Hooked on Canadian Books

By T. F. Rigelhof

Chances are if you’re reading this review you’re somone who should raise at least two cheers for T. F. Rigelhof, one of this country’s most prolific book reviewers and an enthusiastic champion of new Canadian fiction for several decades now. Hooked on Canadian Books distils twenty-five years of intensive reading (“I’ve done the time” is how he puts it, with uncharacteristic irony) into what amounts to an annotated reading list of “the good, the better, and the best Canadian novels since 1984.”

In addition to being indefatigable, Rigelhof is also a very serious reader, one who sees the novel as D. H. Lawrence’s “one bright book of life,” able to effect our moral and spiritual renewal. This isn’t a popular position to take in our jaded age – Lawrence isn’t used that often as a critical touchstone any more, and even fails to make the index here despite being quoted several times – but Rigelhof is a man on a mission to transform readers’ lives one book at a time.

As his subtitle suggests, he has little interest in the bad and the ugly. But this is not to say there have been no Canadian novels he has disliked in the last twenty-five years. He does admit that he thinks Michael Ondaatje has been going downhill since In the Skin of the Lion, that Peter Behrens’s The Law of Dreams is an over-the-top “up-market historical romance,” and that he may be “the only person in the world who doesn’t love Life of Pi” (which he nevertheless includes in his list of recommended reading).

It may seem obvious given his purpose that Rigelhof doesn’t go negative very often, but it’s also a bit disappointing since a list may be defined as much by what it leaves out as what it puts in.

The only real venom in the book is directed at Stephen Marche, author of a 2007 op-ed piece in the Toronto Star that apparently really got under Rigelhof’s skin. That Marche has a recurring role as bete noire just for making some pointed comments about the CanLit gerontocracy indicates a significant difference in critical attitude. If Rigelhof doesn’t have anything nice to say about an author (aside from Marche, that is) he usually doesn’t mention them at all. Given the number of books that made the cut, it seems safe to assume that the big names that are missing – like Anne Michaels, Richard Wright, Kenneth J. Harvey – have been left out for a reason. But we can only speculate on what those reasons were. Meanwhile, the praise that is bestowed on the chosen is often high indeed. Readers had better hope their eyebrows are glued on tight when they see Joseph Boyden being likened to “the young Homer of the Iliad”!

As far as the catalogue itself goes, since such lists are open invitations to discussion it would be rude not to be critical.

There is no arguing over taste and there is only arguing over taste. As should be expected with such a personal list, there are a number of idiosyncracies. In the first place, the books are organized in bizarre categories or “affiliations” – like novels of knowledge and ignorance, or comfort and distress – that are hard to understand. An alphabetical list would have made as much sense and been more convenient.

In terms of general preferences, it follows from Rigelhof being a serious reader that genre fiction is out. Though even here there are inconsistencies. Rigelhof is up front about not caring for speculative fiction but that doesn’t stop him from including Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood while leaving out Neuromancer – arguably the most important SF novel written since 1984.

Selections from individual authors tend to be just as idiosyncratic. While, for example, Russell Smith’s The Princess and the Whiskheads and Terry Griggs’ Thought You Were Dead are defensible if not obvious choices from their respective authors, the idea that Microserfs and jPod or The Friends of Meager Fortune and River of the Brokenhearted represent anything like the best of Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards is pretty shocking. One suspects that some of these books have been included simply because they happened to be the ones Rigelhof had reviews of that he could reuse.

Ask ten different people to prepare their own New Canadian Canon and you’ll get ten very different lists. Of the 25 titles in Rigelhof’s 12-week essential course, his list of the best of the best, I would only keep four. Rigelhof has a bias toward realistic, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, somewhat duller and more traditional books, and hasn’t included much in the way of formally experimental work (though he does include two short story collections; in part, I think, because of the provision in our Criminal Code that forbids drawing up any such “best of” list that doesn’t include Alice Munro). One senses here some of what Philip Marchand has characterized as “our dogged Canadian willingness to be bored.” My own list would want to find a place for lively, inventive novels like Ray Smith’s Century, Michael Turner’s The Pornographer’s Poem, Paul Glennon’s The Dodecahedron, and Chris Eaton’s The Grammar Architect. And those would only be the first titles coming off a bench deep with substitutes.

There’s always a lot of talk about the need for a more informed literary debate in this country. The chief obstacle to having such a debate is that so few people are informed – have done the necessary legwork, put in “the time” that someone like Rigelhof has. It is that foundation of a lifetime spent reading that makes Hooked on Canadian Books so valuable a resource, and such an essential part of an ongoing conversation.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 19, 2010.

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