A Genealogy of Style: A Conversation with Douglas Glover
By Victoria BestApril 20, 2020
What focus to choose? Glover is the author of six collections of stories, four novels, and four books of literary nonfiction, versatile body of work. In the end, I decided to concentrate on the short stories because his novels, especially Elle, which won the Governor-General Award for Fiction in 2003, had received so much attention already. Also, they suited my ongoing curiosity about creativity, as Glover told me he had always found the short story helpful in finding new forms, new ways to write, as opposed to novels, which require such a long investment of time that (he said) you can’t afford to be too playful.
The stories I chose to discuss are “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” (1985), from the collection of the same name, since it marked a major transition toward his liberation from traditional narrative form, and “Uncle Boris Up in a Tree,” from his most recent collection, Savage Love (2013), in order to see where this trajectory has so far taken him. As we sifted through the creative genesis of each story, we found ourselves tracing his development away from naturalistic modes of writing and toward the darkly humorous innovation he has made his own.
VICTORIA BEST: The genesis of the story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” was a real-life incident, yes? What happened, and how did it catch your imagination?
DOUGLAS GLOVER: This was in the dead of winter — just before Christmas, 1979 — in Saskatoon, where the story takes place. I had quit my job as sub-editor at the city newspaper and was heading south to New Mexico, but my ancient Rambler Rebel kept threatening to break down on the frozen, death-dealing prairie, so I was camping with my girlfriend. She had a ground floor apartment looking out onto Rotary Park and the South Saskatchewan River. Just upriver, on the opposite bank, an industrial outlet pipe kept a stretch of water ice-free and steaming. Everything was deep in snow, and so cold that people ran extension cords from their houses to the street to plug in their cars’ block heaters. I happened to be staring at the snow when a police cruiser pulled up. The policeman took a quick survey of the river, then plunged toward the bank, where he promptly disappeared.
I still had those ambulance chaser instincts from my reporting days. I was instantly out the door, forgetting coat, hat, gloves. When I reached the riverbank, the policeman was scrambling on hands and knees toward a man in the open water clinging to the ice shelf. A black guide dog, harness flapping against his shoulders, paddled next to the blind man, pawing at him as if to sink him. Three teenagers, two boys and a girl, were running along the ice. We converged on the policeman and formed a human chain so he could safely approach the ice lip and lever the man out. Then we slithered sideways to rescue the dog. Sirens were approaching. The man lay on the ice with the boys’ coats draped over him. The dog was drenched but happy. I thought it might freeze in the frigid air.
I told the policeman where I lived and took the dog. When we reached the apartment, it ran in circles, knocked over the Christmas tree, and ate two of the presents. When the policeman came to retrieve it, the dog leaped into the air trying to bite the bill of his cap. The blind man lived, and the dog lived (unlike the fictional dog in my story). A year later, I heard from a friend whose wife was a nurse in Saskatoon that man and dog had reunited, and the dog had taken to leading him into brick walls. This is all true-ish. But not all the truth. Jokes aside, it appeared that the man might have meant to kill himself. My girlfriend wrote a sanitized version for the paper. And I left town. Like the couple in the story, we were already together in the past tense.
But much as I love that anecdote, it’s not a short story. Your question highlights the mystery of creation, the transformation of a little something, perhaps a real-life incident, into a work of art. I am a formalist, not a reporter. I write in a tradition of irony and structural improvisation that tracks back through Schlegel, Sterne, Nashe, Cervantes, and Rabelais to the Menippean satire. I don’t write fiction to tell you what happened. In this case, it doesn’t interest me a bit whether the husband or wife stay together or why the dog led the blind man into the river. Those are shallow demands.
