The Art of Recollection
- Gordon Rodgers (Author)
A Settlement of Memory. Killick (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Winter (Author)
One Last Good Look. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Warren Cariou (Author)
The Exalted Company of Roadside Martyrs. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Robert Currie (Author)
Things You Don't Forget. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Colin Hill
It would be easy to praise these four new works of fiction—two from Newfoundland, two from Saskatchewan—for their colourful and convincing representations of local settings. But this kind of regionalist commentary would fail to address a preoccupation common to all four: memory and its relationship to consciousness, storytelling, and history. While these new works are undoubtedly rooted in their environments, their most ambitious and engaging aspects develop out of their investigations of how experience manifests itself in memory.
Gordon Rodgers’ A Settlement of Memory is both the most traditional and in many ways the most ambitious of these four works. On the surface, Rodgers creates a relatively straightforward story of an orphan, Tom Vincent, whose insatiable drive for success propels him from his humble origins as a shopkeeper to his eventual position as one of Newfoundland’s most powerful and influential men. In terms of its meticulous attention to detail and its chronological emplotment, Rodgers’ novel is clearly in the realist tradition, yet the author is well-aware that his writing is straddling the uncertain boundary between history and fiction: as Rodgers warns his readers in a prefatory note, "A Settlement of Memory is a work of fiction. Though I have borrowed from Newfoundland’s history, geography, and political record, the story has been bound by none of them... ." The result of this extensive borrowing is a novel that transforms Newfoundland’s history from about 1870 to 1920 into an epic form of myth. Rodgers’ third-person narrator is at times the omniscient, detached observer expected in historical writing. Frequently, however, this same narrative voice is intangibly implicated in the communal story he relates. And, while Rodgers contextualizes his story by dating certain passages, making reference to historical figures and events, and including historical documents in his narrative (a newspaper clipping, for example), he simultaneously undermines the illusion of historical accuracy by refusing to allow Vincent to become the hero that "official" history wants him to be. The broad and sometimes self-contradictory perspective reveals Vincent’s private as well as his public history, and undercuts the textbook brand of heroism by revealing his personal flaws. Rodgers’ depiction of his chosen cultural milieu is exhaustive in scope, and this, along with the oral quality of his prose, make A Settlement of Memory as much a commentary on the process of making history and creating communal memory as it is a specific story of Newfoundland’s past in relation to hardship, class struggle, perseverance, and charismatic leadership.
Robert Currie’s Things You Don’t Forget is less concerned with the history of a particular place, and more concerned with relating some common types of experiences found in personal histories. This book of short stories, set against the backdrop of southern Saskatchewan, spans most of the typical stages of life, and the stories advance from coming-of-age tales of courtship and reckless youth, through mid-life experiences relating to family obligations, to a final story of a man who, after his mother’s death, struggles to cope with his senile and heartbroken father. As the title of this collection suggests, each of Currie’s stories is built around a vivid memory of a particularly formative incident in the life of its narrator—a kiss from Jayne Mansfield, abuse by a drunken parent, an unlikely come-from-behind win in a softball game, an attempt to thwart a twin brother’s potential suicide. The end result of Currie’s sampling of key life experiences is a compelling mélange of tones and perspectives: nostalgia, pathos, sentimentality, documentary, and black comedy. Initially, these various treatments of individual memories seem highly personal, but the complexity of Currie’s book lies in its ability to make these private memories express universal significance. Currie’s subject matter is weighty, but he does not elicit the empathy of his readers with cheap appeals to emotion. Rather, the narrative voice is cleverly manipulated and positioned to avoid melodrama, and to provide a perspective on the past in which subjectivity and objectivity are in balance. In certain stories, we have a nostalgic, confessional, first-person narrator: "Chemistry," the first story, opens with "When I was a young fellow in the fifties ..." suggesting that a book of thinly disguised autobiography lies ahead. In another story, "The Black Aunt," Currie’s third-person narrator is positioned much further from the central action of the narrative, and the story reads as an archetypal coming-of-age tale. Currie’s stories are especially memorable because their oddly familiar forms and subjects encourage readers to connect their own personal memories to those recounted by the voices the author creates.
