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Illusions & Lies - Keath Fraser, interviewed by Michael Carbert
by Michael Carbert

Since his debut in fiction with Taking Cover in 1982, Keath Fraser has established a reputation as a sophisticated writer of absorbing, intricately crafted short stories and novellas. As Bronwyn Drainie writes, "If you really want to journey into the heart of darkness.you'd be advised to travel with Vancouver writer Keath Fraser, a man of extraordinary talents." His second collection of stories, Foreign Affairs, was published in 1985 and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and won the B.C. Book Prize. It would be ten years before he finished his next book, the epic and hugely ambitious novel Popular Anatomy, which went on to win the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and was hailed in this magazine as a "grand, erudite, complex, passionate, cerebral, multi-layered, rewarding book." Fraser has just recently published a new collection of short stories, Telling My Love Lies, as well as a memoir of the author Sinclair Ross, As For Me and My Body.

MC: How does a story or a novel begin for you?
KF: I was thinking about this yesterday in the urinal at Queen's Park. Watching a fat fly casing the joint. As lazy as a fat fly in a urinal I thought. Dwelling on my own laziness, no doubt, with this little black angel urging me forward out of the doldrums. I was waiting for my son's hockey game to begin, inside an old building full of regional history and ancient timbers, a crust of snow outside on the lawn. No-one else in the urinal but me. Mid-November, dullness everywhere on the land. I suddenly had this urge to see the world as an artist sees it. To make the world matter and redeem its mundaneness. The horrible chrome hand-dryer began to comfort me. I was avoiding having to go in and sit down in the cold rink with its hundreds of red and yellow flip-up plastic seats and one tiny heater screwed to a beam. Here at the height of my creative powers, such as they are, I was seeking refuge in the possibilities of a left-over summer fly. All art, I guess, emerges from some similar dissatisfied state of wanting your life to matter more in these minutes of just hanging out. Your common knowledge seems unaccountably hungry to become, well, uncommon.
MC: So you begin with an image? That fat fly perhaps?
KF: Seldom. Inspiration is one thing, beginning quite another. Meditation intervenes, sometimes lasting years. By then the fly has long drowned. Usually, for me, there have to be two or more apparently irreconcilable images, perhaps the textures of different sensations or ideas, with nothing in common except my desire to connect them through characters who show up and start making love to the language in my suddenly reinvigorated life. This loving desire for shape-in a piece of fiction, a narrative-strikes me when things finally appear reconcilable.
MC: Your work likes to travel all over the globe but at the same time seems stubbornly rooted in Vancouver and the landscapes of the West Coast. Do you feel part of any kind of tradition in Canadian fiction?
KF: Is there one for the sweaty outsider? I used to visit regularly for many years with my old friend Sinclair Ross. He didn't feel himself in much of a tradition either, so neither of us felt disadvantaged. After visiting him every week, I'd deliberately follow a route home that took me past Ethel Wilson's old house on Connaught Drive, three or four blocks away, close to this war vet's hospital in Vancouver where Ross was and where her husband-himself a World War I vet -used to work as a doctor. I rather enjoyed taking this route home. I don't know why, it seemed to ennoble the vocation I was working at. I suppose the only tradition I felt part of, up until Ross's death, was the coincidental one of passing through the neighbourhood of these pioneers, rubbing up against the windows of their persistent pasts. Is persistence a tradition? Sweaty or sweatless, somehow it matched my temperament to hang around their persistence in believing fiction matters. An illusion in itself, of course, but fiction nevertheless.
MC: Does Malcolm Lowry, another West Coast literary figure, happen to fit in anywhere?
