Discover more from Art / Life: Scribblings by Michael Bryson
Saul Bellow (1996)
In which the author seeks a Canlit niche and money
I was going to write about 1996-1999, capture three years in one swoop. They have their own arc, starting with my graduation from the University of Toronto's English Literature graduate program that spring and ending in the fall of 1999 with the publication of my first book, Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press) and the launch of the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, on September 1, 1999, initially on my personal website, then later on its own URL.
But I decided to slow down the story. Take a more incremental approach. There are different storylines, and I want to keep them distinct. I mean, I want to blend them, too. Life is integrated, after all, but stories need boundaries, even if they're fluid. One story is the one above, me finishing my second degree, spending years writing, submitting to "little magazines," pursuing publishers, finding one, seeing my book in print. That's a nice story. Each action building on the one before. There is the book and the online magazine, the arrival of a new phase.
The second story is a more general one. In 1996, I turned 28. I had returned to Toronto a year earlier to go back to school, and I had also returned to my parents' basement, where I stayed until the fall of 1999, when I turned 31. I don't like this story, because it is deeply connected to the third one, which is the Gen X malaise of over-education and under-employment. I sent my CV out hundreds of times. I was interviewed two dozen times. I was short listed a handful of times. Week-by-week, nothing changed. Until, eventually, it did.
How old do you have to get before memories of yourself start to feel like visions of another person? Whatever that number is — probably different for each person — I passed it some time ago. The process is connected, I’m sure, to the death of my wife in 2012. With her gone, our life, too, was gone — or at least so fragmented that it could not be reconstituted. There was still continuity with the past, sure. Some. But I had deep expectations about the future, and they were now smoke.
Since 2012, the world has also gone through massive shifts. You know what they are. Me, too. The future always shifts, but in the past decade changes have accelerated. Right? Some are progressive, others the other way.
In any case, looking back at 1996, I found sorting out that year harder than expected. When I think of 1996, what do I think? That spring I completed my MA in English literature at the University of Toronto. It was over too soon, having only started the previous September. I hadn't been interested in pursuing a PhD, and when anyone asked where I was doing my doctorate, I just said I wasn't. One of my professors said: "If you think you can do anything else with your life, do that." She had stories of brilliant PhD English grads, debt saddled, sans careers. I loved being a student, but I didn't want to be a professor.
I had returned to live in my parents' basement when I went back to school, and it was also the spring of 1996 that my father stopped working due to medical issues. He'd been a medical photographer since 1965 (the year he turned 28) in three different Toronto hospitals, the last of which was Toronto Western, where he worked in the eye clinic. There had been two photographers in the clinic, then one left and wasn't replaced. My father's workload doubled. He'd had a heart attack seven years earlier. Ill, he turned to his doctor, who put him on stress leave and sent him to a “relaxation course.” He learned to slow down, something I appreciate now that I’m in my 50s and have had my own cardiac issues. He never returned to work and lived two decades more.
In 1996, I turned 28 and I thought I ought to have had a clearer sense of my destiny before then, except I didn't. I was starting to accumulate short stories — getting some published in "little magazines" — and soon would start to think what a "manuscript" might look like. I spent many hours in my basement bedroom, weaving sentences. Writing, re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. But I needed work, too. In the summer, though, I got a month-long bus pass and travelled across the country, heading to visit my brother and sister-in-law who had moved to Vancouver. I visited people along the way, dropping off books I'd finished.
That spring, after I left school and before my bus trip to Vancouver, a friend paid me to attend and take notes of a series of environmental hearings related to the deep geological disposal of nuclear waste, a topic I knew nothing about. My role was to take notes of the presentations, so they could be shared with interested parties across the country. I approached it as if I were a journalist. I kept notes by hand, then typed them up each night, emailing them to my friend, so he could distribute them to his group. It quickly became clear to me that the most interesting element of the hearings was the disputes between the different environmental groups who were attending and presenting and lining up to lob questions at the other presenters. Some approached the issues from the left, some approached them from the right. Some had quarrels on a range of other issues. None had any idea who I was, but soon they found out I was there, and it became trickier to maintain my style of frank commentary. One of the attendees had a pointed questioning style that was often barbed with sarcastic wit. He was certainly entertaining, and I had put in my notes the question: Who is he most like, Abbie Hoffman or Groucho Marx? The next day he came up to me and wagged an invisible cigar.
