canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing
by Ray Robertson
Insomniac Press, 2003

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Mental Hygiene has a picture of a brain on the cover; that's what's in the middle of the yellow circle on the left. The brain is surrounded by spikes of colour, as if the brain was radiant like the sun. The hygienic brain shines, the cover suggests. Mental Hygiene is a book about shiny brains.

Once the reader moves beyond the cover, however, it soon becomes clear that Mental Hygiene is not a book about shiny brains. It's a book about Ray Robertson's shiny brain. The book's subtitle is also misleading. Mental Hygiene is not a book of "Essays on Writers and Writing"; it's mostly a collection of book reviews. In fact, Mental Hygiene begins with an acknowledgement page that thanks the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, Books In Canada, Canadian Bookseller, Fine Print: The Magazine, and side/lines: A New Canadian Poetics for permission to reprint these reviews ("All have been rewritten, some extensively").

So what? What about what's actually between the covers?

Mental Hygiene is divided into three sections: Us, Them, Me. "Us" collects reviews of Canadian books; "Them" reviews non-Canadian books; "Me" concerns the author. However, as previously mentioned "me", appears throughout the book -- and it is this first person narrator that provides the continuity for this wildly experimental post-modern novel ..... I mean, non-fiction collection.

The first book reviewed is Morley Callaghan's The New Yorker Stories. Consisting of nine paragraphs, this review begins to discuss the book under consideration in paragraph six. The review begins with Robertson reminiscing about seeing Callaghan at the University of Toronto. Robertson was a second-year undergraduate, and Callaghan was an 85-year-old writer who once knew Hemingway. Now about those New Yorker stories -- Are they any good? Robertson tells us: "Anyone acquainted with Callaghan's later work won't be surprised by or disappointed with these early stories." Which is good news -- but a long way from critical commentary.

Critical commentary (i.e., close reading) clearly isn't what Robertson is after. No other conclusion is possible when he begins Mental Hygiene as he does. Robertson provides no discussion of the literary quality of Callaghan's stories, but he does make a point that he will repeat throughout the book: "there is no such thing as Canadian writers but only writers who happen to be Canadian." Robertson favourably quotes Callaghan: "Forget all about the words 'identity' and 'culture,' just never mention them. Seek only excellence and in good time people all over the world will ask about Canadians."

Now the ironic point is that it is Robertson (and Callaghan) who have mentioned "identity" and "culture" -- even though the advice they are promoting is to disavow them; indeed, the advice is to "never mention them." But they have mentioned them. One clearly must ask: Why? As the reader moves deeper into Mental Hygiene, the answer emerges. Robertson shares his strongest polemics for Canadian literary nationalists; he lambastes the rhetoric of literary nationalism at every opportunity. He even coins the phrase "McCanLit" to describe all that is wrong with literature in Canada.

What is McCanLit? It is the reactionary label Robertson uses to describe everything that he dislikes about writing in Canada. What does he dislike? Here's a list:

  • "boring, static fiction about humourless, self-obsessed protagonists" (p35)
  • "heartbreakingly tender stories set in bucolic Newfoundland at the turn of the twentieth century" (p37)
  • "sublime waterfalls, majestic snow owls and a stamp-sized headshot of the author and her cat" (p40)
  • novels that "focus on nothing more complex ... than (a) the difficulties of romantic love and/or (b) the difficulties of sorting through one's familial past" (p43)
  • writers who "keep it simple, keep it plain and above all don't draw attention to [themselves] stylistically" (p46)
  • "short stories and novels about parental emotional neglect and love affairs gone painfully awry" (p60)
  • "the so-solemn-it-hurts school of Canadian fiction" (p61)
  • "the staples of McCanLit -- family, history, memory" (p61)

These are only some of the most salient examples. Robertson also attacks the literary nationalists personally -- though one wonders at whom he is specifically aiming his cannon fire. Robertson begins a review of a new edition of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town as follows: 

Contrary to what the sunny caretakers of CanLit would have us believe, Stephen Leacock was a much more interesting man than he was a writer. Naturally, this can't be said in polite company -- it being everyone in the culture business's best interest to maintain the profitable illusion that we have just as many literary geniuses per square hectare as any other country -- but the litmus test of any writer's lasting worth is whether or not he or she continues to be read voluntarily.