KF: I feel close to any writer who has used the landscape, Lowry in particular. I was born a few hours after he claimed to have finished Under the Volcano, one Christmas Eve. Naturally, my mother reported a flow like lava at the birth. A photo of her and the Christmas baby appeared in the Vancouver Sun, with a line underneath that said my father was away in the Air Force. This was the last time a photo of me ever appeared in the Vancouver Sun -until last year, when it trashed my novel Popular Anatomy. I suppose it hoped to soften its unconscionable review. But the photo was unnecessary. I was delighted by the review. I thought it had all the ingredients to make itself look foolish, especially down the road. I liked it because it unwittingly put me in the same local tradition as Lowry, whose own novel this estimable newspaper once dubbed a "Turgid Novel of Self-Destruction". When my book later won a prize, the review editor phoned up to confirm that he thought the Sun's review of it had been dreadful. It reminded me a little of the same newspaper going out to photograph Lowry in his shack, after his novel was recognized elsewhere.
MC: You've drawn attention to a previously neglected aspiration for writers, by suggesting that one could do worse than be known as "the best unknown writer" in Canada. Isn't this just a bid to be known in a slightly perverse way?
KF: And meanwhile a worthy goal, I think, for which there exists a depressing number of worthy contenders-even in Toronto. An underrated goal. Who wants to be among "the best-known mediocre writers"?
MC: Would Ross and Wilson have agreed?
KF: About the worthiness of such a goal? For their own generations, they probably were such writers. Pretty good unknowns. It doesn't really matter now. What matters is that this "tradition" of feeling you matter minimally is an important one, because it tests your beliefs. It may have been heartbreaking from time to time for them to think they mattered so little to their society, yet it may have encouraged their persistence in believing themselves to be artists, even unknown and possibly failed. I exist. I matter. These are proclamations that can take a lifetime for an artist to assert and, what's more, find support for. A sense of rejection can be an antidote to caring about the trappings of mediocrity.
MC: And what would you classify as the trappings of mediocrity?
KF: Whatever surrounds the well-known and unexamined, I imagine. Fame and all the hootenannies that come with it. Listen-as the unwashed and sweaty will remind themselves-artists are in the business of perfection, an impossible goal. And so by definition an imperfect business where, if failure's the norm, you keep in mind the observation of one of E. M. Forster's characters, "I think every one fails, but there are so many kinds of failure." Why some imperfect art is sung to the skies, and other equally imperfect art isn't, doesn't matter so long as the sense of rejection still nourishes us as much as the hope for recognition does. Usually it doesn't, of course. But that's no reason to think being buzzed, except by a fat fly, is the kind of nourishment we need. It helps. It's nice if it happens. And yet to exist in a state of diminishment is a measure of one's negative capability and as important to a writer's health as his cholesterol level. It tends to keep things balanced. The persistent writer is always asking himself what the difference is between good enough and good.
MC: So what constitutes "good" fiction for you?
KF: Common knowledge uncommonly held? The illusion is important. Illusion creates the uncommonness. I suppose you could say this illusion becomes unimportant when the common knowledge is common. Untransformed by any illusion or magic. Journalism? Nothing the matter with good journalism, and I love essays. But since we're talking about fiction maybe it's worth being obvious and mentioning that dubious fiction lacks magic. It's genetically predictable.
MC: I don't want to belabour your definition. But isn't there a risk in limiting yourself to common knowledge?
KF: You're right. I wouldn't want to plump for kitchen-sinkism in its various contemporary guises of social cause in excess of style. At the same time there's a risk, I think, if you see fiction as mainly uncommon knowledge uncommonly held. This fiction risks the smell of the lamp. The illusion can become tainted. Too earnest or humourless, perhaps. I don't know. Illusion is a droopable flower. I do know whenever I'm trying to deploy uncommon knowledge-examining the nuances of homoeopathy or the lines of Nazca, a baritone's technique or a Club Med's routine-it takes me a long time to ensure this knowledge, such as it is, arises from a character's perception and not mine, that it isn't literary or obviously mugged up. I think it is an idiomatic sensibility that underwrites a story. The underlying metaphor's still inextricably there, but tempered by discrete characterization. I think idiom presupposes a common, rather than uncommon, knowledge and so is closer than the arcane to an understanding of narrative fiction.
MC: Isn't illusion what your novel Popular Anatomy is partly about?
