Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Readings 2K9: Tesseracts Twelve

Tesseracts Twelve
edited by Claude Lalumière

Best to get the potential conflicts of interest out of the way first; I know Claude, and submitted a story to this anthology. It didn’t get in, but my girlfriend also submitted a piece which was accepted (Claude didn’t know she was my girlfriend at the time). Such, I suspect, is the claustrophobic world of Canadian publishing.

This volume of the long-running series of Tesseracts anthologies, which feature Canadian science-fiction stories, has a special focus on the novella. Each of the stories is at least ten thousand words long. That’s a rarity, and nice to see right off the bat.

Even better, to my mind, all of the stories seem to hit what they’re aiming at. They do different things, and which you like best will probably depend upon which project you’re most sympathetic to; but what they do, they do well. For me, leaving Grace’s story “Intersections” out of the equation (which I really do think is a lovely work), the stand-outs were E.L. Chen’s Arabian Nights update “The Story of the Woman and Her Dog” and David Nickle’s bitter media satire “Wylde’s Kingdom”. Chen’s is probably the most structurally inventive story in the anthology, while Nickle’s is to my mind the best at sustaining a specific voice and tone.

Are there any consistent themes through the book? Are there any specifically Canadian approaches? Actually, in some ways, I’d argue that the book is most notable for its avoidance of typical Canadian themes. The father-and-son generational conflicts which seem to me to dominate much of Canadian literature are nowhere to be found; equally, the traditional man-versus-unbreakable-nature theme isn’t really present, especially in its usual form of settlers breaking a hostile land. Northrop Frye’s ‘garrison mentality’ (colonists alone against a harsh wilderness) is notable by its absence, with the arguable exception of “Wylde’s Kingdom”, which really inverts the whole concept by presenting a nature thoroughly disrupted and exploited by human agency.

At the same time, nature is strongly present in the anthology in the form of animals; but these are animals which in one way or another blend into the human. “Intersections” is probably the only story without an animal presence. Humans and mammoths share mentalities in Derryl Murphy’s “Ancients of the Earth”, Michael Skeet and Jill Snyder Lum give us fox spirits and a surprisingly talkative tanuki in “Beneath the Skin”, Chen has men and women changing into dogs and goldfish, Randy McCharles’ story “Ringing the Changes in Okotoks, Alberta” has witchcraft linking a man and a goat, Gord Sellar’s super-hero tale “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang” includes a Japanese cat-woman, and “Wylde’s Kingdom” is the story of a man hunting and being hunted by a giant squid — with, inevitably, a hint of empathy between hunter and hunted towards the end. So perhaps this anthology represents a new Canadian mentality; no more of the garrison, no more of the conflict between man and wilderness, now our stories are those of man and nature merging. 

Further: based on this book, Margaret Atwood’s thesis in Survival, that Canadian fiction is dominated by victims whose stories are simply about living through tragedy, can be discarded. Only “Wylde’s Kingdom” seems to fit her template, and even that’s debatable. The characters in these stories typically learn how to take control of their lives; how to grow out of being the victim. Atwood aside, there is a stereotype of bleakness in Canadian fiction, of pessimism and darkness — but, by and large, that sterotype finds no reflection in this anthology.

So instead of dreary stories about European immigrants breaking the land, we have a wildly multicultural selection of stories. Sure, “Ancients of the Earth” takes place in a northern frontier town in the nineteenth century, but it has a conclusion different from any trope of Canadian literature I know. Other stories are set in feudal Japan, in Korea, in a small Albertan town influenced by Celtic witchcraft, or in a Toronto inflected by a wealth of different cultures — and Chen's Toronto, as I said above, is most defined by The Arabian Nights, itself a polyglot collection of tales from different lands, reflecting the multicultural environment of Toronto. 

So Tesseracts Twelve may signal, ultimately, a change in Canadian literature to mirror the changes in the country itself. Where the country has seen its demography shift, has managed with surprisingly little strain to incorporate a wealth of voices and cultures within itself, has changed its traditional narrative of its own founding and development, the book suggests new themes for Canadian writing, new models for its story. Hints of the old are still there, certainly, as they should be, but not given the stress they might have carried in the past — for a Francophone (however bilingual) to edit a major English-language anthology, for example, likely would have been noteworthy ten years ago, and I think certainly would have attracted comment twenty years ago or more. I haven’t noticed that so far. One hopes this is a good sign. One hopes that the promise of Tesseracts Twelve is borne out in the stories yet to be written in this country. At the very least, this is a good start on the literature of Canada’s future.


Do-Ming Lum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Do-Ming Lum said...

Interesting essay. You've inspired me to go dig for my copy of Survival so I can reread it.

Matthew David Surridge said...

