Robert Kroetsch Essay - Critical Essays

Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 132)

Introduction

Robert Kroetsch 1927-

Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Kroetsch's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 23, and 57.

Kroetsch is considered one of Canada's foremost practitioners and theoreticians of postmodern literature. Like many experimental writers, Kroetsch subverts such literary conventions as plot and character development and writes in a playful, ironic, and self-reflexive style. Central to Kroetsch's fiction is the importance of place and its impact on the psyche. He is particularly admired for his depictions of the Canadian prairie landscape.

Biographical Information

Kroetsch was born in Heisler, Alberta, Canada, and raised on his family's farm. His childhood in rural Alberta, where most of his fiction is set, informs both his fiction and his poetry. His family's penchant for storytelling imbued Kroetsch with a deep appreciation for oral narrative, which often emerges in his writing in the form of tall tales and ribald humor. After graduating from the University of Alberta in 1948, Kroetsch worked for six years in the Canadian North. His initial jobs on riverboats on the Mackenzie River led to the conception of his first and most conventional novel, But We Are Exiles (1966). In 1961 Kroetsch received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and he worked as a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton from 1961 to 1978. In 1978 Kroetsch accepted a professorship at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He has won several awards for his fiction and was co-founder and editor of the postmodern literary journal Boundary 2.

Major Works

Kroetsch's novels The Words of My Roaring (1966), The Studhorse Man (1970), and Gone Indian (1973) comprise what he calls the “Out West” triptych. In these works, Kroetsch explores the myths surrounding the Canadian prairie while also incorporating Greek and Roman mythic structures and recording momentous social changes from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Words of My Roaring also chronicles political upheavals in Depression-era Alberta. Kroetsch's next novel, Badlands (1975), revolves around a 1916 paleontological expedition in Alberta led by William Dawes, who is obsessed with finding large dinosaur fossils in hopes of achieving renown in the science world. In What the Crow Said (1978) Kroetsch uses magical realism to explore gender differences in Big Indian, Alberta. Alibi (1983) reiterates his interest in the quest myth and the rejuvenating power of water. William Dorfendorf, who procures objects for a mysterious oilman and collector, is sent on a worldwide search for the “perfect spa.” Through his quest, Dorfendorf comes to understand the fundamental dichotomies of body and soul, sex and death, and art and life. The Puppeteer (1995) is a postmodern detective story in which Kroetsch almost entirely abandons conventional storytelling techniques, settling instead on an experimental form in which he lifts and rearranges scenes and characters from previous works. In 1998 Kroetsch published The Man from the Creeks, a novel about the gold rush in the American and Canadian West in the 1890s. Several themes in Kroetsch's fiction recur throughout his poetry. In his early verse, collected in The Stone Hammer Poems (1975), Kroetsch depicts prairie life in an imagistic, unaffected manner. Much of his subsequent poetry displays an irreverence toward language in order to expand its limits. Since 1975, Kroetsch has been composing an extended long poem-in-progress entitled “Field Notes.” A collage of memories, anecdotes, documents, and tall tales reflecting his preoccupation with the difficulties of literary expression, persona, and the burden of traditional poetic forms, “Field Notes” has been published in partial form in the volumes Seed Catalogue: Poems (1978), The Ledger (1979), The Sad Phoenician (1979), and Advice to My Friends (1985). In 1989 the volume was published as The Complete Field Notes. Kroetsch is also highly regarded as a literary theorist, and his criticism is considered a major informative factor in all of his writings. The Lovely Treachery of Words (1989) exemplifies his thoughts on literature, writing, and language. In 1995 Kroetsch added to his writings about language by publishing A Likely Story, a memoir and explanation of his life as a writer.

Critical Reception

Kroetsch is considered one of the most imaginative and important writers of the postmodern movement. Highly influenced by theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, his fiction and poetry as well as his criticism are deeply entrenched in deconstructionism's focus on relativity and absence of definite meaning. While this quality has drawn much praise from some commentators, others have found his works oblique and at times overbearing with literary jargon and trends. Nonetheless, Kroetsch is admired for experimenting with literary forms and for his role in bringing contemporary Canadian writing to the forefront of the world literary scene.

