canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Inside
by Kenneth J. Harvey
Random House, 2006

Suburban Pornography
by Matthew Firth
Anvil Press, 2006

Additional material from the TDR archives:

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

On the cover of Kenneth J. Harveyís stark and stunning new novel, Inside, a blurb attributed to Alistair MacLeod proclaims Harvey "a writer like no other." On the back cover, this theme is reprised in a blurb from Bill Gaston, who claims: "No one else can write like this." At this point, it might be useful to remember a blurb from John Donne: "No man is an island." One might also recall the universe of literary archetypes richly articulated by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, among other texts. All writers are like other writers, might be the pertinent paraphrase. Harvey is not such an isolated scribbler as the marketing copy on the skin of his new novel would have us believe. And yet, to be sure there is something unique, even isolating about Harveyís fiction. Something that requires more engagement than over-simplified praise.

Such an engagement might begin by looking at the cover of Matthew Firthís new short story collection, Suburban Pornography. There, Harvey himself is blurbed, warning readers to "watch out, because here comes Canadaís Bukowski." Here the isolation begins to lift; the literary family begins to reveal itself. We might also note that a blurb on Firthís 2001 collection, Can You Take Me There, Now?, by Hal Niedzviecki also announced him as "Canadaís Bukowski." Harvey blurbed that book, too: "This is not just CanLit, but a gutsy brand of writing that is long overdue. This is GritLit."

GritLit. Thatís a good brand label for Inside, too. And Harvey is not the sole proprietor of it, though heís one of a handful of Canadian writers who do it consistently. With Inside, however, Harvey deserves more than a nod as the leader of Canadian GritLit. Because Inside is WorldLit, as the other blurb on the back cover suggests: "An extravagantly haunted imagination." That blurb is from J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yes, Inside is that good. Though the juries of both the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2006 Governor Generalís Award passed up rewarding this book. Shame on them. GritLit is good enough for Nobel Prize winners, but it still struggles within CanLit. Silly.

Inside is the story of a violent man in Newfoundland released from prison due to DNA analysis. He may not be a murderer after all. On the other hand, he may be. No one is quite sure, though no one doubts he is a violent man. He is released from prison into a media circus and soon enough receives a large sum of money from the government for his period of wrongful incarceration. The money is a big thrill to his wife, who otherwise couldnít care less whether he lived or died. Nor could his children. His granddaughter, on the other hand, is such a shock to his emotions that she seems powered by magic. Out of prison, the protagonist of Inside remains locked, yes, "inside" a world of blunted emotions, violent relationships and eviscerated hope.

Harvey relates his story in short, sharp sentences. Many of them fragments. The protagonistís point of view is clearly established. Driven home in relentless fashion. The reader yearns for resolution but is repeatedly thwarted. The world depicted is ripe with need and largely barren of fulfillment. Our hero is released from prison and everyone he knows drinks themselves into a stupor. Our hero discovers surprising things about people. His best friend, a stellar bar brawler, is a secret painter. His ex-girlfriend still loves him. About himself, he discovers he can still play the piano surprisingly well. But all these discoveries do not lead to contentment, let alone reason for optimism. Violence is ever-present. His son dies. His other son would prefer to see him dead. His daughter wants to love him, but can't; she is living with an abusive man.

Margaret Atwood has been richly and repeatedly rewarded for writing other-worldly dystopias; Harveyís this-worldly dystopia has been too much ignored.

*

Matthew Firthís Suburban Pornography depicts a dystopia of a different sort. Where Inside has a narrative driven forward by male characters unable to control their instinct to inflict violence, Suburban Pornography is a collection of 17 stories largely about men and sex. Like Harveyís fiction, Firthís stories present a dark view of the world. If you're looking for a similar sentiment, the movie "Sin City" offers a close approximate.

Freudís concept of the unconscious came to mind when I was about halfway through this collection. In Freudís view, the unconscious is a threesome, comprised of the id, ego and super-ego. The "id," youíll remember, is the dark matter. It is defined by Oxford as "the inherited instinctive impulses of the individual as part of the unconscious." The "ego" provides a sense of self, and the "superego" helps the self operate within social rules. The conflict between the three is the conflict of the unconscious, and the struggle of each individual to live a meaningful life.

In dystopia of Surburban Pornography there is quite a lot of "id," not quite so much "ego," and hardly any "superego" at all. In other words, there are no happy endings. Firth is up to something quite specific here. Unfettered articulation of the dark matter.

In 2003, he published an essay in TDR called How to Write Sex Fiction (Not Erotica), in which he outlined his approach:

I write about sex. I donít write erotica. Erotica is far too fluffy a term for my liking. I prefer to call what I write (sometimes, not always) sex fiction. Because my fiction often has a sexual dimension to it, a blunt sexual component that differs from what is commonly called erotica.

