Random Passage, by Bernice Morgan

This is Part 6 in my Primer on the Newfoundland Novel. Click here to read the previous posts in the series.

“It is better to have no history or an imagined one?” – Bernice Morgan

Bernice Morgan’s first novel, Random Passage, was published in 1992. Historically, by no means is it “the first Newfoundland novel” – dozens precede it. However, to my mind, it nonetheless serves as a kind of Ur-text, a crystallization of how Newfoundland imagines itself – and a starting point for many of the texts that came after it. But perhaps I feel this way because I was only 9 years old when it was published, and so my cultural and historical awareness developed in a post-Random Passage context. How did Newfoundlanders imagine their history before Random Passage? (I mean, obviously they imagined it, but how did those imaginings look?) I’m not certain. What I am certain of is that Bernice Morgan’s account of rural Newfoundland’s history, as contained within Random Passage, is the default mode in Newfoundland’s historical imaginary. Countless reviews on sites like GoodReads praise its accuracy – to people writing in the 2010s, Newfoundland’s pre-Industrial past is just how Bernice Morgan portrayed it. For these reasons alone, its place in this series is secure – indeed, I could have opened with it (I almost did) – but there’s yet more to discuss.

The popularity and the long reach of Random Passage can’t be overlooked. It was a national best-seller, and, a decade after its release, it was made into a popular miniseries by the CBC and RTÉ (in Ireland). A scattered Newfoundland novel had gained national attention before this – Percy Janes’ House of Hate, for example – but there were two important differences about Random Passage: first, it crossed a critical threshold in popularity and, doing so, gained some international attention (helped by the TV series, no doubt), and, second, it explicitly set out to tell not just a Newfoundland story, but to tell the story of Newfoundland – to explain the origin and nature of the hardscrabble society that had, improbably, survived for generations with almost no support or encouragement on an isolated and inhospitable coast.

Random Passage by Bernice Morgan

Random Passage by Bernice Morgan

Cape Random, the fictional outport where Random Passage is mostly set, takes its name from Random Island and Cape Island, the settlements where Morgan’s father and mother came from, respectively. Cape Random serves as synecdoche for all of rural Newfoundland, and Random Passage is nothing less than an Aeneid of Newfoundland’s own – something I think Morgan must have intended, as she named one of the central characters “Lavinia” (who becomes Aeneas’s bride in the Aeneid). Morgan departs from Virgil, whose Lavinia, although a living representation of the Latin people, almost never expresses herself. Morgan uses her Lavinia as a mouthpiece, focalizing much of the narrative through her eyes and making the reader privy to excerpts from her journal at various points. Indeed, that is one of the points Random Passage seems keen to make: the work of founding and growing Newfoundland society and culture was as much the work of women as it was of men – maybe moreso. It’s Lavinia who founds the first school and teaches the children to read and write, and it’s ambitious Mary Bundle who learns how to better coax vegetables out of the ungenerous soil. More importantly, though, it’s Lavinia who becomes the chronicler of the community’s history, and, in the world of Random Passage, a culture is the account of its history.

But Random Passage is doing more than recovering the unwritten contributions of women to Newfoundland’s past. It’s an act of imaginative recovery in a more basic sense. Here is a summary of what prompted Morgan to write Random Passage:

“Morgan recounts her Newfoundland childhood experiences, noting that the production and dissemination of Newfoundland culture was almost nonexistent. Watching American films and reading English or Canadian literature while in school, she recalls that even in the 1960s the school literature book, Our Heritage, never even mentioned the word Newfoundland” (from the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage profile on Bernice Morgan)

So it makes sense that Newfoundland should be presented to us through the eyes and the words of a Lavinia rather than an Aeneas – Morgan is, with her novel, giving voice to the voiceless.

In settler societies, historical fiction – especially generational sagas – carry the weight of a young and illegitimate society’s desire for historical and ethical legitimacy. Multi-generational settler stories are narratives of emplacement, meant to assert and reassert a connection between colonists and colonized territory. However, this process is more complicated in Random Passage. The novel comes from the sense that Newfoundland, while irrefutably a colonial project, has also been colonized by Canada, its heritage literally written out of official accounts of the nation. Yet some authentic Newfoundland exists – persists – in an imagined past, before colonial contact with mainland North America – thus, for a text like Random Passage, telling the past becomes not only a colonizing act, as one might expect, but also an attempt to resist and undo colonialism.

Indeed, it’s stressed multiple times, in different ways, that Newfoundland is an illegitimate settlement . The novel’s Prologue is narrated by an elderly Beothuk woman who contemplates the recent arrival of the soulless and violent “Widduns” while her family catches seals off what will later become Cape Random (this scene presages Morgan’s third novel, 2007’s underappreciated Cloud of Bone, an intense meditation on the Beothuk genocide). But, unlike other European settlements in North America, Newfoundland settlements like Cape Random are also illegitimate in the European view. Even as the Thirteen Colonies are fighting their war of independence, it is only questionably legal to settle most of the Newfoundland coast. The unofficial society that exists there is essentially a cashless, lawless one, without any political, educational, or cultural institutions beyond those it creates for itself out of material locally available. The sight of an English sail on the horizon is a cause for anxiety, not for reassurance:

“I allow she’s an English vessel. I minds Uncle Ki Barbour tellin’ us how they used to come down this way burnin’ every house that had a chimney. They once hung two men up in Pond Island, the navy did . . . and you knows none of we crowd, except for Thomas, got any rights livin’ in this place!”

