Antanas Sileika - Issue 101

More Pleasure in the Land of the Small Presses

The task of reviewing small press books in Canada is becoming rapidly less dour with the appearance of many more titles that bring real pleasure to a reader, or at very least, raise interesting questions. It is no longer necessary to buy titles out of literary patriotism, only to have them sit unread on the shelf.

The other good news is that the small presses seem to be doing much better with distribution. I have seen most of the books reviewed in this article displayed prominently in independent bookstores and the small chains. A Trader is still not likely to pick up one of these titles at the airport, but it is no longer necessary to go into book shops that specialize in Canadian literature where the atmosphere reeks of dispirited messianism.

The first two titles were even nominated for the Governor General's award, without, as far as I can gauge, any whiff of tokenism. In a year with less overwhelming competition, the first would have had a solid chance of winning, and the second remains important because of the questions it raises about literature itself.

How Insensitive, by Russell Smith, from Porcupine's Quill in Erin, Ontario is a surprise delight from a first novelist who shares some of the attributes of the Brat Pack writers who appeared in the USA some years ago. He is young (31), hip, ironic, and very much a surfer on the Toronto arts scene as a freelance writer with impeccable academic credentials. His work has been reviewed widely, and received enough attention that when I called the publisher for a review copy for this article, none was available.

A new superstar in the model of Nino Ricci? Perhaps, but the media buzz on a writer distracts from the work itself, so too often we are buying books because of public relations coups. How Insensitivedeserves to be bought purely for fun. It is a hilarious social satire of the Queen Street arts scene in Toronto.

James R. Wallen's Boys' Night Out covered the same territory earlier this season, but Wallen's book dealt with low-lifers whereas Smith's book is filled with the tragically hip. How Insensitive can also be read as a roman h clef of the Toronto scene in which various media hotshots get their comeuppance, but pointing which character represents whom is an activity best left for the kitchen table.

The main character is Ted Owen, a graduate of Cultural Studies from Montreal who comes to Toronto to make his way on the "scene". He is well-armed because he can give brainy cracks on deconstructionism, feminism, eco-terror, and Jacques Lacan, but he is still essentially an innocent who has to learn how Toronto operates. Here is Ted speaking with his friend John as they prepare to go out for Ted's first Toronto party:

   Ted fingered the row of shirts: soft
 cotton, linen, silk, and a pile of
 T-shirts with faded team rowing logos.
 "People dress up more here, I guess."

   "This isn't dressed up.  No one dresses

  "Oh." Ted pulled out a white linen shirt.

  "The idea of dressing up is rather
 suburban, I think," said John. "The
 idea is to look good, not to dress up."

  "But you look good by dressing up." Ted
 suddenly felt exhausted. He hadn't eaten
 since a plastic VIA sandwich at noon, and
 his beers with Max had left him dry.

  "You look good by being stylish.  And
 actually, for your information, it's
 politically cooler if only the guys are


  "Chicks are traditionally supposed to
 worry about style, so now if they're cool
 they don't.  It's that whole coffect-cool
 thing. It's bad to dress up if you're a

   Ted laughed, doing up the buttons on
 the scratchy shirt.

   "Chicks. I haven't heard that word for
 a while. Sounds a little like room
 two-twenty-two now, doesn't it?"

   John looked around. "No."
 Ted put his jacket over the shirt. 

   "I've never wom linen before. 
 It scratches."

   "Chicks love it."

   Ted mouthed the word 'chicks', trying
 it on.  "Are you seeing any ... chicks?"

   "Me?  No. No". John was sticking his
 hair back with gel. "By the way, for
 your reference at this party, you can't
 say chick. Only chicks can say it. If a
 chick says it, it's extremely cool, but
 if you say it it's bad.  Same with fag
 and dyke."

   "Only chicks can say fag and dyke?"

   "Only fags and dykes."

   "I see." Ted opened Playboy, flipped
 through it quickly.  "I can't say chick,
 fag or dyke.  What about to you, here?"

