Dissembling Resemblance

  • Henry Adam Svec
    Life Is Like Canadian Football and Other Authentic Folk Songs. Invisible Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jean-March Ah-Sen (Author), Emily Anglin (Author), Devon Code (Author) and Lee Henderson (Author)
    Disintegration in Four Parts. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Geordie Miller

Like life, football is full of deception. A quarterback fakes handing off the ball to the running back, turns, and instead fires the pass to a receiver. It looks like a run, but it’s a pass. This sequence is called play action, and its execution relies on the quarterback hiding their intentions and on their teammates simulating a running play until the decisive moment. A successful play action call thus involves precise movements and purposeful semblance, two qualities that these books possess.


Life Is Like Canadian Football seems like a memoir, but is a novel. Someone named Henry Adam Svec has discovered an archive of songs by Canadian Football League players recorded in the early 1970s by a guy called Staunton R. Livingston. This scholarly frame tale of an Alan Lomax acolyte in three-down territory at Library and Archives Canada is a hoax. The mask of the intrepid folklorist enables Svec to tackle the question of folk music’s provenance with the apparent aim “to inspire the next generation of authentic folk song collectors, and, therefore, folksingers” (10). The narrator’s folk odyssey includes sojourns in places that connote communal cultural production, namely the Banff Centre, Dawson City, and Sappyfest. Life Is Like Canadian Football is also a jocular campus novel, satirizing the hubris, pettiness, and sado-masochism of academia, along with “[t]he absurd and nihilistic values of the neoliberal university” (66). The abundant footnotes dramatize the collision of artistic and academic pursuits, though not everyone will be a fan. The notes can have a distracting, even cloying, effect. Yet they allow for some of the funnier moments in a very funny book. For example, Capital is footnoted as evidence of Karl Marx being “perhaps the first to urge” to “not hate the player . . . [h]ate solely the game” (67). There are several more sincere references to Marx too, and it is genuinely difficult to know what to make of the book’s anti-capitalist, political subtext. I suppose it probably depends on how seriously we take its meditations on utopia and avant-garde art, not to mention the references to police repression during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto and “the patriarchal settler-colonial nation-state of Canada.” For when Svec tells the truth, he more often tells it slant route.


Disintegration in Four Parts dons the conceptual mask of purity, a word serving here as writing prompt. Each of the four authors embarked—so we are informed via epigraph—from the following sentence: “All purity is created by resemblance and disavowal.” They end up in wildly different places, effectively disavowing any obvious resemblance to one another. Lee Henderson’s “Merz in the Arctic Circle” explores Dada artist Kurt Schwitters’ commitment to his calling amid the terror and upheaval of war. From an internment camp for enemy aliens in Kabelvåg, we move with Emily Anglin’s “Dissolving Views” to a rented condo in an unidentified, presumably present-day, city. Julia, the narrator, feels her life sliding out of view after a breakup from her boss and estrangement from her fraternal twin sister, Amber. Estrangement is the order of the day in “Parametrics of Purity,” Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s Lovecraftian tale of literary romance and betrayal—“a fictional chronicle” of competing literary movements (121). This weird, elaborate novella defies summary and depicts what are surely some of the oddest writing exercises you are likely to encounter. Devon Code’s poignant “The Green Notebook” presents itself as the found notebook of a dying, since deceased, author who meditates on memory, life, suffering, and various other philosophical themes. “Art does have utility,” Code’s narrator writes. “But that utility is so complex and diffuse as to be virtually impossible to quantify and so it needs to be taken on a kind of faith” (191-92).


Both books reward your faith in them in surprising ways. They are busy, less bound to their respective organizing concepts than advertised. All the better, too, for their willingness to venture beyond mystifications like authenticity and purity. Significantly, the first reference to the latter in Disintegration is in the context of sound. Henderson describes the “pure sound” of “near silence in the sheltered bay of Kabelvåg” (13). The clamour of nearby Nazi bombers and British warships encroaches on this purity. Yet Schwitters still sings his Dada verses and obsesses over his Merz, finding a measure of calm amidst a systemic, seismic crisis. It may seem like a game, but he’s never far from a question that should resound rather loudly now: “Who can think about art when the world is on fire?” (55).

This review “Dissembling Resemblance” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Mar. 2022. Web.

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