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Canada and the Short-Story Cycle John Oughton in Tandem with Gerald Lynch
by Gerald Lynch

The short story has long been considered a staple of Canadian literature, and short-story writers like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Norman Levine and Alastair McLeod rank among the English-writing world's best. But many readers might be surprised by Ottawa critic and fiction writer Gerald Lynch. His critical work maintains that the short-story cycleła series of stories with recurring characters and themes, and/or the same settingłmay be the high point of Canadian fiction, perhaps even the answer to: where is the great Canadian novel?
Many story cycles have a framing first story which establishes the setting and themes, a theme and variation development through the middle stories, and a "return" or envoi story at the end, often with a character's return to the setting of the first story. In the One and the Many, Lynch examines both well-known story cyclesłLeacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Frederick Philip Grove's Over Prairie Trails, Emily Carr's Klee Wyck, Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are? and Thomas King's Medicine River. But he gives equal time to the lesser-recognized toołDuncan Campbell Scott (In the Village of Viger), the early feminist writer J.G. Sime (Sister Woman), and George Elliott (The Kissing Man). Lynch's prose is a fine balance between maintaining academic writing's rigour without falling into its rigor mortis of style. He manages to be chatty and amusing as well as perceptive.
Lynch was born in Ireland but raised in Canada, and now teaches at the University of Ottawa. He's written two novels, most recently Exotic Dancers (Cormorant, 2001), and two short story collections. The One and the Many (University of Toronto Press, 239 pages, $21.95 paper, ISBN: 0802083978) is his second critical work, following Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity (McGill-Queen's UP, 1988).What follows is neither an interview nor a review, exactly. Every few days, I e-mailed Gerald Lynch with questions, and then saved his replies. This is a slightly edited version.
John Oughton: Can I paraphrase two of your reasons why the story cycle is a specially apt Canadian form? First, it's ideal for reflecting the fragmentation of experience as many Canadians moved from rural or small-town life to larger urban communities, or had cities mushroom around them
Gerald Lynch: Yes: fragmented experiences seem to be a natural fit for story cycles, and vice-versa. The story cycle is a Modern form, born of that time when a number of traditional, totalising systems (religion, astronomy, science, psychology) were fragmenting under various rational pressures, which were often brought to bear, ironically, by totalising systemizers themselves (Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein). As the story cycle became a distinct genre, for the historical-cultural reasons you give here, the novel itself was undergoing innovative fragmentation. I would venture that the great novel of Modernism, Ulysses, can rewardingly be read as a story cycle; it's no surprise that Joyce's first book was a classic of the genre, Dubliners.
JO: Second, the story cycle also reflects Canada's nature as "the one and the many," or mosaicłwith its ongoing dynamic between the development of the individual or region and a larger, often loose, confederation.
GL: I think so. And the story cycle's appropriateness continues in the work of writers from various contemporary ethnic communities: in [Rohinton] Mistry's Tales from the Firozsha Baag, [M.G.] Vassanji's Uhuru Street, and many others (even [Thomas] King's Medicine River).
JO: Is it also possible that the story cycle is a spatial mirror of Canada's geography, in that we have centers of population strung outłoften by considerable distancesłacross a wide nation, like stories both discontinuous and part of a larger narrative?
GL: I like it, especially your expression of it. This is certainly implicit in my describing the story cycle (or cycles) as a distinctly Canadian genre. I'm not sure if I express it explicitly, but if I do, I'm sure I didn't put it as well as you do above.
JO: I'm interested in the concept of "genre memory" you raise early in the book. You say that is a Bakhtinian idea although the actual phrase is someone else's. I find intriguing your notion that Alice Munro might never have read some of the early story cycles you discuss but could still be somehow influenced by their percolation through her culture. This sounds a little like an immaculate conception, but I wonder if there's another factor. Could the general idea of story cycles be transmitted by cultural touchstonesłsay parts of The Bible, The 1001 Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Master's Spoon River Anthology? The Canadian quality of Munro's own story cycles might reflect a general national approachłyou know, giving characters donuts, complaining about the editorial weather, keeping peace between warring endings.