The image of the dog pawing at the man’s shoulder is absolutely fresh in my mind. It was perverse, comic, enigmatic, and, like all things to do with dogs, open to myriad anthropomorphic interpretations. But equally powerful in memory is the smoking, churning river sliding under the ice, and the completely alien nature of the weather in Saskatchewan at that time of year. I can’t imagine how they survived at all in that river. In the story, the dog dies, the marriage ends, all sentiment is overridden by the implacable inevitability of death and endings. And the narrator doesn’t really know the story, is only struck by the juxtaposition of things and the surplus of meaning it engenders. The dog attempting to hold the man under water is an image of a mysterious singularity too complex to be fully represented. And, of course, the dog has to die. Any nod to sentimentality and closure would betray the story.
The deeper theme has to do the ineluctable rhythm of things coming into existence and going out of existence. The swirling, smoking river is Anaximander’s apeiron, the indifferent, undifferentiated substrate out of which things emerge and to which they return. (Heidegger has that wonderful verb “whiling” for the temporary being of things.) The image of the dog and the man in the water serves as a symbolic intensifier of the theme. The two figures in combination — husband and wife, dog and man — and the language that links them, began to coalesce as a story in my mind. Then I started to play with the patterning, the various elements of form that contribute to elaboration and orchestration. A story is the application of form to an idea. In this case, the root idea was the utter strangeness of that incident, the dog and man in the river, that strangeness having something to do with the bedrock of human existence, something we ordinarily forget.
You’ve mentioned to me that this story was a departure, an adventure for you. Can you contextualize this story in your writing life a little more for me?
This story was written in 1983, in longhand, in a little many-windowed conservatory at the side of a mansion on Circular Street in Saratoga Springs. Clark Blaise and his wife Bharati Mukherjee lived there, though Bharati was away teaching in Iowa at the time. The house was vast and down-at-heel. In the back was an octagonal garage with an apartment above, where the first owner of the house kept his mistress. He could look out the back windows and wave to her and then go and hang out with his wife and children. There was also machinery inside the garage for turning his car around so his driver wouldn’t have to back out. Before Clark bought the place, it had been used as a boarding house for Hassidic Jews who came up from Queens every summer to take the waters. This house, the octagonal apartment, and the mistress played upon my mind in strange ways and inspired another story altogether.
I was four years away from the events in question, about the right time for incubation. And I was anxious to write something, anything, after spending the previous year salt-mining over a novel called The South Will Rise at Noon (1988). I was mired in the conventions of what Northrop Frye called the low mimetic mode and sick of it. I had a philosophy background but was determined not to lumber the story with philosophy. So, my protagonist had to have rejected philosophy for journalism (as I had myself, though less dramatically). My Saskatoon girlfriend was in my mind, along with memories of the Mendel Art Gallery and the slaughterhouse. All of this flew together into a plotless narrative that spirals amid its concerns, held together by the blind man and his dog, the husband leaving his wife, and the incessant reminder of the story’s incapacity to be a story (the antithesis of what I had been trying to do with that novel).
The narrator takes the blame upon himself for the story’s failure, but I don’t actually think there’s a word out of place. Is there really a story the narrator is missing?
Not really. It’s ironic, a trope, not an argument, the conceit of the poète manqué. The narrator (who is also a philosopher manqué, a journalist manqué, and a lover manqué) was rather fun to write, his self-confessed failings a bit of an in-joke for the author who had begun to feel that not being able to write a straight story might actually be the sign of a higher calling. In “Dog Attempts,” the narrator is untrustworthy, an Existentialist poseur, and a serial practitioner of incompleteness. He is pointing at something missing in himself, for sure. But that missing something might not be a character flaw so much as a token of the fundamental incompleteness of things. Our tendency to sentimentalize often veils obtuse facts. The entire story becomes an image of fracture, failure, incompleteness, and the mysterious complexity of life that is always evading us.
“My wife and I decide to separate and then suddenly we are almost happy together.” You use this striking sentence repeatedly to anchor and reorient the story. Can you tell me how this came about?
