Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Checking Out Neil Smith's Bang Crunch For The First Time

We're all prisoners of Canadian literature. And I say that knowing anyone who reads this blog has probably taken specific steps to arrive at this page.

A Google search for "Neil Smith" nets 680,000 results. Impressive...if you don't know Neil Smith the soccer player; or Neil Smith the (once) NHL GM. There's even Neil Smith the geographer.

Then there's Neil Smith the Canadian writer. A few months ago I read a review of Bang Crunch in The Toronto Star. It was a near-rave. But, caught up as I was in My Lovely Enemy, the paper ended up holding peanut shells.

Then a couple days ago I asked a friend to recommend a good Canadian book; something new that I hadn't read; something by someone (hopefully) young and (maybe) good. She recommended Smith. I went to the library, picked up the book, and took it home.

I enjoyed most of Smith's stories. He worked with a kind of naive intelligence that made me wonder how fast he wrote. He seems, from reading his stuff, like a guy who belts out drafts in a quarter of an hour. And he does something that all good writers do: modulate their voice(s) to make you wonder how this shit got published. Then, in the next sentence, you realize it's the character speaking, not the writer. Writer = coherent, literate; character = incoherent, not funny. Green Fluorescent Protein is clearly his best story. A sentence before the touch, I realized, "He's gay." That Smith could lead me to that point is a testament to his skill as a writer.

I wonder why he wrote Extremities. It's funny that all the other stories were Journey Prize selections, but Extremities, a vanity piece, is just something he managed to place.

But this isn't really about Smith.

When I opened its cover, I noticed that I was the first person to check out Bang Crunch. This happens to me all the time. I find a good Canadian book, sidle up to it, take it to the counter, and sign it out. Invariably--if its anywhere near new--I'll be the one to break its maiden. I guess I'm the book deflowerer. The Canadian book deflowerer.

I'm getting increasingly dazed as I notice the traffic trickling into this site. I'm not making any claim for its amazing design or content, but how many people are blogging about Russell Smith, Frank Davey, or Robert Lecker? Few if any. And still, no hits.

Let me take another step back: I don't mean that you, the reader, should be landing here; I mean the writer. Or the writer's agent. Or the guy teaching the writer's book. I feel like I'm pissing in the middle of an open field.

But now I realize what's happening: no one reads Canadian books. I keep checking out W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind for thesis- and MRP-related research. I finally realized that I had a copy...but, let's move past that. In sixty years (it was published in 1947) seven people had signed out that book. And I'd taken it four times. So three people had read it. (Four, if you include me.)

Other books whose library relationship I consummated: Muriella Pent, everything by Jason Sherman, everything by Emma Richler, Hey Nostradamus! (which Coupland must've written on a bus), The Petty Details of So and So's Life, Fugitive Pieces, My Present Age (another winner (wink)), Mouthing the Words (just to size her up), The Big Why, and Dr. Delicious. Everything else had been checked out once, twice, three times.

How is this happening? I know people don't read, but university-level English students must, on occasion, feel like giving it a try. I remember an undergraduate course; I remember the first day. The professor stood at the front of the class: "Name a Canadian writer." I felt like shit. You know why? Because even I couldn't get past Richler, Laurence, Atwood. And this was four years ago. So we're all guilty.

The same friend who recommended Bang Crunch is in the enviable position of getting free books. But the library is free. That's why I raid it so often. But I feel like I'm stealing sand, dirt. These books have no commercial value. There's no demand for them. Yesterday I checked out Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays. No one else had. Then I got Nora Ephron's Crazy Salad. Do people even know who Nora Ephron is?

But I want to keep this confined to Canadian writers--people who, on a good day, have just enough personality to open an automatic door. No one's reading them. A Canadian best-seller: 5,000 copies. Or at least Lecker says so.

That's why I write like Philip Roth. Right. See me smiling?

1 comment:

metro mama said...

Glad you liked it!

I am constantly amazed how few people read CanLit. So many folks' reading choices are guided by Oprah.

I'm thankful we still publish it!

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