Principal Works

But We Are Exiles (novel) 1966

The Words of My Roaring (novel) 1966

The Studhorse Man (novel) 1970

Gone Indian (novel) 1973

Badlands (novel) 1975

The Stone Hammer Poems: 1960-1975 (poetry) 1975

Seed Catalogue: Poems (poetry) 1978

What the Crow Said (novel) 1978

The Ledger (poetry) 1979

The Sad Phoenician (poetry) 1979

The Crow Journals (nonfiction) 1980

Field Notes (poetry) 1981

Alibi (novel) 1983

...

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Criticism

Geert Lernout (review date March 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature, in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXV, No. 755, March, 1986, p. 38.

[In the following review, Lernout praises the essays in Gaining Ground.]

As the title of this book indicates, Canadian literature is slowly becoming recognized in Europe. But one of the editors, Reingard Nischik, warns against a too facile optimism. In her article on the history of European interest in CanLit, Nischik quite rightly points out that Canadians seem to lack a clear picture of what is really going on in Europe. In less than 30 pages she gives an account of the CanLit scene in 18 European countries and adds an...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Sylvia Söderlind (review date Winter 1987)

SOURCE: “Views from Afar,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 35, Winter, 1987, pp. 111-16.

[In the following review, Söderlind praises Gaining Ground for its successful attempt to begin a dialogue between the literatures of Canada and Europe.]

In case anyone still doubted it, this collection confirms what has been rumoured for some time: Canadian literature is gaining ground in the universities of Europe. With few exceptions the seventeen essays included in the volume indicate that a good number of critics have spent considerable time and effort in getting to know our literature and our history. The authors represent a wide geographical, as well as...

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George Bowery (review date April 1989)

SOURCE: A review of The Lovely Treachery of Words, in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 3, April, 1989, p. 22.

[In the following review, Bowery praises Kroetsch's literary criticism in The Lovely Treachery of Words.]

In Canada we often write “poet-novelist” before a writer’s name. We have to do this more than most countries do. Of course most of these poet-novelists toss off an essay from time to time. But we seldom feel that it would be sensible to write “poet-novelist-critic.”

Margaret Atwood writes reviews and makes the odd address to a group of elected representatives. A long time ago Michael Ondaatje wrote a little chapbook on...

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John Clement Ball (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: “The Carnival of Babel: The Construction of Voice in Robert Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ Triptych,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 39, Fall, 1989, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Ball examines the place and meaning of silence and voice in Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ series of novels.]

From one so concerned with the multiplicitous nature of voice and the elusiveness of meaning, Robert Kroetsch’s work has displayed a remarkable cohesiveness. As a writer whose many voices include those of poet, novelist, postmodern theorist, and intensely nationalistic critic of Canadian literature, he is also his own best explicator. A Kroetsch essay about an Atwood...

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John Thieme (essay date 29 November-1 December 1989)

SOURCE: “There's No Business Like Snow Business: Narrative Voice in Robert Kroetsch's Gone Indian,” in Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, November 29-December 1, 1989, pp. 202-16.

[In the following essay, Thieme discusses Gone Indian as a post-modernist retelling of the frontier story.]

In Gone Indian (1973), the second novel in Robert Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ triptych, an American graduate student, Jeremy Sadness, journeys to Edmonton for an interview for an academic post, which he never attends. On arrival at Edmonton Airport he is immediately confronted by a notion of alternative identity and what is...

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David Creelman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Robert Kroetsch: Criticism in the Middle Ground,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1991, pp. 63-81.

[In the following essay, Creelman examines Kroetsch's “critical plurality.”]

I

One of the things we seek, I think, is freedom from definition, because definition is as restrictive as cosmology.

(Labyrinths of Voice 7)

Robert Kroetsch’s career as a writer has been marked throughout by his attempts to “kick free” from the many literary traditions and models that threaten to confine his texts. In his novels, Kroetsch has disrupted...

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Dorothy Seaton (essay date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: “The Post-Colonial as Deconstruction: Land and Language in Kroetsch”s Badlands,” in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 77-89.

[In the following essay, Seaton argues that Kroetsch deconstructs the myths of land and language in Badlands.]

It is commonly argued that early imperial discourses of the New World inscribe an effort to make strange new lands familiar to Eurocentric systems of meaning and understanding.1 However, conceptualised from the start as the site of the strange, the new lands continued to resist European epistemological appropriation and whatever the imperial’s claims to control and knowledge, the...

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Kathleen Wall (essay date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: “What Kroetsch Said: The Problem of Meaning and Language in What the Crow Said,” in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 90-105.

