September 23, 2015
Like many this year, I was floored by Andre Alexis’ latest novel, the parabolic Fifteen Dogs. One thing that struck me was how Toronto-centric the book is – so much so that is comes with two maps (illustrated by Evan Munday, in his usual charming style) for non-residents. After devouring the book, I immediately began to check out his older work, starting with his biting literary satire A.
Like a modern Master and Margarita, A is a spoof of a literary scene (Toronto again) with all its thinly veiled, and sometimes explicit, parodies of CanLit characters. Alexander Baddeley is a shitty book critic, barley getting by, who longs for real artistic ability and obsesses over reclusive poet Avery Andrews. Through supernatural means, Baddeley gains literary prowess, but, naturally, it comes with a high price. Part of the price he must pay (spoiler alert) is dealing with the other writers who make up the literary landscape. His new-found status is what he’s always wanted, and he should be enjoying it, but instead it seeds in him a repulsion – not just towards the local literary environment, but towards all literature, even his own work, which has become praised by the same people he can no longer stand to be around. During a dinner held at an IFOA-like festival, he watches as the heroes of Canadian Literature – icons he once coveted, strived just to be in proximity of – change monstrously (Atwood flicks a lizard’s tongue, Ondaatje morphs into a stern raven), sending him fleeing into the streets.
There’s an expression that goes something like:everyone likes sausages, but no one wants to see how they’re made. Perhaps this can be applied in general to any artistic community. The community relies on its outward appearance. To consumers, it appears as creatively benevolent, homogenous and self-supportive, its products spiritually appealing. After all, few would want to ingest something called “bits of pig anus in an intestinal tube,” even if it is delicious. Likewise, we need our artists to seem pure in intention, but sometimes the closer you get to an artistic community’s core, the uglier it can become. After all, what is any community but a network of relationships, and humans, flawed as we are, are only capable of imperfect relationships.
But in spite of all this, great art still happens.
Alexander Baddeley falls victim to cynicism after his romantic outlook is spoiled in exchange for talent. It warps his perception of art and artist, and, by the end, he just wants to be left alone, like his idol Avery Andrews, whose mystique is based on his reclusiveness. But the true outsider is a rare thing. Almost every artist has a support system that helps to foster new work through the exchange of ideas and criticism from peers. The longer one is active in any community, the more likely a confrontation with cynicism is, a collision with art’s petty side. It’s what happens after such a confrontation that matters.
If one can survive this early disillusionment, it can be a navigational tool for dealing with the big personalities and politics that help give the community its strength. Learning to react and respond to the group’s inner conflicts can be just as important to your creative output as the community’s supportive aspects.