GL: "Genre memory" may be a weakness in the theoretical aspect of my argument, though I prefer to think of it as a site where, as with your immaculate conception, readers can exercise their literary faith. It's really not so odd a concept when we remember Frye's notion of the "imaginative continuum" that literature is, and recall Borges's convincing argument that Kafka influenced Hawthorne (the latter we'll save for our senility). A country's culturełits history, literature, science, and the forms its creative spirits have favouredłmake the writer at least as much as the writer makes his/her culture. Genre memory can sound like critical sleight of hand, I know, but if the culture remembers, why not its forms? I like your added argument: that whether or not Munro has read Scott's Viger, most western writers will have had some exposure to cyclical forms, ranging across the genres you name, including the liturgical calendar, miracle-play cycles, sonnet cycles, novel cycles, etc. I also like your Canadian donut as an example of the local expression of a universal form. What could be more cyclical, or circular, and Canadian? And didn't Tim Horton skate circles around the opposition? Maybe not, he was a bit of a plodder.
JO: I see you take Leacock seriously as a literary writer, not just a great humorist. When I went to graduate school, not many English professors did this. Have his serious literary achievements been ignored because few lit. crits. have much sense of humour? Or did they fail to see his formal contributions because they were laughing too hard?
GL: I cannot imagine teaching a survey of Canadian literature and not using Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. If we have a touchstone text, that's it, as important to Canadian fiction as Hemingway said Huckleberry Finn is to American. Perhaps Duncan's The Imperialist would serve as well, but undergraduates find its style difficult. They love Leacock, and you can learn a lot from the Sketches as you laugh. His second great book, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, is at least as relevant today as when it was published, and probably more so. I don't know what to think of my fellow teachers who don't use Leacock. No one will admit that s/he has no sense of humour, but that's often the case. You meet a lot of smart readers who have tin ears when it comes to humour and satire.
JO: You make the claim that the Great Canadian Novel may be here, or coming, but in the form of a story cycle. This may alert the antennae of some supporters of the usual suspectsłOndaatje, Laurence, Davies, Richlerłgoing. Have you had much response to this claim? If you're right, would this be another outcome of the eternal Anglo-Canadian search for identity, since a "totalizing" novel requires solid national foundations, and therefore the less assertive story cycle form reaffirms our self-questioning?
GL: Response? If it weren't for you and Books in Canada, my critical labour of some ten-plus years would be going the way of Jean Chretien's legacy: wholly unnoticed. They could have printed a banner across the coverł"Lynch says NHL playoff schedule is great Canadian novel!!!"łand no one would have noticed. Along with the general falling off in serious reading habits, we don't seem to be taking our critical culture as seriously as we did even twenty years ago, let alone in the heyday of cultural nationalism in the 1960s and '70s. What I'm half-seriously suggesting with my claim that the great Canadian novel may well be a great Canadian short story cyclełand nominating Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town for the titlełtouches, as you say, the serious business of cultural nationalism. Unlike many of my hipper colleagues, I have no trouble with that. If people in the world living a few hundred kilometres apart can develop wholly different languages, I expect that nations can develop distinctive cultural characteristics and even national types. My idea of Canadian cultural nationalism includes inclusivenessłbased on an ongoing understanding of who we've been, of what has brought us to where we are, both good and bad. Your observing that "the one-and-the-many" aspect of the story cycle jibes with an inclusive idea of Canadian national identityłthe ongoing shaping thereofłgives me hope that literary criticism still has something to contribute to Canada's great debate.
JO: Your book has an unusually neat structure for a work of criticism. It has a framing introduction and conclusion, with five chapters in between. The middle chapter is a turning point because it argues that Carr and Grove transformed the communally-oriented cycle into one more focused on the individual. There's even a kind of "return story" as your last section shows the many echoes of Sunshine Sketches in the most contemporary work you consider, Medicine River. Was all this structure deliberate and conscious?
