Toronto author Ray Robertson’s Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live is equal parts intimate autobiography, philosophical treatise, and cri de coeur regarding the sorry state of Canadian culture. Peppered liberally with quotations from the poets, musicians, and thinkers Robertson favours, the book offers a distinctive glimpse into an accomplished writer’s worldview, though some of the insights will already be familiar to followers of his work.
Robertson has penned six novels and a previous collection of essays on writing called Mental Hygiene (Insomniac Press). After finishing his most recent novel, 2009’s David (Thomas Allen Publishers), Robertson experienced a bout of near-suicidal depression, a manifestation of his long-time struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The recovery process drove him to consider what gives life value and meaning, generating the essays that comprise this book. Each one focuses on a facet of human experience, from “Work” and “Love” to “Solitude” and “The Critical Mind.”
Despite being fewer than 200 pages, the book has more than 200 endnotes, which include references to a half-dozen dictionaries of aphorisms and bon mots. In addition to classical philosophers, rock musicians from the 1960s are as prominent here as in Robertson’s fictional oeuvre.
Several essays offer strong words about current literary trends, although his assertion that CanLit is “bland, imitative, inoffensive” is not especially groundbreaking. Others contain thinking that is lucid, if occasionally a bit obvious. In “Intoxication,” for example, Robertson argues that a well-lived life can include the use of alcohol and drugs. The message of “Humour” is simply that one should be wary of people who lack the ability to laugh at life. Some chapters, such as “The Material World,” lack a clear argument, instead featuring digressive and uninspired paragraphs devoted to the joys of napping and physical exercise.
Why Not is most engaging when Robertson delves into his own life story: growing up with working-class parents, developing a passion for literature to complement his love of sports, his longstanding devotion to his wife and even his dog. At such moments, the reader is less keen for another quote from Flaubert or the Roman stoic Seneca and instead eager for the author to share more deeply from his own experience of a life worth living.