Clark Blaise Essay - Critical Essays

Blaise, Clark


Clark Blaise 1940–

American-born Canadian short story writer and novelist.

Blaise's fiction is strongly autobiographical and is influenced by the fact that he is a product of several cultures. Born in the United States of a French-Canadian father and a Manitoban mother, Blaise spent his childhood in many parts of the American South and Midwest. He settled in Canada in 1966 and in 1973 became a Canadian citizen. Blaise's rootlessness is apparent in the feelings of alienation and loneliness which permeate his fiction; he understands the problem of being part of several cultures yet belonging to none.

Blaise's first collection of short fiction, A North American Education (1973), is divided into three sections, each with a different narrator and containing stories based on different stages of Blaise's life. The stories are told in the first person, and a common voice narrates them, although Blaise gives him three different names. In the first stories of A North American Education, the narrator is a young man, settled in Montreal but not yet comfortable with his surroundings. The final third of the book, set in Florida, is narrated by the same character as a child and reveals the origins of the narrator's feelings of cultural displacement. The child moves frequently with his parents and is an outcast wherever he goes. The book is filled with horrifying images and situations, including emotional and physical childhood injuries, adolescent sexual frustrations, and adult homes corrupted by voyeurs and cockroaches. Tribal Justice (1974), Blaise's next collection of short fiction, is similar to A North American Education in its use of a single narrative voice and in its emphasis on the protagonist's cultural confusion. In this book Blaise is also concerned with the "tribal" rituals which characterize North America as a whole and which differentiate the various geographical, ethnic, and religious groups within it.

The themes and techniques of Blaise's fiction collections recur in his first novel, Lunar Attractions (1979). Blaise uses a single character, instead of many characters with one voice, and tells one story instead of several related ones. Still, critics note that Lunar Attractions is quite episodic for a novel and thus very similar to his earlier work. Some also contend that Blaise's strict attention to detail detracts from the cohesiveness of the narrative. Blaise's recent novel Lusts (1983) is his least autobiographical work to date. Although the "I" of the story shares some qualities with Blaise's previous protagonists, this tale of a novelist's marriage to a brilliant, suicidal poet is not based on Blaise's life. However, both the protagonist and his wife are plagued by the sense of displacement, of not belonging, which is present throughout Blaise's work.

Blaise has earned almost unanimous approval from critics. He is praised for his ability to create meaningful, often shocking or horrific scenes using only the materials of everyday life. Through careful selection of image and detail from his own experiences, Blaise has created "slices of life" of universal impact.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5.)

Russell M. Brown

[A North American Education, a] collection of Clark Blaise's fiction, is most impressive, if at times not fully satisfying. Both these facts arise from the use Blaise makes of an autobiographical voice, the ability, which is his particular talent, of creating the illusion that the reader is the confidant of an author relating anecdotes of an intimate and revealing nature. This sense that one is dealing with autobiographical fiction is unavoidable; it comes from the feel of the stories, it is insisted upon on the dust jacket, it is mused upon by one of Blaise's narrators:

I used to write miniature novels, vividly imagined, set anywhere my imagination moved me. Then something slipped. I started writing of myself and these vivid moments in a confusing flux.

Within his stories Blaise's protagonists experience just such moments in just such flux, and their experiences are shared by the reader as well with striking immediacy. Blaise has elsewhere disavowed the short story as shaped by Joyce and Hemingway, but his stories are still more traditional than experimental in form—and their conclusions frequently have the appearance of Joycean epiphanies. However, rereading shows these to be pseudo-epiphanies which serve not to reveal something, but to lead the reader back into the depths of the story, leaving him to reflect on the experience more than to understand it. Thus in "Eyes", the shortest but perhaps the best story of the collection, the conclusion functions not as resolution but as emblem, encapsulating the emotional mood of the story (indeed of the book), one of alienation, dislocation—a mood the story creates not through straight-forward narrative, but through careful juxtaposition of not obviously related incidents.

It is in the creation of these small incidents of dramatic impact that Blaise shows his skill, finding them in the most mundane events and structuring his narrative around them…. [Blaise's writing tends] to focus on the trivial stuff of quotidian life, with the inherent danger that goes with such focus—that of creating minimal art, of working one remove from the journal. But the stories are consistently made artful by their author's knack of imparting or implying significance in the events that he chronicles…. (p. 114)

The dissatisfaction I feel in reading this book centres around two problems created by the use...

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Don Gutteridge

Like A North American Education, Clark Blaise's second collection of stories [Tribal Justice] invites a thematic reading. It is about tribes and tribalism—Southerners, Jews, Negroes, Crackers, Quebecers, and assorted other characters caught somewhere between the recognized social groups—dominate these fine stories. But they are concerned as well with the general failure of justice in modern life. Not political justice, though that is dealt with more directly here than in the previous book, so much as the failure of simple human compassion in the most distressing circumstances, the mindless hatred generated by the 'necessary' defensiveness of tribes, beleaguered groups, desperate families, and their pathetic failure to love even themselves.

Within this environment—the contemporary worlds of Florida, Alabama, Quebec, and their recent, still vivid past (Blaise evokes the thirties and forties with great assurance)—the author sets his first-person narrators the task of learning and surviving. The best stories, ironically, are those which do not explicitly deal with the tribal justice motif: "Broward Dowdy", "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster", "Relief" and "I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard". Here are splendid rites of passage, moments of painful insight, and genuine psychological initiation And there is real feeling, too, an emotional engagement with not only the narrator's dilemma but the other characters and the...