  "To me, when we're alone?"

  "Yes.  What am I allowed to say?"
 John smiled to himself in the mirtor. 

 "To me you can say spiitarse,
 fudgepacker and carpetmuncher. 
 You ready to go?

Anyone who thinks the above passage is puerile or juvenile will find the rest of the novel to be the same, but I, for one, find the irreverence to be very funny.

How Insensitive is really a novel of manners. The outsider has to learn how to speak and act with the "in" group. He has to learn which clubs are cool and which are not, and above all, he must learn to live with contradiction. A feminist might live with a man who beats her, and rich white kids insist on authenticity, but end up wanting what their parents wanted, just a little hipper and cooler.

The novel, but it has no plot to speak of beyond the discovery of the rules of cooldom, and this bothered some of the reviewers. It doesn't bother me at all because it is always a pleasure to see a fresh look at the absurdities of manners, especially pretentious arts world manners. This novel could also stand as a guidebook for rubes like me who don't know how to carry themselves on Toronto's Queen Street.

If Russell Smith's book is light and entertaining, Donna McFarlane's Division of surgery, from Women's Press in Toronto, the second nominee for the GG, is troubling both in content and in the questions it raises about what literature is.

Donna McFarlane and her central character, Robin Carr, both share a condition called inflammatory bowel disease. Robin Carr undergoes numerous painful operations which are described in some detail. The novel includes patient clinical reports and a reprint of a brochure called "Facts about Inflammatory Bowel Disease from the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada".

This is a book I would not normally choose to review for two reasons. First of all, inflammatory bowel disease deals with excrement in great deal, as it must. Although my queasiness about reading this material could be overcome, my second objection came from a superficial understanding of the project itself.

English teachers tell their students repeatedly that literature and life are not synonymous. The sufferings of hospital patients rarely fit into the schemes of writers as ends unto themselves. A serious post-modemist might treat a clinical report as literature, but most writers do not because the thing does not have a literary shape to it. Writers cringe when travelling companions in planes say that their lives would make good stories, and for the same reason.

This novel, I feared, had been nominated for humanitarian reasons and not for literary ones, and initially, my suspicions were bome out. First, the language of the novel is anti-literary. By that I mean it is flat and matterof-fact. Secondly, that matter of excrement is dealt with in great detail, as in the passage below, in which Robin Car shows her boyfriend, dubbed the "Alley Cat", how she empties an ileostomy bag:

 I opened the white plastic clip and
 coaxed the contents of the ileostomy
 gently down towards the toilet bowl. 
 Tne stool, the consistency of mashed
 bananas or lumpy pudding, slid out. 
 I wondered if he'd comment on the
 difference between it and his own. 
 He sat on the edge of the tub and
 watched without comment. I proceeded
 through the ritual: took two small
 bottles from my purse, rinsed the bag
 through the bottom opening with water
 from one bottle, dried the lower edges
 of the bag with toilet paper so it
 wouldn't smell, added blue deodorizer
 from the second bottle to the ileostomy
 bag and replaced the cap. I flushed and

 "Your turn," I said, and hitched my
 He sat. I watched and listened and held
 my breath against the smell just as he

It is difficult to make it through passages such as this one. Yet as one continues to read through the novel (if one continues to read), the reader slowly begins to admire the scrappy Robin Carr. She is a woman who could have given up at any point without being considered a coward, and yet she battles on and on through humiliation and pain. In this characteristic, the novel is not as anti-literary as it first seemed, because identification with a fictional character is what many writers hope for.

If one can bear to read this novel, its power does become apparent. The reader learns that great pain can be lived with, and sometimes overcome for a time. One learns that heroes are not only those who do dramatic acts such as seizing enemy bunkers, but those who fight for dignity and survival in hospitals around the country.

