Thursday, June 02, 2005

Whisky Prajer's List of Five Great Canadian Novels That Aren't By Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies - And Won't Piss You Off

The wide-ranging, always engaging Minister of Culture and Amusement, Darko, points me to this link of book lists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and asks re: Great Canadian Novels, "Your thumb: up or down?"

The list in question:


As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. A faithless minister and his wife cling to existence in Depression-era Saskatchewan.

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Autobiographical fiction on the writer's life in a cold, isolating country.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. One woman's cantankerous refusal to go gently into that dark night.

The Wars by Timothy Findley. How to go from the quiet streets of Toronto to the mud-caked fields of Flanders in three easy steps.

Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff. A son details his mother's perilous and terrifying drift into Alzheimer's.

- Mary-Liz Shaw

My thumb? Waaay down. Here's why:

First of all, Ms. Shaw's banner is telling. Pairing the still-productive Atwood with cold-case Davies suggests Ms. Shaw's experience of Canadian lit is chiefly in the past-tense, when Atwood and Davies were the presiding monarchs over the Canuckle-head lit-scene. The list confirms this: Ignatieff's book is the only title that isn't over 30 years old. Now, I'm not especially prone to making knee-jerk In-With-The-New/To-Hell-With-The-Old proclamations, but I do believe that a list of Canadian books culled exclusively from the 1970s CanLit canon is both misguided and (gasp!) dangerous. Misguided because it's dated and uninformed, and dangerous because anyone who attempts the list will find themselves mired in an odious chore, and permanently turned-off.

This list pretty much covers the mandatory reading in my high school curriculum, and let me tell you, it's no fun. Even Ms. Shaw must be aware of this - just look at her book descriptions, and ask yourself: "Do I really want to read about 'a faithless minister and his wife, cling(ing) to existence in Depression-era Saskatchewan'? How about 'autobiographical fiction (set) in a cold, isolating country'?" etc. If you're already reaching for your dog-eared Wodehouse Omnibus, I don't blame you.

There’s a reason for this perversity. The CanLit crew of the 70s was giddy with international attention - our national culture seemed to be taking its first tentative steps out of the ghetto. But while the young Turks were following the dizzying lead set by Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, it still seemed desperately necessary to acknowledge that constructing the ghetto to begin with was no small feat itself. Thus the canon was established, and 15-year-old boys who'd rather be rockin' out to Loverboy were forced to put down the headphones and pick up Margaret Laurence. Alas, the ghetto they were touring had been formed according to the still-dependable maxim among earnest literwannabes: the quickest way to leave a deep impression is to be relentlessly grim.

Ms. Shaw would have done well to follow the leads of the two names she sought to evade. Davies' oeuvre is a fastidiously flossed impresario's grin, and even Atwood displays flourishes of impishness throughout her reams of "set-it-right" prose. A little humor goes a long way, and if I think back to my grandparents' stories of the Depression, I remember not just the grim and chilling vignettes, but the hilarious anecdotes as well. They impressed me with their robust character, which was the true heritage of that terrible era.

Right then - robust character. Here are my five alternatives to Mary-Liz Shaw (please check the links for further commentary):

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. A Canadian novel that sprawls from the Depression-era to the 80s, engages in impious theological speculation, is profoundly moving, and generates laughs - who'd of thunk it!

How Insensitive by Russell Smith. Mr. Smith's chief source of income, I'm sorry to say, is one of those "How To Wear Trousers" columns in the Globe & Mail. In fact, as his debut novel makes clear, he is a funny and impeccable satirist of the first order. (I should probably be recommending Muriella Pent, his latest novel, which was ranked #1 on’s list of Best Fiction 2004. I haven't read it yet, but it's in the docket, and I'll let you know what I think.*)

The Barking Dog by Cordelia Strube. How to laugh while coming to grips with the fact that you're dying of cancer and your son is a murderer.

Tay John by Howard O'Hagan. Originally published in 1960, Tay John is the only emotionally engaging post-modern novel I can think of. O'Hagan succeeds, I suspect, because he couldn't possibly identify "po-mo", even if Foucault had bit him on the ass (which I'm not suggesting ever happened).

