Eva Stachniak, author of Necessary Lies
Scott Gardiner, author of The Dominion of Wylie McFadden
Lydia Kwa, author of This Place Called Absence
Steven Galloway, author of Finnie Walsh
Susan Juby, author of Alice, I Think
Joel Yanofsky, Julie Keith, and Carmine Starnino selected the winner of the Amazon.com/Books in Canada 2000 First Novel Award from a short list prepared by W. P. Kinsella.
Joel Yanofsky is a literary columnist at the Montreal Gazette. He is the author of Homo Erectus and Other Popular Tales of Romance, a collection of humourous essays, and of the novel Jacob's Ladder, which was short-listed for Le Grand Prix de MontrTal.
Julie Keith is president of the Quebec Writers' Federation. Her second book, a novella and stories entitled, The Devil Out There, won the QWF Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and was also a finalist for Le Grand Prix du Livre de MontrTal, 2000.
Carmine Starnino's first book of poetry, The New World, was shortlisted for the 1997 Memorial Prize. His second book, Credo, was recently given the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Poetry.
The judges' comments on the five shortlisted books follow:
Anyone lucky or foolhardy enough to judge a literary contest is tempted to begin with a disclaimer. So here's mine: first novels get a bad rap. Inevitably, they all get lumped together and measured against each other when all they really have in common is that they mark a particular author's debut. We're not talking apples and oranges here, we're talking carrots and cats. This is especially true with this year's short list for the Books in Canada/Amazon.com First Novel Award. It's hard to imagine five stories more different and five writers' voices more distinct. Happily, this is, as Martha Stewart says, "a good thing."
The winning novel, Necessary Lies, by Eva Stachniak sets a compelling and intimate story of love and betrayal against a broader canvas of political change in Eastern Europe just before and just after the fall of communism. It's not easy for a fiction writer to keep up with history when it's this big, but Stachniak and her characters do precisely that¨as their own secrets and lies and hard-won resilience parallel the extraordinary events happening around them. Necessary Lies is a brave and ambitious novel and a worthy winner.
Still, as much as I admired Necessary Lies, my first choice was The Dominion of Wylie McFadden by Scott Gardiner. No question this is an oddball novel¨not exactly serious but not exactly comic either. It tells the story of the title character as he travels across Canada on a mission to bring rats to Alberta, mainly because it is the only place in the world that doesn't have them. Along the way, he rescues a damaged young woman and the two characters slowly discover more about each other than they bargained for. This road novel is a wild, involving ride, loaded with surprises, shocking and sometimes unsavoury revelations, more information about skinning small animals, artificial insemination, Pavlov and B. F. Skinner than most of us need to know. It also has, with Wylie and his memorably spunky hitchhiker, two characters who are not afraid to speak their minds and even raise some serious questions about the nature of evil and the unlikeliness of love.
Alice, I Think by Susan Juby earned my affection for a simple reason¨it made me laugh, often out loud. This coming-of-age tale, in the guise of a messed-up teenage girl's opinionated journal, is part Catcher in the Rye, part My So-Called Life. Juby has the voice of her narrator down and there are few things harder or more important to do, especially in a first novel. Being funny in fiction is also harder than most critics in this country acknowledge. In the July issue, in his article about selecting the short list, W. P. Kinsella remarked that humourous novels are undervalued. He's right and Juby's novel shouldn't be. She's a fresh and engaging comic writer.
The remaining two novels on the short list, Finnie Walsh by Stephen Galloway, and This Place Called Absence, by Lydia Kwa, provide the best examples of just how different first novels can be. Even so, both books are commendable because they demonstrate the value of a writer sticking to his or her strength. In Finnie Walsh, a tale of friendship, hockey and fate, Galloway proves he can spin a yarn. In This Place Called Absence, set in present day Vancouver and early 20th century Singapore, Kwa uses a poet's lyrical sensibilities to explore the hardships and triumphs of the lives of her female characters.
Finally, a few words about the selection process. Although Carmine Starnino, Julie Keith and I arrived at our choices separately, we did agree to meet to talk about those choices. I think we're all glad we did. Decisions like this are always arbitrary, always subjective. It's a crapshoot. But the discussion we had was illuminating and fun and what any discussion of literature should be about¨the sometimes inexplicable reasons why we like the books we like. I thank them for that and Books in Canada and Amazon.com for giving me this tough but rewarding job.
Of the five short-listed novels, two are complex, layered stories of immigrant women seeking to comprehend the past in order to cope with their present, two are first-person accounts from children coming of age in worlds where parents seem more innocent, more immature, and sometimes more benign than their children, and one is a road novel featuring an exceedingly eccentric outcast. Though none seemed to me without flaws, all were challenging and interesting to consider and digest. I offer my remarks in the order in which I read the books.
