Fiction

BOOKS AND TH E CITY

Finally, Canadian novels that portray the lives of contemporary urbanites

Brian Bethune May 10 2004
Fiction

BOOKS AND TH E CITY

Finally, Canadian novels that portray the lives of contemporary urbanites

Brian Bethune May 10 2004

BOOKS AND TH E CITY

Fiction

Finally, Canadian novels that portray the lives of contemporary urbanites

BRIAN BETHUNE

THE MOST remarkable thing about the season’s new Canadian novels is not their general failure to appear on best-seller lists. Commercially successful literary fiction may be less a contradiction in terms here than in most countries, but it’s still very much a name-recognition business, and there are no really big names on this spring’s lists. No, what’s noteworthy about the new fiction is how much of it is urban and present-day in its settings, an anomaly in a literature lately obsessed with history and immigrant sagas. The two phenomena—the modern urban milieu and unspectacular sales—may not be unrelated, of course, given Canadians’ literary love affair with small-town roots and family stories. Even so, it’s refreshing to read fictional depictions of how most of us— modern-day urbanites that we are—live now.

Colin McAdam’s Some Great Thing may reach back to the 1970s, but its setting is Ottawa. Don Coles puts his characters in 21st-century Toronto in Doctor Bloom ’s Story, as does Blind Night, although Cordelia Strube’s smart, edgy book could have taken place in any big city. But two novels, Trevor Cole’s Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life and MuriellaPent by Russell Smith, are so up-to-the-minute Toronto that both unfold significant scenes in the city’s downat-the-heels but artistically lively west end. There, Cole’s title character lives on newly trendy Sorauren Avenue, the same street where Smith’s artists brag of having obtained studio space.

Norman Bray (McClelland & Stewart) is the funniest book on offer, despite strong competition from Blind Night. Strube’s bitter humour probably hasn’t helped her with readership in the past, and Cole’s more gentle variety won’t win his debut novel any favours in the CanLit prize world. But for anyone who can safely look upon him from afar, his main character—a 56-year-old failed actor and monster of self-absorbed egotism—is endlessly entertaining. Norman’s career in musicals, such as it’s been—the highlight was playing the lead in Kismet at Calgary’s Foothills Theatre in the mid-1970s— has completely flatlined.

Now he’s lost his last paying job, as the voice of Tiny in Tiny Taxi, a third-rate kiddie show. Norman was offered the part of the villain, but summoning up all his injured pride and utter lack of self-awareness, he quit instead: “I’m the lead.” Other disasters threaten to crack his astonishing indifference. His sister, who used to share her disability pension during Norman’s lengthy periods of “rest,” has no time for him now that she has found a lover. A banker wants to foreclose on the house since Norman has ignored his mortgage payments for a year. (He inherited his home from his long-suffering common-law wife, and was—until the rude shock of the foreclosure notice—blithely unaware of the very concept of mortgages.)

ROYSTON ís almost Shakespearian in his dread that advancing age will empty him out artistically and sexually

In short, Norman is the author of his own spectacular crash. But Cole ensures, with a delicate touch and fine writing, that we do not wholeheartedly cheer his hero’s comeuppance. He may be the self-absorbed lead, the sole talent around whom the rest of the world must revolve, but Norman has his good points too. He has never felt poor or depressed despite a career that others find risible. When a counsellor from the bank talks of the “basic necessities of living,” Norman wonders if “joy” or “the pursuits of inspiration” are included.

More subtly, Cole uses the increasing demands of his other characters to indicate that Norman is not so far beyond the pale after all. Besides, Norman slowly begins to realize that there are other people in the world. He actually asks an unhappy woman what’s wrong, “a question he can’t remember ever asking before.” The performance of his life has been far from a masterpiece for Norman Bray the actor, but Norman Bray the novel is a triumph for Trevor Cole.

Compared to Norman, Cordelia Strube’s protagonist McKenna has real problems, very few of which are her own fault. An exjunkie single mother who was abused as a child, McKenna has a sex-addicted ex-husband hiding from loan sharks, a narcoleptic dog, the sudden care of her abusive father after his stroke, and a precocious but understandably anxiety-ridden eight-year-old daughter. Oh, and on the first page of Blind Night (Thomas Allen) a truck rams into her house, completely destroying it and giving McKenna a concussion that leaves her colour-blind—a particularly unfortunate affliction for a hair stylist. Yes, it is very funny, if your mind moves in certain channels, but it’s also painfully moving, a broken glass-sharp tale of mother love.

McKenna hates herself with a dedication that only unloved children can bring to their adult lives. “Your self-loathing becomes a kind of religion,” she muses. “You visit the shrine daily and lament.” Daughter Logan literally saved her mother’s life, merely “by implanting herself in my uterus.” But that painfully crafted equilibrium is now on the verge of shattering as McKenna struggles to earn a living and Logan, menaced by a pedophiliac daycare worker, tries to drown herself. That Strube can take the undercurrent of rage that fuels this Hieronymus Bosch-like litany of horrors and craft a conclusion that is both believable and hopeful is a remarkable literary feat.