[In the following essay, Wall examines the meaning of Kroetsch's apparently chaotic approach to criticism in What the Crow Said.]

I think criticism is really a version of story, you see; I think we are telling the story to each other of how we get at story. It is the story of our search for story. That’s why criticism is so exciting. Not because it provides answers, but because it is a version of story.

(LV 30) 1

Were...

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Manina Jones (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Rooting the Borrowed Word: Appropriation and Voice in Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, 1992, pp. 113-22.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses the problem of finding an authentic Canadian voice in “Seed Catalogue.”]

“Once upon a time he was a gardener of the possible fruition.”

(Kroetsch, Completed Field Notes, 255)

LYRE, LYRE, PANTS ON FIRE

Robert Kroetsch’s essay “Unhiding the Hidden” begins with an expression of the desire for—and the impossibility of...

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Martin Kuester (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Kroetsch’s Fragments: Approaching the Narrative Structure of His Novels,” in Postmodern Fiction in Canada, 1992, pp. 137-60.

[In the following essay, Kuester presents an overview of the narrative techniques used in Kroetsch's novels.]

In this age of postmodernism, the belief in a coherent world governed by logically derived laws of causality has given way to a cosmology seeing man in a shattered world of fragments. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the concept of postmodernism stressing the disorientation of the individual (and the artist) in such a fragmented world, was applied to literature by American critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Richard Wasson. For...

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Richard Lane (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Double Guide: Through the Labyrinth with Robert Kroetsch,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1993, pp. 19-27.

[In the following essay, Lane examines Kroetsch's novels and poetry in order to understand his literary theory, particularly in Labyrinths of Voice.]

How do we find our way through a textual labyrinth? Already, in the etymology of its name, the notion of doubling forms part of a trace that leads us to the Minotaur and the Classical world. But readers of literary criticism know that the concept of a labyrinth can also lead into the contemporary postmodern world of uncertainty. Just over ten years ago, Robert...

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J. R. Snyder (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “A Map of Misreading: Gender, Identity, and Freedom in Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1993, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Snyder examines the ways in which Gone Indian has been misunderstood and suggests ways to correct the misreadings.]

M. E. Turner, among several others, has contended that the discussion of Robert Kroetsch’s work is too often based upon the critical positions set out in Kroetsch’s own theoretical work; Kroetsch’s literary output has enjoyed a high level of acceptance because Kroetsch’s criticism implicitly posits his own works as models for postmodern fiction...

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Douglas Glover (review date February 1993)

SOURCE: A review of The Puppeteer, in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 1, February, 1993, pp. 40-41.

[In the following review, Glover calls The Puppeteer “a literary confection of the first order,” but concedes that it may not be for everyone.]

I once knew a man in New York who worked as a buyer of rare works of art, which he collected worldwide, mostly as a tax dodge for wealthy clients who paid low prices and then donated the works to institutions at inflated paper values. One of his clients happened to be a Calgary oil baron who might have been a model for the mythically rich, half-blind transvestite millionaire named Jack Deemer who narrates Robert...

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Douglas Reimer (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “Heideggarian Elements in Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Canadian Literature, No. 136, Spring, 1993, pp. 115-28.

[In the following essay, Reimer locates Heidegger's notions about authentic truth and being in Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue.]

Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue is neither phenomenological nor structuralist, to borrow a distinction made by David Carroll in The Subject in Question (15). That is, it is neither subject-centered nor language-centered, but belongs, instead, to a third, rare, more sylleptic mode of writing aware of and making use of the conventions of the other two. As David Arnason has shown in “Robert...

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David Wylynko (review date July-August 1993)

SOURCE: “Pulling Strings,” in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXII, No. 821, July-August, 1993, pp. 43-44.

[In the following review, Wylynko praises The Puppeteer for Kroetsch's examination of the ephemeral and the permanent.]

Like a pulp fiction murder mystery, Robert Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer leads a host of bizarre characters through a fast-paced chase for icons, money and one another. But the plot line is merely a disguise for Kroetsch’s mockery of this popular form, and a mockery of the human need for permanence that motivates these pursuits. As in all of Kroetsch’s fiction, the novel’s central task is to illustrate how sharply humanity’s...

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Liz Caile (review date September-October 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Alberta, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 5, September-October, 1993, p. 15.

[In the following review, Caile praises the second edition of Alberta.]

