canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

19 Knives
by Mark Anthony Jarman
House of Anansi Press, 2000

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Canlit is moribund. False prophets continually assume our inbred throne. The Canadian canon decomposes amongst names like Callaghan and -gasp- Atwood, these elected by university professors. John Metcalf has bemoaned as follows:

"The older I get the more convinced I am that it is the qualities of a writer's language that readers must connect with. Any fool can have ideas. Only an artist will be able to put language through its paces. Readers must come to a book not to "understand" it but to cooperate with it. A book performs on the page. Readers must learn to become part of that performance."

Mark Anthony Jarman comes from academic miasma, where he's currently a sessional professor hired at the University of New Brunswick, a location prototype where false prophets assume tenured thrones. But as a performance, 19 Knives is a stylistic tour de force where the pace is flat out, racing to disastrous and saddening conclusions.

Jarman is the preeminent Canadian stylist, surpassing the intellectual hyperpostmodernist, superselfreflective coffee-house navel gazing of Crosbie, Turner, et al. He's a virtuoso performer riffing on drug abuse, muscle cars, the America civil war, and maleness. His pumped-up prose does set after set at the lyrical gym, interested in the sweating and grunting of all-male protagonists. There is quirkiness, desperation, and hopeless tenderness. There is much else, with a single premise invariably based on the vapid black hole men sequentially jump into, short story after short story.

Stylistic central elements: fresh exploding metaphors detonating in distinctive narrative with a familiar cadence: Joyce is Jarman's (and every other modern author's) spiritual predecessor, along with Rick Moody. But his personal version of these styles is best described as a refreshing interpretation, a reincarnation new enough to be welcome. It is his own, and Joyce never wrote about this material (Moody has); though neither had/have quite the narrative bombast.

In Jarman's seamless sea of language, metaphor flows into metaphor smoothly in a word medium that's heavily imagistic and streaming. His sentences don't really end. They extend- into one another, making commas into redundancies and each story a complete thing, as visceral as a punch in the gut, as startling as gunshots, or as melancholy as a long, inflected sigh. His tone is sombre. Jarman is an honest-to-god Canadian prose stylist who doesn't fraudulently exchange the word "incomprehensible" for "poetry". This is likely why he hasn't made a million: other lucrative heists leave such a haze, the Canadian reading pubic nod hypnotically and think, "this here goodum story." Better to say that than read an entire plotless chapter and wonder what just happened, isn't it?

A quintessential Jarman bar hums as follows, taken from "Guided by Voices":

"Black payphone like a gun to my head I stand there, my feet disconnecting from the flat earth getting air. The phone smells like vinegar and someone has said, I could fall for you in a big way."

Note the internal rhyme, alliteration, and tangentiality wrapped up in an imagistic package, gift paper coming in an uninterrupted roll, images repeated with fine variation. Jarman's sheer wordsmithery is astounding. A man is burned by explosive propane in "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" and ...

"I'm okay, okay, will be fine except I'm hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I'm burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape- am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke."

As Jarman mentions in this story, his prose is "accelerated"; it hurtles homeward to the brain's registrar. And yes, it is vrai poetic: tap out silently "da da da dada" in discrete units while reading "A complicated bed and her arms on a tray and her serious expression and unfucked-up skin and my hunger and love for a porch (I spied a fair maiden), for the latest version of my lunatic past." Burn Man is a masterpiece; it flirts with punnery and succeeds by force of irony; it clangs with bad rhyme and still reads like a winner.

There are three failings:

(1) Sometimes Jarman apes poetry, writing tired limerick after limerick. Sentences are constructed according to formula:

"She was serious, brainy, disapproved of me not being able to put a sentence together. I knew she knew the word hippocampus. On the dance floor I seized up, stopped dancing completely and stared at my paralysis, and I fled out the alarmed doors, red bells and hammers smashing., crowd panic, and then the girls definitely sensed some failing in me. My high school years breathed disappointment, fear, white noise. One thing did not lead to another."

This structure is taken from Rick Moody's experimental playbook, and Jarman owes him a significant debt. So our Canadian stylist is not so new, though it's new for us, until his heavily commaed prose reaches a page number midway through 19 Knives. The Jarman accelerant burns up completely, and half the journey remains. Does this hare win the race with his finite quantity of fuel? Though the accelerant is exhausted, its welcome heat lingers, as does the scorch.

(2) Any reader of 19 Knives can pick out Jarman's favourite metaphors: salty doom and hippocampus remembrance. These metaphors occur too frequently; they are pulled from a stock bag of tricks invoked in story after story. At first familiar, one comes to wish that Jarman would pass the salt, or bypass the hippocampus and head straight for the limbic system.

(3) Pop culture: Jarman mentions consumer palaces like Sport Chek and Value Village. He also refers to alterna-rock alterna-princes Pavement, Guided by Voices, Alex B. Toklas, and several others. Posterity will frown upon Jarman's university dorm music cool.

Yet Jarman is just plain interesting, a fact belied by his subject matter. As a Canadian who forged himself at the most prestigious writing school in America, Jarman writes a story where a lousy Canadian mounts an ill-fated charge against Wampum the vengeant Indian victorious at Custer's folly. This Canadian soldier ends up killing "ol' Iron Butt" in a story boasting the likes of Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel. Read it. Buy the book. And read Moody, too.

Can one write compelling short stories (or novellas, or novels) that don't shirk the word "literary" and force breathless readers to claustrophobic, helpless ends? Jarman can, at the vanguard of his book's dustjacket's squishy quote: "He doesn't just write about people, he put us in their skins so that we feel their frailty and courage." And he does. This is an ascendant work: Alice Munro will abdicate in due time. A Canadian Moody will take her place.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's Poetry Editors. He is a Nova Scotian poet who has published recently in Queen's Quarterly, The Canadian Forum, and Pottersfield Portfolio. His poetry has been featured in The Danforth Review.

An interview with Mark Anthony Jarman was featured in The Danforth Review (March 2000).







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