MOVE THESE TO THE TOP OF THE PILE
Quebec writers announce themselves with a distinctness that dares you to ignore them
I’ve said if before, but it bears repeating: Rumours of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say they’re completely mistaken. A glance at the evergrowing pile of titles offered for critical consideration inspires mixed emotions: gladness for the evident vitality of the form, but regret that so much goes unremarked for sheer lack of space and time. With that in mind, then, herewith a three-in-one mini-roundup. Two of the books below have been out for a while already, all the more reason to give them a spotlight before the torrents of spring rule out the possibility. While genre-wise, the three couldn’t have less in common — one is part-memoir, part film scholarship, one a poetry collection, one a future-dystopian-comic-fantasy novel — all announce themselves with a distinctness that all but dares you to ignore them.
It’s hard to believe it now, but The Shining took a critical shellacking on it original release in May 1980. Stanley Kubrick’s liberal cinematic interpretation of Stephen King’s horror novel — so liberal, indeed, that King insisted his name not appear in the credits — struck many reviewers as an unwieldy mess, its narrative lost in a welter of overstatement and heavy-handed symbolism. The moviegoing public thought otherwise, though, and they have proven to be right: The film turned a profit and has steadily gained in stature ever since, proving especially fertile ground for a specialized breed of cinema obsessives. In 2012, documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher released Room 237, a compendium of nine Shining-inspired theories and interpretations that retain just enough credibility to keep from creeping into conspiracy territory. To their ranks can now be added Joliette-born writer and teacher Simon Roy. His Kubrick Red: A Memoir (Anvil Press, 160 pages, $18, translated by Jacob Homel) does a deep dive into Kubrick’s methods and aims (he and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson wanted to craft a filmic embodiment of Freud’s Das Unheimliche essay, apparently) even as it explores questions of how we use art in our lives. The latter is an especially charged question for Roy, whose family background is marked by dysfunction and tragedy: “To make suffering aesthetic is to avoid looking horror directly in the eye … to repel its deadly impact by placing between real horror and my tormented mind a 140-minute movie. Make it absorb the hardest blows.” Roy has seen The Shining at least 42 times. That might strike some as unhealthy, but it has worked for him in at least one way: With Kubrick Red, he has made something compelling of his fixation.
No definite count has been made as far as I know, but I’d be willing to place a gentleman’s wager that the Montreal district bounded by Mont-Royal Avenue to the south, Van Horne Avenue to the north, Parc Avenue to the west and St-Laurent Boulevard to the east contains the greatest concentration of writers and aspiring writers in the world. The quarter’s cafés are heaving with them; novels and stories set there are by now so numerous as to constitute a sub-genre. But Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Leaving Mile End (Anvil Press, 66 pages, $16) hints there might be a shelf life to all this, at least for those getting to a certain stage of life. The title poem, with its faint structural echo of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (“Who wavered on Waverley … who would turn off your hydro …”) and its sprinkling of Morrissey references, strikes a melancholy note appropriate to a meditation on the passing of the ways of youth. The Unfriending nails how social media has chipped away at our civility and let the passive-aggressive hounds run wild: “My scathing review of that sacred cow almost went viral / I know you know this / Maybe you just forgot.” Best of all, Second Person strikes a righteous blow for every reader who has ever found herself irritated by the use of the “you” voice. Let’s face it: in the whole canon of world literature there can’t be more than five cases of this strategy working. Which doesn’t stop legions from trying, time and time again. “You are wrong,” writes Fiorentino, and for that alone he is to be thanked.
For millions of Canadians who were within range of a television in the 1960s and ’70s, the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Hinterland Who’s Who vignettes have remained as indelible as the old Hockey Night in Canada theme song, and of all those one-minute filmographies, none is more iconic than the one for the moose. Give this reviewer a nudge and he could probably still recite it wholesale: “Their food is waterplants and the tender twigs and leaves of quite a variety of trees …” Now, imagine that contentedly munching beast transported into the future, granted a human’s intellect, and feeling very angry indeed. This is the world of Will McClelland’s The Minted (Blue Leaf Press, 177 pages, $20). It’s mid-21st-century Canada, the animals on our coins have had enough, and The Moose — “The Boreal Terrorist” among other sobriquets — is their militant leader. Urban dwellers had best beware: the tables are turning, the hunters about to become the hunted. McClelland is tapping into something very deep here: not just Canadians’ uneasy relationship with the wilderness as limned in Margaret Atwood’s Survival, but the anxieties and guilt felt by any conscientious person around environmental degradation and climate change. That he has managed to do it in a way that is all at once informative (the book, replete with factual footnotes, can serve as a beginner’s guide to Canadian wildlife and cultural touchstones), scary (let’s face it, the animals have a good case) and riotously funny makes McClelland’s achievement all the more unique.