The Canadian province of Alberta corresponds to states to the south wherein plains and mountains meet. In Alberta, Robert Kroetsch describes the contrasting elements of splendid peaks and vast rolling plains, of wide rivers and parched homesteads, of coal mines, wheat and oil fields, of an Indian past and robust upstart cities.

Alberta’s settlers have maintained their distinctive cultural groupings to a greater extent than in the United States, however. Its northern...

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Robert Kroetsch with Lee Spinks (interview date 1994)

SOURCE: “Puppets and Puppeteers: Robert Kroetsch Interviewed by Lee Spinks,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1994, pp. 13-22.

[In the following interview, Kroetsch discusses his fiction and poetry.]

The following conversation took place in Hull on 24 October 1993 over a period of two hours. Robert Kroetsch speaks slowly and deliberately, often pausing to revise a word or qualify a phrase or statement. His sentences are frequently punctuated by a staccato burst of laughter.

[Lee Spinks]: Perhaps we might begin, Bob, with your most recent novel. Why did you return in The Puppeteer to the landscape and...

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John Clement Ball (essay date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “Framing the American Abroad: A Comparative Study of Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian and Janet Frame’s The Carpathians,” in Canadian Literature, No. 141, Summer 1994, pp. 38-49.

[In the following essay, Ball discusses similarities in the treatment of colonialism in Gone Indian and Frame's The Carpathians.]

It is the paradox of Columbus’ perceptual moment that it cannot end. The moment of the discovery of America continues. Its reenactment becomes our terrifying test of greatness; we demand to hear again and always the cry into mystery, into an opening. We demand, of the risking eye, new geographies. And the search...

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Laurie Ricou (review date Autumn 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Puppeteer, in Canadian Literature, No. 146, Autumn, 1995, pp. 140-41.

[In the following review, Ricou praises Kroetsch's deft use of language in The Puppeteer.]

Robert Kroetsch’s novels always pause to make you think. They make you think about truth and desire, about who tells story and what language is worth. They often make you stop to marvel at how things happen or why some machine works the way it does. I especially like the way they often force you to re-think everyday things you had never thought deserved thinking about.

The Puppeteer made me pause to ponder pizza. Pizza, I thought, is closer to a...

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Tim Bowling (essay review November 1995)

SOURCE: “A Somewhat Schizophrenic Package: Robert Kroetsch’s Anti-Memoirs,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, No. 8, November, 1995, p. 15.

[In the following review, Bowling finds A Likely Story compelling but ultimately uneven because of Kroetsch's overbearing use of theory.]

The most important point to make about A Likely Story is that it’s not an autobiography, at least not in any conventional sense. In fact, the author himself claims that such a genre is impossible. As a result, the book is entirely free of literary gossip, contains only a minimal amount of personal information, and avoids the axe-grinding that often accompanies writers’...

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Wanda Campbell (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Strange Plantings: Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1996, pp. 17-36.

[In the following essay, Campbell argues that Seed Catalogue depends on an organic structure that evokes meaning from its content.]

My poem Seed Catalogue is about a prairie garden. I actually used the McKenzie Seed Catalogue from McKenzie Seeds in Brandon. This was part of my effort to locate the poem in a particular place and then I expanded the poem outward to whatever other models I wanted—the garden of Eden or whatever—so that I could get all those garden echoes working together. We...

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David Williams (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “Cyberwriting and the Borders of Identity: ‘What's in a Name’ in Kroetsch's The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey?,” in Canadian Literature, No. 149, Summer, 1996, pp. 55-71.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses the notion of self in the post-modern world as it appears in The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey.]

Borders are fast disappearing in the new Europe, along the information highway, and in the mega-channel universe. Hong Kong’s Star Satellite, carrying five television channels to fifty-three countries, has already changed the face of Asia. In India, a new generation openly celebrates the...

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David Creelman (review date Spring 1998)

SOURCE: A review of A Likely Story: The Writing Life, in Canadian Literature, No. 156, Spring, 1998, pp. 145-46.

[In the following review, Creelman praises A Likely Story, although he admits the book contains little new material.]

For decades post-structuralists and cultural historians have been reminding us that the subject/self is an unstable construct of an unstable language, and that the author—if alive at all—is a function of the culture and not an independent creative identity. Yet despite these admonitions, we are still tempted to explore the inner-workings and reflections of the besieged writer. A collection of essays by Robert Kroetsch and...

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