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A Study of The New Age:
Canadian Odyssey. A Reading of Hugh HoodĂs The New Age/nouveau siecle


by W.J. Keith
212 pages,
ISBN: 0773523898


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A Study of The New Age
by Dennis Duffy

Amonograph on a work widely acknowledged as a masterpiece figures in many an academic's cursus. Keith's is not quite that. Canadian Odyssey deals instead with Hugh Hood's twelve-volume fiction, The New Age, whose claim to grandeur seems a truth far from universally acknowledged.

Keith's treatment has a purpose beyond the strictly critical. Selling The New Age, backing up its author's (often extravagant) claims to greatness, convincing the series' potential readership to invest time and energy in the project: these goals¨in addition to the typical critical aims of elucidation and analysis¨drive the book. That selling job is not always compatible with the critical pursuit. Such passages as "We come to realize that no reference in Hood's work is ever casual, and that even passing allusions to writers and books can yield important clues for the appreciation of his own work," and "As sympathetic readers, we are invited to move on the next novel with a feeling of keen anticipation," more resemble lecture-hall boiler plate than engaged criticism.

A treatment less intent on establishing claims might have proceeded in less pedestrian fashion. Following three background chapters, Canadian Odyssey proceeds to a seriatim discussion of each of the novels in order of publication. I found it hard slogging at times. Keith's encyclopaedic knowledge of the texts and their interrelationship form the study's greatest strength. That aspect of the series could have been more engagingly and convincingly presented to the reader through a thematic or topical organizational principle. Sexuality, identity, the familial: presenting these and other across-the-board topics would have better enabled the reader to pull together his or her experience, as well as encourage her to re-engage with any skipped portion of the series.

A study that could have assumed an audience's deep interest in the subject could have proceeded in that fashion. Instead, the nature of the material compelled Keith to assert the claims to our attention of every component of the series, a hard sell, and one involving him in organizational pitfalls of this sort.

Whatever the cumulative effect of Keith's rhetorical strategy, the larger problem is inescapable. Even the finest of critics must finally submit to the evidence of a reader's response to the text itself. I find it significant that so acute and practical a critic as Keith ignores every opportunity to discuss at length any specific passage. Instead, we are told of interrelationships and formal complexities, while the sheer fact of the nature of Hood's prose narrative style endures very little interrogation. Let me attempt to substitute my own discussion for what is missing here.

Keith asserts that Tony's Book (1988), seventh in the series "is most remarkable for its technical experimentationÓ [h]ere Hood makes his most ambitious experiments with shifting narrative viewpoint." Briefly, Hood's feat involves the use of four monologues, each narrated by a different figure, divided equally between men and women. Since The Sound and the Fury appeared in 1929, "experimentation" may not be the most appropriate term here.

Let that pass, however, and view the texture of the prose itself, the prose that determines the reader's experience and response. Space precludes me from considering all four voices, so stick to those of the males.

Inside every hardbitten professional reviewer or critic there's a shrinking sensitive poet longing to put a toe into the icy waters of the reviews. It's sort of encouraging and endearing to see how tenderly these hard-faced, tough-minded woman and men can create a sister or brother who succumbs to the impulse. When Skye Girl came out at the end of the sixties it got notices that made me feel pretty good about my work up to then, not just the thirty-five poems in the book, but the whole oeuvre, as the French would call it.

I just missed them at Dorval. I still believe that, if I'd had a chance to talk things out with Edie and the children, and perhaps Tony too, I might have been able to persuade them to undo their plans. It was an impulse thing. I've always been convinced of that. How can you plan to murder somebody in cold blood? Most murders are unpremeditated passionate acts, or else they take place during the commission of another crime. There can't be many killers who sit down quietly over a cup of coffee and work their plan out. And what Tony and Edie did to me was as bad as murder; they might just as well have left me for dead.

Ask yourself: does Tony (first passage) sound all that different from Matt here? Beyond content (they are both recollecting very different matters), do any significant stylistic differences assert themselves? Does a Sound/Fury where Jason sounds like Quentin really work? Ignore if you can the prose's relative flatness, and its use of clichT ("hard-faced", "tough-minded", "in cold blood", "left me for dead"). Forgive Hood for not writing like Saul Bellow. Can you locate any rhetorical or stylistic quirk serving as a signature, a mark of property distinguishing one passage from the other?

If this is experimental prose, then explain to me what the experiment demonstrates.

Critics can fool you. My system absorbed a great deal more Fenimore Cooper than is good for any healthy reading organism on the strength of Edmund Wilson's all-too-convincing analysis of five or six great passages adrift amid an ocean of dullness. For me, Hood's New Age rarely passes the test that thick critical description imposes. My unease with Keith's criticism here stems from the absence of such testing. "None genuine without this signature," Hood entitled one of his fine stories. The close reading and absorbed commentary, the signature of convincing critical argumentation, eludes observation here.

If Keith's critical acumen cannot establish a compelling reason for devoting continuing consideration to The New Age, then I suspect¨as have many for years¨that few grounds commanding such observation in fact exist. Such a conclusion as this evokes a sense of sadness, on both a personal and critical level. Nonetheless, amending that response will require far more evidence than is displayed either by the series itself or by its strongest backer. ˛

Dennis Duffy is an Emeritus Professor of English at Innis College in the University of Toronto. He has been writing about Hood's fiction since the late 60s.

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