Use the following links to download the PowerPoint for my presentation “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” at MythCon 2014. I presented at 5:00 pm Sunday, August 1oth at Wheaton College, Norton, MA.
It’s a dark fantasy of an immortal painter who has become fed up with his immortality.
I came up with this story after reflecting on the classical paradox of living an immortal life. An immortal can live forever, but in repayment, he must die every day, lost within his memories of those whom he has outlived. A moment often comes when an immortal realizes that dying once is better than dying a thousand times, and he asks the gods to grant him death. This story is based on that epiphany.
Although it is published on a “dark fantasy” web magazine, I was initially unaware that this was the genre I had unconsciously chosen. The idea wasn’t to write “dark fantasy,” but to use fantasy to explore themes in existentialism and art, which is what must have made it dark.
This initial premise gained depth when, in university, I learned that art is about destruction and creativity is inspired by pain. Taking classes on Canadian poetry, I learned about Leonard Cohen’s martyr-prophet persona and Michael Ondaatje’s existential struggles with the eventuality of death. The ever-present shadow of doom may cause the artist to fall into silence, but it can also inspire him/her to create art, to become ‘immortal’ as an artist. These teachings resonated with me then, because I could see their truth in the sufferings of certain people I know, who went through life-threatening situations, and afterwards created art–partly as therapy, partly due to the inspiration that a new perspective on life had given them.
But what if an artist were immortal? Would you even bother to make art, if you could expect to live on for decades and centuries? Without death, the enemy of great art is dead–but the artist’s projects die too. That is the paradox my story explores.
Since Dark Fire does not have a comments section, feel free to use this post to leave your feedback. I’m curious about my public’s reaction.
More stories will become available as I send out more short stories. I have an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired short that I’m shopping around, along with some longer stories. But for now, I hope you enjoy “Return to Methuselah.”
Before jazz became what it is today, before it was mainstream, Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the streets of New Orleans. No recording of his music survives. A famous musician in his time, his genius and the threat of vanishing into silence tormented him. The quest Michael Ondaatje undertook in 1976 to discover the genius of this unheard-of jazz legend involved meticulous historical research, but also–inevitably–a certain amount of fantasy. The result is a novel that runs like a dream sequence, filled with erotic moments that are violent, frenzied, and at other times, romantic.
By erotic, I mean the entire novel is a slow uncovering. Every sentence has a perceptive, tender, yet improvised quality. You might know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, which was turned a movie. Written nearly twenty years before The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter is the novel of a more rogue Ondaatje, who helped, along with other poets such as Robert Kroetsch, develop the literary movement of postmodernism in Canada.
You might say Coming Through Slaughter is jazz. I have already mentioned its improvised quality. This is not, however, a novel printed off a first draft, but a meticulously crafted set of poetic scenes. You should expect nothing less from Ondaatje, whose reputation as one of Canada’s greatest writers is an acknowledged fact. I tried to catch Ondaatje committing the poetic treason of writing a single cliché, but I failed to locate even one. Every phrase he says is original. Both Ondaatje and Bolden’s art is the result of a genius instinct.
Buddy Bolden’s quarter of New Orleans, Storyville, “had some 2000 prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players.” His jazz synthesizes all the sounds around this lively area of town, where he works in a barber shop by day and plays sweet jazz by night. In a similar way, Ondaatje’s prose-poetry seems to be taken directly from life–from its most tender, private moments, and its most public, eccentric displays of passion.
But how can Ondaatje write so much about Buddy Bolden given the lack of historical records about his music? Necessity compels him to create a partly fictitious character out of Bolden–though perhaps not as fictitious as Count Almasy in The English Patient. Ondaatje caused some controversy with his best-known work of historical fiction, for depicting the character of the count, who really existed, in ways that clearly went against historical evidence. Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the topic of historical characters being used in works of fiction at some length in “Home and Away.” Some poetic invention of the past is necessary in order to create the stories we treasure as a society and a nation. England would not have Shakespeare’s Richard III, Kay paraphrases Ondaatje as saying, if not for poetic license with historical characters. I would add that Canada would never have Ondaatje, if a certain amount of historical fantasy were impossible to ‘get away’ with.
