By Nick Mount

What was CanLit anyway?

University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount traces the origin of the portmanteau back to the early 1960s and the beginning of the CanLit “boom,” but today it sounds more like a course code than a shorthand label for Canadian writing, then or now. In hindsight we might see CanLit as (1) a canon of works to be studied, (2) a historical phenomenon, and (3) a myth.
Mount’s valuable and refreshingly lively account of the subject looks at CanLit from all three angles.

He is briefest on the books themselves, choosing not to get involved in critical evaluation beyond providing brief margin notes that rank the core texts on a scale going from one to five stars. Blame the Internet. For what it’s worth, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook takes top prize for the Great Canadian Novel, with Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women being the only other five-star contender in that category. Which is at least using an expansive definition of what constitutes a novel.

Instead of digging deeply into the books, Arrival is more concerned with their context: biographical, cultural, political, and economic. Such an approach may sound dry and scholarly, but it’s presented in a breezy, humorous, non-academic manner that makes for a quick and genuinely informative read, even for those who think they know the story well. Indeed, the main drawback is that in covering so much ground the discussion gets spread pretty thin in places. One wishes Mount would slow down!

It’s also the case that such an argument pushes the actual CanLit canon, whether intentionally or not, even further to the margin. By emphasizing the many different forces coming together at the same time and place that gave birth to and shaped Canadian writing during these years, CanLit comes to seem less about the writing and more about a kind of product (of the kind sometimes derided as “Canned Lit”).

This isn’t unfair though, and in some ways it makes for a welcome corrective to the default position of ancestor worship that continues to dominate so much of our discussion of CanLit. Mount doesn’t say that these writers lucked out simply by happening to be in the right place at the right time – though he gives plenty of examples of how they won the lottery in that regard. For example, you have to smile at George Jonas recalling getting a job at the CBC in 1960: “you could just walk into an office unintroduced and say, ‘I want to work here.’” Things are rather different around the Ceeb these days.

The CanLit authors were made by their time and place, and in particular it was readers that made them. This is a principle Mount insists on throughout. In his discussion of feminism and CanLit, for example, he talks of how “books become what their readers want,” and that “Canadian women writers wouldn’t have succeeded without the women who were their largest audience.”

By success Mount means something other than artistic achievement, as he later suggests that literary quality is not what makes an author great but rather the quality of their audience: “Writers don’t make classics; readers do.” You can tell from this just how much cultural displacement has taken place in the field of literary criticism, and how far the critical pendulum has swung away from those now marginal texts toward a more market-based form of analysis.

Finally, CanLit is a myth. A self-made and unabashedly self-serving myth, as many of Mount’s biographical sketches reveal. In turn, this myth was CanLit’s greatest achievement. If the cultural construction of CanLit was the product, the myth was the advertising, and nobody played the media as skilfully as this generation of writers, whatever their feet of clay.

But what of CanLit today? This is an important question and one that Mount doesn’t shy away from addressing, though we may debate his conclusions.

In the first place, given that CanLit was a product of its time and place we can confidently declare it over, aside from the few surviving legacy brands. What’s more, we won’t be seeing the cultural and economic conditions that gave rise to it occurring again.

This leaves us with the matter of its legacy.

As a national project CanLit is irrelevant now, and much of the infrastructure built to sustain it is eroding. Nevertheless, Mount, correctly I believe, sees the average quality of the literature produced in Canada to be higher today than it was during the golden age. Readers have never had it so good. What is the link then from past to present?

Is the CanLit canon, as Mount conculdes, a “now recognizable body of writing for critics to describe, students to read, the public to celebrate, and writers to steal from or define themselves against”?

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but it’s not easy to make the case. Frankly, one has to look hard to find the influence of CanLit, at least in terms of books being written out of other books. Rather, if CanLit was defined by its context, it was in turn that context – the network of media and money primarily – that subsequent generations have had to adapt to or try to resist. This makes the story Mount tells all the more relevant, even as CanLit slowly fades from view.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 2, 2017.


The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump
Ed. by Bandy Lee

Psychology is not an exact science, and diagnosis at a distance or as filtered through the media might be expected to make for an even fuzzier picture. Nevertheless the “27 psychiatrists and mental health experts” who contributed to this collection of essays on Donald Trump and the “Trump effect” do their best, working with and interpreting the same small set of data points.

