Most characters in Canada’s fall fiction chase the ideal in all the wrong places

Brian Bethune October 4 2004


Most characters in Canada’s fall fiction chase the ideal in all the wrong places

Brian Bethune October 4 2004



Most characters in Canada’s fall fiction chase the ideal in all the wrong places


“IF I HAVE LEARNED anything in this lifetime, Isaac, it is this—one should never try to realize the ideal, but find the ideal in the real.” So writes an elderly Giacomo Casanova to a friend in Susan Swan’s new novel, What Casanova Told Me. It’s sound advice for anyone in an age of mindless fundamentalism—but most of the characters in this fall’s Canadian fiction spectacularly fail to follow it. From Swan’s Puritan girl on the run from an arranged marriage to the middle-aged protagonist of Richard Wright’s Adultery, Michael Winter’s expat painter in The Big Why, the pet owners in Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs and—above

all—the precocious girl geniuses in Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides, they all kick hard against the traces. Only the conflicted narrator ofWayson Choy’s All That Matters strives for the ideal in the real.

A new book from Choy is an event. His writing has a quiet integrity and an exquisite grace that can electrify readers—when they can get it, that is. Despite having one of his earliest efforts chosen for The Best American Short Stories of 1962, Choy, now 65, published only four pieces of short fiction in the following three decades. During that time, he told Maclean’s in a 1996 interview, he felt that writing was “so hard, and I don’t have anything to say.” What seemed then a simple lack of confidence reads in retrospect like a statement of fact. For when Choy published his first novel, The Jade Peony, in 1995, he broke the silence of one of Canada’s most reticent immigrant communities—and loosened the moorings of his own life.

His recreation of Vancouver’s pre-war Chinatown through the eyes of three children— mystified witnesses to the adult worldstirred memories of the days when a virulent racism shut off further immigration to a population desperately short of women. The use of false papers to fool the “big-nose immigration demons” was common.

Writing is hard, especially for a writer like

Choy, whose source material is rife with secrets his family and community preferred to keep hidden. In fact, after TheJade Peony appeared, a message from an older Chinese woman led Choy to learn, at age 56, that he had been adopted. That prompted Choy to write the exquisite Paper Shadows (1999), one of the finest memoirs ever penned by a Canadian. And now, with All That Matters, Choy has returned to familiar territory. This time the fictional child looking back is the Chen family’s First Son, Kiam-Kim, older brother to the children of The Jade Peony. Growing up in the same atmosphere of secrecy, Kiam-Kim is an observer as acute— and innocent—as his siblings. As in his previous books, Choy’s handling of childhood memory is dazzling. However perfect their

ALL THAT MATTERS Wayson Choy; Doubleday; $35.95

ADULTERY Richard Wright; HarperCollins; $32.95

WILD DOGS Helen Humphreys; HarperCollins; $28

HUNGER’S BRIDES Paul Anderson; Random House; $39.95

recall of certain moments, his kids never invest them with an adult portentousness; full awareness of their significance remains elusive even after they grow up.

Kiam-Kim is torn between Chinese family tradition and the New World. First Son thinks too much, or so his relatives say, in a culture that believes toeing the line is the key to survival. When the children gather before their grandmother, the incandescent PohPoh, to listen to the tales of Old China that bind the family to its roots, the tension within Kiam-Kim becomes overwhelming. So too does the subtle resonance of Choy’s writing. All That Matters is a beautiful novel.

Richard Wright’s 2001 novel, Clara Callan, vastly expanded his small but devoted readership, built up over eight previous books, as he swept the Ciller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium (best Ontario book) for his Depression-era tale of two sisters. That means his new novel, Adultery, carries a heavy freight of expectations. But lightning may not strike twice for the author. The new novel is quintessential Wright, marked by smooth craftsmanship and understated prose. Daniel Fielding, 55, a senior book editor, loves his life and his family, but has a desultory fling with a younger colleague while on a business trip. She soon exits the story, though, and in a fashion that exposes Fielding’s infidelity for all the world to see.

So why did he stray? Besides the short answer—opportunity knocked—Wright flicks at the past, at the mysterious imprint our parents leave upon us. (Fielding describes, in a lovely phrase that captures so many father-son relationships, chatting happily with his dad about “many things, none of which he could recall.”) Adultery, however, is not really about why, but about facing the moment, that never-to-be-put-right-

again instant of “the sniper’s bullet, the house ablaze, the abducted child.” Fielding has reserves of courage that keep him doggedly trying to repair the harm he’s caused. But he has none of Clara Callan’s élan, and Adultery, taut and austere as it is, hasn’t the warmth of the earlier novel.