So does the novel succeed in its own right? Not quite. The ending in which Robin Carr goes through a difficult epiphany over an abortion strikes me as belonging to some other novel. Nevertheless, Division of Surgery is useful shock to those accustomed to the more polite world of belles lettres.

New fiction need not be nominated for the GG in order to be noteworthy. Some years, I have even thought the opposite to be true. Many new story collections and novels have appeared this year that are worth spending money on, and here are a few more of them.

Robert Mullen shows some astonishing strengths in his first collection of stories called Americas, from Coteau Books in Regina. These stories have been published in a variety of literary journals, and it's no wonder. They feel very fresh and unlike most fiction that comes out of the literary presses in this country. At the same time, they show a level of sophistication and polish that I would have expected from a writer who had been working for a much longer time.

Thematically, Mullen takes parts of North and South America, and especially unnamed jungles, and turns them into a kind of heart of darkness, but with a spin. There is a frightening power in the remote parts of the Americas, but this power does not evoke horror. Instead, there is a hard, inexplicable mystery. A botanist might have his arm chewed on by a ghost animal, a waiter might be called to a small town by his dreams in order to do a voodoo burial of his grandfather, and natives rise up and kill for no explicable reason.

Tne jungle has its rules, as a botanist named Don Frederico and his guide Juanito learn from an old jungle magician:

 They would kill nothing while they were
 there, Juanito had promised. No animals,
 no birds, nothing that moved. Only
 insects, the old man said, they could
 kill insects if they wanted because
 there were more of those around than
 anyone needed.

 Despite this, Don Frederico, each
 evening, took apart his revolver and
 cleaned it.
 "I lost my temper once," Don Frederico
 said.  "I was provoked.  Just see
 that it doesn't happen again."

 Then one day, for no reason, he killed
 a snake, slicing off its head. It was
 El Chicon. It was harmless. The snake
 was coiled around a tree, its mottled
 skin all but invisible against the
 similarly mottled bark.

 The old man stopped, turned around,
 and held out his hand for the machete.

 "Give it to him, patron. All he
 wants to do is cut down that tree."

 The tree belonged to the snake and the
 snake belonged to the tree; anyone
 with eyes should have seen that. The
 tree was called chicote and the
 snake El Chicon. Even the smallest
 child knew that nothing, not even a
 snake, ever existed in the world as
 itself alone.

We have two cliched notions about the wilderness. The traditional one is that it is a wasteland to be tamed or exploited, and the other, more recent, is the Fern Gully belief that the wilderness is a paradise to be left alone. Mullen manages to avoid these two cliches and aims at a tough mysticism.

The manner of writing is interesting as well. Mullen writes in a mosaic pattern of tiny fragments whose narrative message does not become apparent for a while. The reader has to wait for the patterns to emerge. This technique, although interesting, began to wear on me in the second half of the collection where Mullen seems to like the effect so much that he uses it too often and the powerful initial response wore down into tedium at the end. Yet a few rocky moments in a new writer's first collection are not surprising. The polish of the first half is.

Zachary's Gold is a novel by Stan Krumm, from Oolichan Books in Lantzville, B.C. It is a creature we do not see much of in the small presses, namely an adventure book, and a sly one at that.

It starts out deceptively enough as the story of a nineteenth century prospector in the interior of BC looking for gold. Zachary Beddoes sounds like a moralizing intellectual in the fashion of the nineteenth century, and at first I thought he was going to give us some kind of pioneer tract, a kind of Roughing it in the Bush in Search of Gold.

But the story takes a remarkable turn at around page fifty when the narrator happens upon a vicious thief and murderer and kills him in a stumblebum gunfight. The moral test comes when Zachary finds the thief's trove of stolen gold, and he fails this test with flying colours. The moralizing young man turns into a buccaneer who must escape the valley with his loot, and the balance of the tale is the adventures he goes through to escape.