I doubt anyone will find the results all that surprising. Narcissism is a label that gets used a lot, sometimes with “malignant” attached to it. The basic idea is that Trump has delusions of grandeur and a lack of empathy. Underlying this is a nasty and narrow world view that sees everyone categorized as either winner or loser, con-man or sucker. In layman’s terms, he’s a selfish, paranoid, mean-spirited bully.

Given his wealth and power he has been able to construct an alternate reality or bubble to live in, surrounded by enablers and flattering courtiers. This is the dark side of the much-ballyhooed priority such people place on loyalty. The sad, or Sad!, thing is that there is nothing exceptional about Trump but perhaps the intensity of his anger and the degree of his delusions. In his essay “Pathological Narcissism and Politics,” Craig Malkin harkens back to the gold standard of bad presidents to tell us that “Nixon displayed a combination of intense ambition, authority, grandiosity, arrogance, entitlement, subterfuge, and self-importance that appears to have been common in the Oval Office throughout history.”

It all works until it doesn’t. By which time any warnings or second thoughts come much too late.


Ed. by Otto Penzler

As a veteran editor of crime fiction as well as the owner of the famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, Otto Penzler was uniquely situated to bring this anthology about. Over the last decade he has commissioned a who’s who of mystery writers, including names like Anne Perry, Jeffery Deaver, and Nelson DeMille, to pen a series of one-off tales that he then presented as Christmas gifts to loyal bookstore customers. The only guideline given the authors was that the stories involve books in some way. Thus was born the genre of bibliomystery, and this delightful collection.

The ground rules allow for a lot of variety. The settings are bookstores, public libraries, and personal collections — the best of them filled with “that peculiar musty smell distinctive to rooms in which books are aging like fine wines.”

The cast includes police detectives, private investigators, and of course lots of book lovers. Though in some cases “love” may be too tame a word for obsessions that lead to murder.

And then there are the books. Books for children and adults. New and used. Some can be used as weapons – to hide a bomb in, for example, or beat someone to death to with. And some even possess magical powers.

An anthology like this could have been just a curiosity, a bit of fun for bibliophiles, but the authors rise above the occasion with a selection of excellent stories that are great reads in their own right. It’s obvious everyone was enjoying themselves, and the results are just as much a treat for the rest of us.

There’s even something bittersweet to it as well. Behind the mystery and suspense there is the fading romance of books. Books are more and more associated with a world that is disappearing, and the book people we meet are almost all eccentrics and loners, aware of the fact that they are living in the past and that bookstores and libraries have something archaeological about them today.

But is the twilight of the book something to feel sad about? Not really. For connoisseurs they’re only aging like fine wines.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 18, 2017.

The Blinds

By Adam Sternbergh

Genre fiction is made healthier through cross-breeding. In The Blinds Adam Sternbergh has created a multi-layered hybrid of a novel strengthened by several different bloodlines.

In the first place we might think of it as a Western. Calvin Cooper is the sheriff of the town of Caesura, a place known locally (and less pretentiously) as The Blinds. It’s a dusty desert town, or “glorified trailer park,” set down in the middle of a West Texas nowhere, with the only link to the outside world being a weekly mail-and-supplies run and a clunky fax machine.

Sheriff Cooper doesn’t have much to do in The Blinds seeing as there are only about fifty residents and he’s the only one with a gun. Or at least he’s supposed to be the only one with a gun. The Western turns into a mystery when residents of The Blinds start turning up dead.

What makes solving the mystery tricky is a science-fiction spin. You see, the residents of The Blinds have had their memories selectively wiped as part of an advanced “fresh start” program for criminals. The town is actually a kind of penal colony. So the question of “whodunit?” is complicated by the fact that nobody even knows who he or she really is.

This is just the set-up, but things get even weirder. In some ways The Blinds resembles M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, with layers of mystery enfolding the town and its history that are only gradually revealed. Also like Shyamalan’s movie are the many rapid-fire and bizarre plot twists that come at the end.

On a deeper level, The Blinds is a novel that asks interesting questions about how our memories make us who we are. The nature vs. nurture argument over criminal responsibility is lying in the background here. Is someone who can no longer remember their past crimes still responsible for them, or even the same person who committed them? And to what extent do the subjects in this progressive experiment still have free will?

