- Robert Kroetsch: Essays on His Works ed. by Nicole Markotić
In 1974, Robert Kroetsch published a foundational essay titled "Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction," which was notable for the way it introduced postmodern concepts of textuality to the discussion of Canadian literature. Kroetsch argued that certain Canadian writers distinguished themselves as postmodern by exploring themes and formal qualities that demythologized the cultural and literary systems that threatened to define them. Over the next three decades, Kroetsch expanded on this initial challenge to the CanLit status quo, broadening his concept of postmodernism to include an increasingly sophisticated attention to theory paired with an equally exuberant emphasis on parody, comedy, and play. At first, this potent combination was liberating. Academic critics in Canada – particularly those involved in the burgeoning study of Canadian literature – felt encouraged to break free of their New Critical chains. Kroetsch demonstrated that literary criticism could be a creative activity that blended humour with insight. As post-structuralist theory replaced thematic criticism during the 1970s and 1980s, an entirely new landscape opened up, and Kroetsch was the first to explore it. No wonder he soon became known as "Mr. Canadian Postmodern."
Kroetsch's visibility as a critic was enhanced by his status as a creative writer. His novels and poetry became a staple in Canadian university courses and spawned a sub-industry of commentary on his work. In the first wave of that commentary, critics recognized the sense of humour that pervaded [End Page 202] Kroetsch's fiction, poetry, and criticism. But the more it became institutionalized, the more serious its reception became.
Kroetsch's death in 2011 led many to wonder how his legacy would be understood. Nicole Markotić's collection of critical essays helps answer this question. Twenty-six authors write on a wide range of Kroetsch's work, from his early fiction and poetry to his last novel (The Man from the Creeks, 1998) and final poetry collection (Too Bad, 2010). In its entirety, the book testifies to Kroetsch's ongoing influence among academics. It also demonstrates the difference between those who recall the early Kroetsch and are willing to respond to his sense of playfulness and whimsy and those who see him primarily as a heavy agent of theory.
In the former camp are contributors such as George Bowering, who provides a witty and self-reflexive reading of "Stone Hammer Poem" that enlarges its boundaries, and Dennis Cooley, who illuminates the ways in which Kroetsch allows his "Sketches of a Lemon" poem to comment on Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." As Cooley says, Kroetsch "excels in self-mockery, rejoices in humorous asides in which he construes himself as a man of irrepressible and somewhat foolish habits." Kroetsch's sense of humour is also celebrated by other contributors (notably Gary Geddes, Robert Archambeau, John Moss, and Roy Miki) in the book's most innovative section – twelve short essays that make up "A 'Flight' of Lemons." Here we get to sip at a bevy of insightful short pieces that pay tribute to both the comedy and seriousness of Kroetsch's writerly concerns. Also insightful is Ann Mandel's overview of Kroetsch's work, which remains one of the best discussions of his complex ideas, even though it was first published in 1978.
Although these essays pay tribute to an earlier era of Kroetsch studies, they remain more satisfying and accessible than several of the more contemporary essays, which treat Kroetsch almost entirely in theoretical terms that make him seem far less approachable than he actually is. Here, I think of Ryan Fitzpatrick's attempt to place Kroetsch's treatment of landscape in relation to spatial theory: "In current spatial and geographical work, space is not a static container or a fixed geometric construct, but instead forms the assembled and accumulative spatial labour of its inhabitants at the same time that it disciplines the spatial practices of those inhabitants." I also feel resistant to reading about Kroetsch as he is presented by Christine Jackman: "Kroetsch offers text, a place where the dynamics...