The most consciously experimental of these four works is Michael Winter’s One Last Good Look, a collection of short stories linked by their common narrator, Gabriel English, a Newfoundlander who eventually leaves the island with mixed feelings. Most immediately, Winter’s book offers a series of artful coming-of-age stories as it explores a young man’s rites of passage through trials of romance, family tragedy, and, in a particularly Canadian story, moose hunting. At the same time, Winter’s book operates on another level, exploring the role of memory in the artistic process. At times, as in one story entitled "Wormholes," Winter’s writing becomes almost metafictional in its concern with memory and the writer: "these versions . . . still linger in my head. I think this passage is redundant, I will delete this. And yet the passage contains a crucial piece of information. ... The rest of the text carries a memory of the information, a gap pointing to its absence." More engaging are the formal properties of Winter’s writing that reflect the process of memory in a manner that is almost epistemological. His pared-down style at times comes so close to minimalism that neighbouring sentences and paragraphs are not obviously linked to one another. This has the effect of making the stories often read as a kind of stream-of-consciousness in which the reader is voyeuristically observing another’s mind in the process of recalling private memories. Somewhat paradoxically, however, this same aspect of Winter’s writing implicates the reader in the narrator’s act of remembering. The juxtaposition of narrative fragments reflects the experience of recollection as it occurs in bits and pieces, rather than in a continuous and chronological rush. By not always clearly marking the transitions in his stories, Winter draws attention to the way that memories, and narrative reconstructions of the past, are built of fragments, and this invites readers to participate in the story by filling in the gaps with their own assumptions and private memories.
The most promising and well-written of these new works is Warren Cariou’s The Exalted Company of Roadside Martyrs. In this book, comprising two thematically linked novellas, Cariou explores the nature of truth, and the ways in which truth is corrupted when recounted in the form of written narrative. In the first of Cariou’s stories, "The Shrine of Badger King," the narrator, a demoralized, heavy-drinking, former member of Saskatchewan’s provincial legislature, obsesses over a mythical local crook, nicknamed Badger King, whom he holds responsible for the demise of his political career. Cariou’s story is a compelling character study, and a hilarious exploration of the creative possibilities of unreliable narration. The curiously likeable but untrustworthy narrator—he is a politician after all—ironically claims that, through his narrative, "the truth will out," yet his narrative unwittingly reveals the way in which story can be coloured by personal bias and the impulse toward self-preservation. Viewed in this light, Cariou’s story is a dark parody of historical writing in which memory is manipulated, and history is revealed as an awkward combination of fact and fiction. In the second of Cariou’s novellas, "Lazurus," another depraved narrator offers his version of a disputed series of events. This time, Father Silvan, a cynical and disbelieving priest who not only hates the alcoholic Father Remy with whom he shares his parish, but also falls in love with the mail-order bride of a local hoodlum, writes a journal to recount the events that surround his unintentional resurrection of a parishioner. This narrator’s version of events is clearly distorted by his obsessive and unrequited love for the mail-order bride, and his own confused and irreverent contemplation of his vocation. Both of Cariou’s stories explore the relationship between official and unofficial history, and the effect that power and authority have upon what people remember. Cariou’s narrators seem troubled by the fact that history is written by the victors, and their stories read as comic and desperate attempts of so-called "losers" to establish their credibility. In the end, Cariou’s clever undermining of his narrators’s stories suggests, as all four of these books do, that the past is not something that can be won or lost, but rather something that is unceasingly reinvented.
- French Canadian Narratives by Heinz Antor
Books reviewed: Der frankokanadische Roman der dreissiger Jahre. Eine ideologiekritische Darstellung. Canadiana Romanica Vol. 14 by Klaus-Dieter Ertler
- Community and Solitary by Marian Fraser
Books reviewed: The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart and Solitaire: The Intimate Lives of Single Women by Marian Fraser
- The Garrulous Twenties by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: Doggone by Tamas Dobozy and Boardwalk by Joseph Kertes
- Short Stories Collected by Alexis Kienlen
Books reviewed: Pink Icing by Pamela Mordecai, Zero Gravity by Sharon English, and The Palm Leaf Fan and other stories by Kwai-Yun Li
- Giving the West Its Due by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: Banjo Lessons by David Carpenter, Courting Saskatchewan by David Carpenter, Due West: 30 Great Stories from Alberta Saskatchewan and Manitoba by Wayne Tefs, Geoffrey Ursell, and Anita Van Herk, and The Middle of Nowhere by Dennis Gruending
MLA: Hill, Colin. The Art of Recollection. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 236 - 238)
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