Where is the Canadian novel to rival Ducks, Newburyport? Hint: look to Quebec

Ian William’s stylistically innovative, raucously funny novel won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Heather Mallick is the latest Canadian scribe to add her voice to one of the most iconic and longstanding genres of writing in this country: criticism bemoaning the lack of great Canadian novels. Writing in the Toronto Star, Mallick suggests that the majority of novelists in this country paint on too small a canvas, crafting books that are “largely unpopulated, often written in the first person, often about feelings rather than events.” These novels, Mallick contends, “are very good, but not ambitious or invented or original or venturesome.”

Mallick contrasts this with last year’s behemoth stream-of-consciousness heavyweight Ducks, Newburyport, by Irish-American writer Lucy Ellmann. Where Canadian fiction looks inward, thinks small, and feels claustrophobic, Mallick suggests, Ellmann’s sprawling novel – about an unidentified Ohio housewife whose mind ranges widely over a field of anxieties and political problems while she bakes a series of tarts and pies in her suburban kitchen – represents the kind of current, engaged writing about our cultural moment that is missing from Canadian fiction.

That Mallick presents the final two-thirds of her column in the style of Ellmann’s novel – as a single sentence studded with the repeated refrain “the fact that” where a more traditional writer would put a period – is only the first reason to be suspicious. Were I teaching an introductory course on criticism and had this handed to me, I would send it back with instructions to rewrite it and never make this rookie mistake again.

Mallick admits that “Canadians do write good novels about their own families and the countries they lived in before they came to Canada,” though she suggests that most of these are the product of MFA courses themselves taught by failed or lesser writers. This academic attack is not new; what is arguably more troublesome is Mallick’s contention that the Canadians who are writing the kinds of novels she would prefer are immigrants – that is, not really Canadian enough for her, having to reach back to their countries of origin for settings and stories. Where she would place writers like, say, Téa Mutonji or Zalika Reid-Benta – products of immigrant families who locate their stories rigorously in what is recognizably 21st-century Toronto – is unclear. (To say nothing of a writer like Sheena Kamal, whose setting is contemporary Vancouver and who writes in the hardboiled mystery genre – hardly the kind of “autobiographical fiction set in small rooms in small neighbourhoods” Mallick expresses such distaste for.)

The plain fact is Mallick has a point – or, at least, she might have had she been writing twenty years ago. There was a time when it was possible to argue that Canadian writing was mired in a kind of hidebound, sclerotic attitude that promoted historical romances and fiction that was largely static and stylistically moribund. I wrote numerous pieces forwarding this argument myself in the early to mid aughts.

It is less easy to make this argument in 2020, unless you read very narrowly and confine your focus to the handful of novels that win awards or receive heavy buzz in the mainstream press and online. Though even here, you’d run into difficulty: Ian Williams’s Reproduction, the novel that won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, was a stylistically innovative, vigorous, pop-culture infused, hugely funny multi-generational family novel that would seem to tick off many of the boxes Mallick is advocating for.

To argue that novels published in this country are “not ambitious or invented or original or venturesome” displays a large degree of myopia as to what is currently being published, especially by the small presses in this country. Though even the multinationals are getting into the game: Reproduction was published by Random House Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. Imprints of PRHC also published two of the most stylistically challenging, genre-bending novels of the previous year, Sara Peters’s prose-poetry hybrid I Become a Delight to My Enemies and Anakana Schofield’s Bina, the latter of which would seem like a perfect companion read to Ducks, Newburyport. (Granted, the book is set in Ireland, where Schofield was born, so perhaps it doesn’t qualify as Canadian in Mallick’s jaundiced eyes.)

The first novel in a ten-book cycle that could easily be the Canadian Ducks, Newburyport.

But the other salient fact is that the kind of novel Mallick seems to prize so dearly already exists in this country and it predates Ellmann’s book by more than a decade and a half. It is perhaps understandable that Mallick appears unaware of it, since it hails from French-Canadian Quebec (as does much of the most innovative domestic literature being published these days), and many anglophones in this country seem woefully uninterested in reading anything in translation.

Were she of a mind to do so, I would recommend Mallick pick up These Festive Nights, the English translation (by Sheila Fischman) of Marie-Claire Blais’s 1995 novel Soifs. That book – the first in a 10-book cycle, eight of which have been translated into English and published by House of Anansi Press – is a modernist masterpiece: a single, unbroken paragraph running more than 250 pages that ranges across various characters and sensibilities to create a kind of expressionistic mosaic of modern life. (The book won a Governor General’s Literary Award in its original French.)

In the introduction to the English-language edition, Lisa Moore writes, “These Festive Nights is … wholly immersive – a torrent of sensation, mounting waves of beauty and its opposites, death and lust, alongside extreme poverty, systemic and arbitrary violence.” In other words, not at all the kind of recondite, autofictional stuff Mallick dismisses. And there are seven others currently available in English, all written in the same stream-of-consciousness style, that, when put together, run to more than 1,000 pages. Voila: a Canadian Ducks, Newburyport. And one only has to look to Quebec to find it.

Where is the Canadian novel to rival Ducks, Newburyport? Hint: look to Quebec