canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Acrobats
by Mordecai Richler
McClelland & Stewart, 2002

Happiness (the novel formerly known as Generica)
by Will Ferguson
Penguin, 2002

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Look at the covers. Which one looks like a good time? One is written by Canada's greatest literary humourist, the other by a hard-running up-and-comer. I don't need to tell you which is which. But the contrast is startling, eh?

At long last we once again have The Acrobats, Mordecai Richler's first published novel (1954). While he was alive, Richler kept it out of print. It is back thanks to his widow, who apparently feels more generous towards the young Mordecai than Richer did himself.

When he returned to Canada after publishing his debut in Europe, Richler had this exchange with his father:

"I hear you published a novel while you were over there."
"Yes, it's true."
"What's it called?"
"The Acrobats."
Pause. "What the hell do you know about the circus?"

Richler came from that kind of family. And despite it all at the age of 19 he started writing the novel that would mark his debut. Needless-to-say, it's not about the circus.

Reading it now after the career has ended, knowing all that he went on to produce (and after all of Richler's effort to suppress it), is a revelatory experience. Revealing what? An over-earnest author. A precocious talent. Several moments of instant recognition (the novice author has a harder time hiding; his patterns are more transparent; we see the early footprints on the path we know he will follow).

For example:

Suddenly Louis remembered something. He turned to Toni. "André once told me that politics didn't interest him as such. He said it was poverty that was ugly, and that so-called justice was beside the point. He said that the poor must have more because they were human and no human should be ugly."

This is the Richler who would later say he was a socialist because he knew what poverty did to people. (After his death, right-wing columnist Barbara Amiel said she shared all of his opinions and The National Post continues to mythologize him as a conservative icon, but this is clearly a false memory and a distortion. Richler was never an ideologue; he distrusted hardliners on both the Left and the Right.) In fact, we can read The Acrobats as part of a life-long conversation with the self; the enduring search through a forest of ambiguity and competing demands for that ancient Holy Grail, the good life. In this early novel the terms of the debate are decided, and they are often set out quite clearly, often by André, whom Ted Kotcheff calls in his Afterword to this edition: "the most transparent projection of Mordecai."

Here is Richler again in the voice of André, a painter:

"Look, I don't paint for audiences. I don't make a hobby out of humanity and I don't collect workers. But Pepe likes my stuff. So do many of his friends. But for the most part their appreciation of my stuff is snobbery, and if they were more bourgeois they would have about as much use for art as their fellows. It's just as true that their tremendous concern with social justice is directly related too their own poverty and as much expected of them as is the puerility and such that we get from the bourgeois. Christ, there's nothing unusual about being a bourgeois or a worker. It is the man who is unusual - the man who rises above the restrictions of his own class to assert himself as an individual and humanitarian. It's pretty damn elementary to be aware of social injustice and poetic truth and beauty but to be capable of empathy, to understand the failings of a man - any man - even as you condemn him, well ... Look, every human being is to be approached with a sense of wonder. The rest is crap, or incidental."

On my fridge I have a column Richler wrote for The National Post on January 13, 2001, titled "Retiring on a grace note." It's about Lucien Bouchard's resignation as Quebec premier. It concludes:

So Lucien Bouchard retires from the political scene on a grace note. I wish him and his family well.

Richler, perhaps the Quebec nationalists' gravest critical enemy, blessed Lucien Bouchard, who had taken Quebec to the brink of nationhood, with his own grace note. The echo is strong: "It's pretty damn elementary to be aware of social injustice and poetic truth and beauty but to be capable of empathy, to understand the failings of a man - any man - even as you condemn him, well ... Look, every human being is to be approached with a sense of wonder. The rest is crap, or incidental."

In the Afterword, Kotcheff calls Richler a "humanist". He writes, 

humanists like André and Mordecai [found it impossible] to join the [Communist] party, no matter how much they sympathize with its goal to end poverty and injustice. André knows what he's against but not what he's for. In this state of social and political paralysis, and in a deep depression about the future, he is drinking himself to death. No answers are provided; only at the end of the book is a fragile expression of unsubstantiated hope offered up.

The Acrobats shows us that the young Richler had been closely reading his Hemingway, his Camus, and very likely his Orwell. When he spoke about his reasons for suppressing the novel, Richler called it derivative and implied it wasn't worth preserving. Again, we can be glad that Florence, his widow, didn't agree with him. Not because Richler's analysis on his novel was wrong. It clearly is derivative. Its prose is at times wooden; its structure is simple; its authorial hand too overt, its tone frighteningly earnest. If Richler wasn't Richler, we wouldn't be reading this novel in 2002. There is nothing significant about its re-release except its place in the oeuvre of its author. But that is compelling reason enough.