References to historical attempts by the British to discourage or erase settlement in Newfoundland echo – deliberately, I’d guess – the erasure of Newfoundland from the Canadian schoolbooks of Morgan’s past.

So, Random Passage is an unusual historical fiction that operates in ways unlike its mainland Canadian and American counterparts.  I’d argue that, even beyond ‘explaining’ Newfoundland, it is a novel that wants to provide Newfoundlanders living in the present with revitalizing imaginative access to an overwritten/erased past that they are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with or ignorant of – to provide Newfoundland with a tribal memory. It serves a function opposite to the one I’ve ascribed to Come, Thou Tortoise – it creates a Newfoundland where a connection with a pre-Confederation past, with a culture and a way of life now vanished, is precisely what makes a Newfoundlander a Newfoundlander. It is a book about a long lineage of unlikely survivors, a book that intends to propagate that lineage through the imaginative reconnection of the present with the past. Thus both its setting and its characters have to serve as archetypes – Cape Random has to be any or every outport, and the cast of wretches who barely survive there have to serve as imagined ancestors for any Newfoundlander who encounters them.

A book so deeply engaged – by necessity – with archetypes could easily be trite, cliché, predictable. Like any cultural origin story, it could easily be pedantic or polemic – and I suspect it is put to those uses in some Newfoundland high school classrooms, where it is often assigned. Random Passage, though, rises above those qualities, due in no small part to Morgan’s abilities in creating characters and narratives, combined with the consciously metafictional qualities of the novel. The point of view shifts frequently; the novel is polyphonic, self-contradictory. The first half of the book is told primarily (though not exclusively) through one character, Lavinia, partly through the trick of free indirect discourse, partly through excerpts from her journal. The second part of the novel spans the same period of time and many of the same events, but this time it is entirely spoken in the first person, told by Thomas, the fish merchant’s agent (mentioned in the quote above as the only one who “got any rights livin’ in this place!”) with a shadowy past.

In this way, the plot, which is also more complex and engaging than a simple origin myth requires, can spin out its deceptions, its twists. Rather than following a conventional linear pathway, Morgan returns to the same scenes multiple times, giving different information and conflicting accounts, drawing attention, often explicitly, to the way that our knowledge of the past is always unreliable, always mediated by biased and partial reports. Characters mistake one another, misapprehend situations, misremember events,  make bad decision based on bad information. If Random Passage is meant to undo the erasure of Newfoundland’s heritage, to give Newfoundland’s past – and thus Newfoundland identity – back to readers who have been deprived of it through such colonial erasure, then Morgan is also smart enough and ethical enough to deny any sense of solidity or certainty in that past. The past is only accessible in the telling of the past, and each telling changes it. The historical Newfoundland, the seat of Newfoundland identity in Random Passage, becomes “[a] place . . . forever reshaping itself . . . [Will it] vanish completely some day. . . ? No, it is the changing that saves it.”

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Rare Birds, by Edward Riche

This is Part 5 in my ongoing “Primer on the Newfoundland Novel” series. For links to parts 1-4, check the bottom of the post.

“I did well on tips. Funny how Newfoundlanders are with money. They sense the end is nigh, I guess.”

Edward Riche’s first novel Rare Birds emerged in 1997, at the midpoint of a particularly apocalyptic era in Newfoundland. This was after the cod moratorium but before the oil boom – a period when the province’s population shrank by more than 10% in less than ten years, when national newspapers callously told Newfoundlanders to “move where the work is” – last one off the island make sure to turn off the lights and lock the door. 1997 was an odd year,though – at perhaps the peak of this pessimism, it was also a year of official celebration, the supposed 500th anniversary of Newfoundland’s European “discovery.” No shortage of government money was poured into pagentry and pomp (the Queen went to Bonavista to greet a replica of John Cabot’s ship as it sailed into harbour, even). However, even as the mere existence of Newfoundland was celebrated, it still seemed doomed, fundamentally ill-fated:

“Nature was reclaiming Newfoundland in the name of the Beothuks and the great auk. The wharfs would wash away, the softball diamonds would become bogs and the phone booth would sink into the damp earth. Newfoundland resisted civilization. The ancient Dorset peoples had failed. The Point Revenge Indians had failed. The Norse had failed. The Basques had failed. And now the British Empire and its Canadian water boys were failing. The island belonged to the black bears and caribou and lynx and crows. And they would soon have it back.”

