Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Red Dog, Red Dog" by Patrick Lane

Though Canadian and a consumer of literature, I am not a gourmand of Canadian literature. However, I worked for some time in the Writing & Publishing section of the Canada Council for the Arts - i.e., one of the public organizations that permit the bare survival of the vast majority of Canada's art scenes - and it was there that my brain became filled with half-conscious knowledge of the various players in Canada's literary community.

In my time there, I actually resisted any kind of mental appropriation of the Canadian novel or short story. I was convinced that to do so would short-circuit my finely tuned sense of the fantastic, diluted as it would become by the taint of The Real (Honest Reality being, as far as I was concerned, the only possible subject of "the mainstream"). However, in these last few months, the opposite has occurred: my appreciation for fantasy has been short-circuited by volition of what now feels to me like the genre's hollowness (probably because of my over-fixation, but that's beside the point), and, in search of salvation, I devoured a few substantially weird books (some Kafka, The Orange Eats Creeps [which gets five stars, though I utterly oppose the notion that it's a fantasy novel - hint: they're not really vampires], Cyclonopedia [massive disappointment, literary conmanship], Thomas Ligotti and Steven Erikson [both superb]), and finally ended up on the doorstep of CanLit when I spied Patrick Lane's "Red Dog, Red Dog" in the library and remembered how it had once been lauded in a CAC jury room.

"Red Dog, Red Dog" tells the story of a family residing in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia in the late 1950s. It is a paragon of that critical sentiment that declares Canadian literature is depressing, because it starts, ends, and goes on about death, failure, and sorrow. In fact, before I checked "Red Dog, Red Dog" out of the library, I sat down to read it for a few minutes and got choked up. I was nearly crying in a public space within the first three pages.

But it's not just that it's a sad book: Lane is a really great writer. This is actually his first novel, as he's a poet by trade, and his felicity with words comes off as beautifully orchestrated descriptions of nature and the simple world that the work describes - or perhaps circumscribes. Keeping in mind that I'm really no literary expert, most of the other "literary" works I've read developed intensity by creating immediacy, forcing me into a story by creating a sense of "readiness" or "presentness," "meatiness" even, of the world being described. Lane's prose, conversely, pushes the world out to a magical distance that revivifies it - the world seen through a heat haze, as it were, its colours and borders the more vivid for being radicalized.

It's also kind of weird. The story has several interludes told by a dead infant, and it was this child's introduction to the story that nearly had me in tears:

"He lifted me from the crib where I'd whispered my breath for six long months and rolled me in the sheet Mother had left me lying on when I was born. My baby sweat had marked the cloth a yellowed grey. I loved him holding me. He bound me tight in thin cotton and lifted me onto a leftover square of tent canvas, folidng me up. My body moved light as a bird carcass among his fingers."

And, lastly, Lane yarns it out well. It's a classic "novel" insofar as most of what happens is "what has already happened," story developed by plunging the past depths of the characters rather than pushing them forward through the twist and turns of the plot as genre stories do. It also ends with a beautiful twist, one that is so right and so poignant, so cleanly affected but so utterly unexpected, that when it happened I just sort of put the book down and nodded. The last few pages that came after that were the sweeping up of the dust that remained of the story.

Final word: great book. Going to read more CanLit.

-bn

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