I have read no adventure novels since I was a boy, but this one is very well done. There are shoot-outs and a Chinese sidekick whom Beddoes treats with extreme contempt until he gets to know the man and respect him. Stan Krumm could have been the Louis L'Amour of Canada, except there is a bit more going on in this novel than dime novel fiction.

The archaic narrative voice that so annoyed me at the beginning of the novel began to disappear, which is a sure sign that the character is becoming convincing. Secondly, the transformation of character is the name of the game in traditional literature and Zachary Beddoes' change is subtly foreshadowed, a trick that escaped me on first reading.

What a relief to stumble across a first-time novelist who can sustain an illusion. I only hope that Stan Krumm takes a little time off from his jewelry/goldsmith work to devote more time to fiction. We could use more of his kind of work in this country.

Oakland Ross took a big step several years ago when he left his job as an award-winning foreign columnist with the Globe and Mail in order to take a run at fiction. It is the kind of thing that most journalists I know would like to do. Very few actually make the leap, and fewer still finish the work they had planned because fiction is a very different business from newspaper writing. The irony of all this is that Ross's Guerrilla Beach came out with Cormorant Press, a respected small press in Dunvegan, Ontario, but a small press nevertheless. Just about everybody I know in the world of the small presses would drop everything to get on a plane and cover foreign wars on an expense account.

Did Oakland Ross make a mistake? There is not much money in writing for the small presses, so he will never be as well-paid in fiction as he was at the Globe, but the man can write fiction, even if this collection of stories has a few bumps in it.

Ross's greatest strength is his ability to paint pictures of the places he is talking about, primarily in El Salvador and Chile. It is not really a physical picture he is after so much as an emotional one. Here is a passage in which a doctor named Mena returns to his own apartment after briefing a foreign journalist on atrocities that are really going on inside his country. It is a deadly game Dr. Mena the informer is playing, and he is beginning to lose his nerve. Witness him on the stairwell:

 A scraping sound. It scuttled down the
 stairwell - no mistaking it. A
 scraping sound, the sole of a shoe
 twisting against grit on a smooth tile
 floor. It had come from the third floor,
 where no one lived.  Mena half turned to
 descend. He listened, gripping his letter
 and his keys. "Hola?" he called up the
 stairs. 'Hola?"

 He heard nothing, but still he waited. 
 His heart was pounding. Just like that,
 his heart was pounding. Perhaps he
 should not go up at all. But that was
 crazy. He lived in this building. This
 was his home. Besides, if there was
 anything wrong, surely Juan would have
 told him.  Surely Juan would know.

 He started to climb the stairs again. 
 It wasn't far. He reached his door,
 with his keys already out, his hand
 extended. He stopped again to listen
 - no sound, except the belch of traffic
 on the street below. The tip of his
 key rattled against the slot of the
 lock, refused to enter, balked and
 chattered, and finally slid through
 the tumblers. Mena twisted the key,
 the lock released, the dead bolt slid
 back, the handle turned, and the door

This is typical Graham Green land, and many writers try to imitate him, but few succeed in convincing the reader. Ross manages to do so, probably because he knew the territory so well as a journalist.

In general, the stories that deal with foreign journalists are the best ones in this collection. These characters function under their own kind of code: they must be hip and cool and get to where the bullets are flying. The only way they can deal with the tension is by sucking on too many Marlboros and drinking booze in hotel bars like bit players out of some Somerset Maugham story.

But if Ross's strengths are mood and atmosphere, his weaknesses are plot closure and the minds of the local people. Some of these stories are no more than meditations, but this is a writer who is still finding his way in fiction, and there is nothing wrong with that. It will be interesting to see if Ross is staking out a territory with these stories, much like Vietnam for the American Tim O'Brian, or whether he will choose to move on to other settings.

My final selection in this half-dozen is The Dangers of Critical Thought, by Stephen Schecter, Robert Davies Publishing, in Montreal. These are 3 long stories from a first-time writer who is a sociologist based in Montreal.

