Fifteen Ways of Looking at an Outsider
I confess. I am not Canadian, and worse, I am only a three-year resident of Canada, hardly enough time to do more than understand the toque imperative and to come to terms with the surprising existence of milk in bags. As I began reading a small tower of first books, circa 2004, this unfortunate truth, potentially disqualifying, if not downright embarrassing, weighed heavily on me. Who am I to comment on emerging voices in Canadian literature? What could I possibly know? My eyes are those of an outsider's, and although I have married a Canadian and given birth to one, this hardly, I fear, gives me licence to comment on Canadian letters.
And so it is with that humbling flaw, with all its attendant bias, that I offer my general observation of a trend in the books I read: they seem to be about outsiders. Time and again I was struck by the various ways the outsider arose in these books. Not outsiders as I am an outsider, the characters in these works are aliens where they should most belong: with their communities, their families, their lovers. Often, they are outsiders even to themselves, unable to recognize what they have become. Many times, it is only with other outsiders - a parolee on a bus, a prostitute in a Halifax alley, a hitchhiker - that these characters find some sort of intimacy. It's as if they must move into the outer rings of alienation before they can discover enough of themselves to begin to make the journey back toward the centre, where all true connection, with family, friends, and community, occurs. We are all strangers here, these books seem to be saying. It is only by connecting to strangers that we can know ourselves, and therefore each other, more deeply.
Many of the books I read were hybrids, not quite novels and not quite short stories, but linked stories, usually with shifting points of view. Sometimes these linked stories rise in an arc approaching the classic Fichtean curve (as in The Mysteries and Princes in Waiting); sometimes they are only loosely connected by place (as in Eyehill) or by character. Often, even when the chapters aren't demarcated as short stories, they are still [End Page 1] episodic, with shifting points of view, so that they could be called 'quasi-short stories.'
Certainly, these sorts of discontinuous narratives lend themselves to questions of disconnect in ways that a more traditionally linear narrative would not. What I find striking is how such a structure also affords the reader the unique perspective of knowing more than any character in the book can possibly know. In effect, the reader becomes the ultimate insider. While some of the books seem hopeful, and others despairing, by creating an insider of the reader, they offer the hope that literature can make insiders of us all.
The Reader as Insider
The Mysteries, by Robert McGill, is one of the best examples of this. The book opens with a first-person narrative, a man named Robert addressing a lover who is driving him to a small town, formerly called Mooney's Dump, and recently renamed Sunshine. The couple picks up a hitchhiker, who gives Robert a notebook and tells him to give it to Paula Pederson. So we begin with a town that is a stranger to its own name, with a stranger asking an outsider to communicate to a stranger.
The novel quickly shifts to a new point of view, and in each subsequent chapter, like a relay race, a subsequent point of view takes over the story. Each of the chapters is told from the point of view of one of the residents of Mooney's Dump/Sunshine. As these third-person narratives unfold, the interconnections between the small town's residents are slowly revealed, all of them circling around Paula Pederson, a local dentist who has been missing for a year and a half, leaving behind her embittered husband and two small children. Her body, or what's left of it, has just been found in the local swamp.
This shifting omniscience has...