Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is It Fiction? The Toronto Star's Short Story Contest

Update:I think that a lot of people are clicking through trying to find information on the 2008 short story contest--the contest ending December 31, 2008. It can be found here, on the Star's website.

I got back from work on Sunday, and decided to read the newspaper. I get the Toronto Star. Its staff writers are just barely literate, but its columnists and feature writers are good. (You don't have to know how to write to be a journalist; you just need to know that CP style always uses "conflagration.")

The front page of the front section advised me to flip over to the back page where the third-place winner of the Star's short story contest could be found. The man had won $1,000 for his 2,000-ish-word story; he'd placed third out of about 1,000 entries. I figured, well, if 1,000 people had entered, then this might be worth my time. Third out of 1,000...it must be terrific prose. When'll I see it in the New Yorker?

But it was bad. It was so very bad. I love slagging writers, but I hate slagging writing. I believe that, even if it doesn't resonate with me, that doesn't mean that someone else won't say, "That's beautiful; that's exactly right." Some people like Virginia Woolf; some people like Philippa Gregory. That's fine. John Grisham is still a decent technical writer. He doesn't get flowery; he stays on his story.

But the Star's contest is just a mess of similes and metaphors. It's bad writing al dente.

"Now you need to listen to me very carefully. Listen to me as if your life depends on everything I say...Are you ready?"


"No matter what happens in the next few minutes, you will not hang up."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"You are correct. You are not going anywhere in life, either."

That's just a sample of the third-place winner's story. I don't want to use the author's name, because this is more about the quality of the contest than it is about the quality of the writer.

"I burned Dr. Papua's file in a steel drum behind my apartment building. Then I burned the rest of the files. I watched the paper curl in the heat and turn to ashes. My cellphone went in next. I stood back from the drum and watched. I don't know for how long. The cellphone battery exploded with a tinny bang that woke me to the night and the cold that was gathering its strength around me."

The Star's annual contest has a first prize of $5,000--a lot of money for a short story. Yet established writers never seem to win the thing. Don't you find that strange? The judging's blind, but would the tutors at the Ryerson centre for academic writing--the contest is judged by, yes, tutors at the Ryerson centre for academic writing--even know a Mavis Gallant if Joe Fiorito faxed it to them?

For $5,000 even established Canadian writers have to take a shot. (No, I didn't enter. Polygraph me if you want.) Is it because of the judging? Is it embarrassing to win this kind of contest? I guess it is. It's like publishing in Zanzinger's Inflatable Rafts Monthly. Second place goes to George Bowering; first place goes to a guy who wrote, "My eyes ached like a hundred throbbing sprained ankles, and the sun was as red as a peach that hadn't been picked in the harvest."

But I'll get to the best part: I know a guy who works at the Ryerson centre for academic writing. He's a tutor. A year ago I was out at a bar, and I saw him sitting at a table. I walked over, said hello. "What are you up to?" he asked. "Just reading," I said. "Oh, what?" "American Pastoral. I'm re-reading it, just for fun." "Who's that by?" "Philip Roth." "Right. I started that; didn't finish though. I got about twelve pages in." "Why?" "He wouldn't get to the point. He talked about everything. Too many words, you know. I hate when books just use so many words."

Two more weeks 'til we see the winner.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When David Chariandy Guest Starred On Friends

I was over at my parents' house last night; it was a quarter after six and we were sitting in the kitchen, eating dinner. My dad likes to watch the news while he eats, so they have a TV that sits on the counter and faces his place at the table. It's a "flat screen" TV, but he likes to tell people that it's a plasma. "The screen's flat." "So, that doesn't mean anything. It's an analog TV with a flat screen." "But aren't flat screens the best?" "Yes. But flat-screen plasmas." "You don't know what you're talking about. It's the screen, not the TV. Flat is better. Jodie [my mother], we're not talking about you." We were watching City News at Six. That's the broadcast that he likes. Ever since Anne Mroczkowski started showing a little cleavage, that's all he'll watch. I keep telling him you can't see anything, but he keeps waiting for the day they change the overhead lighting. About five years ago he saw her at Pusateri's on Avenue Road. She was wearing a summery blouse, and he tried desperately to take a picture with his cell phone. But my mother was buying coffee beans, and he couldn't figure out how to work the phone. Even the guys at the meat counter couldn't help him. Now he shops at Loblaws.

But his description of what he'd seen was little less than Kathy Ireland in her SI days. "David, I wish this city had a beach." And I keep hearing about Melissa Grelo and Pooja Handa. He loves Mika Midolo, and the man won't stop telling me that Laura DiBattista is his ideal. Pam Seatle, Kathryn Humphreys, and Tracy Moore...The conversations we've had about City TV have been, without exception, near-pornographic.

You have to understand that my father is a writer. So he's home, all day, with Ann Rohmer torturing his prose.

"I don't understand," my mother once said of City's female personalities, "they're all so beautiful. Is that supposed to give them credibility?"

"No," my father said. "It's supposed to get you to watch."

"Because they're attractive?"

"Because you'd sleep with any of them--or all of them, all together. One day, you'll see, their furnace will break."

"But it's the news."

