Micro-trends in Recent Canadian Fiction
by: Kerry Riley
It’s only three weeks into the summer Canlit read-fest and already some interesting threads and connections are developing. As I have explored (or gone on about, depending on your perspective) at some length, in my comments on Miriam Toews’ wonderful new book, Irma Voth, existentialism is in the air. How else to explain the fact that three very different writers in three very different recent novels have made direct or indirect reference to Albert Camus? Two independent references – a coincident perhaps. Three? I think not.
Miriam Toews, whose novel Irma Voth is the most overtly concerned with existential themes, makes direct reference to Camus in a conversation between Irma and Noehmi (a university student Irma meets at a public demonstration at the Zocalo in Mexico City, and who acts as one of Irma’s several guides and helpers) in which Camus and other notable existentialists including Beauvoir and Sartre are mentioned by name. In describing Camus’ death in a car crash to Irma, Noehmi very specifically recreates the image of the accident scene, with the pages of Camus’ last, unfinished work, scattered over the road. This last detail resonates with a memorable image in Steven Hayward’s (also wonderful) new novel Don’t Be Afraid, in which he describes the streets of his small home town after an explosion at the library:
In the days right after the explosion there were pages in the eavestroughs, and the upper branches of trees were an eerie white, like they alone were covered in snow. And when it did start to snow, the snow came down black. You’d be walking along and all of a sudden you’d find yourself standing on half a John Donne sonnet, or a recipe for scallops…
Despite the somewhat eerie similarity in focus on the scattered written word and subsequent disintegration of coherence, it is too large a leap to suggest that Haywood’s street scene is referencing the Camus death scene. However, it is, I think, possible to suggest that these images are both, in somewhat mysterious ways which will require further analysis, channeling the now iconic images and processing the impact of the 9-11 attacks on the North American psyche, an exercise that inevitably, it seems, raises questions about the search for truth and meaning in a godless universe. In any case, Haywood makes a more definite connection to Camus in his description of his father, as someone who seemed to have “evolved for the sole purpose of pushing something heavy up a hill,” thus referencing the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, but also, The Myth of Sisyphus, one of Camus’ important philosophical essays.
For the third time in as many new works of fiction a reference to Camus appears early in David Adams Richards’ novel, Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul, this time in connection to the character Roger Savage, an isolated individual whose fate seems predetermined by external circumstance and must decide on his own how to react. Again, the myth of Sisyphus is mentioned. My acquaintance with this book is too new to venture into any further analysis of the reference at this point, beyond mentioning that Richards, a writer whom I admire immensely, is always concerned with the issue of individual integrity.
August 2012 Update:
Having now spent a considerable amount of time with David Adams Richards’ book, I can say with confidence that the entire story is a meditation on one’s proper relationship to truth and thus an existential prescriptive of sorts.
Another addition to the list of recent Canadian fiction concerned with existential themes, is Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? The title of Heti’s book, which of course echoes the protagonist’s dilemma, is an overtly existentialist inquiry. Although the characters couldn’t be more different, Sheila’s quest is also strongly reminiscent of Miriam Toews’ heroine Irma Voth’s journey. In particular, the scene in which Irma identifies that the task before her is to determine how she should act in the absence of the authority of her religion, her husband, or her father.
For those of us who remember such things, the last twenty or thirty years have seen, in North America, a rather spectacular disintegration of the ability of any thoughtful individual to maintain confidence in many of our pubic institutions which once stood as unimpeachable evidence of our ability to create a sane, secure, and just society in the face of existential uncertainty. In Canada, in short succession, faith in the Red Cross and the blood supply system (HIV and hepatitis C tainted blood) food safety and inspection (mad cow disease) our international reputation (the Somalia scandal) the justice system (Guy Paul Morin, Donald Marshall, etc. etc.) , and, across North America, the automobile industry, the banking system, and capitalism as a whole, has been severely shaken. What, until quite recently in historical terms, seemed bastions of certitude can no longer be trusted and suddenly we all feel like we know nothing. Worse than that, the very civilization that has shaped our assumptions about right and wrong, value and integrity, is starting to look rickety and pale. At this particular point in history, one could be forgiven for feeling that, as a whole, the western world has made rather a mess of things. It is definitely a “back to the drawing board” sort of moment. Add to this the unprecedented speed of change brought about by exponential technological development, and the difficulty in being secure in one’s certainty about anything becomes apparent. It is then perhaps not surprising that the old existential questions about how we should be in the world are recurring in our literature and that this swirl of uncertainties seems to be coalescing around the images of 9-11 as representing the defining moment after which any pretense of certainty became untenable.
A second interesting similarity can be found in the use of the movie as a central metaphor in both Hayward’s and Toews’ stories. In both cases, the movie represents a sort of trace or record of one’s life and thus one’s story, archived in another’s memory, in the case of Mike, in Hayward’s work, and functioning in a complex relationship with light in Toew’s novel. Somewhat perversely for those of us who grew up under the full assault of Hollywood, the movie in both cases seems to represent a kind of authenticity which results when the individual has control over the content, that is, when they can create their own story. My peripatetic mind can’t help but speculate that this new view of the movie may be related to the recent revolution in social networking. Any number of commentators have noted the ways in which facebook and other social media have allowed us to, essentially, broadcast our self-customized image to the world. In other words, to take control over our movie, and tell our own story. Although many of the social commentators express reservations about this emerging phenomenon, the practitioners themselves do not seem hampered by such qualms.
A third intriguing, although more fragmentary, similarity between Hayward’s and Toews’ stories is the appearance of characters whose eyes do not function normally. In Don’t Be Afraid, Mike’s girlfriend has a “dead” eye, one which, James, the narrator, is convinced, always stares at Mike. The exact significance of this nonfunctional eye is difficult to parse, as the role of sight is less well developed in Hayward’s story. However, in Miriam Toews’ tale, Irma and her sister Aggie meet a drug-addled teen. The fact that her eyes sometimes become unsynchronized and bobble about randomly, no longer able to sift any coherent message from the light around her, clearly marks her as a lost soul. As one of our main conduits of information from the outside world, sight, and its organ, the eye, are essential to our ability to make sense or draw meaning from our environment. In a time when self-reliance in this respect seems increasingly necessary, it is reasonable to suggest that references to sight and eyes may be on the increase in our stories.
September 18, 2011 update: A further Camus sighting, this time in Man Booker contender and British author, Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending, gives the Camus trend international scope.