The three short stories, but especially the first, are all about decline in private life, Quebec, and the world. The narrator is invariably a man in his forties, sometimes straight and sometimes gay. He has an acute sense that his youthful body and ideals have decayed, and all will come asunder when Quebec separates from Canada.

This sounds very melancholy, and it certainly is that, but it is a book of inspired melancholy with a European feel to it. The tone is like something out of Milan Kundera, or Gregor Von Rezzori, in which love affairs, politics, sociology, and a corrupt physical body all share part of the story.

In the first monologue, a man fears that the failure of the Meech Lake accord is consistent with his failed marriages and love affairs. This combination may sound strange, but it is the kind of connection that the East Europeans are very good at. The monologue is set in the late eighties when communist Eastern Europe began to unravel.The narrator has no sympathy for the communists, but he fears the revolutions are intended to turn the newly democratic countries into capitalist playgrounds. He has a longing for some kind of order, say the order of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

 ... Nothing has come but regret slipping
 from day to day, pain clutching at my
 heart, and a bitter taste in my mouth
 mingling with a bitter taste that curls
 around the pictures of crowds in Leipzig
 and Prague. It should not be like this. 
 It is unthinkable that this is the horizon
 which stretches before me to the end of my

 I don't know why I worry so much about
 Canada falling apart. I spent enough years
 trying to crack it open. Perhaps it's
 different when you're going at it full
 force, each blow of the hammer inflamed
 with your own conviction. Today I am no
 longer convinced. I fret instead about all
 the muck that might rise to the surface
 when each side finally says good riddance.

Threaded into the narrative are references to Bach and especially Rilke's Duino Elegies, and the tone is so elegiac it borders on the apocalyptic. Everything has come to naught, and there is nothing new under the sun in private or public life.

The second two stories echo the tone of the first, but these are gay love stories, each of which carries little hope of redemption. This is the type of work that will clearly not be to everyone's taste, but it is interesting to see a European sensibility transported to these shores.

That brings us to the end of this half dozen, but it might be worth taking a brief look at the state of the nation. I have a stack at the other end of my room of 42 recently released Canadian small press books, and that is only from the last couple of months. No survey review like this one can hope to be complete.

Furthermore, I have chosen to talk only about books that interested me in some fashion. I see no point in lambasting first-time authors in this type of review. Some of the small press books are very bad, a few are good, and most fall into that great grey area of "not without redeeming qualities". I recently received a note from a woman who wrote in some kind of shock, saying that she had no idea her book would disappear after it was published. Media reaction was nil and distribution was poor. These two defects, along with poor editing, have been the triad of weaknesses that doom most small press books to instant non-existence in the public mind.

In defense of book review editors, who are much railed against, I can only say that volume is the problem. For review, I read only Canadian small press fiction, and those titles alone reach well over a hundred annually. It is next to impossible to get a review editor to look carefully at every book she receives, and so publicity agents are taking on the job of reminding editors that their clients are worth talking about. The publicity agent does not always work, but a small press writer has to catch the attention of a reviewer in some way, whether it is by use of an agent, the winning of a prize, or, best of all, by the remarkable quality of the prose in the first few pages of a novel or collection of short stories.

Even widely reviewed books from the small presses, and especially those that get good reviews, are not always good sellers. Distribution, as I mentioned above, is often weak. In addition, a surprise best-seller like How Insensitive can clean out a press run, and it may take weeks or months for more books to be printed. By then, the "momentum" of public opinion will have slowed so much that the book may no longer sell.

If all this sounds like a litany of problems, it is. They are the problems that beset all publishers, but they are felt most acutely in the small presses. The author who dreamed of success beginning with publication, then dreams of success being good distribution or positive reviews, and finally, in desperation any kind of recognition that his books exist.

Does this mean that small press writers should think that fiction must be a solitary pursuit and they are writing only for themselves? Absolutely not. The writer works to create an artifact for the public, and although the public may be tiny for small press books, even an audience of'two is better than an audience of one.