Sunday, March 30, 2008

Russell Smith? Good? Canadian? Yes.

Russell Smith? Good? Canadian?

Mordecai Richler died on July 3, 2001, but Barney’s Version was boxed and shipped in 1997. I was fourteen when Barney won the Giller, so it was about five years till I could read and appreciate what Richler had done: September 1997, and the man had written the last entertaining book to be published in this country. A few years later we were deep in the trend of the bleak prose stylists whose mysticism, angst, and avowed weirdness was prophesied in a Sylvia Plath crayon drawing. And reading stopped being fun. Unless you were an adolescent female runaway with an absent father and a drunken mother and a history of sexual abuse and no money and pale skin and broken ideals and a love of dental floss. Then it was This Is Your Life!

There have been good Canadian writers inking their personae since Richler’s prostate cued him on the way to venerability/likeability. But there hasn’t been a book that’s combined literary and imaginative achievement with anything like sustained laughter or the desire to read the thing outside on a sunny day. Camilla Gibb tried, but there’s really no way to twist Alice Munro’s milieu into a smile. Douglas Coupland’s jumped from the high springboard, but the guy is a goddamn nut. Still, he’s the best we have. And aside from the John-Iriving-on-a-deadline Hey, Nostradamus, the guy’s had pretty good results.

Now people talk about Andy Pyper, Annabel Lyon, Steve Heighton, and Michael Winter. All fine writers picking away at deferred suicide attempts, but nothing that extends beyond the small spaces of plot-less Canada. The Big Why was rock-solid, and Winter’s a great writer. But where’s Canada’s next circumcised proser? Pyper's The Wildfire Season is Bear without the punchline. Why not just go to a petting zoo?

Who knows. But in the meantime there’s a guy doing good work--work that’s probably the goyishe equivalent of the literate Canadian comic novel. That man’s Russell Smith. And though he wasn’t born in Canada, he’s been claimed by Porcupine's Quill as a grant-getting prospect. That means librarians can put the maple leaf sticker on the spine without any ethical violations.

Muriella Pent is the best Canadian novel of the past ten years. I say that with conviction. Smith’s come a long way from How Insensitive, and it looks like he might actually be able to do something that doesn’t have readers yelling at it as the pages turn.

Muriella: a perfect characterization. Derek Walcott/Marcus Royston: well done. Julia and Brian: so pathetic it almost works. But why’d he bring them together? So they could mutually birth the next confused Liberal and prove life’s just that easy?

But the book has a plot. And the plot gets resolved--without ghosts, spirits, wraiths, or visions. Are you excited yet? This is what we've been waiting for.

Smith’s going to do something very big in the next ten years, and people probably won’t like it. The Toronto arts scene is already spitting over the revelation that, migawd, there are more writers than readers out there. And, gasp, one caused the other. Richler always knew than, and that’s why he was great. At a time when Atwood’s 1976 ovulation diaries could sell five-thousand copies in Toronto, the genre needs someone to say how fucked up Canadian fiction really is.

We’ll see what happens. But I’ll say this: it’s not acceptable that Daniel Richler, Jack Rabinovitch, and Seamus O’Regan haven’t been given their comeuppance. Did you see Shamie at the Gillers? Who wrote that material? Rick Mercer's agent?

Something’s got to change. Alyssa York…What is this, perpetual arctic winter? I didn’t know Rudy Wiebe had a daughter.

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