My first semi-conscious attempt to break the mimetic lock on my soul was to start messing about with refrains. It was 1975, and I was working the overnight shift on the copy desk at The Montreal Star. I lived alone in a vast three-bedroom apartment (my whitewater kayak had a bedroom all to itself) on Sherbrooke Street in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, between the Loyola campus of Concordia University and a steamy joint I used to frequent. One day (in the Loyola library at a study table beneath a two-story replica of Michelangelo’s David originally meant for a suburban mall), I read Conrad Aiken’s “Morning Song of Senlin,” which opens:
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do.
Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.
Vine leaves tap my window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.
It is morning. I stand by the mirror
And tie my tie once more.
While waves far off in a pale rose twilight
Crash on a white sand shore.
I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:
How small and white my face! —
The green earth tilts through a sphere of air
And bathes in a flame of space.
There are houses hanging above the stars
And stars hung under a sea …
And a sun far off in a shell of silence
Dapples my walls for me …
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Should I not pause in the light to remember God?
Bless me, I did not know what anaphora was. But something unprosaic in those lines, pattern and rhythm, inspired me. I went home and began a story with a refrain, and that got published, which rather convinced me I was onto something. “Dog Attempts” is a culmination of that trajectory. A refrain creates steps, rhythm. It marks time. It brings the reader back to the starting point and sets the stage for new development.
I was feeling my way out of the restrictive assumptions of mimetic realism. By “mimetic realism” I mean an aesthetic defined by Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) and Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921), two books that shaped the received wisdom of contemporary popular criticism, commercial publishing, and the MFA workshop. The commonplace show-don’t-tell rule originated with Lubbock, Ford Madox Ford, and the dramatic imperatives of early-20th-century literary Modernism. I don’t despise mimetic realism. It’s one approach to writing, with its own advantages and limitations, just not an approach that suits me. But when a person started out to write in Canada in the second half of the 20th century, this aesthetic amounted to a universal unthought cultural bias, a choice you didn’t know you were making.
Roughly coincident with my Conrad Aiken moment, I found Hubert Aquin’s novel Blackout, originally Trou de Mémoire (1968), in a Montreal used bookstore. I’d read Frantz Fanon in the 1960s but had no idea how his theories might apply to me (in what ways my provincial upbringing might oppress me) till I encountered Aquin’s mad, drug-addicted, super-fucked, failed revolutionary. The novel is a gorgeous example of disrupted form, a dramatic riposte to conventions of mimetic realism, represented in the text by the malaise of Anglo-Canadian neocolonialism. In Aquin’s literary universe, sickness and failure are the only avenues available to the oppressed (he was writing about himself and Québec).
Then I read Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers (1966), which suddenly opened up to me in the light of Aquin’s book; both are ultra-Canadian, both are experimental, both feature failures, losers in the grip of an oppressive system (Cohen’s word). These books presented me with a handle on my own provincial upbringing and the restless feelings it engendered; they offered an alternative aesthetic universe. But, in the Canadian context, Aquin and Cohen were divine eccentrics. Aquin killed himself; Cohen stopped writing novels.
Later, I read Stanley B. Ryerson’s two-volume Marxist history of Canada (1960, 1968) and Tony Wilden’s Lacanian, postcolonial, disrupted The Imaginary Canadian (1980). Also, the American experimentalist John Hawkes, who said that plot, character, setting, and theme are the enemies of the novel (Ian Watt turns in his grave as I utter these words). Then Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (also, coincidentally, first published in 1968), another novel about failure, illness, and a poète manqué.
That was my early learning curve. At the beginning, I didn’t have a map. You learn to make your own map. It’s like doing genealogy; you sort through history identifying your ancestors, and you get better at being yourself. I wrote a book about Cervantes, essays on Juan Rulfo, Albert Camus, Jane Austen, Cees Nooteboom, Thomas Bernhard. Rabelais is a character in my novel Elle. The current summit of this line of development (I am not dead yet) coincided with my discovery of Witold Gombrowicz, especially his diaries, in which he presents himself as a self in conflict with form — form here meaning both literary form and social and political expectations (the unconscious universal social pressure to fill family, community, and patriotic roles) — this conflict intensely complicated by the fact that we’re born with a formal imperative, an inborn aesthetic impulse to fulfill form (the theme of his 1965 novel Cosmos). It is significant that much of Gombrowicz’s life was spent in poverty, self-exiled from his own country.