Where one finds these "sunny caretakers of CanLit" Robertson doesn't say, nor can he -- because they don't exist except as strawpeople for his arguments. One must also spare him the grotesque structure of the second sentence in the above quotation in order to pull any meaning out of it. Where does one find this "polite company"? Presumably among those in the "culture business," whatever that is. What does literary genius have to do with profitability? And where does that "but" fit in?

The review of Sunshine Sketches is on page 69 of Mental Hygiene, a point at which this reader was ready to throw the book across the room. And not because I'm a literary nationalist. Because I'm not (nothing brings me to the boil quicker than the fact that Margaret Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature is still considered an authoritative reference tool). It's because I don't know anyone who is -- at least in the terms suggested by Robertson: those who argue that Canada has "just as many literary geniuses per square hectare as any other country." One is reminded of the argument about the number of angels on the head of a needle; Robertson leads his readers to a place where nothing relevant can be said.

(An aside: While literary nationalism peaked in the 1970s, bashing literary nationalism is enjoying a sprightly revival. 

  • See John Metcalf's An Aesthetic Underground and TDR's interviews with Carmine Starnino and David Solway, both of whom have books of literary criticism on the way. 
  • Holding up the other side of the argument -- but extending it in the direction of post-colonialism -- is the lonely Stephen Henighan with When Words Deny The World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing
  • Taking a sociological perspective is Robert Wright in Hip and Trivial, which argues young-ish Canadians have little interest in the cultural nationalism of the Expo '67 generation.
  • Only T.F. Rigelhof in This is Our Writing manages to follow Callaghan's advice and ignore "identity" and "culture" in favour of close reading.)

Whatever one makes of Robertson's arguments, they cannot be called mentally shiny. The lack of close reading, sustained argument, and engagement with adversaries of substance is astonishing -- particularly given the promise of the title. Robertson also disappoints by using phrases such as "genuine literature" and "serious literature" (p26) -- these empty phrases beg the question: What is literature but "genuine" and "serious"? It is not "false" and "frivolous." 

Many of Robertson's other categories aren't any stronger. For example, he says Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints "manages to nicely balance ... linguistic artfulness and sustained story," while Ricci's In a Glass House "suffers from a significant lack of narrative structure." Earlier in this review I pointed out that Robertson eschews the simple; however, here it is his own argument that needs complicating. 

In the Ricci review, Robertson says, "Twenty-five hundred years later, Aristotle's call for a beginning, middle and end still rings true." This is the structure Robertson wants to find in Ricci's novel, and on this basis he finds in In a Glass House "a serious lack." However, in 2003, only the most conservative of critics would fault novelists for not following Artistotle. Simply put, post-modernism is already decades old -- and close readings of literary texts of past centuries show that so-called contemporary narrative strategies and structures go back well beyond Thomas Pynchon. Milan Kundera called Cervantes the first post-modernist; Borges found some of Kafka in the Book of Job

Robertson's voice is contemporary and casual, but his arguments often appeal to the authority of the past. He is a prodigious name-dropper. The introduction alone cites: D.H. Lawrence, Jim Morrison, Bertrand Russell, Wordsworth, Edmund Wilson, Hank Williams, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Mordecai Richler, Anthony Burgess, Hemingway, Philip Larkin, Thomas McGuane, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Montaige. 

Mental Hygiene illustrates a lively literary mind seeking to define itself against the pantheon of history. In this task, it fails. Robertson does not distinguish himself as a literary critic, however earnest he may be. And he is earnest, that much is clear. He will continue up the mountain. Earnest readers should look forward to his next attempt at reaching the high peaks. Despite all of my criticisms, I'm keen to see Mental Hygiene 2.0.

Finally, this review hasn't said anything about the "Them" and "Me" sections of Mental Hygiene. Here's a few words about those sections. In "Them", Robertson reviews books he considers worthy of veneration (making one wonder why he reviewed such mediocre work in the "Us" section -- not all Canadian literary works are astonishing, but surely Robertson could have found more works that say "oui, oui" instead of consistently carping "non, non"). The "Me" section is the thinnest of the three divisions in Mental Hygiene; here Robertson continues to mix high-culture references with laizzez faire linguistics. This is his character evidently: not a compassionate conservative, but a hip reactionary. Shine on you crazy diamond.

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







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