New Terms, Old Concerns

Reviewed by David Eso

Two recent studies address fundamental elements in the fraught construction of private identities within public lives. Amelia DeFalco’s Imagining Care (2016) and Paul Huebener’s Timing Canada (2015) fulfill the high expectations provoked by the immensity of their subjects. The texts also share ambitions of scope. DeFalco first interprets the history of international feminist (and other) ethical philosophies of care—which in some ways respond to an earlier patriarchal and professionalized moral ethics—before applying the framework she develops to a selection of memoir and fiction by Ian Brown, Michael Ignatieff, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and David Chariandy. The author explicitly narrows her topic to what she calls “para-ordinary care”: non-professional (non-remunerated) medical care administered by friends or family, and less commonly by strangers, for individuals who cannot care for themselves due to neurological or physical ailments. By contrast, Huebener’s book considers minute time and deep time, linear time and concentric time, public or objective time, and event or experienced time. Timing Canada makes a “critical time studies” argument that such multi-temporalities can counteract the hegemonic legacy of Western linearity, the monetization of time, and the myth of progress. Its author cites a wide range of literary texts, government policies, and technological innovations. Each of the books under review, then, performs a critical resistance, arguing against normative and coercive notions of care and time that dominate the national imaginary. Some readers may, however, find the texts’ merits unequally distributed.

Huebener readily justifies his project, in that time is the most common noun in the English language and “the politics of time saturate all human affairs.” Even so, Canadian critics of the millennial period have paid avid attention to rhetorical or actual control over spatial environments—through lenses provided by ecocriticism, geohumanities, psychogeography, and literatures of place—while temporality, “that other, less tangible coordinate of location,” goes largely unexamined as an instrument of domination for reasons of ubiquity rather than obscurity. Timing Canada offers a substantial correction to that lacuna. Against manifold categories of time, the author reads relevant canonical works—Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker, Emily Carr’s Klee Wyck, and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road—as well as more idiosyncratic choices: Jacques Cartier’s 1534 journals or Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. Further texts investigated by Huebener include fiction by Shani Mootoo and drama by Marie Clements and Morris Panych.

DeFalco’s volume contributes to recent conversations about representations and interpretations of illness, disability, and interrelationality. Primarily through a selection of “life writing” exemplars, each about caring for a disabled “other,” Imagining Care examines the unstable ethical terrain of autobiographies that also encompass biography about subjects who may not have consented, and perhaps cannot consent, to such publications. The most striking analysis in the book, to my reading, centres on Brown’s The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son. Perhaps because Brown himself addresses his own anxieties over the memoiristic impulse, in that the autobiographical “subject” is symbolically subordinate to the biographical “object” in the book’s title, DeFalco can neatly link Brown’s contentious position to philosophical principles of care. When the critic turns to Ignatieff’s Scar Tissue, however, she loses sight of some insights gained in the earlier discussion of Brown. DeFalco relegates to the position of critical object the writer of fiction under her (albeit professionalized) care. Imagining Care’s third chapter, “Caring for Relative Others,” paints an unflattering personal portrait of Ignatieff based on a description of his tenuous relationship to the prolonged death of a relative, supposedly the “source” of his fiction. While DeFalco’s criticisms may prove legitimate, a reader lacks context for these biographical claims as well as a justification for evaluating the biographical alongside the fictive. This evident misstep does not significantly impair a book more carefully composed than this particular detail would indicate. And the contentious ethics of fictive/literal representations (sometimes exploitations) do not pervade the book’s argument. DeFalco covers this and similar issues to undo common assumptions about the totalizing meanings attached to widely accepted notions of health and care—alongside the related concepts of “affection, devotion, responsibility, even obligation.” The critic hits upon a fundamental topic, if one more subtle of conception than “time,” that necessitates inquiries such as “what is one to do with, or about, another person’s suffering?”

DeFalco’s project sets out to challenge the idea of Canada as a caring nation. The ideals of universal health care and a supposedly less genocidal treatment of Indigenous populations north of the American border do not by themselves, she argues, counter the gendered and racialized inequities of the giving and receiving of care. Her investigation of the subject situates the universal necessity for care as being at odds with the Western and patriarchal cultural values of autonomy and independence. DeFalco enacts a feminist critique that connects ethical philosophies of care to literary representations of caregiving.

Huebener, for his part, conducts a systematic analysis of temporal power and possibility. The author follows Daniel Coleman’s idea that imperial time—i.e., linear or isochronic time—dominates three contesting temporalities in Canada (allowing for inevitable subcategories, omissions, and contradictions): nation-based postcolonial time, diasporic displacement time, and Indigenous concentric time. As a solution to the present-day and historically determined impasse between these contested temporalities, Huebener develops the notion of “provisional time,” which he introduces through a reading of Thomas King’s comical chorus of divine or omniscient figures in Green Grass, Running Water. Continually interrupting the novel’s supposed progress, Coyote asks “[h]ow many more times do we have to do this?” The narrator responds: “Until we get it right.” Here, the critic identifies a particular form of event time with no specifications for its possible—that is, provisional—completion, or even any possibility for milestones en route. The idea of provisional time takes the author 220 pages to develop, and the concept sees him through to the book’s conclusion. Although Huebener does not deploy the term with regularity, the concept underwrites the argument’s denouement:

Everyday temporal discourse that is willing to disassemble and repurpose itself can help not only to resist temporal discrimination, but also to contextualize Canada’s present-day existence within long-standing issues of contested indigeneity, ownership, and priority. Incorporating silenced temporalities into normal discourse allows the everyday language that has been complicit in temporal hegemony to transform itself, embracing a consciousness of its own embattled histories.

This passage demonstrates the tone and quality of Huebener’s work. The major flaw of Timing Canada is in its subtitle, for “literary culture” does not adequately describe the broad range of historical, philosophical, political, artistic, technological, and advertising sources that inform Huebener’s rich analysis, one that threatens to endure.

This review “New Terms, Old Concerns” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 140-142.

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