The most important point to make about A Likely Story
is that it's not an autobiography, at least not in any conventional sense. In fact, the author himself claims that such a genre is impossible. As a result, the book is entirely free of literary gossip, contains only a minimal amount of personal information, and avoids the axe-grinding that often accompanies writers' explorations of their careers. Yes, this does sound dull, but Robert Kroetsch is one of Canada's liveliest and most original literary theorists, not to mention an accomplished poet and novelist, and what he has to say about writing makes for a compelling, though uneven, read.
The opening piece, "Why I Went Up North and What I Found When He Got There", sets the tone for the whole book. Here, Kroetsch investigates his reasons for heading to the Northwest Territories as a young would-be-writer fresh out of university, and his recollections of that experience are vivid and enlightening. He writes of a dangerous journey on a riverboat and of losing his virginity, but these are only incidental stories: what matters most is how the North changed and shaped his attitudes towards identity, and informed his ideas about narrative, time, voice, all those ingredients essential to the storyteller's craft:
"Insofar as the North carnivalizes given Canadian assumptions -turning upside-down assumptions about time, about direction, about urban ambition, about America-it seemed an escape from the authority of tradition and hierarchy, an escape that would allow me to become a storyteller."
In the most general terms, Kroetsch is postmodernist. He approaches the art of writing with a questioning, probing, even suspicious mind, repeatedly asking himself and the reader, "What is the real story? Is there such a thing?" Whether he's discussing Margaret Laurence's The Diviners or the effect of the prairies on a writer's development, it's obvious that he feels passionately and thinks deeply about literature. His essay "D-Day and After: Remembering a Scrapbook I Cannot Find" is particularly interesting; its anecdotal style houses many subtle and intelligent statements on literary craft.
But halfway through, A Likely Story bogs down under the weight of so much theory, and what begins as a winning mixture of the personal and the academic becomes a private game designed for those with some specialized knowledge of current critical discourse. The long closing essay, "The Poetics of Rita Kleinhart", is especially frustrating, as the author's attempt at a humorous mock-biography comes across as self-indulgently clever.
Ultimately, these seven essays and three poems form a schizophrenic package, one that is alternately fascinating and opaque. Readers looking for specific comments on Kroetsch's own poems and novels will be disappointed by his detached tone and refusal to engage in intimate revelation.
However, as an exploration of certain technical themes that haunt many contemporary writers, A Likely Story proves a useful and insightful reference.