Margaret Atwood has written a number of books that break through traditional notions of short stories and poetry. These books, Good Bones, Murder in the Dark, and most recently The Tent, all blur the lines. This short volume, only coming in at 70 pages, contains pieces that range from short prose poems, mini-literary criticism manifestos, speculative pieces, metaphysical musings, and mini-romances. Murder in the Dark was Atwood’s first collection like this, and in my opinion, the best of the three. Every page of this book pushes you like no other writer can.
Many of the pieces in this collection explore themes of seeing what is in front of you and absorbing the world around you; she does this through matters of love, literature, growing up, and gender roles. Many of the prose poems twist your mind and attempt to demystify life’s little mysteries. Atwood’s flair for language is on display in this book like very few of her works that came before it; she shows why she is considered a master of the English language.
This book is a very quick read and a great example of Atwood’s style. Traditional literary genres and constraints are of no concern to the author; she creates her own genres and her own traditions to tell stories and express thoughts that are topically simple but thematically complex. Atwood attempts to answers basic human questions in 70 pages but forces you to open your mind, and ask new questions.
If you were to ask many people for some examples of Canadian literary “classics”, typical responses would likely include Roughing It in the Bush, Barometer Rising, As for Me and My House, Duddy Kravitz, or The Stone Angel. Very few people would think of Tay John, the 1939 novel by Alberta writer Howard O’Hagan. Outside of the academic community this novel is relatively unknown. In 2003 I took my first course in Canadian literature, it was a full year survey course taught by the brilliant academic Renee Hulan. I was already developing an interest in CanLit and had a good sized collection, especially of New Canadian Library books. Of all of the novels on the reading list this was the only book I didn’t already own and the only one I wasn’t at least somewhat familiar with. When I read it for the course 8 years ago, honestly, I did not really get it and did not really enjoy it very much. I don’t know why but as I was looking at my NCL shelves last week I felt like I had to reread this book. My opinion is completely different now that I have had time to read it closely and absorb what the story is all about. This is not the type of book where a character goes from point-A to point-B with all of the interesting stuff happening in between. Tay John is a puzzle. You receive bits and pieces of the story of this enigmatic protagonist that will have you flipping back between chapters and keeping you guessing right to the end and after you ultimately close the covers.
Tay John is the story of a mythical Messianic halfbreed from the Albertan Rockies. The name Tay John comes from the name the English visitors gave the protagonist in his youth, Tete Jaune, meaning Yellow Head, because of his golden yellow hair. The bulk of the story takes place around Yellowhead Lake and Yellowhead Flats. The story examines idea of what makes a legend or a myth and how the story of an ordinary man can be altered or perverted as it grows and passes from person to person. On a more topical level it is an allegory on the idea of the Christian Messiah. Throughout the book there are multiple narrators and multiple points-of-view. The first section is told as a Native oral tale while the second and third sections are told by men who are relatively minor characters in the narrative. The cast is small and the dynamic of the story is fascinating.
The character of Tay John is a bit of a contradiction. The book always revolves around his world but there are times when you might read 30 pages without even a mention of his name, yet he is catalyst of all of all of the forward momentum. As a character he is intentionally not overly developed. How the readers perception of him is shaped is by the interpretation and knowledge of his life and the mythical status that he occupies in the minds of the supporting characters, who are all very well developed.
There are so many vivid images that will stick with the reader: Tay John’s “birth”, how he reacts to losing a game of cards, his battle with a grizzly bear, and his ultimate fate in the last scene. This is one of the great classics of our national literature and a forerunner to many other Western writers like Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroestsch in terms of both style, settings, and themes. Tay John is a book that will have you flipping back and forth to various chapters to connect some of the subtle dots in your head. It is a very fulfilling read and a book that is very under-appreciated by the reading public.
I’ve felt like that the last month or so I have gotten away from the original reason I started this site, to review pieces of “classic” CanLit and contribute my two-cents on Canadian culture. With this in mind I have decided to focus my reading for this blog on my New Canadian Library shelves and review some oldies for the next few months. Whenever I need to kick-start my enthusiasm for reading again I usually reach for one of two authors, either Mordecai Richler or Margaret Laurence. I was in the mood for something funny so the obvious choice was Richler. I picked up one of his shorter novels that I hadn’t read yet, The Incomparable Atuk. This novel is one of Richler’s more eccentric pieces of satire; it has a similar feeling and tone as Cocksure, likely one of the strangest novels to come out of Canada in the 60s. Atuk is about an Inuit (or, as they were known in the 60s, Eskimo) poet who achieves national stardom and is transplanted to the soul corrupting city of Toronto.
The Incomparable Atuk was Richler’s follow-up to his best known work, Duddy Kravitz. The story starts with Atuk gaining fame as a gifted Eskimo poet and falling into a crowd of memorable characters. Although it is a short book, the NCL edition comes in at 178 pages with big print, it is very dense in the amount of story that is packed between the covers. It would be hard to summarize the novel because the book is basically just a bunch of random stuff that happens to Atuk and his inner circle; some of these include game show appearances with deadly punishments, cannibalism, swimming Lake Ontario, Eskimos being locked in a basement being forced to create “authentic” pieces of art, and of course Richler’s trademark witticisms on the state of post-WWII Judaism.
Something that always impresses me with Richler’s work from the 50s and 60s is his ability to seamlessly shift point-of-view with almost every chapter while still keeping the book as a whole very cohesive. I think part of the reason Richler is able to pull this off is because of how unique and memorable his characters are. All of his novels have a lot of characters and almost all of these characters are very well developed. Within two pages you have a sense of what this character is all about and which side of Richler’s proverbial fence he or she stands (this usually having something to do with the character being either Jewish or anti-semitic). I haven’t said anything specific along these lines in relation to this particular book, but all of my aforementioned comments apply to this novel.
You can never go wrong with a Mordecai Richler book. The Incomparable Atuk is a great representation of his approach to writing and the themes that are explored throughout his writing career as a whole. Richler was a master at holding a mirror up to Canadian society and exposing our foibles with hilarious and biting satire. If you liked Cocksure you would definitely enjoy Atuk.