A plot summary: An expatriate Canadian painter, André, camps out in post-revolutionary Spain, attempting to escape a dark past in Montreal. He frequents a bar and has a relationship with a local dancer, who is the object of secret affections of a decommissioned Nazi colonel. There is much talk of politics and things end poorly. There isn't a decent joke in the whole book. Oh, Mordecai. Lighten up! We know he would. But he kept the moral tone he developed early and against large odds.

Richler wrote:

It is the man who is unusual - the man who rises above the restrictions of his own class to assert himself as an individual and humanitarian. 

Richler succeeded in being the nation's brightest literary light for many years, and he did it by carving himself a place where he could create, a place where he could ask the big questions, and craft his answers into narrative. He did it despite his family and despite the dead weight of the colonial Canada of his youth. It behooves us to remember that. And to admire it, and emulate it.

Will Ferguson's Happiness (the novel formerly known as Generica) tries to do just that. 

I thought often of Cocksure (1968), perhaps Richler's most fully sustained satire, while reading this book. How do they compare? Imperfectly. Both create worlds within which their authors explore their comic conceits, but Richler is better at the one-liner: "What the hell do you know about the circus?" Ferguson spreads his joke out over 339 pages. His prose also often reads like regurgitated social theory, which is where he's made his money so far, writing non-fiction books like Why I Hate Canadians and his exploration of our Prime Ministers, Bastards & Boneheads.

Here's an example:

Onwards they drove: an ex-Commie, an ex-Hippie, and an ex-X. Three generations, lost and adrift, traversing a vast empty landscape littered with fallen heros: Steinbeck, Kerouac, Knight Rider.

This isn't so much literature as demographics. As satire, it's about as pointed as Ferguson gets. 

A second point of contention. Based on internal evidence, Happiness is about as Canadian a book as you'll come across. But where Richler had the courage to make his protagonists Canadian, Ferguson sets his novel squarely in the USA. Not that Canadians don't get mentioned, "both English and French" as he says at one point. One character even mentions Grey Owl, surely dead giveaway for a Canadian in drag. Perhaps Ferguson thought his satire would be stronger if it was set in the heartland of the capitalism and feel-good-culture that are his largest targets. On the other hand, one can't escape the thought that there was discussion around the publisher's table about sucking up Yankee dollars.

Which is ironic, because at the bare bones level, this is a novel about sucking up Yankee dollars - and the balloon it aims to pop is the ever-brimming hope of American optimism. The self-help book craze, to be specific.

A plot summary: A disgruntled young editor at a New York publishing firm pulls a mangled manuscript of a self-help book off the slush pile. In an attempt to both save his job and screw his boss, he publishes it as is - and voilà! It not only become a best-seller, it "saves the world," persuading its readers to be happy and putting the tobacco companies and every other sin-based industry out of business. Seeing this as a bad thing, the editor tries to un-do his wrong. I won't give away the ending.

A self-help book that actually works. That's the central conceit. To his credit, Ferguson makes it work. However, publishing industry insiders will get a greater chuckle out of this book than the general reader.

Here's one of the slyer jokes:

"You know, I really hate it when a writer tries to disguise exposition as dialogue," said May.

Which is just what Ferguson is doing, he knows he's doing it, and he wants us to know he knows he's doing it, while at the same time telling us he knows he knows he's telling us that he's doing it. Etc, etc. Nasty, cutting stuff, but pretty limited in appeal.

In The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis reviews The Best of Modern Humour, edited by Mordecai Richler. Amis writes:

Like Richler's fiction, the anthology divides fairly equally into two unrelated categories: first, prose that is incontestably, fanatically funny and is (therefore) not funny at all; and, second, prose that is going about its business as prose should and is only incidentally or secondarily funny, or quite funny, or (in many cases) not funny at all. ... 

Some of these offerings are no more than mildly funny, and were never meant to be. They are loosely comic as opposed to humourous, comedy being defined as a world where the greatest sins are folly and pretension, and where the ultimate deliverance is merely one of laughter. Your response to these writers at their best, is a persistent smile of admiration - a response that Mr. Richler should perhaps have aimed for all along.

Trust Amis to put everything in context. Happiness tries very hard to be funny, and it sometimes succeeds. Where it doesn't succeed in being funny, it manages to be clever and lets us know that Ferguson was an attentive undergraduate - as he frequently drops names and theories, such as Marx and Skinner. But Happiness does not provoke "a persistent smile of admiration"; it is too earnest for that. In this respect it too closely mirrors The Acrobats. The author's hand is too eagerly shown throughout, and it is the hand of the social scientist, not the novelist. Ferguson needs to let loose the reigns, set free "folly and pretension." Let's hope he will next time and give us a real comic novel.

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







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