13 Canadian novels Heather Reisman doesn't want you to read this summer
Last month Partisan shone a light on eleven books of poetry that are better acquainted with shade. Now we've asked thirteen Canadian fiction luminaries to expose one of their beloved underdogs to the limelight. You won't find any of these books buttressing a scented candle on a Heather's Picks table, or moonlighting as a celebrity crush on Canada Reads. Instead, these are the (mostly) novels that keep writers' writers' bedside lamps lit.
HA! (2003), by Gordon Sheppard (McGill-Queens, 2006)
Recommended by Dimitri Nasrallah
There are very few novels like HA! in our literature, which the Globe & Mail hailed–or dismissed–as “one of the most confounding books ever published in Canada." At 864 pages, this brick of a book that presents itself alternately as a “documentary fiction” and a “self-murder mystery” explores the suicide of infamous Quebecois novelist Hubert Aquin (author of the 1965 classic Prochain episode) by parsing together fictional narratives with real-life interviews, photographs, official documents, and all manner printable paraphernalia. It earned comparisons to Ulysses upon its publication, though in practice it may have more in common with Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, another brick that delves into Quebec separatism. No matter how one goes about trying to describe its aesthetic approach, its cultural implications, and its politics, HA! still stands as the most ambitious prose experiment to emerge from Canadian literary circles in decades. This designation is all the more profound given the fact that Sheppard was not a novelist at all, but a filmmaker and photographer predisposed to high-minded ideas about serious art. Published three years before Sheppard’s death at the age of 68, HA! turned out to be the author’s only novel. By the time of his passing, the minor reproaches the book had made into the public consciousness had already receded, and today it stands as another unjustly forgotten text.
From a Seaside Town by Norman Levine (Macmillan, 1970)
Recommended by Nathan Whitlock
Negation–the stripping away of everything he saw as aesthetic artifice or false sentiment–was so central to Levine's work that it's hard not to define his second (and final) novel in terms of what it isn't. It's not very long; it's not structurally ambitious; it tackles no grand historical themes and offers no moral uplift; it features few characters you'd want to hang with in real life. Even the sex is pretty dismal. What this sour minor masterpiece does offer–with its meandering tale of a Canadian writer marooned with his family in small-town England–is the sharp pleasures of an author who knows how to make vivid art of out of frustration and boredom. The literary equivalent of Dutch licorice.
Dancing Nightly in the Tavern by Mark Anthony Jarman (Presse Porcépic, 1984; Brindle & Glass, 2007)
Recommended by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
There are few Canadian collections I've spent as much time revisiting as this very first book of short stories by Mark Jarman–and if we remove Alice Munro from contention, then perhaps none. These stories are a first glimpse at this most un-Canadian of Canadian voices: Steven Beattie once called Jarman's work word-drunk, and I'd agree with that, but also add relentless, immolating, punk rock. In his afterword to the new edition, Jarman himself says the first story, "Cowboys, Inc." was a watershed: "There are stories I wrote before "Cowboys, Inc." and stories I wrote after "Cowboys, Inc.," and I can tell which are which," he says. The story opens in an Interstate public restroom, a father yelling over the whoosh of the hand dryers to his son, while in a cubicle, our man Ironchild has just OD'ed, the needle still sticking out of his arm. The speed of this scene was so important to me when I was first writing stories that I scrawled the father's line of dialogue, YOU WARSH YER HANDS?!, across our kitchen chalkboard so that it would stare me down at every moment. (I found out later that my son thought the sign was for him. His table manners improved so much that year, a mystery to me at the time.)
Onyx John by Trevor Ferguson (M&S, 1985)
Recommended by Andrew Hood
I don't know if “underrated” best describes the work of Trevor Ferguson. Throughout the 80s, Ferguson was fairly highly-rated. “Unexploited” might be more apt. His string of novels High Water Chants, Onyx John, and The Kinkajou describes a sort of alternate reality, a national literature that never was. In particular, 1985's Onyx John is shot through with lascivious brio, weird perspicacity, and tireless, twisted diction. In its marketing Ferguson gets compared to John Irving, Douglas Adams, and Jack Kerouac in a kind of desperate way, highlighting the fact that he early on was operating at a level that left him nationally peerless and so somewhat ignored.
Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow, 2013)
Recommended by Michael Winter
Paulette Jiles is on a bush plane with the actor, Graham Greene. She is writing a script that he will perform in the north. Something happens. Greene: Don’t change the script. More things occur which inspire her. You better not change the script, Greene repeats. Later, Jiles is trying to find water in the middle of a wintry night. She is puzzled by stars shining out of the ground. Then realizes she is by a well. Jiles’s writing? Always change the script and discover stars in unexpected places. Poetry, non-fiction, literary novels and now science fiction. Pick up Lighthouse Island. I’ve never read anything like it.
Lenny Bruce is Dead by Jonathan Goldstein (Coach House, 2001)
Recommended by Ian McGillis
In 2001 I came to Jonathan Goldstein context-free, sans baggage. Existing as I did in a selective media bubble of my own devising, I knew nothing about his radio profile from CBC’s Wiretap and NPR’s This American Life. Stumbling onto Lenny Bruce Is Dead, then, was for me as close to a pure reading experience as can be had in a media-saturated culture. Goldstein’s deadpan, free-associative, deceptively rambling (because not rambling at all) confessional struck me as the perfect Montreal Jewish update of Mordecai Richler at a time when I was new to Montreal, though I was not and am still not Jewish. In the years since, I have loaned my copy to countless people, and given copies as gifts to a select few. Nobody has come back with effusive thanks. I like to think this is because the book’s strengths are so self-evident that they don’t require comment.