"Fuck the news. Put a mirror on the back wall of the studio and I guarantee you NBC would pick up the feed. There's just one whom I don't like."


"Mulligan. I don't think she'd be much fun. She's so thin; such big lips; so angry looking...Actually, wait a minute. Maybe I'm wrong."

So they were watching City News when the broadcast went to commercial. I was cutting a steak, and watching Rudy Wiebe pitch an ad for Idomo. Then a promo for Friends came on. Weekdays at 7:30 City airs syndicated episodes of Friends. They're up to the part of the series where Courtney Cox's character is dating Tom Selleck. I hadn't seen an episode for five or six years, and I wasn't really paying attention to the spot, but Selleck's mustache drew me to the screen. "On the next Friends...tomorrow at 7:30..." And there, in the background, drinking coffee in Central Perk, was David Chariandy.

He was wearing a brown turtleneck sweater; his legs were crossed (right over left); he'd left a very small tip that was still sitting on his table. But it was David Chariandy, the Canadian writer.

"That's David Chariandy," I said, pointing with my German steak knife.

"Who?" my mom asked.

"A writer. A Canadian writer."

She turned. "The one with the spiky black hair?"

"No, that's Matt LeBlanc."

"That sounds Canadian."

"Quebec or Canada," my father said.

"He is Canadian, but he's not the writer. That guy is." And I pointed, again, to Chariandy.

"The one reading the dictionary?"


"Is he famous?"

"He was nominated for the Giller."

"Did he win?"


"Well...at least he was on TV."

So the next day I watched as Chariandy's episode aired. Maybe he was just an extra. He was in LA on the backlot while they were filming, and someone picked him out of a crowd. All he had to do was sit there, pretend to drink a coffee, and not look at the camera.

But it wasn't like that at all. He actually had a role. He had a speaking part. He was the episode's antagonist.

The story, briefly, goes like this: Ross is up for a job at Columbia. He's pegged to give an important televised (PBS) lecture that'll be attended by members of the hiring committee. Chariandy plays Ross's rival--a fellow professor gunning for the Columbia job. Chariandy, in a Friars Club-type plot, scoops Ross's paper, leaving Schwimmer standing at the lectern trying to improvise a twenty-five minute lecture. Chariandy's hired, and the rest of the episode concerns Ross's attempt to exact some kind of revenge. I won't spoil the ending, but it's a lot like Irving Wallace's The Prize.

Chariandy's a decent actor. And he can tell a joke. Take a look at this exchange:

Chandler: So, you're a professor? What's your field?
Chariandy: Paleontology.
Chandler: Oh, just like Ross.
Chariandy: Yes, rather.
Chandler: That's an interesting field. Dinosaurs. Bones. A lot of bones.
Chariandy: In many respects, yes. Ultimately, however, it is profoundly about the teaching.
Chandler: So, you enjoy it?
Chariandy: That is a rich and complex question.
Chandler: So you don't enjoy it.
Chariandy: Of course, as you note, enjoyment is a concomitant pleasure of my research.
Chandler: Concomitant. Sure. I can see that.
Chariandy: Indeed, it is central.
Chandler: Well, that's good. You stand up there; you talk; you mark papers.
Chariandy: I'm really pleased that you consider the job interesting on a purely formal level. I work with great care at it.
Chandler: Well...nice talking to you...
Chariandy: Immediately I am reminded of the subtext--
Chandler: Yeah, work on that. I've got to get back to the land of apostrophes.

It's amazing how Marta Kauffman managed to keep Chariandy in character. When he started talking to Lisa Kudrow about catachresis, I almost dug a hole in my wicker chair.

Other Canadian writers who've appeared on American sit-coms:

Clark Blaise (Golden Girls), Bharati Mukherjee (Night Court), Dionne Brand (Dear John--a good oldie starring Judd Hirsch), Dennis Lee (Empty Nest), Leon Rooke (The Hogan Family).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Will Kit Dobson Last? Unfrying An Egg

About a year ago I started following a Canadian academic named Kit Dobson. I didn't literally follow him; rather I looked him up on Proquest and started to read his work. This was after I saw him present a paper at the '07 ACLALS conference in Vancouver; a paper in which he argued that Vincent Lam's Giller win was the product of back-room scheming by Atwood and the Atwood Crew.

I couldn't believe that any non-tenured academic would make such an argument. Yes, I'd been saying it for a year. But Dobson isn't ABD--he's PhD. He's done. He's a postdoctoral fellow. SSHRC gave this man money.

At first, I couldn't figure out how he'd done it. How had a non-box thinker scored a SSHRC grant. Then someone told me that Dobson had gone to UofT. Question answered. Everyone who goes to UofT gets a SSHRC grant. My grandfather's cousin restores old homes, and Trinity College hired him to refinish a century-old banister. Two weeks after the job was completed he got the university's cheque. But he didn't need to cash it--a week earlier he'd gotten a SSHRC grant.

Dobson's "Culture as Resource? The Function of Literary Research and Criticism in Canada" is an interesting read. Is it radical? Yeah, I guess it is. But it's an argument that, at times, does the splits. SSHRC gives grants to academics whose work tends to provide an economic benefit/stimulus to areas of Canadian culture. That's fine. Dobson's point that such a policy might exclude kinds of criticism that critique Canadian modes of cultural production is well-developed.

