Humour and Despair

July 9, 2012

We’re lucky in Smithers to have two bookstores with selections worthy of any urban bookstore – Mountain Eagle Books has an eclectic selection of used books and carries new books by local writers as well. Speedee/Interior Stationery has been supporting local readers and writers for over forty years (my husband worked there for ten of those years), managing to stay alive in spite of the growth of online bookstores and ebooks. Mark Tworow, a wonderful painter, has been managing the book section there for many years now and last week we had one of those conversations that crop up when you’ve lived in the same community for many years and watched each other’s work grow and change.

It was about despair, really. While I would argue that the world has always been apocalyptic for some of its inhabitants at any given time – war, flood, famine, drought, earthquake, tsunami – it has been feeling especially bad lately. The combination of clear evidence of climate change found in daily reports of extreme and catastrophic weather events and our present government’s determination to throw all its energy into undermining any local or international attempt to mitigate climate change, it’s hard not to feel despair. And to wonder what’s the point of making art unless it’s overtly political.

John Berger wrote or said that he hoped that if someone suicidal walked into an art gallery, she’d see something there that would make her decide to live. It’s an antidote to despair. Mark’s vibrant paintings do that – his attention to the place he lives is a celebration. And this is essential to political action, really. You have to love a place in order to fight to protect it.

That doesn’t mean everything needs to be bright and cheerful. Heaven forbid. That would cut out most of the writing (and visual art) I prefer, not to mention my own. Desolation and despair are emotions we all feel, and finding them expressed with the kind of respect and acknowledgement they merit is somehow reassuring. Richard Ford’s Canada (see below) certainly does this, as does another book I read recently: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. It tells the story of a terminally ill woman who leaves Holland to rent a house in the Welsh countryside in order to die on her own terms. She is determined to inhabit the landscape she finds herself in, inhabit it fully until the end. And she does this, leaving the young man who helped her deeply enriched. The novel is in no way a cloying heartwarming exercise – Bakker does not shy away from her sorrow. It is a journey worth taking.

Mark and I also talked about laughter – how hard it is to find a book that makes you laugh. Two I can think of are in many ways very bleak: Room by Emma Donoghue and Little Bee by Chris Cleave. It’s the children in the novels whose idiosyncrasies are so well portrayed that I found myself laughing out loud – five-year-old Jack’s brilliant voice and four-year-old Charlie who won’t take off his Batman suit because he’s trying to keep the bad guys away. Both books are in many ways heartbreaking, especially Little Bee, but those little boys are characters that make you want to shout out for joy because they now inhabit the world of fiction and are available for anyone to experience.

Canada by Richard Ford

June 30, 2012

I just finished Richard Ford‘s latest novel (2012) Canada. A powerful and desolate book set in the 1960s, it straddles the prairie border between Great Falls, Montana and shifting to a small Saskatchewan town near Cypress Hills. The young Dell Parsons (15) is, after his parents rob a bank and leave him and his twin sister in the hands of a friend, delivered to the most bizarre confluence of characters …

Ford is a friend of Saskatoon writer David Carpenter (there’s goose hunting) and Guy Vanderhaeghe (there’s that cross-border landscape we see in his novels). He writes in the narrative voice of the sixty-something Dell  looking back at a few months one summer and fall that shook his life completely apart and set it on a trajectory so unlike anything he could have imagined that there’s little wonder he returns to it in his retirement.

We feel very much that we are with the boy, but his life is so encapsulated it’s as if all experiences outside of this centre have been scraped away by the passage of time giving his perceptions, his uncertainty,  his attempts to understand who he was and who he became a kind of hyper-clarity. Anodyne.  While he describes many sensory experiences, it’s as if they’re coated with a sheen of analysis that keeps us once removed – not analysis in a deadening sense, but definitely distancing. We never really feel the cold, smell the goose guts, or feel terror directly.

And the juggernaut of the plot, which opens by revealing that his parents will rob a bank and he will be involved in two murders, plows all sensation before it. The detail that is piled on feels like it is jamming itself up and we become desperate to get past it. In that way, it reminded me of a John LeCarre novel – we are pulled into the wake of this huge ship and struggle to keep up with what is happening and keep hoping the thing will get out of the way so we can see beyond it to the inevitable and desolate ending. (I love John LeCarre novels – this is not a criticism!)

Throughout the weirdness of Dell’s experience, everyone, pretty much, is kind. His parents love him and his sister and he knows this. Even the very creepy Charley Quarters tells Dell things he needs to know. It’s as if he is inside some safe place and others are trying to keep him there in spite of the circumstances their foolish actions create for him.

June 25.

Check out my Say the Names blog.

One thought on “Humour and Despair

  1. The Taste of Ashes is a very powerful and compelling story. I loved so many of the images and words ….. the magical rain……………… each of us in our own complicated skin…………….. there is no such thing as normal……..a northern BC lake fishing boat with the nasturtiums on the deck…..become a reflector of light.

    The influences the old priest Walter had on Alvero’s life, initially severing connection and then with his last wish creating an opening for reconnecting, were beautifully woven into this book.

    Knowing Vancouver and Smithers also added to my reading pleasure.

    I congratulate you on a beautiful story and await the next one!

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