A conversation with Steven W. Beattie
Steven Beattie is author of That Shakespearean Rag.
SB: The original title of your new essay collection, Join the Revolution, Comrade, was Dumb as a Sack of Hammers, which is the title of one of the pieces contained in it. What associations did you intend to conjure with these two titles?
CF: As I mention in the preface, ‘Dumb as a Sack of Hammers’ is one of my father’s favorite expressions. I like the quip, like for its own sake, and like it even more for being a fairly rare recalled instance from my childhood of verbal liveliness. The piece ‘Dumb as a Sack of Hammers’ is sub-titled ‘A Southern Ontario Childhood,’ and it explores the linguistic landscape, so to speak, of WASP suburban Toronto in the 1960s and 70s – and all that implies. More exactly, the piece explores a bygone landscape from the implicit perspective of someone – i.e. myself – who is now making his adult life in language, in words, forever mindful of the nature (meek) of the bequethment (modest). In short, ‘dumb’ is just the word to highlight in a piece about Ontario speech, especially once allowed both its literal and slang meanings. I do feel a little slow linguistically and I do sometimes feel I lack the necessary powers of speech.
In the end, though, Join the Revolution, Comrade got the nod. Mostly I wanted the chance to repeat a story I first told in an earlier book, Sketches in Winter, about a friend in Beijing who was given a small part in Bertolucci’s ‘The Last Emperor,’ one of the first western films allowed to shoot in the Peoples’ Republic of China. The part had a single line, spoken in English: “Join the revolution, Comrade, or else fuck off!” Though I didn’t meet the actor, now a university lecturer, until 1988, five years after the film was released, he was still delivering the line, over and over. For him, it had come to serve as a mantra of ironic detachment and despair about his life, and about China. Over time, ‘Join the Revolution, Comrade… ‘ came to settle in my own mind as an artistic and even moral challenge and rebuke. That concept, too, especially in relation to my experience of China over the last twenty years, is explored in the title piece in the book.
Here’s a parallel story about titles that might help explain the effect I am after. In 1923 the great Chinese writer Lu Xun published the collection of short fiction that gave birth, more or less, to modern Chinese literature. I read the collection in translation while living in Beijing in the late 1980s, a translation done by stalwart (and/or terrified) adherents of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary aesthetics. The book I read was called, bracingly, A Call to Arms, as though Lu Xun had been summoning fellow authors to stand up and fight, damn it. Years later I learned that the story collection was more accurately rendered in English as Cheering from the Sidelines. Not quite the same, is it?
With my own title, I figure you can read it as war-like active, or nihilistically passive; as an earnest call to literary arms, or an ironic pre-emptive commentary on the futility of collections of essays preaching the difficult pleasures of, among other things, difficult books.
SB: The first third of the essay collection focuses on your impressions of Asia, where you lived and taught for several years. What is it about this part of the world that captures your imagination?
CF: In Asia I get to forget all about myself for long periods. I’ve always enjoyed that, longed for it, sought ways to achieve that flight from the narrow, pinched corridor of the self out into the wide expanse of the non-self, the non-personal. In short, I’m lost in Asia, at sea about how to speak (dumb, once again, in most places), what to think, how to behave, smile, eat food, bow to monks, address stray dogs in streets. In Asia I am even more a nobody than I am here, for the simple reason that the ‘body’ that is me – i.e. the western male of certain age and background – remains a ‘no’body over there, dislocated, floating.
Also, in the two decades I’ve been traveling and living (for 5 years) in Asia, something fundamental has changed in the East/West dynamic. Crudely, ‘ism-ly,’ I hereby declare colonialism long gone, orientalism shortly gone, and an era of parity, of even a pending new imbalance, emerging. If there is an East/West narrative unfolding in the 21st century, it is, or is going to be, the tale of the East incurring, de-stabilizing, changing the West – not the other way around. How interesting is that?