Russell Smith’s Toronto could be on another planet from Strube’s. Muriella Pent (Doubleday), Smith’s third novel, is an oddly compelling book. As a satire it isn’t strong, mostly because its main targets—aging lust and youthful disdain, politically correct arts bureaucrats and their grant forms,where applicants are encouraged to discuss their ethnicity or sexual orientation under the heading Disabilities—have been so long and so well thwacked it hardly seems worth kicking them again. That said, near the end of the novel Smith does perform a particularly deft skewering of a new character—a sweaty, blushing Regina academic who arrives in the big city fulminating about Toronto-centrism and the silencing of regional voices. Dr. Winthrup is more than a little reminiscent, in his opinions if not his person, of novelist and critic Stephen Henighan, whose similar argument in his essay collection When Words Deny the World prompted a nasty little spat with Smith two years ago.

But as a novel of manners about ambitious young downtowners of an artistic bent, Muriella Pent is adroit and amusing. And in its depiction of one exceptional character, Caribbean poet Marcus Royston, it is very good indeed. Muriella Pent is a well-off but lonely middle-aged widow, an ignored member of a city arts committee. Her life is adrift until an unexpected catalyst in the form of Royston—weary, sophisticated and moreEnglish-than-the-English—comes to stay with her as a visiting writer. Genuinely talented, Royston hasn’t published in years, but he remains a compelling figure, almost Shakespearian in his dread that advancing age will empty him out artistically and sexually. In the same way that his forceful personality impels Pent into a new appreciation of art (and life), the poet wreaks havoc with the grant committee’s expectations.

In one of Smith’s more intriguing themes, Royston views Canada and his home island of St. Andrew’s as equivalent lost souls, a pair of post-colonial British orphans. This infuriates his hosts, who see Canada and Britain as the advanced countries and Royston’s island as the supplicant backwater, mired in poverty and racism. As a black man, Royston is assumed to hold certain opinions, particularly about a writer’s duty to champion the marginalized; his robust belief that his duty is only to his art is the intellectual heart of the novel.

Poetry runs through Colin McAdam’s Some Great Thing (Raincoast) too, in the rhythmic speech of Jerry McGuinty. A driven plasterer-tumed-builder in 1970s Ottawa, where the rapidly expanding civil service has set off a construction boom, McGuinty dreams big and talks like a drunken Irish bard out ofjames Joyce. “My name is Jerry and I built this house. Four-square, plaster walls, buttressed from toe to tip with an iron goddamn will, my friend, standing proud proud proud, and with the grace of God and the sweat of men I will build a thousand more.” McGuinty does have a foil, an upper-class, WASP land-use bureaucrat named Simon Struthers, a natural enemy whose fate becomes entwined with his own. But it is McGuinty—his epic rise and fall, his gain of an empire and loss of a family, and his hypnotic voice—that dominates the novel.

Like Yann Martel (Life of Pi), McAdam— who currently lives in Sydney with his Australian wife—is the son of a Canadian diplomat and grew up around the globe. On a visit to Toronto last winter, he joked that he chose a builder as protagonist “so I could write the f-word a lot.” Given that he was in Cambridge at the time, mired in a Ph.D. thesis about Greek-toEnglish translators during the 17th-century Restoration, the urge to swear is understandable. But as much as Some GreatThing is a prose poem about yearning for love, it’s also a hymn to the discipline of craft, the joy of creation. Woven together, its themes form an assured and powerful debut.

Don Coles, 76 and one of Canada’s most honoured poets, is a first-time novelist with a difference. As Doctor Bloom’s Story (Knopf) opens, the Dutch-born physician has moved to Toronto after the death of his wife. He works part-time at a downtown clinic and, with ambitions to become an author, attends a university writing class conducted by a novelist neighbour. Bloom befriends the neighbour, falls for the man’s estranged wife, and discovers that his beautiful classmate Sophie is regularly beaten by her husband. Bloom’s oddly configured threesomedoctor, novelist and lover—plan to rescue Sophie, but are dumfounded by her adamant refusal to be saved. Then chance brings the abuser under Bloom’s medical care, and with it an opportunity to save Sophie from the consequences of her own decision.

A DRIVEN plastererturned-builder, Jerry McGuinty dreams big and talks like a drunken Irish bard out of James Joyce

Nicolaas Bloom is an immensely endearing and thought-provoking creation. Partly it’s his suspiciously encyclopedic literary knowledge, more worthy of an elder Canadian poet than a busy cardiologist. (And there’s the fact that he and Marcus Royston, the most memorable characters in this spring’s fiction, are both foreigners—perhaps Canadian writers think urbanity is unCanadian.) But mostly it’s his companionable, civilized narration. Even in the midst of serious matters, Bloom is happy to veer off on a brief tangent about Cosimo de’ Medici’s exacting taste, or his own “superbly few thoughts” on Tolstoy. But Bloom always returns to the main thread of his story, slowly revealing himself as a man who might well, as it turns out, be willing to kill for his beliefs. Part crisp thriller, part meditation on writing, Doctor Bloom is wholly marvellous. I?il