Bolden becomes Ondaatje’s vehicle to explore his ideal of poetic genius, which he found in the figure of the outlaw, or the artist ‘on the edge’. Going outside the novel for a minute, I would like to quote a passage from “White Dwarfs,” a poem by Ondaatje that expressed his perfect hero: “Why do I like most / among my heroes those / that sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel?” Ondaatje is fascinated by the outlaw, especially in his early work (see The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and Bolden, while not a criminal precisely, is still on the edge, a lonely figure. He must come through slaughter–encounter mortality and his own imperfection–to reach that perfect edge, where beyond there is only silence.
Trapped in relationships with two different women, Bolden runs away from his wife, but later returns home, a changed man–more quiet, not his gossipy old self. But the silence is only a buildup to the defining moment of his history as an artist. He blows his cornet in a parade down a New Orleans street and, after a moment of musical ecstasy, loses his mind, vanishing among the stars.
Just as the poem “White Dwarfs” proposes that the meaning of language is found in silence, so is the significance of Bolden’s life found in his silence–the absence of his music. This blankness enables Ondaatje–along with his reader–to search for Bolden’s music, if such an ephemeral thing as music can ever truly be found, or artistic perfection ever attained.
Just as jazz is all about the silences you leave between the notes, so is Coming Through Slaughter all about the absence of Bolden. It is even about the physical white space on the page. Each scene is followed by white space, where, if we linger, we are left to imagine the untold. White space becomes the perfect mirror onto which we project our own fantasies of what Bolden and the other characters do between scenes. On one particular page, only the lyrics to a song, or poem appear: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky” (57). And that is all we need.
Ondaatje dares to go places other authors don’t ever go. His tale of Bolden’s life and death confirms his interest in transgression. Bolden’s story is like that of Icarus: he flew too high, too close to the sun where no one could catch him, on the wings of his own genius, and plummeted to his slaughter in the ocean. And like Doctor Faustus, Bolden even made a deal with the devil, according to his Christian critics: he dared to mix sacred hymns with blues, a music very earthly and secular. What came out of that has become to be known as “jazz.”
Ondaatje finds a wholly original way to express this Icaro-Faustian transgression: Bolden was always so short, he writes, that he couldn’t reach the blades of the fan in his barber shop. But later, after his fall, the following passage appears alone with itself on a page: “Bolden’s hand going up into the air / in agony. His brain driving it up into the path of the circling fan. / The last movement happens forever and ever in his memory” (138). Bolden’s artistic pride has caused him to reach out so far that he hurts himself, like he would if his fingers struck the blades of a fan.
I must now mourn Buddy Bolden using the words Christopher Marlowe’s chorus used to mourn Doctor Faustus at the end of his famous play: “cut is the branch that would have grown full straight / and burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bow.” Transgression is the only way to achieve artistic innovation, yet there is always a price to pay for it.
I think Coming Through Slaughter makes excellent reading, especially if you are on a bus heading to a Jazz Festival concert in downtown Montreal. You can also read it before attending a summer festival in your hometown. Even if you don’t like jazz, if you are an artist, or appreciative of good art, then this novel is worth a read. All art deals with blank space, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or even architecture. For the historical fantasy novelist, blanks spaces that show up in the historical record are also the perfect place to stage a work of imaginative, even fantastic, fiction. In a way, this is what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.
Which is why I leave you off, with this proposal: in addition to being antithetical, anti-real, and even heretical, historical fantasy, as we may see it through the lens of Michael Ondaatje’s oeuvre, is also jazz. The two syncopated rhythms of realistic history and fantastic mythology–one a linear, regular, pattern, the other free-flying and circular–give historical fantasy an edge. And nowhere is this phenomenon better explored than in Coming Through Slaughter.
Bolden band: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Bolden
In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and John Crowley’s Love and Sleep,part of his Aegypt sequence, characters born with cauls are summoned in the middle of the night to walk among the dead. Kay calls these individuals Night Walkers. Their story stretches back to real-world superstitions about children born with a membrane around their heads. This rare phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, occurs in 1/80,000 births, and it was supposed to mark children for good luck and greatness.