Something of this atmosphere, this sense of an unsustainable largesse-in-despair, of a fraudulent celebration that can’t help but ring hollow, characterizes Rare Birds, an intelligent but unpretentious plot-driven comedy. It’s a novel that feels, to me, something like a half-rueful, half-wild last laugh, a Swiftian smirk shared by the few who see and comprehend the unravelling situation but are powerless to alter a thing as the island itself sinks under its own weight into the Slough of Despond – hurried to its inevitable fate, perhaps, by the hand of its unloving colonial masters (see above re: Britain and Canada), but doomed, in truth, by its unlucky and maladaptive nature.

Rare Birds by Edward Riche

Rare Birds by Edward Riche

The protagonist of Rare Birds is Dave. Dave is a foodie suffering what might be a mid-life crisis. He has quit his job, moved home to Newfoundland, and emptied his bank accounts in order to open a fine dining restaurant in a fishing village just outside St. John’s, in the ‘”brown bag belt” – something that might make sense in 2010s Newfoundland, flush with oil money, but a quixotic if not insane move in the economically moribund 1990s. Dave’s restaurant has a fittingly ill-favoured name: The Auk, a bird driven into extinction by the insatiable bloodlust of Newfoundlanders, who slaughtered them into oblivion. Dave has spared no expense: the restaurant has been lavishly renovated, and the wine cellar is full of expensive vintages.

The novel opens several months after the restaurant does, and both the business and its proprietor are floundering; there are no customers and Dave’s wife has abandoned the rapidly worsening situation, taking a job with a conservative think-tank in Washington, DC; bankruptcy and divorce both beckon. The novel’s plot takes off when Dave’s eccentric neighbour (and perhaps his only real friend), Phonse, hits on a scheme to bring customers to The Auk’s door: fake a rare bird sighting, a colourful and distinctive bird last seen perhaps twenty years ago (the sighting is debated), now thought definitely extinct. Such a report will bringing hopeful (and hungry) bird watchers out of the city (or, indeed, from around the globe) to the remote locale, the very doorstep of Dave’s restaurant, The Auk. And as The Auk is the only place to eat anywhere nearby, he will have captive customers. The refined palates of the bird-watching set will be impressed by the improbable existence of fine dining in rural Newfoundland; word will get ’round, and Dave and The Auk will both be saved. The scheme works, but almost immediately entropy sets to work complicating the hoax. Sexual frustration, industrial espionage, menacing locals, bumbling Canadian government officials, and a lot of cocaine make maintaining this fraudulent success all the more difficult, and things begin to spin out of control.

Phonse, the engineer and prime mover of the situation, is many things: an inventor, a schemer, an autodidact, a fatalist, a paranoiac (justifiably, it turns out), a dynamo of energy with a relentless and thoroughly open mind. He’s probably the novel’s most interesting character, and he’s also pure Bayman – one of the two most basic tribal distinctions that exist in Newfoundland (the other being Townie – about which more later). We are introduced to Phonse through Dave’s memory of him euthanizing an adolescent humpback whale that had become trapped in sea ice and was doomed to be slowly and cruelly crushed to death. This extreme act of difficult kindness, marginal to if not outside of propriety, sums up Phonse perfectly. Phonse either sees the situation clearly or educates himself until he can do so, and then he simply, without ceremony or posturing, does the thing that needs doing; to lesser minds, this may make him appear eccentric if no insane.

Phonse is a Bayman. Townies are from St.John’s. Baymen are from the countless rural communities. In the Townie mind, Baymen are supposed to be uneducated, unworldly, simple, small-minded, perhaps even uncivilized. Phonse is none of those things, but he lives in exile from his outport community, Push Cove, because many of the people there precisely fit this stereotype. By including both the stereotype and its opposition, though, Riche attacks from both sides both offensive stereotypes of and romantic notions about Newfoundland.

“It was the hollow myth of Newfoundland again. The people were all supposed to be so sweet and colourful but never dangerous, the good poor. This was Canada’s Happy Province. I’ll introduce you to some car cannibals, thought Dave. They’d club you like a seal pup and sell your organs for the price of a dozen beer.”

And what about the Townies? If Phonse is a Bayman, Dave is a Townie; if Townies have a dim view of Baymen that is, nonetheless, often accurate, Baymen return the favour, likewise with a degree of accuracy:

“The peculiar little city gripping the steep sides of a small harbour seems magical on first sight. Its streets are a senseless maze, the map of a drunk’s progress. Its wooden row houses are painted the most audacious colours to combat the dreary agency of persistent fog and drizzle. The people, the Townies, seem friendly, generous with colourful opinions, spoken with a distinct mongrel brogue of Irish and English influence. They are surprisingly worldly. For the people of the many outports along the coast of Newfoundland, St. John’s was Sin City, impossibly cosmopolitan and jaded for such a small place. The charms of St. John’s were undeniable, irresistable. No wonder it had suckered so many souls. The people that really lived in St. John’s, the ones who hadn’t gone away too long or hadn’t fallen under its spell during a brief visit, the real Townies, knew better . . . . They knew that St. John’s was, beneath the pink and powder blue paint, the political capital of a four-hundred year legacy of misery and deprivation, a desperate colonial outpost of missed opportunities. Dave’s town.”

