It might seem like a fool’s errand to pick a fight with George Orwell. In his famous essay Why I Write, Orwell argued that the best prose comes from the strenuous work of effacing personality so that it seems transparent. “Good prose is like a window pane,” was Orwell’s pithy summary of his ideal.
Orwell’s slogan has a deceptive plausibility, but is actually more fitting for journalism, the field where he did his best work, than for imaginative literature. The most intense fiction and poetry is rarely transparent. Rather, the liveliest writing tends to resemble paintings or stained-glass windows or even circus posters. Powerful prose has colour, style, personality and panache. Against Orwell’s goal of lucid plainness stand countless great writers, perhaps chief among them Vladimir Nabokov, whose sentences emulated the vividness of a butterfly’s wing.
Douglas Glover is a distinguished member of the tribe of Nabokov. Glover is as gifted a writer as Canada has ever produced and the source of his strength is the ferocious quirkiness of his sentences.
Glover’s new story collection, Savage Love, is an astonishing book only partly because of the loopy and incessant inventiveness of his narratives. The 22 stories range daringly in space and time, taking us from a stomach-turning battle scene during the War of 1812 to a contemporary farm family whose sheer wackiness, condensed into 25 pages, puts to shame any eccentric clan one can think of, whether it be J.D. Salinger’s Glass family or Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums.
These stories are rich in plot, full of love triangles, murders and descents into madness. The appalling events Glover describes might, in the hands of a lesser writer, seem like mere attention-grabbing sensationalism. Yet his stories leave a genuine emotional scar, because the words he uses are sharp enough to claw into us.
In the first story in the book, we’re told of an Idaho farmer in 1869 doing battle with a savage winter: “The snow surprised him. Snow choked the passes, interred the arid creek beds and dry washes under a mortuary sheet, muffled the canyons of the pine tips, buried his traps, buried his hut, his pole barn, his stock. He started killing the lambs, stuffing their skins in the cracks between the sappy logs. Then he kilt the ewes, one by one, then he kilt the rams, then he kilt the ox and the riding mule, which was starving also. Then he kilt his wife. And then his dog, regretting of the dog more than the rest because it was a pure Tennessee Plott hound. Then he resigned himself to death, composed his body beneath a pile of frozen sheepskins in a corner, and waited. He wasn’t defeated, he told himself, only indignant at the sudden wolfishness in the weather, which had descended without warning in the prospectus of his westward dreams.”
As we read these sentences, horrifying as they are, we know we’re in the hands of a master writer, one who can sure-footedly walk us through the most difficult terrain. The ornery murderousness of the main character is quickly established by five monosyllabic words (“then he kilt his wife”), period dialect (“kilt”) is sparingly but effectively deployed, and there is a confident movement from specific details (“frozen sheepskins”) to a more flighty abstract language of desire (“the prospectus of his westward dreams”).
As against the disquieting brutality of this passage, consider Glover’s lighthearted description of two lovebirds, named Laurette and Tamas, who live in vegan organic farming co-op: “They would often embarrass other members of the co-op by making love in the field rows or behind a hay rick or beside an open window on moonlit nights, their cries of joy setting off mysterious vibrations in the listener, inspiring laughter, lust, and the desire for fat babies. But the co-op prospered, cheerful children gambolled in the vegetable patches, the Brussels spouts and cabbages won prizes in the state fair, and tour buses brought doting crowds of vegan initiates to browse in the fields, where sometimes they caught a glimpse of Laurette and Tamas scampering naked or felt the pulse of their seismic lovemaking.”
Glover’s earlier collection 16 Categories of Desire was obsessed with the failure of love, with breakups that caused ardour to turn to hate. This theme recurs in the new collection, but it is counterbalanced by a renewed respect for the robustness of passion, for the way that we continue to search for love even after repeated disappointments.
In telling his stories of the ferocious resilience of love, Glover wisely does not write prose that is like a window pane. Blessedly, he writes the best way possible: fiercely, idiosyncratically and lovingly.
Jeet Heer’s new book, In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Speigelman, has just been published.