Glad you liked the essay! Hope you like Survival; I have to admit I'm really not an Atwood fan (though I've not read a ton of her work), and in Survival I felt she was describing without apparently being aware of it a literature which was in the process of reaching maturity, rather than one which was already there. It seemed to me that without reaching that point, it was impossible to pick out the meaningful aspects of Canadian literature published up to that point. In other words, I felt that really distinctive Canadian literature was (and perhaps still is) a thing of the future; and we won't be able to see what aspects of past writings inform that literature-to-come until it gets here.

Also, early on in the book, Atwood held up Superman as an example of American literature, completely missing the fact that Joe Shuster was born and grew up in Toronto. Which kinda undercut the point she went on to make right after about American and Canadian types of stories.

Stuart Crump, said...

I have a nagging suspicion you told me Shuster was Canadian, but in any case I'd forgotten/didn't know. Blimey!

I want to read this anthology, now.

Brain-fizzing Crump

Grace Seybold said...

See, this is why we need to get the CBC to bring back the "Heritage Minutes". Not that the Superman one wasn't highly inaccurate and all, but that's not the point; I don't think they were intended as much to teach history, anyway, as to indoctrinate people, especially newcomers to Canada, with our national myths. Who's up for starting a petition?

$14.56 on Amazon.ca, Stu! Not that I have any agenda in promoting it or anything!

Do-Ming Lum said...

Hi Grace! - In addition to the CBC Heritage minutes, there is the odd Tim Horton's commercial that has done the same thing, which is to articulate a mythology of shared experience.

Matthew - I left a version of this comment earlier, but I believe I did something silly involving not typing in the captcha.

Your comment on Atwood and Superman is interesting. I would argue (keeping in mind that I am not particularly well versed in Can Lit or its crticism so this might not be valid) that when Siegel and Schuster created Superman in 1938, what they were depicting the personification of an earlier, left over vision of Canada when it was part of the last 19th century superpower - the British Empire. In 1938, Canadian culture would still echo the British imperial mythology of one or two generations previous. And America would not yet have gone through the WW2 experience that transformed it into the 20th century superpower.

This is consistent with the point you made in your essay that cultural themes evolve -- but for everybody not just Canadians. By the time Atwood wrote her book in the 70s, America had become accustomed to its superpower role and had absorbed the Superman iconography as its own. Atwood would therefore be correct as long as one ignores the historical context of Superman.

Claude said...

Really, the principal creator of Superman was the writer, Jerry Siegel, and he was not Canadian in any way. Superman is really a myth of the American experience of the Depression, a doppelganger for the experience of Jewish immigrants trying to blend in in the Christian New World, and, finally, a hybrid of the popular pulp and genre heroes of the day, mostl obviously Doc Savage and Philip Wylie's Hugo Danner from his novel Gladiator. Canada doesn't really enter into the equation.

Matthew David Surridge said...

I dunno, Claude. It seems to me that what makes a myth work is the fact that it's so broad -- that it can be read different ways by different people, that different experiences are reflected in it. So, sure, you've got the subtext of the American Jewish experience and the Depression, but I don't see that it's impossible to read a Canadian subtext into it also. Was the social conscience of early Superman stories (bringing justice to wife-beaters and crooked mine owners) a harbinger of Canadian social justice? I dunno. But I don't think it's impossible. It's all in how you read it, and if Superman is as broadly mythic or iconic as most people say, then the concept ought to be able to sustain a broad range of readings.

On a practical level, there's no doubt Siegel was the primary force behind Superman, but Shuster definitely brought stuff to the table as well. The Daily Planet was originally the Daily Star, named for the Toronto Star (apparently they changed the title so that no newspaper would be able to claim they had Clark Kent working for them), and Shuster consciously based the skyline of metropolis on that of Toronto. So it's not as though there's no connection whatsoever.

Any which way, it is kinda interesting to me to think about Superman in connection with Do-Ming's point on the pre-war American identity. He's quite right that the U.S. wasn't a superpower, and didn't see itself as such. But the super-hero, which so many people have seen in years since as an emblem of US power, was already a-borning; Superman, Batman, and Captain America were all created before the US entered the war, and Wikipedia tells me Wonder Woman was first published in December of 1941. So ... an example of artists sensing a change in the world around them, or a case of a society finding a useful image for itself after the fact?

Grace Seybold said...

@ Do-Ming: Not to mention that interminable series of I! Am! Canadian! beer commercials from a couple of years ago. The ones where the guy was pissed off because he thought Americans thought we lived in igloos and whatnot. I don't think I've ever met anyone who genuinely believed that, and I've run into some extremely uninformed people in the US. But it's an integral part of our national self-image for some reason that we're misunderstood as a country.

(My little sister did once convince someone in Texas that the reason our school didn't have a football team was because we'd lost our field to the advancing glaciers, but I don't think that counts.)

David Nickle said...

Canada needs a John Hodgman, to do Hinterland Who's Who episodes about the Manitoba Screaming Monkey Eel and the South-Western Ontario Albino Spider-Rat.

Great essay, btw, Matthew. And I'm not just saying that because you said insightful things about Wylde's Kingdom (although I'm partly saying that because you said insightful things about Wylde's Kingdom).