In Which I Rant About the Fiction of an Entire Country
The Renaissance Woman and I have been interviewing for lots of library jobs. Sometimes, during these interviews, we're asked to talk about something we've read lately. Sometimes, since we're in Canada, our interlocutors want to know about a Canadian book we know well enough to talk up.
Here's my problem: I find much mainstream critically acclaimed Canadian grownup literature to be...depressing.
I know, I know, it's not fair to generalize about a whole country's literature. But, here, here are some prominent, bestselling and/or award-bedecked Canadian authors/books, and quick summaries therof. Draw your own conclusions:
Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness: Depressed and miserable Mennonite family, struggling to communicate with each other and in constant fear being shunned by their stultifying community. And RW says her new book is even sadder.
Douglas Coupland, Generation X and other works: Alienated professionals in their twenties and thirties, living in anomie and isolation, working in cubicles.
Heather O'Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals: Alienated and miserable young girl whose parents are heroin addicts.
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries. I'll just give you the Wikipedia summary: "The fictional autobiography about the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, a seemingly ordinary woman whose life is marked by death and loss from the beginning, when her mother dies during childbirth. Through marriage and motherhood, Daisy struggles to find contentment, never truly understanding her life's true purpose."
Alice Munro, virtually the entire oevre of: Short stories about miserable women, often unhappy in their marriages and/or living in isolation in the countryside or in stultifying small towns. Sometimes, for variety, their children run away and the protagonists never see or hear from them again.
Margaret Laurence, virtually the entire oevre of: Novels, similarly depressing to the above.
Ann-Marie Macdonald, Fall on Your Knees. God, I loved this book. But it's incredibly bleak. Spoiler alert: early on, a woman dies while giving birth to premature twins. As the family reels in grief, the twins' older sister takes one of the babies out to the river, believing it must be baptized to be saved. Of course, the baby dies of exposure. The rest pretty much follows from there as everyone is overwhelmed with grief and guilt for hundreds of pages.
Anita Rau Badami, Tamrind Mem: Actually, not quite as depressing as the others. But still: nobody knows how to talk to each other, nobody understands each other, the whole family is basically mired in mutual recriminations and incomprehension. Our heroine eventually decamps from India to Canada, where she continues to feel baffled by and isolated from her mother and sister.
Okay, I will give you Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. They are not depressing, or not as much. Yes, terrible things happen in their books: people die, people betray each other; in one recent Atwood the entire human race basically goes extinct and comes close to taking all the other species with it. But still, there is a certain spark and irony which lively things up a bit.
It's true that bad things happen in ALL literature, all over the world. Or we would not have plot. And I do understand that without the mandatory happy endings and/or hopeful coming-of-age themes of children's and YA fiction, things can get kind of bummed out in general, and that this is not specific to Canadian literature.
Truth is, I can't claim anything like a comprehensive knowledge of CanLit, so maybe it's rash to draw conclusions. I have not yet read the new Karen X. Tulchinsky book, for example, the one all of Vancouver is reading this winter. And I hear Ivan Coyote's stories are good, and funny. And from the little I've read of Nalo Hopkinson, she's terrific and not at all depressing.
But I don't think it's a coincidence that the three authors I just mentioned are each non-mainstream in at least one big way: lesbian, transgender, African-Canadian, genre ghetto (science fiction).
Nor is it coincidence that I kept wanting to use the same words when describing the books above: Anomie, isolation, bleak, hopeless. Over and over, Canadian literary heroes and heroines live their lives in despair of ever truly connecting with the people they are supposedly closest to. Over and over, they face lives of isolation and loneliness, often in inhospitable environments.
I mean, even the Brits aren't as depressed as this in their literature, and they've had it way worse, what with the Blitz and the lack of central heating and the brutalizing boarding schools and all.
(Oh and then there's Stuart Maclean, who is funny and un-depressing (mostly). But his stories are really humorous radio pieces, written for the ear, not the page. It's a different kind of writing.)
But be that as it may...what gives, Canada? Why so blue?