- Irene Guilford (Editor)
Alistair MacLeod: Essays on His Work. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lesley Choyce (Editor)
Atlantica: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lawrence Mathews
Lesley Choyce begins his introduction to Atlantica by advancing the proposition that the four Atlantic provinces constitute "a literary nation unto itself." Nonsense. For starters, Newfoundland is so different from the other three as to make such a claim untenable on its face. Beyond that, doesn’t the notion of "a literary nation" itself seem outdated? Someone writing in Halifax may produce work with stronger affinities to fiction from Poland or Peru or New Zealand than to that of Ernest Buckler or Thomas Raddall.
Choyce is annoyingly vague about why his twenty contributors—and not others— are represented. It would be unacceptably pretentious, he says, to call them "our ’best’ writers." It would also, in many cases, be wildly inaccurate. Most "might be described as ’mid-career.’" I’ll say: only one was born after 1958. Nine are identified as based in Nova Scotia (as is Choyce himself), with only three from New Brunswick. There are excerpts from four well-known novels—by Wayne Johnston, Donna Morrissey, David Adams Richards, and John Steffler—that anyone interested in purchasing an anthology of fiction will probably already have read. Gender balance has been meticulously observed, but there are no contributions from Afro-Canadian or First Nations writers. Choyce doesn’t explain any of these decisions.
Of the sixteen stories, about half read as though, to judge by their form and technique, they could have been written around 1930. A narrative unfolds with dull competence to articulate a single central "point" about character and theme. Fortunately, the others are considerably better. In particular, I like the strong contributions from Joan Clark and David Helwig (who, after decades of being a "Kingston writer," has now become a "Prince Edward Island writer"—and thus eligible, in Choyce’s view, to participate in the rich tradition epitomized by Lucy Maud Montgomery). Lynn Coady’s "Batter My Heart" is especially impressive, with its verbal energy and quick pacing.
And, inevitably, there’s Alistair MacLeod, whose recent story "Clearances" leads off the collection, occupying as usual the no man’s land where realism slides into parable and where intense scrutiny of a particular time and place leads the reader to reflect on issues that used to be called "universal." By the second sentence, the reader is well into familiar MacLeod territory: "The blanket was now a sort of yellow-beige although at one time, he thought, it must have been white." We follow the nameless protagonist through a series of experiences and reminiscences that culminate in a poignant, sure-to-be-futile gesture of rebellion against fate. The vision that informs the narrative is clear and uncompromising, the rhetoric unobtrusively effective. "Clearances" is a fair representation of MacLeod’s work—intense, understated, and immensely sure of itself, though never testing the boundaries of the relatively narrow range of thought and feeling that it explores. It seems almost irreverent to make that last point, obvious though it is. No one ever says anything about MacLeod’s work that could be construed as even mildly negative. Quite the opposite. Despite the slightness of his output (one novel, sixteen stories) and despite the reluctance of academic critics to examine it closely, he has been allotted a secure niche in the Canadian pantheon. Even before the publication of No Great Mischief, his name could be uttered in the same breath as Atwood, Munro, or Ondaatje. This puzzles me. Strong as it is, MacLeod’s work is not manifestly stronger than that of a number of worthy writers who seem doomed to perpetual semi-obscurity. (A longish list available on request.) Is it a regional thing? A Scots-ethnicity thing? Beats me, anyway.
In this context, the publication of Alistair MacLeod: Essays on His Works is a welcome event, as it does begin to fill in the nearly blank space normally occupied by academic criticism on a writer of MacLeod’s reputation. It comprises seven contributions: five essays, a transcript of an interview with Shelagh Rogers, and an account of the pre-publication history of No Great Mischief by Douglas Gibson, MacLeod’s editor.
Irene Guilford sets the enthusiastic tone in her introduction to this collection when she refers to "the hold on the heart that is Alistair MacLeod’s writing." Jane Urquhart tells us that the stories "seem to move effortlessly from the author’s heart to the page and then to leap back from the page into the heart of the reader." The university-connected contributors don’t invoke the heart metaphor but seem equally enthusiastic. Janice Kulyk Keefer concludes that "No Great Mischief is a work that speaks across cultural and social borders," while David Williams says that the novel "could nearly pass for a long-lost map of the peaceable kingdom." And so forth.
I confess that I’m somewhat suspicious of this hasty beatification of No Great Mischief. Yes, it did win a major international award, but we’re not still so provincial as to regard that as conclusive evidence of anything (are we?). What’s missing from this volume is an essay explaining in detail why the novel should be accorded the high valuation currently attached to it.
The academic essays ignore this issue. The topics are standard fare, the sort of thing associated with works that have long been comfortably canonized: the novel’s relation to oral narrative, its handling of the theme of "the profound dignity and heroism of traditional labour," the "postmodern pattern" of its narrative structure. There’s a significant gap between the content of such essays and the personal testimonies about how one’s heart has been affected by the fiction.
It would also be interesting—though I recognize that it would violate the conventions of such collections—to see a devil’s advocate sort of contribution, a thoughtful, dispassionate gesture of dissent. Its absence points to a common denominator of the two books under review here. Both are attempts to promote a fervently held belief: that Atlantic Canada constitutes "a literary nation," and that Alistair MacLeod is a major writer. The first seems absurd; as for the second, time, and only time, will tell.
- Mythologizing History by Coral Ann Howells
Books reviewed: New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction by Marie Vautier
- Three from the Peg by Melissa Steele
Books reviewed: A Short Journey by Car by Liam Durcan, Cherry by Chandra Mayor, and Cherry Bites by Alison Preston
- L'art, le temps, la mort by Nathalie Roy
Books reviewed: Une idée simple by Yvon Rivard
- Memory, Family, Politics by Deborah Torkko
Books reviewed: Sisters of Grass by Theresa Kishkan, Speak Mandarin Not Dialect by Elizabeth Haynes, Girls around the House by M.A.C. Farrant, and Gravity Lets You Down by Maggie Helwig
- There's No Place Like Home by Mavis Reimer
Books reviewed: Home Words: Discources of Children's Literature in Canada by Mavis Reimer
MLA: Mathews, Lawrence. Atlantic Myths. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 119 - 120)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.