But that's only one fork of the argument. Again, Dobson has a SSHRC grant. And it's possible that he's had more than one. So what lies did he tell to get his money? If SSHRC doesn't like that kind of writing, then you can sure as hell bet that Dobson danced for his five-digit cheque. It's always a little awkward when a guy who's funded stands up and decries the lack of funding for "guys like me." Yet it's also possible that Dobson's the token eccentric critic who's supposed to play the designated Robin Mathews role. I guess they figured they'd get him while he's young.

I like Dobson's idea of a non-traditional form of literary criticism. His adjective--"self-contained"--describes the kind of work that I'm not really interested in doing. "Be Justin Edwards," a professor told me. "I can't," I said. "I can't write like that." "Well," he said, "hold your breath."

And Dobson's creative; he argues interesting points; he stays away from easy wins. That's terrific. But will it last?

Dobson's going to have to find a job. And even though David Chariandy seems to love him, hiring covens aren't going to smile at his jeans-blazer youthful face smack. I want to believe he'll keep his cool, but that Atwood argument was just too dangerous.

Kit, if you're going to do that again, pills are faster.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lies Norman Levine Told Me

I had a chance to meet Norman Levine before he died. My grandfather knew a guy who'd grown up with Levine, and when that guy found out that I was interested in Canadian writing he called Norm and asked him to have lunch with me. At first Levine refused, but relented when he found out that I'd be paying for both of us.

We met at Pancer's Delicatessen, which is a famous hole-in-the-wall spot in Toronto. Levine was here for a funeral. He kept saying, "I really should go. I really should."

We order pastrami sandwiches; he wanted extra pickles, extra cole slaw, and a Vernor's. "Keep eating," I told him. "I brought a fifty."

We talked for about three hours. I kept asking questions about famous Canadian writers, and Levine kept dishing the dirt.

"What was Irving Layton really like?" I asked.

"Irv was okay. He loved to swim. He was always swimming. He'd invite you over for dinner, and he'd be pouring you a drink, and he'd be dripping water into the glass--because his hair was wet from the pool, see. I'd tell him, 'buy a fucking towel. What happened, the Concordia grant didn't come through?'"

"Did you like his work? I never got into it."

"I liked it. But only the short stuff. When he went long...god. It was awful for everyone."


"He was a method poet. He could only write about things that he'd actually done. The longer the poem, the more things he had to do. I remember he wrote one about being a guy downtown who drives a subway. He hid out in the conductor's box of the second or third car, and pretended like he was driving the thing. That was fine for shit like that--you know, little things. But one day he comes to me waving this sheet of paper, and saying, 'Read this! Read this!' It's a poem about sucking your own cock. 'Irving,' I said, 'now I know why you left in the third inning.'"

"What happened after Canada Made Me came out? Did you think you'd get that kind of reaction?"

"No. First of all, no one read it. It's funny how the worst books, the ones that people hate the most, always sell the fewest copies. So, what, it sold two thousand? Something like that. And how many people actually hate it? A couple hundred? Boo hoo, I'm so sad. Just as many loved it. A funny story: right after the book was published, Jack McClelland tried to get it off the shelves. He hated it; he didn't understand it. And I mean he tried. Then, one morning, he walks into his office, and someone's taken a shit right in the middle of his floor. He calls me, immediately, and tells me. 'Gee, Jack," I said, "who'd do a thing like that?"

"And what about Margaret Atwood? How's she?"

"Margaret's Margaret. As long as you don't try to feed her, you'll be fine."

It was a great lunch.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Drinking Too Much At My Cousin's L'Chaim

My cousin Steve got engaged about two weeks ago. He went to visit his girlfriend, who was finishing an MBA co-op program in Florence. They'd been dating for a few years, and everyone knew it was going to happen. But Steve's such a careful planner that everything had to be exactly perfect. So he took her out to dinner, got a table with a Chianti bottle with a candle stuck in its mouth, paid a tableside violinist, dropped the ring in a champagne glass, hired a skywriter, and had the waiter print "Will You Marry Me?" on the menu.

He's not an original romantic, but he's a guy who tries.

Last week they came back from Italy. My aunt had the immediate family over for dinner. Her parents, her grandparents, my grandparents, my cousins, my uncle's mother. I wasn't there, but apparently it was a terrific party. Her mother broke a heel, toppled onto the dessert table, and launched a large chocolate torte onto my aunt's new white linen sofa.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I'll pay for everything."

"No," my aunt said, "it was an accident. Don't be silly."

"Okay. Okay." She looked at the couch, at the large brown stain. Her daughter was on hands and knees, wiping mousse off the walnut floor. "You know what? It actually looks better that way. Really. It gives it a focal point. It's actually kind of fun."

A couple days later my aunt held what's called a L'Chaim. To life! Jewison was right.

A L'Chaim is what you'd call a pre-engagement party. (The expression means "To life!" and it's a very standard Jewish toast.)

