“John Metcalf is not the enemy,” wrote Jeet Heer in the National Post in 2010. He was responding to a Walrus essay by André Alexis which argued that Metcalf, who was born in 1938 in Carlisle, England, before moving to Canada, was the “driving force” behind most of our contemporary national literary criticism, and, as such, a problematic figure. For Alexis, the problem was that the older author’s voice – the catty, dulcet tone – had shaped the style of a generation of up-and-comers all too eager to imitate it.
Like many other earnest, gifted novelists dependent on book reviewers for acclaim and exposure, Alexis – whose eccentrically engineered thriller, The Hidden Keys, was one of my favourite books of 2016 – was cautioning against the encroaching spectre of snark, which can deform and distort the business of analysis. For Heer, whose writing as a critic and a pundit sometimes tips in that direction, this approach came at the problem backward. It was not that Metcalf was too influential, but rather that his witty, disciplined irreverence had not proved influential enough.
One way to look at the stories and novellas gathered in Metcalf’s new, long-gestating book, The Museum at the End of the World, is as the author’s meditation on his own importance, or lack thereof. These anxieties are filtered through the life and times of a barely veiled surrogate figure: Robert Forde, a British-born, Canadian-based writer trapped by a palpable sense of dissatisfaction at occupying a cozy perch, rather than a dizzying pinnacle, of his profession.
Where the early vignettes fill in the portrait of the author as a young man, the meat of the book sketches Robert’s stubborn obsolescence, a litany of unrewarding writer’s-college residencies and middling notices in the mainstream press. “The review of Chamber Music had appeared in the Saturday edition of the Calgary Clarion,” begins one passage. “The tone [was] hostile and oddly aggrieved … ‘tony’ had been one of the reviewer’s words.” Robert, it would seem, can dish it out, but he can’t take it. Or, is the point that the author of the pan is merely a heartland philistine allergic to the true sophistication of the work before him?
Metcalf drops hints that both attitudes, and the interpretive lenses attached to them, are viable. And considering the amount of time that the author spends inside Robert’s – and by extension, his own – head, any takeaway short of bristling ambivalence or ambiguity would probably seem paltry. In this sense, Metcalf’s dense, dauntingly fragmented book is a success: it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it. Its arc is familiar enough, moving from innocence –or at least what’s left of it by the time a boy reaches adolescence, which is where things pick up in the first chapter – through experience.
What’s fascinating, and challenging, is how elliptically this coming-of-age narrative has been rendered in this collection. Robert Forde has appeared in Metcalf’s writing before, and, as The Museum at the End of the World does not collect all of his adventures, it has the uncanny feeling of a Bildungsroman with the middle raggedly scooped out. As arranged, the episodes hurtle through and past large chunks of time and exposition with serene velocity.
The narrative’s sensation of speed is a by-product of the prose, which comes in pounding, unstoppable waves. Robert’s anguished observations about the hopeless denizens of his creative writing class – “lace-less high-tops, grey pissy drawstring sweatpants, particular interest: Trolls, Jane Parkin” – is so venomously poetic that it could be taken for showing off, except that it’s the character who’s meant to be mobilizing his linguistic gifts as contemptuously as possible. The little sliver of distance between Robert’s inner monologue and the outer inventory of his foibles is the true source of comic tension.
Metcalf’s fondness for big, broad, conceptual metaphors, like having his avowed cultural snob protagonist squire around the now-wizened granddaughter of a famous Canadian poet, could be taken for laziness. But the final, eponymous chapter, which finds Robert and his wife, Sheila, on a pleasure cruise moving from Trebizond to Sochi, takes a completely prosaic conceit – well-to-do westerners communing clumsily with the remnants of older civilizations – and makes it sing.
The underlying suggestion may be that Robert has become a relic on the order of the temples, palaces, and mosques he trudges through on his itinerary-of-the-damned vacation, and yet there’s no sun-setting sentimentality; instead, Metcalf conjures up some gently surreal encounters with nature – a hovering butterfly and a constellation of jellyfish – that affirm the world’s regenerative power beneath the graveyard of human endeavour. In these brief but fully transporting moments, Robert Forde, for all his hauteur, is not the enemy, and neither is John Metcalf.