This week sees the detachment of the Scotiabank Giller’s rocket booster: its longlist. Having accomplished some significant liftoff of its own (ie., book sales), it will now fall gently back to earth as the remaining five titles continue their journey to the Nov. 7 gala.
So what, if anything, unites the books on the shortlist? The most obvious is that, for the first time, all are by writers of colour. A glimpse between their covers reveals something else though. Namely, an embrace of magical realism and the unsettling that have been a feature of mainstream Canadian and international fiction for a while now.
Sheila Heti, whose longlisted novel, Pure Colour, is not on the shortlist, in many ways led that charge. Her entire body of work has been, to varying degrees, about narrative dislocation; so much so that it feels not at all surprising that Pure Colour features animal spirits and a (human) protagonist who spends a decent portion of the book inside the leaf of a tree.
Among shortlisters, only Tsering Yangzom Lama’s We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, an intergenerational story about Tibetan exiles, reads as your standard historical epic. In Kim Fu’s short-story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, conversely, the strange and grotesque abound. In one tale, a girl discovers a series of mysterious liquidy bumps on her ankles, which erupt and sprout into wings. In another, a house fills with a “seething sea” of beetles with “glassy wings like cresting waves.”
Indeed, Coach House Books, which has two shortlisted titles – including Fu’s – has turned books that ride the line between genre and so-called literary fiction into something of a specialty. Many, interestingly, have been by women: Christiane Vadnais, Karoline Georges, Julie Demers, S.D. Chrostowska and Camilla Grudova, to name but a few.
Barely plotted, and with a level of detail that announces “research!” the publisher’s other nominee, Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter, about an overworked, under-respected gay Black train porter with dreams of dentistry school, would be boilerplate historical fiction (it’s set in the 1920s) were it not for an injection of psychodrama that builds as the protagonist’s sleep deprivation gives way to full-on hallucinations over a four-day trip from Montreal to Banff, Alta.
The discombobulations of Noor Naga’s novel If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English, have more to do with the way she denies readers a solid perch from which to take in her story about an American-Egyptian writer’s short, fraught relationship with a local photographer in post-Arab Spring Cairo.
Instead, each of the novel’s three parts has distinct quirks of format that keep us off-balance, on the outside looking in. One uses copious footnotes, another a series of floating philosophical questions with only a tenuous connection to the book’s shifting narratives. The third presents as a transcript from a creative-writing class – with all the sometimes grating parlance that can entail – wherein the students dissect the memoir we just read (by a woman called Noor). Naga’s is the most literary, and, for my money, audacious title on the shortlist.
A glance at the Gillers of a decade ago would seem to confirm a shift toward the weird. That year’s shortlist included three novels – Will Ferguson’s novel 419 (the eventual winner), Kim Thuy’s Ru, Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride – and two short story collections – Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away and Alix Ohlin’s Inside. All books gave us recognizable cause-and-effect worlds where nobody grows unexpected limbs (in a scathing review, The New York Times described Ohlin’s book as “invested in the bland earnestness of realism.”) Thuy’s characteristically minimalist book, about a Vietnamese woman who emigrates to Canada in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, looks like poetry on the page, but cleaves to realist protocol in most ways that matter.
Rawi Hage is this year’s only repeat shortlister (Mayr was longlisted, in 2011, for her novel Monoceros). This being his fourth go-around – he was shortlisted previously for the novels De Niro’s Game, Cockroach and Beirut Hellfire Society – he’s now tied with Margaret Atwood for Giller nods, and would become one half of the first Giller couple were he to win (his partner, Madeleine Thien, having won in 2016 for Do Not Say We Have Nothing).
Stray Dogs is a short-story collection – Hage’s first, though the earliest story in it was written more than a decade ago. Speaking of the uncanny, sharp-eyed Giller-watchers will note that its cover and title bear a striking resemblance to a previous winner, André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs. (A difference being that the silhouetted, open-mouthed dog in the latter’s artwork points nose-up, while the silhouetted, open-mouthed dog in the former points nose-down.)
Hage’s collection has a potentially winning combination of spark and maturity. As ever, he’s incorporated his other profession, photography, into the writing. But in this case, form feels particularly well suited to content: each brief, succinct tale feels like a snapshot.
Most have a real-world solidity to them, and yet Hage, too, couldn’t resist a few trips to the uncanny valley. In one story, a McGill archivist becomes unsettled when names, including his own, start to appear on the rare manuscripts he’s tasked with reproducing. In another, Beirut citizens faced with constant traffic jams start sprouting feathers on their backs that “thickened into wings, and with every flutter of their new appendages, these people rose until they were floating above the traffic into the air.”
The incident is described as “unexpected.” But surely the take-away from this current moment in fiction is that we should expect exactly that.
The 2022 Giller Prize shortlist:
- Kim Fu for Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century (Coach House Books)
- Rawi Hage for Stray Dogs (Knopf Canada)
- Tsering Yangzom Lama for We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies (McClelland & Stewart)
- Suzette Mayr for The Sleeping Car Porter, (Coach House Books)
- Noor Naga for If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English (Graywolf Press)
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.