I stopped in Saskatoon twice on that trip, once heading west, once heading east. I saw old friends and found myself pulled into some old controversies. When I had left Saskatoon in 1994, one of my female friends had asked me to consider staying because she had feelings for me. I wrote her a letter, saying I would be leaving; I didn't have the same feelings, though I thought she was great. In 1996, we met up again, and she told me she'd been mad at me because I hadn't recognized, essentially, how great she was. I said I had written her a letter which included many passages about how great she was. A day later, she tracked me down to say she had dug up that letter, and she owed me an apology. She'd been too angry at the rejection to take in all the praise I had given her. We often hear what we want to hear, especially when we are hurt.
When I returned to Toronto, I took at job at the Canadian National Exhibition, where I'd volunteered as a boy scout as a 12-year-old in 1981. That summer, I'd pushed people in wheelchairs around the Ex. In 1996, I stood at the gates as people were leaving and tried to convince them to spend a few minutes with me so I could fill out a survey about their Ex experience. Just writing about this now makes me shudder. As an introvert, the thought of approaching people, over and over, to ask permission to engage is exhausting. Yet, I did it. And it was much easier than I expected. Many people said, no, sure, but many others said, yes. And I don't recall anyone being hostile, though a number took the opportunity to confirm their racism. One of the questions was, Where are you from? One White couple, laughed, and said, "Oh, we're from here!" Then, conspiratorially, looking about, "Unlike everyone else!"
With Labour Day came the end of the Ex, and the beginning of the rest of my life. September didn't mean return to school. I didn't have another job lined up. It was going to be full-time job search time and the start of my true Gen-X misadventures. I was 28, broke, sleeping in my parents' basement, seeking, well, what? My big break? I fired out resumes. Over the next three years, I had two dozen interviews for positions I would have considered decent. I was the second choice twice, the first choice, never. I kept plugging away, writing short stories. I wrote book reviews for Paragraph Magazine and published one of my MA essays, the one on Susanna Moodie and Romanticism (1997). I took a series of temporary jobs to bring in money, though never enough to move out of the basement. One involved calling numbers on a list and confirming the mailing address. Over and over. The list belonged to a company that organized professional conferences. They chose topics, then mass marketed to their list. I did that job for a week, then stopped. I remember telling my mother, "I just can't do it." She said, "Okay, then don't." But I felt crushed. How had I gotten here? How could I get out?
My published reviews in 1996:
Paragraph #19. Between Families and the Sky by Alan Cumyn.
Paragraph #17. Home from the Party by Robert MacLean.
Paragraph #17. Moonlit Days & Nights by D.H. Toole.
Id Magazine. Sandman Blues by Stephane Bourguignon.
That last one I commissioned for myself. I wanted to read Bly and the Woodman/Dickson book back-to-back and compare and contrast, more of an essay than a review. I later re-posted it to my blog (July 2010) and looking at it now I see I was determined to "be reasonable" and find a middle way, seek the common ground and work towards reconciliation. One of my U of T professors had called me “judicious,” determined to be fair. Taking sharp positions was perhaps more interesting, but I was determined to be balanced, to seek the widest understanding. I wanted to bring people together, not sustain divisions. I was optimistic it could be done. I'm much less optimistic now.
Paragraph, if I'm remembering right, paid $35 for a review. Id Magazine didn't pay for reviews, but I did some features for them, which paid $100, if I remember right. One feature in August 1996 was a profile of the writer Ken Sparling. He'd recently published Dad Says He Saw You At The Mall (1996), a Gordon Lish-edited debut about existential malaise in suburban life full of short, sharp sentences. I thought it was great, and I was curious to meet Ken, who had edited Blood & Aphorisms, the literary magazine which was an organ of Sam Hiyate's Gutter Press. Hiyate had also taken on publishing Lish's journal, The Quarterly. Lish had been Raymond Carver's editor.