Crowley explains in his book that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, children born with cauls participated in nightly battles against witches and evil spirits for the renewal of the land’s fertility. This battle is depicted in Tigana when one of the main characters, Baerd, who was born in a caul, meets other Night Walkers like himself, who then fight evil spirits with swords made of cornstalks in order to restore the land blighted by the tyrant Brandin. Crowley’s Night Walker, on the other hand, is a semi-literate coal miner from the Cumberlands of Kentucky, Floyd Shaftoe. While the heroic Baerd’s fight against the undead and the rough, working-class life of Floyd seem aeons apart, their stories are similar narratives woven by two brilliant historical fantasy novelists.
Ember tides are a Catholic tradition that a young Pierce Moffet in Crowley’s novel observes. They are a series of days that introduce each season, where fasting and prayers to the souls in purgatory are encouraged. In Tigana, ember tides become the Ember Nights. To observe Ember Nights, all lights in the house except a single candle are extinguished, in order to remember the story of the Triad, the triune deity worshiped throughout the Peninsula of the Palm.
However, in the south of the Palm, there exist certain heretics who claim the Triad sprang from older gods. Some of those who kept these older beliefs are the Night Walkers who Baerd runs into, men and women who participate in a literal battle against infertility and death itself. Perhaps here Kay alludes to a more ancient, pagan past to the Catholic celebration of ember tides.
Kay explains: “In the highlands of Certando a child born with a caul was not said to be guarded from death at sea, or naively named for fortune. It was marked for war. For this war, fought each year on the first of the Ember Nights that began the spring and so began the year. Fought in the fields and for the fields, for the not yet risen seedlings that were hope and life and the offered promise of earth renewed” (388).
Crowley’s description of Floyd Shaftoe’s relationship to the ember tides is similar. “On certain nights–it might be the night of Little Christmas, or the last night of October, or when the moon was full at midsummer, less often as he grew older and the world grew worse–Floyd Shaftoe would hear his name called, not urgently but surely, at his window as he lay asleep: and he would answer. For he was one of a band, men and women born (he supposed) with the same signs as himself; and there were as many of the others, with whom his kind contended for the health and wealth of the earth: and he could no more refuse a summons to walk out against them than he could refuse a dream or die” (103).
While both Kay and Crowley make reference to ancient traditions to explain the Ember Nights, their approaches to depicting them are different. Baerd is engaged in a heroic struggle against the tyrant sorcerer Brandin, who has cursed his homeland of Tigana. He cannot utter his country’s name to strangers due to the tyrant’s curse, and since Tigana has been laid waste and renamed Lower Corte, that curse will annihilate the nation from memory. Answering the summons to stalk around outside during the Ember nights is one way Baerd finds release.
Whereas Baerd grieves for the dead of his nation who were slain fighting Brandin, Floyd Shaftoe’s grief is simpler. “When he was twelve years old Floyd had seen his mother laid away, dead of her last child and first girl, dead too. There had been no preacher for her, no one to read or sing; his father made the box himself, and his brothers dug the grave” (103). At night, he receives a summons from his mother to walk with a great crowd of other lost souls. The dead have a look of hunger in their eyes–the hunger to live again. After returning from this purgatorial vision, Floyd sees his own body sleeping in his bed, and then returns to it, questioning whether he would be able to return if he had stayed with his mother too long.
Floyd goes on to become a Born Again Christian, realizing that the “Holy Spert” summons him on ember tide. He works in the coal mines from boyhood to middle age, through the prosperous times where he is able to buy a fridge and TV, and through the worst times, when millionaires conspire against the company he works for. As he works under the earth, stripping the mountain of its rocks and metals, he starts to farm instead.
He sees the world as divided between those who follow the “Holy Spert” and the “Devil’s fiddle,” between those who grow things from the earth and those, like miners, who take away from it. He survives off Assistance, or “Well Far,” and blames “the great devil Hoover, who had brought ruin on the country, only to be turned out in disgrace himself” (112). President Herbert Hoover takes the place of Brandin of Ygrath as ruler of the land, although Floyd does not blame Hoover for the blighting of the landscape. He comes rather to think the “old enmity” between those sapping the earth and those who try to grow things on it, “was likely just a part of nature, like the enmity fixed between owls and crows, or between the red squirrel and the grey. […] [U]nless their two kinds did battle over what would grow and what would not, then nothing at all would grow” (112).
