Ground Works: Avant-Garde For Thee

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Edited by Christian Bök
House of Anansi ($22.95)

by Nicholas Birns

The reader's eye may be drawn first to John Riddell's four-page comic-book riff on the possible verbal permutations of "Pope Leo"—but this volume's triumphs are verbal, not visual. Ground Works, an anthology of innovative Canadian fiction, is worth its price for two remarks alone: Margaret Atwood's comment, in her introduction, that the term 'experimental fiction' itself is "a tribute to the early twentieth century's reverence" for science, and editor Christian Bök's warning that Canadian fiction is in danger of sinking into overly mimetic orthodoxies at the very moment when it has begun to "receive unprecedented international acclaim." Atwood reminds us that we can no longer have the naive confidence that avant-garde procedures "get it right" more than realistic ones do. She also brings home the extent to which Canadian avant-garde writing, to a great extent a post-1955 phenomenon, wasn't so much belated modernism as modernism that entered the stage in the middle of the journey. It was also, she points out, confected with Canadian nationalism, and not in an operatic way, but in a mode of quizzical, self-ironizing uncertainty. Bök's warning is especially valuable for the US reader, who has seen much Canadian fiction since the High Ondaatje Era began, but who tends to be seeing those works and writers which most echo conventional novelistic forms—a situation this anthology seeks to rectify.

The contributions of the world-famous novelist Atwood and the dazzling young concrete poet Bök should not, however, eclipse the selections themselves, all from avant-garde writers active over the past 35 years. The cracked love story of Lucan and Vera by Graeme Gibson is a perfect example of how nonrepresentational writing can be a faithful rendering of primary experience. Leonard Cohen is represented by an except from Beautiful Losers, as much a contemporary classic in its own genre as "Suzanne" or "Famous Blue Raincoat" are in theirs. Christopher Dewdney exudes knowledge both scientific and asynchronous, exploring layers of sedimentation and of perception, states of knowledge where we know we are not ourselves but rather programmed by larger networks, which yet solicit "on a personal & individual level only." Andreas Schroeder provides a surreal algorithm in which the protagonist finds his name continually changed as he is propelled into even more remote lands. Daphne Marlatt takes up this idea of displacement in space standing for disordering of perception, and measures how gender provides a further variable. George Bowering, as always, is flat-out funny, this time writing on the Black Mountain School and what Bowering, a baseball fan, might term its first-round playoff clash with Canadian nationalism.

If only Francophone writers such as Nicole Brossard had been included, this would be a truly comprehensive look at the Canadian avant-garde. Even so, it is still a valuable resource for anyone interested in contemporary Canadian writing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004