||A Review of: Colin's Big Thing: A Sequence
by Brian Fawcett
The publication of Bruce Serafin's Colin's Big Thing is a major
intellectual and literary event for the West Coast. Or rather, it
ought to be, but the book likely won't get the A-list play it
deserves. As a reader, I've known about Serafin for almost a quarter
century now. Nearly everything he's written has been worth reading,
and I and lot of others have regretted his reluctance to write and
A first book by Serafin was rumoured to be in the works 15 years
ago, and even then, people were saying "It's about time,"
and so the publication of Colin's Big Thing is cause for an overdue
celebration. That the book has been released as a weakly-edited
paperback from a small publisher is a shame, but it isn't an accident.
Serafin, who put together, all too briefly during the early 1990s,
the remarkable Vancouver Review and then helped bring it back to
life again this year before retreating once more, has difficulty
standing up for his own abilities and skills and he hasn't measured
them accurately against those of his contemporaries. While the rest
of us have babbled and published, Serafin imposed on himself long
periods of resentful silence. He's one of those solitary human
beings who insist that everything be done on his extremely exacting
terms. Those terms strain the patience of publishers and other
Colin's Big Thing is not so much a personal memoir as history of
the unique netherworld British Columbia does its best to hide from
the outside world. Serafin has created an unyielding record of its
end-of-the-land brutality, and of the human and intellectual toll
it takes on anyone who lives outside the narrow strip of New Age
chrome and brass that rings the outer shores of Burrard Inlet. The
tourism industry calls this strip Vancouver, and it has a population
of about 200,000 souls too well-heeled for their own good, frantically
in search of today, tomorrow, the day after-and its shiniest
commodities. Most British Columbians never get to live in this
Vancouver, but a larger population lives within the physical and
psychic wreckage of its frontier, trapped in a netherworld of their
own-and late capitalism's Darwinist-expectations.
Serafin has spent his adult life observing the B.C. netherworld at
close quarters, refusing to accept the comforts of that glitzy
Vancouver, which he loathes with a passion that is both instinctive
and perverse. The result is Colin's Big Thing, which contains the
most elegant and accurate-and depressing-depictions of the netherworld
that have ever been put to paper.
"The house is down by the docks, on Odlum Drive. It's old,
stuccoed, but with a noticeable touch: next to it, separated from
it by a tangle of blackberry bushes, stands a wooden building whose
apartments seem to have rented out to whores: dozens of white
condoms, obviously thrown from the apartment building's windows,
hang from the brambles in the sun. The picket fence sags. The old
concrete walkway is almost lost in the kneehigh grass. The stink
from a chicken processing plant a few blocks away makes me lift my
arm to my nose as I walk up the steps to the porch."
This passage, which I picked by opening the book and reading a page
at random, is typical but hardly exemplary of how good his eye is.
There are literally hundreds of passages as well drawn. The book
is an unblinking articulation of something everyone on the West
Coast knows is there and which nearly everyone-writers included-with
sufficient physical and emotional resources studiously avoids.
Is extracting the netherworld from Vancouver's upscale facades a
worthwhile project? Yes, certainly, if you compare Serafin's Colin's
Big Thing to, say, the superficial account of Vancouver in Doug
Coupland's City of Glass. And for Serafin himself, the answer is
clearly yes. It is also, I suspect, the precondition for everything
he may subsequently publish, of which I hope there will now be more.
Serafin's netherworld history isn't divisible from Serafin's private
history-how else to get at it, or, for that matter, to survive it,
which many don't. Among the things Serafin has survived is nearly
two decades of working in the postal system, most of them spent on
the night shift inside the bowels of the city's Main Post Office,
which he describes with a specificity that captures both the
excruciating boredom of routinized labour and its effect on himself
and his fellow-workers. Few have written from inside any work
environment this accurately before, and Serafin's unsentimental but
often generous treatment of it puts a lot of dull
"work-writing"-a West Coast specialty-to shame:
"It's very quiet. I hear no laughter, none of the vivacity
you'd find in the daytime. People are too tired for that. Their
murmuring voices, the way they half-turn their heads to each other,
their pauses and occasional sighs, and along with that, the rumbling
sound of the big belts going overhead that you can only hear late
at night when the machines are off-all this contributes to the sense
I haveof being in a spaceship far away from the rest of society."
But Serafin's private history is occasionally more problematic-as
literature-than his record of the netherworld. Throughout the book,
he operates, and writes, by an elevated emotional vocabulary, one
that describes emotional conditions I understand abstractly but
have rarely experienced: Serafin "yearns" for people,
places and times; his heart "pounds" with desire and fear;
he is "overwhelmed" with anguish, and frequently
"exalted" by events or ideas, or is "shattered"
by them. I happen to believe that this extreme emotional vocabulary
is accurate to the way he experiences the world. But I also believe
that it engenders-and renders-both intensities and volumes of
emotional experience that are extremely uncommon.
One of the apparent difficulties in the book is that Serafin seems
unaware of how extreme and uncommon his responses are. For me, one
of the interests of his perceptual system is that it is oblivious
and hypersensitive at the same time. . .Given the above, it is a
miracle that Colin's Big Thing is as successful as it is. Yet on
virtually any literary and sociological terms I can name, this is
an interesting and important document, from the terrifying laconic
adolescent fratricide Serafin witnessed as a child to his heartbreakingly
futile attempts to make contact with his French-Canadian mother as
an adult by sending her copies of Michel Tremblay's plays; and
through the countless fine details he offers of Vancouver's netherworld
to his chilling account of what its like to work inside Vancouver's
postal system. Again and again, Serafin shows a willingness to gaze
directly into whatever is in front of him. . .
To be aware of his surroundings the way he is involves a strain of
cognitive courage few writers are capable of mustering. It is kept
from sentimentality by the virtuosity of his writing, and by the
relentless will with which he pursues his goal of describing the
realities of the West Coast netherworld and the precise nature of
the anxiety it invokes in him and those he cares about.
Yet for all Serafin's virtuosity, there are also passages of careless
and occasionally overblown writing in the book. There are also
passages in the book that are hermetic, and will be inscrutable to
anyone unfamiliar with the city's east-of-the-beaches landscapes.
He employs a curiously inconsistent naming code throughout the book,
providing the real names of some people, and using pseudonyms for
others. Certainly the last two of these weaken the book as a
historical document, although not enough to make it dismissible. A
competent editor would have talked him out of the name codes and
would have cleared out the local shorthand, but I'm pretty sure
Serafin refused to allow that kind of editing. It's part and parcel
of his distrust of the instruments-formal literature and the larger
community of writers-whose acceptance he's just as clearly after.
The book's title is taken from a chapter, late in the book, about
the cartoon artist Colin Upton, who displays nearly all of the
character traits and fidelities Serafin is too shy to claim for
himself. The title is therefore revealing and not inaccurate, unless
it makes readers miss the fact that Bruce Serafin's Big Thing is
much, much bigger than it appears. Despite its flaws, Colin's Big
Thing is a major West Coast cultural event, and hopefully, the
precursor to even bigger ones.