I felt the gravity of this whirlpool. I was starting to find my way into Canlit, not as a historical phenomena, but as a contemporary reality. In Spring 1997, Paragraph published my review of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, and in 2003 I would interview Sparling again, this time for The Danforth Review.
I published three short fiction pieces in 1996, two in student publications and one ("The Lowest Branch") that turned out to be the first story in a growing manuscript that in 1999 would become my first book:
“Dialogue.” Acta Victoriana. University of Toronto.
“Heresy.” The Hart House Review. University of Toronto.
“The Lowest Branch.” The New Quarterly.
That fall was also one of the more transcendent concerts I ever attended: Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan on a double bill at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Eventually, I ended up with two part-time jobs, each of which wasn't great, but they weren't terrible, and they were journalism/publishing related. The publishing one put together course packs for university students. One of the legacies of that job is my subscription to the New York Review of Books, which I’d never read prior to that time, but frequently enough I was photocopying NYRB articles for the course packs and making an extra copy for myself to take home. It helped to perpetuate my education and gave me new lines of inquiry, books and authors to pursue. Those long form reviews and essays were a revelation, and I wondered how I had never seen the publication before. But, then, where would I? It was not part of the world I had grown up in.
The journalism job took the wire feed of clipped news stories and clipped them even further. Think the single sentence news headlines that streams across the bottom of CP24. I would "write" those. Short, sharp, direct. The company provided this service to banks and other retailers, across North America, who had a feed to TVs in their lobbies or retail space. They would intersperse the "news" with their own advertising or custom content. During the time I worked there, the Mike Harris government decided to amalgamate the City of Toronto with its five adjoining municipalities, creating the “Megacity,” also known as The Six (because it consists of the six previous municipalities). I would craft little headline stories suggesting this was a bad idea, and whoever took over the shift after me would re-write the stories to suggest it was a good idea. I should say that this was a one-person-at-a-time role. I was in the office on weekends, alone. One day I opened the desk drawer and found it stacked high with Playboy magazines. There was a TV in the office, and I spent the day watching the news channels or sports. I remember watching the remarkable emergence of “Swiss Miss” Martina Hingis. The office was on Queen Street, just east of St. Michael’s Hospital, where I had been born. I would arrive in the morning, pick up a coffee at the Druxy’s that’s still there, and tap away on my computer until my shift was over, then go home, never seeing a soul.
At that time, the company was also attempting to sell their service to a major grocery store chain. The idea was, customers would encounter small screens in the aisles, sharing product information, sales pitches, whatever. It was intended to be the company's big break, except something else happened first. In 1998, a satellite went off its orbit, and the company's feed went instead into interstellar space.
A 2006-era version of my website had a "biography of the author." It explains what happened next.
In 1995, Michael moved back home with his parents and went back to school, attending the University of Toronto's MA program in English. Because Michael's BA at Waterloo had included so many "rhetoric courses," U of T insisted his course work for his MA had to include a broad representation of the history of English literature. In one term, he had courses on Chaucer, the Renaissance, Samuel Johnson and W.H. Auden. It was like living in four centuries at once. The experience taught Michael two things: A/ he was not a scholar (though he maintained an A- average; and B/ he had much, much more to learn, and would never have the time to dedicate to learning a fraction of it. He decided to focus on writing, and not to head into seven years of studying towards a PhD and an academic job that everyone said didn't exist for even the most talented of junior scholars. However, Michael was soon to learn that an MA in English is not any kind of a prerequisite for a job either.