It seems to me that freedom and entrapment provide the warp and weft of this story, both in terms of the love affair and the narrator’s storytelling.
Following what I just said about Gombrowicz, you can construct the universal plot as the self sorting out its relationship with other forms. You want to eat but not be eaten. At its center, the self is an absence, the unconscious, a fact that inflects and subverts the universal plot. You’re not even certain of the nature of your own desires, which nonetheless lead you straight into a world arena packed with entities that want you to conform to the pattern of their desires — the desire of the other is another form yearning to be filled. Some such conflict scenario figures in every story I write, hence the freedom and entrapment axis.
Now imagine love and the complications of a form not totally at peace with itself having an intimate encounter with another form not totally at peace with itself. That other form (it could be a lover or the UPS man or a refugee immigrant or your cat) tries to incorporate you into its structure and you do the same — two fuzzy desires trying to recreate one another as satisfactory love objects. You both try to translate but without a lexicon. That other form is a savior if you’re looking to escape your self or an oppressor if she or he demands too much, or switches roles over time.
In my stories, this self-meeting-not-self adventure spawns innumerable plots and interchangeable themes including a religious theme having to do with transcendence and redemption (metaphors of escape). Sometimes, as in The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993), the encounter with another self is tentatively redemptive. “Becoming an Indian is like entering a swarming madness. But it might redeem you.” In Elle, I hypothesize a hybrid effect. In 16 Categories of Desire (2000), the top-level theme is liberating oneself from love. But in Savage Love, many of the stories turn on a comic, magical transformation enacted in marriage.
So, entrapment and escape, yes. And you can see why my protagonist in “Dog Attempts” has to be such an interrupted person. Failure to fulfill form is the path to existential purity. I am not that, I am not that either, the self keeps saying. All the deepest stories are apophatic.
If we turn to “Uncle Boris” and revisit the topic of plot, I felt that this story was the most delicious meeting between the picaresque and the marriage plot. Can you tell me more about the structural genesis of this story?
The kernel for that story came from a photo-bombing site on the internet, where I noticed a picture of a darkly clad family in a row with a barn behind, late 19th century, possibly Eastern European. Pretty boring except that, just above the group, stretched along a tree branch, there’s a bearded, smiling goofball. I just gave those people names and started writing their stories. But the deeper inspiration for the story lies in the general trajectory of my development as a writer. Early on (reading myself as a distant other), I seemed most comfortable in a first-person, single-character narrative. Yet I was aware that on the other side of literature there existed a vast trove of ironic third-person, single- and multiple-character texts. I probably avoided third person early on because of its broad association with mimetic realism. But boredom is a great motivator. After some experiments in short stories, I cracked the code with The Life and Times of Captain N., which is third-person-multiple on steroids, with perhaps a dozen narrative points of view or modes, including the narrator at two different ages, two first-person threads, letters, and interpolated essays (which I learned to write from Hermann Broch).
After that it was a small jump to the multi-plotted ensemble stories “Shameless” and “Uncle Boris” in Savage Love. It sounds a bit dry to say I composed the story for technical reasons because that gives you no idea how excited I get when I figure out how to do something new. It’s like the finger of God reaching out of the firmament. I think “Uncle Boris” has something like 18 points of view. What an artist enjoys is creating complexity but keeping it under control. The joy is in the pressure.
I tend to think of sex in your stories as evocative of an original bestiality. It’s fascinating how sex is both compulsive and disturbing for your characters, how it pushes them into risk and recklessness.
Compulsive, disturbing, risky, and reckless — your words just about sum up how sex works in both stories and life, though it’s also joyful, rhythmic, reproductive, and liberating. Sex is the physical idiom of love. From a writer’s point of view, what’s not to like about sex? It’s a universal reagent.
