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|A Grave In the Air|
The Danforth review (fall 2008)
Author/critic/professor/grouch Stephen Henighan has famously made his bones by way of the lusty swaths of scorched earth and pillage he's cut through the various and most sundry precincts of the Canadian literary landscape. As most conveniently showcased in 2002's When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing and this year's A Report on the Afterlife of Culture — both previously reviewed in these, ah, "pages" — when Henighan is of a mood to take aim at his confreres/competitors, he keeps his quiver full and his environment target rich.
At times, his critical approach takes the direct, conventional route, confining itself (for the most part, anyway) to the words he finds on the page, as with: "In the arts, and particularly in literature, crisis has bred conformity, suffusing our novels with a desire to transcend history into a commercially congenial strand of non-engaged high art: to ascend the best-seller list while retaining the 'literary fiction' label." (WWDTW)
Other times, he'll broaden his focus, blithely painting, for example, our creative class as pliant, co-conspiring lapdogs in the American process of homogeneization/disneyfication of world literature and culture.
When feeling puckish and (one suspects) particularly under-appreciated, it's good old fashioned pantheon-busting that's the order of the day (Coupland? Shields? Atwood? Don't even ask).
But when really pissy, it seems it's our very national genome that draws his scorn, as when he disparages the "Zeitgeist of an essentially passive middle class that yearns to get its country back, though it is unwilling — unlike nation-building middle classes elsewhere in the world — to make any sustained effort or sacrifices to achieve this goal." (WWDTW)
Whichever way you parse Henighan's professional dyspepsia — and surely there's ample fodder for a generation's worth of navel-gazing, self-referential CanLit meta-theses — it's baked so deeply into the cake as to bleed into and inform even his fictional personae.
And so the stories collected in A Grave in the Air find Henighan, dependably, in what must now be approaching something like the twentieth unbroken year of a really, really rotten mood.
Which is all to say that both Henighan (having been so powerfully nasty about CanLit) and your correspondent (Henighan having been at least as nasty about CanCrit) are asking for trouble here.
In fairness (says he, waving a white-ish flag), his proscriptions are not without prescription; for our manifold ills and failings, he advises in particular a return to specific and local detail and consciousness. In his formulation, "...attention to local detail and literary innovation are inseparable from one another; [if writers would observe] Canadian reality in meticulous detail, circumstances would oblige at least some to generate inventive, avant-garde narrative..." (AROTAOC)
Or, as distilled by Nigel Beale in a recent Globe and Mail piece: "buy local".
Sounds nice and all — local values, what's not to like? — and yet a little curious. A re-hash of hoary shibboleth "write what you know", however academically supercharged the presentation, seems a tad rickety as a foundation on which to erect a critical approach. And, even apart from the queer astringency of expecting writers to voluntarily restrict their palette — both entertainment and edification being difficult to jimmy up as it is — how goofy is it to expect anyone beyond the immediate "locals" to be able to appreciate, or even identify, the echt-ness of the localism anyway?
Still, Henighan can obviously propound whatever critical theory he pleases, with our compliments. But it's worth bringing up because of the curious degree to which he seems to ignore his own dictum in this collection. In lieu of the fraught Prairie coming-of-age or the plucky poverty-stricken Fundy lobstermen that we might expect/dread, these eight stories instead bounce around between Romania, Poland, Germany, the U.K., Bosnia and Central America, barely touching down in our home and native land long enough for a change of underwear.
Sure, it's unfair (I suppose) to castigate him for not hewing to his own line. But in the context of his own oeuvre, and the Torquemada-like fervour with which he denounces the apostate, the question arises: is he really neglecting his own bible, or is he instead so hubristic as to believe that he's being faithful to it? Is he such a soi-disant citizen of the world that he sees himself as "local" everywhere? Is the whole planet his backyard?
His extensive citations and acknowledgements suggest that this may in fact be the case; he is (he seems to want them to attest) no tourist. Certainly, this rigour goes some ways towards explaining his arid, medicinal tone, AGITA's predominant flavouring, and flaw. These stories can feel less like fiction than research papers, recitations of the pressing issues of the day repurposed as dutiful and academic travelogues.