KF: It's all about it.finding out how each of my characters will deal with the particular illusions of his own narrative-making. How each of them will grow as characters, in developing as their own creators and losing illusions for whatever kind of insights they earn. God may be in the details, but the way to heaven depends on how these details are shaped by narrative. Is it accountable in the end? What's its perspective? An imagination will give itself a life by creating illusions. I take this to be a basic tendency of character, dreaming itself into heaven or the secular equivalent. At the same time a generous or elastic imagination will also examine these illusions by trying to see itself as others see it. Whatever else interests art, it's especially interested in how it's making out. When a narrative grounded in metaphor is challenged along the way, this shape can be full of wonder and meaning. When we begin to see our domestic lives as uncommon, if not exotic, we're finally in business. Characters, readers, the writer.
MC: So what you're saying is that each of your characters is in the illusion business. Like Dwight Irving, who poses as an expert on travel.
KF: The illusion business, exactly. For the novelist, minding his own business is really listening to everyone else's illusions, as a way to arrive at some illusive and elusive truth. A coherence, if you like, a vision or glimpse of something larger than self. Among his other fantasies, my deceitful travel agent is busy trying to make up an "ideal city" for a travel board game he hopes to market, feeding details into his desktop Apple. He's his own illusion-maker-as are my other two impostors. Aloysius, his punk rock dependant, gives himself many refugee voices in an immigrant dream of becoming a landlord in the new world. He's both story-teller and his characters. And the chiropractor, Bartlett Day, whom we meet in the throes of self-doubt about his quack profession, is commenting on his own quest as he lives it out peripatetically. Which one of them finds El Dorado? Unity in the shape of an unrevisable narrative? In a novel about fiction, these characters and numerous minor characters all flirt with their dreams, seeing if they can discover how to give their lives shapes that matter.
MC: Did the novel go through a number of revisions?
KF: Is water wet? In the end you can only offer whatever shape seems complete and unrevisable. Time helps with the erosion. From a "final" draft of 1300 pages I cut another 400 pages. What does that tell you about my own pilgrimage in this illusory and quack profession? Probably that it's just as fallible as my characters'. All writing, like all living, exists stubbornly in the revision.
MC: An aspect of the novel and a characteristic of your style that fascinates me is your playfulness in deploying narrative voices. Sometimes it's as if a shadow reading follows mine and then comments on, clarifies, or even distorts the fiction. I have this illusion of a simultaneous double, even public reading.
KF: I imagine novels as dialogues with their predecessors. Narrative meaning shifts with the revisions of descendant narratives. There's always this extended family involved when you write, and the family history changes accordingly. Even in a triptych like mine, it hardly needs mentioning how each of the books is another reading of the same sliver of years covered by the preceding protagonist. It revises those years, that time, these characters. In this sense I'm revising my own character as a novelist. Was I ever. Just as the chiropractor listens courteously to his patients tell their stories, so I listen to these protagonists tell theirs, with their endearing human tendency to revision. I suppose if you give characters the means of shaping their own narratives, then gaps will open up wherein a shadow reading, or this commenting you mention, allows them to undercut our tendency to presume. Any distortion of the fiction is perhaps attributable to a lot of self-dialogue.
MC: Did you know from the outset it was going to be this massive novel, or did it slowly evolve as you wrote it, becoming more complex and ambitious?
KF: I think I knew in 1983, when I wrote an essay called "Notes toward A Supreme Fiction", that something elephantine might be lurking. I could see its shadow on the dusty road. I had the title a year before that. And one or two of the principal characters. I was still clearing ground when I wrote another essay in 1989 called "Becoming Complicit". By then I was half wondering if my imagination had exceeded my grasp, if I hoped to shape this book the way I was dreaming it. I wrote or edited other books during those years. Wrestling meanwhile with my angel. I had become determined to explore what I believed fiction to be, which was popular anatomy of no less than the world. I wanted to know this world to its bones. In my novel, and earlier collections of stories, I was trying to understand what fiction might be in the context of more than one context, voice, world. The wonder inherent in this multiplicity became my obsession. I think it's always been my obsession. I've always been stunned by the variety of the world-both man-made and natural-by the endless possibilities of beginnings. In this way I've never really grown up. In middle age a sense of wonder is a little naive and often suspect. But I think I also have an abiding elegiac sense. It helps to take care of the beginnings.
