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Open-endedness in Slovenia
by W. J. Keith

John Metcalf is the son of an English Methodist minister who spent a lifetime preaching the Word; Metcalf himself, in a classic case of generational revolt, shed religious concerns early, yet clearly inherited from his father a passion for the now-secularized, lower-case word. This observation may smack of "amateur psychology," but it can serve, I think, as a viable and meaningful literary-critical myth (in the best sense of that much-abused term). For Metcalf, words (up to and including the least conspicuous article), their order, positioning, rhythm, interrelations, are invariably crucial to his effect. So are paragraphing, the use of italics, and punctuation (he lays emphasis on the semi-colon, which is why I inserted one¨correctly, I trust¨in my opening sentence).
When he emigrated to Canada, however, and began to establish his niche in the Canadian literary world towards the end of the 1960s, he experienced severe culture-shock. He found a growing and obsessive preoccupation with themes, nationalist themes in particular, and a corresponding neglect of verbal elegance and sensitivity. Few writers or critics seemed to realize that a very bad book can be written on a very important theme.
This circumstance had two significant effects on his own career. First, it led to emphasize style rather than subject-matter both in his own fiction and in the writers he subsequently encouraged and published. Second (a more significant factor here), he tended to write novels, novellas, and short stories about writers with similar stylistic concerns, and to present them against an increasingly bizarre, culturally hostile, and (let's admit it) disturbingly Canadian background. These include Jim Haine, the irascible and dedicated translator in the much-anthologized "Gentle as Flowers Make the stones" from The Teeth of My Father (1975); James Wells, the central figure in General Ludd (1980); and now Robert Forde, first met in "Travelling Northward", the concluding story in Adult Entertainment (1986), whose story is now continued at novella length. (Metcalf aficionados should be warned, however, that this story originally appeared in a special Metcalf issue of the New Quarterly in 1996.)
Nothing much happens in Forde Abroad. Just as, in "Travelling Northward", Forde merely gives a reading to a talentless literary group in northern Ontario, so here he travels to Slovenia for a dreary conference devoted to Canadian culture, where jargon-ridden academics pontificate on "the materiality of the signifier." He meets a weird collection of intellectuals, observes political and literary rackets at work, and then sets off on the journey home. The novella ends when the conference ends, but in the meantime he has experienced a bombardment of images, feelings, impressions, and even physical symptoms, that are recorded with a stylistic vividness that suggests (pardon the phrase) "Virtual Reality." An ideal Metcalf reader must delight in savouring his deft phrasing and cumulative rhythms, possess a highly developed sense of humour, and register no fears about political correctness. What is said takes a decided second place to how it is said.
Nonetheless, what is said remains important. Though Metcalf will probably dislike my stressing the point, Forde Abroad is also noteworthy for containing a highly disturbing report on the current literary and cultural situation, as much in Canada as in the outside world represented by Slovenia. Anyone seriously interested in imaginative writing and responsible criticism will recognize only too clearly his portrayal of an academic conference with its papers ranging "from deconstructionist babble to weird explications in uncertain English of the profundities of Mazo de la Roche and Lucy Maud Montgomery." And anyone seriously interested in the reputation of Canadian literature will agree with Forde (Montgomery being in question) in deploring as "a national embarrassment" the fact that "Canadian scholars and universities studied the output of a hack writer of children's books." Even his comments on the tastes of his own children, who "seemed to be interested only in rockbands, basketball, and strange fantasy magazines involving dragons, mazes and monsters," imply almost apocalyptic doubts concerning the all-important continuity of our culture.
Still, Metcalf would be right to insist that the true centre of his novella lies elsewhere¨in his capacity to convey the totality of Forde's experience, what he sees and feels as well as what he thinks, through the medium of his art. According to Forde (and, it is surely safe to assume, Metcalf), art "encompasses ideas but it's not about ideas." Rather, it arises "from the realness of the world." At first sight, the characters encountered by Forde may seem exaggerated. But Metcalf knows, with Dickens, that the world is full of such people. Forde finds his surroundings "dreamlike, even nightmarish," yet realizes that "this was the way the world was. The world was bizarre." "Bizarre" is, indeed, a word that continually springs to mind, not as an artistic limitation but as an indication of Metcalf's startlingly precise reflection of human experience.
Like our experience of the world, the novella is "open-ended" (though this academic phrase might well provoke an obscene expletive from the cantankerous Forde). Nothing is resolved here. Thus we never learn the cause of his mysterious nightly illnesses, nor what happens¨either to himself or to the people he meets¨once he returns home. I have to confess that, on my initial reading, I was dissatisfied with the ending. I found myself wanting a more definite narrative conclusion. But I have come to realize that Metcalf communicates in terms of poetic imagery rather than fictive structure. Despite all the gloomy implications of what he sees and hears, Forde's story concludes¨one is tempted to say, against all the evidence¨on a note of exultation, yet there is a paradoxical, albeit idiosyncratic rightness in his inexplicably experiencing two revelations of beauty: one man-made (the exquisitely illustrated book bought as a homecoming gift for his wife), one natural (the vision of the dancing cranes, stunningly reproduced by Porcupine's Quill on the cover). Together they provide a poignant indication of what might be. Above all, this open-endedness means that the story of Robert Forde is not yet finished and that a continuation is possible. ˛
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