Rare Birds is worth reading for its wit and its plot; it’s a funny, briskly paced, readable book; you can get through it in a day. In addition to these qualities, passages such as those I’ve quoted here make it a notable and useful introduction to Newfoundland. It’s a novel that’s deeply engaged with the project of theorizing the place, thinking about its nature, its past and its future. Riche has absolutely no romanticism for Newfoundland, and, judging from Rare Birds and his other writings, he relishes opportunities to dismantle romantic myths about the place. But this isn’t to say he doesn’t love Newfoundland as well. Rare Birds demonstrates a wealth of knowledge about the place, its history and its people, the kind of knowledge few Newfoundlanders possess (at one point, Dave bitterly thinks that the provincial slogan should be changed from “The Happy Province” to “I Forgets” – a nice riff on / inversion of the Quebecois Je me souviens). Rare Birds also demonstrates a lot of deep thought about why Newfoundland is such a “tragic case,”  a “battered and bewildered nation, the sport of historic misfortune,” and it does all this through the medium of a fast-paced plot-driven satire.

Previous posts in this series: Lisa Moore’s Alligator, Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Michael Crummey’s Galore, and Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise.

Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant

This is part four in my primer on the Newfoundland novel – check out parts one, two, and three.

Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, was published in 2009. As far as I know, there was nothing like it in Newfoundland literature before and there has been nothing like it after. In the wider world, there are books it could be compared to—The Curious Instance of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example—but, then again, its very Newfoundlandiness makes it different from those, too.

Why should you want to read Come, Thou Tortoise? Well, it is very funny and very sad. It’s also much smarter than you might initially give it credit for—it’s not for nothing that the title is an allusion to Shakespeare (specifically, it’s from The Tempest, when Prospero is calling Caliban to make his first appearance). It’s a very funny, very weird, very sad, very loving book. It’s an exuberant text, full of stuff, in love with language, in love with the world, in love with improbable and atypical forms of love, of being.

In love with language? It’s almost an understatement. In addition to literary allusions that span Donne to Rimbaud, the book delights in puns, wordplay, productive linguistic errors and misreadings; these might strike some readers as cloying or cutesy or corny, at first. But, if you take the book on its own terms, it becomes clear as you read on just how deeply ingrained these word games are in the emotional lives and worldviews of the core characters, of the family and community and microculture they have created for one another through sharing these language games. Even the protagonist’s name and identity are tied up in these productive puns: she is “Audrey” but she is also, to family and friends, “Oddly” – which is how she sees and makes sense of (reads) the world: oddly.

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

One of the very first puns a reader encounters serves as a good example for this kind of thing: Come, Thou Tortoise begins with Audrey/Oddly. She is racing home from Portland, OR, to her hometown, St. John’s, NL, because her father is unexpectedly in a “comma. Sorry, coma.” Oddly tells us how  she finds the concept of the comma comforting; a comma is a pause in a sentence, a temporary stop, but the sentence keeps going afterwards. There is life after a comma. She is rushing home to deliver a heart-moving,  (literally) rousing bedside speech, and she imagines, if she gets the speech right, that her father will wake up. This might strike the first-time reader as ‘quirky,’ and quirk is a difficult spice to cook with. But this is all in the novel’s first few pages, when the world of the text is still unfamiliar; as one reads on, it becomes clear just how much power language, narrative, and ritual have for the little queer community that is Oddly’s home in St. John’s. Making punny changes in language becomes a way of tweaking its power, bending it, perhaps, to a more favourable path, if only for a time.

This little community of disobedient readers (in the style of Eve Sedgwick) could exist anywhere, in any town or city in the world. But it’s particularly fortuitous that it exists in St. John’s; Come, Thou Tortoise is a love-letter to the weird little city on the edge of the continent, but, like everything else, it refuses to play it straight. The cultural and physical geography of the ‘real’ St. John’s is constantly warped, for the delight or comfort or satisfaction of the people at the novel’s heart. At the same time, Newfoundland’s relative obscurity and unimportance on the global scale make it a safe harbour where these disobedient discursive practices can flourish, can create that little queer community.

I could go on—especially since Come, Thou Tortoise is the focus of one of the chapters of my dissertation (so I’ll almost certainly come back to this book in the future here on the blog).  For now I’ll say that if you can handle the deep punning, and if you’re interested in queer new imaginings of St. John’s, and if you’re looking for something that’s by turns very funny and very sad, you should pick up this book.

Also, one of the narrators is an actual tortoise.

Galore, by Michael Crummey

Here is the third instalment in my primer on the Newfoundland novel. If you missed them, here are links to the Introduction, Part 1 (Lisa Moore’s Alligator), and Part 2 (Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams)

The elevator-pitch for Michael Crumey’s third novel, Galore, would be “if 100 Years of Solitude were set in a Newfoundland outport fishing village.” But, as the elevator doors chimed open, I’d hasten to add “except in a really good and not derivative way!,” because that description is as dangerous as it is apt. Why dangerous? Well, García Márquez-derived magical realism is a tired and overworked patch of literary ground. But I’d argue that, in Crummey’s hands, it becomes fertile and exciting again, and this is so for two reasons: the source material provided by Newfoundland, and the specific cultural work Crummey achieves with it.

