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Ground Works: Avant Garde for Thee

by Christian Bök, ed.

Ground Works was published in part, as Margaret Atwood declares in her introduction, to correct the impression that “there was nothing unorthodox in this country before folks started getting their tongues pierced.” Editor Christian Bök has laid that fallacy to rest, showing that between 1967 and 1984 many Canadian writers turned their hand to every oblique narrative strategy the avant garde could offer.

John Riddell’s “Pope Leo El Elope” plays the alphabet-games of the French OuLiPo movement. Dave Godfrey’s “CP 69” finds meta-narrative in a Western movie viewed on an airplane. Audrey Thomas uses cut-up technique in “If One Green Bottle,” while Michael Ondaatje’s “Billy the Kid and The Princess” consists of “readymade” dialogue from a comic book. There are streams of consciousness from Graeme Gibson and Gail Scott, while Chris Scott’s “Bartleby” evokes a Borgesian literary universe.

Recently celebrated for his own experimental tour de force Eunoia, Bök is the ideal editor for this anthology. His prefaces to each selection and his Afterword blend an awareness of avant-garde traditions with a comfortable acknowledgement that Canada has never produced a “coherent tradition of anti-classic, anti-mimetic writing.” With a few persistent exceptions, Bök admits, most Canadian authors have merely “dabbled” in writing that challenges the tenets of form and comprehension. Steve McCafferey and bp Nichol, like George Bowering and other West Coast writers, are a few of those that went further, while feminism inspires such authors as Daphne Marlatt to stay faithful to their own literary heresies.

Avant-garde writing aims at discovery, not “success.” As Derek Wynand paradoxically writes in “One Cook, Once Dreaming,” “the recipe need not be possible for the dish to exist.” Or in Bök’s words, this collection offers not “digestible literature,” but an important record of explorations. Although not all-inclusive (Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch and many others might have appeared, and another anthology will be needed for francophones from Aquin to Brossard and beyond), Ground Works reveals the extensive foundations underpinning today’s own impressive experimenters.