How Insensitive by Russell Smith. Porcupine’s Quill, 258 pp. 0-88984-143-8.
I’m late to the party on this one; the book was published in 1994, and thanks to my usual literary time warp, I’m only reading it now. But it raises some questions that are interesting enough to post here, not least of which is whether Smith would like to forget ever having that hairstyle. I’ll bet he’s glad this edition’s out of print.
I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me.
How Insensitive, as it follows the travails of a young man in the big city, wandering drunkenly from one party to the next, meeting models, and so on, all in the early 1990s, reminded me strongly of Jay McInerney. Except that, I hasten to add, it reminded me of Jay McInerney when Jay McInerney was good. That is, the McInerney of Bright Lights, Big City, not the disappointing McInerney of Brightness Falls and then The Good Life.
I hasten to that particular clarification because, unlike the later McInerney, whose pages are clogged with exposition and whose prose is often simply mundane, Russell Smith’s sentences crackle along. His dialogue is good and he never succumbs to the urge to go back and explain things for the sake of the dopey reader. How Insensitive is sharp and funny, and its nomination for the GG was well deserved.
So I find myself wondering why McInerney became a big success, while Smith remains, in the class photo of Canadian novelists, in the second row, behind Atwood and Ondaatje and all the other popular kids, but in front of Whatshername and Whothehellisthat. It’s certainly not for lack of a good book.
I could chew on that one for a good long while. Is international success (Atwood, Ondaatje, Munro) a prerequisite to being invited to all the best parties? Does this usually spring from domestic success, as in the case of Annabel Lyon or Rawi Hage, who got shortlisted for everything in sight, or Joseph Boyden? And if the big awards are, in fact, the kingmakers of Canadian literature, then why do they continually elude funny books, books with contemporary settings, and so on? Do Canadian readers not like these things?
The questions that come to mind, then, are the same old questions.
The answer may be simpler. How Insensitive is, in Canlit, an outsider book, because Canlit prizes the outsider. Cape Breton, with approximately 0.5 % of the Canadian population, provides some 37.94 % of our literary settings; the remainder are provided by the likes of Moose Factory, Neepawa, and Dungannon. Canlit is all about the marginalized, and How Insensitive is not.
Oh, sure, Smith tries to fit in, by making Ted Owen a Maritimer by way of Montreal, and therefore an outsider in Toronto, but the fact remains that this is a novel about a straight white male in Toronto, who commits the terrible crime of insensitivity to the plight of cattle and thus falls afoul of right-thinking Canadians everywhere, or at least, right-thinking Canadians on the editorial board of a little magazine.
One of the things Smith’s satire exposes, I think, is Canlit’s distaste for satire. In short, this is a novel, at some level, about itself.
Something always happens to spoil my morning. Today, it was an article in The Globe & Mail, suggesting that we should do away with the old, crusty idea of teaching students literature, and just let them read, well, whatever the heck they want to.
For the past three years, Dr. Ivey has been involved with a project at a Virginia school in which 300 Grade 8 English students were allowed full choice over their reading with few strings or work attached, other than classroom discussions about shared themes and small group conversations if several students had read the same book. The goal was to get every student engaged in reading – the kind that you do in your own free time.
Why are we moving the reading we do on our own time into the classroom? Because, I suppose, we don’t read on our own time otherwise. So it would make sense to get the kids reading, but the thing that puzzles me is, exactly how are you going to develop literacy beyond the basic level without discussing the book? And how are you going to discuss the book if everyone’s reading a different book?
There’s a distressing overtone to this article. The suggestion is that simply reading is good enough. Dr. Ivey herself confuses the goals of any decent English curriculum:
And to those who argue in favour of a common base of knowledge through class-assigned novels, she scoffs: “The experience of being assigned a book is extremely common. Having knowledge of [that book] is rare.”
But the point of high-school English is not to make sure everyone can quote Hamlet, as this article continually suggests. It’s to make sure that students have the literacy skills to understand Hamlet, and anything else they may read in the future, including half-witted lifestyle articles in The Globe & Mail. The aim of teaching literature at the high-school level is not to teach literature itself, but to teach students how to read it.