MC: About this universe you created in Popular Anatomy-how did you hold it all in your head?
KF: Sweatily, working the edges of memory. It was a long journey out. I kept Proust's little dictum in mind: "We must never be afraid to go too far, because the truth lies beyond." At the same time, I couldn't forget this journey had to be paid for with coherence or integrity. In other words, you hope for the best and mortgage your spirit. Heroically, I suppose, since writing is an heroic act. Which is to say it's gratuitous. You volunteer it. I think Oscar Wilde was very thoughtless not to have said that art is the tip one leaves behind for the meal one makes of life. My ridiculous hubris was in wanting to be seen as a tipper roughly commensurate with how much I'd so far enjoyed the feast. I nearly went broke. Which isn't the kind of poverty I'd normally object to, but when the resultant payoff is small you have to scramble to refinance your spirit. You finish another book.
MC: The unity of time and place is obviously important in Popular Anatomy. You seem interested in unifying not only East and West through your principal characters, in the larger sense of First and Third Worlds. But you also plumb away at the east and west sides of Vancouver, with two distinct classes of characters in Bartlett and Dwight and their funny parents. At the same time, apart from seeking a unity of mainstream and alternative medicines through homoeopathy, say, or a metaphorical resolution of bones, you take us back through time to before Vancouver's existence. Vancouver seems to be the "ideal city" Dwight can't see for looking, the unifying city of the many cities visited by Bartlett in countries around the world. May I ask if you ever felt your fascination with narrative "integrity" might challenge a reader beyond his or her willingness to stay with you?
KF: Few readers, if they can help it, care to find themselves booked to the edge of memory. It's like the back of beyond for those understandably more interested in a resort hotel. Travel is a lot of work and who can blame them? Any fictional universe that fractures itself or threatens narrative civil war, seems baroque or disproportionate.well, thanks but no thanks, we've got reservations at the beach with a Pat Conroy novel. Life's too short to be bumfuzzled. Seen as an anachronism-if it's seen at all-Keats's negative capability isn't big on readerly charts. And certainly opinion shapers aren't especially known for their willingness to sit long in a suspended state of uncertainty. In a resort you want your coherence served up quickly. Anyway, if a few devoted travellers venture through my own novel, I have to assume they've gradually eased into what Pablo Day, the descendant of my chiropractor, is about to discover in the Afterword: a wonder for the interrelatedness of narrative. I didn't write a page of this novel without such readers in mind. I wanted them to be entertained, rewarded for their effort. And, safe at home as their travel consultant, I kept hoping their trip to this Galapagos of beaches at Spanish Banks might even stir in them an occasional thought as to what narrative evolution means. I have so few readers that I feel any loyal enough to finish a large novel by me deserve to have their passports specially bound.
MC: What about the protagonist of your diary, Gwyn Potts, a character who ends up searching for her parents, for her own conception? She's born in the "real" time of the novel, to Reesa Potts, but remains a child there. Why the "imaginary" time that carries us back from this ancient woman at the beginning, to a photon in the past?
KF: Creation, and getting back to her own, is the subject of Gwyn's shadow diary. By weaving it between chapters, and intersecting them briefly, I wanted to give the rest of the novel a controlling spine, a longer but slighter narrative backbone than those of the other books. As those plots inflate with their characterly creations, her diary compresses backwards, losing character, and yet gaining in historical density like some black hole. This diary evolves from 2091 back to 1791, the moment the Spanish set foot on the Musqueam site of her future city and realigned space and time. The narrative beginning she's looking for, happens to coincide with her city's. She's its ghostwriter. You ask about imaginary time here. I wanted to suggest how her learning to look at the present, as if from the future, can carry us out of the secondhandedness of history, into a timeless world that takes its meanings from the equations we find in figurative language, in imagination. I once heard Carlos Fuentes say in an interview there wasn't much happiness in history. Well, if you think about history, it's really full of happiness that has escaped time. The happiness of history is art. If history is filled with disillusions, many of the illusions that survive are full of aesthetic pleasure, and this in the end is what Pablo Day is to discover in the artefacts and stories of his ancestors in the novel.
