Under Eastern Eyes: A Critical Reading of Maritime Fiction

by Janice Kulyk Keefer
300 pages,
ISBN: 0802057470


by Janice Kulyk Keefer
125 pages,
ISBN: 0920304745

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New star in the east
by Paul Stuewe

Janice Kulyk Keefer has a lot of nerve. Not only is she prolific - these two titles make a total of four books published during the last two years - she also dares to cross those traditions! boundary lines that keep most of us pinned within the conventional literary genres.
Now I suppose we shouldn't be shocked by the fact that Transfigurations, her second collection of short stories, was preceded by a book of poetry. Everyone knows that Canadians write poetry like British politicians write their memoirs, and no respectable author's bibliography would be complete without a slim volume of verse or two. But it's something else again to supplement these with a serious work of literary criticism such as Under Eastern Eyes: this sort of catholicity just isn't encouraged in our highly specialized society, and thus I approached Keefer's two new books with my antennae alert for any signs of overambitiousness.
Just a few stories into Trawfigurations, however, it became evident that control is the hallmark of Keefer's short fiction. Each word seems carefully chosen, each scene painstakingly set, and each character amply endowed with depth as well as motivation. B some writers seek to overwhelm readers with the sheer natural force of their visions, Keefer would rather convince us of the essential rightness of her creative experiments with imaginative logic.
A case in point is the opening "A Small, Dark Cloud," a post-nuclear holocaust vignette related from a child's point of view. Keefer avoids comfortably bathetic banalities by opting for a more elliptical approach, in which the gradual accretion of factual particulars slowly awakens us to the horrors that must lie behind them. "Reality must crouch is such details," the protagonist avers, and it is precisely this tension between the manifest and latent significances of the narration that makes a compelling story out of a potentially cliched situation.
With the exception of "Muscle Acadien," a brief exercise in historical nostalgia that is really an essay rather than fiction, the remainder of Transfigurations zeros in on the eternal conflict between individual needs and pervasive social pressures. At her best, as is "The Wind" evocative portrayal of a priest coming to terms with the how "of dying and of ministering to death there is no end," Keefer creates characters whose complex inner lives seem fully worthy of the care she has taken in sketching them. The abruptly widowed protagonist of "Passages," adrift among needs and emotions he must suffer but cannot resolve, and the mismatched couple of "Two in the Campagna," living out mutually exclusive fantasies that collide with tragicomic results, are similarly impressive examples of her ability to deftly articulate fully realized human beings.
But it must also be said that Keefer sometimes descends into stereotype in stories such as "April Showers" and "Christmas without Snow," where the social conformities impinging upon her protagonists are so conventionally familiar that they tend to turn her characters into stock fictional figures. "April Showers" depicts a sophisticated lawyer's return to her rural roots, and rings the expected changes on the city mouse/country mouse theme; "Christmas without Snow" finds a family breaking up and a young girl caught between her parents' different values, with the emphasis here on the artificial life of the urban middle class. Acute and often humorous through her comments on contemporary life styles are, in these stories Keefer fails to establish that her dramatis personae exist independently of their roles as social types.
Transfigurations is nonetheless as always readable and at times exceptionally accomplished collection of short stories, many of which exhibit a firm grasp of Maritime realities.
In Under Eastern lies Keefer reveals that she is also a perceptive analyst of the region's fiction, as she turns her hand to the explication and defence of a literary tradition often slighted by mainstream Canadian criticism.
Although its organization is somewhat haphazard and its efforts at rehabilitating the reputations of writers such as Thomas Raddall and Charles Bruce not entirely persuasive, Under Eastern Eyes is still an important addition to our understanding of both Canadian and Maritime literature. The Maritime aspect is straightforward enough: this is far and away the best book in the field, inclusive in its coverage and incisive in its critical readings, and a necessary acquisition for anyone who wants to discuss the subject seriously. It is in terms of its potentially revisionist impact upon Canadian literary criticism as a whole, however, that Under Eastern Eyes will be warmly received bythose dissatisfied with the beleaguered-garrison, marauding-wolves approach of Northrop Frye and his epigones.
What Keefer has done, and has done very thoroughly and convincingly, is to show that Maritime literature simply cannot be understood as the terrified reactions of settlers swallowed up by an alien continent. It is, rather, a body of writing characterized by "an indelible historical sense, cultural homogeneity, and a social stability," and it is in her impassioned belief in the Maritimes as a community - perhaps a backward and at times even stifling one, but nevertheless a community - that Keefer supplies a welcome antidote to the central Canadian myth of isolated individuals at the mercy of implacable nature. Students of other regional literatures may take heart from her exam ple and begin looking for evidence of communal cohesiveness in their respective areas, since Keefer has forcefully demonstrated that Frye's strictures are largely irrelevant to literary developments in the Maritimes.
But even those unwilling to let go of their stake in the bush garden should still find much of interest in Keefer's close readings of selected fictions. She is refreshingly irreverent on Buckler and MacLennan, excitingly sympathetic to Alistair MacLeod and David Adams Richards, and an interesting if perhaps excessively enthusiastic guide to the likes of Thomas McCulloch and Samuel Huyghue. Substantial sections on political fiction and regional romance offer useful discussions of neglected genres, and a concluding chapter on women writers suggests that we will be hearing a great deal of Nancy Bauer and Susan Kerslake. As we certainly will of Janice Kulyk Keefer, who in Transfigurations and Under Eastern Eyes displays an enviable grasp of the many strategies writers use to shape and understand the shared experiences of our tact worlds.

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