Human sex is not really bestial; beasts are much tidier than we are. For animals, the switch is either on or off, mostly off, depending on breeding cycles. For humans, it’s always on, and the operative distinction is between what you show and what you don’t show. Sex offers access to the way a character manages his or her deepest emotional machinery, how she negotiates love with a partner, how she presents desire to herself and to her lover, family, and the general public. A character’s sexuality is a complicated messaging system at the center of which is a gap (the unconscious again) and a mysterious, embarrassing, thudding passion to do something with our genitals. I find this pretty comical.
But it’s important to remember that these thematic ideas are thought experiments for the purpose of setting up characters and plots. Think of them as musical motifs. It makes no sense to ask a composer if he believes in a melody. What’s important is the structural use he makes of it. Most of what appears thematically in my stories bears little relation to what I might believe. Characters are driven by desires shaped by ideas. I spend a good deal of time hypothesizing lines of thought, rearranging themes, and then following the logic with my characters (as in real life, their ideas are often absurdly wrong). Themes are not premises; they are conceits.
Can we talk a bit more about the “comic, magical transformation(s) enacted in marriage” that you mention as a feature of Savage Love? It’s a perfect description for what’s happening in “Uncle Boris.” I’d love to know more about how you see those transformations working in the story.
First, marriage is a motif for the book as a whole. This is in reaction to my previous story collection, 16 Categories of Desire, which might have been subtitled “The Disasters of Love”; the recurring motif in that book is the tag line “All my life has been an effort to liberate myself from love.” It makes little sense to ask me what I believe in all this. I didn’t suddenly have a personal revelation about love and marriage. I saw The Tempest at Stratford in Ontario; they staged a gorgeous wedding scene at the end. At the same time, I realized I was bored with the idea of liberating oneself from love. It had no more dramatic possibilities. (What I really think about love is not a question that interests me. But ask me what I think about boredom as one of the great human motivators and I can go on for ages.) So, I inverted (how I adore the rhetorical device of inversion) the strategy and decided to see what I could do with happy marriages.
In “Savage Love,” marriage liberates the two men from their melancholy obsession with the same imaginary woman. At the story’s close, they find themselves in a Price Chopper grocery store fretting over a woman, jealous and paranoid, but as the scene advances, a fresh wind blows through, infiltrating the diction. Then this:
Time passed. Although neither man believed in time. So it passed very quickly.
They talked of love and poetry in the old way, watching Majory Sass who seemed to be exchanging email addresses or phone numbers with the checkout boy.
Someone had replaced the Price Chopper muzak with a Stevie Ray Vaughan selection. Shelby loosened his scarf. He said something about the magical charm of atmospheres, how things might change for no reason except that you suddenly felt better, because of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a little 420 action in Price Chopper and customers turning into people, against all odds, and holding conversations. Although you could never write a story like that.
The magic is signaled in the sudden absence of time (root of verisimilitude) and of course the words “magical charm.” There is no psychological development, no character motivation, just — a change. And a hint of metafictional commentary on story-writing. Shelby decides there should be a wedding but only because “[a]ll the best stories end with a wedding. Think of Shakespeare.” They build an altar out of crates of baked bean cans. Shelby intones the ritual (Anglican prayer book). Irony runs through every line. But at the very end, the two men are transformed.
Look, I don’t believe in essences. What we think of as essences are logical points, limiting concepts, or conditional: if it had an essence, it would be like this. We inhabit a universe of phenomena that rise, take form, change form, and dissolve. My philosopher of choice is the first one, Anaximander. What humans think of as reality is a nostalgic retro-formation, a still-shot from the movie. One can always play with inversion. Irony amounts to holding alternative versions of an idea in your head at once. So, I ask what if a stack of baked beans tins is a sacred place? What if the ancient rite of marriage is really magical? What if existential transformation can just happen “because of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a little 420 action in Price Chopper”? To me, it’s a religious moment.
