canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

I Can See You Being Invisible
by Andy Brown
DC Books, 2003

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

See TDR's interview with Andy Brown

The avant garde, according to my Concise Oxford Dictionary, is a noun or an adjective: "(of) pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period; hence ~ism (3), ~ist (2), ns. [F,=vanguard]." Flip now to vanguard: "n. foremost part of army or fleet advancing or ready to do so; (fig.) leaders of movement, of opinion, etc." Hmm. Innovation and leadership: two words one does not often hear applied to small press publishing in Canada.

Not that there aren’t innovators. Christian Bök’s Eunoia is a convenient poster book for recent exemplary literary innovation, one that even managed to catch hold of the popular imagination and generate ca-ching, book sales. (Carmine Starnino, however, has accused Bök of repeating experiments already carried out by Europeans deep in the previous century … but let’s not rehash that argument.)

Andy Brown is avant garde. Brown is a leader in Canadian small press publishing; he is the principal behind Montreal’s conundrum press, a house known for working outside the mainstream. On the evidence presented in Brown’s new short story collection, I Can See You Being Invisible, he is also an innovator. Flip to innovate: "v.i. bring in novelties; make changes."

What novelties? I Can See You Being Invisible includes a story presented as a photo essay: "How to Build a Wall." Another story is accompanied with black ink illustrations. The drawings are not quite anime, but they’re somewhat similar. These stories are novel in approach, to a degree. What changes? Changes to what? Brown’s collection is a change from the lyrical, small town, nostalgic, über real McCanLit that Ray Robertson railed against in Mental Hygiene. Brown writes against many of the dominant CanLit tropes. But his work is also not significantly different from many other writers writing "urban fiction" in Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Windsor and Toronto (south of Bloor St.).

One of those writers, Hal Niedzviecki, founding editor of Broken Pencil, blurbs Brown’s book:

Brown's sentences are as crisp as his vision is opaque... Read this for its tremulous intelligence, its bravado, its confident obscurity.

Confident obscurity? Vision is opaque? I don’t know. To me those don’t sound like good things. Here’s the other cover blurb, this one by Anne Stone:

Andy Brown’s first collection of stories converges on the discarded: rooms are provisional, existing until a stranger comes to the door and leaves with the balance of the fiction in tow. What courses through his veins are imagined histories, parallel worlds into which the reader might follow, pushing aside the curtain of a familiar photo booth to enter a world of the inexplicable, where time is the drug of choice.

This is a better summary … and better praise. Umberto Eco wrote about travels in "hyper reality," and that’s sort of what Andy Brown’s stories are, too. One character is a drug pusher, selling "time." William Faulker, James Joyce, and Mikhail Bahktin make cameo appearances as labourers in contemporary Montreal. A long linked series of stories takes the reader in and out of a number of different lives, emphasizing both the randomness and the interconnectedness of their relationships. Paul Auster’s New York Stories may be a precursor here. Or maybe Brown’s work is part of a new trend.

The February 19, 2004, issue of eye weekly, for example, included a story about a new website: theculturalgutter. A collaboration between Jim Munroe, Guy Leshinski, and James Schellenberg, the website focuses, according to Munroe, on "any medium or genre that has traditionally been maligned or ignored or thought of as trash. It’s more about how it’s perceived than how it’s executed or what it’s about." Note the lack of language about leading or innovating. Merely being ignored is symptomatic of being "gutter." Brown's writing might fall into this category - but I think I Can See You Being Invisible aspires to be something more than ignored....

Meanwhile, here’s what Roddy Doyle said recently at New York University about James Joyce's Ulysses: "People are always putting Ulysses in the Top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it." Mr. Doyle apparently added that Ulysses "could have done with a good editor" and said that he’d "read three pages of Finnegans Wake and it was a tragic waste of time."

The Commitments, one feels one must say, on the other hand, is good craic.

Okay, well, and so what?

I Can See You Being Invisible is somewhere in between The Commitments (a well written book that is by no means cutting edge) and Ulysses (a book so cutting edge one wonders if it's well written). It’s a fine example of the kind of "underground," or even "gutter" writing coming out of Canada. It has a stories about tree planters. It has stories where guns go off. It includes the word "depanneur." It’s a kind of generational portrait. It's a little bit depressing.

Brown's writing is not the same old same old. His is a voice struggling to articulate uniqueness. Most days, that's all we have any right to expect.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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