Friday, January 15, 2010

Canada Reads Independently: Century: The Review

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has reviewed the first of her Canada Reads Independently choices, Ray Smith's Century.

Its sombre cover coupled with my misunderstanding that Ray Smith had eschewed story for higher principles would have kept me from Century: A Novel, were it not for Dan Wells' recommendation. I thought this was a book that wasn't for me, not only in a "not my cup of tea" sense, but that it was meant for a more erudite kind of reader for whom the act of reading is not meant to be a pleasure cruise ("Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song... Wallala leialala").

So it is my surprise to find I love this book, that it contains everything I look for as a reader, including that most unfashionable self-contained universe. That Smith may have eschewed traditional narrative structure, but he has done so only to compress a 500+ page novel into his first 98 pages, to represent the disintegration and disorder present in the universe the book contains, to have Century be what it's meant to represent. And that his writing possesses a sympathy for and understanding of women that I found surprising, and striking, and even (dare I suppose in a book such as this?) somewhat heartening.

Heinrich Himmler didn't shock me. Perhaps I'm just being defiant in my reactions, but Jane Seymour, the young woman in 197o's Montreal who receives his ghostly visitations in her bed, the nightmares in which he touches her naked body (but oh, I was struck by the details-- "the buttons on the cuffs of his sleeve caught on the sheet when he reached under to touch...")-- there is context for her, precedent. Of course, her friends suppose that she has undergone a trauma, perhaps she has been raped, which has led to the visions, which leads to her suicide. And that may be so, but the whole thing is the extreme end, I think, of how ordinary girls become obsessed with Nazism, which manifests in more usual terms with an Anne Frank fascination and YA books about the Holocaust. As a kind of dangerous experiment in empathy, though of course the Holocaust is so sanitized in such literature, but there is a thin line there, and I just think that Jane Seymour has crossed it for one reason, or for many.

For the rest of what Kerry writes on Century, please go here.

What else can I add? Not much. Kerry fears towards the end that "it occurs to me that this response to Century has done it no favours. That its biggest problem is that no one is ever going to to say, "Hey, read this" with a snappy one-sentence reason why. That it raises questions without answers, and begins an engagement that is unceasing, and it's more like someone handing you pieces of a puzzle than recommending you a book. Except you get to rearrange the pieces over and over again, which is infinitely more interesting, but frustrating too." But I think she's mistaken. Her analysis of Century is so open and generous and engaging that she has me putting the book once again on the bedside table for another read. Hopefully she'll have convinced a few of you out there to pick it up as well.

Has anyone else read Century? Any thoughts you would care to share?

Steven Beattie has offered his own take on Century in the comments section on Kerry's blog that I'll take the liberty of quoting in its entirety:

Century is such a strange, unconventional book that I find it intensely difficult even to come up with a critical language appropriate to discuss it. And yet, its very strangeness, its very iconoclasm and idiosyncrasy, is what makes reading it such a potent experience.

Even its generic classification is open to discussion (as you point out, Kerry). Is it a novel? I'd argue yes. John Metcalf, on the other hand, considers it a collection of short stories, and certainly a case could be made. The closest Charles Foran comes in his introduction is to call the book a "tonal labyrinth," but even he admits that it's finally "unclassifiable."

What I love about the book is its morality, its honesty, and its embrace of language as a means of rescuing us from darkness. It's a deeply troublesome novel, but it's well worth the effort an engagement with it requires.

In the end, I'm convinced that a single reading is insufficient to come to a full appreciation of Smith's achievement in the book. I look forward to returning to the text and will be interested to measure my second encounter with it against my first.

But, hang on: this isn't my recommendation; it's Wells's. What am I doing defending it? Go read Moody Food, then we'll talk again.

That's right! I almost forgot. We get to do this again. Stay tuned for Kerry on Ray Robertson's Moody Food.

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