Where Shall We Live Now?

  • Cheryl Cowdy (Author)
    Canadian Suburban: Reimagining Space and Place in Postwar English Canadian Fiction. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Tim Bowling (Author)
    The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird: Essays on the Common and Extraordinary. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Hilary Turner

Literary genre has long been tied to place. The pastoral, the gothic, and perhaps especially the nautical adventure have all accrued conventions specific to physical setting. These have defined our expectations of what may happen (and to whom) in a given landscape or seascape.  Beginning with what Northrop Frye called the “garrison mentality” of the first colonizers, Canadian writers may be said to have exhibited a particularly strong awareness of place, one that has tended to make binary pairs of the wild and the tamed, the rural and the urban, the marginal and the mainstream. As poet, novelist, and memoirist Tim Bowling remarked in an interview with BC Bookworld, “I grew up in a blue-collar town ten minutes down the road from a white-collar town. And I’ve spent most of my life uncomfortable in both places.” Bowling’s recent collection of essays and reflections, together with Cheryl Cowdy’s study of the fiction of Canadian suburbia, invites us to re-evaluate our assumptions about the influence of place on identity and community.


Bowling’s expansive memoir, The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture (2007) described his childhood in the 1970s.  A fisherman’s son growing up at the mouth of the Fraser, Bowling was conscious from an early age of the precariousness of the resource economy on which his family depended. Though not a sequel, The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird is equally elegiac; it revisits the concerns and some of the scenes of Bowling’s youth, yet poses the mature man’s question (succinctly stated by Montaigne): when all is said and done, que sais-je?


Part One of this book answers the question in a forthright fashion with nine short personal essays. Bowling knows hockey, handwriting, and haiku; experience has taught him about the fleetingness of childhood, the bemusements and “absurdity” of middle age, and the awkwardness with which the established poet adapts or fails to adapt to “a materialist culture that has no respect for or interest in a deeply engaged and thoughtful record of any stage of life.” At the same time, these short pieces are as much poetry as prose, insofar as a central, observed truth is captured and encircled by a complicated wreath of memories, allusions, analogies, and images.  Poets, like other people, have to live in the “real” world of competitive striving. Their gift, but also their disadvantage, is a recognition that this effort of conformity requires a disguise.


Part Two, the more absorbing section of the book, is thus devoted to discovering what lies beneath the mask. Place is of vital importance here. Bowling is convinced that only in solitude can economic man discover an authentic self. Robinson Crusoe, the first modern fiction about solitude, is examined—in full awareness that remote, uninhabited islands are scarce these days. The stories of famous historical drop-outs such as Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Merton, the reclusive Neil Armstrong, and Christopher Knight (who survived by burglary for thirty years in the woods of Maine) are likewise sifted for what they can offer the seeker of true knowledge. But the heart of this lengthy meditation is Alf Harley, a semi-legendary hermit from Bowling’s childhood, who lived and died alone on a tiny island in the Ladner Marsh. Bowling tries to replicate the desert-island experience, first venturing out by moonlight to walk the ravines that weave through downtown Edmonton, and then making a pilgrimage to Alf’s island. Sadly, no trace of the hermit remains, but fragments of Bowling’s childhood are still accessible, the island and the river demarcating a threshold between past and present. A heightened appreciation of this liminal space is the bounty he brings back from his immersion in solitude.


Though necessarily less intimate than Bowling’s book, Canadian Suburban is anchored in Cheryl Cowdy’s recollections of growing up in Mississauga, arguably the original, iconic Canadian suburb. Paradoxical as it sounds, liminality is one of the defining features of suburban space. Neither city nor country, located beyond traditional boundaries, without much history or many landmarks, the suburbs have long been supposed to lack character as well. But Cowdy too finds meaning in liminal space. Her account begins with an artistically rendered map of the planned community of Meadowvale, circa 1978—a visual model that delightfully blends the real and the “aspirational” to suggest the limitless possibilities of human identity. It is in the act of putting pen to paper, she suggests, that dreams become realities: “the real and the imaginary; the past, present, and future; here and there; centre and periphery: all collide.” Thus literary genres are conceived: the conceptual becomes the literal and then the literary. Cowdy argues convincingly that suburban settings in Canadian fiction from 1970 to the present have incubated a form of fiction that is sui generis.


Her evidence is drawn from a dozen or so novels from two distinct periods. The first wave of the suburban novel (with settings in the early 1970s) includes The Weekend Man by Richard Wright and The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence, each preoccupied in different ways with anonymity and alienation. These are followed by two novels by Margaret Atwood (Lady Oracle and Cat’s Eye) which prefigure Bowling’s discovery of the intraurban ravine as liminal space within liminal space, a dreamlike world akin to the mind of the artist or poet, a space that contains “the childhood experiences that they have repressed.” Suburban territory is thus linked to identity and creativity. The early novels of Barbara Gowdy (Falling Angels and The Romantic) complete this arc by literalizing the metaphors that emerge from such a fruitful, if “arbitrary” synthesis. The genre of the suburban is by now at the ironic stage—offering imaginary gardens that contain real toads.


Cowdy understands the second phase of this evolution as embodying something beyond irony. The novels of Douglas Coupland, Gerald Lynch, Colin McAdam, Judy MacDonald, David Chariandy and others depict a fluid and sometimes gothic suburbia that is a test-tube of all the dilemmas of contemporary society—not uniquely equipped to resolve them, but able to cast them into high relief. As she has noted, the building of suburbia is merely an extension of the colonizing impulse. Appropriately, then, the idea of communitas is shown in these more recent novels to be a product of the very displacement—on the basis of class, and later of ethnicity and race—that the suburbs evolved to address. Spatially, the suburbs bring the margins to the centre, as the evolution of “Scarborough” to “Scarberia” and then to “Scar-bro” amply illustrates. Figuratively, this maturation of the genre also suggests a merging of the marginal and the mainstream that gives voice to diversity in a new and constructive way.


Cowdy’s scholarship draws upon writers who have theorized the interdependency of consciousness and space—Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan, Victor Turner, Jane Jacobs—and her adjustment of the boundaries of literary history to accommodate a new category of fiction is compelling. Like Tim Bowling, however, she remains mindful of the sense of identity, both individual and social, that enables us to locate ourselves on the map, literally, imaginatively, conceptually, and fictively.

This review “Where Shall We Live Now?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 14 Dec. 2022. Web.

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