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Pickle Me This

June 4, 2008

What I Need

I’m currently reading Carol Shields, whose work has always struck me as particularly subversive, and her letters and interviews make clear that this was consciously so. The anger in her final novel (and finest, in my opinion) Unless is palpable, directed, but appropriately complicated by the world we live in, and Shields’ understanding of it. But not loud, no, and not destructive. “I am trying to put forward my objection gently,” her narrator writes. “I’m not screaming as you may think. I’m not even whining, and certainly not stamping my lady-sized foot. Whispering is more like it.”

Of course, I don’t think that novels have to be subversive. I think that the miracle of novels is that they do such mulitudinous things, provide us with infinite horizons to discover, and I’m always a bowled over by those who claim to have these complex organisms wrapped up in a tiny box. Michael Bryson writes in The Danforth Review, “We need our inherited tropes to be broken down, deconstructed, challenged to the core, overturned,” but the thing is, I don’t. And it’s not because I’m stupid, or because I’m “middlebrow”, however much I might be both. It’s just that what I need is different.

I need work that takes our inherited tropes and builds upon them, expanding their infinite possibilities. I need construction. Challenge to the core, but bloody well make something of that challenge. Not necessarily to have things overturned, but at the very least surmounted. Make something. I need means to lead to ends, and I want to like where I have landed. I want to acknowledge where I started. I want power in whispers, so that I can really listen. No foot stomping, no sir.

3 thoughts on “What I Need”

  1. metro mama says:

    I love Unless. It’s one of the most wrenching books I’ve ever read.

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “I need means to lead to ends, and I want to like where I have landed.”

    But, is it really necessary — or even desirable — for fiction to take you someplace you “like”? Doesn’t this just add to the ideas/notions/beliefs about the world that you already harbour? Isn’t the job of fiction at least in part to make us question our preconceived notions and force us to think about things in a different way? To jar us out of our complacency rather than feed into it? Insisting that one “likes” where a book takes one is tantamount to only reading pundits who espouse the political views that one already holds. There’s little potential to interrogate one’s own views of oneself or the broader world.

  3. Kerry says:

    I don’t mean “like” so simply. I suppose I just want the journey to have been worth it, and if, ultimately, the way I see myself or the broader world has been challenged or changed by that experience, then that distance is multiplied exponentially.

    But to hold every book to the standard of doing so, with a defined method (or lack of), to me that undermines the broadness of the reading experience, the incredible range of things that books are capable to doing to us.

    Further, the interrogation you call for can take place in such a variety of forms, some subtle and very quiet. Not every book will be an axe, for which I’m glad actually. Books are all kinds of tools in themselves, and many no less powerful for their lack of (figurative) violence.

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