MC: One reviewer, I remember, complained that he couldn't see much science in a book whose blurb claims it's "science fiction in the deepest sense". Where is the science in the novel?
KF: One place it's embedded is in the language of the diary. And I don't mean in its time travel. Gwyn's diary gradually begins to skirmish with the Uncertainty Principle-which sounds more ponderous than I hope her weightless writing is. But what interested me was glancing at today's prevailing scientific belief that the physical world might be reduced to an abstract formula in order to explain "everything". This is a paradox I resist utterly. As an artist, I agree with Sartre's definition of evil: "the systematic substitution of abstraction for the concrete". And so does my unborn character-this promiscuous photon in the historical space of pre-existence. She's in search of the physical. Literally, of herself. But all she has is figurative language. The language of the imagination. Her language, like the artist's, is illusory because it's in time and out of time, at the same time. In this sense, her language resembles the reality that theoretical physicists tell us lies at the heart of the Uncertainty Principle-the illusion of a light particle and the inability of its matter to exist simultaneously in place and time. These physicists are hoping to offer a Theory-of-Everything, as I understand it, to reconcile this fundamental paradox. Well, I wanted to suggest how in fact we really take our reconciliations from metaphor. From common language uncommonly held. And so, it turns out, do they. Metaphors-endless as they are, infinitely suggestive as they become-are the keys to where we've come from and where we're going. No mathematical equation can supplant them. The power of metaphor to unite opposites is unparalleled.
MC: You're suggesting then these physicists are as limited as the rest of us in trying to explain the unexplainable, that they inevitably end up having to fall back on language and infringing on the territory of the writer.
KF: I think they've always recognized the power, the suggestiveness of common language uncommonly held. They too are in the illusion business. You notice how the models they inevitably deploy in public derive not from abstract math, but from these linguistic models we call metaphors.from Kepler's big hit, "music of the spheres", down through the Big Bang, bubbles, black holes, sheets, super-strings, waves, worm holes, etc. What I'm suggesting is that time can't be grasped in any "real" sense except through a common language. And this common language is metaphorical, fictional, narrative. Above all, it's concrete and not abstract.
MC: Which is what the unborn Gwyn Potts is looking to become, a gleam in someone's eye.
KF: Yes. In creating herself-in trying to find herself a story, a place to be born into-she's searching for a time when she'll become a character, eventually for time to develop as this character-and along the way she collects her ancestors' mementoes in a large trunk and their stories in a small diary. Out of this trunk and diary the matter of the novel is created and shaped. I was interested in the physicist Richard Feynman's famous phrase about a particle of matter-"the sum of its histories"-as adding up to what we mean by time and place. Like the traditional chiropractor, who quackishly believes our health is compressed in the spine, I wanted this diary to be a sum of the histories in the novel. I wanted it to reveal, without our realizing it as we read it backwards, what eventually happens to the main characters in the novel, once the novel is over. You know, a kind of enlargement of that Victorian narrative convention, relegated to the last chapter of a novel like Great Expectations. "Where do stories end? Where do they go?" is a refrain of Gwyn's father Dwight, who is condemned to read large Victorian novels endlessly to a mad jailer in Costa Rica, around the time of her birth. How the loosely joined protagonists of the main novel will eventually evolve into an extended family is glimpsed in her diary, from the future.
MC: I wonder if you might account for your new collection of stories, Telling My Love Lies, as a similar expression of your fondness for unity in diversity.