These philosophical questions are secondary, however, to the busy, action-filled plot. The Blinds is first and foremost a fun read, or really about half-a-dozen reads rolled together in one.

Review first published in the Toronto Star July 28, 2017.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives

By Stephen Henighan

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives is a short novel written in the form of a parable. The reason it takes such a form is because its subject is the Canadian literary establishment, and specifically the role within that charmed circle played by identity politics. And, as many Canadian authors have shown – think of Russell Smith’s Muriella Pent or Andre Alexis’s A – the best (and safest) way to approach such touchy matters is through the lens of fiction.

Author Stephen Henighan is one of Canada’s most outspoken critics of our literary culture and he even makes a brief cameo here as a certain “notorious literary troublemaker” and “thug” who is slapped down by the capos of the CanLit mafia. This is not, however, a book about him.

Instead, it is the tale of Mr. R. U. Singh (the initials are meant to cast his name in the form of a question): an Indian immigrant who has come to Canada to make a fresh start in life. Almost immediately on arrival he reinvents himself, on a whim, as a Sikh. The turban gives him an aura of exotic mystery and valuable multi-cultural cred, so it’s not long before doors are opening to exciting new romantic and professional opportunities.
But even though he goes to law school and becomes a quietly successful small-town lawyer, Mr. Singh is drawn to the literary life. Specifically, he has dreams of being a genteel man of letters, a squire of “loiterature” in the best clubby, nineteenth-century style.

The bite in Henighan’s satire comes from his observation that, in pursuing such a dream, Mr. Singh has come to exactly the right place.

This is because the CanLit establishment, and indeed Canada in general, is still very much stuck in the nineteenth century. The mandarins of culture rule over what is symbolized as a cozy garden party that Mr. Singh crashes by stepping through a hedge. Immediately he feels at home among a group of aging bohemians with very fine taste, realizing that “Canadianness – the Canadianness I loved and embraced – was rooted in sedate aristocracy.”

Mr. Singh can have a place within that aristocracy not because it is colour-blind but because it isn’t. He manages to escape racism by way of tokenism: “by ascending into a milieu where prejudice was displaced by the genteel desire to socialize with diversity.”

What makes Henighan’s satire work is its measured tone and ambiguity. His representation of the cultural elite as lazy and complacent, corrupt and entitled, greedy, hypocritical, privileged, and vindictive, is unmistakeably fierce, but it’s presented in a reserved manner that allows for subtle moral shadings. Mr. Singh, for example, though he becomes a fierce critic of the establishment, clearly shares many of their values. His is the outrage of the scorned lover, not the revolutionary.

The other layer to the satire that Henighan gives the story comes through his revealing a transfer of cultural power from the creators of culture to its managers. This is a point that has been recently receiving a lot of attention in the news media, most often in the form of criticism of bloated academic administration, so Henighan’s addressing the subject is timely.

Though members of the literary establishment, neither Mr. Singh nor his chief benefactor-turned-adversary Millicent Crowe are writers, or even have any inclinations in that direction. What they aspire to become is board members, directors, teachers, and media spokespeople. It is with no small amount of envy that a once-famous writer remarks of his wife’s rising star that she now “goes to conferences on academic administration” that are far better gigs than the readings he has to perform at.

The ultimate goal is not to become a best-selling, critically-acclaimed author or public intellectual but rather a university president. This is to inhabit an elite sinecure “impervious to the opinions of others . . . above the fray . . . ensconced in the high-salaried establishment.” Welcome to the machine.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives begins and ends with fantasies of wish fulfillment, albeit the wishes have changed in ways that mark Mr. Singh’s own transformation. A conservative seeking stability and security, he is both undone and redeemed by the fluid shiftings of his own identity politics. And though missing out on the Order of Canada, he is adopted into a greater, in every sense of the word, Canadian order.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 15, 2017.

American War

By Omar El Akkad

American War is a thought experiment in the form of a dystopian novel. What if the world’s sole superpower and global hegemon were a failed state and international charity case? Instead of being problems on the other side of the world, what if the states of the Deep South were the equivalent of today’s Syria and Palestine?

The story is set during the years of the Second American Civil War, which takes place between the years 2074 and 2095. The background is only sketched in, but catastrophic climate change leads the U.S. government to ban fossil fuels, which results in a group of southern “red” states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina – attempting to secede from the union. “The planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.”