This Place Called Absence by Lydia Kwa: In this novel of sickness and healing and of imprisonment and release, the novel's governing metaphor of therapy functions centrally within the lives of four Chinese women. Speaking in voices imbued with authentic puzzlement, longing, and hope, a pair of early 20th century indentured prostitutes (ah ku) as well as a 1990's mother and her educated, westernized daughter, Wu Lan, tell their stories and recount their journeys through the streets of Singapore and Vancouver. Each seeks healing and release, whether from disease and sexual slavery or from the crippling pain of unexpressed sorrow and from the hauntings of an unquiet ghost. Although the character of Wu Lan, the principal narrator, is never fully developed and the parallel quests do not illuminate one another as I hoped they would, what does emerge and what touched me was the sadness of the ah ku, which remains palpable throughout their stories of betrayal, exploitation, and their desperate wish to escape. I did find the constant switching of time, voice, and scene somewhat disconcerting and disengaging in spite of the thematic unity of the novel. Gracefully written, This Place Called Absence offers the possibility of rescue, at least for some of its characters, the idea that even in the aftermath of tragedy and defeat, health may be regained and a measure of freedom claimed.
Necessary Lies by Eva Stachniak: An investigation of betrayal conducted through the matrix of a woman's quest for the truth, Necessary Lies considers both the seeming inevitability of betrayal and its relationship to displacement as experienced by people of middle Europe. Moving forward and backward through time and memory, the narrative vividly conjures up world after world, Montreal, Warsaw, Vroclaw, and Berlin, at various times in the last two thirds of the twentieth century. Offering a wealth of appealing sensory detail with what Clark Blaise once termed "authorial generosity" (I saw the streets of the cities, the shape and colour of people's clothes, tasted the food), the novel portrays the lives of its central European characters as journeys of survival in an age of tribal atrocities, whether those atrocities were cloaked in Naziism, Communism, or national vengeance. If the character and motivation of William, Anna's second husband, never becomes satisfactorily comprehensible and if the writing, while excellent, is occasionally too manipulative¨instructing rather than allowing the reader to infer and consider¨still, Anna's complex and evolving relationships with the other female characters, her painful quest for the truth about her husband, and the stories she hears from various Polish and German women along the way are all so compelling that my interest never flagged. Relationships between people come clear as they alter or disintegrate, the personal betrayals both mirroring and inseparably connecting to political betrayal. Over and over the novel asks and attempts to answer the question, what constitutes betrayal? On a sexual level and on a political level? Are lies and suppression of the truth necessary to make life livable in a world of betrayal? And, finally, when lies wear out and the truth breaks through, is forgiveness of the betrayer possible? The book implies that it is possible where there is love and, moreover, that the discovery and recounting of the truth may enable some of the characters to accept the past and go on. Though I did hope for a more muscular ending, reading Necessary Lies was a rich and pleasurable experience.
Alice, I think by Susan Juby: Told in a first person voice that veers wildly from the crazed to the cooly observant and even potentially mature, Alice, I think depicts in comic terms the struggle of a seemingly wilfully misfit teenage girl to establish her path amid a cast of characters at least as off-the-wall, or perhaps I should say "through-the-looking-glass" as she is. Chaos reigns within and without, as Alice negotiates her way through a series of episodes, some disasters of her own creation, some imposed upon her by the lunatic crowd around her. Because the novel is episodic in form, much depends on the comic aspects of the plot and on the narratorial voice. By turns naive, judgmental, cynical, and even sophisticated, this voice moves from teenage chatter to the psycho-babble Alice has gleaned from years of bizarre therapists to a censorious mode that sometimes sounds positively middle-aged. A voice so inconsistent in language and tone tends to obscure the character from whose mouth it emerges, and I did find it difficult to believe in Alice as a person and to gauge her reliability. Zany doesn't cover it, but the narrator's take on what goes on both in her own life and with her family varies as frequently, as unpredictably, and as widely as her voice. Such is life, evidently, in Aliceland.
The Dominion of Wyley McFadden by Scott Gardiner: Penetration and insertion as an exercise of power, and particularly as a form of assault, is the theme that dominates The Dominion of Wyley McFadden. Examples abound, from mosquito bites to the shooting and skinning of wild animals and from artificial insemination to brainwashing and rape. The novel further suggests that these twin acts, of penetration and insertion, are the goal of men, whether directed into a mind, a body, or, for that matter, a city and whether conceived for evil purposes or for survival or simply to redress a perceived wrong.
Wylie McFadden is the sort of hero who defines virtue strictly on his own terms and who, as a result, operates outside society's perimeter. In real life, as we know well, this approach can produce all manner of eccentrics from Jesus Christ to the unibomber, and I was never able to ascertain where the authorial intelligence came down on the character of McFadden. Considering the illegal, violent, and stunningly intrusive nature of some of his acts, this intelligence was needed to ground the book. Nonetheless, although the plot of this rodent novel¨oops, I mean, of course, road novel¨defies belief, I found McFadden as a character convincing. An analyzer and conclusion-drawer by nature, he offers a series of exhaustive and exhausting dissertations on everything from gynecologic skills to the personalities and political quirks of Canada's provinces and to the preparation of roast duck. On the other hand, the character of the unnamed girl he picks up by the side of the road remains largely unclear, but that lack is mitigated because the novel's point of view remains so unequivocally that of McFadden.
