‘Running The Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada,’ edited by Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris
One of the strengths of regional, small-press publishers – meaning, most presses outside of Toronto – is, to use a clinical term, their “catchment area.” If a publisher decides to publish a collection of writing from their region, then they are the ones uniquely placed to do it. They are the houses that would do it because they have a captive audience of readers to buy the book. An interesting effect of this natural anthologizing advantage is the resultant effect in the larger, national academic world in terms of canonization… but I digress. My point is that anthologies of regional writing are of interest to the featured region, of course, but they are also of interest to the wider world. That’s how regionalism works.
But a twist comes with Running The Whale’s Back, an anthology of Atlantic Canadian writing published this year by Goose Lane Editions out of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Editors Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris decided to collect short fiction written by prominent living writers from the region. In order to be included, the short stories required belief (or faith) and doubt (questioning, decrying, hating faith) to be a prominent theme.
In anthology terms, this qualifies as “niche niche”: the book concerns itself with a specific place and a common theme. Thankfully, the talent level of the region’s writers means such a focus doesn’t hamper the quality of the book. But it’s also important to note that the anthology’s theme is as inseparable from this place – meaning Atlantic Canada – as theme can be. In East Coast literature, faith is omnipresent, as much an element of narrative as, say, technology is in writing by Vancouverites.
In short, to know East Coast literature, one must of course read the writers from the region, but one must also reconcile the reading experience with the fact that religion is often a part of the narrative to a much greater degree than writing from other parts of Canada. The appearance of religion can be ironic and skeptical but it can also be symbolic or, in some cases, be used earnestly, no matter how downtrodden or ambiguous the surrounding narrative might be.
The mere presence of belief in the contemporary world is unwelcome to some, and perhaps especially so in the field of literature. I’ve never understood why – the history of our literature has devotional beginnings, and fiction is all about belief, about believing in a created world – but for some, “god stuff” is out, never mind that the greatest mysteries of all are summed up in terms of these questions: what is there to believe in, how should I believe in it, and why?
Before I examine Running The Whale’s Back, trying to figure out, and excuse the pun, if it’s “any good,” I ask this question first: is another anthology of Atlantic Canadian writing even necessary? A good benchmark anthology is the Lynn Coady-edited Victory Meat: New Fiction From Atlantic Canada from 2003 (Anchor Canada). Victory Meat took in all of Atlantic Canada as its scope and includes many of the same names as Running the Whale’s Back (including Michael Crummey, Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, and Carol Bruneau). In fact, a statement like “I know in an instant and without a doubt I will marry, never be good with plants, suffer incalculable loss that almost, almost tips me over, but I will right myself,” a line taken from Moore’s story “Melody” in Victory Meat, could earn the story a spot in a book like Running The Whale’s Back.
Indeed, this regionalist thing has hit its sweet spot in Atlantic Canada. There are also splinter-regionalist anthologies: Hard ‘Ol Spot: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Fiction, in which the proper noun “Newfoundland” should be substituted for “Atlantic,” was published by Breakwater Books in 2009. In The Journal of Newfoundland Studies, Kelly Doyle wrote of the book that “[t]he stories in this collection have been selected not only to reflect and represent the geographical danger, sublimity, and physical hardship of life in the Eastern provinces, but also the sense of being trapped by internal forces: desperation, boredom, monotony, and lack of opportunity.” The same certainly could be said of Running The Whale’s Back, with “religion” thrown in the list somewhere.
That provincial powerhouse of short fiction, Prince Edward Island, released Riptides: New Island Fiction in 2012 (Acorn Books). I am only halfheartedly poking fun at PEI: in his critical study Setting in the East: Maritime Realist Fiction, David Creelman argues that there is a basis for considering the literatures of individual provinces as distinct. Creelman’s book is a landmark study (now why did I write “landmark”… oh yes, that’s the title of an anthology of Eastern Canadian poetry about land) and has inspired me to plead that the anthologizing impulse must be indulged! Next generation PEI fiction anthologist, please devote the two next PEI anthologies of short fiction to writers from, respectively, Charlottetown and Summerside. After the guaranteed outcry, publish a third anthology for the upset ROIs (rest-of-islanders) residing outside the cultural hegemony of “the two metros.”
