Pomo Redux

Reviewed by Kit Dobson

It is difficult for me to overstate the value of this book, the latest in the “Reappraisals: Canadian Writers” series published by the University of Ottawa Press, and the result of the 2008 Canadian Literature Symposium at the same university. This book is a must-read for anyone attempting to understand Canadian literature since the 1960s, whether or not the primary writers studied in this book (many of the postmodern “usual suspects” and beyond) are the focus of one’s study. RE: Reading the postmodern is an excellent resource for comprehending where Canadian literature has been in the past half-century, where CanLit is now, and where CanLit is going. It is the antidote to casual references to “the postmodern” as a shorthand for things that are weird, challenging, “avant-garde,” or that otherwise go “bump” in the night by those who are opposed to the literary experimentation that has taken place in recent history. Robert Stacey’s collection adds a great deal of specificity, weight, and intelligence to the postmodern in Canada—as a term invested with a particular history, set of practices, and outcomes. The essays collected in this volume are wide-ranging, frequently in disagreement with one another, and altogether important in helping readers gain insight into this area of CanLit.

After Stacey’s critical introduction to the book, four sections govern the structure: “Retrospections,” “En Garde! Traditions, Counter-Traditions, Anti-Traditions,” “Historicities,” and “Publics.” Stacey begins his introduction by noting the historical nature of the term: “at one time in the academic and intellectual life in this country,” he writes, “‘postmodernism’ was a powerful word.” This power has declined, and the postmodern is now, by and large, something away from which CanLit has moved (without any single dominant paradigm to replace it). Ranging from his personal account of first encountering the term through Linda Hutcheon’s work—especially The Canadian Postmodern, a book that is a touchstone for many writers throughout RE: Reading the Postmodern—to an historical overview of the tensions entailed in understanding the postmodern, Stacey makes a convincing case for the need for a wide-ranging debate of the term, a debate from which “no single understanding of Canadian postmodernism will emerge.” The understandings are particularly vexed, Stacey observes, in part because of a sharp critical divide between the study of prose and poetry. Stacey notes the self-conscious tension of historicizing a term that itself contests the telling of history, all the while providing a broad genealogy for postmodernism beyond Canada, through the work of thinkers like Jameson, Hayden White, Derrida, and beyond.

The first section, “Retrospections,” includes important essays by Robert Kroetsch, Frank Davey, and Linda Hutcheon. These three contributors are essential for a book on the topic, and each essay delineates a different aspect of the postmodern: Kroetsch discusses his intervention, via boundary 2, into postmodernism in Canada; Davey’s shuffle text essay aphoristically challenges our preconceptions of the postmodern; and Hutcheon’s essay notes the historical dimension to her contribution to the debate via The Canadian Postmodern through a discussion of changes that have taken place since. The second section of the book, “En Garde!,” situates and debates the contributions of the key figures in Canadian postmodernism. Adam Carter begins by tracing tropes of postmodern irony through Hutcheon’s work and Christian Bök argues for a definition of the postmodern in Canada that, in opposition to Hutcheon’s well-known definitions of historiographic metafiction and ex-centricity, is situated within an avant-garde experimental practice. Stephen Cain works in this section to produce a generational shift in Canadian postmodernism by identifying what he sees as a “second wave” in writers like Daniel Jones and Lynn Crosbie, while Alexander MacLeod works through Robert Kroetsch’s regionalism in tandem with his understanding of the postmodern. Gregory Betts completes the second section via a discursus into sound and visual poetry that replaces a notion of the avant-garde with a notion of decadence.

The subsequent section, “Historicities,” begins with a contemplation of the role, specifically, of historical fiction within Canadian postmodernism by Herb Wyile that notes an ebb in experimentation within such fiction, an assertion that Jennifer Blair tests indirectly in the subsequent essay through a complex examination of The Englishman’s Boy via Deleuze and Bergson. Deborah C. Bowen follows Blair’s analysis with one on The Stone Diaries’ use of the photograph and parodic effects of the real in a fictional context, while Jenn Stephenson offers a take on metatheatricality onstage at the turn of the millennium. Sylvia Söderlind concludes the section by offering a reading of “ghostmodernism” and the spaces between the modern and postmodern. The final section, “Publics,” offers a reading of George Bowering’s less-often studied A Short, Sad Book by Jason Wiens as a response to the frequent focus on books like Burning Water; a clear account of a cross-generational shifts in Canadian poetry from Pauline Butling that argues for an ongoing tradition of radical innovation; and concludes with a call from Susan Rudy for a “poetics of enactment” that she reads through the work of Erín Moure, Jeff Derksen, and Nicole Brossard, and that she ends with one of my favourite passages from bp Nichol’s Selected Organs.

Pauline Butling notes in her paper that the original conference “did not elicit much response from feminists, writers of colour, or gay and lesbian writers” and notes that this problematic is a particularity of the postmodern, which has been a project that has attracted writers / critics vested with cultural privilege. Butling notes that the conference organizers nevertheless did a good job of balancing these tensions, and RE: Reading the Postmodern attempts to do so as well. At the end of the day, this volume lives up to Stacey’s assertion in the introduction that it “represents the most significant attempt to address the question of Canadian postmodernism across a multiplicity of genres ever published, and the only anthology of Canadian postmodernist criticism to be published in Canada.”

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