Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Location in CanLit

Permit me a brief deviation from politically-oriented posts for a word or two about Canadian literature. When I'm not reading history or political science for work, I like to read fiction, and have recently been reading a fair bit of Canadian literature. Most recently, I devoured The Garneau Block by Todd Babiak, which was a Christmas gift from my in-laws. I thoroughly enjoyed this satirical novel, written in a style that reminded me of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I particularly enjoyed how explicitly it was set in Edmonton, and played off of the local culture and geography - how accurate his descriptions are, I'm not certain, only having visited Edmonton three times in my life.

Part of what I enjoy about reading Canadian authors is to reading stories which are set in familiar places and cultures. The first time I read Margaret Atwood (I believe it was Life Before Man), I got a thrill out of recognizing the U. of T. locations. Prior to that, pretty much everything I read was set in London, Berlin, or somewhere in the U.S. (Confession: I used to read a lot of Cold War spy fiction.)

As I've been reading more Canadian fiction, I've noticed a trope that I find rather irritating, and I'd like to know what is behind it. I'm referring to the proclivity of Canadian authors to write about clearly real towns and cities, but masking them behind pseudonyms. I first noticed this with Robertson Davies, whose writing I love. Many of his novels are set in small university towns in Ontario, which bear a striking resemblance to Kingston. Davies, as far as I know, never went so far as to completely recreate the city and just rename its key locations in obvious ways. Most recently, I've seen this from two authors, and it grated on every nerve. Russell Smith carefully recreated Kitchener-Waterloo, but renamed it and Wilfrid Laurier University, as his chosen site of suburban blandness. Lynn Coady went even further with Mean Boy, carefully recreating my current town of Sackville and Mount Allison University under the guise of Westcock University (Westcock being one town down the road), complete with institutions such as Carl's (Mel's) Diner.

I'm not certain why it is that major cities seem to escape from the renaming trend. Is there some fear among the Canadian literary establishment of being faced with raving hordes of torch-bearing townspeople who are angry at having their community satirized in print? If it's meant as social commentary on the sameness of small Canadian towns, why go to the point of including obvious details? If anything, the renaming seems to smack of more contempt for small Canadian towns and cities and their inhabitants than use of the real names would.

This is just a pet peeve of mine, which I'm glad Babiak avoided. I'm curious to know if anyone can offer a better explanation than the ones I've posited here.


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At 1:25 pm, Anonymous skdadl said...

Interesting question, Matt. You'll have me wandering around all afternoon, trying to think of novels of small-town life that use real place names, but my first impulse is to think that we've long seen the same phenomenon in American literature, even, to a degree, in Brit lit. Very few would bother to disguise New York or LA, but Main Street or Yoknapatawpha County and their ilk are so often both recognizable and yet fictions.

The sociological motive you've suggested could be part of it. Alice Munro's hometown has been outed for years and she talks about it frankly in interviews, but it is clear enough from the fiction itself that she has always had complicated feelings about the world she grew up in.

But there are literary motives too for simply wanting to make a world up. Of course one would use details to hand or from memory, but changing or even fuzzing the precise location can be liberating, sometimes universalizing. It's harder to do that with a big city, although Conrad does, I think, with London in The Secret Agent or Paris in Heart of Darkness.

I know this will sound banal, but I think we have to look at how it's done each time to figure out why.

At 3:25 pm, Anonymous Tim said...

Matt Cohen's work comes to mind.

Your Roberston Davies example is of special interest to me, being a distant relative. In 'Murther and Walking Spirits' Davies uses his protagonist's explorations into his family past to meditate on his own roots. These movies in the narrator's disembodied mind intersect with my own history - of special relevance are the sections shortly after his Loyalist ancestors arrive in Canada and settle somewhere in SW Ontario. Well the somewhere is Brantford (my mother's hometown), but he is just elusive enough in his place and people references that you would never know it.

At 2:20 pm, Blogger shawn said...

Interesting thoughts all around...
The references to Robertson Davies struck me as simply being a subtle challenge to the reader - well, maybe not so subtle. His writing being so rife with allusion in general, I wonder especially with reference to Murther and Walking Spirits/Brantford in particular, if Davies use of a 'made-up community' aren't all part of gameplay and not necessarily masking some deeper. Something deeper would be fun to explore, but ...
On the big town side, I would however, recommend Michael Redhill's Consolation (2006), set in modern day and mid 19thC Toronto. Interesting, if not slightly darkish novel.


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