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Ripening wheat in the evening sunlight of late summer. (Larry MacDougal For The Globe and Mail)
Ripening wheat in the evening sunlight of late summer. (Larry MacDougal For The Globe and Mail)

Summer essay series

A literary mission statement: Go where you’re not supposed to go Add to ...

This summer, expat Craig Taylor is rediscovering his homeland through the Canadiana collection of the Abbey Bookshop in Paris’s Latin Quarter. This is the sixth instalment.

When I lived in Toronto in the late nineties, I was lucky enough to be involved with people producing their own literature. A scene had formed around Broken Pencil, the magazine dedicated to reviewing facets of independent Canadian culture. A lot of stapled and folded zines emerged, some even worth reading. Dispatches came in from across the country: in Vancouver, Andy Healey of the punk band Submission Hold hand-lettered a zine called I’m Johnny and I Don’t Give A [expletive]; in Montreal, Louis Rastelli produced a gorgeous zine called Fish Piss. In Toronto, there was Infiltration, a zine about urban exploration, written by Ninjalicious, a.k.a. the late Jeff Chapman.

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Jeff’s argument was that the infrastructure now existed in our cities, the buildings had been built, and it was time to explore, even if the doors were locked. Recently I read his self-published posthumous book, Access All Areas. Mostly it’s filled with instructions and tips for urban exploration, but it also carries within it a valuable mission statement: Go where you’re not supposed to go. Any time this theme pops up, it’s worth nodding to a few books, most notably Marian Engel’s remarkable Bear (in which the protagonist goes into an erotic relationship with a bear). There’s Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look On Love (into a morgue to have sex with corpses) and Gowdy again in The White Bone (into the mind of an elephant).

But the book that most recently reminded me of this maxim was Lee Henderson’s epic The Man Game. It asks whether an author writing a book set in Vancouver in the 1880s should go into that era with the respect of a historian. Henderson’s answer, thankfully, is a resounding no. Part of the pleasure of the novel is the feeling that Henderson is not just trespassing on Pierre Berton territory, he’s stomping over it, teasing out and tweaking Vancouver’s early history, and in the process enlivening it. The cast looks recognizable – the Chinese immigrants, the cast-offs from Toronto, the lumberjacks – but they’re given a demonic new life. There are trains puffing through, including one with a cowcatcher on the front. Henderson sets one of his characters, Sam, on it as the train passes a landscape of freshly blasted rock, the very landscape Berton describes in The Last Spike. “How pretty were the ingredients of a mountain,” Sam thinks, “the likes of which we never really knew before dynamite.” Now the “quartz and black crisps of mica tinselled in his eyes as the sun beamed across the rockface.” If Sam could lean out and touch the passing rock, “he’d be touching time itself, the igneous shadow of God.”

The man game of the title describes a secret sport in which naked men wrestle each other, so yes, this book is off-the-map weird. And vital and wonderful, and necessary for a city like Vancouver. It’s the spiritual brother of that other anarchic history of a western city, Guy Maddin’s film My Winnipeg.

I’ll stay in Manitoba for a second. Without the explanatory introduction, Miriam Toews’s Swing Low could be seen as a straightforward account of a man’s life in Steinbach. Why should this be considered pushing into new territory? Toews crosses a boundary that looks, at first, banal – she writes from the point of view of a man. Further examination shows the project to be more audacious. She’s writing in the voice of her father, Mel, who committed suicide after retiring from 40 years of teaching. Toews enters a place few writers would go, tries on the voice of her father, and does so with a mission. She wants to contradict the statement Mel made in reference to his life the day before he died: “Nothing accomplished.” Few writers could speak in their father’s voice without sinking into mawkishness while puppet stings visibly tremble overhead. Toews is rightfully celebrated for novels with strong, gorgeously talkative prairie women, but Swing Low is the book I return to. Is it strange to tell a novelist her finest creation is her own father?

Speaking in his voice, Toews offers up a book for those who have been on the outside of a loved one’s depression, tapping lightly on the fogged glass, looking in with fear. And though Mel dies, what strikes me is the note of achievement Toews includes. “A year or so after retirement,” she writes in her own voice, “my parents went out for a drive in the countryside around town. “Well,” said my father after they’d driven in silence for a while, “I did it.” He’d lived a life – that quiet marathon through dark valleys that anyone suffering from bipolar depression faces. In refuting her father’s “nothing accomplished,” she offers both a novel and a template for readers who need to find some sort of rebuttal when dealing with someone in the depths of what she calls “that clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair.”

She also gives to the book what is been missing from a lot of other Canadian prairie novels with their familiar themes of survival, snow, despair. Toews has a different trio in mind: openness, warmth, generosity.

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