The Search for the Great Canadian Novel

Our national life is exciting, dramatic, and unpredictable. Why don't more Canadian novelists write about it?

Empty moleskine notebook
Martha Dominguez de Gouveia

At almost 700 pages, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is anything but brief. Set in Jamaica and New York between the 1970s and 1990s, the novel explores the events leading up to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on December 3, 1976, and its aftermath. The novel never refers to Marley by name, but it portrays the foiled plot as being at the heart of a power struggle between rival political and criminal factions as well as in the nexus of regional and international struggles between communists and the CIA. Polyphonic, masterful, sweeping, and subtle, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a reminder that there are still things a novel can do better than any other art form.

Reading it also crystalized one of my biggest frustrations with the current state of English Canadian fiction: the dearth of anything remotely like James’s novel in our literature. Traditionally, one of the novel’s most important roles has been to dramatize the breadth of a particular society at a certain point in time. We see this epic scope in some of the major works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as Ulysses, Midnight’s Children, Infinite Jest, and 2666. These novels mull big questions: How should we live? What is the meaning of justice? How are we to balance individual desires with social responsibilities? What does it mean to be human? They also take advantage of qualities unique to the form: they are capacious enough to juggle multiple perspectives and plot lines and nuanced enough to provide a rich sense of each character’s interior life. This is the tradition that James inherited and extended.

Though we can find examples of such novels in most national literatures, when it comes to English Canada, they are as rare as cocktail bars in rural Ontario. Instead, we have incentivized a safe, cloying storytelling rooted in domestic perspectives and intimate conflicts. These novels generally feature a personal issue (abandonment by a parent, bereavement, breakup) processed through or alongside a traumatic historical incident (say, the clearing of the Newfoundland outports) with some vague connection to the protagonist (typically a university professor, historical researcher, or some other middle-class intellectual with enough time to visit archives). Before the story wraps up, there is certain to be a tepid love affair, several flashbacks, and a well-timed lyrical riff affirming the human spirit or the redemptive power of art. Moral questions will lend the story a patina of gravitas, but there will be no attempt to reckon with the complex roots of social or political problems.

Compare this to A Brief History of Seven Killings, a work of irresistible narration that weaves together the stories of politicians, crime bosses, celebrities, and ordinary people in a way that makes Jamaican society come alive but which also makes Jamaica feel like a microcosm of the universe. Why is it that in over a century of writing—much of it explicitly obsessed with questions of nationhood and identity—we have only a handful of novels that come close to representing the full sweep of Canadian life?

In the popular taxonomy of fiction, there is no exact term for the particular kind of work A Brief History of Seven Killings is. But we can see in it a recognizable type, one we might call the “novel of society.” More ambitious than the social novel (which emerged in the nineteenth century as a genre exploring specific injustices such as slavery and poverty), more strictly plotted than the encyclopedic novel, less outrightly philosophical than the novel of ideas, novels of society gamble on nothing less than a three-dimensional portrait of our present-day national consciousness.

For early examples, look to Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. These novels omnivorously took in cross-sections of society, from poverty-stricken workers to the aristocracy. In doing so, they reminded us that the prejudices, assumptions, and actions of widely diverse individuals are part of a shared reality—that the merchant and the peasant belonged to the same world, even if differences of class, race, and gender meant they had different degrees of control over their lives.

In more or less explicit ways, these novels also served a political function. By seeing the nation as an integrated whole, they treated its problems not as dark inevitabilities but as the outcome of decisions made in the interests of certain elite groups. No wonder Karl Marx argued that English novelists had spoken “more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” A society that can be made to observe its own sordid and tyrannical mechanisms recreated in vivid and realistic prose will be better able to think creatively about how it might confront them. Whatever the stylistic and philosophical differences between Tolstoy, Eliot, and Dickens, their works reflect a shared belief that the novel can chronicle and diagnose a nation’s problems.

While less optimistic about social progress than their nineteenth-century counterparts, writers such as Pearl S. Buck, Ralph Ellison, Rosario Castellanos, Andrei Platonov, Naguib Mahfouz, and Salman Rushdie embraced the novel of society as a tool for challenging national mythmaking and for suggesting that a better world was, if not possible, at least imaginable. In doing so, the novel of society continued to fulfill its goal of exploring the fraught question of how power moves through a society. Confident late twentieth-century proclamations about the death of the novel and the death of the author didn’t stop novelists from writing labyrinthine books like Underworld, Infinite Jest, and 2666, and those proclamations didn’t stop readers from turning to these books to help understand the world as it did—and could—exist.