Yes, I am getting punchy. My resolve in summarizing the Atlantic region’s fetishistic anthology bent is fatiguing. But rest assured, dear readers, that the sea is indeed the theme of a fiction anthology, as is “nature” in general. If I have purposely forgotten your anthology in my cursory list, or gotten them confused, then I am sorry.
Oopsy! But not my oopsy. One more anthology factoid should be mentioned. Atlantica: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland, an anthology from 2001 also published by Goose Lane, uses Lynn Coady’s wonderful “Batter My Heart,” just like Running the Whale’s Back does! When this much anthologizing is going on, I suppose recycling is inevitable. This increases the difficulty level for anthologists: sooner or later, one runs out of as-yet-unanthologized pieces. Seriously: Alistair MacLeod, a Running the Whale’s Back contributor, has published less than twenty stories in his life! Solution: hey K-Tel, or Maritime Telegraph and Telephone, there should be a “Greatest Hits from Way Back: Regionalist Anthologies” Anthology! Hey folks, we got yer golden oldies…
And yet Running the Whale’s Back does earn its, and please forgive this last pun, “place.” More than poverty, fishing, addiction, and rocky promontories, an anthology based on faith and belief gets at the core of place. Everyone believes in something! This anthology is just a little more specific about those beliefs.
Is it preachy? No. It’s fiction, and really good short fiction to boot. The fiction on offer here may be themed but most of all the stories proselytize narrative and language. The editors have chosen well because they understand that story is a desire machine, and, in Atkinson’s own words, that “transcendent desire is vouchsafed by our perpetual loss.” In other words, the story is much like life, like faith: we lose, we survive, belief is buttressed, threatened, authenticated, and even disclosed to us, reader and character both, through unceasing loss. The stories work less because of the elements of faith and doubt and more because those elements are part of the basic events of life: work, sex, marriage, family, and, of course, death.
The characters in the stories are, of course, in pain; their beliefs can be very strongly and traditionally held ones, such as the narrator of Joan Clark’s “Salvation”; they can exist in an entire community of religious tradition, such as Sheldon Currie’s “The Accident”; or the beliefs can be thoughtfully challenged and reinforced, as in Ann Copeland’s “Strange Bodies on a Stranger Shore.”
But transcendence seems to be the word that applies best to this collection. Because some of Canada’s best writers are accounted for amongst the pages of Running The Whale’s Back, and some unfairly underappreciated writers are present as well, the reading experience can often be, in a word, awesome. Michael Crummey, for example, creates a rich, company-town world in a preposterously short space through first-person monologue; Michael Winter displays the faith two people have in one another through unpunctuated, idiosyncratic, virtuoso dialogue; Lynn Coady’s masterful “golden oldie” competes to be not just the best story in the anthology, but also the most appropriate: it’s written in the rare second-person, and as such seems the most appropriate for a book about faith and belief. Donne spoke of a three-person’d god, of course, in his Holy Sonnets, but somehow Coady gets at the root of faith with her odd, generic pronoun choice, writing in a way that implicates the reader.
David Adams Richards’ story “We, Who Have Never Suffered” affirms to me the great value of his early work; this story sets off Richards’ titanic opposites, the educated vs. the uneducated man with a complexity abandoned in the later novels. Denis and Steven, two former friends, argue over a woman as Richards’ place, Newcastle, roars to life around them. Richards casts woman as Madonna and whore; the ivory tower of academe becomes, metaphorically, a Tower of Babel; and he makes the grit of the street his true scriptural materials.
Years ago, writing which embraced belief was common. In contemporary literary writing, religion is no longer omnipresent as a theme. Once upon a time, Morley Callaghan and Hugh McLennan responded creatively to the dominance of religion on their era. Nowadays the themes of belief and doubt aren’t quite shaped as they used to be. They’re still there, but they’re small-b belief. Nowadays we are urged to believe – and thereby made to doubt – propaganda. Yet Running the Whale’s Back, through its themes of death and love that lock arms with belief and doubt, shows that age-old ideas are the best ones humans ever had, do have, will have, forever and ever. The ideas seem so good and lasting because they are articulated through the transcendent aesthetics of language, of story.
Goose Lane | 288 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0864929136