canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Can You Take Me There, Now?
by Matthew Firth
Boheme Press, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

The October 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine contains a book review by Lee Siegel that begins with this paragraph:

Pragmatism is an American product with a simple heart. Its animating principle is that truth is social and constructed rather than transparent and objective. It holds that ideas prove their worth in action, and that the results of an idea are the best criteria by which to judge its merit. And since what works for me might not work for you, pragmatism advocates a strenuous openness to all perspectives. With its insistence on the fusion of being and doing, thought and action, pragmatism has one foot in academe and the other in everyday life. It is philosophy in running shoes.

Word for word, the same thing can be said of Matthew Firth's second collection of short fiction, Can You Take Me There, Now? More or less. This is one of those instances where the qualifications will make all the difference.

In the first place, Siegel is reviewing a book called The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, which Siegel calls "essentially an argument for the value of American pragmatism folded into a social history of its rise." Firth's book, by contrast, is a collection of 17 short stories of working class guys and gals struggling with their contemporary fixes of one sort or another. Menand's book is a work on a grand scale; Firth's is focuses on particulars, and particulars of a particular type - narrative variations on the working stiff.

What I want to suggest is that Firth's book appears to be a "product with a simple heart," but it's not. It also often appears to be a book that is anti-ideas, but I want to also suggest that there is no such position. Even to take an anti-ideas positions, is to take a position based on ideas. Siegel suggests the anti-ideas position is called "pragmatism", and that it's based on the principle "that truth is social and constructed rather than transparent and objective." 

Here's Firth:

I spent most of last night dodging cops and queers so obviously I'm not at my very best. The cops harassed me down by the harbour, glaring at me from their cruiser behind cheesy moustaches. One of the fat thugs clambered out of their car and stood over me. "What's your business here?"

There's more than a bit of William S. Burroughs in this. Here's Burroughs from Naked Lunch:

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train. ... Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character.

Firth's narrator is evidently Firth's cop's idea of a character. The cop projects an assumption on the narrator; the narrator projects an assumption on the cop. The story is off and running. Truth is social and constructed rather than transparent and objective.

"Can you take me there, now?" the narrator eventually asks a companion. (I'm not going to give away the story.) The answer is YES, but the answer is also NO. I read this question metaphorically as a desire for transcendence, i.e., Can you take me out of here, now? Can you give me at least a momentary glimpse of the beyond? Yes, but no, is the answer. Many of Firth's narrators struggle with similar questions, though it is never as boldly stated as in the collection's title story. Instead, the stories are celebrations of quiet moments, near forgotten injustices, attempts to gain something more than what we have right here right now. 

It was John Lennon (already a multi-millionaire) who said that a "working class hero is something to be". Firth fulfills the role without Lennon's ego-claims. He has produced solid stories about solid  people working their piece of earth for all it's worth, not expecting much, but at the same time expecting a great deal.

In his review of The Metaphysical Club, Lee Siegel argues that Americans turned to pragmatism after their Civil War because they no longer believed in grand schemes. The grand schemes led to violence and destruction; claims of utopian futures led to their opposites. In a similar fashion, it is quite clear that the failure of the 1960s grand schemes to deliver on their exaggerated promises (Lennon again: "All you need is love"), has contributed to the cynicism of subsequent generations. Historians have long argued that after the Civil War all Americans wanted to do was make money. A look back at 1980s Yuppie-culture and the stock market hysteria of the 1990s might say similar things about our society's underlying influences.

Firth's narrators accept no easy answers. It also must be said that Firth chooses narrators who refuse easy answers, or who have no access to easy options. With Firth, we are often in Raymond Carver country. The back cover calls Firth "Canada's Bukowski". These are relevant comparisons (they point out Firth's continuity with a solid American literary tradition). At the same time, Firth is Firth. His characters are as big hearted as Carver's, and as eager to reach for the bottle as Bukowski's, but they are also wholly original. Not kinder and gentler in that pathetic Canadian tradition. Just different. And proud of it.

Firth's first book, Fresh Meat, was published in 1997 by Rush Hour Revisions. The Danforth Review interviewed him earlier this year. He is a troubadour of the new Canadian literature. His work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including Iced: The New Noir Anthology of Cold, Hard Fiction (Insomniac Press, 2001). I don't think he'd agree that he has "one foot in academe and one foot in everyday life," but I don't think he'd put up too much of a fuss about being called a philosopher in running shoes.

Can You Take Me There, Now? is fiction for everyone who's been paid to clean toilets, mop floors, pick up garbage, and who has suffered more than a few slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As Bukowski said in Bar Fly, "No one suffers like the poor." The view isn't always pretty, but it's gritty; it's tough; and it's occasionally desperate. Firth gives us lives on the front line of the struggle for existence. He returns to the basic questions. How did I get here? and how the hell and how fast can I get myself somewhere else?

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review. In the interests of full disclosure, he acknowledges that his name appears in the Acknowledgements of Matthew Firth's Can You Take Me There, Now? and also that Firth reviewed (mostly positively) his last short story collection, Only A Lower Paradise & Other Stories. Despite various incentives, he still honestly (truly!) liked Firth's book. 







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