Monday, April 4, 2016

Generosity in contemporary fiction

This week, I was reading "On Writing,"  an old essay by Raymond Carver.  Writing both about what he values and what qualities a good writer should have, he says "But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that's something else....It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone.  It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes.  It is his world and no other.  This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.  Not talent.  There's plenty of that around.  But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking:  that writer may be around for a time" ("On Writing," Mississippi Review 14.1-2, Winter 1985).

When you are browsing a bookstore, on the prowl for the book that is going to assuage the particular, indefinable hunger you have at that moment, what do you do when you seem to find a promising book--one you've heard about, one that has been recommended by a friend, or even one with an attractive cover?  I'll bet you do the same thing I do.  If it's a hardcover, you read the inside flap to see what the book's "premise" is.  If it's a paperback, you unfortunately get a small taste of that on the back.  If the premise sounds interesting, you  read the first couple of paragraphs to see if the writer has a style you admire and can engage with.  When you do this, you are actually channeling Raymond Carver. 

Those first couple of paragraphs--which have probably been written and rewritten a dozen times--allow you to gauge what we think of as the author's style.  Does it grab you?  Is there a music and a rhythm you understand and can take delight in or that resonates for you?  Does the use of language promise nuance and depth in the author's expression?  Do you want to listen to this storyteller, this voice, whether he or she is offering you poetry, nonfiction, or a long, long novel? 

But as you consider the author's premise, you are looking for that "something" that Carver struggles to capture:  "It is his world and no other...a special way of looking at things."  What Carver is gesturing toward is world view.  How does the author conceive of good and evil, of pleasure and pain, of joy and suffering?  And how do those binaries shake down in the writer's world?  Is there more evil than good, more joy than suffering?  And how does the writer relate to the current Zeitgeist?  Does the author make our historical moment and the way we engage with that moment clearer?  Is the author a rebel--challenging the Zeitgeist?  Or does the author say, with more or less exhaustion, "Yeah, yeah.  It sucks, but that's the way it is."  Then you  need to decide if you really want to spend time with a writer who more or less accepts and replicates the cliches of our current world view.

If I had to sum up the current Zeitgeist (which I don't particularly share), I'd say it was fear leavened by a smidgeon of optimism.  We're fearful of climate change, of terrorism and the explosions that have ripped through Brussels and Pakistan in the last couple of weeks alone.  We're fearful that our own toddler can drown in a nearby creek; we're fearful of another market meltdown that will evaporate our RRSPs.  We fear the weather, as we should.  At the same time, we're optimistically buying stuff, giving a boost to the economy in January.  We think that there's a critical mass of people who see climate change rather than terrorism as our biggest threat.  We have a Prime Minister who says, every chance he gets, that economic growth and renewable energy go hand in hand.  Unlike Belgians, who seems to have ghettoized poverty and despair in Molenbeek, Canadians have a federal cabinet that is remarkably diverse.

These beliefs shake down into the literature we read.  When Todd Babiak wrote in The Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago, "I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder," he was saying something about his sense of the current Zeitgeist and about how that makes its way into fiction.  Now there's detective fiction and there's detective fiction.  Most of it gives the reader a solution to the crime, pointing out that, though violence is part of our lives, the mystery (in both senses of the word--the literary and the human) can be solved.  As well, it matters whether that murder takes place in "Three Pines," Louise Penny's nearly idyllic small Quebec  town, or in the dark and shadow-filled wintry streets of Kurt Wallander's or  Lisbeth Salander's Sweden.  But regardless of the balance the writer strikes between the social comedy of Dorothy Sayers or the ethical darkness of Mankell, detective fiction makes murder central to our world.

There are reasonable people who say that if literature doesn't respond to the darkness of our current historical moment, it's being naive or lazy.  To some extent I get that.  On the other hand, in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, he points out that never have North Americans been safer.  As well, any good environmentalist will point that that you have a better chance dying by weather than by terrorist.  I think I've seen a small trend in the fiction I read (see above process for choosing a book) that suggests writers are exploring the ameliorating effects of generosity to the challenges we face.  (And I'm implicitly bringing Downton Abbey to my defense, suggesting that one of the reasons we found the series compelling was because people did try to behave well and to be generous.)

I'll begin with what is perhaps the most unlikely example, Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, which was the Canada Reads winner for 2016--clearly an admired book.  Certainly his premise takes into account one of the major challenges of the second decade of the twenty-first century:  the millions of people displaced by war, racism, and tribalism who might escape their terrifying circumstances but can't figure out how to go forward in their lives without the help of refugee settlement programs.  Even if they do get settled, they continue to face racism and poverty--as proven their ghettoization in Molenbeek, and by Donald Trump's ridiculous assertions about Muslims and Mexicans.

