Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Descant #132: The World of Barbara Gowdy

It's always interesting to see an issue dedicated to the work of a particular writer, whether as feshrift to acknowledge passing, late career or mid, and now Descant magazine has published "Entering the Other: The World of Barbara Gowdy" as their most recent issue, to celebrate the work of the Toronto writer Barbara Gowdy. According to the bio at the end of the issue (it would have been nice to have more information like this on Gowdy, such as a bibliography or something, but there you go), she is the author of five novels (Through the Green Valley, Falling Angels, Mister Sandman, The White Bone and The Romantic) and a collection of short stories (We So Seldom Look on Love) that the movie Kissed came from (which started my ongoing crush on actress Molly Parker. Oh, Molly Parker…)(Falling Angels was also made into a feature-length film). She has twice been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Rogers' Writers Trust Fiction Prize, and three times for the Trillium Award.

I'm not always a fan of the work of Descant magazine, but for the occasional issue here and there, but when I do like, I really like, such as the Sub/Urbia issue (#125) that came out as its summer 2004 issue, and includes some of my favourite work by Calgary writer Christian Bök (as well as other personal favourites, such as Sina Queyras, my most favourite piece ever by Emily Pohl-Weary, Mark Kingwell, Sylvia Legris and Marita Dachsel…). Ending with a wounding, terrific line, here's the short untitled piece by Bök:

ENNUI IS THE EXHAUSTION of the mind caught in the riot cell of its own thoughts. While poets always strive in vain to escape this oubliette, their tedium forces them to find in the workings of the padlocks, evidence of a more beautiful
reasoning—a kind of eunoia. Never forget that which makes us weary also makes us
dream. (Descant #125, p 13)
The "theme issue" isn't always interesting, but issues dedicated to individual writers are often very interesting, and there have been a number of them over the years, including issues of The Capilano Review (George Bowering, Roy K. Kiyooka, bill bissett), dANDelion (Roy K. Kiyooka), West Coast Line (Phyllis Webb, Larissa Lai), The Fiddlehead (John Metcalf), recent issues of The Chicago Review (Edward Dorn and Louis Zukofsky), and Descant (Dennis Lee, R. Murray Schafer, Michael Ondaatje and Timothy Findley) (if anyone ever finds that Cap Review Bowering issue, get it for me, will you?). Given that Gowdy is a product of the suburbs, and has written on the 1950s family, I perhaps get the impression that Descant is even (perhaps) best when dealing with the suburbs (but this is only a theory). Broken into a number of sections, the contributors to the issue include Descant editor Karen Mulhallen and issue editor Mary Newberry ("Prefaces"), Steven Heighton and Margaret Atwood ("Talking Gowdy"), Adrian DiCastri, John Bentley Mays and Robert Teteruck ("Situating Gowdy"), Debra Martens, Cheryl Cowdy Crawford, Neta Gordon, Sally Hayward, Deena Rhyms and T.F. Rigelhof ("Critiquing Gowdy"), Mary Newberry ("Filming Gowdy"), Catherine Bush, Catherine Gildiner, Marni Jackson, Natalie Onuska, Catherine Graham, Shyam Selvadurai and Susan Swan ("Postcards from Gowdyland"), Pamela Stewart, Kathleen Kelly and Jim Johnstone ("The Weight of Gowdy"), and finally, Barbara Gowdy herself ("Gowdy Speaks"), with an excerpt of a novel-in-progress, Helpless. As editor Mulhallen writes in her preface:
In a short time span, for her writing career developed quite late, after musical
training, in fact, Gowdy has already made a profound impact. Writers of several generations here attest to the importance of her work, the unique qualities of her imagination, the clarity of her style. Critics debate hotly her epistemology, of The White Bone in particular. Translations into film, and into television of Gowdy's
fictions also signify ways in which the work speaks to a contemporary
sensibility. Grand themes on the family, on love, on diversity capture an
audience emotionally and intellectually. Sacred mysteries. Knowledge and
perception. Innocence. Hers is a fiction which compels us to imagine someone
else's experience, just as she herself has said that the writing of it has done
this for her. In this issue of Descant we are taking a sounding of an artist at
mid-career, in full flight, and we are honoured to present as well an excerpt
from her new novel, her work in progress. (pp 10-11)
Perhaps some of the most interesting work in the issue has to be the piece "Points of Faith: An Interview with Barbara Gowdy" conducted by Kingston writer Steven Heighton:
BG: Writing fiction involves smoke and mirrors to a degree, doesn't it? Sometimes you feel as if you're pulling a fast one. None of these characters actually exist but you're desperately trying to make the reader believe that they do. You resort to certain tricks, you have to.

SH: You do, and that's fine and helpful, but it also bothers me in a way. In a way I wish I didn't know the tricks I know. Or didn't know I knew them.

BG: Why?

SH: No good reason, really ― art has always been about artifice, and I accept that, but there's a younger part of me ― a romantic part ― that wishes I was still innocent of that.

BG: But what's the difference between art and craft, for instance, or art and artifice? Do you know what I think the difference is? I think art is what it does, not how you make it. The difference lies there. Craft can be beautiful and take a whole lot of
talent and a whole lot of knowledge, but as Chris [Dewdney] pointed out to me
once, craft doesn't have the potential to change the way you see the world. Art
does. No matter how you make that happen, if you make it happen, then you've
made art … I'm no chef, and I've had arguments with this one chef who tries to
convince me that cooking is an art. "No," I say, "a spectacular meal is a
pleasure. It can move your soul, it can make you happy, temporarily, you can
feel that it's wondrously presented and that it has ravished your palate, but it
hasn't changed the way you see the world." (pp 32-3)
Also, the issue is worth it alone for the cartoon by Toronto writer Margaret Atwood (which I won't tell you about at all; you now have to go find this issue), which I have always considered completely underrated, and often her best work (they often appear in Brick magazine as well). Will there ever be a trade collection of Atwood's that include her collected cartoons? I certainly hope so.

Or, as novelist Susan Swan writes in her piece "Redemptive Empathy":
BARBARA GOWDY IS ONE of Canada's most important contemporary writers. She is a meticulous stylist and fearless satirist whose sardonic view is informed by a
redemptive empathy that portrays misunderstood individuals (or badly treated
animal species) as legitimate people who are sometimes even loveable. She is
also a hyper-realist whose highly sculpted prose is to literary realism what
pop art was to traditional landscape painting. (p 166)
I don't think its possible to get much higher praise than that.


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