canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions
Carellin Brooks & Brett Josef Grubisic, editors 
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000

Reviewed by Aidan Baker 

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting. Brave new sex fictions. They are fictions, they are written by new writers. They're about sex. Sort of. I guess they're kind of brave... The impetus behind Carnal Nation was a Canadian Studies in America conference in Los Angeles at which Carnal Nation's editors presented their paper, "Rapacity and Remorse: In/de-ferring Heteroglossic Homoeroticism in Susanna Moodie's Roughing it in the Bush." The only paper at the conference which was to mention SEX. 

Their host in LA was unsurprised: "CanLit, huh? It's got to be the most safe and polite and complacent writing on the planet: by the book anguish and paint-by-numbers resolution" (p11). They resolved to prove him wrong, and put together Carnal Nation, a collection of short fiction which, to quote, "reflects an impressive variety of approaches to thematizing and understanding sexuality--and showcases the literary manuoeuvres of young writers who exhibit no reticence about addressing the often visceral facts of sex" (p15). Good intentions; someone should do something about disproving our collective frigidity. 

There are some good stories in Carnal Nation. In "Last Call" Michael Holmes unflinchingly details the relationship (so to speak) between a lap-dancer and her customer. Mark Macdonald's "Penis" is a be/amusingly surrealistic tale, somewhat reminiscent of Gogol's The Nose (or, more appropriately, Philip Roth's The Breast). Truman Lee Rich's (aka Michael Turner) "Mass Production" cleverly teases with post-modernism, porn, and heroin. Derek McCormack contributes with his typically spare, understated prose in "The Accessory" and Sonja Ahlers brings her intriguing, amusing graphics/comics into play with "Let's Erase the Human Race." 

I don't have a problem with the stories themselves in Carnal Nation; generally speaking they are quite good. I have a problem with the anthology as a whole. Because I don't think it achieved what it set out to prove; that Canadians can legitimately write about sex. Sure, sex plays a part in these stories, but only in a handful is it actually integral to the narrative. And only in another handful is there some actual analysis, intelligent exploration of sexuality. What's even more problematic is that very few of these stories are sex positive. 

The book opens with a quotation from Margaret Atwood's Survival, presumably with the notion that the anthology disproves her statement: "The question we must ask is why no Canadian writer has seen fit--or found it imaginable--to produce a Venus in Canada." Yet none of the writers in this collection does produce a Canadian Venus. Sex, primarily, is something unpleasant and destructive, addictive and scarring. 

Carnal Nation does prove that contemporary Canadian literature can be more open about sex and sexuality, but it does little towards the notion that Canadians like sex. Perhaps these fictions shouldn't be characterized as brave, but frightened. And none of them were particularly arousing; in an anthology of brave new sex fictions, I would have at least expected the writing to be a bit more titillating.

Aidan Baker's poetry has appeared in The Danforth Review.







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