In 1996, Michael began the first of a series of part-time and temporary jobs that would continue until he competed for a job in the Ontario Public Service in 2002 and won the competition. In those six years, Michael worked as a telephone researcher; a marketing researcher (at the CNE, basically asking people: "How was your time at the Ex today?"); a publishing assistant at a company that put together course packs for U of T (a lot of photocopying); a proofreader at a legal publishing firm (formatting legal judgements for an electronic database; Gordie Howe's case against the NHLPA was one of them; it was one of the longer ones); a news writer (for a company that published news and sports headlines on pixel boards; the news came in through the wire service, and the news writer's job was to cut the story down to about 30 words and a headline); a Y2K researcher for the Ontario government (compiling purchasing contracts with language pertaining to Y2K, in the event of any legal action following massing computer failures on January 1, 2000, which didn't happen).
In 1998, Michael was working for pixel board company when the $2 billion satellite the company used spun out into deep space. All of the customers started calling, complaining that they weren't getting any service. Michael answered the phone: "Nope, because the satellite isn't there anymore." Despite complaints that they company "fix it; give me back my service," the problem was too big to be fixed, and Michael was laid off.
Some of these sentences take us beyond 1996, up to the year 2000, but I'm going to leave them in, just pull back now and leave the later stuff to a later post. That satellite, though, it remains in my mind as a metaphor for the random. Best laid plans and all of that. We can plan what we can plan, but time and again in my life it has been the random that has had huge influence. And I'm still trying to come to terms with that, I think, the breakdown between cause and effect. Sometimes there's just effect and effect. Thing and then another thing. Or as Robert Kroetsch once wrote: "Something happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens." Taking that from memory, but I think it's right. Probably from Words of My Roaring (1966).
If my life were a film, it would probably start with that satellite, the inciting incident. I filed for unemployment insurance. So much of what has happened in my life since can be traced to the consequences the followed from losing that job, because the satellite spun out.
More on that another time.
Coming to terms with the random is a common theme in my fiction. Kroetsch comes up there, too, especially in "Beginnings and Endings," first published in Event (1999) and subsequently in Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999).
So why "Saul Bellow (1996)"?
That year I saw the Nobel laureate speak to a near empty University of Toronto lecture hall. He read from his short story, "By the St. Lawrence," which was published in Esquire (1995) and later in Collected Stories (2001). He took a few questions. The one I remember was along the lines of: "Mr. Bellow, are you sad about the decline of literary readership?" He said he wasn't. He was sure there would always be a literary readership. He said he had as many readers as Charles Dickens had in his day, acknowledging, of course, that the world population was much greater today than in the 19th century. The number 200,000 readers come to mind.
In 1996, I was not a "fan" of Bellow, but I wasn't going to pass up a chance to see him. I was probably curious about him because Martin Amis consistently talked him up, along with Nabokov and Updike. Over the years, I have worked my way through most of his novels and novellas, but in 1996 I think I had read Herzog (1964) and Henderson the Rain King (1959), both of which I acquired as cheap paperbacks, probably from garage sales or used bookstore cheap bins. Both left me with a charge. Both have over-the-top neurotic protagonists whose lives are falling apart, and they are questing for higher purpose. I identified with that. This can't be all there is. There must be more. Where does one find that? (Let it also be said that both protagonists are problematic. Herzog is rage-filled for the wife he's separated from, and Henderson presents a cartoon Africa.)
To prepare to write this piece, I read "By the St. Lawrence" (Collected Stories version). I'm not sure if there were changes from the Esquire version, but after Bellow finished reading in 1996 he said he was making edits in his head as he was going along. Nothing is ever finished. One brief paragraph in the story jumped out at me:
How deep can the life of a modern man be? Very deep, if he is hard enough to see innocence as a fault, if, as Brecht held, he wipes out the oughts which the gullible still buy and expels pity from politics.
This is a claim for stoicism. For looking plainly and seeing the world as it is. It's also a directly stated desire for depth, for more. Herzog and Henderson sought it. The protagonist of the short story is Rexler, a retired Brecht scholar who spent his childhood around Montreal before moving to the United States, as Bellow did. Rexler is a much less manic seeker that the ones in the earlier two works, but he is a Bellovian mouthpiece. He is seeking the ideal. I recognized that in myself, and I would later create some narrators who spoke in this seeking way. Here is what we have, how do we find what's missing?
