Rebecca Silver Slayter on Myth-Making Books (and Myth-Breaking Books)

Book Cover In the Land of the Bird Fishes

Rebecca Silver Slayter, author of new novel In the Land of Birdfishes, offers up this fantastic recommended reading list.

I’ve always felt drawn to books that engage in some way with myth. It’s one of those instinctual attractions that I have to sort of reason my way backwards to explain. Myth aspires toward connection and toward consolation for disconnection, distilling the vastness and variousness of human experience to its heights and depths, as if there is something universal in those moments of extremity. Which of course is probably where the problems start. Sometimes I am suspicious of my attraction to myth, and wonder if it’s something I should cut down on, like salt. Probably if I were a more serious person, I would read only austere, searing realism, trafficking exclusively in accuracy of detail. But then I think there must be a lie in realism too, that it’s only another kind of myth about what life is and how it feels. And inversely, there must be something true in the stories we share between us (even if only in what they reveal about us and what we want to be true). That sharing is really what defines myth—that it becomes part of a collective way of looking at the world. And so maybe that is where the problems start: with religious or cultural or national myths that try to speak for us all and so silence other accounts. I guess in the end, my attraction to mythologies is a complicated one: appreciative of their comforts, mistrustful of their deceptions and ultimately fascinated by how we are shaped by them—both the myths we create and the ones we absorb. These complications are beautifully unraveled in the following books, which build or dismantle myths, revealing what they illuminate and what they obscure.

Book Cover By Grand Central Station

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart: I first read this book as a sixteen-year-old and was seduced by its intensity, which deeply satisfied something in my sixteen-year-oldishness. The story is of Smart’s affair with poet George Barker, elevated to near hysteric lyricism. The pitch and fervour of its telling (which are sustained, unfaltering, from beginning to end, even as the key shifts from jubilation to lamentation) are expressed in a feverish invocation of myth. Myth sounds the enduring, eternal notes of love and loss, the sense of grandeur and extremity that belong to both those experiences—that feeling that such joy or suffering is at once unique and universal. Christian, classical and cultural mythologies are balm and bane to this exposed nerve of a book, this paean to an intoxicating love that undoes itself.

Arctic Dreams and Nightmares by Alootook Ipellie: “Dreaming in the Arctic is not quite like dreaming in other parts of the world...” writes Ipellie. “We do have a different outlook on life, don’t we? And this unique outlook has given us the experience to dream unique dreams.” Ipellie’s “dreams,” a series of stories and pen-and-ink illustrations, are a bizarre and fascinating play between worlds, where traditional Inuit stories are given pop-culture or Christian twists, suffused with humour, fury and eroticism. The phantasmagoria of modern and mythic imagery becomes farcical: heaven is called a Magical Kingdom, like a Christian theme park, where God receives prayers by fax, skims off the top from church donations and earns royalties on the Bible. A walrus wins a battle by pulling a ballet move and proves to be Rudolf Nureyev, while another walrus turns out to be Margot Fonteyn, and the two lead the walrus herd in defection from the communist walrus regime. But there is far more at work in these surreal cultural collisions than whimsy. One story tells of an evil shaman named Goti: in English, “God.” In the story, the narrator exorcises this malevolent force from the community (the demon, when it emerges, is wearing a cross), and in this exciting book, Ipellie similarly exorcises the culture he feels contaminated his own people’s, by claiming the myths of both cultures and integrating them in ways that give birth to something entirely new.

The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti: Perhaps closer to fables than myths, these strange and darkly beautiful stories wrench at the expectations of the form, twisting it into something entirely unique. I say they are not really myths because they don’t belong to a larger tradition or community. And yet that is part of what is so interesting about them; they are like myths unhooked from cultural or personal agenda, resisting even the moral clarity the form anticipates. Out of this unhooking comes a glimpse of the multiplicity of stories to be told, of the breadth of possibility beyond mythologies. Without any other covert purpose, no smuggled ideology or meaning, Heti’s stories become about themselves.

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King: This astonishingly light-footed, bursting-full novel is peopled with a vast cast of characters, whose stories and lives stream through and around one another, like the surging river waters of the final pages. The humour and grace of the book as it explores all manner of urgent and ridiculous and heart-rending human experience makes a surprise out of the satire, the moment when the knife slips in. King makes fun of and with a host of myths—Blackfoot, Christian, national, pop cultural—with such figures as the Lone Ranger, Coyote, Robinson Crusoe and Eve (or at least their likenesses) making appearances. The cumulative effect of these funny and playful passages is as powerful as the river waters that flood the dam at the end of the book, toppling and carrying away certain cherished myths of Hollywood, religion and other seemingly indestructible institutions.

The Double Hook by Sheila Watson: Out of her teaching experiences in the Cariboo, B.C., Watson drew this spare modernist novel, which is to my mind unlike any other in Canadian literature. In its details—the words characters speak to one another, the look and feel and smell and sound of things—the story feels grounded, real, if not in keeping with the narrative conventions of realism. And yet the central plot of corruption and redemption has the weight of allegory, and the enigmatic Coyote, drawn from Shuswap myth, circles the lives of the men and women of this valley, lending a sense of epic, enduring importance to the glory and struggle of their existence.

Book Cover Houseboat on the Styx

Houseboat on the Styx by A. F. Moritz: It is hard to imagine a more exhilarating collision of the mundane and the mythic than in this poem, where two lovers find themselves marooned in one of the rivers of Hades. In the midst of this fantastic situation, worlds emerge, shining, out of a parade of mythic and historic allusions, where the dead take form, linger, recede.

Book Cover Shadows

Shadows by Armand Tagoona: In this beautiful collection of his art, Tagoona unspools stories from his own history and his people’s history. Interestingly, he writes that he often draws on traditional Inuit narratives because he sees far less value in art that does not represent “true” stories, that draws something “I have never seen or heard myself.” And so, as his words make clear, at least for Tagoona, there is some kind of truth in the myths that are shared between people.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje: Returning to Sri Lanka twenty-five years after leaving it as a child, Ondaatje writes into his family mythology, raising ghosts out of the stories and photographs and relics of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Like the “false maps” made by early explorers that hang on his brother’s wall, a history of discovery as the maps grow “from mythic shape into eventual accuracy,” this memoir reaches, straining, toward an understanding of the unknown. I love a dream image, early in the book, where Ondaatje finds himself and his family assembled in a human pyramid, teetering their way forward in an immense room. Gossiping about the past as they stagger onward. The bizarre magic of the image lingers throughout the book, which meets a kind of meta-biographical crisis near the end, on page 189, when an army of ants invade the writer’s manuscript, carrying away page 189. Myth and reality do not so much intersect here as pass each other by, quietly, perversely. Insects toting off the possibility of an encounter between story and truth, of at last “[touching these ghosts] into words.”

Rebecca Silver Slayter's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such publications as The Antigonish Review, The Hart House Review, Brick, Rabble.ca, Quill & Quire and The Walrus. She has received numerous awards and scholarships, including the David McKeen Award for Best Creative Writing Thesis for In the Land of Birdfishes. She lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

April 25, 2013
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