Galore, by Michael Crummey

Galore, by Michael Crummey

Before Galore, Crummey had published poetry and short story collections as well as two novels (I’ll discuss one of these novels, the Giller-short-listed River Thieves, later in this series). Both of his first two novels are historical fiction, and both are written in a grounded realist mode. So Galore is a notable departure in both content and execution. It’s a big, bold, imaginative, energetic book, stuffed to the brim with the improbable oral history and folklore of pre-industrial Newfoundland.

Until very recently, rural Newfoundland was an often-illiterate oral culture, mostly settled in the 18th century, primarily (often overwhelmingly) by people from the southwest of England (think Thomas Hardy’s Wessex) and the area of southeastern Ireland around the “Three Sisters” (the rivers Suir, Nore, and Barrow), with Waterford City as an epicentre. Various combinations of these two founder populations, plus random additions of Aboriginal, French, Welsh, or Scottish people (among others), were left for a couple of centuries to scrape an existence in the various nooks and crannies of the island’s jagged and inhospitable coast – not totally isolated, but isolated enough. This gave the cultural DNA of these founder populations time to combine, evolve, and mutate, as well as an environment which only encouraged such a process. So it’s hardly surprising that Newfoundland has a wealth of folklore, ghost stories, fairy tales, apocryphal history, and so on. This provides material that Crummey puts to good use in Galore. The fictional community of Paradise Deep, where Galore is set, is even structured along the lines of a bifurcated English and Irish origin, with the families of King-Me Sellers (blustering English merchant) and Devine’s Widow (eldritch Irish matriarch) representing the initially disparate cultures that eventually merge into the strange hybrid that is Newfoundland.

But, at the same time, Galore is deflating the touristic cliché version of everything I said in the previous paragraph, which insists on viewing Newfoundland as a strange island off the maps and outside of time, where everyone is charmingly Oirish and it’s perpetually about 1850 by way of 1350. The promotional copy on the back cover even engages with this trope: the book is said to portray “the improbable medieval world that was rural Newfoundland.”

I remember Galore got a lot of traction in the US and world-wide after its release; it was short-listed for the Dublin IMPAC literary award (the world’s most lucrative literary prize), and Crummey was given a feature interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR (you can listen to the interview by clicking here). I bought my copy of Galore at McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, and the checkout clerk exclaimed, when I laid it on the counter, “oh, I’ve been meaning to read this! I hear it’s excellent!” This made me happy, but I also wondered in what ways the book’s popularity might be an example of Shipping News syndrome, where the appeal is rooted in how a little-known and remote chunk of white North America is surprisingly revealed as strange and exotic.

Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay (Michael Collins, 2013)

Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay (Michael Collins, 2013)

But that is also somewhat the point of Galore; Newfoundland was, in Crummey’s vision, a strange and exotic place – but note my use of past-tense there (and the use of past-tense in the back-cover copy: “the improbable medieval world that was rural Newfoundland)”. It was. Galore cuts off in World War II, but it doesn’t just cut off; it loops back to the beginning, suggesting that Newfoundland, between settlement and industrialization/becoming part of Canada, has a kind of circular, infinite-within-its-boundaries existence; it makes that period of Newfoundland’s past something other than normal time, other than normal history. The limitations, privations, fears, and wonders of pre-industrial outport life are scarcely comprehensible to most contemporary Newfoundlanders; this “gone world,” as Crummey calls it elsewhere, remains in living memory for another decade or two, most Newfoundlanders only have a second-hand knowledge of it – we’ve heard of this ‘other’ Newfoundland, but we’ve never been there; it’s only spectral; you can only catch glimpses of it here and there. Those glimpses exist in the traces of ghost stories and fairy stories and folklore, the very material Crummey uses as to construct his text.

In some ways, then, Galore is still a historical novel, it simply has moved from documentary history and written history to oral and cultural history, to intangible felt history. Galore is contemporary Newfoundland’s attempt to come to terms with its estranged past, its emotional and, well, spiritual history, something indistinct but still very slightly perceptible, for a little while longer, at least. Galore is the sort of history which resist verification, which is beyond factuality, the kind of thing that has never been written down in history books, but which can occasionally be captured in literature such as this.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston

Here’s part two of my primer to the Newfoundland novel; read the introduction and part one.

In this instalment, I’ll be talking about Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. This novel would have been a natural starting point for the whole series. It received plenty of attention (both acclaim and controversy) when it was published in 1998, and it has had an enduring popular and critical appeal, finding a place in the later canon of Canadian literature.