There’s heat aplenty in Fielen Flumphreys’ fourth novel, Wild Dogs, despite its occasionally choppy 185 pages. And the book can be as stylized as a Kabuki performance: six pet owners gather nightly on the edge of a small city, trying to call back their dogs from the wild pack they’ve joined. The cliché says owners and dogs begin to look alike— these canines actually embody their owners’

personalities and symbolize the damaged humans’ displaced pacity for yearning, passion and trust. One owner is mentally handicapped, and thus free of civilized repression; unsurprisingly, she goes feral herself.

Yet there is a powerful, appealing story here, thanks to Alice, the primary narrator. She has fallen redemptively, if heartbreakingly, in love with one of the other owners, wildlife biologist Rachel. Even though the rise and fall of the affair is br utally hard on her, Alice’s willingness to love makes her the least hurt of the bereft humans, the one with the best chance at happiness. Similarly, her lover’s pet—not a dog at all, but a wolf raised from a cub— signifies how Rachel is not capable of trust.

There’s room to spare for seven Helen Humphreys novels in Paul Anderson’s 1,354page tour-de-force, Hunger’s Brides. It’s a difficult text, even to describe. Ranging seamlessly between the 17th century and now, Hunger’s Brides details the parallel lives of two child prodigies, Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz, the greatest Spanish-language poet of her era, and the unstable Beulah Limosneros, a Calgary scholar obsessed with the Mexican Juana, who entered a convent at 19 and eventually took a vow of silence. Beulah’s former supervisor (and one-time lover) Don Gregory narrates the tale, piecing it together from notes he snatched from Beulah’s apartment after a beating left her in a coma.

And that’s just the starting point for a novel that draws on Inquisitorial records, Spanish accounts of Aztec blood sacrifices, and theological disputes, to ask why genius would silence itself. Anderson undermines the basic assumptions of historical fiction by constantly pointing out the threads linking the Baroque age to the 20th century, like the remarkably similar heresy trials held in Soviet Russia and Colonial Mexico. And by slyly reminding readers, through Gregory’s mocking footnotes, that people in the past sounded fully modern to themselves, just as we will sound antiquated to future generations. That was a lesson he had to learn himself from Beulah, the master taught by the student: “Your Postmodern, Dr. Gregory, is just the Baroque, with its blood sucked out.” There’s no doubting the meat on the bones of Hunger’s Brides, the brilliance of its ideas and composition, but it’s no easy read.

In contrast, Susan Swan’s What Casanova Told Me, another parallel-track historical novel, easily engages the reader. Many will be irritated by the main modern character, Luce Adams, a Toronto archivist—an easy metaphor for dusty and dried up—who can’t hold a candle to her robust 18th-century Yankee forebear, Asked For Adams. But Swan provides excellent reason for Luce’s old-maidish ways: she spent her childhood playing housewife for her mother, a beloved feminist academic. More important, Luce represents our era, at once more skeptical and more fearful than Asked For’s.

The novel opens with Luce heading to Europe for a memorial service for her mother. She carries with her, as a loan to a Venetian museum, Adams family treasures: her ancestor’s journal from 1797, when she was in

Venice with her father, and letters written to her by Giacomo Casanova. Asked For emerges in all her charm, a very tall 25-year-old with a propensity for noting moral Lessons Learned, and an unfortunate relationship with her body, which she refers to as My Poor Friend. But Casanova knows the cure for that. Rather than returning home to a loveless marriage, Asked For runs away with the elderly rake—Casanova was 72 in 1797— and the two embark on a wonderfully evoked love affair. Swan might have been wiser not to solve the mystery at the heart of her story (what happened to Asked For after her last journal entry). But the author was surely right to make Luce more alive after her journey. Or what’s the point of leaving home?


Susan Swan; Knopf; $34.95

THE BiG WHY Michael Winter; Anansi;


As Swan expresses Casanova s fourth principle of travel: “What you desire always awaits you if you are brave enough to recognize it.”

Both the real Rockwell Kent—the noted American artist (1882-1971)—and the fake one in Michael Winter’s The Big Why would have bought into that. Winter’s previous novel, This All Happened, featured an author working on a historical novel about Kent, who left New York for Newfoundland in 1914. And now Winter has written that book, in the form of a very amusing faux memoir. Famed Newfoundland explorer Bob Bartlett is in it too, continuing the fictional run that last saw him in Wayne Johnston’s The Navigator of New York.

Kent is a rampaging egotist (at least in the opinion of his elderly self looking back), and only intermittently self-aware. Ignoring what he calls an “inner hunch,” young Rockwell decides monogamy is a good thing, and tries to be faithful to his wife, even while lusting after everyone in sight. But striving to lead your life by ideals is impossible, the memoirist declares, when you don’t know the one, right question about the meaning of life. And it’s only in a drunken 1946 conversation with Bartlett that the two old friends, in a novel that’s almost as profound as it is witty, finally decide on the big why. I?]