Saturday, April 27, 2013

Zane Grey, The Vanishing American

Imagine, if you will, a novel from the 1920s, set in the western half of North America. Imagine, more specifically, that it's set in First Nations territory. What are the options for your imaginary author? What's your author going to do with this place's Indians? Is there any chance of winning here?

It's important simply to recognize that there are options, first of all. I'm not necessarily going to recommend Bertrand Sinclair's move in The Inverted Pyramid (hide them! For God's sake, hide them!), but you don't have to go all Zane Grey about it.
Mind you ... some folks do loves them some Zane Grey. Some people even teach his novels. Much to my surprise, there isn't a single hit on Google for "goddamned Zane Grey" (or "goddamn" or even "god damn").

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bertrand Sinclair, The Inverted Pyramid

My paternal grandfather, whom I loved enormously, was wrong: every BC bookshelf needed not just the two crucial books he insisted upon (apocryphally, at least), but three. Alongside the galloping metre of the Collected Works of Robert Service and M. Wylie Blanchet's indeterminately fictionalized non-fiction Curve of Time, we should also have Bertrand Sinclair's 1924 glorious mess of a novel The Inverted Pyramid, newly republished by Ronsdale Press.

And make no mistake, this is in many ways a mess of a novel. On the formal side of things, for example, characters don't always engage in dialogue so much as deliver unto each other speeches, sometimes multi-paragraph speeches running to nearly a page in length. In line with the novel's handling of dialogue, Sinclair's characters tend toward the representative rather than the real, so to speak. Ideologically, it was at times hard for me to read over the noise of my subconscious shouting, "Where are all the First Nations people, and why do these long-ago Chilcotin warriors keep getting mentioned?"

But it's a product of the early 1920s, etc., both formally and politically. It's a message novel, and the message Sinclair is trying to deliver has something to do with the foundation myths of colonial British Columbia. As such, it's no surprise to see him using the formal conventions of the message novel and responding in kind to the politics in play immediately after the First World War.

In other words, I greatly enjoyed this messy old novel's impassioned denunciations of capitalist consumerism, industrialism, union-busting, and war. Sinclair develops a precise but sweeping attack on those who would start and prolong a war simply in order to make a profit, in effect killing others' children in order to buy more expensive toys; his critique of industrialist looting generally was to me a delight.

This, finally, is a version of British Columbia history that I can maybe identify with.

Except that I can't, not really. The Norquay family attempts something utopian, but however well-intentioned, their ultimate success (such as it is) comes from environmental devastation inside an industrial-scale framework of social relations. Other paths to similar success could have been imagined for the Norquays, though Sinclair would've considered them less realist and hence less viable within his novel: revenge, basically, either judicially or through more underhanded means. Accordingly, I'm left wishing I couldn't remember just enough Ayn Rand to distrust the individualist honour system supported by Sinclair's moral schematic.

(Mind you, I'm also NOT able to remember enough Ayn Rand to be quite sure how Sinclair's ideas map onto hers. And I'm also NOT looking it up. Do yourself a favour, and remain similarly ignorant, okay? Nothing good has ever come from paying sustained attention to Ayn Rand.)

I found this flawed novel, such a product of its troubled times, to be utterly fascinating, particularly the chance to watch a novelist try to wed Wobbly-style sympathies with the worker (including a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise!), with something like a positive proto-Randian hero or √úbermensch. Also a romantic plot, family values, and something like tree-hugging. Lots to love here, as well as to distrust and to mock self-validatingly.

In sum, Bertrand Sinclair belongs on a hell of a lot more BC bookshelves than he currently occupies! I'm now scheming ways to force the book club to take a run at one of his other novels....

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Frances Greenslade, Shelter

Thank you, Bolen Books: sometime ago, as I was wandering your aisles, I noticed Frances Greenslade's novel Shelter. How a novel set in the BC interior of the early 1970s had escaped my attention, especially when it had been nominated for the BC Book Prize on its publication, I'll never know, but you set me straight, and I'm grateful to have found this entrancing slice of high-realist fiction.

Admittedly, I'm not the only one who missed Shelter, but this is SO my kind of novel that it just shouldn't have slipped past my radar.

Or is it my kind of fiction? After all, I found myself wanting to respond more positively than I did to Matthew Hooton's wonderful, accomplished Deloume Road, which is similar enough to Greenslade's that if you read them both, you'd end up with a terrifically nuanced view of rural BC childhood that allowed you to compare the 70s and 90s, plus the interior and Vancouver Island. There's a high-quality thesis just begging to be written on these novels, and I'm confident that they would both support that degree of close reading.

I'm not sure how I've ended up jaded enough, if that's what it is, not to fall instantly in love with the very best writing you're going to read from the high-realist tradition of Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod, but here I sit. Hmm.

It's a lovely, wonderful novel, Shelter, and I'm delighted to see it getting so much international attention. The story of young Maggie Dillon and her older sister Jenny, growing up mostly parent-less in and around Williams Lake in the early 1970s, Shelter is filled with rich characters: some of them are mostly plot devices, as in every novel, but I really appreciated the complexity that Greenslade brought to so many of the minor ones. These two girls are growing up without their mother, not sure whether she lives or dies, or will ever return to them, but rather than obsess about her, Maggie feels her way deeply along. One reviewer wondered whether the novel's pace came from Greenslade's day job as an English prof, but for me, it's the right pace for worrying, hyper-aware Maggie. Through Maggie, we get a layered, detailed sense of her town's social complexities at that time (including some Carrier characters who aren't just there to provide localist cred) as well as of the natural setting each character has to navigate.

Honestly, this might be the perfect novel for a Canadian book club. Not for mine, because you're a bunch of beer-drinking punks, but for every other Canadian book club!

Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl

It's going to be such fun, seeing how my students handle Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl in the fall of 2013! Mind you, I'm going to have to figure out before then how I'm handling it myself, and I'm not quite sure just yet.

Image from a blog I can't read
The back cover describes the book as "a remarkable novel about gender, love, honour, intrigue, and fighting against the dark forces of biotechnology," so clearly it's a novel for everyone. In terms of the novel's insurgent transfeminism ... sorry, what? You disagree that just anybody will enjoy it?

Well, you're not the only one: critical opinion is divided on Salt Fish Girl, not entirely along gendered lines, but oddly near to it. Guy Beauregard in Canadian Literature wasn't keen on the novel, and Craig Taylor in Horse & Hounds Quill & Quire wasn't sold on it, either, though both were generally complimentary in spite of their overall meh. The brilliant Rita Wong, on quite the other hand, has a great deal to say about the book's artistry and activist potential (PDF auto-download), and Elizabeth C. Harmer has thought carefully about Lai's overlapping use of mythos and cyborgs. Less academic are these very positive reviews by Genie Giaimo and Anne Jansen.

The novel's braided stories do come together, but the way they reflect on each other left me productively uncertain about how I understood the novel and its characters. One portion of the novel is set in 19th-century China, the other in mid-21st-century Vancouver, but the novel opens with something of a creation myth, too, the timing (and intended reliability) of which continues to puzzle me. I'm comfortable being puzzled, distrusting certainty as I so confidently do, of course, so that's not a complaint.

A decaying future Vancouver; the triumphant survival of shoe companies, right to the edge of global apocalypse; escapes into forests; lesbian clones; procreation in a world that hasn't earned our trust: Salt Fish Girl gets a lot of West Coast alt-lit checkmarks, and yet it's a version of BC that I haven't quite seen before. Totally worth your time -- though you might hate it anyway, in which case I get it, but you're wrong.

This isn't the first time that I've committed to teach a book before having read it, and while it isn't a comfortable experience, I've always come away thinking that it was the right decision. The mixed critical reception has me thinking that working through the novel in class should be interesting indeed!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Extinction fiction

It's going to be a great course!

At least, it's going to be great once you help me finish building it in Google Docs, and then once it's open, I hope you'll either sign up or hang out with us.

Image from Planetary
In January 2014, I'll be teaching at UVic a section of English 478, Special Studies in Literature and Environment. It's one of our department's "variable-content" courses, which means that the same themes or texts can't be addressed in any three-year window. This coming year, we're going to be talking about fears of human extinction in an SF-heavy version of 478 called "The End of the Human."

When I proposed the course, I had some ideas about where to take the course, and about what books I might want to read with the course's students, but I always knew that I wanted to let the course evolve. This post is the first step in building a learning community in and around "The End of the Human," within our Environmental Humanities research group. Let me give you some details, for background, and at the bottom I'll post a link to Google Docs that you can edit yourself.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Etc.

I'm a sucker for a great book title, and there are some readers I'm always prepared to trust (even when I disagree with them), so I'm not at all surprised to have really enjoyed Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Through a complicated series of deficiencies and poor life choices, I've read too few of the core SF classics, so it's nice to get this one off my list.

Maybe I'll even watch Blade Runner now. Who knows.

(I've been saying it to students for a long time, so let me say it publicly as well: academics generally make poor SF readers, because we just don't have the mental space both for the literary canon we're supposed to carry around in our brains, and for the special SF canons required to make full sense of a particular SF writer or text. There's some very weak academic literary criticism of SF, speculative fiction, and fantasy. Usually it's very well meant, of course, but "well meant"  "well done." Caveat lector, is what I'm saying.)

There's precious little point to my saying much about this novel, I think: caveat lector certainly applies to my readers on this blog, especially when I'm swallowing a novel as rapidly as I did Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Regardless, because I'm an academic and therefore congenitally unable to stop opining.....

It's a fascinating small triumph, this novel. People love it, I get that, and I can totally understand it, but for me, maybe because I'm reading it so out of sequence historically and personally, it's one gem among many, rather than the touchstone that some of its fans consider it. I've appreciated so many of the insights and confessions I've read over the years when reading about Androids that the novel was really never going to meet those expectations. I didn't expect that it would, so maybe that helped, but hard to say.

When I posted recently on Ender's Game, similarly a genre classic that I'd failed to get around to reading, a frequent commenter on this blog remarked that I now "qualify to be a 15-year-old SF nerd/geek." I'm a startlingly long way past that age now, and teenagers weren't the target market for SF in the 60s, but maybe he's saying that I'm incapable of having my mind blown by SF novels. Sad if true.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Charles C. Mann, 1491

If you're not much of a reader, or if you'd rather not read about history, there's an alternative to reading Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus -- you could watch yourself some seriously funny 1491s, and find a way to genuinely get what they're doing. (Maybe some Twilight Indian auditions?)

But if you don't read Mann's 1491, well, unless you're an active researcher in the academic fields Mann touches on, you'll never properly understand the Americas, or Indians / First Nations / what have you, or cultural evolution, or human history. Quite simply, I just can't think of another book that comes close to the significance of this one, appearing at this particular time. (Plus it's kind of a fun read, full of interesting stories and cool details and "trick the reader" plot twists: doubly recommendable!)

The gist: when Mann's child entered high school, Mann was dismayed to learn that textbooks about the history of the Americas hadn't really changed since he'd been there himself, 30 years before. History being the past, maybe you think that's okay, but in fact Mann knew that the academic understanding of the Americas had undergone almost unimaginable change over the last few decades. Disappointed, but no doubt excited as well, Mann felt he had no choice but to write the damned book he'd hoped someone with actual expertise would write, just as soon as he developed enough of his own expertise not to look like an idiot (cough *Jared Diamond* cough).