You host a L'Chaim at your home; you don't serve dinner, and you invite his and hers extended family. Here's what you need: liquor and chocolate.

Liquor's a little obvious. It's a well-kept secret that Jews drink more than Gentiles. But we drink liquor; Gentiles drink beer. Beer after beer after beer. We're sipping Talisker, and the Troy family is sitting around the living room crushing cans on their foreheads. Jews are sophisticated; Gentiles beat a path to the head. I drink rye. I used to drink Scotch, but people kept telling me that no one liked rye. So I drink rye. My uncle hired a bartender, and his office was transformed into a bar. Red Label Scotch, Crown Royal, Canadian Club, Absolut, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray, orange juice, ice, cranberry juice, and wine.

Chocolate's for dessert. You get a chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal-raisin chocolate chip cookies, rugulah (not the lettuce; rather a Jewish pastry that's like a light pie crust with cinnamon and nuts rolled up in a dough), chocolate-marshmallow cookies, Nanaimo bars, melons and blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, pineapple, and heart-shaped chocolate kisses.

I walked in and went straight for the bar. Elbowing my way past fifty strangers was much too easy. "Rye, please."


"No ice."


"No water."


"No mix."

The bartender started pouring. He didn't stop till the plastic cup was completely full. "Tell me when," he said.

"That's good."

I took the drink out onto the patio--they have a large patio with a pool and a small waterfall, plus a few non-indigenous banana plants--and there was my grandfather. He was almost finished his third rye-on-the-rocks, and he was happy.

"Here's my drinking buddy!" he said, looking at me. Then, for about five seconds, he turned away.

I gulped the rest of my drink. "There was a hole in the bottom," I said, pointing to the cup. He laughed.

Everything was fine till it was time to leave. Fifty guests kissed goodbye, walking past my zaida. "Are you okay to drive?" my mom asked.

"I'm fine!" he said. "I'm fine! I'm not drunk. What can I do to prove that I'm not drunk. Tell me what to do and I'll do it. Do you want me to walk a straight line? Look, I'm not drunk. I've been eating. I was eating as I drank. I ate and I drank. I can't get drunk like that. Look, I'm going to eat something else. I'm not drunk. What can I do to prove that I'm not drunk. I'm fine!"

He grabbed two party sandwiches. (Most Gentiles have never heard of a party sandwich. It's a crustless sandwich that's made by rolling a filling (egg, tuna, salmon, etc.) in a strip of bread. Party sandwiches are cylindrical, with about a one-inch radius; I've never seen a Gentile eat one.)

My grandfather was drunk. I wasn't in much better shape.

With most of his fiancee's friends gone, my cousin, the groom-to-be, decided to talk to me for the first time that night. To be fair, he was busy with his guests. But I wasn't happy. "Zaida's trying to convince your mom that he's not drunk?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Is he?"

"Yeah," I said. "But not too drunk. He could still probably handle the stations of the cross. Not the leaping part, though."

He had no idea what I was talking about. He's such a nice, plain guy. And very bright. But no abstract, creative thoughts dance in his head. Everything must be fit for Friends. "Hey," he started, "aren't you seeing someone? I heard that you were dating a Catholic girl."

Remember: I was drunk. "I was. But she couldn't handle it."

"What do you mean?" In the background, in the hallway beside the stairs, my grandfather was actually walking a straight line .

"She didn't like the way it looked."

"How did it look?"

"She was ashamed."

"Ashamed of what? You?"

"Well, it's a long story, but she went back to her old boyfriend. I don't know. She likes his beard. It's not manicured, but it's always kinda there. Not scruffy, but not a five o'clock shadow, either."

"I really don't understand what you're talking about."

"She said that I didn't satisfy her."


"Not in bed! I mean I couldn't weld. She always needed things welded. And she needed light carpentry work done. All the time. I can hang a door, but I can't wire the goddamn panel."

"You didn't satisfy her as a carpenter?"

"Christ, her old boyfriend built his own go-kart from scratch. The headlights were made out of old Primo soup cans."

"And that's why she broke up with you?"

"No. One of her friends--some girl from Oshawa--told her that Jews were for practice, but ould Irishmen were the ones you marry. Fuck. Her boyfriend is so ruddy."

"Yeah. For sure."

"But I'll get over it."

"Yeah. I'm sure you will."

"Zaida?" He walked over, bumping into a William Todd Haile picture that was hanging on the wall. "Drive me home?"

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading Darryl Whetter

Push and Pull

My mind synthesizes—or at least draws connections. The past few days have been a reading experience. Darryl Whetter’s The Push and the Pull, David Chariandy’s “Haunted Diasporas: The Second Generation Stories of Andre Alexis,” Richard Sennett’s The Conscience of the Eye, Marjorie Levinson’s “What is New Formalism?,” and Ann Martin’s “Visions of Canadian Modernism: The Urban Fiction of F.R. Livesay and J.G. Sime.”

Whetter’s book was fiction; the rest: academic criticism.

