The Age of Confession

By Neil Bissoondath

Neil Bissoondath’s The Age of Confession was the inaugural Antonine Maillet-Northrop Frye Lecture, delivered in Moncton in April 2006 as part of the Northrop Frye Festival. The objective of this new lecture series, according to this book’s introduction, is to “stimulate a more profound reflection on the literary and social understanding of fiction and critical writing as texts which might be viewed as both products and producers of social discourse.”

In other words, Bissoondath was free to write about whatever he wanted to.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear exactly what that is, even after reading the book. This is especially remarkable given how short a lecture it is. The book includes both French and English versions, as well as dual-language prefaces and biographical notes on Bissoondath, Frye, and Maillet. The text of the lecture itself is only 25 pages long.

The title expresses Bissoondath’s belief that “every age is, in one way or another, an Age of Confession.” What this means is anyone’s guess, and yet it appears in his final paragraph when he is presumably summing things up. Even leaving out the typically vague qualification “one way or another,” it’s not clear whether the first “age” refers to a historical phase or a period in the life of an individual. Or that it matters.

Bissoondath’s argument is abstract to the point of vacuity and peppered with similes both clichéd and inscrutable. He contrasts the clarity of narrative with the complexity of poetry, “which struck me as cramped and tortured, like the roots of a tree strangulating themselves and each other.” An image like that might pass with an audience at a public lecture, but in print it’s instantly recognizable as nonsense.

The underlying point is that narrative is a technique humans have of giving shape to experience. It can be abused when it becomes prescriptive or propagandistic, but when used properly it offers a way to make sense of our lives and communicate something of ourselves with others. Such tame conclusions are unlikely to inspire more profound reflection on anything.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2007.