Thursday, June 16, 2016
Generosity in Contemporary Canadian Literature II
In mid-March and early April, I wrote about generosity, arguing that we watched "Downton Abbey" because most of the characters were, at bottom, generous. I also looked at Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, his insightful political critique of racism, tribalism, and dictatorship in two fictional countries off the east coast of Africa, Zantoroland and Freedomland. I promised one more post on generosity, one that I had hoped to write at the beginning of the evacuation of 88,000 people from Fort McMurray. Canadians' generosity in the face of this disaster was remarkable: the last figures I can find on the internet indicate that Canadians donated $67,000,000 to help people cope with their lives during evacuation and to help rebuild the city. Canadians proved my point: that generosity is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I was up to my ears in my book on Virginia Woolf, and the post simply didn't get written.
This week, I seem to have caught a less persuasive news cycle: the worst mass shooting ever to occur in United States. Omar Mateen killed 49 people at Pulse, one of Orlando's most popular gay clubs and a safe haven for gays. We don't seem to be able to decide what kind of crime it is: is it a hate crime, an example of gun violence? Is it another case--one of many that I've seen--where mental illness, in this case homophobia complicated by self-hatred, takes on the cloak of Muslim extremism? If you feel profoundly that you are an outsider, you might be comforted to know that there's a whole group of you that is misunderstood and under threat. The "religious" nature of Muslim extremism gives you that kick of righteousness that excuses what you are about to do.
Forty-nine people. Not the 130 killed in Paris. Not the 2,996 who died on September 11. Yet consider the outpourings, the demonstrations, the solidarity gatherings of gay and straight to affirm everyone's right to be safe while they let their hair down and have some fun. For some people, the attack proves a startling and frightening fact: that homophobia is alive, well, and has access to assault weapons. But the response to the attack also proves something: that in most of North America homosexuality and all the complex choices individuals make to live as they feel is firmly under the human rights umbrella.
So our response to the destruction wrought by "the beast," the fire around Fort McMurray, and to the Orlando shootings has been...generosity.
Here in Canada, Marina Endicott is one of the most stalwart and insightful commentators on generosity. This is particularly true of Good to a Fault, where Clara Purdy learns quite a lot about being generous to an itinerant family facing their mother's cancer diagnosis. Clara "does the right thing," and asks the father, grandmother, and three kids to bunk down in her house while Lorraine undergoes treatment for her cancer, initially out of guilt: her left turn catches an old beater racing through a red light--and the beater was the family's home. What she quickly finds is that her efforts to help are frustrating and meaningful, in about equal measure. She also finds that generosity is not always met with gratitude, that it can also spur resentment. After Lorraine is finally cancer-free, she naturally wants her children back and she resents having to be thankful to Clara, to a woman with more privilege and education than she has ever had and who portrays some sense that she has done a better job than Lorraine ever could. (Side note: when I was part of the all-day Paradise Lost reading, I found it interesting to find that one of Satan's complaints against God was that he had to be grateful all the time. How tiresome!) Good to a Fault has, as its central question, the benefits, the limitations, the frustrations, and the complex ethics of generosity.
I read Close to Hugh last fall, and then when Twig was sick and later when he had a relapse, I would get in bed with it and let it fall open to any page and begin reading. It was profoundly comforting. Why that should be the case might seem something of a mystery. Hugh's mother Mimi spends much of the novel dying, often in pain or in drug-induced confusion. The mother of a young child cannot climb out of her post-partum depression and so pulls into the garage with her son and the groceries, closes the garage door, and leaves the car running. Her husband, Gerald, is the novel's most haunted ghost: how do you get "closure" (those are ironic scare quotes) after such a loss? Hugh's closest friends, Della and Ken, are having marital difficulties, caused largely by Ken's despair over the years he's spent handling a sexual abuse case. Hugh's closest friend is Neville, a very successful gay actor who lives in Peterborough only part of the year. Neville's former mentor, Ansell Burton, has come to Peterborough to run a theatre workshop in the high school, but Neville generously offers his home as a place for Burton to retire. Burton is a man with toxic anger and jealousy; though he formerly gave Neville enormous help by showing that homosexuality was normal, he has become churlish as he ages and has less power and fewer opportunities in Canadian theatre. And this is just the older generation: the novel's teenagers are negotiating their own sexuality, trying to make their own choices and judgments about friendship and the future--largely without much useful guidance from adults. There's enough conflict and baffled desire here to fuel several tense plots.
Comfort? Well, I found it in Hugh and Neville, as well as in Ruth, who played foster parent to Hugh and Della and Neville when they were young and their parents were unable to parent. And in Ivy, an actress who is beginning to forget her lines and who has come to town to help Burton with the intensive drama class. These four are the problem solvers, the people who see others with generosity and curiosity, rather than judgment and rage. Perhaps because Hugh spent much of his childhood rescuing his adored mother, rescuing people has become habitual. Although he bears good-sized debts himself, at the novel's opening he takes at $10,000 cheque, an inheritance from a father he never knew, to the antique dealer next door who is possibly in even greater difficulties than Hugh. When Ruth goes to the neighbourhood thrift shop to buy a jacket she's been admiring for quite some time, Hugh follows her and slips a hundred dollar bill into the jacket's pocket just before Ruth pays for it.
Ruth is generous, but she is also one of Hugh's challenges. Knowing that social insurance is not giving her nearly enough money to live on, Hugh employs her at his art gallery--in spite of the fact that she can't manage to answer a phone with the formality appropriate to an art gallery. Ruth is also racist; yet she has a network of people who will do anything for her, and spends quite a bit of time watching at Mimi's hospice bed as she dies. Finding her there early one morning when Hugh goes to visit his mother, he thinks "Her woes can be fixed with a little cash, now and then. Hugh can do that. What is always holy: patience. The swallowing of selfishness, the gentle tapping of your teeth" (247).
L is the daughter of Della and Ken, a young artist that Hugh helps by taking a couple of pieces out of her basement installation, "The Republic," to an art dealer in Toronto who can give L more help than he can. (More of Hugh's generosity, even when it is at a cost to himself) L has her own difficulties; she is often angry with both of their parents, her father for absenting himself mysteriously and her mother for her blind anxiety. Yet L can think about the world this way: "The terrible part is, the thing about equality, that everybody knows is a lie--it takes away from the true part--that everyone is a human being, a soul, and deserves to be--kinded" (301). I love that: "kinded" as a verb.
If Good to a Fault is a case study of generosity, Close to Hugh looks at generosity in a larger scale as it examines a community's struggle with generosity in the face of death, relative poverty, jealousy, fear, avarice, and anger. I loved both novels, but Close to Hugh, to be frank about my biases, more closely matches my own sense of how our half-empty-half-full world works. Shit happens: it happens to individuals and it happens to communities. And, as Ivy observes after Hugh's mother has died, "no matter what good thing might happen it will never be enough to make up for death" (418). We see clearly that no generosity will alleviate Gerald's pain and loss. Yet when generosity is simply part of one's way of being in the world, as it is for Hugh, Neville, and Ivy, if the generous people simply go about their lives looking always for the moment when their gift is needed, it's possible to effect a great deal of change.
And what are roses doing in this blog? Nature was very generous to Saskatchewan and gave us a mild winter. My roses and the daisies around them are in turn being generous. I've never seen them bloom like this.
at 11:25 AM