The Fear of Being Canadian, Composing, 01/02/2014

Last weekend, I did my first public reading from Under the Trees, Eaten, a brief excerpt culled from chapters two and three that took me six minutes. I read during the open mike portion, just to test some public reaction to the story. Open mike readers have five minutes, so I apologized for going over. Sadly, I didn’t get to the part where Marilyn, my central protagonist, discovers the eyeless, mutilated moose in her host’s barn. A minor regret.

The reading was at the Underdog Poets’ Society, a regular poetry and literature night organized by my friend S in the upstairs room of The Central, a pleasant bar just around a dark corner from Honest Ed’s on Markham Street in downtown Toronto. S said something I found very curious after the readings were over for the evening. She described my book as a new take on Canadiana, but which revitalizes the idea.

Margaret Atwood's literary criticism did an excellent job of
defining the essence of Canadian literature. This way, we
can all understand what we want to run away from.
I think I’m fairly typical among my generation (and the previous generation) of Canadian writers in a very distinct way: I don’t want to be Canadiana. When I was in high school, there was always the smattering of Canadian literature spread throughout the English curriculum, they were good books, but all revolved around some very well-known themes. I read Margaret Atwood’s Survival a few years ago, just to get a solid sense of what my country’s cultural context was, whether my initial perception of the stereotype had any truth to it. 

Of course, Atwood’s study of Canadian literature in the 20th century was a key text in cementing the popular acceptance of that stereotype. Canadian literature focussed on narratives of hard-nosed, culturally conservative, always white protagonists who either strained against the rural small-town cultures and environments of their homes, or lived within them experiencing conflicts with nature instead. Reading authors from this era, even big cities like Toronto and Vancouver feel like conservative, insular small town. The title says it all: Survival describes Canadian literature’s dominant themes, all revolving around harsh struggles with an unforgiving nature. Even the nationalist themes of Quebecois literature similarly focus on the terror of a brutal nature. Canadiana, in this sense, is a desperate huddle against a blizzard.

After Survival, Canadian literature slowly began to change. Mordecai Richler was probably a harbinger of all this, or at least its prophet. His classic period dealt with themes of modern urban neurosis, and most importantly to my mind, with Jewish people. Canada felt a little less white and Catholic when Richler wrote. 

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Canadian authors changed their themes. Perhaps seeing the bland uniformity of their country’s literature laid out so blatantly in Survival helped spur a generation of people to do something different. Just looking at the books that have crossed my own shelves over the years, Timothy Taylor tells sprightly urban stories, Rawi Hage spins gritty tales of immigrants in hard contemporary concrete, and Lisa Moore brings small-town eccentricity into a post-Trailer Park Boys age, while also writing battles with a harsh nature that take people out of the forest and onto the North Atlantic oil platform, a new kind of nautical disaster story. Even Atwood’s own post-1970s material tends to be more progressive, especially when she explores more science-fictional themes. And her women have always been some of the best I’ve read. The Blind Assassin is a beautiful piece of perversion, and Cat’s Eye is a fascinating document of a time when it took a reasonable amount of work to track down people you haven’t seen in years. The reactive phase seems to be over, and Canadian literature better reflects the complex country we are now.

Where does Under the Trees, Eaten fit in? Even though I hated those man-vs-nature stories in school, it’s a story about the strangeness of the forest, and how easy it can be to get lost in it. Pierre, the central male character, appears straight out of the Magical Red Man strain of Canadian literature. At first, you think he’s going to appear as a symbol instead of a character, as indigenous peoples were often depicted in Survival’s account of Canadian literature. But as the story goes on, he’s just one more ordinary guy whose life is turning upside down, and who’s getting into more trouble than he can handle. 

Under these haunting Canadian woods of Tom
Thomson lie the most terrifying creatures.
The action of the novella revolves around a small town in rural Quebec, Seul-Coeur, and the last two chapters feature the narrators, Marilyn Griffiths and her father Paul (three years apart) getting lost in the wilderness. Paul is a typical unprepared American urbanite who gets sick from the local fruit and nearly dies from dehydration. A book specifically about him would be a typical Canadiana story of a man being destroyed by nature. But the nature that destroys him is the 11-dimensional curled spacetime of an alien cave under the forest, a woodland that’s truly alienated because it’s actually filled with mutants and aliens.

But the central narrator isn’t Paul. It’s Marilyn. And Marilyn is fairly unique among female protagonists of Canadian literature in that she doesn’t take any shit, whether it’s from a bossy funeral director, a xenophobic small-town mayor, or transdimensional ant/worm/squid aliens. She’s prepared for a hike through terrifying woods, can deal with the otherworldly neon lights emanating from trees, praying mantises with hexagonal heads and three jaws, and the occasional partial lapse of gravity. Set in the deepest, strangest woods, I can see how Under the Trees, Eaten would join a tradition of Canadiana. But I can also see how my work has already grown beyond it.

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