{Contender or Pretender: Volume 1} “Consolation” by Michael Redhill (2006)

We here at The New Poetics take serious literature seriously. We have arguments. We offer evidence. We cut through buzz and hype. We establish standards. We’re not here to sell you something. We’re here to identify reading of quality, as much for us as for others.  We’re here to identify contenders, to eliminate pretenders, and to champion key works that belong in the Canadian Canon.

The elements for a canonical Canadian text should include accurate and insightful observations of region or place. Canadian geography and topography are part of Canada’s identity. A key Canadian text should embrace those characteristics. Canadians, the people living in the country and the people who have come from it, are also part of Canada’s identity. A key Canadian text should display a public consciousness of the people who reside there. It should have an accurate portrayal of what their lives are like and how they relate to Canadians living elsewhere.

Other questions to ask about the work include: Does it provide insight into Canada’s history? Does it make you, the reader, want to go out and explore a little bit of the place described in the work or other parts of the country yourself? Would you want to read the work again? Will multiple reads give you more insight about life or artistic connections or Canadian culture?

The standards should include literary cohesion and connectivity. The work should have believable, human characters that each serve a different role, have their own voices, but taken together form the role of residents of the work. It should use the setting as a principal force influencing how the characters interact with each other. It should be about Canada and Canadians, not about the individual author.

Although this might seem like a lot to ask from a literary work, we can easily identify and place at least twenty-four works of fiction published between 1832 and 1998 which fulfill the above criteria, thus qualifying them as belonging to the Canadian Canon. This is the purpose of Contender or Pretender. What works of the 21st century merit inclusion in the Canadian Canon?

Contender or Pretender: Michael Redhill’s Consolation

Why this book could be a contender: Redhill has written a 469-page book that was inspired by the 1856 “Toronto Panorama,” a series of early photographs of the city that gave the viewer a snapshot of what living in pre-Confederation Canada was like in one of the larger cities of British North America. The novel is written as a novel-within-a-novel to impress upon the reader the value of the past within, or lying beneath, the present. To understand the accomplishments and failures of the past is to give insight into the problems and difficulties of the present. The idea that the city as a work-in-progress can be explored layer by layer through art and science, and can give insight into the kind of people it produces, is exactly the kind of space a major Canadian novel should occupy.

Examination from close reading:  Redhill provides two peculiar and misleading quotations to start off his book. Peculiar, because the quotes don’t seem to be as important as the source text, and misleading because they give too much attention to minor plot points and do not really connect to what his novel is actually about. The first quotation provided is from a lecture by Jorge Luis Borges on “Buddhism” from his collection of Seven Nights (1977), yet the lecture on “Nightmares” seems to have a much greater connection to what Redhill’s novel is about. “These are my most terrible nightmares:  I see myself reflected in a mirror, but the reflection is wearing a mask. I am afraid to pull the mask off, afraid to see my real face, which I imagine to be hideous … A curious feature of my nightmares is that they have a precise topography” (p.33). The second quotation, from Scottish poet Don Paterson’s collection The Eyes (1999), is from the poem “Proverbs”. It’s almost as if Redhill is challenging the reader to have a closer look at everything he’s written in this book, including the borrowed quotations, to understand what his novel is really about. Some of the axioms from “Proverbs” also seem to be more related to the themes and style of Consolation than the one given, including “Seek him in the mirror,/your fellow traveller”; “Your Narcissus/begins to fade/as he becomes the glass.”; “You told a half-truth?/Now you’ll be twice a liar/if you tell the other half”; “Light your poem from two angles:/one for the straight reading,/one for the sidelong.”

The opening vignette also seems to be advising the reader on how to read Redhill’s book, both overtly and discretely. “An optical illusion; the whole downtown clenching the water’s edge in its fist … It’s only overwhelming if you try to take it all in at once” (p.3-4). Right away he lays out the formula of his novel: topographical data about the city of Toronto combined with foreshadowed themes and symbols (original shoreline, artificial opiate, the ship moves backward [in time], he can see the whole city now [Toronto Panorama], everything is chemical [photographic process/pharmacist]), and the motifs of “happiness and desolation, fear of death,” (p.4) and consolation. Except this novel is not about the city of Toronto. The city is only important on a surface read. Redhill actually makes Toronto – the city that works – a metaphor for his own work experience, which is one of writing, editing, and small press publishing. “A lonesome building made for one person, a human outpost sending news of safety in arcs of light; a good job, he thinks, to be the man with that message” (p.3). Being a writer is a good job. He brings enlightenment to the ignorant public, which makes up his readers.