In truth, it seems Henighan touches on localism principally through its absence; his characters are invariably peripatetic, searching, escapist. Running from war, its aftermath, or its echoes, they're defined by little beyond their deracination. Oh, and — here's a shocker — their unhappiness.
The title story, the last and by far the longest, contains all his favoured tropes: rootlessness, multilingual youth, romantic disappointment, career stasis, the perils of cultural amnesia and — patently the story's raison d'etre — a Cook's tour of twentieth century history, masquerading as narrative. In particular, Henighan provides splenetic run-throughs of the Balkan predations of both WWII and 1990s vintage, styling (not unreasonably) the latter as largely an unavoidable by-product of mass consensual ignorance of the former. This is Henighan's best stuff — it has the power to grip commensurate with the heft of its material — but it still reads like a lecture from a hectoring, self-righteous grad student.
The characters in AGITAA tend to be young, and Henighan puts them through their occasional paces in the boudoir. (In Henighanian terms, what could be more immediate, elemental — local?). But here's how the roster reads: a teenager sleeps with her boss's son, who's engaged; a newly divorced man has an unhappy one-night stand with a pregnant married woman; a guy breaks up with his fiancee because of the mercenary frigidity of her pillow talk; a woman sleeps with a writer to get the rights to a manuscript. There's more, but the message is clear: in a world riven by war, chaos and dislocation, we mustn't forget that sex can be a massive bummer as well.
And — another shocker — Henighan finds ample time to slag the homeland. The Canadians in these stories have invariably flown the coop, and the only two significant characters he actually situates here are immigrants, dripping with superiority when faced with "the aggressively complacent expression that Torontonians adopted when asserting their importance in the face of Canadian insignificance"; Toronto streets that "looked as desolate as unmarked trails, [when] even the merest English footpath had more history"; the horror of the LCBO's "wines chosen by bureaucrats"; or the comically parochial insularity of Westmount's Anglo elite. Standing in for Henighan, the remove of their gaze sees only flaws. If this is "buying local", he can have it.
His dyspeptic, schoolmarmish prose doesn't just throw up schematic, robotic characters, but as often clunky, didactic phrase-making. "She stared at him in the eyes. Her dark-brown incisiveness pinned him from beneath eyebrows of felt-like softness" goes one unintentionally embarrassing encounter. Worse, can anyone deny that "...I came home from work and told Karolina about my suspicion that the feasibility study I was working on was being skewed by politicos from the Prime Minister's office to prod the civil servants towards the conclusion that the ideal site for a certain expensive boondoggle was in the middle of the Minister's riding..." may be the most shockingly dull sentence ever written. "The Killing Past", a reminisce of a pre-WWII soccer match between England and Germany, proffers such Boy's Own groaners as "Young men fight the war...but it is old men like us who make the war. We must show the old men in our countries that young men must do sport, not war", and "the only true victory for either of our nations is the victory of sport over politics!". Oy.
A well-meant suggestion: Henighan's writing is smart and informed, but almost always joyless and programmatic. To quote the late Warren Oates, in dopey-American-soldiers-abroad farce Stripes — a source chosen not incidentally for the cyclonic vehemence with which Henighan would sneer at it — he might want to just, you know, "lighten up". — Paul Duder
Savvy verse & Wit, october 5, 2008
I received A Grave in the Air by Stephen Henighan from Mini Book Expo for Bloggers, and it took a long time to get to my mailbox from Thistledown Press in Canada. When it finally arrived I was happy to begin reading. I've often loved reading novels and short stories that show how war can impact families, relationships, and societies. Although the short stories often do not provide the reader with in-depth war strategy and in-the-moment events, whether it is World War II or the Bosnian-Serbian conflict of the 1990s, the impact of war is palatable in the lives of the characters Henighan created.
The book of short stories starts off with "The Killing Past", which examines the impact of an aunt's story about a family's ancestor on her nephew Bartholomew. The obsession it becomes for Bart is phenomenal.
In "Miss Why", Agnieszka is an inquisitive youth growing up in Poland at a time when the nation is moving away from socialism toward more Western ideals. While she struggles to find her place in society, she meets a man with a similar outlook on the Western ideals taking over their society. It was interesting to see how they copied with the transformation of their society, though there really was no resolution in this short story, which left me a bit disappointed.