SB: In the title essay, you write about a certain lack of culture shock inherent in your response to Chinese culture: “There was nothing inscrutable about our friends at the college. Quite the opposite: this generation of urbanites – the only Chinese we really knew – had gone about expressing their identities and ambitions in ways recognizable to a westerner.” You go on to refer to the ways in which Chinese filmmakers and authors have adopted western influences as touchstones in their work. Is this a wholly desirable phenomenon, or does it speak to the kind of flattening effect that critics of globalization often refer to?
CF: As I suspect my previous answer hints, I pause before the political correctness of assuming that all interactions and exchanges between West and East are somehow imbalanced in favor of ‘us.’ On the ground, this isn’t how it plays out. To assume a Chinese writer or film-maker who is, say, influenced by Kafka or Scorsese is thereby infected or diminished is silly. Worse, it is condescending in its assumption that the Chinese artist, insecure in his/her foundations, has gone doe-eyed and weak-kneed before the mite of western culture, be it pop or high, and so is slavishly parroting ‘foreign’ models.
How about this instead: the Chinese artist takes what he likes from other cultures, and makes it his own. The ‘West’ is rarely more than an image, a page of prose, a TV show, a few slangy words of English, spoken for fun. It certainly isn’t a marching army of standardization and banality. Being Chinese is, for most, a suit of armor welded onto an individual at birth and impossible to remove, no matter how burdensome it gets. Scant chance of bursting from the suit and walking that much more lightly and freely. Lu Xun, by the way, revered Gogol above all other writers. Lu’s writing could scarcely be more Chinese.
Now, if the question is meant to be applied to specific western influences in Chinese intellectual life before, and during, the democracy movement of 1989, then, yes, there are instances were the apparent influence, either poorly understood or badly timed, ended up problematic. I am thinking, for instance, of the introduction of the statue known as the Goddess of Democracy, modeled on the Statue of Liberty, onto Tiananmen Square during the final days of the protests of April-May 1989. But those are exact instances – exact to circumstances, and individuals – of forays across the formerly vast East-West divides. As well, we’re talking twenty years ago now. Feels more like a half-century, too, some days.
SB: In the post-9/11 essay “Why You Should Travel,” you accuse author Michel Houellebecq of “lack[ing] the patience or perhaps inclination for genuine moral complexity in his fiction” and for “declaring the actions of cartoon creeps indicative of broad cultural attitudes and behaviours.” But, Houellebecq’s novel, Platform, which is the focus of your critique, is a nihilistic satire that was actually published in France before 9/11, to say nothing of the terrorist attacks in Bali that are the subject of your essay. Houellebecq is obviously a provocateur, but is it possible to entirely dismiss his approach and arguments, given their apparent prescience?
CF: Do I dismiss Platform in the piece? I don’t mean to. It’s a fascinating novel, well worth getting worked up about. It’s true that I think Houllebecq’s nihilistic satire, as you nicely frame it, runs out of energy long before the end. It’s also true that I often grow impatient with book-length satire, for the simple reason that the satiric energy gets prematurely exhausted or the satiric conceit ground down. Great satire, the stature, say, of Gulliver’s Travels or Catch-22, is either constantly in motion (in Swift), recasting its arguments, expanding them, even undercutting previous assertions, or else gathers surreal pitch (in Heller or Waugh’s A Handful of Dust), whereby the repetition, the not-going-anywhere, becomes the aesthetic and even moral exercise. With Houllebecq, I sensed neither of these strategies at play. I just sensed a smart and, yes, prescient, provocateur who has expelled his bile by page 50 or so – with another 300 pages left.
That said, reading a three-year-old novel in Bali three months after the bombings by Islamic extremists of foreigner-frequented bars on the island, a novel about, in part, Islamic extremists who blow up a bar frequented by foreigners on an idyllic Asian island, sat me up in astonishment at the congruencies. Houllebecq got the plot of the prophesy right. Not sure, though, he got the truth of it — or that he was even interested in looking.
