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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 378-379
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Herb Wyile. Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2002. xvii + 316 pp.
In a seminal essay, originally published in the mid-1980s, Linda Hutcheon coined the phrase "Canadian historiographic metafiction" to describe a flowering literary genre that has a genuinely Canadian flavor and focuses on the act of writing about Canadian history and identity. Herb Wyile's Speculative Fictions is the most recent study of this genre, and the author is to be commended for bringing the discussion up-to-date by discussing not only classics such as Timothy Findley's The Wars, Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People, and George Bowering's Burning Water but also new developments in recent works by writers such as Jane Urquhart, Margaret Sweatman, Thomas Wharton, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Wayne Johnston.
Speculative Fictions is based on recent work in historiography by scholars such as Hayden White and Michel de Certeau and on literary studies by critics such as Linda Hutcheon, Brian McHale, and Patricia Waugh. Wyile modestly claims in the preface that he does not aim at "a comprehensive taxonomy of English-Canadian novels of the late twentieth century" but rather wants "to suggest some significant developments, shared interests, and recurrent strategies." As a consequence of the structure of Wyile's approach—focusing on "historical sites," textual strategies, and the "commodification" of the past—several of the novels are discussed in more or less detail in more than one chapter. This leads to a certain repetition but also to complementary interpretations of the same text.
In the first chapter, "History, Theory, and the Contemporary Canadian Historical Novel," he shows that the "speculative rather than mimetic" character of historical fiction "has certainly given novelists the elbow room to develop their own speculative fictions." As examples, he points out the revisionist tendency to tell "the stories of those left out of traditional history," whether it be Native Canadians in Wiebe's novels or the working class in books such as Sweatman's Fox or Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.
In the second chapter, "Historical Sites," Wyile studies "pivotal figures or events" on which historical novels focus. In Canada, as in every settler-invader colony, these include the confrontation of Europeans and the autochthonous population as it is, for example, described in Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, Bowering's Burning Water, Wharton's Icefields, and Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy. Another site is that of nation building, in which women in novels such as Marlatt's Ana Historic and Atwood's Alias Grace,or ethnic minorities in Kogawa's Obasan, Lee's Disappearing Moon Café or Urquhart's [End Page 378] Away, are marginalized or suppressed. The contemporary writers' tendency to focus on minority positions thus undermines the objective of traditional historical fiction, the creation of a coherent national master narrative.
Chapter 3, "The Content of the Form," highlights different textual strategies employed by historical novelists. A comparison of metafictional and metahistorical strategies in novels by Findley, Marlatt, and Heather Robertson is followed by a fascinating study of the role of myth versus history and the role of orality in texts such as Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear, Steffler's The Afterlife of George Cartwright, and Hodgins's The Invention of the World.
One of the drawbacks of an otherwise first-rate book is the use of jargon in some parts, especially in the fourth chapter, "Speculating in Fiction: Commodity Culture and the Crisis of Historicity." This chapter delivers some fascinating interpretations, such as when it proves that even a reader struck by the captivating description of the Rocky Mountains in a book such as Wharton's Icefields after all succumbs to "the packaging of the Rockies, one of many aesthetic frames through which customers view and desire the mountains." But I am sure that the chapter would have been as insightful and a lot more readable if an editor had cut down the number of times words...