It’s a big, ambitious novel that, in some sense, sets out to be the Newfoundland novel, telling the Newfoundland story: how so idiosyncratic, prickly, ill-fated, and (perhaps foolishly) proud a people came to be (inevitably yet improbably) part of the Canadian nation via the unlikely instrument of one Joseph R. Smallwood, himself a scrappy bundle of contradictions. In other ways, though, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a kind of bildungsroman, following the progress of Smallwood from his shabby and impoverished St John’s working class background to the tin-pot tyrant of Newfoundland, from a disgraced schoolboy to the Last Living Father of Confederation (as he self-styles himself) – except Johnston withholds from Smallwood the calmness, wisdom, and self-possession that is the expected end-point of a bildungsroman. Instead, Johnston instils at Smallwood’s core both an inferiority and a superiority complex, reflecting that same combination at the core of Newfoundland, and, in both cases, he leaves them unresolved, lets the contradictory energy generated by such a combination spiral out in strange, irrational, self-deluding ways.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

Colony isn’t a blood-and-soil national/historical epic designed as a nation-building exercise. Rather, it’s a shifty game of what-if and maybe and never-was. It’s clever, ironic, and unwilling to commit to any particular grand narrative. Most of the novel takes place before Confederation; some of it is set in New York City and the rest of it is set in Newfoundland. It’s clear throughout the novel that Newfoundland does not make sense as part of Canada, has no affiliation or connection to the nation it ends up becoming part of, but then again, nations themselves don’t make much sense in the logic of this book. The call to nationhood is real, but it is issued to Newfoundland from an outsized landscape that is itself too huge and harsh to allow the few impoverished and exploited residents any opportunity to begin to answer it. Thus, the melancholy that sometimes surfaces in the book is not a melancholy for a lost nation, but rather a melancholy for a nation that never was, a nation that circumstance made impossible – the unrequited dream of the title.

Johnston’s writing in general, and in this novel in particular, exhibits a strange but appealing combination of 18th, 19th, and 20th century styles, like some mix of Henry Fielding (whose surname Johnston borrows for this book), Charles Dickens, and James Joyce, exhibiting hybrid vigour and run half-wild. The book is huge as the land and the personalities it’s about; it’s 560-odd pages of gothic neo-Victorian twists and turns, social realism, satire, mysterious goings-on, and earnest poetic reflections on land and identity.  Colony constantly undercuts itself; melancholic passages on the immensity of the land and the doomed nature of the people who live on it are intercut with breezy satirical excerpts from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland, a text-within-a-text Johnston creates as a kind of counter-point to the serious work of cultural navel-gazing. These excerpts are written by Sheilagh Fielding, journalist/satirist/plagiarist, Smallwood’s antithesis, nemesis, soulmate, and foil. She is Smallwood’s opposite in almost every way – tall (over six feet) where he is diminutive, ironic where he is earnest, elitist where he is populist, self-aware – sometimes paralysingly so – where he lacks self-awareness, allowing him to undertake a seemingly endless sequence of failed “sure-fire schemes” with great energy and vigour.

Here is one such excerpt from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland:

In 1610, John Guy starts the first formal settlement at Cupids, and is fooled by the fluke of two successive mild winters into thinking he would like to live there He is convinced otherwise by the less-anomalous winter of 1613, after which he returns home and for the rest of his life wakes ups creaming in the middle of the night, refusing to go back to sleep until his wife assures him he no longer lives in Newfoundland.

The London and Bristol Company sells John Guy’s colony to William Vaughan. Vaughan, after a long talk with Guy, which he regrets not having had before he made his purchase, does not actually visit his colony, but instead writes a book extolling its virtues called The Golden Fleece and sends in his place a number of Welshmen.

After not having heard from them for two years, he sends Sir Richard Whitbourne to see how they are doing. Whitbourne reports back to Vaughan that not all of the are dead and there is even talk among those still alive of building shelters of some kind. Inexplicably, the colony is abandoned in 1620.

Vaughan approaches various people and offers large portions of his colony to those who answer “No” to the question “Have you ever met John Guy?” (67-68)

Sheilagh Fielding is one of those breakout characters you get sometimes; I’ve seen her described as one of the great characters of Canadian literature, and Johnston has written a sort-of-sequel, The Custodian of Paradise, focusing solely on Fielding and her whereabouts and activities during a segment of time where she drops from view within The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. She is entirely a creation of Johnston’s, but it’s telling how well-realized she is as a character – and how vital she seems to the story – that people have mistaken her for real, have given her a fraudulent historical dimension (and this is fully in keeping with Fielding’s own slippery relationship with the so-called ‘truth’).

And indeed, Johnston inserts Fielding to represent a kind of third way within a debate that is usually framed as a binary; Fielding, the ironic auto-didact, undercutting authority and destroying certainty, is neither a Newfoundland nationalist nor a Confederate (Fielding, it’s telling to note, does not vote in the referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and dooms its chances at independence). Fielding knows that Newfoundland has always been a colony and always will be, whether as a small province or as a small nation-state. But this does not alleviate the emotional and psychological pull that national narratives can exert; as Lévi-Strauss put it, in a quote I think of often: “you’re not done living just because you chalk it up to artifice.”