SB: In her essay, “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor comments that “[a]n idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character. You can’t cut characters off from their society and say much about them as individuals.” Several of the essays in Join the Revolution, Comrade bemoan the lack of a Canadian idiom outside of certain communities in Quebec and the Maritimes. How do we guard against cutting characters off from their society in our writing if we don’t have an individual Canadian idiom to fall back on?
CF: I did a graduate degree in Dublin in 1983-84. On learning I was Canadian, Irish classmates and friends would sing the praises of Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and Alice Munro – writers with titles in the local bookshops. Always, too, they would remark that, while they had known Davies and Munro were Canadian, by virtue of their settings or simply the author biographies, they had almost never thought of national identity as inflecting the work, including, obviously, anything about the prose. In this regard, these writers were nearly unmoored from place – at least they were for Irish readers, accustomed to characters in books (their own, for sure) being fiercely attached to both physical and linguistic settings.
Then they met me. They heard me talk. They absorbed, over time, how I carried myself, how I – largely, if not entirely, un-self-aware – behaved as a Canadian. Ah, the Irish said: Now we get where those books are located. To be Canadian is, apparently, to be without distinct language imprint. To be Canadian is to be sort of neutral about place and self.
Is it? Of course not. But so it sounded – in Davies, say, on the page; in me, say, in the flesh — to my Irish friends. Would it have been different if I’d been a Newfoundlander in Dublin? For sure. I exaggerate the anecdote a little to make the point that for whatever reasons Canadians, outside of a few regions, speak and write grammatically preservative, idiomatically conservative English. We don’t unbutton much. We wear our language trousers rolled.
Now, to answer you directly, the tendencies I’ve been describing and, yes, quietly regretting – a private regret, above all, a sort of hair-shirt worn in dismay at my own tendencies, on page and off — haven’t kept Canadian writers from producing novels full of compelling characters and vividly imagined settings. How we are is how we are, perhaps. Or even, that neutrality, that seeming detachment from a felt sense of language, of idiom, might even be our identity, our chosen and allotted fate. Maybe I should shut up about this – at least until I can find a livelier way of expressing it.
SB: Is it possible to locate the kind of idiom that you refer to in the work of writers such as Austin Clarke, who liberally employs a Caribbean patois in his fiction, or Russell Smith in his satirical portraits of Southern Ontario hipsters?
CF: To carry on from the previous answer, I should make clear that I’m not advocating more Canadian fiction that is Faulkner-rich (or, indeed, Austin Clarke-rich or Dionne Brand-rich) in terms of its rendering of spoken, living speech on the page. That could be painful for all concerned. I am thinking about linguistic energy, about literary language that is alert and alive; that is, I suppose, a little reckless and wired. Too many of our novels are too functional. Too many of them aspire only to clear, transparent language – to prose-not-getting-in-the-way-of-the-story prose. Well, with a major novel the prose is the story, and the story is the prose. How does that weave, effortless and inevitable, emerge? I know how it does in James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, in Martin Amis and Jeanette Winterson, in Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo. Not sure how it happens in most of Canada, though — or even if it if can.
I remember passages in Noise when I sensed that Russell Smith was clearly remarking on how his hipsters spoke, and so self-defined. (After all, how we talk is, surely, quite a lot of who we are?) Muriella Pent, my favorite Smith novel, seemed less concerned with this. But I should re-read it now, given his columns about language in the Globe and Mail.
Many of the essays in Join the Revolution, Comrade take up the theme of dreams vs. wakefulness, and the idea that the true geography of fiction is the “place where day and night and light and dark, sleep and wake and dream and undream, meet and then dissolve.” Why is this a recurring theme for you, and why do you think so many Canadian authors, steeped in a kind of conventionally naturalistic tradition, are so reluctant to navigate this territory?
