“The problem with all large institutions,” says Guy Vanderhaeghe, “is that they are essentially absurd.”
The Saskatchewan-based author of five novels and four collections of short fiction, Vanderhaeghe is almost jovial in the way he makes this remark, the kind of offhand observation that peppers his fiction and seems so obvious that it’s tempting to glide right over it without pausing to unpack its implications. Vanderhaeghe, who has taught English and creative writing at the University of Saskatchewan’s St. Thomas More College since 1993, is expounding on this subject in relation to “Tick Tock,” a viciously funny skewering of academia and masculinity included in the author’s fourth story collection, Daddy Lenin (McClelland & Stewart), which earlier this week won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction.
The story focuses on Charley Brewster, an aging ex-pugilist once jailed for assault, who now puts in time as an assistant professor of English at a second-tier university. Brewster conceives of himself as a dinosaur – “The opinion of his colleagues and certainly his students,” Vanderhaeghe writes, “was that he belonged in some professorial Jurassic Park.” He gets low scores on the website Rate My Professor, in part because he demands his students punctuate their essays properly.
Brewster is counterpointed in the story by Eva, his girlfriend, who also teaches at the university. The chair of the institution’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Eva is the type of professor – very much in vogue these days – who uses contrasting YouTube videos of Sting and Klaus Nomi to critique “representations of masculinities.” The plural, in the context of “Tick Tock,” is corrosively funny: Brewster represents “the bad hegemonic variety” of masculinity; when in his presence, Eva’s “homophobia and misogyny sensors” operate on overdrive.
“I’m obviously not saying Brewster is right,” claims Vanderhaeghe. “He calls himself a dinosaur and he is. He’s not a model of probity.” But as a throwback, he also provides an opportunity for the writer to interrogate some fashionable notions of education and cultural theory that all too frequently are allowed to pass unquestioned and unexamined.
“When I was a student,” Vanderhaeghe says, “every department was more or less ruled by an orthodoxy. Why did that happen? Because like hires like. So if you had a history department in which everybody was a small-l liberal, you’re not going to hire a Marxist.” Little has changed in the intervening years, the author contends, except for the prevailing orthodoxies. “Now you see in English departments, or any department in a university, there is a controlling ethos of one kind. You may throw around the word diversity all over the place, but people don’t really believe in it. They believe in a certain kind of diversity. But they don’t want anybody in their department who disagrees with their idea of what diversity is.”
Vanderhaeghe is certainly not the first Canadian writer to target post-secondary institutions and their predisposition to take themselves far too seriously – Robertson Davies did so in The Rebel Angels. And like Davies, Vanderhaeghe’s satire neatly peels away the layers of egotism, backbiting, and ideological incoherence to expose what really lies beneath: comedy. “There’s a silliness in academia,” says Vanderhaeghe. “It’s almost a chestnut already, the satirical [story] about a university. It’s just that the satire kind of shifts over time. … I’m not particularly offended about it, but I can’t stop giggling.”
There is a lot of giggling going on in Daddy Lenin – people who know Vanderhaeghe exclusively through his western trilogy of novels (The Englishman’s Boy, The Last Crossing, and A Good Man) may not realize how funny the author can be.
Nor may they have been aware of how good the author is when working in the more concentrated short form. “When I wrote my first novel,” Vanderhaeghe says ruefully, “the reviewers were saying, ‘Well, he’s certainly not as good a novelist as he is a short-story writer.’ And now, nobody even remembers I ever wrote short stories.”
People who have forgotten about Vanderhaeghe’s past excursions into short fiction may be tempted to investigate them in light of this week’s award recognition for Daddy Lenin, which admits the author into a somewhat exclusive club of people who have won the fiction GG three times. (Vanderhaeghe previously received the award for his debut, the story collection Man Descending (1982), and again for The Englishman’s Boy in 1996.) That two of those honours have been for short stories speaks not only to the continuing relevance of the form to the ongoing canon of Canadian literature, but to the author’s proficiency working within it, and to his love for the genre.
“I’ve always really liked the form, no question about that,” Vanderhaeghe says. “But then, as we all know, the practical considerations enter into it. No publisher says, ‘Whoopee!’ There’s no publisher saying, ‘We’re dying for another collection of short stories to publish.’”
One reason for the relative lack of attention paid to short fiction – at the cash register, at least – may have to do with the genre’s literary affiliations: stories, Vanderhaeghe contends, are more closely linked to poetry than to novels. “Part of the reason is that you hope that when you come to the end of a short story, the puzzle that you have been reading snaps into place in the last paragraph the way often really good lyric poetry does. You emotionally understand what you have been reading as a poem or reading as a short story, I think, only perhaps in the last few paragraphs, sometimes the last sentence.”
Born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, in 1951, Vanderhaeghe has forged a career out of crafting fiction that examines a particular strain of masculinity: the kind of cowboy ethos made literal in the western trilogy, and that persists in the author’s contemporary fiction. Daddy Lenin extends a project that has been ongoing since the author published Man Descending in 1982: an alternate title for Daddy Lenin might be Men Descending.
It’s something the author is cognizant of. “In a sense,” he says, “these stories [in Daddy Lenin] are not essentially different from the ones I wrote in 1982. In 1982 – I’m not being bitchy about this – [Man Descending] was described as a regional book. A prairie book. Now, it’s described as a book about masculinity.”
All writers have key subjects to which they keep returning over the course of a career; for Vanderhaeghe, the focus on evolving notions of masculinity is a function of his experience growing up in a working-class prairie household in small-town Saskatchewan. “It’s simply a question of writing out of experience,” he says.
To the people who would ask why there are not more female protagonists in Vanderhaeghe’s fiction, he counters by asking why Alice Munro does not include more male protagonists. “Way back when, in the 1980s, I wrote a novel in which there was a female character who bulked pretty large in the book. And I remember being at the university and somebody standing up and saying, ‘How dare you appropriate a voice?’”
While admitting that a lot of things about gender relations have improved in the years since Vanderhaeghe began publishing fiction, he is nevertheless fascinated by the way the shifting ground has resulted in men losing a stable sense of self-definition. “As women have gotten more certain about their gender,” he says, “I think males by and large have gotten less certain about what it means to be a man or to be masculine. And I think to some extent, this book examines that.”
If anything else has changed in the intervening years, it involves the simple and inevitable fact that Vanderhaeghe is older now than he was when he started out. “What is ‘Daddy’?” the author asks. “It’s a lot older. It’s an older perspective.”
“I’ve arrived at the age of nostalgia,” he says. “I’m looking back more on, I wouldn’t say my life, because I’m not an autobiographical writer, but in a sense, a feeling about my generation in a particular place and time, and what that was like. In part, that’s what I’m writing about. I hope it’s not all I’m writing about, but I am kind of holding my own hand and taking myself for a stroll down memory lane.”
Guy Vanderhaeghe appears tonight as part of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, in a round-table discussion with Mark Anthony Jarman and Santiago Roncagliolo, moderated by Vincent Lam.