It doesn’t matter to the mountains that we joined Confederation, nor to the bogs, the barrens, the rivers or the rocks Or the Brow or Mundy Pond, or the land on which St. John’s and all the cities, towns, and settlements of Newfoundland are built. It wouldn’t have mattered to them if we hadn’t joined. . . .

We have joined a nation that we do not know, a nation that does not know us.

The river of what might have been still runs and there will never come a time when we do not hear it. (560)

When first published, and at certain points since then, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams has come under attack for sloppy history. This is telling of a few things. It tells that we are anxious about our history, how often parts of it are not told, how little most Newfoundlanders know of Newfoundland’s extra-Canadian existence. It also tells that the wounds Colony prods are still raw, still provoke passion and pain. Why else consider a work of fiction – something that is released from fact by its very nature – to be dangerous or distasteful or irresponsible if it gets facts wrong in the service of story, or in the service of creating something that feels correct to its creator? It’s very true that the story of Newfoundland in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, of what it was before it joined Canada, of its precarious and eccentric place within Canada, is seldom told. At least, in my youth, as a straight-A student and bookworm, I knew very little of it. It wasn’t until I studied it in the later years of my undergraduate degree that I even knew some basic facts – like who Sir Robert Bond was, or that Newfoundland was a Dominion, not a Republic, as tourist t-shirts might lead one to believe.

"Dead-Pan" Tells Newfies Of Union

Ottawa Citizen, July 31, 1948

To my mind, though, this makes The Colony of Unrequited Dreams even more important; its errors are small, its fictional inventions suitable and right-feeling. It is not propagandistic, not narrowly supporting one side of the debate or the other, but it makes familiar, palpable, and real the question of Newfoundland’s aborted almost-nationhood, its lingering sense of melancholy strangeness.

Alligator, by Lisa Moore

(for an explanation of this primer to the Newfoundland novel, see my introductory post here)

Alligator, by Lisa Moore

Alligator, by Lisa Moore

The first book I thought to recommend for this primer was Lisa Moore’s debut novel Alligator. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, Lisa Moore built a reputation within Canada as an accomplished author of short stories. She earned more international (and, belatedly, national) attention with her second novel, 2009’s February, the first (and to date only) Newfoundland book to be long-listed for the Booker prize; it also won last year’s Canada Reads contest. Her third novel, a crime caper called Caught, was released to strong reviews, also last year. But, to me, Alligator is the place to start. Why? Well, it’s not just that Alligator is my personal favourite of Moore’s books (although this is true). Hopefully, by the end of this post, a sense of why I’ve chosen Alligator specifically will emerge.

Moore is a fantastic prose stylist; her writing is blunt yet oblique, full of movement and visual detail. Moore is a master of micro-pacing, varying short, staccato phrases with run-on sentences to create a palpable sense of tempo in her work, rushing ahead here, lingering there, not hesitating to issue second-person commands amidst the action, to grab us by the collar and turn our attention to where she wants it to be. She has a knack for rearranging syntax, for picking out the grotesque details that are hidden in a banal scene. There are few commas in her prose, and dialogue is not marked by quotation marks; this makes the words more liquid, more torrential. See, in the excerpt below, how she starts with a flat statement, then launches into a nearly-unpunctuated rapid-fire sequence of verbs and nouns – and see how “toothpick” is the subject, not the object, of the verb “unfolds” (and note how awful “eyetooth” feels).

“The hot-dog stand isn’t for sale, Frank said. Valentin lifted his lip then in a kind of slow snarl and a toothpick unfolded out of his mouth and he picked at his eyetooth with it and examined the pick and dropped it in the gutter. His black sunglasses were full of the coloured lanterns that were strung across the street. He turned and the lanterns ran across the black lenses, one after the other. The city had done up George Street to look like drinking was a Newfoundland tradition. But the old-fashioned street lights were brand new” (139).

But this writerly prowess, which Alligator demonstrates ably, is only one of the reasons why this novel is on this list. One of the points of this primer is to introduce Newfoundland as a society and as a place to a (friendly, interested) reader who’s unfamiliar with both. It’s no accident that the excerpt above, chosen to show Moore’s technical chops, also ends with a filmic sequence of coloured lights passing across a black lens, immediately followed by a judo flip of the stereotype of the drunken Newfie and Olde St. John’s Towne: George Street is decorated to make it “look like drinking was a Newfoundlnd tradition,” but “”the old-fashioned street lights were brand new.” Alligator is all about the construction of a new Newfoundland that positions itself as already old.

More than that, Alligator is a vibrant, fragmentary, portrait-of-a-city kind of novel, if the city in question is weirdly both old and new, the last port of call on the edge of a continent, on “a cold and ugly island that hardly existed, could not be found on many maps” – and St. John’s is precisely all of those things. Alligator is full of sex and violence; petty skeets and petty bourgeoisie; American tourists and Russian mobsters; a dying filmmaker who returns home to create a romantic paean to the spirit of Olde Newfoundland and an infestation of invasive larval worms that’s eating the city alive -not just its trees, but its spirit, its psyche – even its underwear:

“The next day Frank heard Carol out on the fire escape pulling in her laundry. She had several pairs of underwear hung on the line, pastel colours, each pair flimsy and light-pierced. The panties were full of worms. They had gathered in the cotton-lined crotches of the underwear and made them look black.”

