“The Walrus” at Sea

The December edition of Canada’s only magazine of ideas, The Walrus, is disappointing for its multiple examples of ‘masculine blindness’. This month editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay is glad his privilege allows him to eschew introspection for video game playing, journalist Russell Wangersky laments the “24/7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually  into my newspaper’s well of ideas” from online anonymous commentators without once acknowledging that women get far more, far worse than men. It was his comment that he was once threatened with a rock through his window that got me. Does he not know that women with public voices get daily onslaughts of rape and death threats?

Then there were the memoirs, two of them. I love memoir. It’s my favourite form of literature and I’ve studied it in all forms and permutations. Memoir, as others have said before me, is open to the charge of self-involvement and narcissism. Who, after all, thinks their own life is interesting and important enough to write about? The best thing about memoir is the way it overcomes this. The single most important quality of memoir is the introspection of the author-as- narrator. It’s through that introspection, the self-questioning, that readers can glimpse into the heart and mind of another human being. The details of memoir can be foreign to many readers, but the quest for meaning that occupies the introspecting narrator is universal.

In this case, both memoirs were written by men, white men. Privileged male voices occupy too many of The Walrus’s pages. But there is a difference in degree when the subject is the self, rather than some aspect of life outside the self.

In The Roughneck Diaries, Don Gillmor recounts his experiences as a young man when he divided his time between studying literature at university and working as a roughneck on the oil patch. He tells several anecdotes about the hardship of life as a roughneck and eventually decides the dangers are too great. That’s it. End of story. So what? How can I relate to this? How can a young immigrant, a woman, a disabled person, relate? We can’t relate to the details. What we can relate to is the meaning the author/narrator makes of it. Gillmor doesn’t go there.

Where he does go, though, is into portraits of prairie oil patch workers and support staff. He describes the driller who was “mean as a snake” and enjoyed destroying farm crops for the sheer perversity of it. There is a doctor who was “cinematically drunk” and whose medical care should have been grounds for lawsuit. There are all the workers who get drunk before they start their shifts and drunker when they finish. There is not a decent, thoughtful human being anywhere in sight.

Gillmor makes no attempt to understand these men, who are stuck in their lives of backbreaking physical labour without access to ‘the finer things’ that the author cherishes and will return to. His lack of empathy is most evident in his description of the woman who fell asleep at the wheel, sending both of them to hospital. The narrator wasn’t badly hurt, but the female co-worker spent a week in hospital. Gillmor expresses no compassion whatsoever.

I can’t imagine that Albertans reading this article feel anything but resentment at being so callously denigrated. As for me, I consider longingly how much the author could have said about masculinity at that time in his life when he stood between two modes of masculinity, sampling each. And what he could have said about privilege, when he was surrounded by men without it. And what he could have said about the erosion of humanity in the lives of men without options.

Without any of that, this memoir emits the sour perfume of entitlement and superiority.

But I’ve left the worst memoir for last. I don’t actually believe that Richard Kelly Kemick’s Playing God is memoir. I think it’s fiction. The premise is too good. I can just imagine a creative writing teacher giving the prompt – think of the weirdest thing that a man could collect and make up a story about a man who collects it.

This is not sufficient reason, of course, to call the author a liar.What makes the case more compelling is that the author-as-narrator is a poseur. Throughout the story, the narrator postures. This is the antithesis of memoir, where the honesty that comes from self-questioning is essential.

I don’t like the narrator. He verges on the sociopathic. I wouldn’t want to meet him. And nowhere does he give a reader any reason to care about him.

What I especially don’t like about him is his total lack of empathy for anyone, his self-involvement and his striking misogyny. All three are evident in his admission that he’s been selling his wife’s clothing to pay for his hobby, collecting figures for his Christmas village. An honest narrator might confess to feelings of guilt, but Kemick is gleeful that he got “a whole $23 dollars” for one of her tops.

No introspection there.

His misogyny forces itself onto readers most bluntly when he says of his relationship with his wife, “it had been just one month since I’d stopped getting the milk for free”. Is this meant to be a joke? Are we supposed to laugh? It’s been a few decades since people have found misogynistic jokes about ‘the wife’ funny, hasn’t it?

Before this comment, Kemick has treated us to his view of his mother. He thinks she likes his Christmas village, in part because “the woman is insufferably supportive of everything I do”. Well, I guess we need to excuse her for caring about him. And “the woman”? Who refers to their mother as “the woman”? It turns out though that the narrator suspects his mother of taking over his village for herself, and believes she completely misunderstands him. He was forced to listen to her “confuse my post office and library, gloss over my recreation area, and completely fuck up my all-embracing vision”. Poor thing, his mother doesn’t understand him.

And lastly, when an elderly woman buys a piece that he can’t afford, he says “I say a small prayer for the elderly woman: I ask that the distillery turn her village into Sodom and Gomorrah and that her smiling citizens, hopped up on liquor and lust, eat one another.” Right, nice guy, eh?

The narrator then goes into a litany of all the horrible village gifts he’s received over the years, from people who wish to give him thoughtful gifts, of course, pieces for his obsession. They’re all wrong. This is not a man who ever says ‘it’s the thought that counts’. This is a man who says “village gifts are kind gestures offered by those who have no fucking clue.” Kemick is a child-man who offers nothing of himself to others and then complains that they don’t understand him.

At a couple of points I thought the memoir might transcend the narrator’s whining. He says of his flawed village “Mine is a city that understands the true weight of mortality – its fleeting and fragile nature – and has grown accustomed to closed-casket funerals. Mine is a city that embraces the true spirit of Christmas only because its citizens so desperately need a holiday from the lifelong process of dying.” That’s good! Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t actually display any compassion for real people.

His entrapment in isolation is most revealed in his final comments. He and his wife are thinking of having a child, and he’s afraid that he’ll be “heartbroken when Litia loves this new thing more than she loves me.” The only insight he has into himself is that he will observe his wife and child from the trap of his own fears. Okay. He has revealed his core vulnerability.

But he ends the story by backtracking away from that insight, that honesty. He plugs the whole village in and “Here I am, surrounded by my city and its inhabitants, feeling like a god. And I bless them, every one.”

Judgmentalism and blame don’t belong in memoir. What we love about memoir is that we can see someone overcome the wrongs done to them by others, or the harm done by circumstance. This involves taking personal responsibility, not for the harm that has been done, but for the healing that must follow.

That The Walrus has included one memoir without the qualities of introspection, honesty and personal responsibility could be a mistake. That is has included two in one edition points to editorial blindness.

The Walrus was started to bring something like Harper’s and The Atlantic  to Canada. In fact the original idea was a partnership with Harper’s. Look at what has happened to that magazine in the last 12 years. One has only to look at “Easy Chair” to see the single biggest difference between a world-class magazine of ideas and The Walrus. Rebecca Solnit.

“The Time has come to speak of many things,” says the walrus. Yes, but  men need to stop speaking all the time and listen. The masculine view, by itself, is just too limited.

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