Over past twenty years, the novel of society has returned to its nineteenth-century roots. Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and The Museum of Innocence present an intricate portrait of Turkey and Istanbul in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries; Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan Novels quartet charts Italy’s social and political struggles from the mid-twentieth century to the present; and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent offers a deftly wrought picture of Soviet society and the Moscow intelligentsia stretching from Stalin’s death to the disastrous, anarchic decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

If the publication of these novels has seemed to coincide with periods of nationalist soul searching in the countries where they are set, it’s because the form offers an unparalleled way to talk about the tensions and antagonisms that roil modern life. It’s hard not to wonder if the lack of such books in Canadian literature speaks to a deeper malaise: that English Canadians do not, fundamentally, see themselves as participating in a national society at all.

Jeremiads about the failings of Canadian literature are as old as Canadian literature itself, and I recognize that when speaking of CanLit, I am, in some sense, invoking an abstraction. Still, it’s possible to discern certain patterns roughly mapping out who gets published, what gets celebrated, and where the award money goes. Canadian novelists seem to gravitate to three basic plot categories: those staged so long ago that the author can put themselves on the right side of history; domestic dramas exploring psychological, existential, or spiritual themes; and pamphleteering works dealing with social problems. A distressing number of prominent writers have opted to combine all three, creating turgid juggernauts of Canadiana like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Michael Crummey’s The Wreckage, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, and Anne Michaels’s The Winter Vault.

Contemporary accounts of politics and money tend to be predictable and cartoonish, as in Jacob Wren’s novel Rich and Poor, a twinned story about a billionaire and the dishwasher angling to murder him. When political and economic tensions are represented, it is either far enough in the past to avoid offending anyone (Wayne Johnson’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a fictionalized depiction of legendary Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood) or in some kind of parallel reality (Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, which features a prime minister of Canada who is thrown out of office in disgrace following the revelation that his wife is, in fact, his twin sister). French Canadians writers—no doubt because of the way the development of their literature has been closely tied to Quebec nationalism—have a better eye for the structures of power. Louis Hamelin’s La constellation du Lynx (published in English as October 1970) takes the October Crisis and Pierre Laporte’s murder as source material for a controversial political thriller that depicts a broad swath of Québécois and North American society in the late twentieth century.

This isn’t to say that Canadian literature contains no examples of the novel of society. Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes (published in 1945) and The Watch That Ends the Night (published in 1959) are valiant if flawed attempts to depict Canada’s struggle with its own identity in the middle years of the twentieth century. Robertson Davies’s Salterton and Deptford trilogies—published in the 50s and 70s, respectively—are well-meaning representations of a certain cross-section of Canadian life. Then there’s Mordecai Richler’s 1989 Solomon Gursky Was Here, a sprawling national epic that doubles as a thinly veiled satire of the Bronfman family’s bootlegging empire. It is perhaps no accident that MacLennan, Davies, and Richler all cut their literary teeth in the United Kingdom, where this kind of book is so common they call it the “state-of-England” novel.

These authors are outliers who prove my point. Solomon Gursky Was Here was maybe the most coherent attempt by an English-language novelist to take stock of Canadian life in the twentieth century, and no book since has come closer to recording the way money and power work in this part of the world. There have been estimable local efforts—Trevor Ferguson’s River City covers five centuries of Montreal history culminating with the Hell’s Angels—but we seem to have given up on the novel as a vehicle for capturing the span and stratification of Canadian culture. The fragmentation of our literature speaks to a fragmentation of our political imagination.

For most of us paying attention in the last several years, Canadian literature has become synonymous with debates about cultural appropriation. Suffice it to say, the question of whether a single person can “write the nation” in the way novelists of society try to do is an extremely fraught one. I do not intend to argue that artistic licence grants a white writer the privilege to represent the experiences of communities that have been colonized, racialized, and in some cases terrorized by his own.

I do think, however, there is a danger that too great a focus on differences between Canadians of various ethnic backgrounds can elide the truth that we exist in relation to one another. A Francophone biker in Lennoxville, a Cree lawyer in Manitoba, a Punjabi-speaking business owner on the Lower Mainland, and an anglophone trader on Bay Street may not share any basic ground of identity or culture, but all are, to varying degrees, united by practical bonds of jurisprudence, government, and economics. The novelist’s job is to shed light on the brute fact of those binding forces, and that usually means paying close attention to the institutions and individuals responsible for the country’s current state of affairs.

