Attack of the Copula Spiders
And Other Essays on Writing
By Douglas Glover
Biblioasis, 214 pages. $19.95
The Truth About the Writing Life
By Marianne Apostolides
BookThug, 159 pages, $23
Each of these provocative and artful Canadian books – one by veteran novelist and theorist Douglas Glover, the other by hip crypto-memoirist Marianne Apostolides – aims to reveal something of value about the mysteries and mechanisms of writing and storytelling. It is the sort of aim that in these "post-literate" days, as Glover calls our era, would seem about as pertinent as attempting to speak meaningfully about fighting a duel or defending one's castle against the trebuchet.
Both books bust their targets. However, they do so by such radically different means, becoming such radically different books en route, that covering the pair in a brief single review makes me feel like one of those East African merchants whose shop signs pitch "Homemade Custards & Mortuarial Supplies" or "Lingerie & Explosives."
Whereas Apostolides's impassioned little book cranes its pliant neck to peer directly up the birth canal into the briny recesses where stories and writing are conceived, Glover's is a kind of ultrasound of those recesses: a book detached, pulse-taking, analytical, concerned not so much with the intimacies of literary gestation or the sort of obstetrical stresses that fascinate Apostolides, as with technical and construction issues – with how to make sentences, how to create tension in a piece of writing and, of equal importance, how not to do it, which is sometimes easier to demonstrate.
I did my best to dislike Glover's book. Why would anyone, much less another writer, cozy up to a collection whose opening sucker punch is a chapter titled (with no hint of irony) How to Write a Novel? At first, I took the piece to be some sort of Sedaris-like satire. But it's not. It's serious (like the backyard construction of nuclear reactors, novel-writing is apparently quite easy).
I was still massaging my jaw when I was confronted by How to Write a Short Story (not until you get that novel done, Bubba).
However, as I absorbed the book's title piece, Attack of the Copula Spiders, an eloquent little commentary on writing well in the age of Facebook, I felt a first pang of regret over my churlish resistance to a book that would ultimately reward me with its erudition and democratic spirit.
Such was the pace of my conversion, that by the time I reached the penultimate chapter, a brilliant examination of, among other things, the catastrophic meeting of the 15th-century book cultures of Europe and the oral cultures of the new world, I had decided that every literate person in the country should be reading Glover's essays and was fixing to present them to my eldest daughter, who is about to begin literary studies at UBC.
Glover is at times rather detached in his assessment of the value of storytelling. And yet there is a subtext to his work, a sense that if a story is to have life beyond the intrinsics of its existence, it must, sooner or later, ease up to the imponderables at the heart of what it is to be human. As Joni Mitchell said of songwriting, if at some point a song's lyrics don't extend themselves into a larger orbit, "it's all just complaining."
It is at this point that Glover's and Apostolides's books intersect. For Apostolides is a kind of fan dancer among thematic imponderables: the realms of memory, longing, fear, loss, redemption and, of course, the two sullen enormities between which all literary tensions must eventually find both flight and denouement, injustice and survival.
The book's narrator, purportedly the "true" voice of the author, is an ever-present commentator on the process by which intimacies and idiocies, all the lush and damnable details, are lifted from the quotidian script, or coaxed from memory, and are imagined into language as stories.
In one particularly riveting piece, What We Do for Money, our virgin female guide visits a legal brothel in Nevada on the pretext of studying prostitution for a thesis she is writing at an Ivy League academy. In another, set years later, she has become a belly dancer in a Greek tavern in Toronto, in order to raise rent money following an agonizing marital breakdown.
However, the larger context and narrative invariably concern the author's will to tell her father's story: his fierce experiences as a child during the Second World War and the Greek civil war; the ensuing years of repressed memory; her mother's aloneness in New York; her childhood; her kids; a catastrophic separation from her husband. And alongside it all, of course, the story of the story – of how it got created, of who paid the price, of who betrayed whom at the annunciation.
Voluptuous Pleasure is categorized as memoir, and yet it was once said of Apostolides that she believes all stories are in the end a version of fiction, transformed by the telling into a new truth, a kind of echo of the truths from which they came.
At a point in one of her tales, Apostolides comments that certain facts are "not worth mentioning. They would alter the tone of the story. They would ruin the mood."
Given the beauty of the tales as they are, why would anybody want to do that?
Charles Wilkins's book about rowing across the Atlantic Ocean will be published in 2013.