of her acknowledgements read: “Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory” (392). While I applaud Atwood’s desire for realism, I found that the first half of this novel was hard to get through. Something about its mundaneness, its depressing attachment to reality, left my imagination wanting. Yes, there is an element of escapism in much science fiction, but this element is part of what draws me to science fiction.

There were two things that I did really like about MaddAddam though. One, Atwood is really funny in this book. There were a number of scenes where I laughed out loud and found myself impressed by Atwood’s writing. Atwood can sometimes be a downer to read (I really like her Cat’s Eye, but it doesn’t make me too excited for getting old), but here she is raucously funny. Second, Atwood works with reading and writing in a really interesting way. Toby ends up teaching Blackbeard, a young Craker, to read, and this allows her to raise important questions about human knowledge, culture, and beliefs. I think this is where her abilities as a literary writer really shine through, and it is only a matter of time before someone writes a Master’s thesis on this topic.

So, all in all, MaddAddam is not a terrible book. In fact, it is quite good and a fitting conclusion to her series. I just was not that in to it. If you like either of the earlier novels, you will find plenty to love in this offering. If you are more like me and did not feel especially compelled by the earlier books, then it’s best to pass this one over.

Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2013. Print.

A Toronto Bootlegging Story: Strange Fugitive

downloadThe new year is now 9 days old and I just finished my first book. It feels a little bit strange, but at the same time I am enjoying not having had to finish two and a half books in that time.

Anyways, Morley Callaghan’s 1928 novel Strange Fugitive is an entertaining read. It was the first book he published in a long career that spanned 60 years and included 13 novels, 6 novellas, and several collections of short fiction. While working at the Toronto Star as a cub reporter, he met Ernest Hemingway whose advice and reader’s eye helped him get started. He would become a leading light in Canadian literature after spending time with other Modernist figures like William Carlos Williams (who provides a pseudo-afterword in the edition I read), Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Following World War II, he became Canada’s leading writer, won plenty of awards, and even had an academic Symposium in his honor at the University of Ottawa. However, this fame has not kept him in the spotlight as he has faded in importance in Canadian literary discourses despite the occasional work on him being published now and then. All this to say that I am a little embarrassed to admit my own lack of familiarity with his work. This novel was initially on my reading list for my Toronto chapter, but I never got around to reading it largely because I suspected it would not fit with what I was looking for (which proved true).

Strange Fugitive reads like a cross between an existentialist novel (think Camus’ The Stranger), an Ernest Hemingway short story with its earnest male narrator seeking to validate his masculinity, and a crime novel. Set during the high days of bootlegging in Ontario, Harry Trotter gets caught up in the trade while trying to make something of himself. In case you didn’t know, Ontario – particularly the cities of Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor -was a hotbed for illegal liquor and various gangs and criminals made fortunes shipping the booze around town and across the border. The novel’s narrative arc proceeds in a downward trajectory as Trotter starts with a good job as a foremen at a lumber yard before ending up embroiled in a deadly battle for control of the bootlegging business. His inability to control his temper leads him to lose his job (this seems to be the most obvious tip of the hat to Hemingway as his virile masculinity lands him in trouble) and his dissatisfaction with his wife Vera leads him to a series of other women.

Initially, readers may have been on board with Trotter, even sympathizing with him, but Callaghan performs a peculiarly well-wrought feat in getting us to become disenchanted with him before re-enchanting us near the end of the novel. I am not quite sure how he pulled this off as Trotter is not a particularly nice character (often mean, petty, shallow, and definitely a hypocrite) but I was back to cheering for him by the novel`s end. Maybe it`s because I knew he was a bad guy but that it was not completely his fault and that his fall from grace was in some ways inevitable (and thus Callaghan invokes a sense of reader`s pity).

Overall, I`m not sure whether fellow readers would be interested in this book or not. I read it for historical and cultural reasons (and let`s be honest, these are not the most enticing reasons to pick up a book), but found myself enjoying the novel`s style and quirks. Even though Toronto is not named (it is clearly Toronto though and there is an academic article by Justin D. Edwards showing how), you can make out it’s 1920’s contours. If you like crime novels or gang narratives, this novel might be of interest while fans of Hemingway or Camus might also find things to like.

Callaghan, Morley. Strange Fugitive. 1928. Toronto: Exile Editions, 2004. Print.

*The image above is not the cover for the version I read, but I thought it was more interesting.