In short, Alligator is stuffed with things; it’s a novel squirming with life. In that sometimes discomforting or even nauseating abundance of detail, it captures something about the feel and the life of St. John’s. Specifically, the feel and the life of St. John’s in the brief cluster of close,  mauzy days it gets most summers, that time when everything lurid and vital about the place seems amplified. A jagged, uncomfortable exuberance, both in style and content, bursts the seams of passages like this one:

“The way you see the elm spanworms is you are almost on top of them and what you see is a blur that registers in some primitive part of the brain as danger, you focus involuntarily on the worm before your face. It comes into focus, the way it inches up the clear thread, and the other worms hanging beside it become visible. They look like twigs. You can mistake them for inanimate objects, except they move. They waver slightly as if they are uncertain of what to touch next. They look like they think.” (88).

Alligator is often praised for inaugurating a turn in Newfoundland literature, praised as the anti–Shipping News – an urban and urbane turn away from nostalgic and melancholic writing about a fading rural society increasingly out of place and out of time. But while the St. John’s of Moore’s fiction is indeed a cosmopolitan, energetic, shifting urban landscape, Alligator remains very much a detailed portrait of a specific place, and it would be a very different book if St. John’s and Newfoundland both did not provide it with such a specific and unusual cultural and historical context. Alligator, and the dying filmmaker I’ve mentioned, are both haunted by the ghost of Archbishop Fleming, the 19th century architect of Newfoundland’s romantic nationalism. The book engages specifically and repeatedly with the question of what Newfoundland is, post-Confederation, post-globalization. The ghosts of old Newfoundland have been appropriated and packaged for the tourists, but there is a deeper reality underneath that packaging, one that still has an enormous amount of imaginative and affective power in the world of this book. Here is Madeline, the filmmaker, moving heaven and earth to make her final masterpiece, a film about traditional, pre-Confederation Newfoundland, a film completely unconcerned with historical accuracy yet obsessed with the affect of an imagined never-real past:

“You get an idea in your head. She wanted Newfoundland before Confederation because what kind of people were they? She remembers her mother’s housekeeper tearing the skin off rabbits in the kitchen sink… She could not put into words about how she’d captured the history of Newfoundland in this film, new because she was inventing it, or how this film had spiritual implications….”

Perhaps, too, I started with Alligator somewhat selfishly. At the 2014 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities this May I’ll be delivering a paper on Alligator, gothic urbanism, the port versus the garrison, and Newfoundland. I’m writing it now, and my next post will be a translation of the paper’s abstract into somewhat less formal, somewhat less academic language. Hopefully, it’ll explain why I think Alligator is both very fresh, very challenging, yet still, at its heart, undeniably a novel about Newfoundland.

Newfoundland novel primer: introduction

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making posts about my favourite Newfoundland novels, explaining why I think they are so wonderful, but also why I think they are important as Newfoundland novels specifically. This is intended as an imperfect and partial primer to the Newfoundland novel.

It all started a few months ago when Alison Kinney, a writer friend who lives in New York City, posted the following question on my facebook wall:

Was talking with a friend about Newfoundland writers, was wondering if you had a top 10 list of recommendations? I thought I saw some on the Books That Influenced You list; should I just start there?

This, of course, opened wide a floodgate. I’d create a primer in Newfoundland literature for Alison, a must-read list, and I’d write a paragraph or so about each book I put on it. But I’ve always been leery of canons. Can a text – can any art at all – have an objective quality of goodness or worth by which it can be compared to others of its kind? I reject that idea out of hand – any assessment will be subjective, will value certain things over other things. One judge will be blind to something that would shine like a beacon to a different judge.

I guess, though, you can do an (imperfect, biased) assessment of how well a text represents a culture and a place, at least in general terms. You can also get a general sense of cultural impact, if a text is at least a few years old – a sense of what literary life it has (if any) beyond its own covers. But if I was to guide my ship by those stars, I’d have to call at ports like Death on the Ice, House of Hate, and, yes, The Shipping News, and I have never enjoyed or loved those books (this is not to denigrate their importance, or, in the case of Death on the Ice, the vital work of cultural mourning and memorialization that they do).

But context and canonicity (such as it is) can’t be ignored completely, especially since the person who asked for a list of recommendations is someone who has never been to Newfoundland, someone who is not familiar with the place, its history, its context, the way it is today. The list of recommendations would need to have an element of didacticism to it, resist it as I may.

But the person who asked is also someone I know a little, someone whose literary tastes I have some sense of. So my response to Alison’s request would also have an element of a friend making a reading list for a friend.

But should anyone ever go ahead making a reading list – or a canon, for that matter – without friendly intent, without imagining the reader’s position and the reader’s taste?

Next: Newfoundland novel primer: Alligator, by Lisa Moore