canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Hal Niedzviecki
Random House, 2001

Martin Sloane
by Michael Redhill
Anchor Canada, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

When Peter Gzowski died in January 2002 part of the CBC TV tribute included a clip from an interview conducted in the weeks before his death. The interviewer asked Gzowski about Morningside, the highly popular CBC radio program Gzowski helmed for many years. The interviewer said some critics had complained that Morningside represented "not the Canada that was, but the Canada as we wanted it to be."

At first blush this isn't a question a dying man should have to answer, but, ever generous, Gzowski agreed that maybe this was the case. He said Morningside was arguably more rural-oriented during a period when Canada was becoming increasingly urbanized, more homogenous during a period when Canada was becoming increasingly diverse. The exchange made me think of popular conceptions of Canadian literature, which - how can they say this?! - most people still tend to consider boring. Too rural. Too locked in the past. Too focused on white, Anglo-Saxon middle-class concerns during a period when Canada is increasingly a gateway to the world.

But the fact is - as Stephen Henighan brilliantly points out in When Words Deny the World - many of Canadian literature's recent chart toppers point towards the past: aesthetically, thematically, and arguably politically. For a multiude of reasons, Canadians don't perceive themselves as artistic innovators; they tend to prefer inherited patterns (often perpetuated by the CBC!). On the other hand, and here Henighan lets us down, there is much evidence in the literary creepy corners of the country that ought to lead Canadians to the contrary opinion.

The focus of this review is two novels published in 2001: Ditch by Hal Niedzviecki and Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill. Redhill's book was nominated for the 2001 Giller Prize. Neidzviecki's received little comment. But what an interesting compare and contrast study they make! Two first novels published by thirty-something men, both based in Toronto, both with a modest publishing history to their credit. One would be hard pressed to find many precursors for Ditch, while Martin Sloane has rightfully slid easily into the mainstream.

At this point it would be easy to chastise Canadian book buyers - and awards committees! - for failing to take a risk on Ditch. Yes, it would be nice to see Canadian literary innovators hailed more prominently. On the other hand, Eunoia has done remarkably well. Besides, both Ditch and Martin Sloane are first novels - and they carry all of the baggage that implies. That is, they sparkle in some places, and fall flat in others. 

Both Ditch and Martin Sloane are novels about troubled relationships. Ditch is about a twenty-something deliveryman in Toronto who still lives with his mother and hooks up with a mysterious young woman from the USA. They go on a road trip in his van, and things end badly. In Martin Sloane, things end no less badly, but they do end more lyrically. Martin Sloane traces the relationship of an American undergraduate with an older Irish artist, whom she first meets in Toronto. He mysteriously disappears in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

Ditch is written in Niedzviecki's patented sparse style. Here's a random passage:

She sleeps. He cleans and bandages her feet. Strips of skin peeled off in meticulous layers. Hours of labour, the fruit of the flesh laid bare. He shakes when he touches her. The sun comes up, morning. They could have been anywhere, and he wishes they were, anywhere, somewhere, a place they'd never been, a place with history.

Niedzviecki's style delivers most of the Wows here. It also communicates a stark feeling of alienation, as if true connection were impossible, as if only a stripping away of all pretension offers any hope of revealing reality. 

Martin Sloane, on the other hand, might be described as more artful, if only because it borrows the tropes of art. The missing man is an artist, a sculptor, descriptions of his sculptures divide sections of the novel. The novel is infused with the assumption that art can convey meaning, and yet at the centre of the novel is a hollow space, a missing man, a destroyed relationship. The narrator, the woman abandoned by the artist, searches for clues of him to help put her life back in order. To a degree she suceeds. Ditch offers no hope of resolution, only a relentless sense of loss.

Before I wrote this review, I wanted to say something like: Niedzviecki is on a relentless quest to articulate the present, while Redhill has repeated a pattern too common in recent Canlit by looking backwards at the past. I see now that this is too simple a summation. Both are novels out of Canada, circa 2001. They are both legitimate expressions of our moment. Ditch, however, isn't something you would likely have ever heard about on Morningside. Which is a pity. 

Right, Peter?

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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