Tuesday, January 26, 2010

20: Clara Callan

Clara Callan, Richard B. Wright

I once read a satirical website that boasted a recipe for the composition award-winning literature. It had dictums like "thou shalt sneer at conflict" and "thou shalt commit no plot". I thought it was hilarious, sinister, at the time, distant. Now that I have wasted hours of my life - gone, irretrievably gone like the wind - reading Clara Callan, winner of the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction, I now find new bitter meaning in "suckitudinous" fiction.

Clara Callan has no real plot. The titular character lives in rural Ontario in the 1930s. She is a school teacher living along, unmarried. An odd woman (incidentally have also recently read The Odd Women, a much better read) she loses her belief in religion, is victim to a random, senseless act of violence by a tramp, goes to New York (where sister Nora resides) to get an abortion and returns to Ontario to become more and more eccentric until she meets the man of her dream: a Catholic, married man who regularly cheats on his wife with the odd women - unmarried women who have given up on finding marital bliss, trapped in a mundane experience, alone, unprotected and perfect for him to stalk and meet in movie theatres.

The book is told through letters of Clara to her sister Nora and her friend Evelyn and her diary entries. Sister Nora is a radio actress in New York, a minor celebrity, and is very Sister Carrie. My problem is that it was absolutely dull. Certainly things happen, but there's no connecting theme. Does Clara change at all? I think not. There's no evolution of character. In the beginning, she sees the town drunk wearing her deceased father's donated coat and delights in the sight. In the end, she attends his funeral; distinctly out of place amongst the poor, lewd man's rough, unkempt acquaintances. Even after all that's happened to her, she is still the same and sees things around her the same way. No forward motion. No development.

And all the references to the 1930s (this book was a piece of historical fiction published in 2006) are corny. Old King George died, handsome King Edward abdicated for that crass American woman, that book Gone with the Wind was published and filmed - it was so tacky. I'm reading the volume of Anais Nin from the same period and the way she references things that we now consider to be historically important is altogether different. The feeling I get when I find familiar things that Anais encounters at the time (Otto Rank for example) is vastly different from the same type of thing in Clara's letters - it is not forced or ostentatious or jarring.

And honestly, people with interesting lives don't give vague summaries of current affairs and weather updates in their diaries. In fact, interesting people living dull, sequestered lives don't write about mundane drivel either - like Emily Dickinson, for example. This establishes that Clara Callan has the prize-winning combination of being an uninteresting person living an uninteresting life.

I believe the quote on the back is a good representative of the faults of this book:

"On a winter afternoon when we turn the lights on early, or perhaps a summer day of leaves and sky, I will begin by conjugating the elemental verb. I am. You are. It is."

("Boring," I dare to tag on.)

It's trying so hard to be literary and poetic. It's trying for simplicity (all such simple words) by has no sense of minimalism (why "on a winter afternoon ..." or "summer day of leaves and ..."? Pointless. Just pointless. The extra fragment doesn't all anything; those two things give exactly the same feeling and giving the same feeling twice doesn't make it better. Just more exasperating). Its only real poetic device is the elision of the object: she will begin what by conjugating? Life? Doubting? Writing?

Like this snippet, Clara also tries too hard to be literary and poetic and its only device is the omission of defining moments, character, plot, and meaning. How very suckitudinous.

(By the way, am finally back to blogging after a nice break followed by a deluge of things to do. Will post at least once a week from now on.)