From its beginning, the novel arouses reader curiosity by the trick of overtly holding back certain information; one mystery has to do with the purpose of McFadden's road trip, the others with unrevealed events from his past and from the past of the unnamed girl. Throughout this well-structured novel, the writing is clear and confident if, once again, too instructive. Reader curiosity about the characters' pasts is maintained until the end when McFadden's repulsive goal is accomplished, the horrible, pornographic truth is finally told.about both characters, and a new road trip is under way.
Finnie Walsh by Steven Galloway: My-friend-(or hero)-the-amazing-genius novels, from Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby to A Separate Peace (for whose Finny I wondered if this Finnie was named), tend to offer a rueful and often tragic take on the fate of the true-spirited, goldenly talented, and sometimes divinely mad characters of this universe. All are doomed to disaster. In Finnie Walsh, a novel of hockey, friendship, and smalltown childhood, devices such as prescient dreams, clairvoyance, and periodic "little did I know..." asides from the narrator, Paul, repeatedly inform and remind the reader of this dictum. And indeed, throughout the novel, as in a violent hockey game, characters are struck down and maimed with regularity. As in several of the novels, the narrator is too prone to announcing conclusions rather than allowing the reader to draw them. And like any narrator who tells the story of a more charismatic friend, he has trouble attracting our interest in his own life story. His stories of the others, especially the members of his family, are more affecting. If the path of his own hockey career never quite convinces and if the fate of Finnie Walsh doesn't really measure up as a tragedy, what works in the novel is the atmosphere of affection that pervades the main characters' relationships to one another and provides a kind of warmth to the novel.
In conclusion: De gustibus non disputandum est. The fact is that in any judgment call such as this, the choice cannot be objective, and each writer is subject to the tastes and predilections of the individual readers who are the judges. To win an award, or even to be shortlisted for that matter, is to be grateful to the gods who brought together this year's books with this year's judges. Another set of judges, and the choice might well have been different. That being said, in the end I had no difficulty in deciding which novel I considered to be the best of the five. Well-written, credible, and emotionally-charged, Necessary Lies was the most involving and ultimately impressive piece of work I read, and most important, it held me from beginning to end.
Lydia Kwa's This Place Called Absence is probably the most state-of-the-art of these five debuts. Kwa settles on a combination of experimental techniques¨a variety of cross-referenced voices, a constantly shifting time-frame¨to lift the lid off, among other things, contemporary lesbianism and the lives of two Singapore prostitutes living nearly a century ago. All very ambitious, except that, speaking personally, nothing seemed to stick. Elusive, random-feeling, and with too much ambient drift, This Place Called Absence had little of the burr-clinging quality I look for in fiction; that is, an experience convincingly captured with richness and density.
If there's a fear that holds together the sentences in Alice, I think it's the fear of blandness. Filled with vigourous writing, quirky observations, and dead-pan preposterousness, Susan Judy's book was great fun. But while humor can provide some measure of dramatic necessity, I don't think it's enough to animate an entire novel. Particularly this novel, which, early in the game, happily turns itself into a vehicle for nothing more than punch-lines and uses Alice's misadventures as nothing more than opportunities to stage some Funny Thinking.
Finnie Walsh was an agreeable read. The story is short, cleanly written and stocked with competently rounded characters. I liked Galloway's attempts at small-town portraiture, but the whole thing felt a tad routinized and recycled (the plot, in parts, looked like recycled bits of John Irving). In fact, the book came off¨dare I say it?¨like MFA writing, which leaves me to suggest that maybe the sensitive minimalism Galloway fostered in himself¨or was cautioned into trusting by his tribe of instructors¨enabled him to only modestly concentrate and consolidate his talent.
While Finnie Walsh tries to subsist off its sincerity, The Dominion of Wylie McFadden rides the prosperity of its intelligence, learning and wit. I loved Gardiner's research-fattened talk and it was a delight to read a novel that tried to keep all its intellectual options open. After a great beginning and some genuine surprises, however, Gardiner's increasingly slack-handed attempt at pacing¨crucial details about Wylie McFadden and his mysterious female hitchhiker are revealed grudgingly and never in the right proportions¨force him to flood the ending with all the missing information. A wonderful, if structurally lopsided, book.
Necessary Lies also has a similar appearances-are-never-what-they-seem quality, although here it's the discovery of a marital infidelity that provides the unexpected depth-charge. What Necessary Lies does supremely well however¨better than any novel here¨is set its story in the foursquare world of believable events. (Like A Place Called Absence, Eva Stachniak also has a go at issues of immigration, political hardship and family loyalty, but with none of Kwa's hall-of-mirrors cleverness). I was impressed by how Stachniak conveyed the on-the-spot data and texture of living in Montreal, and while I've never traveled to Prague or Berlin, I'd wager Stachniak captures a similarly accurate sense of their atmosphere. Of the five books given to us to adjudicate, there may have been better efforts¨in terms of energy and verbal resource, I mean¨but Necessary Lies was, by a long stretch, the most psychologically persuasive, and the only book that satisfied my three fictive R's" real people, real places, real emotions.