Clueless in Cornwall
Reviewed by Lawrence Mathews
Here’s a paragraph chosen (honestly) at random: “What Bea needed most right now was time to herself. Or time away from Ernest. She briefly considered confiding in Amanda but reasoned that it wasn’t smart to tell anyone right now until she was sure what was going on. If only the horrible feeling would go away. Maybe fresh air would help. It wasn’t so late that she couldn’t step out for a walk. The nights were plenty warm enough lately. The air would do her good.”
Is this good writing? The case against: the banal thought processes of an uninteresting character are described in flat, bland prose. The case for: the prose is finely honed to reflect the mentality of an ordinary woman, and isn’t it one of the glories of contempo- rary fiction that, in it, no person, however “ordinary,” is unworthy of literary attention?
Cumberland is set in the fictional town of the same name, a surrogate for Cornwall, Ontario, Michael V. Smith’s hometown. It chronicles a brief period in the intertwined lives of five characters: Ernest the unemployed millworker, Bea the barmaid, Amanda the teenage vixen, Nick the young widower, Aaron his preadolescent son.
Nick has the simplest role, personifying a sort of stolid decency, but the others all have, in the current cant, “issues.” Ernest has compulsive sex with men he picks up in the local park. Bea has mixed feelings about her newly-launched relationship with Ernest. Amanda is determined to get something going with Nick. Aaron is discovering his sexuality via his uneasy friendship with the schoolyard bully.
All five characters are made sympathetic. All struggle with their problems in credible ways. Sometimes they are kind to one another; sometimes they move haltingly toward self-understanding or acceptance. I have no doubt that many of the “ordinary” citizens of Cornwall/Cumberland live their lives in precisely the manner described here.
And yet—mea culpa, mea maxima culpa—this novel is one of the most boring works of fiction I’ve read in the past year. The stench of smugness pervades the whole enterprise, from the dedication (“To the man who’ll never read a book like this”) to one character’s unspoken question in the novel’s closing section: “. . . she deserved more, didn’t she? Didn’t they all deserve more than this?”
The man who’ll never read a book like this lacks the education, intelligence, and imagination to allow his life to be enriched by art. And Smith gives us a world of such people–uneducated, none too bright, with no vision of how their lives might change beyond the vague aspiration to possess “more.” They know the ephemeral pleasures of alcohol and sex, and sometimes they’re even able to connect in moments of real empathy and understanding, but everything positive seems to occur haphazardly, unrepeatably. It’s all very sad.
In Cornwall–I’m going out on a limb here–there must be thoughtful, perceptive people whose lives have direction. But not in Cumberland, where no one even attempts to rebel against the prevailing malaise. This is clearly supposed to leave the reader with no option other than to feel pity for its benighted inhabitants and to salute Smith for his ability to depict their bleak experience unflinchingly.
Unless, of course, the reader feels manipulated and wants something more–perhaps some examination of what, in the end, prevents these individuals from leading the more fulfilling lives that we know are available outside the pages of the novel. How about some intellectually engaging context, delivered by a narrative voice whose possessor’s IQ is in triple digits? Or how about, simply, more vivid, imaginative writing, making the world of Cumberland a more interesting place to visit for nearly 300 pages?
But the smug response to such questions is wearily obvious: the characters themselves have no insight into the larger issues that affect their lives; the characters themselves are incapable of using language imaginatively. You, the reader, are meant to see how they interpret the world, feeling superior to them as they bore you to death in the sacred name of the ordinary. It is, in some deeply mysterious way, good for you. This is one of the gospels preached in creative writing programs throughout the land–Smith holds an MFA from UBC–but few writers of talent are buying it these days. Like all other forms of political correctness, it’s a deadly enemy of art.
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MLA: Mathews, Lawrence. Clueless in Cornwall. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 171 - 172)
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