Erotica is quite different from sex writing and from pornographic writing. While erotica, as it is commonly known, is certainly sexual and sometimes pornographic, the term has become sanitized; it is sex writing that is commercially-driven, formulaic, and not terribly realistic. Erotica is closer to fantasy than reality, whereas sex fiction is closer to reality. Porn fiction is somewhere in between.

Sex fiction, Firth argued, "is a different beast":

It has a few similarities Ė or can have similarities Ė with erotic fiction. It can be arousing. It can describe fairly standard sex scenarios. Where it differs is with respect to fantasy versus reality. Sex fiction is not about embellishing sexual activity, about exaggerating the intensity of orgasms for the purpose of bragging, about depicting sexual situations most of us can only dream of. Sex fiction is writing about sex by accurately portraying how people fuck. The goal is authenticity, believable characters and believable acts. And sex for real, living, breathing humans is not always as mind-blowing as the sex depicted in erotica. Sex for the average Jane or Joe can be lousy, can be quick and dirty, can be exploitive and hurtful, can be compassionate and caring Ė and all sorts of things in between.

The key phrase in the above, I believe, is "the goal is authenticity." Firth has made this his goal through three collections of short fiction, beginning with Fresh Meat (Rush Hour Revisions, 1997) and continuing through Can you Take Me There, Now? (Boheme Press, 2001) and the current collection. Along the way, he also co-edited the anthology Grunt and Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex (Boheme Press, 2002) and has edited and published the literary magazines, Black Cat #115 (now defunct) and Front & Centre. He is also the proprietor of Black Bile Press, a micropress focused on chapbooks of GritLit. Through all of the above, Firth has attempted to articulate authentically the world, his world, the world of the working and un-working poor.

Recently, I introduced Firth at a reading in Toronto. I noted that Firth grew up in Hamilton and that the impetus for this work is grounded there. Specifically, I described a drive from Hamilton from Toronto. To get to Steel Town, you go across the Burlington Skyway. Then turn right and take the off-ramp into the "fire-pit" of heavy industry. Just after you get off the freeway, you pass a row of houses, right in the middle of the "fire-pit." The last time I was in Hamilton, I said, and this is honestly true, I passed that row of houses and there was a woman in the front yard of one of them with a baby carriage. "Those are the people," I said when I introduced Firth, "that Matthew writes about in his fiction." The poor and forgotten.

Which perhaps brings us to this notion of Firth as "Canadaís Bukowski." Whether there has ever been a "Canadian Bukowski" is a matter of some debate, even if the debate is within small, ever-withering circles. Has there ever been a Canadian scribbler with Buk's blunt, "tell-it-like-it-is" style? Is there a tradition of working class writing in Canada? Well, Al Purdy and Bukowski had a famous admiring friendship for a while, which was captured in a book of their correspondence. Patrick Lane has been writing about working class labour for decades. Tom Wayman has also. Alden Nowlan had as horrid a life-story as Bukowski, moreover he was a better poet. And we haven't even mentioned Milton Acorn or Stompiní Tom.

But then, whatís this? All of the above are poets (and a singer). Where are the working class fiction writers? David Adams Richards must be king of that pack. Mordecai Richlerís early work depicted life in the Montreal Jewish slum. Margaret Lawrence didnít shy away from depicting poverty. More recently, Dennis E. Bolen's books have amplified the tradition. Kenneth J. Harvey's slim classic Directions for an Opened Body (Mercury, 1990) definitely laid down some Firth-like territory. Daniel Jonesí The People One Knows (Mercury, 1994) is another notable member of this canon. Deserving of mention are Lynn Coady's Strange Heaven (Goose Lane, 1998) and Play the Monster Blind (Doubleday, 2000). Watermelon Row (Arsenal Pulp, 2000) by Michael Holmes was filled with sexually blunt and violent atmospheres. 

If Firth is "Canada's Bukowski," it's not because others haven't gone before into the fire-pit of working class or noir literature. If Firth is CanBuk, it's because his prose takes a starker stance than others: Firth's narratives of Canadian inner-city dwellers, low-end job workers and drifting men are darker, harder, perhaps more perverse or at least more directly sexualized than arguably any other fiction in Canadian history. 

But what about the new book? It's stark, dark, hard, perverse. But is it authentic?

Here I have to say: I don't know how to answer that question. Simply said, I donít think fiction can be "authentic." Fiction is fiction, or as I heard Rudy Wiebe say once, in the language of his Mennonite grandparents there was no word for fiction. There was only, in their view, "truth" and "lies." Fiction is lies. Fiction is by definition artificial; it is art, hopefully; it is artifice. Fiction is not reporting, it is not journalism. It may be, as some would argue, a different kind of truth. It may depict emotional truths, narrative truths, psychological truths that arenít able to be captured any other way. Perhaps this is what Firth is getting at when he speaks of "authenticity," but I donít think so.