One-Eyed Jacks by Brad Smith. Of Mice & Men, brilliantly retold with a wicked twist-ending in a convincingly seedy "Toronto The Good". The fastest read of the bunch.

If you're after a literary pedigree with some longevity, I'll send you directly to Richler and the still dismally unknown O'Hagan. My point is these are Canadian works that are a treat to read, and have an easy finish that won't send you staggering to the liquor cabinet for recovery. However, if you're still intent on "high seriousness", you can always refer to Whisky Prajer's Five Heartbreaking Works of Staggering (Canadian) Literary Genius.

Post-Script: one year later and I have read Muriella Pent, and, no, I can't recommend it. I do recommend Young Men, however.


F.C. Bearded said...

If you don't mind, I shall avail myself of your list when next I visit Borders?

I have been a devotee of Davies since the day I picked-up the Deptford Trilogy, believing it to be a thriller.

Atwood was never my cup of tea.

But Richler? That sounds like it might be.

Whisky Prajer said...

I myself run hot and cold re: Atwood (well ... it's more "lukewarm and cold"). If you like Davies chances are very good you'll enjoy Richler. Solomon Gursky could be tough to find, but Richler's last novel Barney's Version should be readily available, and is every bit as good. Would love to hear your thoughts once you've had a look.

DarkoV said...

An acquaintance of a close friend of mine (sounds convoluted already, no?) was invited some years back to a soiree honoring the Canadian arts at the Canadian consulate in Washington D.C. The usual "artistes Canadienne" were there, she said. All seemed to steer a wide berth of the grande dame herself, Ms. Atwood, as she was known to bite off heads of any rival talker while still maintaining her own uninvolved patter. The acquaintance, let's call her Ms. Apropos, noticed that Ms. Atwood was in a potentially embarassing state of dress. As a fellow Canadian, she felt it her countryman's duty to point out the matter to Ms. Atwood, before people would simply break into unadultersted laughter at the site of her.
What was the mis-dress?
Ms. Atwood, a secret trencherman, well, a "trencherwoman", had been sampling some of the foods laid out. While gnoshing on some fried sea creature or other, she had inadvertently let a small fork drop off her plate. It hadn't clattered to the floor; it had opted to entangle itself in the thick wool of Ms. Atwood's sweater. The weight of the fork must have been slight, as she paid it no attention as she strolled around the room, basking in all of the attentive looks. From far off, Ms. Apropos said, the fork looked like a piece of jewelry, possibly some Inuit artwork. Say a silver canoe. Closing the distance, it became apparent that the artwork was tine work.
Ms. Apropos approached Ms. Atwood. She complemented her on her newest bestseller and laid on thick other accolades as expected when coming within the Atwood aura. Then, gently and politely (Canadian National Traits, as we know), she pointed out the hanging fork. Allegedly, Ms. Atwood glanced down quickly, then raised her head slowly. She looked squarely at Ms. Apropos and said.
"My dear, some of us are born with silver spoons in our mouth while others prefer other silverware to show we've come to this point on our own."
Then, she turned on a dime and radiated away.
Through the balance of the night, Ms. Apropos would catch quick glances of Ms. Atwood. Her chest was out proudly pouting with the dangling fork.

I'm with F.C. Bearded on Atwood's books. This story served as a summary of her style. Obdurate insistence on holding ridiculous opinions. I admired her aplomb and her recovery; she still must have looked ridiculous walking around with silverware jewelry.

Whisky Prajer said...


F.C. Bearded said...

Nae luck at Borders today - plenty of "Rice", but no Richler.

It'll have to be Amazon...

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm a wee bit surprised - I would have expected a stray copy or two of Barney's Version. Alas, but be assured: having read your blog over the weekend, I'm confident you'll find him worth the Amazon effort.

F.C. Bearded said...

Barney's Version can be had from our Borders after a seven-day wait.

His other books mostly appear to be out-of-print.

But his name is so familiar: maybe somewhere in one of the myriad piles there lies a copy of something?

Yahmdallah said...

No Douglas Coupland? I think he's one of your best.

Whisky Prajer said...

You make a good point, and Coupland is indeed one of my faves. I'd probably substitute GenX or Microserfs for Brad Smith's book. Maybe I should have nudged this list up to ten...