John Crowley uses magic realism to create Floyd’s world, whereas Kay frames the Ember Nights in terms of the heroic tradition of portal-quest fantasy novels. A careful subjective voice claims only that what Floyd sees as his world world is true, but in Kay’s novel, the supernatural is treated as unquestioningly part of reality itself. Though both authors come from different perspectives, both share an interest in this obscure, but fascinating tradition. Both also deal with the genre and the ideas behind historical fantasy. Crowley and Kay both see Ember Nights as an nexus effective for the blending of the fantastic with the real.
Let me propose that the fantasy novel’s structure of restoration (Clute’s four-part structure: wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing) lends itself to stories of wars fought for the fertility of the land. The war of the Night Walkers belongs to the monomyth found in many fantasy novels and legends. A child marked for greatness is prophesied to venture on a dark road and fight vast armies to restore the land to its health.
Our real world, blasted out of innocence by two World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, 9/11, and economic collapse, is sick. Perhaps the monomyth of restoration appeals so much to Crowley and Kay because it promises the rejuvenation of our own world. One idea behind Tigana, for example, is that Tigana represents all cultures that have been obliterated from memory or maimed by powerful tyrants: it could tell the story of Cold War East Europe, Native North America, or Ireland. The story of Baerd and the Night Walkers promises that attempts at cultural obliteration can be overcome, worlds renewed.
On the other hand, Crowley recognizes that at different historical times, such as Renaissance England or one’s childhood, the world as perceived was different than it is now. We tend to believe in myths and legends more in earlier ages than we do in later ones. Crowley’s magic realist treatment of the Ember Nights is aimed not so much to restore culture and identity, as Tigana does, but the fertility of the imagination itself, the magical dimension that underlies our daily lives. Like other modern readaptations of ancient myths, Crowley’s Love and Sleep attempts to reanimate our demythologized, strictly scientific and utilitarian cosmology. Whereas Tigana can help us see our world through a distorted mirror, Crowley proposes something more radical: that, in the coal mine mountains of Kentucky, men might live today who have, in fact, been summoned by the dead to walk with them on Ember Nights.
Image Credits/Works Cited:
Crowley, John. Love and Sleep. New York: Bantam, 1994.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992.
Love and Sleep Cover: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_%26_Sleep
Alex Fratarcangeli, the protagonist of Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, works on a Ph.D. proposal that could change literary academics: he chooses to analyze literary texts in the light of Darwinism. As its title suggests, the novel is about Alex’s relationship to the life of Darwin and his seminal The Origin of Species. On the road, he lives through various failed romantic relationships and tries to learn what it means to be a father. This journey culminates in the production of a Ph.D. proposal that I believe to be both fascinating and potentially revolutionary, if academia takes these ideas seriously. In Ricci’s fictitious 1980s Montreal setting, academia does not.
Having achieved an MA in Victorian Studies, Alex pursues his Doctorate and is assigned Jiri Novak as his supervisor, a man with a troubled past. He has an idea about what he wants to explore, but he struggles to come up with the revelation that will tie his thesis together: kind of like the way I am currently searching for my Master’s research essay topic. Not even Jiri, however, can deny the simplicity and revolutionary potential in Alex’s work, even if the institution of academia finds Darwinism a tough pill to swallow.
What emerges is the argument that narrative is older than humankind. As Darwin’s discoveries about evolution once put humans in their not-so-special place in the animal kingdom, so does Alex’s thesis put all of literature in perspective with biology. To paraphrase Ricci, narrative is not the hallmark of human self-consciousness, but a path to it, a journey in itself.
The masked booby of the Galapagos presents its mate with a series of gifts that indicate the male’s desire to give the female a life of happiness. This, and interactions like it across the animal kingdom, prove that “happily ever after” is a story that goes beyond the human.
Bringing this understanding in light of my own research, I am astounded to think that Tolkien’s transcendent vision of the fairy tale’s happy ending, eucatastrophe, should be part of some biological imperative. No doubt Tolkien, who believed in the Christian resonance of eucatastrophe, would find Alex’s thesis radical.
Darwinism is often described as leading to the rise atheism in the nineteenth-century, a slaying of the ultimate Father–who was also Tolkien’s Father. Without God, what becomes of transcendence? Must narrative itself become arbitrary, without an overriding scheme? Is storytelling a denial of Darwinian competition and randomness in how it attempts to map order onto an orderless world? Is storytelling itself a fantasy of an order that no longer exists?
