Sep 292010
 

Rooke

It’s a huge honour and pleasure to introduce to Numéro Cinq my old friend Leon Rooke who, all my writing life, has been an inspiration and a forerunner. This amazing story–”Son of Light”–appeared in Leon’s 2009 collection The Last Shot for which I wrote a review that ran in the Toronto Globe and Mail. There is possibly no better way of prefacing this story than to give you the review, the whole thing.

Leon Rooke is a Canadian from North Carolina with a list of books as long as your arm. He’s a national treasure, a huge and kindly promoter of younger writers, a Shakespearean reader of his own work–have I mentioned prolific? He writes out of a wagon load of traditions which include the American post-modernism of Barthelme, Coover, Gass and Brautigan and the school of southern bombast (William Faulker, Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor–and by “bombast” I don’t mean a negative; I mean the high-flown stentorian style of the great southern preachers, rhythmic, hammering, mellifluous and grand).

YouTube Preview ImageRooke eschews the dreary wet wool blanket of conventional realism, salting his stories with magic, myth, vituperation and improbability. Often, out of the most dark and moribund situations, he wrestles a startling and uncanny beauty, an affirmation of life, a stunning reversal that does not bespeak any faith or philosophy but a joy in the exuberant play of language. Like his contemporary Alice Munro, he writes outside the box, he writes to push idea of story to the limits and beyond. You sometimes read a Rooke story just for the exhilaration of seeing whether or not he can carry off the high-wire experiment he has launched.

In his new book The Last Shot, you will find stories in the southern style (in the Appalachian demotic of his novel A Good Baby), also parables, myths, burlesques, tirades and tender, wistful love stories. The famously reclusive J. D. Salinger appears in one story, haunting the garbage dump where his refuse ends up to make sure no one steals it. In another story, a magical (or literary) plague of moths invades a Mexican village and delivers a kind of aesthetic grace; it ends “…I felt for the first time what a glory it was to be alive in such a dazzling, incomparably fantastic world.”  In “Magi Dogs” a painter paints a dog into a picture of a house and the dog comes alive. In “Lamplight Bridegroom 360″ a mysterious angel robs a bank, mystifies a crowd of witnesses, and delivers the money to a woman dying in a hospital so she can pay for treatment. Somehow the bank staff doesn’t even know it’s been robbed.  In “How To Write A Successful Short Story”, Rooke hilariously sends up creative writing how-to books and conventional ideas of story (all those the ideas and theories he actually avoids) and incidentally tells a story.

Lately, Rooke seems to be interested in the technique of intercalated stories: I don’t recall seeing him do this before in quite the same way. Stories interrupt and delay other stories. The darkly comic novella “Gator Wrestling” is a novella mostly because of the this structure–the heroine Prissy Thibidault just wants to get across town and see the gator Rufus Seed Junior has caught but Rooke interrupts her journey and her story to tell the stories of just about everyone in town before he allows her to get to Junior’s house and see a mob prodding the somnolent gator with paddles till it ups and rips off Acy Ducey’s arm. Then, in Rooke’s version of Aristotelean peripeteia, magic unfolds: Rufus Seed Junior and his entire family, who have always wanted to go to Africa, turn “a lovely light chocolate”. We refrain here from drawing allegorical conclusions–Rooke is not writing a politically correct racial parable; mostly he seems to be having fun playing with stereotypes and attitudes.

I deeply admire the story “The Yellow House” (I included it in Best Canadian Stories when I was the editor) which sets up camp in a dreamy, fairy tale universe (part-allegory, part Italo Calvino of, say, Cosmicomics): there are two houses across the road from each other; in one, every one is sickly, melancholy, hopeless and dying, with an expansive cemetery attached and one “untidy” peach tree (sort of an inverted Garden of Eden); in the other, everything is bright, cheerful, loving and yellow. One day, for no reason except love, a boy from the yellow house walks down through the cemetery to pick the peaches, then he approaches the sickly house and proposes to the last remaining sister Precilla and kisses her fingers.

Read Leon Rooke’s story here!

