Can Lit, "Enormously"
- Noah Richler (Author)
This is My Country, What's Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Duffy Roberts
I must preface this review with a warning: this is my review. For a slightly less annoyed and less rhetorically acerbic approach, although nonetheless critical, I recommend Alex Good’s review in Quill and Quire’s November 2006 issue.
“I have the first line of your review,” T. interjected, responding matter-of-factly to a book review session that had regressed into S. wanting to read, out loud, passages containing an “organ.” “How about,” he continued, “‘Noah Richler is a bad cartographer’?” I, as the self-convicted voice of reason, had tried earlier to save the book from J.’s extratextual complaint that she had to pay money for it, when K. had signed it out for free from the library, by quoting Richler’s epilogue— “Being Canadian demands a constant effort of the imagination, a working definition of the country that must be conjured…”—only to be interrupted by M.’s ebullient retort that others have argued similarly, and where is the dialogue with them? L., silently sipping red wine, listened; the book didn’t inspire her to make time to read past the introductory chapter.
This is My Country, What’s Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada is organized geographically, which is to say the authors that Richler interviews are loosely grouped by traditionally named Canadian regions, as well as by what Richler terms “AGE”s (the caps are his), which he further divides into chapters: THE AGE OF INVENTION includes “Stories and What They Do,” “Igloolik,” “The Circle in the Square,” and “House and Garden”; THE AGE OF MAPPING includes “The Company Store,” “Traces,” and “Our Myths of Disappointment”; THE AGE OF ARGUMENT includes “Making Things Up,” “Je me souviens – de quoi?” and “Home and Away.” The work is framed by an entrance strategy that discusses “The Virtues of Being Nowhere” and a neatly packaged “Epilogue” exit strategy.
Richler’s foray into a historical, “psycho-geographical,” and thematic interpretation of Canadian Literature begins with a quotation from Borges’ The Maker: “A man sets out to draw the world. A short time before he dies he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” In a book where the accompanying and enticingly enigmatic line drawings by Michael Winter invite more introspection than the argument itself, because they offer relief from reading the text, Borges’ epigraph signals the fact that there is too much of the mapper in this text to make good on its subtitle, “A Literary Atlas of Canada.” The collection of six very good readers whom I asked to help me think through this text all came to the same conclusion: the idea of collecting interviews with Canadian authors into a whole is a good idea, one that the canon of Canadian literature would benefit from, but this book doesn’t quite do the project justice. We were also willing to admit that this book might engage other readers. The failure as we see it, in part (well, in part of the many parts) is that Richler attempts a scholarly argument, writes capital-T Theory per se, without engaging in the scholarship that has come before, and further, his writing contains implicit suspicion of the whole academic community in general. While none of us expect a more popular or populist book, one for writers and readers, to contain theory, or theory to be popular, this book’s flip-flopping between the two realms (the problematic binary aside) doesn’t work very well.
Richler comes at the problem of Canadian literature, and many of the interviews he conducts, with preconceived understandings of the complex. The problem with this approach is that Canadian literature is not algebra, and the authors he interviews, many of them teachers and keen thinkers and academics, are not prone to answering rhetorical questions. Richler misses the opportunity to learn and adjust his understanding based on the new data that his interviews generate. Michael Ondaatje speaks to this failure: “writing is archaeological,” he suggests, but “if I know… the thing that’s going to be uncovered before I start, then the book just doesn’t interest me.” The books and authors that Richler examines in Vancouver, for example – Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park and Nancy Lee’s Dead Girls – turn Richler’s desired Vancouver into a “tense and febrile place” preoccupied with class struggle that clashes with his own Romanticized description of, for example, Kingsway: “the day was coming to an end in a gentle, misty haze, and the buildings that lined the street were hoarding the dying light.” And the writing, at times, is awkward, especially when Quebec writer, Gaétan Soucy, “teaches philosophy, enormously.” Richler’s literary Canada—his ownership belied, but not successfully excused, by “This is My Country” in the title—is one practically bereft of poetry and drama, and his Canada reads as a defense of the novel as the quintessential argument for Canada, the problems with novels as directly proportional referents for a country’s or region’s quiddity notwithstanding.
Why does Richler’s Atlas not have poetry, particularly the long poem, as part of the topography of place, and very little drama to boot? The book also inspires many other questions about Richler’s Canada. Why is a history that might in fact “incarcerate” writers, a history that drowns out imagining into the future, be so important to Richler’s understanding of contemporary Canadian Literature? Why does this reading of Canadian literature not attempt to or at least riff on Atwood’s and Frye’s dated and problematic readings? Why does Richler wait until page 259 to invoke the imagination with the Rod Stirling-esque “Imagine if you will…”? Why, when talking about fictional novels does Richler need to include “a discussion of the ethics of making things up” at all? And why, after reading that “metaphors [are] shortcuts to meaning,” do I not want to read the final six pages? I wonder if, as the shoe salesman who got so good at her job that she sees shoes everywhere, the fact that Richler “enjoy[s] the dread in… stories” only allows him to choose those stories, and if that approach makes sense on a decidedly non-derivative Canadian literary landscape, especially when choice is named “Atlas” and “Canada.”
In twenty years, then, this book may not be consulted for the author’s arguments—or even, as Aritha van Herk writes in a review for The Globe and Mail, for its “piercing observations”—but for the transcribed interviews it contains. W. H. New’s Borderlands: How we talk about Canada and Edward J. Chamberlin’s If This Is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? are better companion pieces to the quoted authors, quotations for which an Index would be extremely useful.
- Rue Britannia by Christl Verduyn
Books reviewed: Canada and the End of Empire by Phillip Buckner
- Geographical Attachment by Deborah Bowen
Books reviewed: Falling into Place by John Terpstra
- Personalities and Place by Brooke Pratt
Books reviewed: Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada by Allan Casey and Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature by Trevor Carolan
- Crossing Borderlines by Dieter Riemenschneider
Books reviewed: Hybridity and Postcolonialism: Twentieth-Century Indian Literature by Monika Fludernik and Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English by Wolfgang Kloos
- (Re)collecting Urban Culture by Maia Joseph
Books reviewed: The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century by Birk Sproxton and The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto by Jonny Dovercourt, Christina Palassio, and Alana Wilcox
MLA: Roberts, Duffy. Can Lit, "Enormously". canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 168 - 170)
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