A Nation Reads to Daylight
November, 2013. The Canada Reads Finalists have been chosen. Five novels picked by CBC listeners, from a listener-picked longlist of forty contenders, to answer the shyly megalomaniacal question: “What book could change the nation...or even the world?” The finalists grapple with an array of issues facing Canada or, one imagines, almost any country: race (Half-Blood Blues), immigration (Cockroach), the environment (The Year of the Flood), sexual identity (Annabel), and indigenous peoples (The Orenda).
Watching the Q video online, I am taken aback by the admission by three of the panelists that they don’t read, or not much, or at least not fiction (Stephen Lewis says he reads reports all day)—until I realize that the statements are part of a sly self-spoofing new to the annual event (an element instigated perhaps by Samantha Bee of The Daily Show, or designed to lure her; the show’s ongoing aspiration to field judges who combine celebrity with a non-literary résumé has reached an apogee with this team). Neither Donovan Bailey or Stephen Lewis is known for his sketch comedy, but the former has been an affable athlete from the starting blocks and the latter is famous for his quick wit and his willingness to take a hit for a good cause. Wab Kinew and Sarah Gadon play their straight parts perfectly, neither confirming nor denying that they read when not on book panels.
The new note of subversive parody is confirmed near the end of the introductions when host Jian Ghomeishi asks Lewis if he knows Margaret Atwood and Bee if she’s met Rawi Hage. Host and judges deadpan the exchanges brilliantly, leaving the audience to imagine, say, Per Wӓstberg, Chairman of the 2013 Nobel Committee for Literature, being asked if he’s met Alice Munro; or Charles McGrath, a 2013 fiction judge for the National Book Award, if he lunches with James McBride, particularly given the coincidence of “Mc” in their names.
I like this new trend. It promises, besides many laughs, the speedier self-reflexive devolution of an event that looked to have settled in as an accepted annual cirle jerk. Or it promises its evolution into an even more warmly embraced annual feast of dry comedy, attracting top writers and performers to enact ever more inventive weirdings.
A question nags, though—a limit in the premise I just don’t get. Why must it be one novel that changes the country? Until we are ready to expunge “reads” from Canada Reads, we are stuck with words, but why must these come in the form of a 300-odd page assemblage of converging characters, plotlines and themes? Why not a story, an essay, a poem, a memoir, a song lyric, or one of those documents Stephen Lewis is besieged with? (Tweets had better be avoided until we are ready to go very broad with the comedy.) One Country, One Document sounds clunky—but clunk can work in comedy, especially once it’s got to that broad place, and until then, something snappier can be found.
Textus? A little weird, but also a little sexy.
Textus? A little weird, but also a little sexy.
In the meantime, before the pratfalls, and sticking with the earnestness that underpins the comedy, I recall five longlisted titles that are at least the equals of the favoured five. Their authors, veteran awardees and rising stars, need no introduction, as each book was a municipal and in most cases a regional bestseller. Each book deserves to be championed as an issue-anchored nation-changer; and the issues, named in parentheses, avoid overlap with those covered by the finalists.
Balls. (Our Game) Perhaps the niftiest deke in this comedy with unexpected depths is the way it stick-handles hockey into irrelevance by never once mentioning it. The brain-concussing national cliché is simply not anywhere on the radar of the urban kids and their parents, mostly but not all immigrants, who, if they watch or play sports at all, prefer soccer or basketball, or occasionally baseball. Wealthier aspirants strike tennis or golf balls. No puck makes an appearance, though the irony goes a little dense and vulcanized when Coach McIllyne turns to his ex-lover Bron Sherry for off-season conditioning advice. After some clunkily parodic flashbacks of their breakup, however, the reader finds herself drawn in to an adult depiction, realistic and at the same time movingly idealistic, of enduring male friendship. Hockey, she realizes with relief, has been sent somewhere far beyond the minors and will not be recalled even for a fourth line gag. Yet Balls remains a story of jocks, filled with fascinating insights into athletic training, strategy and competition. It even hints at a sort of geometric transcendentalism, as McIllyne discovers, in his pursuit of ever greater quickness and agility and stamina for his players, the most weightlessly perfect game of spheres yet devised: ping pong.