But they all work together. The Push and the Pull: a story of a/the contemporary (old)man-child. Not Sinclair Lewis’s mooncalf but a could-be graduate student who never—not even once—projects himself into the future. It’s present; past. Andrew—a little bright, a little insightful—is completely partitioned within the feeling of a very narrow kind of academic life. I say “feeling” because, if you’ve been courted by the academy, you understand the push-pull of Know thyself! It’s intelligence for intelligence’s sake. Andrew’s girlfriend Betty calls it vanity. But both characters withdraw from an absent Canadian society, a society that’s birthed a culture that they both know and deride. It’s the story of (over)educated Canadian twenty-somethings. What’s the practical value of philosophy? Is it too easy to just disengage? Are these characters sympathetic? Where can/will they go?

"Children get stronger." Use it as an epigraph for Whetter's seriously real examination of broken adolescence. Andrew’s father dies. This represents the generational break between old and young. Stan Day, the confident patriarch, the always-employed boomer father who, despite suffering from an incredibly rare disease of the central nervous system, doesn’t want any existential bullshit. Incredibly, what he wants is Mordecai Richler. Whetter PhD knows Richler, knows that Richler was a moralist. His Richlerian colouring of Stan is just slightly removed from Barney Panofsky. Stan’s Latin motto, drafted as an undergrad, is, for me, a little too close to Hymie Mintzbaum. Taken together they’d sound something like, “Hold on!” The push and pull of past and present. The push and pull of influence and originality. But that’s a very minor issue. Whetter’s point is that an underlying morality does, in fact, exist in Andrew’s life. As St. Urbain’s Horseman begins to thin, its pages used as acidic kindling, that morality’s refined.

Stan’s death and Betty’s flight to Europe force Andrew to the road. Whetter's course titles and absent professors provide the jargony antipodes to Stan's jail(school)house adult literacy lessons. One angle: teaching grown men how to read; another angle: Monsters in Lit, The Body in Theory. Andrew's "Interdisciplinary Bike Project" is what some people would call "finding oneself"; others might say "putting theory into practice." Embracing the physical tools of cycling culture, Andrew travels the highways of eastern Canada, riding through rural, classically Canadian settings that, at times, make him physically ill. Here is Whetter’s opinion of Canadian fiction: that old stuff--that two solitudes, dead, false-front, macadam road…stuff. It’s dead or dying. It’s something to avoid. Then Andrew wipes his ass with a map of Canada. Fuck regionalism.

So what kind of Canadian novel is The Push and the Pull? Whetter’s Canada is, for me, the most interesting part of his text. Andrew reads Richler--Richer, who wrote in A Choice of Enemies that

Whenever Norman [Richler’s protagonist and persona within the text] thought of his country he did not, as Americans were supposed to do, recall with a whack of joy the wildest rivers and fastest trains, fields of corn, skyscrapers, and the rest of it. There were all these things in his country. There were magical names in abundance. A town called Trois-Rivieres; a mountain pass named Kicking Horse; Saskatchewan—a province. But there was no equivalent of the American dream to boost or knock. The Canadian dream, if there was such a puff, was how do I get out.

But Whetter’s prose isn’t anything like Richler’s set-up-punch line style. He’s so clearly trying to write something both serious and meaningful that his reaction against writers like MacLennan, Laurence, and Wiebe is fascinating.

I didn’t get the sense that Andrew was a kind of Noah Adler. But this book is about wrestling—again, literally—with the father. Stan, his spine curved, his body literally shrinking, loses basic motor skills. His son outgrows him, wears his clothes, owns his house. Stan requires constant care. Andrew becomes his nurse-father, a simple role reversal that the reader accepts implicitly. (There’s a scene, reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Patrimony, where a semi-clothed Andrew climbs into his shivering father’s hospital bed. Stan is cold, Andrew tries to warm him. But Whetter’s examination of masculinity is one of the primary tropes in his text.)

Is The Push and the Pull a campus novel? I think it is. I think this is the destination of the Catcher in the Rye-Lucky Jim continuum. Alienated in high school, alienated in university, then out of high school, out of university, but changed. And everyone who thinks they know what they want? They’re wrong. Whetter’s opening chapter—really only a couple pages—is pumping adjectives. Then it gets quiet, isolated. Mothers are pushed aside, ignored. Women leave, but are always there. They push, then they pull away.

Whetter’s at his best when focussing on the intense dualism of cyclist--muscles rippling--versus cyclist—digesting his own experience. It’s a contemporary quest narrative that never loses its focus. Sexuality, identity, and perspective fragment. But the text maintains its focus. Readers should appreciate Whetter’s use of maps and roads. The map with which Andrew travels is dissected, burned and used as toilet paper. Andrew, following unknown roads and trails, finally arrives. It’s a simple way of saying that he’s lost his place. The end of the novel finds him back where he started.

The same will be true of Betty, Whetter’s female antagonist. Betty is Andrew’s university-age girlfriend; an inchoate idealist who thrives on high-culture bullshit. She’s the hollow reflection of Andrew; she’s a quipping Gen Z phenomenon who believes in simple decisions, inherent beauty, and lasting love. Whetter uses her to represent a kind of wasted, disengaged youth clinging to a psychology of Manichean superiority. It’s this exploration of personal freedom that really gives Whetter’s text its power. We can see the potential for tragedy. And, strangely, we hope for it.