In the odd numbered sections that are meant to take place in the recent present (Toronto, November 1997) – The Harbour Light, The Earth Movers, The World Below, and Consolation – there is a plethora of Toronto data, including neighbourhood descriptions and historical dates of when businesses, houses, and neighbourhoods originated.  He uses research – standard travel guidebook information – to lead the reader into thinking there will be something insightful that will connect everything together, perhaps the distant past of the 1856-57 novel-within-the-novel sections, but Redhill seems to be leading more to the recent past. Martin Sloane (2001)‘s themes of obsessive love, betrayal, emotional claustrophobia and the making of art are revisited in this novel. “The thing is, the plot hasn’t changed much at all. I’d be willing to bet this is the same story line” (p.296). At times the story seems to be more about expressing love for a city that doesn’t love you back and forgets you than anything else.

In the even numbered sections of the novel – Balsam of Peru, In Camera, Hallam of Toronto – the real message of the novel comes through.  “The chemist J.G. Hallam, late of Camden Town said to himself,I am an average man”(p.49) and “he remembered freshly his first glimpse of the city: a vision of spires and yellow brick” (p.55). The reader should be aware that Redhill was born in Baltimore (Camden Yards) and worked as an editor at Brick literary magazine for years (the word “brick” is repeated often throughout this novel). The process of the character learning a new trade is slowly and painstakingly chronicled, and hint upon hint is given that this is not really about J.G. Hallam learning to become a photographer, but Redhill’s own apprenticeship at becoming a writer-editor-publisher in Toronto. The story is really his story, or fictionalized memoir, of his experiences working at a small press and literary magazine in the city of Toronto, and his own justification for remaining in this industry despite his lack of financial and critical success as an author. It is not about Toronto as much as it is about the publishing industry in Toronto. Redhill’s focus is really very narrow, but he’s attempted to expand it to include a larger arena that fails to be applicable to non-writers-editors-publishers. “It isn’t a novel … it’s a message.” (p.293).

Consolation takes the form of an allegorical autobiographical confession at one point, where the author’s voice becomes indistinguishable from his character-written-by-his-character:

“I imagine that by the time I finish this letter, it will be a lengthy one. I hope you are not daunted by it. I am making it to give you some of myself, as much as I can for now. There have been so many reversals here that it would be unkind to make you contemplate them such as you would if I dwelled too much on the details. In short, good fortune would have made me a more honest man in my reports to you, but I have rooted, it would seem, in a luck-deprived place, and many men like myself, armed commonly with expertise and hope, have not been able to overcome the difficulties to be found here” (p.332-3).

“In the meantime, I have made you a portrait of myself in the form of the city that will be your future home. I know I have made it sound inhospitable, but it is very much like a field of stone under which a rich, fertile soil is waiting to be turned over and seeded.” Literally and figuratively, these are the pages of this book. And then at the end of those pages, he literally thanks the people who he figuratively modeled his characters on in Consolation.

Judgment: According to our standards for a Canadian canonical text, Consolation is a disappointment because it seems to have promised much more than it ever intended on delivering. There’s no public consciousness, there’s no real connection to a distinct Canada and other Canadians, and we really don’t learn as much about living or surviving here as we do about the author’s personal plight of living or surviving as a writer. Redhill’s novel falls short of required reading to understand being a Canadian in Canada. It’s a writer writing about being a writer.  His story is too self-centred and too much about an individual making a name for himself in the city. He’s writing what he knows about the small press publishing industry in Toronto more than the actual city itself. He doesn’t know the city, but he does imagine a city and he uses historical information that he’s researched to support his imaginings. There’s no consolation for Consolation to imagine that it could have been a contender. What it is, and what it can’t hide, is its actual status of a pretender.