About two thirds the way through Paul Harding’s new, second novel, Enon, I suddenly wondered if I was reading a refashioned, reshaped secondary story that he’d written as a part of Tinkers but had decided to cut due to its tonal difference, and therefore distraction, from that first novel’s core promise. I have no idea if this is anywhere close to true, and likely isn’t, but Enon, is a bit strange, a novel of stasis and inaction. But, still gorgeous and sad. If anyone else had written it, or had Harding done so as his his first book, then we’d be reading very breathy reviews, and words like “promising”. Instead, as a follow up to one of the very best books I’ve read, well, ever, it was weak. Hard when one is one’s own high water mark, I assume.
Still, I choose to ignore what is wrong with it. Why? Because, it’s irrelevant. Harding is the long game. It’s so obvious what is wrong with Enon, (read any review, they all get it more or less right — fish in that barrel really) that Harding will more than recover, internalize, process and improve upon what he’s done here. How could he not? Tinkers was an extended prose-poem-of-a-novel that was so beautiful I think I read the whole thing aloud, more or less, to anyone who would listen. I know I will read everything he writes. His prose line, even within a lesser novel that is more open and much less taut, is still so good it kind of doesn’t matter to me that Enon isn’t perfect. (Yes, the name…eventually you leave his character’s explanation of the town’s name, get a touch Dickensian, hear Anon, and Non, and eventually see it as “None” spelled backwards, of course. I confess this took me way too long.)
Anyway, despite its shortcomings, it still must be read—fathers everywhere will find much in it. The prose is beautiful often enough to warrant it. Plus, the story of Paul Harding as a writer, and where and how he goes next, is the larger, more important thing for this reader.
As Michael Lista suggests in his preface, there really is something special about seeing one’s poem in the Walrus Magazine. It’s the reach of the thing. It’s the mainstream readership. But, mostly, it’s that your poem is the only one in the issue. So, should someone feel like a poem, well, it’s going to be yours. I was delighted the title poem of my last collection Civil and Civic was chosen for inclusion in the Walrus in 2011. Now, Lista has just released a 10 year anniversary e-book anthology (free download for your favourite e-reader) and my poem snuck into it. Check it out. I’m among some very fine company: The Best of The Walrus Poetry.
Michael Winter knows how to build fiction. He takes it outdoors. He drinks alongside it. He makes his main men vulnerable but plucky—his main women much the same way, but smarter, with higher paying jobs. He’s very good at hurt, hurtfulness, accidents, and harm. He employs metaphor, consistently, that has immediate utility. Yet, each also echoes, tying moments back and across the narrative that give his prose—simple, clean, with just the right amount of Newfoundland vernacular—an earned density, a majesty perhaps. He’s also witty, in small unexpected ways.
Minister Without Portfolio, his newest outing, is my first time back to Michael Winter in a few books (sorry Michael). I was curious to see where he’s at. This is a novel by a fully formed writer, now working at the top of his game. One can make such a pronouncement because this compelling story is not really a story per se. There isn’t a plot in the conventional sense. Rather, Winter has compiled characters undergoing change, with the action of the everyday, doused it in history, clearly pulled from real life as and when needed, and called it novel. And, in his hands, it’s a great one. In lesser hands, it’d be awful.
How does he do it, then? Keep our attention, give the book shape, without relying on common plot devises? (While there are devastatingly good set pieces that have narrative drive for sure, he has no need for cheap cliffhangers or drawn-out, suspense trickery. This is no blueprint for a screen play is what I’m trying to say.)
He does it three ways, I think. First, he notices the details and makes sure that every one of them does double duty—at least. In Minister shoes, to pick one of many examples, become important—they are dug up, lost, melted on. Shoes take on meaning then, they become more than themselves. He also controls nature. The sea, winter, gardens, storms, fog, fire, rain, horses, dogs, they all repeat and repeat in call and response to one another. This book is a literary enclosure, it is it’s own reason.
Second, men labour. In a world of white collar, urban, fiction, it’s energizing to read about men re-shingling a house, knocking down a chimney, gutting a fish, or digging a well, or suffering industrial accidents, or going to Alberta for work way underground in a mine, or to Afghanistan to be plumbers and contractors. One is reacquainted with the dignity of work, honest money earned with the body proper. Winter doesn’t make a fetish of it, nor is he some kind of modernist throwback. No, he just acquires the place and act of it, with the right nouns (the language and tools and supplies of the trades) and those ancient anglo-saxon verbs, so often pointed to as essential but so rarely engaged these days in other books, due to hipster characters stuck in cubical jobs.
