- John Metcalf (Author)
Standing Stones: The Best Stories of John Metcalf. Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by John Moss
John Metcalf is a veteran writer and the stories in Standing Stones are offered as his best work. Taken together, they offer sad portraits of failure and mediocrity. A single protagonist moves through superceding narratives in a strange progression, enduring small metamorphoses as he erases earlier selves. Exposure to his self-conscious ruminations, in first person and third, displaces character development and plot. His name changes, the circumstances of his life achieve minor revision, and his metafictional amanuensis, the “author” mediating from the margins, sometimes obtrudes to declare frustration over the vagaries of language. The protagonist is usually a writer, sometimes a teacher, occasionally both; he is sexually clumsy and socially without grace, which is the fault of women and society; and he is always an Englishman, condemned by class limitations, a limiting education, and a cramped personality to live his adult life in exile—among Canadians, apparently. Although contemporary, he seems hardly aware of the second half of the twentieth century, most of which strikes him as irritating and trivial. He does not connect. He is presented by his author as a man lacking in empathy, for whom life is a great disappointment; he is placed as a righteous curmudgeon in a world perceived without irony or wit.
When a narrator observes, “I’m not all that interested in the kids. When they don’t irritate me, they bore me,” and then moves on to qualify his feelings for his daughter, “My considered desire is to flog the living daylights out of her,” the reader is neither edified nor amused. Moral and social vacuity is enervating, griping personalities grating. When a subsequent narrator sneers, “Eskimo” carvings are “great nasty lumpy things,” the reader recognizes the kind of person one generally avoids. In fiction, where cruelty and condescension can be intriguing and of vital concern, to find them merely expressions of the attitude that holds the stories of a collection together is unpleasant.
Metcalf is a very deliberate writer. Although his prose seems gelled in the aspic of memory, slurred, sometimes, like the recollections of a man desperate to capture in words what annoyed him in earlier life, it is meticulously wrought to express the displaced sensibility of his erstwhile hero. Image after image piles up, not as in Alice Munro to redeem the past, nor as in Clarke Blaise to absolve his petty condition, but simply to record the times and the place where in retrospect life seemed more vital, where a nasty childhood and sneering adolescence were somehow more authentic. Both diction and syntax in these stories are redolent of an England long since subsumed by the visions of writers like Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble, and the later V.S. Naipaul; an England at once comic and humourless, solipsistic but filled with self-loathing, absurdly heroic yet squalid and small. The dissociated quality of his language, while it is skillfully deployed, leaves Metcalf’s polyphiloprogenerative protagonist in Canada a pitiable nonentity, and his Canadian context unknowable. Perhaps we are too provincial for words.
- High Notes by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: Walking on Water by Jancis M. Andrews, The Old Familiar by Alex Hawley, and The Grumpy Man by Raymond Fraser
- Doctors in Distress by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
- Like Life Itself by Judy Brown
Books reviewed: The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories by Joan Bodger, The Forest Family by Joan Bodger, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North by Peter Sis, and Out of the Everywhere: New Tales for Canada by Jan Andrews
- Desire and Will by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: The Night Season by Paul Bowdring and Trouble and Desire by Robin Mcgrath
- Faces of Love by Karlyn Koh
Books reviewed: Other Women by Evelyn Lau and Daruma Days by Terry Watada
MLA: Moss, John. Meticulous Displacements. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 101 - 102)
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