“Uncle Boris” likewise plays with the themes of love, sex, marriage, and art. It’s an ensemble story, with multiple plots. The backbeat is the Pa and Ma plot. Pa starts painting a mural inside the barn and becomes a famous painter. He and Ma have a sexy, cheerful marriage. His only problem is that his kids keep coming to him with their problems. The front plot or melody is about Bjorn and his wife Olga, who is discontented and having an affair with his brother, Jannik. Olga acts hideously toward Bjorn, but he has his own line of development irrespective of what she does; he becomes a Robin Hood investment tycoon, also a poet, and when Olga has a son, he becomes an attentive father, whether the boy is his or not. He is a good, decent man, surprisingly so since he works in a bank. There are other plots with each of the remaining children. Two of them end in a wedding. Just as the weddings are about to take place, carried away in the moment, Pa drops to his knees and asks Ma to marry him again. Then this:
Bjorn, misty eyed from the mist, can’t help but smile. For no reason, he gives Olga a little poke in her deflated belly. She glances up at him irritably. Bjorn is thinking about Bjorn 2, how they have become inseparable, united, apparently, by their inability to love one another. No one has ever understood Bjorn as well as Bjorn 2. With a jolt, a sudden ache like a gas pain, Bjorn realizes that maybe this is love. Olga sees that he is smiling and thinks, Oh, Bjorn is being idiotically sentimental or just idiotic. But he keeps smiling, and there is something strange in his eyes, an expression that is at once sad, distant, weighing, thinking, alive. Olga feels a pang of compassion. It occurs to her that Bjorn can see his death coming toward him. Bjorn thinks: The universe is a complete mystery to me. How should one behave? What does it mean to be a human being? All my life I have seen my death coming toward me. Then he says an astonishing thing, words that break the form, a blind leap. He says, “We should get married, too.” Olga says, “What?” Waspish, irritable, impatient, surprised, puzzled, bitter. Bjorn says, “We should get married again. I think I haven’t loved you enough. I married you the first time out of pity because you were the last of the ugly Klapp girls and without a dowry. Don’t mistake me. I thought that was love at the time, but now I see it differently.” He keeps smiling that inane smile. He feels suddenly free. All the world’s cares, responsibilities and claims seem to drop away. He understands that he is giving up on himself, and that, paradoxically, he has never felt more like himself. He feels like a corpse climbing out of a grave. Olga takes a breath and thinks, Perhaps I have been holding my breath these ten years. There is a trace of a smile on her lips. She says, “I am plain as a pine plank.” “Whoever said such a thing?” says Bjorn. “The author,” says Olga. “Besides, it’s true.” She says, “I was always afraid you’d never like me, that you’d run away.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Bjorn, a bit irritated about the author. “I love you now.” Olga asks, shyly, tentatively, still with the faint wisp of a smile breaking on her thin lips, “Even after all the bad things I have done?” “Because of everything you have done,” Bjorn says. “They are signs of life,” he says. “I want to start again,” he says.
There are key words that code the change. First, everything gets misty (twice, “misty” and “mist”). Whatever happens next will happen “for no reason.” Olga justifiably complains about the author. Then “words that break the form.” What form? The melancholy form of fraught, unhappy relationships, the quotidian suffering of domestic life. But also the form of a story. And breaking the form is liberating. Bjorn feels free. Here the text takes a mystical turn — giving up on oneself to find oneself. Breaking form allows Bjorn a space in which he can forgive and change. And the effect is contagious because suddenly Olga has a place to forgive and change.
The mystical flavor is intentional, as in all my fiction, but balanced with whimsy and irony. In the last paragraph, the narrator returns: “Four couples get married under the tree, a mass expression of baseless, irrational optimism.” Bjorn’s psychopathic brother murders one of the catering assistants with a pitchfork, but “everyone lives happily ever after. For a while.”
This is maybe close to the nub of how I write. One eye on the gods, one eye on the human comedy, and one eye on the punning use of the word form in both life and art. (Three eyes.)
Victoria Best is a freelance writer who has published essays in Numéro Cinq, Cerise Press, and Open Letters Monthly. She is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity.
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