I mentioned Chariandy. The Push and the Pull reminded me of Soucouyant. Why? The twenty-something (im)mature male protagonist caring for a dying parent; the lost, idealistic female antagonist; the movement through the local; the tone that says, “Yeah, I know we’re in Canada, but I’m going to tell it this way.”

To me, it sounds like, “This is a place? This place?” Andrew, again, destroys his map. He’s lost. A bit of Frye here, Darryl? “Where is here?” But, no, it’s not about that at all. Andrew doesn’t care where “here” is; what “here” is. He doesn’t care at all.

As I said, it’s a generational thing. If I had to talk about historicism, I’d say this is the era of growing-maturing writers who feel like there’s just too much history to write with. So let’s write against. Everything divides. And that’s what The Push and the Pull keeps repeating.

This is a very good first novel. When the characters speak, the characters speak. My only complaint is Whetter’s tendency to close his chapters with purplish prose. “What do you want now that you’re done wrestling?” an exchange starts. “We’re always wrestling something,” a character replies. It’s a tendency that Whetter’ll have to overcome. The strength of his cycling scenes tells me that he will. If Whetter can write with that kind of focus, if he can find relevant stories, then, oh, what fun we’ll have. Joining the canon he loathes, we’ll have another ex-centric Canadian writer shouting insults at the Giller door.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Slow, Adler

Yesterday morning my friend of the drunken Tuesday night called me. Briefly, the night before she'd invited me to a "pub." Gentiles like that word: pub. To me, if it serves liquor it's a bar. But they revert to the pub. So, great, let them have their own thing.

She was embarrassed, she was contrite and apologetic. "How could I have said that to you?"

"Said what?" I asked.

"Wanted you to write about me as your girlfriend."

"Oh. It was just a joke. Don't worry about it."

"But it was so rude."

"Rude? Why?" I had an idea why. But she took it in another direction.

"Well, it's mean."

"But I thought it was a joke. I never thought that you were serious."

"But it's mean because, you know...I'd never go out...with you."

I snapped my fingers. "That's nice."

"But you never thought--"

"That you would go out with me? No. How could I? Just because I saved you that one time from drowning? No, I've never had any illusions. Like when we went to the beach and you asked me to rub suntan lotion on your back? No. It never crossed my mind. It was a nude beach? Well, so you're liberal. And when you sat on my lap that night at Orpheus Descending? Your chair was stiff. Mixed signals? You? Never. Remember when I asked you to have dinner? You said that you were busy."

"I'm sure that I was."

"But you're free now?"

"No. Now? I just can't get away..."

"And when I bought you the flowers? Did you call to thank me?"

"I never got them. I thought they were from my mother."

"And the subscription that I bought you to Studies in Canadian Literature?"

"I thought that was from Douglas Gibson."

"Bullshit. You knew that the flowers were from me; you knew that the journal was from me."

"Well, you know that I'm in a relationship right now."

"Right. Kid Celtic Cross. If he took you to you Burger King for your anniversary he'd break his arm patting himself on the back. What'd he buy you last year for your birthday? Instant coffee?"

"You sound angry."

"I'm not angry. You're the one who made the joke. I didn't do anything. I didn't say anything. Okay, so I bought you a Valentine's Day card. But it was on sale."

"You can just admit it--"

"Admit it! I'd never date you."

"Me? You wouldn't date me. Why?"

"You're boring."

"I'm boring? I'm boring?"

"You've got a chess set in your bathroom."

"I do not!"

"Don't tell me you don't! You just took my queen. And your clothes..."

"What's wrong with my clothes?"

"Nothing. They looked good on your grandmother; they look good on you."


"And your hair--"

"My hair?"

"When was the last time you paid for a haircut?"

"I told you, garden shears are just as good."

"But you could try to do something with it."

"I do!"

"Where'd you get that elastic band?"

"I...I don't know."

"Where'd you get it?"


"That thing came off a broccoli. Look, 'Produce of USA.' You think that I don't go shopping?"

"How did this suddenly become about me?"

"You wanted to date me; now you don't want to date me."

"I wanted you to write about dating me. Not actually to date me."

"And I did."


"Right. Good."

"I'm glad that's settled." I stretched my forearms. "Okay. What are you doing tonight?"

"Nothing. Why?"

"Come over. I'm going to rent a movie."

Incredible. "And your boyfriend?"

"He won't be back 'til next weekend. He's building a canoe."

Adler, you're an idiot.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Adler's Girlfriend?

Last night, at a downtown bar, a female friend said something interesting: "David, you're single now, right?"

"I am."

"And you're not writing about your girlfriends anymore."

"No, I'm not."

"Why don't you write about me?"

"Like how no one ever taught you how to vacuum?"

"No. Write about me as your girlfriend."

I thought about it for a second. "No," I said. "I could never lie on my website."

But she kept insisting. "Write about me. I think it would be fun."

"Is that your sixth beer?"


"Look," I said, "don't you already have a boyfriend? Believe me, that's the kind of thing that I'd remember."

"I do, but this is on your website. Who'll know?"

"My friends. My parents. Your boyfriend."

"Oh, he can't read."

"He can't read?"