KF: Fifteen years ago, I think when I was writing one of the stories in my first book, Taking Cover, I had a realization that I could simply go on writing such a story. That I could go on "making up" narrative out of the imaginary world that gives flesh and character to a story. I remember I was walking over the pedestrian bridge in Stanley Park, near the Rowing Club. It was spring. The story I was writing was "This Is What You Were Born For". I suddenly saw that once you begin to look at the world as an artist sees it, then all its ingredients become the stuff of fiction. And that once you acquire the habit of blending these ingredients, seeing how unusual and attractive dishes can be created, this world of art opens up and you're offered a choice: either to despair at ever doing justice to your appetite, becoming a jogger perhaps instead, or else to plan for a banquet. So many dishes seem to be cooking, that eventually you go out and invite in characters to share in the good fortune. You find yourself taking on the dual role of chef and host. You're pleased when the conversation around the table gets going, stories are told, and they begin to overlap and spark off one another. You finish your first book. You finish another. You find the interrelatedness of narrative of increasing importance in seeing the world. You begin a novel. By now your fictional world has expanded, widely. In another collection of stories, a decision is made to get out of the city and limit yourself to a certain semi-rural world. Meanwhile, characters have begun to favour cameo appearances in other characters' stories. Well, in this new collection, I wanted to say something about all this cooking around. I wanted to suggest how "making up" is an endless proposition-how story-telling can compound itself like a life force, because it's such a natural activity.
MC: Your characters here are members of the same book club, in a polder area called Perumber, surrounded by fields and mountains. In fact, it's their anthology of stories.
KF: Right. They make up stories, even to account for the sources of their stories, as I've just been doing. In Telling My Love Lies, I wanted to gently parody the convention in those anthologies where contributors are asked to preface their story with a Comment on its origins. Very often, these really have little to do with the story, yet we're drawn to them because we think they hold some clue to the fiction we might otherwise miss. We're drawn to autobiography. Yet these comments are just other forms of fiction. Another example of the interrelatedness of narrative, wherein all good fiction is autobiographical by virtue of the author's mind it reveals. So I gave the members of this book club, who are responsible for contributing a story world every month for group discussion, a chance to say where each of their stories came from, when they finally get around to collecting them in book form. I was interested in fictionalizing the sources of the fiction. Making up the origins of what is made up. Showing how the imagination can be a gloriously unreliable child of intention. Basically, I wanted to celebrate the imagination, which is rarely celebrated by reviewers. Or perhaps even by members of book clubs. It's always easier to talk around a book, especially through extraneous bits like "factual" Comments. I wanted to give readers a handle to discuss this collection, but which they could only do in terms of the creative imagination. In other words, in terms of the art. And yet ironically, at the same time, I hoped they could still gossip or talk about the book, should they feel more comfortable doing this, by probing what may or may not be extraneous in the little prefaces to the stories. Obviously, these extraneous comments of my "authors" are just other stories, shadow stories, which I hoped would enrich the fictional world of the imaginary community where I set them, and where this book club meets to discuss them.
MC: So you populate your stories with characters, and then you populate your book with a community of readers-writers-who become characters.
KF: I'm wary of making it sound like one of these reflexive reptiles eating its own tail, starved for a good read. The stories are still autonomous and I hope entertaining. But, yes. Works of fiction are also models of interactive communities, and not the least of these is the community of the imagination. Writers influence one another. Mine do. They influence me. I might even hope to influence them.
MC: You range very widely in style and genre. In settings and voices. You seem resistant to handy summary, which I'm sure pleases you as an outsider. What kind of writer would you say you are?
KF: I worry sometimes that I have no identifiable voice or subject, unless maybe it's the protean imagination I admire in others. I worry sometimes that I'm a prostitute who consorts too widely to be successful in the usual ways of a readership. Sometimes I worry that I'm naive. Sometimes that I'm not. Often I worry that I'll never do credit to an imagination that I'd like to do credit to. I worry a lot of the time that I don't work hard enough, that I'm not alive to the world. I worry all of the time that time is remorseless.

 Michael Carbert is a Toronto writer.


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