Of course, we see fantasies that have tragic endings. I need hardly mention Game of Thrones. But there is also the branch of historical fantasy, which blends Tolkien’s eucatastrophe with historical probability, often placing a moment of refuge, instead of an outright happy ending, amid a larger historical catastrophe, such as war and famine. When you consider Clute’s five points of the fantasy novel structure (wrongness, thinning, recognition, healing, eucatastrophe), and all that description of florid, healthy natural habitats in Thomas Convenant, you are left with the sense that this structure is tied to ecosystem. Fantasy magic is related to the “health of the land.” Is this a memory of how narrative, like the structure of life itself, is “primal beyond reckoning?” (Ricci 400).
Could it be that eucatastrophic literary fantasy is a leftover from a protohuman mating ritual?
Suddenly, why so many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–I’m thinking of The Lions of Al-Rassan above all–end with romantic couplings at the end becomes clearer than glass: eucatastrophe is itself a promise of sexual fulfillment. It is a fulfillment that often occurs despite the catastrophes of history. And in its promise of happily ever after, what the characters offer their beloveds is refuge: from the trials of history, the world, all the forces of eat-or-be-eaten.
What Darwinism implies about fantasy as a mode is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps fantasy itself has a rather obvious sexual origin. “Happily ever after” may itself be the fantasy that spawned all fantasies, making fantasy itself older than mankind.
In fantasy literature, as in other forms of narrative, animal instinct lies at the foundation stone. When reflecting on how physical bodies of ancestral creatures came to influence the bodies of texts, Alex reflects, “Somewhere in literature’s dark beginnings there had to be real blood on the page, there had to be real bodies being sacrificed or being saved” (82). Even in the midst of his Darwinist reverie, the religious connotations in this line is intriguing. I believe it reminds the reader that Christ’s death–a body sacrificed so humanity may be saved–spawned a body of text. Perhaps in the even more distant past of the Bible, there were animal bodies whose narratives human beings inherited. Such creatures may have given us the greatest love story of all, the greatest eucatastrophe–according to Tolkien, the Resurrection.
Yet this “blood on the page” has a more eerie connotation: Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil for knowledge. Perhaps Alex’s devotion to Darwinist ideas are his signature on a satanic contract. A hubristic scholar, Alex is beset by frustrations on all sides. He has sold his soul to academia and blames his partner Liz’s abortion on getting a paper published in Canadian Studies. Perhaps the Chernobyl disaster, referenced often throughout the book, is as metaphor for mess of his life. But if Darwin killed God, then Satan is dead as well, and Alex only serves to entrap himself in a cycle of guilt marked by a fateful trip to the Galapagos islands.
Alex “had always seen Darwinism as just another of the grand schemes for making sense of the world–like Marxism, say, or Freudianism, or New Criticism–that proved all was right with it” (297), but his opinion soon changes as he begins to see the undirected life of Darwinian evolution for what it is. Soon he is offered a chance, perhaps, at redemption, when he learns he has borne a son to his Swedish girlfriend.
Eventually it is Alex’s research into sociobiology that sets his thesis in presentable order: “It was all total anathema to the literary purists insofar as they even deigned to notice anything reactionary–it was just biological determinism writ large, they said, the worst sort of regression, a heartbeat away from social Darwinism and eugenics–but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (398).
This theory goes against “everyone,” claims Jiri, his supervisor. “The Marxists, the feminists, the deconstructionists, everything that’s happened in the past twenty years” (409). Just as Darwin unhorsed the theism of his time, Alex threatens to overturn the other structures of significance literary theorists have built for themselves over the years, proving that literature is at base biological.
“I suppose it’s like Derrida,” Alex explains at an earlier point in the book. “This idea that there’s a whole structure in our minds that controls how we think. Except that instead of language or binary opposite or something like that, it’s genetic” (75).
If the radical theory of literary criticism contained within Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species ever builds steam within the real world of academia, I have a feeling it could change the landscape. Alex is one fictitious character against a conservative institution, but his theory is simplifying, like all great theories, including Darwin’s, are. Time will tell the extent of the consequences of evolutionism, Darwinism, and sociobiology on the field of literary studies. Personally, I cannot wait to see the effects of the ideas on fantasy literature.