What I think Firth means by "authenticity" is that life is at base a struggle and, in particular, it is an economic struggle. The poor know this is the true reality because they live it most directly. The middle-class can deny the nature of this struggle because they are insulated by RRSPs and cable TV. But an even deeper struggle than the economic struggle is the struggle of the libido: how to fulfill in a meaningful way the overwhelming imperative of sexual desire? Now mix the two. How to overcome financial depravity and achieve sexual well-being? Firthís fiction suggests it may not be possible. Or if itís possible, itís such a rare event, it constitutes a miracle.

This is the narrative frame of "authenticity" in Firthís fiction, just as the narrative frame of the noir comic book genre such as the movie "Sin City." Within this world, this artifice, all truths reinforce one another, creating a sustaining universe. The universe of Suburban Pornography is dominated by the aching phallus, which is more often the source of self-loathing than of fulfillment. The cock demands attention and the narrators do their best to comply, but the world Ė and in particular women Ė block the driving charge. And even when the penis is attended to, the narrator finds little relief. Shame follows conquest. And the shift in perspective from the short-term to the longer-term inflates despair. One goal may have been achieved; the bigger goal, getting out of the mess, never will be.

An outline of some of the plots:

  • In the opening story, two boys in grade eight hide on the roof of a garage and witness two neighbourhood girls their age perform sex acts on a trio of older boys. Wanting some of that for himself, the narrator later confronts the girls and asks for some similar attention. He is spurned.
  • In the second story, a nine-year-old boy cycles with his older brother to a burning house, which they learn has been set on fire by a disabled boy who was being sexually abused by his father.
  • In the third story, the narrator, a 30-something male, is late for work because his bus doesnít show up on time. When he goes to investigate, he finds the bus driver on the floor of the bus between the legs of an older woman, who tells the intruder to bugger off.
  • In the forth story, the crew of a garbage truck gets drunk and stoned while on route, while the union and employer hammer out a new collective agreement. Job action is averted in more sense than one.
  • In the fifth story, a young man has a sexually violent relationship with an emotionally unbalanced young woman. They break up.
  • In the sixth story, the narrator has a hole in his side. He is confronted by a troupe of giants, who suddenly swoop and enter his body through the hole.

Hold on. What? Yes, you read that right.

Whatís authentic about that? Dunno, but itís a great little story. 

Suburban Pornography show Firth's writing continues to mature. "August, 1974," for example, the second story in the collection, captures something rare in Firth's fiction: innocence. The story is technically masterful, capturing in seven pages a dense amount of information, much of it shocking, including the sentence: "Old man diddled him night after night." This is a world on fire, a world out of control; at the same time, it is a world teetering on the possibility of hope.

Bill Gaston has a book out now, nominated for the Governor General's Award, Gargolyes, which is described as "marvellous, riotous, Rabelaisian." Firth, however, may be closer to the anarchic spirit of Rabelais than any other writer in the country at the moment. Douglas Glover made Rabelais a character in his GG-winning novel Elle and also wrote a compelling book-length essay about Cervantes. It is to these models, centuries old, as well as to writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Gogol, that seem to suggest a larger family for Firth's alienated, stumbling, needy characters alone their apocalyptic worlds. 

There is much to be unsettled about in Firth's new work. These stories are difficult; they are at times ugly. They are quite often, as I've quoted Firth earlier: "quick and dirty ... exploitive and hurtful." How are we to read these stories? How are we to judge them? I would suggest beginning with the big view. In Northrop Frye's archetypal universe, there is literature for all seasons. Firth is in the same season with the Shakespeare of the tragedies: "life is a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing" (Macbeth).  It is easy to look away from these stories, as we want to look away from Gloucester when his eyes are plucked in King Lear. These stories challenge and shake our certainties. 

My judgement? On the whole, book over book, Firth has shown dedication to craft and his stories continue to grow in complexity and depth. He has pursued his vision, and he has mastered it. Where to go from here? Myself, I'd like to see Firth continue to move toward a broader engagement with the world. I'd like to see him suppress the "id" and write about larger conflicts of the psyche. Without abandoning his drive for "authenticity," Firth should, at the same time, find more occasions to let the light in. Harvey does it in Inside, for example, to great effect. It makes that novel more than a catalogue of darkness; it lifts it up as a statement against the void. Because, to awkwardly paraphrase Leonard Cohen: That's what the cracks are there for. To let the light in.

Finally, women and children make up a disproportionate number of the poor; they are often the victims of the raging phallus, and the myth, too, thereof. Firth's stories can be read as critiques of macho posturing. There's more he could explore here, by deviating from the male point of view.

Michael Bryson is the editor of TDR. 

 

 

 

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