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Reviewed by:
Arnold E. Davidson. Coyote Country: Fictions of the Canadian West. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. x + 223 pp.

Davidson begins with an overview of western Canadian fiction, “Re-inventing the West,” advancing a theory he then applies to selected innovative texts. His point of departure is the popular American western which “casts its tall, lanky shadow over the Canadian West,” but he reverses the normative tendency of the American example by characterizing [End Page 161] the absence of a Canadian frontier tradition not as lack or deficiency but as a literary advantage. Saved by history from the tyranny of a “received” story of their West, Canadians have access to multiple stories: “as authors dispense with in fiction the frontier they never had in fact, they free themselves and their readers into a play of textuality and intertextuality.” They are thus free to “re-invent” the West, parodying and subverting the narratives that have defined “West” and, like the Coyote of the title, drawing into question the authority of all narratives, including their own. The Indian trickster god stands as a symbol of their narrative strategies and the world they create: multiple, ambiguous, elusive, fictive, and indeterminate.

While Davidson’s explicit focus is on how his authors have “inverted and subverted the basic tropes, metaphors, ideologies, gender contracts, and racial hegemonies” of the classic western in order to tell a different story of a different West, he makes it clear that they are also deconstructing the Eurocentric, patriarchal master-narratives that pervade both Wests. Beneath their practice of “unnaming” he detects an amorphous search for a myth of origins, but he does not trace that search systematically. If his authors found such a unifying myth, of course, they would lose the freedom he claims as their distinction.

As Davidson goes on to analyze the postmodern and postcolonial characteristics of selected novels, his theory effects a certain revision and updating of the canon, extending from Howard O’Hagan and Sheila Watson to Beatrice Culleton and Thomas King. O’Hagan’s Tay John is pivotal to his argument that the decentering fiction of the Canadian West has long been receptive to a play of textuality. Published in 1939, the novel is unexpectedly postmodern in its undermining of European history and myth and its self-consciousness about “the fictive quality of all versions of reality.” Davidson provides a resourceful, insightful, and lucid explication of the novel’s narrative and textual ambiguities and the tensions between the story told and untold, between naming and unnaming, utterance and silence. His readings of Watson’s The Double Hook and Robert Kroetsch’s Badlands similarly stress their postmodern indeterminacy and parodying of the quest myth and attendant symbols of transcendence in male narrative.

In his sections entitled “Feminist Revisions” and “Native Affairs,” Davidson argues that Canada’s decentering and multiple tradition has [End Page 162] produced non-frontierist dialectics between white and Indian, male and female. With reference to the long-standing prominence of women writers in Canadian literature, he contends that the literary gender war Jane Tompkins describes in her West of Everything “had no particular relevance for Canadians.” Women writers, he says, have nonetheless created the most striking reversals of the western formula; some, such as Anne Cameron’s The Journey, by merely executing a gender reversal of male patterns of violence and domination; others, such as Aritha van Herk’s Judith and The Tent Peg, by challenging patriarchy in more complex ways. Davidson offers a persuasive Lacanian analysis of van Herk’s castration imagery as a strategy for resisting the law of the fathers by dephallicizing the penis.

Davidson contends that in Canadian fiction the typical symbolic role of the Indian has been as natural alternative rather than antagonist (a generalization that has to be applied very selectively before 1970) but acknowledges that any concept of “Indian” is “a construct that serves white interests.” White writers such as W. O. Mitchell (The Vanishing Point), Peter Such (Riverrun), Philip Kreiner (Contact Prints, People Like Us), and Joan Clark (The Victory of Geraldine Gull) may struggle gamely to privilege the Native “other” but can achieve only “an admirable gesture.” It is up...

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