If you’re wondering why Florida isn’t one of the rebel states, it’s because it’s under water.

Meanwhile, today’s conflict zones and developing economies have risen to the top of a truly new world order. The Muslim world has united into the powerful Bouazizi Empire, which now supplies the rebel American states with aid shipments, while the Red Crescent provides humanitarian relief. Closer to home, a Mexican “protectorate” has expanded deep into the American Southwest, presumably erasing any wall that might have been built. The world has turned upside-down.

Against this political backdrop Omar El Akkad, a former reporter for the Globe and Mail who was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar, tells the story of the embittered rebel Sarat (a contraction of Sara T.) Chestnut. The dramatic narrative takes us through the key events in Sarat’s life, while intercutting excerpts from various documentary sources that give us background and insight into the bigger political picture. A detailed world is constructed, and even if it’s not that convincing as prophecy it provides a solid structure for the point El Akkad wants to make.

The Chestnut family hails from Louisiana, one of the “purple” border states. They are soon caught up in the violence of the civil war, however, and become victims of the tit-for-tat struggle between the forces of union oppression and “free state” terrorism. Sarat, however, leaves victimhood behind, going from being an innocent child playing on the banks of the “Mississippi Sea” to becoming the avenging fury of the South.

There’s no mistaking all the correspondences El Akkad draws between the events he describes and America’s current war on terror and the situation in the Middle East more generally. After being uprooted from their homes the Chestnuts flee to a refugee camp where a young and impressionable Sarat meets a sinister teacher who indoctrinates her into the movement. He also trains suicide bombers. Later, the refugee camp is raided in a manner meant to recall the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Drones fly overhead, now largely out of control but still capable of dropping out of the sky and randomly blowing up civilians. Resistance on the part of the occupied population is met with a “surge” from the North. There is a Guantanamo-like detention camp where rebel prisoners are waterboarded. There is a network of tunnels that the rebels used for getting into the union states. The world’s media looks on in horror.

All of this is familiar stuff, only now it is happening in America, to Americans.

The title is ambiguous, referring both to America’s Second Civil War and the American way of war. There is also a wicked irony in the claim made by an agent of the Bouazizi Empire that “everyone fights an American war.” Foreign agents are seen involving themselves in America’s domestic conflict because fighting Americans over here is better than fighting them over there.

The message to all of this, or “universal slogan of war,” is understood by Sarat to be that everyone caught in a cycle of conflict reacts in much the same way the world over. Put yourself in the shoes of the enemy or Other and you’ll realize that “If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This is not a comforting political message for Americans, whose homeland has largely remained free of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by other nations in the modern age. But comfort is exactly what El Akkad is writing against. Sarat sees safety as “just another kind of violence – a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

What if it happened here? American War asks us to imagine the uncomfortable.

Review first published online October 24, 2017.

The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad
Patrick Cockburn

There have been many observers who have looked at the wreckage of the post-Arab Spring Middle East and wondered went wrong (I’ve reviewed some of them here). During this time Patrick Cockburn has been a better situated observer than most, and his on-the-ground reporting, particularly from Iraq and Syria, provides an antidote to the state propaganda usually retailed in the news. He is both a resourceful journalist (he recommends visiting military hospitals to talk to eyewitnesses who are now lying around bored out of their skulls) and a brave man. With the advent of the Internet insurgent forces no longer need the media any more, which makes newsmen useful to groups like ISIS only as kidnapping targets.

As for what went wrong, a big part of the answer is that the local economies failed. As one Iraqi minister puts it, “if the Sunni could just get jobs and pensions all this fury would ebb away.” That’s a remedy that would go a long way to curbing the anger everywhere these days. But a more cynical answer would be that for many of the different groups involved nothing has gone wrong. One of Cockburn’s conclusions is that nationalism in the Middle East has been replaced by sectarian and tribal politics, and the undermining of nationalist projects has long been a Western goal in the region.

In addition, chaos has bred opportunity for groups looking to draw on U.S. or other foreign assistance, while as for the West, isn’t it better that “they” kill each other over there than us over here? Cockburn doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories, but he can see instances in all this where they plausibly gain traction. It’s a sad fact that even a humanitarian disaster as profound as we see in today’s Middle East is not without profit or usefulness to some. Given the dynamics we might expect desperate conditions to continue for a while yet.