Wigger by Lawrence Ytzhak Braithwaite (Arsenal Pulp, 1995)
Recommended by Derek McCormack
Wigger by Lawrence Ytzhak Braithwaite was published in 1995. It was his first novel. My first novel came out shortly afterward. The two books were reviewed together a couple times–both were novels in stories, both gay. Mine's still in print; his isn't, but it should be. I'm still alive; he should be. He committed suicide in 2008. Reviewers pegged Wigger as a gritty tale of gay hustlers and drug addicts, which it was. It was more than that, too. Braithwaite's muse was music–Sonic Youth, Slayer–and he produced the book in different registers: there was memoir in it, there was manifesto in it; there was pornography and there was hip-hop. He had a hell of an ear.
The Darren Effect by Libby Creelman (Goose Lane, 2008)
Recommended by Saleema Nawaz
Apart from a relatively small handful of titles, it is hard for me to think of a Canadian novel I love that is not undervalued. Even those nominated for major awards seem to pass away too quickly if they are not penned by authors who have already achieved some level of public recognition. But short of writing a list too long to make any impression, I have narrowed it down to one: The Darren Effect.
Newfoundland is the place I am the most in love with that I’ve never lived. If there is a Newfoundland book, I will read it, which is how I came upon Libby Creelman’s wonderful novel The Darren Effect. Heather is having an affair with a married man, who is dying of cancer. The secrecy of her grief makes it even harder to bear than it might be otherwise, as she struggles to avoid her lover’s wife and child in their tiny community. But though there is guilt and sorrow and emotional complexity, there is no lack of hilarity and surprise, too. The writing is terrific, and the book is full of insight and compassion.
Pandora by Sylvia Fraser (McClelland & Stewart, 1972)
Recommended by Mark Sampson
The early 1970s were a time of audacious satire in Canadian fiction, and you can’t get much more audacious that Fraser’s brilliant debut novel. Set in the fictional town of Mill City (a stand-in for Hamilton, ON) in the 1940s, it tells the story of seven-year-old Pandora Gothic, a young girl who endures all manner of cruelty at the hands of her family, classmates and the wider community even as the horrors of World War II come parading into her consciousness. Sadly neglected, even forgotten, Pandora is nonetheless a finely honed and endlessly inventive work. Go find it.
Paradise, Piece by Piece by Molly Peacock (McClelland & Stewart, 1998)
Recommended by Guillaume Morissette
I’d like to recommend a memoir, though one that reads like a novel. Also, I'm not sure it’s “undervalued.” It’s probably more like a forgotten gem. Paradise, Piece by Piece centres around American-Canadian poet Molly Peacock’s decision to remain childless / childfree. The book details her childhood, sexual education, career, adult life, family drama and relationships with men. I found Paradise, Piece by Piece very affecting at the sentence level, as its paragraphs often contain images and comparisons that seemed stimulating and original to me (In one scene, Peacock tells a therapist that she feels like she’s in a “mental wheelchair”). This is a memoir about self-exploration, finding inner peace and how to “grow up” without having children.
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields (Vintage, 1991)
Recommended by Joel Yanofsky
I’m guessing you’ll never see The Republic of Love on any future CBC reading list. That’s because it’s too much fun. Carol Shields’s stars-inevitably-uncrossed love story, about Winnipeg neighbours, Fay and Tom, also dares to use the most unassumingly daring of literary endings–the happy one. Not surprising in a country that takes its serious literature way too seriously, The Republic of Love, published in 1992, was not Shields’s breakthrough. That would come a year later with The Stone Diaries. But The Republic of Love, with its airplane engines falling from the sky, its meditations on mermaids and its unwavering faith in the extraordinary randomness of ordinary love, is still, for me, Shields at her best.
An Air That Kills by Margaret Millar (1957)
Recommended by Brian Busby
It can’t be I Am Mary Dunne. We continue to recognize Brian Moore’s talent, but rarely so much as acknowledge Margaret Millar. The only explanation I can offer: Millar lived much of her adulthood in California writing novels that were sold as mysteries. Set in her native Ontario, An Air That Kills transcends the genre. Someone goes missing, a body will eventually surface, but the reader’s focus is never on the crime–if indeed there was a crime. Hers are novels of delusion, disintegrating marriages, thwarted ambition, declining fortune and post-war domesticity cast with characters every bit as rich as those of a Brian Moore novel. The Irish always considered Moore one of theirs; is it not time we embrace Millar as one of ours?
A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry by Ian McGillis (Porcupine’s Quill, 2002)
Recommended by Andrew Steinmetz
"This is weird. That’s what I was thinking, standing there in Irene’s, on my last night in Glengarry. Just being in Irene's was weird enough. It's this little place over on 82nd Street. They call it a diner, but you don't really see anybody dining in there, unless you call sucking on cigarettes and guzzling coffee dining."
So begins the story of a day in the life of 9-year old Neil McDonald, the narrator of A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry. After 13-odd years, I still savour this low-key but perfectly pitched ode to that sweet chariot, childhood. Set in a suburb of Edmonton, the novel pivots on the first night game in World Series history and explores Neil’s fondness for baseball and music though his peephole consciousness. It is one of fiction's clichés to use the viewpoint of a child to weave a morality tale; in hardened politically correct hands, this is nothing less than child labour. But here comes a gentle, quiet, dignified, poignant, and seriously funny first novel that eschews the many tired perversions genre. Neil is neither puerile nor prophetic. He is a bumbling boy, a haphazard assimilator-and-accommodator with mainstream interests. And this, I find, is one of the great charms of Glengarry: the kid is average, and that’s more than alright.