GL: Much of what you've recognized in the structure of The One and the Many was indeed intentionally an aspect of its composition, some of it emerged in the process, and some is unavoidably there in a book whose dominant structural feature is the chronological, and whose central image is the cycle. At one time I'd had even more intricate plans, especially with regard to making my conclusion a kind of critical return story that cleverly wove together the preceding material, but I decided to pull back on the imposed design and let whatever was therełthe Modern turning point that you noticełspeak for itself. One thing this says at least: there is definitely something deeply human in cyclical structures. A German critic uses the phrase, "the cyclical habit of mind." I like that.
JO: You mentioned that literary criticism attracts little public attention now, compared to Canadian studies in the late 60s/70s. Then even non-literary types with some interest in culture had a general idea of what Frye meant by "the bush garden" or Atwood by "survival". But now, it's hard to identify lit-crit theories with general currency. What's the danger for a nation of ignoring literary criticism?
GL: It's difficult to avoid doom-and-gloom on this subject. John Updike remarked recently on a general "coarsening" of the culture, and that impresses me as a sadly apt word. It's possible that, as with declining numbers for network television programs, the loss of a common literary culture has as much to do with the fragmenting of a cohesive readership as with declining numbers of serious literary readers. There's just too much fast-paced, distracting entertainment out there for the old neurotic reader. Also, literary criticism has been its own worst enemy. Such writing was always removed from most readers' real world. So what did literary criticism do? Well, in the past few decades it's removed itself even further from any hope of a readership numbered above the anemic few. It has done so mainly by developing a vocabulary and style as opaque to most readers as a doctor's scrawled Latin prescription is to a patient suffering macular degeneration. The emotions and passion involved in the glory-days of Canadian cultural nationalism galvanized a broad readership. I know there were unattractive aspects to that development, simplifications, and a lot of mediocre writing received attention for strictly non-literary reasons. [But] Maybe the greatest danger in losing a broadly inclusive literary culture is that big non-literary interests gain power and control: the crassly commercial and the impurely promotional, which we see manifested in the anti-intellectualism of the corporate publishers (and Toronto-centrism hardly comes into it, as these are increasingly multi-national interests), manifested too in the distorting effects that big prizes have on the literary landscapełeverybody kowtowłand in the anti-intellectualism of media book-clubbishness. Seriously, are there any solutions? Yes: 1) pay as little heed to the noisy Gillers and GGs and Bookers and Dublin Impacs etc. as you can; 2) read reviews such as the wealth that can be found in BiC and make your own decisions about what to read; 3) read a book of literary criticism once in a while (throw it if it's crammed with critical jargon; but you may also be surprised at how today's academic presses are striving to make criticism accessible to real readers); 4) make sure your kids see you reading something other than the newspaper or forfeit your right to complain that today's kids don't read no more; 5) don't let the great idea of your book club turn into only a coffee klatch.
JO: I've been casting around mentally for forms similar to the story cycle in other arts/genres. I think there is some similarity to the long poem, which is another Canadian genre. But perhaps the closest comparison might be musical: the pop "concept album" or perhaps the classical canon, with a similar balance of theme and variation, leitmotifs, a return, etc.
GL: Earlier you asked about the structure of The One and the Many. Interestingly, there's a great book on the nineteenth-century Canadian long poem by David Bentley, Mimic Fires, which is the only other book of criticism I can think of whose shape mimics its subject. The Canadian long poem continues today to be, like the story cycle, a distinctive Canadian form. Dorothy Livesay first noted this about forty years ago, and connected it to a Canadian predilection for the documentary. Stephen Scobie has also done good work in this subject, both critically and creatively. I could readily name a dozen Canadian long poems whose intent is documentary and whose structure is cyclical, from Oliver Goldsmith's The Rising Village (1825) to Daphne Marlatt's Steveston (1974). Musical forms probably most closely approximate the literary cycle, and vice-versa. Duncan Campbell Scott, who wrote Canada's first story cycle, was fond of quoting Walter Pater: "All art is constantly striving towards the condition of music." I think Scott meant striving formally. Personally I think the fugue works very much in the way the best story cycles do.
JO: What are you working on now?
GL: I'd like to say glibly that I'm working on my tan. But this Canadian was born in Ireland, and as Woody Allen says of Jews, we Irish don't tan, we stroke. So keeping ever to the shade, I'm working on Canadian humour and satire, and writing a novel for adults about missing children. ņ
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