The Generous Reader

In a recent Quill & Quire review of Michael Kenyon’s Relit award winning novel The Beautiful Children the reviewer, Steven Beattie, comments: “The novel’s syntax is flayed to the bone; some readers may have difficulty orienting themselves within the expressionistic geography Kenyon has created. Sapporo travels “into a sky so large and blue above grassland so bald they must have been immediately connected,” en route to an unidentified desert. The language mirrors Sapporo’s own confusion, but readers accustomed to a more conventional form of narrative may find these sections off-putting.”

The comments caught my attention because they mirrored some thoughts I had a year or so before when reading the manuscript. Kenyon’s novel was certainly not going to be confused with pulp fiction but it was also likely going to ask for an audience of generous readers with the patience to absorb Kenyon’s often demanding writing.. In contracting an editor I knew that it would be a waste of money if that editor couldn’t share Kenyon’s vision and couldn’t be the kind of responsive reader that could enrich the novel further. Thistledown’s choice of Seán Virgo was the right one.

Virgo’s writing has been praised and respected for decades. The UK’s Literary Times Supplement had singled out his strengths as “A gift for language ... forceful yet understated - the sure mark of a talented artist.” Closer to home reviews in Saturday Night exclaimed “A superb confidence ... monstrously ambitious ...  visceral, erotic. Books In Canada enthusiastically identified his work as possessing  “ Shattering intensity ... “and being “haunting, beautiful, intense, absorbing.”  As an editor, his work has been equally lauded for its insight into the process and his language intuition and instinct.

Yet, within his body of work there is a novel that left even some of the most credible reviewers grappling for a way through it or a way to appreciate it. As Beattie had said in his review of Kenyon’s The Beautiful Children- “readers accustomed to a more conventional form of narrative may find these sections off-putting”. Virgo’s novel Selakhi left many readers hovering between its covers. What  to make of a work  that has the density of Rimbaud’s imagery in “Le Bateau ivre,” (The Drunken Boat) , shares a structure of Umberto Eco’s  Foucault’s Pendulum, fearlessly pursues literary allusions with the passion of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and offers the reader a pidgin English as delightfully unfamiliar as Joyce’s ancient slang in Finnegan’s Wake?

For one national reviewer his closing dispatch read:  “There may be a reader who can appreciate Selakhi, but for me it wasn't worth the trouble it took to read it.” Another reviewer concluded:  “The aesthetics that initially draw the reader in become alienating.” Some had to settle for intellectual fences as “Virgo's narrative techniques of limited third-person perspective and limited stream of consciousness are appropriate to this labyrinth.” But as Virgo himself said of the novel: “This was the aesthetic I was interested in.” Of course, a novel six years in preparation wasn’t lost on everyone.  It has variously been described as “a tour de force”, "dazzling", "a rediscovery in the liberating energy of words"; and it was on the short list for the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, More importantly it found favour with a horde of readers who championed its subversive originality.

 As a publisher who has read Selakhi, I can say that I would have liked to have published it, and to have it on Thistledown’s list. Too many books drift away into oblivion as soon as they are read. Too many are praised for their accessible rewards. Selakhi is not one of them.  Its estranged eloquence is challenging and it is not a novel for those easily distracted by complexity. It is a memorable and wild read as fiercely original as any book ever published in Canada.  Because it was intricate and demanding did not mean that the reader had to decipher it, because it was hermetic did not mean that the reader had to “solve” its mysteries. The point was that Selakhi was beyond that kind of interpretation in the same way a long extended dream exists beyond its immediate eloquence, or the way artworks of exacting style emerge after centuries of observation. So much depends upon the audience, always. As Virgo himself has said “Reading is (can be, should be, might be, must be) an act of desire and generosity … The generosity lies in opening yourself with complete attention to someone else’s words and understanding.”  In the end perhaps as many readers failed Selakhi as believe were failed by it.

Keeping the serious book alive is a responsibility shared by publishers and readers — and, one might add, editors. For these reasons, Virgo’s immensely successful edit of Kenyon’s award-winning The Beautiful Children can be seen as a fated encounter.