Steven, could I answer this question, and the one below, together? They feel wedded by impulse. I abandoned a career as a hockey player – okay, I got cut by the Young Nationals when I was seventeen – for literature because of how books rocked my suburban Toronto world. I can even pinpoint the turn. Once I opened the epochal paperback of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book purchased, largely for the allure of its pastel cover, in my local Coles in my local mall in 1977, or thereabouts, I knew I was a goner. I knew this because of how I read Marquez and, in turn, how Marquez read me.
For three days I lay atop my bed in the company of One Hundred of Solitude. For three days, too, Marquez kept the company of a Toronto teenager. What happened during the exchange? By the end, I wasn’t Spanish speaking, wasn’t a resident of Macondo, but, still, I’d been transformed. I was a little more aware of the world, and in awe of it; I was a little more aware of other people, and feeling kindly towards them/us. I’d read One Hundred Years of Solitude, for sure, but in some remarkable, magical way the novel had ‘read’ me; the potential for engagement and wonder, for empathy.
What an experience. Better than candy or liquor, if not as quick as either. Better, for me anyways, than pharmaceuticals. No surprise, I sought it out again. And again. I couldn’t get enough.
But here was the thing; the only books that could do it, read me while I read them, were of a certain stature. Yes, the great ones, either the canon proper or the canon unfolding. Originality of voice and technique were fundamental; so was a certain intensity and breath of vision. Often those were and are the books that, as you quote above from Join The Revolution, Comrade, seek through their structures and language ways of telling and seeing that dissolve, rightly, the artificial boundaries between wakefulness and sleep and challenge, correctly, the flimsy divides between our dreaming and undreaming selves. In other words, the wild books, the risk-takers, the ones, yikes, often declared difficult or inaccessible.
Now, for a variety of reasons these books are less and less welcome by readers, by publishers, by the culture. Martin Amis’s remark that the English novel too often seems “two-hundred-and-fifty-pages of middle-class ups and downs” is accurate to the novels being published (or, better, the novels being tossed lifesavers by the culture) in lots of places. Even novels that do step outside the dominant tradition of naturalism that I write about in the essay on Don Quixote often do so half-heartedly, or else as though they are writing – as, perhaps, they are, pace Harry Potter – for children of all ages. I think the novel form is under siege right now, and I think the measured, reasonable response – to capitulate on the page, the middle-brow slightly furrowed in worry – isn’t only lame but also a disaster for those of us suspect that certain literary conditions need to be right for major novels to continue to be written.
SB: A number of the essays in your collection bemoan the kind of middlebrow fiction that appeals to mass audiences – “surfaces please, depths frustrate” – and the paucity of difficult or challenging fiction in our current literary landscape. What do you think accounts for this trend?
CF: (see above)
SB: Novelists who do make an attempt to write in a more challenging or idiosyncratic way that might lack mass popular appeal are often castigated for being “elitist,” an epithet that William A. Henry III has suggested “has come to rival if not outstrip ‘racist’ as the foremost catchall pejorative of our times.” How do we counteract the prevailing cultural tendency towards comfortable, staid fictional products and authors?
CF: At this stage, there is likely no escaping the charge of elitism. Simply to aspire to write not a ‘literary’ book or a ‘real’ novel or any such loaded term but to write simply to the tradition, to Cervantes and Sterne, Eliot and Conrad, Virginia Wolf and Keri Hume, is to open yourself up to epithets. As I said before, it seems we don’t really want these books, these writers, any longer. We only accept, begrudgingly, the ‘difficult’ ones that the Nobel committee or, sometimes, the Booker jury, bully onto our media bookshelf. (What a tiny, badly-constructed shelf that is, too: can’t hold more than a few titles at any one time, books rated by gaudy covers and sensationalized titles, then still filed upside-down or spines-to-the-wall; all excess releases allowed to topple off the edge and tumble to the ground, there to be not even trampled on; just ignored, until covered in dust, dirt, and returned to the earth.) We no longer have the time or attention span or, possibly, the faith in the form. We’ve moved on.
What to do? Join the Revolution, Comrade, I suppose – or else…