New Star Books, 224 pp, $20, softcover.
Is literary writing "worth doing even when society doesn't recognize it as valuable?" This question dogs Brian Fawcett's latest collection of essays, Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Café and Other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas and the optimism it flushes out is based on an odd but compelling paradox.
Fawcett, a native of Prince George now living in Toronto (where he edits www.dooneyscafe.com/), knows a lot about working in the shadow of indifference. He began his literary career of more than 30 years by writing poetry, something that almost everyone is careful to ignore. Fawcett's essay on why he abandoned this craft is funny and ruthless, as are many of the other wide-ranging, cosmopolitan pieces in Local Matters. It is also, like the rest of the book, eloquent about the powers of "composed language" in a culture that gale-force marketing has hammered flat. Good writing, Fawcett argues, draws large, sharp, complex meanings from local specifics and personal details, making it "the first instrument of both public and private clarity" and one of the last reliable barriers separating individuals from "the brain-scouring manipulations of the state and the corporations".
This line of thought might easily have come off as another cranky plea for popular relevance, the desperation in its tone refuting its own case. But Fawcett is well aware that literary writing, as a poor source of hints about self-improvement and personal finance, will continue to have a hard time convincing fans of The O'Reilly Factor that it is worthwhile. And so he points to new paths that have opened as public attention drifts away. Because many books now fly "beneath the radar of mass-production economics", he says, taking heart where he can, they offer "some degree of freedom from the built-in marketplace editorializations that make every other information technology untrustworthy". Literature's fading status is therefore the source of its renewal, as it becomes the ideal device "for exploring the margins and the obscure but chemically active back-eddies" of our culture. The best essays in Local Matters, on subjects ranging from Marshall McLuhan to traffic in Toronto, offer enough evidence of what this mission can accomplish that even the most cynical reader may accept Fawcett's modest, provocative consolations.
The hallucinatory fourth novel from Quebec's Gaétan Soucy is a monstrous nightmare of destruction and disillusion. Its protagonist, who may be called Xavier X. Mortanse, lurches through the streets of 1920s New York like a shell-shocked Don Quixote. All around him, members of the secret Order of Demolishers hack apart the landscape. Sometimes they pause to empty the buildings first; no one seems to mind either way. "The poster announcing the imminent demolition was still plastered to the pediments of the building, but the work hadn't started yet. The tenants were awaiting instructions. People kept spinning their ball of wool, knowing they'd soon come to the end of it. Foam of the daze, daily grind of imminent disaster."
Like Quixote, Xavier inhabits a world of his own imagining, and creation and its mirror occupy Soucy's attention on every page. Vaudeville! is a novel about the obliteration of a city and, simultaneously, an interior scape: Xavier's well-being and happiness are ruined by a combination of fate, a vengeful demolisher, and (thanks to an 11th-hour plot revelation) evil science.
Paternity and madness tease out the theme of creativity (tip of the hat to Frankenstein), so that a fatherlike master wrecker can admire Xavier's "candour, his purity, his gentle weirdness that may be...saintliness pure and simple" even as the narrative voice admits "it was true, now and then, that his head was like a belfry with the wind blowing inside."
It all conspires to create an extended and surreal setup for a one-liner (which may be a definition for existence itself). Soucy's writing, at times intentionally awkward and conflicting, is often funny ("the old man took from his pocket a short plaster pipe that gave him a pensive air, in the way that wearing a sombrero will make a man look Mexican") and always arresting. But the purpose of pouring all this existential dread into a story taken from a 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon ("One Froggy Evening", the one about the singing bullfrog, which Xavier finds at a building site and, disappointed, later returns, as in the original) eludes me as much as reality and satisfaction seem to elude poor wandering, benighted Xavier.