Sep 282010
 

Here is Jacob’s translation of a passage from Caesar’s The Gallic Wars. Caesar is exposed as possibly a competent general and politician but a total loss in the area of animal identification. I missed this passage when we were reading Latin in high school (and it didn’t make it into the much more interesting Classic Comics version either).

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From Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars

Translated by Jacob Glover


Sunt item quae apellantur alces. Harum est consimilis capris figura et varietas pellium, sed magnitudine paulo antecedent mutilaeque sunt cornibus et crura sine nodis articulisque habent; neque quietis causa procumbunt neque, si quo afflictae casu conciderunt, erigere sese aut sublevare possunt. His sunt arbores pro cubilibus ; ad eas se applicant atque ita paulum modo reclinate quietem capiunt. Quarum ex vestigiis cum est animadversum a venatoribus quo se recipere consuerint, omnes eo loco aut a radicibus subruunt aut accidunt arbores, tantum ut summa species earum stantium reliquantur. Huc cum se consuetudine reclinaverunt, infirmas arbores pondere affligunt atque una ipsae concidunt.

—Excerpta e Commentariis C. Iulii Caesaris de Bello Gallico (VI.25-28)

 

There are also those which are called elk, the shape of which resembles a goat and whose coat varies in color. Their size somewhat surpasses [the animals mentioned earlier on in the passage], their horns are chopped off, and they have legs without joints–so neither can they lie down for the sake of a rest, and if, by unfortunate happenstance, they are caused to fall over, the poor jointless elk are unable to stand up. The trees are their beds, onto which they lean themselves, and in this reclining position they seek quiescence. When a hunter comes upon the trail of these creatures, he makes it a practice to take all of the trees in the area and either uproot them or cut them just enough so that they are left standing. When the elk lean, out of habit, against the unstable trees, the weight of the elk knocks over the tree which, in due course, kills the elk.

—Excerpt from Julius Caesar’s Commentary on The Gallic Wars, translated by Jacob Glover

Sep 272010
 

The devil only knows what sort of nonsense it all is!  Every man hangs by a thread, an abyss can open up beneath him at any moment, he can create all sorts of unpleasantness for himself, spoil his whole life.” -Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

At least once during every phone conversation I have with my father, he quotes a line from the Cheech & Chong  movie Up in Smoke.  Strother Martin’s character is arguing with his middle-age, burnout son, played by Tommy Chong.  Martin desperately wants his son to find a job.

“When, boy? When?” Martin says. “When are you going to get your act together?”

Since I started writing and chose to embark upon the first prolonged period of unemployment in my life (in order to pursue this degree, and who knows beyond that), my father and I act out this scene weekly.  I laugh, and I have a few rejoinder lines about picking strawberries and bananas, and my dad finds this exchange uproariously funny.  He never tires of it.

But however lighthearted his joking is, disapproval lurks nearby.  Hidden beneath the surface humor is my father’s confusion, concern and probably a touch of shame.  He wants to understand what I’m doing, but can’t seem to grasp it.  He wants to be able to answer his friends when they ask, “What’s Richie doing these days?” but right now, he can’t.  He doesn’t have an answer that makes sense, anyway.

My father worked 30 years for Ford Motor Company.  Work was and is important to him.  He retired a few years ago and took a job driving airport vans in and out of Logan.  He’s always worked.  He doesn’t have a college degree and he thinks people hide-out in academia.  He’s scornful of graduate school.  He cuts his own grass, stains his own fence, and hardly ever takes a sick day.  He also reads, on average, one book every other year.  I must look pretty absurd from his perspective.  I must look a lot like Tommy Chong.  I certainly feel that way at times.  This path often makes no sense, and I was on a different path once, too.  That’s probably the other part of this that drives him crazy.  When I graduated from the Naval Academy almost twenty years ago, I remember what he said to me.  He said, “You’ve got the world by the balls.”

What does it mean to be a writer?  What does it mean to call oneself a writer?  How do you arrive at a point when you can answer the question, “What do you do?” with the unabashed response, “I’m a writer.”?