If Bellow were writing today, his work would fall into the camp with auto-fiction. It would also have to work much harder to confront "the oughts" he so easily dismisses here, the entitlements and grievances he wishes away by framing the harmed as gullible.
I see in the work of Geoff Dyer a kind of character creation of self that is influenced by Bellow, yet Dyer is more self-critical, aware and mature than Bellow manages. Bellow remains under the sway of the ideal, while Dyer has also absorbed the post-modern. Vonnegut, for example, repeated how he learned relativism from anthropology, and he sought engagement with, not demonization of, the other.
In 2009, I wrote a short review of Bellow's 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak, for The Danforth Review. Looking at it again now, I see I quoted a passage that is very similar to the passage quoted above from the short story. The obsession here, again, is the quest to find bigger, deeper meanings, and breakdown the framing narratives of popular culture. Find a spiritual, totalizing ideal.
About a third of the way into More Die of Heartbreak Saul Bellow writes:
There aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world. Never mind "rising entitlements", never mind the luxury "life-style." ... Full wakefulness would make us face up to the new death, the peculiar ordeal on our side of the world. The opening of a true consciousness to what is actually occurring would be a purgatory.
The "our side of the world" Bellow speaks about is "the West," the democratic states opposed to the Eastern Communist tyranny. Though the Cold War victory came quickly in 1989, Bellow's exploration of the West's "peculiar ordeal" remains poignant. If it's true that "there aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world," Bellow begins to tell us where we might find them.
What does it mean, "more die of heartbreak"? One character in the novel, a botanist, tells a reporter more people die from heartbreak than from radiation poisoning. The botanist is thought to be insensitive to those suffering from radiation poisoning, but Bellow's point is clearly that the conflicts of the heart are poorly understood and even more poorly included in the great media circus that passes for contemporary civic discourse.
More Die of Heartbreak isn't one of Bellow's great novels. The plot is thin, and it serves largely as a frame for Bellow to hang his intellectual musings. Bellow's novel invites readers to return to original sources, making the novel itself little more than a catalogue of previously disseminated ideas. Its prime value is like that of the tent evangelist preaching the old-time religion. It is a challenge to the present to engage in a dialogue with the past. Every generation that tries to remake the world fails. Once we admit our own failure the past can offer solace and wisdom, not simply a terror we try hard to ignore.
Reading this now, I wonder what I was thinking. Much seems missing from my commentary. A deeper engagement with the real, for example. Social/historical context. I’m surprised, too, to see Bellow criticize “innocence” in “St. Lawrence” because I think of Bellow’s narrators as child-like. Seeking to see the world in pure ways. When Bellow died in 2005, many obituaries noted Bellow was known for his optimism. The New York Times ended its obituary noting that the author's "approach to his art was that of an alien newly arrived on the earth." The obituary quoted Bellow:
I've never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it's a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! And when the end came, I was told by the cleverest people I knew that it would all vanish. I'm not absolutely convinced of that. If you asked me if I believed in life after death, I would say that I was agnostic. There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.
I remain susceptible to this song. The more dark and crazy the world seems, the more I feel the need for buoyant praise of the beautiful. Does that mean Bellow’s narratives and analysis was always right? No.
In Bellow’s Heart (2013), Saul’s son, Greg, articulates the complexities of his father, often struggling to align the literary figure with the man he saw around the house.
Writer is the one-word descriptor on Saul Bellow’s gravestone, a final testament to a life where everything and everyone was subordinated to art. After rereading his soul-searching novels, this time as a memoirist, I find a man trying to understand his inability to live in harmony with others and with himself. Saul simply never fit in, and every corner of his life was strewn with evidence of an inability to just get along. Musing about his character with his longtime friend Gene Goodheart shortly before his death, Saul remained plagued by doubts, asking aloud, “Was I man or a jerk?”
I don’t seek to answer that question, but I will note that it aligns with the Art/Life conundrum.