Cubed. (Mental Illness) Trouble is indeed squared and then cubed when schizophrenic Lisa marries bipolar Ian and they parent twins who are revealed, before double unemployment and postpartum depression have been lifted from the couple’s woes, to be profoundly autistic. Inept social services and a stigmatizing society are thoroughgoing villains but, almost miraculously, never completely cardboard ones. In the words of one reviewer: “The premise would be outlandish if the evocation were not so bleakly and relentlessly moving.” Agreed. (And, no, not vice versa.)
Bridle Path. (Poverty) As the trophy wife discarded for a younger trophy, living on a lavish allowance in Canada’s toniest neighbourhood, Sara Landsmuir has few initial claims on our sympathies. Blessed by great genes, premiere grooming, and two-hour-a-day workouts with a personal trainer, fortyish Sara out-lustres almost any twenty-something. But the inner emptiness that fogs her days, and the self-suctioning traumas behind it, are rendered with such spare and teasing precision that the reader finds herself siding unexpectedly with this blasted figurine. Saul, the homeless man under the bridge who enters her life by chance (how else?), is likewise depicted with piquant originality. Surreal flashbacks in a mind splintered by deprivation reveal this former physics professor to be as much a victim of his own sour recalcitrance as of any orchestrated campaign to bring him low. In a Nicholas Sparks novel, these two unlikelies would help each other down the bumpy road to life and love. But Saul is as beyond Sara’s help as he has been beyond that of other ministering angels (showered and shaved, he is improbably buff); and Sara is simply not ready for Saul’s harsh edges, distantly familiar as they are. He is a stepping stone. It is through the charitable work she begins, Concubines Care, that she, with persuasive incrementalism and missteps, discovers purpose and meaning, alleviation of that emptiness, and yes, at long last, love. This is Nicholas Sparks with grittier prose and a more prickly and nuanced moral vision.
The Lowest Bid. (Resource Management) When Canada beats out China, Russia and the U.S. to sell itself to alien traders for resource extraction (the novel, which doesn’t bend genres so much as explode them, is subtitled a “pan-galactic parable”), it does so via a venality none of the other more powerful bidders can match, billing itself simply a “value-free zone.” The plot quickly becomes labyrinthine, dizzyingly so, but the prose is mostly up to the challenge of keeping it all straight and—a taller order—urgently plausible. The mysterious aliens, who have their own reasons (revealed in good time) for behaving with semi-integrity despite their vast powers, enrich Canada’s citizens as systematically as they strip their land. The onlooking world glowers and machinates, sometimes with the connivance of factions inside Canada; invasion plans coalesce, then loom; in a kind of cosmic fan dance, the aliens display more bits of themselves and their own bizarre but coherent politics; plots divide into subplots, fascinatingly; the aliens are extracting but they are injecting too, taking but also shaping...until no one is surprised when cognitively transfigured beavers begin tail-slapping esoterica in Morse, and no one is laughing anymore at the notion of Prime Minister or even World Leader Castor.
I Tweet the Psyche Electric. (Identity) A virus escaped from a genomic experiment gone awry sets up consciousness camps in various corners of the brains it colonizes. “The brain is roomy,” as an early researcher, soon to be a victim, laconically observes. These mini-consciousnesses, which no one dares call persons yet, are dubbed “persicles”—even though Turingesque testers are hard-pressed to differentiate a persicle’s utterances or actions from those of a person’s. To prevent further contagion, the infected—called “towns,” and then, astoundingly, “cities,” according to the degree of their “inner proliferation”—are quarantined, though they are allowed to communicate electronically with the outside world. (Big mistake, as it turns out—but to say why would spoil a magnificently prepared surprise.) Ingeniously, if exhaustingly, the novel is told entirely through the terse persicle transmissions. Only someone in the habit of riding the Tokyo subway on peyote could fail to find this novel mind-altering.
Winter, 2013-2014. Between The Ice Storm and The Olympics, I toy, at random moments, with a dyspeptic epigram. Better longlist than short; better backlist than long; off-list best of all. But something lurches in the rhythm, I suspect myself of category errors, and it is very cold.
March 9, 2014. The bogus thing has been and gone. Mostly, I succeed in missing it, except for a time or two when I punch in CBC and hear of someone being “voted off,” marvelling for a confused instant at how little Survivor misses its Tribal Council visuals. For a week or two, I anticipate a table heaped with books next to “Heather’s Picks” in Indigo, and several sightings of the stickered finalists on the subway, the winner’s sticker a different shape and colour than the rest.
Daylight is saved.