Image Credits/Works Cited:
Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Anchor: 2008.
Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.
Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.
The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture. As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust. Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.
‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion, or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.
Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.
The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?
Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.
At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.
Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.
I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.
The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.
The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.
Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.
A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.
As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.
Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.
Though I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.
Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.
I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:
“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).
The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:
“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).
Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.
At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.
Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?
Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.
I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.
Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.
In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.
To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.
Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”
I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.
Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.
Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.
I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.
Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.
One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.
Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.
His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!
If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.
What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?
Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.
Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.
Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.
It’s like fantasy tapas, or if you prefer, a buffet: fantasy short stories contain all the excitement and inspiration of a novel, in a way that requires less commitment. Instead of reading a five-course fantasy series of 900+ pages, you can hunker down for a 10- or 20-page adventure. And while you’re at it, eat at the best place in town: read Hartwell and Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy series.
There are anthologies like it, but the books I read were edited by Hartwell and Cramer, and every story in their anthology series is a gem. What I love in particular are the author bios at the start of each entry, which can drop you the names of certain magazines worth submitting to, a boon to readers who also happen to be writers hungering for a chance at publication.
A great way to discover new writers and read the shorts of those who you might already know. Though the anthology has gone completely online in recent years, I still possess three physical anthologies. They contain tales from such noted authors as Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Tad Williams, Jeffrey Ford, Gene Wolf, and Holly Black–but also many upcoming authors who have been published only rarely. You can buy them from Tor.com or on Amazon.
Hartwell and Cramer define fantasy broadly, to include such various approaches as supernatural fantasy, adventure fantasy, satirical, and humorous fantasy. There is no pure science fiction, which I think is great, being a fantasy purist, but an occasional tale with a science fiction bent occasionally appears, if fantasy elements are present in the story. These anthologies are for people who believe that fantasy can be as good, and as necessary, as literary fiction. They provide a survey of the genre from every direction in which it is expanding.
Examples of what you might find in this stellar series (in Issue 8) include a library that comes to life in Holly Black’s “Paper Cuts Scissors.” Civic gods are challenged by a knight and his puppet companion in Garth Nix’s “Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again.” Mark Chadbourn takes us to a supernatural Elizabethan England in which a famous poet is threatened by fairies in “Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast.” And who could ever forget “Still Life with Boobs” by Anne Harris in Issue 6?
Other treasures in this series include a short story that eventually became Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book in Issue 8: “The Witch’s Headstone.” Though 7 years old, Issue 8’s stories are timeless and Gaiman entertains as always. Very slightly more recently, Issue 9 (2008) presented us with Naomi Novik’s first short fiction. She is otherwise known for her Temeraire series, in which dragons fight Napoleon during the Age of Sail. Legendary author of The Last Unicorn Peter S. Beagle has two stories in Issue 9 as well, including “The Rabbi’s Hobby,” which I found great.
Year’s Best Fantasy also includes experimental fantasy. For example, in Issue 9, Catherynne M. Valente writes a story through a catalogue, chronicling a rivalry between two explorers in “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica.” Garth Nix also writes a story entirely in newspaper headlines in Issue 6’s “Read It in the Headlines!”
Another reason I love this series is that Canadian authors receive substantial representation. For example, Nalo Hopkinson had “Soul Case” published in Issue 8 and Claude Lalumiere, a Montreal author, appeared with Issue 6’s story “Being Here,” and has been published in other more recent issues. For any Canadian fantasy fans out there, you know how perfect this is beautiful. Canadian fantasy is running strong, claim the editors of YBF, with many of the stories they selected appearing in the Tesseracts anthology series published by EDGE.
If anyone is looking for a March break read, get your tongs ready and pick the choicest cuts from this great buffet of literature. You won’t be disappointed; these are the best of the best, served from the very best chefs–err, authors–that fantasy has to offer. (Now this “story-buffet” metaphor is making me hungry!)
Issue 9 was printed in a limited run after Tor.com began to publish the series online. Therefore, you will have to get the most recent additions to the series online.
There has also been some editorial eye-skip in Issue 9, maybe because of the online move. This resulted in more typos. I suspect that the online format makes it easier to miss them. If this is an issue for you, get the earlier editions of the series: they are just as good! That being said, the online editions will hopefully not affect your reading experience too much.
