I was at the Toronto Reference Library recently doing a bit of work. I decided to take a break from my writing and got up from my laptop to poke around the nearby Canadian Literature (CanLit) section.
For a bit of fun I came up with the idea of pulling books at random from the shelves, and reading just the opening line. At first the idea popped into my mind as a kind of game. But then I realized that examining how novelists kick off their books might reveal something about Canada’s literary culture – and its culture in general.
So, I decided to pick just 12 books.
Here are the first lines of each of those novels:
1. Early morning sunlight warm against the thin, smooth contour of one cheek, Karen sat in the breakfast-room and thought about suicide.
2. God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.
3. In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband.
4. It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse.
5. Home is never home anymore.
6. George Bullay finished his soft-boiled egg and one slice of buttered wholewheat toast.
7. By the time we left Calais, I thought perhaps I hated Dottie Forsyth.
8. My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1963, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.
9. It’s a funny thing, to know the exact date of your death.
10. There’s a condition called Tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there.
11. I’m tired of the end of the world.
12. She’s thirty-five minutes late and for the past hour I’ve been pacing the fifteen feet between my bathroom and the window, repeating like a mantra: ‘This place is so pathetic, this place is so pathetic.’
The above is obviously just a tiny sample – a thin slice of a thin slice. And any other combination of books would have yielded different results. But looking at these opening lines, I’m struck by a singular tone that runs through them all – a sense of banal melodrama and forced sentimentality.
We’ve all heard that old refrain about how Canadian literature can often be ‘dull’ or ‘boring.’ You’ll sometimes come across the same complaint levelled at Canadian films and television shows. Just the other day someone quipped to me that trying to read the works of certain Canadian authors is like “reading elevator music.” To apply that stereotype across the board would obviously be unjust – there are lots of excellent writers in Canada.
Though it’s subjective, I wonder if there still isn’t something to the claim. It does seem at times that the themes and conflicts at the centre of our stories, more often than not tend to focus on social ill and dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. A kind of controlled, polite, existential angst and rumination that trumps an emphasis on action in our writing. This is probably the source of that complaint that CanLit is ‘boring.’
Could it be that that we are preoccupied with these sorts of themes because, to some degree, they are the only significant life experiences that many of us can draw from for our stories?
We’re a more or less stable and prosperous country. The majority of us live relatively easy lives compared to people in the rest of the world (the down-and-out and many First Nations people notwithstanding). Canada is still largely free of the earth-shattering conflicts and daily life-and-death struggles that have embroiled other nations on and off for centuries. As a result, our greatest, most epic struggles seem to be with our neuroses. So quite a few of our stories tend to centre around that. Moreover, they are told in the measured, polite and parochial way commensurate with our collective temperament.
I wonder if big exciting plots, characters, ideas and insights – a kind of universalism in literature – are more often forged by the kind of deeper struggles that most of us haven’t been exposed to in this culture?