"Duty Calls" follows Tibor, who is recently divorced, and his relationship with a woman he has not seen in many years and his disillusionment with himself since his divorce. This story is not very uplifting, but it does deal with how a man, who sees himself as an outsider, will act to gain acceptance.
In "Beyond Bliss", which was my favourite of the short stories, Vivian compromises her integrity to get what she wants. To help her friend, Ray, build his publishing house in Canada, she gains the trust of Erich, a controversial author. Vivian, another character who feels like an outsider in Canada because she is British, uses her ambition to find her place in the world.
I also really enjoyed "A Sense of Time", "Freedom Square", and "Nothing Wishes to Be Different" because they show the reader a series of relationships that change between former students at university because of a single event, a relationship between a mother and daughter because of the daughter's summer job, and the relationships between a father and mother and their children when the father makes one fateful and personal decision about his own life.
While this is not one of my favourite short story collections, it does have a great deal going for it. It examines how war in the present and past can have an impact on someone, even if they are not directly involved in a conflict. Some of the characters are quirky and a bit out there, but others are carefully nuanced. — Serena Agusto-Cox
CANADIAN LITERATURE, APRIL 2008
Globe and Mail, January 19, 2008
Times Literary Supplement, December 7, 2007
Geist (Winter 2007)
guelph mercury, september 22, 2007
After controversial examination of the Canadian literary scene in a series of essays, with some pointed barbs at iconic canadian authors, the publishing industry and coveted Scotiabank Giller Prize, Stephen Henighan has turned his sights on central and eastern Europe with his latest book, "A Grave in the Air."
The Short stories in the collection, which the University of Guelph teacher and researcher will launch at the Bookshelf Tuesday evening, are fiction, but they are based on his family history and some personal experiences in countries such as Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.
And while they are not linked by characters or time, there is a common theme running through them, one Henighan has put forward in previous books: we must know our histor and learn from it, but we can't let it colour our view of the world.
"I used eastern Europe because that's a place where history is important. There's a long history of ethnic conflict, and yet the people are living in the present. That's part of what I'm looking at," said Henighan in an interview at his Guelph home.
"I've always felt that being a writer means you have to comment on your milieu, to give an opinion on how things are developing."
With globalization and international travel, the world is getting smaller, Henighan said, and how people view themselves, in terms of national identity, is also changing.
"What's happening more and more is people don't have just one identity," he said. They are Italian-Canadians or African-Americans or other dual nationality distinctions.
"In a funny way, people are defining their national identities more precisely than they used to. So nationalism is not disappearing. But we need to have different approaches."
The first story in "A Grave in the Air" is based on Henighan's great-grandfather, B.A. Glanvill, who attmpted to stop the outbreak of the Second World War through international soccer matches.
"He was convinced the sporting spirit would prevail over the war spirit," Henighan said with fondness at the naivete of thinking.
His stories take his readers to concentration camps in Nazi Germany and to Bosnia during the genocide. One of the stories is about a Hungarian in Montreal. Another of an East German writer in Toronto.
"In some ways, he's a cinematic writer," said Dan Evans, a book seller at the Bookshelf and a fan of Henighan's writing. "But you can tell he's thinking about his sentences, too. It only gets flowery when the scene necessitates. And I think his dialogue is bang-on."
"When Words Deny the World," a series of essays Henighan wrote about the Canadian literary scene in 2002, was sharply critical of the Canadian literary scene and he took a lot of flack for it.
"He's got the persona of a literary bad boy now, but his critical writings are incredibly precise. He's an excellent thinker," Evans said.
"All his braininess, travel and world-weariness go into his books. For Stephen to put out novels and stories (after "When Words Deny the World") is really exposing his throat."
Henighan was born in Germany but spent most of his childhood on a farm in the Ottawa Valley. He lived for a long time in Montreal, but has studied or travelled all over the world. He speaks six languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and German and teaches Latin American literature at the University of Guelph.
Henighan said he's always been a storyteller. At four years old, he would dictate stories to his mother, who would write them down. As soon as he learned to read, he gobbled up books, he said.
"The problem with young writers, generally, is that they don't read enough. TV and film gives a sense of narrative, but you don't get the literary texture by watching movies. You learn to write by reading," he said.
"You don't have to experience war in the jungle to write a good story. You can make anything interesting if you tell it well enough." — Joanne Shuttleworth