One off-balance day a couple of weeks ago I decided that I was going to read and review all the books on the Amazon First Novel shortlist. The purpose of this quest (eyeball suicide mission?) is to ascertain whether new novelists in Canada are breaking new ground or subscribing to old ideas about the Great Canadian Novel.
I'd like to lay out what exactly a traditional Canadian novel constitutes so that I may rain hateful adjectives on any short-lister who plays it too safe. Here she be:
1. Covers in sepia or that feature a hazy lake. These are both lazy motifs designed to indicate to the reader that the book is 'serious' or 'escapist'. The US takes cover design seriously - as art that can still attract a buy. So should we. ex: The Book Of Negroes, Late Nights on Air
2. Colonialism/the Canadian Frontier. I know we're obsessed with our origins because we still haven't figured out who we are as Canadians today, but the excuse is wearing thin. Enough already. Ex. The Last Crossing
3. Any overarching theme concerning failure, hardship and especially futility. Ex: The Tin Flute
4. Excessive 'construction' - thematic overload, symbolism up the yin-yang, artificial speech. Fugitive Pieces, I love you dearly, but I'm looking at you here.
3. Excessive narrative. This is my party and I'll hate on this if I want to. To my mind, a modern novel should make use of dialogue. Without human speech, a book feels far too introverted and self-obsessed to me. Ex. As for Me and My House
4. Obsession with national or regional identity, especially city life vs. rural life. Ex. Fifth Business
5. The use of very stiff, wry, modest humour, or too much irony (I know what you're thinking, is there such a thing as too much irony? Or are we post-irony, now? I can never remember). Ex. Edible Woman
6. Nature as beast, as master, as terror, as God. I've had enough of nature being either demonized or idolized. So has Nature, herself. Ex. Wild Geese
7. Extrapolating from the above, Gothicism: realism, the place of evil, the supernatural, Protestant hypocrisy, mental illness. Ex: Alias Grace
At this point, dear reader, you are probably frustrated by the overly picky nature of these constraints. In order to illuminate my designs I will soon post a couple of case studies that will demonstrate the above. I'd also like to say that I love most of the novels cited above; I have no hate for them, but methinks it's time to break new ground.