"Well, he can...but he doesn't like to."

"You're drunk. You won't even remember this conversation. I'll write the post, and you'll be pissed off."

"I'm not drunk! And I won't be angry. I want you to do it."

"But what can I write about you? You're going to get angry. It won't work."

"Write anything. Be honest."





"Have another drink."

"I don't need another drink. I think this would be funny."

"C'mon. You can't take a joke. Remember when I said that I liked your umbrella, and did a spoonful of sugar really make the medicine go down? You didn't talk to me for a week."

"I was in Crete. With my boyfriend."

"Right. And your boyfriend...I'd have to write about him. The king of taber tossing."

"That's fine."

"And his clan. How'd he like me writing about his clan?"

"What clan?"

"I don't know. The clanranalds. The clandonalds. Sod huts and that huge knife that he carries."

"His dirk?"


"Write about him."

"And your mother and your father?"

"What about them?"

"I'd need to write about them, too."


"So it wouldn't bother you if I wrote that your dad spends his time building ships in bottles, but only after all the ether's gone?"


"And your mother believes in faith healing. But Benny Hinn refused to bend down to touch her dog."

"Go ahead."

"Maybe it's better if we just stay friends."

"OK. Fine." And she stuck out her incredibly long tongue at me. "Drive me home?"


"And maybe come up for coffee?"

"At two in the morning?"


"You want me to come up for coffee at two in the morning?"

"Yeah. Just make sure that you don't make too much noise. My boyfriend has a really early day tomorrow."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Alice Munro Can Eat How Many Hamburgers? Reading In Alice Munro's Kitchen

Yesterday a friend gave me a copy of JoAnn McCaig's Reading in Alice Munro's Archive. It's a book about the process of interfacing with a writer whose intense desire for privacy once led a reporter to say of Munro's front door, "That's funny. Usually they open from the outside, too."

It's packed with a nice selection of Munro stories; it's exhaustive in its research into Munro's publishing history and general literary career.

But, as always, what I liked most about McCaig's work was its conversational tone. It was a book that was fun to read. McCaig was like a friend complaining over a fifth vodka martini, extra cold.

"I wanted to quote from a letter written by Larry Moorehead. She said No. Why? No answer."

"Who's Larry Moorehead?"

"He owns a bakery in St. Thomas."

"Why would you want to quote from a letter written by a baker?"

"Because the butcher and the candlestick maker are both married now."

By far the best part of McCaig's work was the paragraph where she described showing up at an eating contest in which Munro was competing. It was the annual Friends of George picnic, held in North York's G. Ross Lord Park, and Munro had entered herself in two events: the hamburger eating contest, and the human lawnmower race. Maybe what interested me was the personal connection that I had to the story. My grandfather and his friends started the FOG picnic about twenty-five years ago. They were jogging buddies who got together to remember a runner named George Goodman. (George had collapsed and died one morning near the JCC at the corner of Bathurst and Spadina after jogging up to Dupont.) The picnic raised money to send his kids to camp (White Pine) and university (UofT).

I think that Alice came for the free food. I remember everyone being Jewish, but people were allowed to bring guests. She was accepted because she was a friendly and generous person. I remember that she once gave me a page from one of her books.

Back to the story:

McCaig watched from behind a tree as Munro, seated at a picnic table, raced against six men in a frantic chewing spree that would last exactly five minutes. This was probably the "main event" of the FOG picnic. This was what you looked forward to for fifty-one weeks. Each contestant was presented with twenty eight-ounce burgers--each with its own bun. Condiments were a personal choice, with Munro going for pickles, onions, and relish. Most just wanted plain meat.

Sources tell me that McCaig's book occasioned a kind of bidding war. Editors read the eating contest chapter, and they were frothing at the opportunity to print the thing. Grease and charred beef streaking Munro's face, the cover would sell a hundred thousand copies.

Munro did not win the competition. She downed eight burgers; the winner polished off eleven.

"Dad," I said, "couldn't you have let her win?"

"After what she wrote about me in Runaway?"

So that's just an example of the kind of gap that readers of Canadian literature have to overcome when considering their favourite authors. We don't know much about these people, and, often, their work isn't enough to forge strong connections. We need to see them at their happiest, at their most unguarded--downing AAA beef cooked on a rusty charcoal-burning park grill.

So McCaig did a good thing. Even if her book's missing a few letters, well, at least we know the next time that we're invited to Alice's for a barbecue, it's sesame seed buns or nothing.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The First Canadian Writer To Hit Thirty Home Runs In A Season

Last Friday my grandfather took me to the Blue Jays game. He's had season tickets since the team's inception in 1975, and my cousins and I usually go with him to a few games every year. (I have six cousins, so that's around twenty-one games. He only has two tickets, and he only keeps Friday games. So, between us, we see every Friday home game of the season.)

We drive to the games--down Bathurst, Spadina, west on Queen Street, then down Davenport to Bathurst, and winding up on Front Street. He's seventy-four, but I still let him drive. It's this eros vs. thanatos thing that I'm working on. Usually we spend the time gossiping about my cousins. One just got engaged to his long-time girlfriend, and the two are ready to settle down and buy a house. So I'll say something like, "She's not the kind of girl who ages well." And my grandfather will laugh and nod.