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Norman Levine

[In A North American Education and Tribal Justice] Blaise looks at his American upbringing knowing that he is French Canadian from Quebec. And when he makes use of his Canadian material it is with the detachment of having lived for much of his life as an American.

He calls his pieces "short fiction"—an accurate description. For they are not short stories in the accepted sense. What he is able to do is to trap pockets of sheer messy life. In the novella-length "The March", in Tribal Justice, it is not the opening and the final sections (about American university students who end up marching on Washington for a civil rights demonstration) that are important. They are there to shape the direction of the story. But it is the middle—the bridge section—where the narrator goes to Quebec City for a short while and gets involved with some young French Canadian separatists, ending with a picnic in the Laurentians—that is unforgettable. Several of his pieces work in the same way….

[Blaise is one of] a growing number of young [Canadian] short-story writers whose main concern is to show what it is like to be alive at a certain time, in a certain place, without making a "story" about it. Against this background, the form taken by Clark Blaise's "short fiction" can be better understood.

Of his two books, A North American Education is the more unified. He goes from the present...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Don Coles

[Days and Nights in Calcutta is] an extraordinarily rich and complex investigation by the Montreal-based writers Blaise and Mukherjee, of the meaning to each of them, individually, and to their marriage, of the hitherto largely-ignored Bengali presence in their linked lives…. (p. 38)

The Montrealers start with an enormous advantage here, and, not to hedge, it's an advantage they make the most of and never lose. Its basis is Mukherjee's early life in Calcutta, the endless relatives and friends they spend their time with there, and her husband's moving awareness of previous complacencies on his part ("But what have you given up? Is it worth it?," he recalls Bengali visitors asking his wife in...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

John Yohalem

Clark Blaise's first novel ["Lunar Attractions"] covers some familiar ground both for him and for us…. [The] growing-up of a precociously observant, highly imaginative narrator in the South (or anywhere else) is tried and true, as is the alienation felt by such a character. But the ploy is not worn out, and Mr. Blaise does some original things with it.

David Greenwood, son of a French Canadian traveling salesman and a German-educated Englishwoman, identifies with the aliens in the science fiction that floods the radio and television of the 1940's and 50's. He's a natural outsider, plump and unhealthy, asthmatic and intellectual, growing up pensive in swampy central Florida. Real life is sordid, but...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Anthony S. Brennan

Clark Blaise gives us in Lunar Attractions what almost amounts to an anthropological study of the initiation rites that an American boy, David Greenwood, passes through in the 1940's and 1950's. The boy elaborates, in a childhood in Florida and an adolescence in a northern city named Palestra, a magical world of myth, ritual, and totemic significance that seems as strange and exotic as that of a primitive tribesman in New Guinea…. The book moves the hero along steadily through experiences which close down chapters of innocence. There are lovingly detailed accounts of the arcane lore of Triple A baseball, stamp collecting, museum haunting, archaeology, and the secret thrills to be experienced in burlesque...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Russell M. Brown

[For] the three characters who unify [A North American Education,] borders are … elusive things: they are hard to locate precisely, much less to cross. Blaise's characters are … eager to move onto new ground, but the passages are [hard] for them, the dividing lines … terrifyingly divisive, and the outcome unlooked-for disaster. Blaise's protagonists turn out to be "North American" men because in moving from America to Canada, they have come to exist on both sides of a border—they are not given definition and identity by either nation. One might say that Blaise's characters are, ultimately, not so much crossers of, as men who are themselves crossed by borders. The dislocation, displacement,...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

Robert Lecker

How does a Clark Blaise story feel? The tactile emphasis is crucial. Blaise's characters are inseparable from the things they touch—gooey, sticky, dirty, infested things that "ooze" through swamps, broken buildings, jungles. But if we read only for sensation (consider: "his brains are coming out of his mouth") or only for repugnant shock ("the hiss of a million maggots") the rawness metaphor seeps by us. (p. 26)

If you ask someone what they think a Clark Blaise story is about, their first answer will probably not be: rawness. Critics have stressed the extraordinary sensitivity of Blaise's characters to "dilemmas caused by conflicting cultures,"… their articulate response to particular...

(The entire section is 2647 words.)

Mark Abley

The main characters in Lusts, including [Richard Durgin, widower of poet Rachel Isaacs,] a Chinese-American professor who is writing Isaacs' biography and an American-Indian librarian who marries Durgin on his way downhill, are all unable to belong. Blaise, who attended 25 schools across North America before Grade 9, has turned his highly personal sense of displacement into a graphic metaphor for the experience of modern life in North America.

The novel does have irritating faults. Blaise is careless about chronology and he occasionally lets lively material run on too long. By contrast, he treats a few important characters, notably Jack Toomey, Isaacs' lover in her final year, far too...

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"I am writing a biography of Rachel's life, incorporating your autobiography and a little of my own—and together we might be writing a novel." So wrote Rosie Chang of the Department of English at Berkeley to Richard Durgin, novelist and former husband of the celebrated and deceased poet, Rachel Isaacs. Replying from Faridpur, Rajasthan, in India, Durgin, no longer writing and now operating a cabinetmaking business for diplomats in New Delhi, is intrigued, but not necessarily impressed: his sensitivity and cynicism co-exist in his Rimbaudlike exile, firing his recollections and quenching his literary ambitions. "I'm glad you think we may have a novel here," he writes. "I confess I no longer know what a novel is."...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)