I don't think that its protagonist, Keita Ali, can face more difficulties.  He comes from Zantoroland, a fictional island off the east coast of Africa to which Hill gives many of the qualities of nations like the Rwanda of 1994--particularly the brutal and deadly tribalism of their dictators.  Keita's mother dies from a heart attack during one of the attacks on the Faloo, and his fearless journalist father is regularly picked up and tortured by the government.  The final time he is detained, he is killed and Keita must collect his body from the fountain in front of the government buildings where the dead are dumped in the night.  Keita rightly realizes that he needs to leave Zantoroland immediately, but all he has to support himself is his ability to run.  His situation seems to improve when Anton Hamm, a former Olympian athlete with serious anger management issues, agrees to make Keita part of his stable of runners--for an absurd percentage of any winnings.  Then his sister Charity is kidnapped in Zantoroland, and Keita must win races (while keeping Hamm from taking his percentage) in order to pay the ransom that will free her.  All this with no papers and a government whose platform is to cut down on illegal immigration from Zantoroland.

Keita's almost overwhelming difficulties are assuaged by the generosity of a handful of people.  The first is Ivernia Beach, an older white woman who is doing volunteer work for the public library and who sees to it that "illegals" in Freedomland can get library cards even  without the proper documentation.  She puts into action her lack of respect for Freedomland's current government and her sense that refugees need access to information and communication to stay one step ahead of the authorities.  Since Keita helped her a few days before he approached her at the library, she is also willing to let him sleep in her basement suite and cook for her.  

The second is Viola Hill, a dogged journalist in spite of being--in her words--black, gay, and disabled.  Having lost both her legs in a car accident as a child, she has crafted a life for herself from sheer determination, street smarts, and intelligence. She pursues the truth fearlessly, believing that every individual deserves truth's justice.  The third is Mitch Hitchcock, who organizes marathons in Freedomland and who treats Keita like what he is:  an incredible, disciplined runner.  He finds ways around Keita's lack of documentation (stolen by Hamm) and even pays for Keita's hospital treatment for diabetes and a hernia.  Finally, a black cop named Candace Freixa who becomes Keita's love interest and--how to say this without a spoiler alert?  Let's just say she's in the right place at the right time, and she's armed and a good shot.

Hill's novel is an insightful and biting critique of the ways racism, tribalism, ideology, and dictatorships permeate the lives of everyone who lives within their sway--the vulnerable and marginal most of all.  He could easily have read The Angels of Our Better Nature, so in tune is Hill with the Pinker's list of the forces that spread their disease in our political and civil lives, but I suspect that what I'm seeing here is two fine thinkers coming to the same conclusions from different perspectives.  The Illegal has been called a satire by some reviewers, but if it is, it's a satire with a difference.  Certainly its careful depiction of how the official and unofficial government of Freedomland is built around a network of lies and violence that touches the powerful and the powerless is in the tradition of satire.

I should be frank and say that satire isn't my favourite genre.  It's too easy to mock, in the tradition of Charlie Hebdo or to analyze a government's policies in a parable, as Swift does in his "Modest Proposal."  Though after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I began to understand that someone needs to call forms of power and malevolence into question--and to be safe while they do it.  Satire may be one of the ultimate tests of free speech.  At the same time, satire leaves me slack-jawed and bug-eyed:  "But what do I do?" is my cry.

Hill answers that question:  "Be generous.  Be kind. Be fair.  Imagine someone else's experience.  Make those the values you live by.  If you don't, nothing will change.  If you do, you might be surprised by how much you can change." 

Hill is clearly a rebel at our Zeitgeist's present moment.  Fear and hope are balanced in a way we certainly do not see on the evening news.  It is likely that his book, as I studied the flap and read the first paragraph, appealed to me because we share values (and because I heard him read the scene where Ivernia Beach and Keita meet for the first time and knew I was in the hands of a superb storyteller.  But I'm a little wary of this consonance, as I should be.  It's important that literature echoes and explore many, many perspectives in our culture.  Culture is like an ecosystem:  the more diverse it is, the healthier it is, and the more likely it is going to have exactly the knowledge or perspective to solve or ameliorate an unexpected problem.  So when you're in a bookstore channeling Raymond Carver by looking for authors with perceptive worldviews and a style that matches, push yourself to move beyond what you believe or what appears fashionable.  For a healthy cultural ecosystem, then, each of us is going to need to widen our taste, to take home a book we sense is going to be brilliant and uncomfortable.


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