He's been married to my grandmother for fifty-two years, so every minute away from her is like some wonderful vacation.

The man was born in Canada, but both of his parents were immigrants from Poland. I'm not sure that he's ever read a book in his life. A few months ago I showed him a book of Tom Thomson prints. "I don't get it," he said.

So we were talking about my cousins, and the conversation segued into baseball trivia. Who was the first Blue Jays pitcher to lose a game? Dave Lemanczyk, who lost on April 8, 1977. Which future Blue Jay was the final out in the 1992 World Series? Otis Nixon, an Expo from 1988 to 1990, and a Jay from 1996 to 1997. Who hit the first home run in the SkyDome? Fred McGriff.

He was getting all the answers; it wasn't even a challenge. So I decided to change the category. Just a little.

"Who was the first Canadian writer to strike out two hundred times in a season?"

"What? Writer..."

"Robert Stead in 1956. But he had such an awful haircut...A bowl they put over his head."

"Who'd he play for?"

"Saskatoon Huskies. of the CPLW."


"Canadian Prairie League of Wheat-growers."

"I've never heard of..."

"Who was the first Canadian writer to win twenty games in a season. Here's a hint, he used to wear a blue sweater."

"Farley Mowat--"

"Nope. David Bergen."

"Bergen? The guy who painted Murphy Brown's house?"

"No. He wrote A Year of Lesser. That fun little book...Lots of laughs...Laugh till you cry?"

"I didn't laugh."

"Well, he's new. Try this: Who was on deck when Mavis Gallant popped out in the ninth with two men on in game three of the ALDS?"

"That's easy: Orlando Merced."

"Not even close. D.G. Jones."

"I've never even heard of any of these guys."

"Well, they never really made it."

"Give me another one."

"Okay. Who led the league in doubles in 1986?"

"You got me."

"Mordecai Richler. Seven hundred eighty-five double Chivases in 1986. All on his tab."

"But he didn't drink that blended stuff."

"Are you kidding? He kept one Lagavulin bottle his entire life, and just kept filling it with J&B."

"These are good questions. I'm enjoying this."

"One more. Who had the most caught stealings in 1991?"

"Caught stealings? Let me see. Who ran a lot..."

"Atwood. Seven. But she only had to pay a fine."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It's Too Hot For CanLit: Canada Day Weekend At The Cottage

I write this from the porch of my cottage. It's part of the Adler family complex on Lake Simcoe, just north of the onion farms of Canal Road.

I write because I can't read. It's been a beautiful day; the sun's been shining, the weather's been perfect. A nice breeze, no humidity, and great light. It's not the kind of day that you can be out there reading The Time In Between. And I tried, I really did. But you can't read Canadian literature on a nice day.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a Muskoka chair, reading Elizabeth Hay's A Student of Weather. It was 105 fahrenheit, and the tremclad paint on the softwood lumber was starting to melt. But I was really into the book. I kept thinking, "Maybe I should get out the toboggan. Is it too early to tap for maple syrup? Rosh Hashana went by so fast this year."

Every Canadian book makes me think of fall. I was just thinking of Anne Hebert today--just thinking! And I swear that I looked up at a maple tree and wondered why the leaves hadn't turned orange.

A particularly nice friend sent me a copy of Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip, and for a couple hundred pages I was in the South Pacific. People were sleeping on woven mats. Then I read The Cellist of Sarajevo, and for the next eleven days I watched the lamp lit at noon.

A friend--a professor of literature--once told me that he could never be a protagonist in a Canadian book because he didn't think that he could ever really lose his sense of humour. He was writing a novel which I thought had a lot of promise. The plot, briefly, concerned a university student who witnessed a school shooting. He survived, and was overcome by a sense of guilt. At the same time a family of women--three daughters and a mother--experienced the loss of its patriarch (who was killed in a car crash). The family retreated to their cottage, and the (male) university student--who had been excused for the duration of the semester-- was hired on as a kind of groundskeeper. They would all be isolated together in another take on the Heart of Darkness/Ulysses (not the Joyce) plot. They would be wrecked on each other, would sleep with each other, and finally one would emerge as strong enough for the postmodern world.

I really liked the plot. And the book was written. I read it; it was terrific. When he went to shop it around, the rejection slips all said the same thing: "Interesting, but too funny. Why all the jokes? Canadian or not?"

"David," he told me, "just because the guy sees people getting killed doesn't mean that he turns into a stone. But that's what they want. And this 'Canadian' bullshit! What the hell is that?

"David, not everyone thinks emotional navel-gazing is beautiful. Nothing ever ends well, but it doesn't end now. Plenty of people live."

So I sat on the deck playing Phil Ochs's I Ain't Marchin' Anymore on my cheap Gibson acoustic guitar. I would've played Sundown, but I felt like smiling.
All Posts On This Site Are Intended As Juvenalian Satire. If They Veer Into Horatian Satire, That's OK Too. Just, Please, Don't Take Them Too Seriously. PhD Students Can't Afford Libel Suits. CUPE Doesn't Cover Court Costs.
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