You may have heard the word CanLit: you may have come to this land, a stranger, and heard the strange people with the white skins saying this word, and you may think you know what it means. The land is so long, and the writers in it so few, sprinkled in the snow like specks of pemmican, like similes involving ice, like metaphors involving wolves, you might think it simple: CanLit, you might think, is literature written in Canada. But no, your wisdom is of no use to you in this twilit land. CanLit has a connotation. An entertaining book about adultery among litigation lawyers would not merit that appellation; neither would a clever romp in the film industry, Canadian as those things may be. No, CanLit specifically means a certain kind of book: a book with memory and loss and a found diary. A book about the past.
In fact, if you want the most perfect definition of CanLit, the most concrete encapsulation of its weight, its heft, its dread, you need look no further than an interview with one of our greatest writers now up on the CBC books website. The elder statesman Rudy Wiebe, novelist, two-time Governor-General's Award winner, Officer of the Order of Canada, author of The Temptations of Big Bear and A Discovery of Strangers, has just published a new book. It is called Come Back, and it is, as CanLit must be, about family, memory and loss. In it there is the reading of old journals. It is set for greatness.
As is the author's bizarre answer to one clever question, asked of him by another novelist. Lawrence Hill asked him, perhaps irreverently, "Why do funny novels get so little respect in Canada, and have you ever burned with desire to write something so damn funny that readers will fall right out of their chairs? Is that a laudable goal?" And Wiebe replied, in part, "It seems to me that laughter is too easy a way to face the 'wilderness of this world;' you can too easily laugh yourself past the difficulties. Laughter is not a way to understand; it is, basically, a method of elusion."
Now, on reading this, the faithful reader of the Rudy Wiebe novel will feel a familiar and ancient urge rising in him like the maple sap and the aurora borealis: He will feel, irresistibly, a Rudy Wiebe parody coming on. I feel the parody, the pressure, the bite of it, the way it penetrates a man's loins. I feel it shaping us the way the ice spreads over the Prairie. I am a stranger here, to this land, and I know that when I come to this land I cannot continue to be what I have always been. I must become a parody.
For this sentence itself, this wisdom, passed on over generations from the mountains and the rivers, from the elders of the NFB, from the Group of Seven, from David Suzuki on his cloud of terrible judgment, this wisdom is a parody of serious literature. The writer knows and does not know, in the warmth, the stillness, in some soft serious metaphor, that this sentence – that "laughter is not a way to understand" – is so ridiculous as to be itself humorous, as to have made humorous literature without knowing it.
I am cruel, thinks the parodist, his nose twitching in the wind, steadily seeking north, for I know that Rudy Wiebe is actually a nice guy and is said to be quite funny in person. And perhaps his new novel is very good. But how could he have said something so silly? The parodist ruminates, like driftwood tossed by cold eddies. It is not right to be cruel over something so small, and yet this statement is so perfectly illuminating about the traditions of CanLit it must be seized on, as a bear seizes a… I don't know, a moccasin.
For what did the great writer think, surveying the great frozen parking lots of the University of Calgary and its migrating tribes, the herds of students in their flustering streams, their parkas and denim flashing variegated like a simile in flight – did he think of Shakespeare? Perhaps he knew Shakespeare was not serious, with all his silliness; a form of elusion. And Chaucer and Swift and Austen and Dickens and Kafka. They with their laughter could not understand. How could a Richler understand the deadly seriousness of the past, with his jokes and his sadness?
We are a great nation and we know as the caribou knows that the sun will return again, that the humour in Lolita could not reflect a deep American unease, that the farce of Catch-22 could not capture the darkness of war. And that Martin Amis writing another novel about the Holocaust just doesn't make sense at all. We are a serious nation, and we do not accept that sad can be funny and funny sad. In our great provincialism we shall resist this complicated cosmopolitan world of sad serious humour. In portentous dialogue about the Great Spirit and the valleys echoing with meaning, in scriptural narrative about the sounds of something abstract in the horses' hooves, we shall avoid the funny forever, we shall not come to the new international land of serious playfulness, we shall continue to be what we have always been, always on the tundra, steadily seeking north, we shall become parodies of ourselves.