Books, like people, can get overlooked. I’d like to use this slot, so generously offered by Yann, to tell you about a wonderful Canadian work of fiction that still awaits real discovery. Ray Smith’s Century first appeared back in 1986, and didn’t cause much fuss. It had a decent publisher, and Smith had already released two books that had won him a small but noisy crowd of admirers: Lord Nelson Tavern and the humbly-titled Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada. These were charming, off-the-wall fictions, of a cheerful piece with the prankster stuff then emerging from the coastal regions of the United States. Smith, a Cape Bretoner exiled to Montreal, had his own coastal vibe, but it wasn’t stoner/surfer cool: it was late night FM radio, chill and iconoclastic, joshing of mainstream tastes with bite but no malice.
Still, Century didn’t launch. It took Ray Smith a long time to finish, and it wasn’t as easy in its literary skin as his earlier work: more moody and anxious, less sanguine about the triumph of light over dark. It was also set mostly in Europe, and spanned a near century in just 165 compacted, almost pointillist pages. Things had changed in Canadian culture and literature in the interim, and Smith responded by, in a sense, going even further off-shore than the island where he comes from (and now lives again, in retirement). Whatever Century was, it wasn’t “Can Lit,” as the impulse or industry was being dubbed.
I called it a “work of fiction” for a reason. The book, which has six parts linked by a single character and regular tonal overlaps, could be classified as a novel of the, yikes, post-modern variety. But, besides having no interest in any desiccated academic trope, the stories are all self-contained, as in a collection. Even Smith’s one discernable theme—how art must embody the morality largely absent from a corrupted world—isn’t writ in BLOCK LETTERS, so everyone will get it. Century defies categories and shrugs off expectations. Look, says the text, of course this isn’t life; of course it’s just a book. Allow these elegantly-arranged words to fall over you, confetti at a wedding, and then decide what the marriage is comprised of.
For the rest of Charlie's letter, please go here.