We don’t let math students solve the equations they want to solve. We don’t let chemistry students run the experiments they want to run. We don’t do these things because we want these students to learn a set of principles. But with literature, we throw up our hands and say, what the hell; let the universities teach principles to those who want to learn them.
This is important. If fiction becomes a game for people with MA’s, fiction is doomed. The audience that literary fiction should engage includes literate, educated people with degrees in things like aquatic ecology and mechanical engineering—literate, educated people who haven’t taken an English course since high school. Our schools can’t throw up their hands and leave it up to the universities.
We need to improve the way English courses are taught. But declaring that we’ll be happy as long as the kids are reading surely isn’t the solution.
… there is still something disturbing in my landscapes, because there’s something quite dark in me. It would be stupid to think you could get away with 30 or 40 years of photographing wars and death and that once you finish all the bad dreams will be done and dusted. There may not be humans in my images but there is still danger in these fields. My pictures reflect something about me. And I print them dark because my thoughts are dark.
There’s a battleground inside all of us I think. I have seen a lot of human suffering but that doesn’t mean I am a terrible miserable old man. I think I’m just surrounded by ghosts.
That’s one of several comments from Don McCullin, quoted at Ciara Leeming’s blog.
McCullin is fascinating because, unlike James Nachtwey, he doesn’t seem to have any real answers to the ethical dilemmas of his work as a war photographer. He suggests, quite candidly, that his war photography was futile, that it served no purpose, and that it wasn’t worth the risk and sacrifice. He inhabits a landscape of regret, which one is tempted to see in his dark and brooding winter landscapes. But despite this, he never did destroy his negatives, and he’s been energetically promoting his new book, Shaped by War, and his show at the Imperial War Museum North.
If I can be permitted to stroke my goatee and indulge in the kind of amateur psychoanalysis that I normally deride, perhaps his reaction is partly motivated by his own frank admission that wars, for him, were a thrill. It’s hard to maintain a stance of humanitarian concern when you admit to being an adrenalin junkie. That’s a neat explanation, but a facile one. McCullin has also said, repeatedly, that his negatives call up ghosts; it’s unlikely that anyone could photograph war, as he did, for any period of time without being troubled by it.
McCullin may just be more honest in discussing his feelings than others.
I finally got the film scanner working, despite the lack of drivers for Windows 7. (The solution was a third-party application called Vuescan.)
In the basement, to my surprise, I found a bottle of Edwal Hypo Eliminator which, based on the date scribbled on the big glass bottle of working solution, dates to 2004. I’m betting this stuff is no good anymore. But I’m surprised, because I can’t remember ever having used any kind of hypo eliminator.
Anyways, I’ve got film, I’ve got chemicals, I’ve got the scanner working … I’ve just about got this thing nailed. All I need now is some kind of, you know, subject.
It’s not a lost art. Not yet, anyway.
Got back from Montreal and decided the time had come to get down to working on some black-and-white photography. I haven’t shot any B&W in about five years, and having certain plans for this fall, I thought it might be a good idea to blow the dust and cobwebs off my memory of how to process this stuff, and especially of how to get decent scans of B&W negatives, a problem I’ve never really solved to my satisfaction.
The bottle of HC-110 I dug out of the basement had a uniform pink colour, as might be expected, so it was off to find new chemicals. My new bottle of HC-110 has an expiry date of November, 2006, but the colour looks good. (Rest assured, I apply a slightly higher level of care where food is concerned.)
To my surprise, I can’t get Tri-X Pan. The explanation is that the Kodak distributor is imposing minimum order quantities that can’t be met, so it’s Neopan 400 instead. Seems I’ll be switching to Ilford chemicals and Fuji film from here on in. It’s hard to be a creature of habit these days.
Now I just need a subject worth photographing.
I’ll be out of here at zero dark stupid tomorrow, bound for my least favorite place in the world.
There does happen to be a used bookstore in the neighborhood, which has coughed up some interesting finds in the past, but I won’t be getting there this trip. Besides, I have been placed under a book-buying moratorium because of the puppy.
So instead, I will contemplate the anonymity of hotel rooms and the extraordinary ability of the Montreal Canadiens to blow a two-goal lead in the last two minutes of the stinking game. And then lose the damn thing in the shootout.