Tacit Permissions: Literary Goals Beyond One's Grasp

This Is All Lie is Thomas Trofimuk's latest novel, one of the National Post's top books of 2017, called "a powerful, dazzling accomplishment” in its Quill & Quire starred review.

In this list, he shares some of his favourite books, including some that inspired his new novel.

*****

It appears, from the contents of this list of favourites, that I am drawn to poetic prose—books that lean hard toward poetry. And I love books that defy convention or that might be seen as iconoclastic. I really am drawn to books about books. As for the two Japanese-themed novels on this list, one is an inward-facing Canadian book that jarred my sense of what it is to be Canadian, and the other is an outward-facing tale that reminded me that being a Canadian writer is not just prairies, farming, lakes, moose and bears—it can be viewing the world through a Canadian lens.

All these books affected me as a writer. They all fed my sense of what writing can be and perhaps ought to be. Books like In the Skin of a Lion, The Double Hook, The Book of Mary and The Logogryph were tacit permissions for me—they were invitations to be playful, to experiment, and to reach for literary goals beyond my grasp.

*

The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson

I resented being forced to read this challenging so-called novel—it’s prose-poetry in novel form—in university. But it continues to be a story that haunts me. Watson said her novel is “about how people are driven, how if they have no art, how if they have no tradition, how if they have no ritual, they are driven in one of two ways, either towards violence or towards insensibility—if they have no mediating rituals which manifest themselves in what I suppose we call art forms.” She has explained that the “double hook” of her title refers to the idea “that when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too. That if you hook twice the glory you hook twice the fear.” Set in an unnamed BC town, it’s a hypnotic novel about transgression and redemption.

*
 

The Book of Mary, Gail Sidonie Sobat

The Globe and Mail said: “The image of Mary depicted by Sobat is not the virginal, devoted, passive creature that has been upheld by Christian society as the universal mother figure in the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. Rather, this Mary is both mother and whore; this Mary is a sexually passionate, doubtful, active feminist who faces issues from STDs to cross-dressing.” I love the human-ness of Mary and Sobat manages to make me fall in love with both the beautiful writing and her re-seeing of Mary.

*
 

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje

This is the Ondaatje book that slayed me. Coming Through Slaughter, too, but not The English Patient. Not Anil’s Ghost. Not Divisadero. In the Skin of a Lion was the perfect blend of shifting perspectives and interweaving stories—with the City of Toronto being a fully realized character. I loved it that characters were sometimes introduced and then abandoned immediately. It is poetic—loaded with sensory observations, and at the same time, it is emotionally spare. In the Skin of a Lion is also a grand love story that intrigues and befuddles.

*
 

Salamander, by Thomas Wharton

I was reading the hardcover edition of this book and about to take off on a six-day back-backing trip into the mountains. Weight is an issue when you backpack, and I chose to take this book with me, because I had to finish. I carried this book into the mountains and back out again. It is a very European book. Magic realism, a fairy tale, and a grand book about making books. It’s time for me to re-read this.

*

Autant, by Paulette Dubé

This book is not out until May 2018 but I had the opportunity to read an early draft. I won’t say anything more, except it’s on this list, and here’s what the publisher says: "…(It’s) a tale woven over the course of four days and fifty-four years, based on the relationship between bees and one Franco-Albertan family, the Morasses, of Autant, Alberta. Tension emerges in the balance of power between siblings, between seen and unseen forces of good and evil, between perception and reality, between loyalty and traitors, and between what we are taught and what we actually learn. Poised between an ever-practical God and a quixotically old Coyote, it is a tale told to explain the disappearance of bees in northern Alberta and becomes a sometimes not-so-subtle exploration of how old and young, male and female, humans and non-humans perceive love.”

*
 

Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Obasan is the first novel to trace the internment and dispersal of 20,000 Japanese Canadians from the West Coast during WWII. This novel breaks many silences—grief, pain, bitterness, injustice. A heart-breaking and powerful story, this book is a punch to the gut. It pricks at the conscience and offers lessons for the future.

*

Three Views of Crystal Water, Katherine Govier

On a rainy afternoon in 1934, young Vera Lowinger Drew waits at a Vancouver port for her grandfather's ship to dock. The motherless girl is the last of a pearling dynasty, and for generations, the men in her family—consumed by the promise of fortune—have abandoned their women to plunder riches on the ocean floors of the South Seas. But today, James Lowinger comes ashore for what is supposed to be the last time—with a young Japanese woman on his arm. Three Views of Crystal Water comes alive with emotional and historical depth to illuminate both our desire to possess and our need to belong. 

*

The Logogryph, by Thomas Wharton

I know what you’re thinking. Two! Two books by Thomas Wharton on this small list of books!! How does that guy rate so highly. Well, The Logogryph is a favourite for me, because it is again, a book about books, that becomes a mind-bending reach toward a yet to be imagined “perfect” book. It’s a mind-f--k book (is it a novel, or a group of short stories?) that fully embodies my favourite quote from Italo Calvino—“Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.”

*

About This Is All a Lie:  Three lives, one unreliable narrator and the consequences of losing intimacy. This is All a Lie opens with Ray leaving his mistress for the final time. At the bottom of her apartment tower, he answers his phone. It's Nancy, his lover, and she is threatening to jump if he drives away. She wants emotional truth in an arena where everything is a lie. She wants a reason to stay alive and Ray is uniquely unqualified to give her what she wants. Ray's wife, Tulah, loves snow and keeps a snow journal—every time it snows she goes out in it and records what she thinks and feels about the snow in the context of her life. Tulah is filled with secrets, and denial, and unhappiness and when she is drawn into Ray's messy affair, everything she thought she knew is thrown aside. What are the consequences of losing intimacy? Does Nancy jump from her 39th floor balcony? What happens with Tulah and Ray? The answers lie within, perhaps.

January 15, 2018
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