For Black History Month, I thought I’d share a Canadian poet whose lush, cadenced verse is like Nova Scotian blues. I’m talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.
I read it studying Can lit with Professor Robert Lecker in my last semester at McGill and we had fascinating discussions in class.
Some background: Whylah Falls describes a story set in Africadia, which is Clarke’s name for black Nova Scotia. Africadians are descendents of freed Loyalist slaves who fled the American colonies during the Revolution in 1783 and wound up in Nova Scotia, where they set down roots. Although I recognized “Africadia,” which sounds like “Africville,” from the headlines, I was unaware of how deep the roots of this Nova Scotian African-Canadian community really went. Clarke makes it his duty to represent Africadians, who were an illiterate people, in his expertly crafted verse.
The conflicts–internal and external to the poet–which Clarke tackles are one of the many things that are interesting about Whylah Falls (at least from an academic standpoint). But if you took it off the shelf and read it, you might be confused about what genre it is.
Sure, it is partly poetry–but it also has several prose pieces. The table of contents is divided into Cantos like the epic poems of old, under headings like “The Adoration of Shelley” and “The Trial of Saul.” The front matter also contains a dramatis personae list of main characters, in the style of the Renaissance drama folio. This makes no mention of the blurred, grainy photographs he includes throughout the volume.
Basically, Clarke has written a classical epic about Africadia, combining the “white” tradition of the “great poets” with the more intuitive cadences of blues jazz.
Is he crazy for attempting such a mixture of genres? Before you answer, you must consider that Clarke is such a master poet that he is well capable of answering this ambitious challenge.
His rhythm and style–which for him are inseparable–form a syncopated song that follows the cadence of jazz progressions. Although I am no music know-it-all, someone in class mentioned that the scansion of his lines match certain jazz rhythms. This achieves an unforgettable effect in his love poetry, which flows with allusions to the most romantic book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. (Which even I borrowed from, last Valentine’s day)
Whylah Falls follows a man returning to his home after being educated abroad. The opening stanza of his first poem sets the mood for the book:
“At eighteen, I thought the Sixhiboux wept.
Five years younger, you were lush, beautiful
Mystery; your limbs–scrolls of deep water.
Before your home, lost in roses, I swooned,
Drunken in the village of Whylah Falls,
And brought you apple blossoms you refused,
Wanting Hank Snow woodsmoke blues and dried smelts,
Wanting some milljerk’s dumb, unlettered love.”
The way Clarke breaks each line and the diverse, evocative vocabulary are testament to his mastery of language. As you might have guessed, his book is not only filled with love poetry dedicated to people, but to the place of Whylah Falls itself and the river that runs through it.
Whylah Fall‘s characters are also brilliantly inspiring, the salt of the earth, so to speak. Who could forget the following description of Cora in the kitchen?
Cooking is faith. Cora opens her antique cookbook, a private bible, enumerating Imperial measures, English orders,–pinches, pecks, cups, teaspoons, of this or that–and intones, “I create not food but love. The table is community. Plates are round rooves; glasses, iced trees; cutlery, silver streams.”
This alchemy of cooking is only possible in Whylah Falls. Even if you do not think you are likely to pick up a book about an African-Canadian minority group in Nova Scotia, you can still see that the imagery in its vital power can awaken the soul.
The story of Whylah Falls eventually centers around the shooting death of Othello Clemence, whose murderer is acquitted on self-defense. The fake newspaper clippings Clarke includes are brilliant and funny, showing a more humorous face to our poet. But his poems about the murder’s effect on the community blend beauty with violence to produce an elegiac effect:
“His breath went emergency in his lungs,
His felled heart grasped impossibly at light;
A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth.
Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”
Ranging from the mournful to the humorous, the sassy to the extravagant, and the sensual to the religious, Whylah Falls has something for every reader this Black History Month. If you read it on Valentine’s Day, you have the added benefit of reading some of this luscious verse to your beloved. Just remember that “the language we swill with loneliness is liquor, is love, a turmoil in the bones.”
Excerpts are from: “The River Pilgrim: a letter,” “How to Live in a Garden,” “Eulogy,” and “I Love You/More than Words.”
P.S. Check out this stimulating interview about Africadian identity.
George Elliott Clarke: http://www.playwrightscanada.com/index.php/authors/a-d/george-elliott-clarke.html