Do I have any quibbles, well, yes, but I’ll keep them private. This isn’t a review; I’m writing because I feel the need. Besides, no point distracting from the task at hand. I’m shouting out that this is a winning novel with a gorgeously unfamiliar shape—but it’s built the old fashioned way, on the complex constructions of self, by asking questions about the relative purposes of manhood; on the idea of, or need for, community; on the interplay between trust and commitment; and, dare I say it, on country.
Bravo Michael Winter. I look forward to the next one.
Here is the cover for my forthcoming novel, The Colonial Hotel. It’ll be released in Spring 2014, by ECW Press.
Novelist Peter Darbyshire (aka Peter Roman, these days) and I go a long way back. So far back, that I was reminiscing about our old days not long ago during an interview with John Degen on his BookRoom podcast.
Today I received the following email from Darbyshire, er, Roman:
“I was driving along the wilds of Highway 3 between Osoyoos and Langley listening to your Book Room interview. It had just reached the part about your days at Western when I came around a corner doing 80 or so and saw a deer running down the other side of the road. Knowing this was a CanLit moment if I’d ever seen one, I slammed on the brakes just as the deer decided to run directly in front of me. I face planted against the inside of the windshield, everything in the back seat moved to the front seat, and you continued on about Atwood or some such thing. The mountains looked on, unmoved as always.”
Now, if this was really Canlit, and not real life, he would have died. Slowly. The last words he would have heard…uttered by Degen, that sage of all ages. The mountains would have been unmoved, indeed. But the deer, the deer’s role, this is less certain. I believe the deer is the open, creative element in this that can be played with. The flexibility Canlit offers, it’s enough to make one want to write something new, yet something that’s been done many times before….
Coetzee publishes a new novel and most reviewers flail. They eagerly (why?) self-identify in one of two camps, as either fools, or else as too smart to be tricked. (Many have a foot firmly planted in both, see the Irish Times.) If one really searches, there are, thank god in the case of this book (pun intended), a few very smart ones (such as in the Sydney Morning Herald). Luckily, I am long cured of reviewing. Still there is a little something I wanted to mention for anyone interested…
Despite what you may be told by your favourite, trustworthy Coetzee reviewer (as I say, each seemingly more eager than the last to publicly expose themselves as feeble minded or confused or prematurely definitive) The Childhood of Jesus will need time to properly settle. If it’s a major work by a major writer, and I believe it to be, then it is still in deep conversation with literature itself. That is to say, it’s interacting with other important books and that conversation has only just begun. (It’s new to the party you see, and those earlier books are still sorting it out, poking it, interrogating it, making sure it’s the right sort, slotting it somewhere appropriate to reside.)
This process is distinct, although not of course wholly disconnected, from what occurs on the pages of book sections around the globe. But think of reviewing as early gossip. It is all most books receive of course—a bit of natter. But then, most books are not important.
Why do I think this is an important book? Because it resists simple reading. It is about me as its reader, and all that I’ve read and know and understand, as much as it is about itself, and its own story. It’s structure is also mysterious to me, episodic and yet not at all. The type of narrative it is, is unsettling: an immigrant story, a dystopian tale, a meta fictional play, or perhaps some mystical, or allegorical sub-structure that is resistant to full knowing? Not sure yet. Time and many, many more readers will help, though.
In any case, there are only ever a few great writers living. We are, therefore, relatively unpracticed at this—receiving an important book into the world. It is hard to read new books with the kind of reserved reverence or respect with which we approach, what we know in advance to be, a major work of literature. Still, my advice would be in this case to try. Come at it with humility and see what it will provide for you. Don’t judge it, let it be and be with it. You too will be one of its early readers. From there, over time, we can collectively understand and accept or debate, its strengths and weaknesses. Thinking takes time and perseverance. This is literature. It moves at a slower speed.
While I’m at it with Coetzee, before I immersed myself in The Childhood of Jesus I read the recently published book of correspondence between Paul Auster and JM Coetzee. It’s a warm, delightful book. Two smart, interesting men who are passing the final post—the one that signals they may stop caring much what anyone thinks about them—and so freed, their fine friendship warms the page and their probing minds worry over what faces us all. Clearly, I must read Auster next.