CanLit sweetly sat­i­rized

Toronto Star - - BOOKS - ALEX GOOD SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

Mr. Singh Among the Fugi­tivesis a short novel writ­ten in the form of a para­ble. It takes such a form be­cause its sub­ject is the Cana­dian lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment and, specif­i­cally, the role within that charmed cir­cle played by iden­tity pol­i­tics.

And, as many Cana­dian au­thors have shown — think of Rus­sell Smith’s Muriella Pent or An­dré Alexis’s A — the best (and safest) way to ap­proach such touchy mat­ters is through the lens of fic­tion.

Au­thor Stephen Henighan is one of Canada’s most out­spo­ken crit­ics of our lit­er­ary cul­ture and his tale of Mr. R.U. Singh, an In­dian im­mi­grant who has come to Canada to make a fresh start in life, is bit­ing and sharp. Al­most im­me­di­ately on ar­rival he reinvents him­self, on a whim, as a Sikh. The tur­ban gives him an aura of ex­otic mystery and valu­able mul­ti­cul­tural cred, so it’s not long be­fore doors are open­ing to ex­cit­ing new ro­man­tic and pro­fes­sional op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Though he goes to law school and be­comes a qui­etly suc­cess­ful small­town lawyer, Mr. Singh is drawn to the lit­er­ary life. He has dreams of be­ing a gen­teel man of letters, a squire of “loi­t­er­a­ture” in the best clubby, nine­teenth-cen­tury style.

The bite in Henighan’s satire comes from his ob­ser­va­tion that, in pur­su­ing such a dream, Mr. Singh has come to ex­actly the right place: The CanLit es­tab­lish­ment, after all, is still very much stuck in the 19th cen­tury. The man­darins of cul­ture rule over what is sym­bol­ized with a cosy gar­den party that Mr. Singh crashes by step­ping through a hedge.

Im­me­di­ately he feels at home re­al­iz­ing that “Cana­di­an­ness — the Cana­di­an­ness I loved and em­braced — was rooted in se­date aris­toc­racy.”

Mr. Singh has a place within that aris­toc­racy not be­cause it is colour­blind, but be­cause it isn’t. He es­capes racism by way of to­kenism: “by as­cend­ing into a milieu where prej­u­dice was dis­placed by the gen­teel de­sire to so­cial­ize with di­ver­sity.”

What makes Henighan’s satire work is its mea­sured tone and am­bi­gu­ity. His rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the cul­tural elite as lazy and com­pla­cent, cor­rupt and en­ti­tled, greedy, hyp­o­crit­i­cal, priv­i­leged and vin­dic­tive, is un­mis­tak­ably fierce, but it’s pre­sented in a re­served man­ner that al­lows for sub­tle moral shad­ings.

The other layer to the satire comes through Henighan’s re­veal­ing a transfer of cul­tural power from the cre­ators to its man­agers. Though a mem­ber of the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment, Mr. Singh has no in­cli­na­tion to­ward writ­ing. What he as­pires to be­come is a board mem­ber, direc­tor, teacher or me­dia spokesper­son.

The ul­ti­mate goal is not to be­come a best­selling, crit­i­cally-ac­claimed au­thor or pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, but rather a univer­sity pres­i­dent. Wel­come to the great CanLit ma­chine. Alex Good is a fre­quent contributor to these pages.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugi­tives by Stephen Henighan, Linda Leith Pub­lish­ing, 275 pages, $18.95.

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