The poet David Rivard talks about “an on-going betrayal” of his roots, his “original class,” in his essay “Paint Brushes vs. Rollers.”  In this essay, Rivard explores the theme of fathers and sons with respect to writing.  He describes his own process of becoming a poet this way:

All this (writing poetry) involved a betrayal, one that was both pleasurable and guilt-laden.  I was doing something that had no place in the community from which I came.  No standing in the pragmatic world of shop stewards and cops and tillermen.  So there seemed no use in calling attention to myself.  I hardly spoke of it with my family, never called myself a poet (I said vaguely that I was interested in ‘writing’.)

Rivard says that he feels like an outsider in two communities, the working class roots of his home and family—the class he has betrayed by writing, by not becoming a doctor or lawyer—and the more privileged, elitist class of academia and poets.  “I still imagine myself as a usurper, a spy under the mill-owner’s son’s bed, an impersonator who has stolen a privilege to wear poetry, as if it were a frock coat.”  He speaks of a divided self, half-connected to his working class roots and half-drawn to the world of poets and writers.  Continue reading »

Sep 272010
 

Jeet and Robin 005



A little over a decade ago, Hugh Kenner returned to Canada to deliver the Massey Lectures, a long-standing Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio lecture series. House of Anansi subsequently published Kenner’s lectures under the title The Elsewhere Community, and Jeet Heer wrote the following review essay for Canadian Notes & Queries #55 (the same magazine, not the same issue, that just published my essay on Alice Munro). Though all this happened some time ago, it’s a pleasure to bring Jeet’s essay back on Numéro Cinq; new eyes make the piece new. And some of Kenner’s background may come as a surprise to a new generation of American readers.

Jeet Heer, whom I have come to know since he scrambled up the bear-sex idea in my novel Elle a couple of weeks ago, is a graceful man, a widely published and prolific literary journalist and a comic book scholar (he is finishing his doctorate at York University, incidentally, my alma mater, in Toronto).

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On Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community

By Jeet Heer



Canadians, who are now merely indifferent to literature, once lived in fear of it. Customs agents, armed with a high school education and a list of proscribed authors, stood guard not only against smut but also naturalism, aestheticism and modernism – anything strange and foreign. As late as 1946 books by Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were deemed by official policy to be dangerous to the Dominion.

During this distant era, Hugh Kenner, a student at the University of Toronto, developed an interest in twentieth-century literature. His mentors of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, both of whom benefited from studying abroad, had brought back word of modernism of the Canadian hinterland. Kenner discovered that Joyce’s Ulysses, otherwise verboten in Canada, could be found in the restricted access section of the University of Toronto library. However, in order to take a look at the illicit text, Kenner needed to secure two letters of reference: one from a religious authority and one from a medical doctor. Kenner knew a priest who could vouch for his morals, but unfortunately, was unable to find an obliging M.D. to attest to the fact that reading Joyce would not corrupt his physical stamina. Ultimately, Kenner had a family friend, a Jesuit priest, smuggle into Canada a copy of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Reading Ulysses, along with meeting Ezra Pound in 1948, was a turning point in Kenner’s life. Modernism, he quickly decided, was the central literature of his time. While D.H. Lawrence was also forbidden in Canada, Kenner believed that it was Joyce’s masterly of language, much more than his sexual frankness, that made him a revolutionary writer. He once made a sharp comparison between Lawrence and Jocye:

The telling difference between Constance Chatterly’s surrender (“She was utterly incapable of resisting it. From her breast flowed the answering, immense, yearning over him; she must give him anything, anything”) and Marion Bloom’s (“yes and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”) is a difference in the molecular structure of language: the former, a Victorian survival applied to counter-Victorian situations, the latter a radical linguistic innovation, rhythm and syntax interlocked, assured. Which is why the presence or absence on American shores of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ultimately makes no difference except to the publishing trade and the custodians of the immature, while the presence of Ulysses has for some decades been slowly altering the world.

Confident of the importance of modernism, Kenner would spend his career writing about not only Joyce and Pound, but also their many friend and disciples, including T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and W.B. Yeats. Viewed as a whole, Kenner’s critical oeuvre constitutes our best guide to twentieth-century English literature. No one else has written about such a range of authors with as much care, as much thought, as much perception. Moreover, especially in major books like The Pound Era (1971), Kenner has written prose of rare grace and energy, making him one of the few academic literary critics who delight as well as illuminate.

Continue reading »