We are fortunate that successive generations of writers—from Austin Clarke to Dionne Brand to Rawi Hage, Katherena Vermette, and David Chariandy—have unmasked the Canadian establishment’s vicious impact on marginalized populations. But convincing evocations of how power is wielded at the highest levels of society, and the ways in which this power justifies itself to itself, are much harder to come by. The result is a strange and perhaps typically Canadian inversion: our fiction is filled with courageous survivors battling abstract forces, with hardly a perpetrator to be seen.

And it isn’t as though the perpetrators don’t exist. Elaine Dewar’s The Handover focuses on how overlapping business, political, and academic interests allowed the late Avie Bennett to hand the iconic McLelland & Stewart publishing house to an international conglomerate under the guise of a charitable gift (and in contradiction to the law that governed Canadian cultural industries at the time). But the world Dewar identifies—in which an old boy’s network based in a few square blocks of Toronto decides the fate of an industry—has far-reaching implications, exposing how the country’s elites have a significant impact on how ordinary Canadians live.

Novelists are uniquely placed to explore these dynamics. Canadian libel law being what it is, a journalist like Dewar is constrained not only by the particulars of the story but by those particulars that can be proven in a court of law; a novelist need not be so fastidious about facts in her pursuit of the truth. Perhaps more importantly, the novelist can explore psychological and emotional terrain that might be considered irresponsible for a journalist to venture into. So why is it that Canadian publishers regularly churn out books about down-and-out Maritimers but not a single significant novelist has written about the Irving family’s almost feudal control of Atlantic Canada’s economy? Why has a country obsessed with mythmaking turned a blind eye to its most potent stories?

Let me offer two possible reasons. First, the novelist of society understands a basic truth: status, and its many rewards, depends to a great extent on the good luck of being born into the right family. Yet unlike the United Kingdom and United States, Canada has tended to underplay class as an organizing principle in civic life. American billionaires are household names, but people like David Thomson and Galen Weston Jr. avoid the spotlight unless they are trying to drum up attention for some philanthropic effort no doubt calculated to underscore their charitable bona fides. Our lawmakers, similarly, are assiduous in their middlebrow affectations. Canadians are so used to seeing their politicians drink a Tim Hortons double-double at campaign stops that it becomes easy to forget these are the same people may soon sip Dom Pérignon at Davos. The more fervently Canadians believe they live in a middle-class nation, the harder it will be to admit into Canadian fiction the truth that a relatively small, fairly interconnected group of people possess most of the country’s wealth.

Second, a novelist of society must possess the artistic range to believably represent the lives, thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters from across the social spectrum. This is only possible if a novelist has contact with people from many different classes, which is something modern urban life actively impedes by confining us in socio-economic bubbles. There has been much talk about whether a white writer could, with enough sensitive research, convincingly render members of an Indigenous community. There has been rather less talk about why writers don’t put the same energy into understanding the psychology of a politician who claims to believe in global warming but still tries to ram a pipeline through the Rockies or a celebrated philanthropist whose mining company systematically abuses its workers.

Maybe the most striking thing about novels like Middlemarch or A Brief History of Seven Killings is that they explore the actual motivations of the privileged and the powerful. When George Eliot has Fred Vincy fall into serious gambling debt, it helps make sense of why a person who has, to all appearances, far more capital than the people working for him might still be tempted to squeeze the poor to finance his habit. Marlon James makes it clear that his gangland bosses are also in an extremely tenuous situation: they mostly have power because of what they are able to provide their followers; a shift in the political winds, or an insufficiently ruthless response to a challenge, is potentially fatal. Unlike a work of non-fiction, where the imperative to censure immoral behaviour shadows the reporting, a novel can give us a vivid sense for these things without requiring that we absolve the character of responsibility.

One of the epigrams to A Brief History of Seven Killings, cited as a Jamaican proverb, is “If it no go so, it go near so.” I can’t say if James’s vision of Jamaica’s political and social struggles is accurate in every detail, but it certainly feels “near so.” At the very least, he provides a way of thinking about Jamaica as a place where history is still unfolding and where individuals can play a role in shaping it. Perhaps the reason there is nothing like this in Canada is that we are too quick to view our history as already complete, as an inevitable process that can now only be apologized for and memorialized in historical novels or exorcised in personal dramas. If this is the case, is it any surprise we’re still waiting for the novel that will explain this country to itself?

André Forget
André Forget (@AYForget) is a contributing editor to Canadian Notes & Queries and former editor-in-chief of The Puritan. Based in Toronto, he currently lives in Yoshkar-Ola, Russia.