This summer, John Semley asks the tough questions of our nation: Are we Canadians really a funny people? And, if so, how did we get that way? Each week, for 10 weeks, he will explore a new facet of our history in humour. For the previous instalment, click here.
Trigger warning: the following deals, pretty much exclusively, with a book about a woman having sex with a bear.
Marian Engel's Bear is a book about a mousy Toronto librarian named Lou who decamps to Northern Ontario to unpack an archive of old books and letters kept at a rambling island estate. There, she enters into a sexual relationship with a bear. Yes, a bear.
While Bear has been packaged in paperback like a Harlequin romance dripping with bestiality – there are, indeed, repeated scenes of a bear performing cunnilingus on Lou with his formidable tongue ("muscular but also capable of lengthening itself like an eel") – it was first published in 1976 as a Serious Novel from a Serious Writer, garnering plenty of praise and netting a Governor General's Award for Fiction. Reading it has become a merit badge for CanLit types unafraid of wading to the canon's periphery, splashing around in its more indecorous, and goofier, excesses.
Bear has enjoyed a spike of renewed interest lately, thanks to a viral post on Imgur that has garnered more than half a million views in the past month, excerpting Bear's tawnier bits. More recently, Nicole Cliffe indexed the broad tropes of CanLit with a post titled Every Canadian Novel Ever. At number 23, a Bear shout-out: "A Woman Has Sex With a Bear or a Unicorn And No One Thinks This Is Particularly Odd." Also in July, Random House's Hazlitt website commissioned five illustrators to draft their versions of a new cover for Engel's book, accompanied by an essay by Vancouver comic Sara Bynoe, There's More to Bear Than Bear Sex.
Certainly, yes, as Bynoe and plenty of others have noted, Bear is a kind of climax of second-wave feminist literature. It's a book that sees a reserved, bookish woman with a mannish name, whose appetites had previously only been satisfied by intermittent office sex with her boss, realize the full breadth of her sexuality without a man, or even a human. Andrew Pyper, a Stratford-born novelist, also advocated for Bear as part of PEN Canada's 2013 Freedom To Read Week, pitching the book as a necessarily "inappropriate" novel – Canada's Lolita or Lady Chatterley's Lover. All of this is true and good and fine. There's more to Bear than bear sex, sure.
But there's also the bear sex. It's difficult to take all this bear-boffing stuff seriously – even if you grant that that the bear is both a literal and metaphorical, a furry cipher through which the story's themes of sexual awakening and regeneration-through-nature flow. For one thing, Bear unfolds (pretty self-consciously, I think) like a parody of Canadian literature.
Again we have the divide of the urban and the rural, with Lou taking flight from Toronto for an archive in an isolated island mansion in bucolic northern Ontario, where the changing of the seasons marks her personal growth. (In the city, where weather vacillates between the oppressively chilly and the oppressively muggy, such development is presumably stunted.) As Lou digs through the libraries at the mansion, her relationship with the bear (only referred to as "bear," so the reader never forgets that he's a bear), she slowly morphs into a kind of feral creature: dirty and untamed. In one scene she attempts to wriggle into an old stuffy ball gown and her breasts pop out of it, as if her newfound and exuberant sexuality cannot be contained.
And so Lou's sex with the bear functions as a satiric culmination of all these themes – an actual, physical communion with nature, with the wilds that encroach the perimeter of the Canadian psyche. The recent swell of interest in Bear as a kind of ironized pulp object feels kind of unnecessary. The book was already ironic and humorous (as when the bear waddles off farting after sex, proving himself more a human man than he first appeared). I believe, truly, that Engel wants us to laugh, to find the passages about the bear's gifted tongue and flaccid penis nestled inside "his long cartilaginous sheath" ludicrous in the way they push against the boundaries of the CanLit. In having sex with a bear, it's like Lou is fornicating with a lumbering totem of all the themes of our national literature, heaving in front of a fireplace with the canon itself.
Bear is a book that confronts us with all the theme-iest themes, and then leavens all that literary weightiness with sopping erotic silliness. It's so on-the-nose that it seems to be sneering at its archness. This undercurrent of irony and sly humour is, I think, what accounts for the new, half-smirking interest in Bear. Well, that and all the bear sex.
Next week: We return to Montreal to look at Mavis Gallant's very funny, very trenchant Montreal Stories.