Robert Lecker

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2647

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)

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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 "kinds of exile,"… and their involvement with texture, voice, and "a creative ordering of events."… All of these descriptions are accurate. But the Blaise narrator is also defined by his tragic view of the social order, by the "sudden tragic nosedive" which disorients him and marks his plunge into a morass where spiritual and aesthetic values have been corroded or debased. No celebrations of life here ("I am death driven"); no celebrations of human purpose ("Nothing principled, nothing heroic, nothing even defiant"). Blaise's voice holds the tone of mourning: "Many things are gone for good"; "I who live in dreams have suffered something real"; "I felt a pity for us all that I had never felt before." The stories—elegies—return again and again to life tragically "crumbling into foolishness" and "darkest despair."

The striking feature of these lamentations? Their self-consciousness, Blaise's narrators are never content to live in their stories; they feel compelled to step back and suffer their commitment to these tales of pain, loss, failure. Still, they know that they are committed and want desperately for us to know that they know. They say listen: I will show you the face of loneliness in all its grieving detail, then I will tell you what you have seen. In another writer's hands this stance would have destroyed the integrity of the fiction by forcing the meaning into melodrama. But Blaise succeeds because he shows that self-conscious human intelligence does battle, is threatened at every turn. For Blaise's narrators, the ability to comment on art is an imaginative act achieved with great difficulty. To recognize the difficulty, remember the raw: primitive awareness ambushes Art; hurricanes blow away schools; bugs crawl out of rugs; homelessness assaults the meaning of maps, directions, roadways to the known; the inexplicable force of nature confronts the need for pattern, coherence, form. When we call the-world-made-into-Art "cooked" (completing the quasi-reference to Levi-Strauss) the consuming paradox of Blaise's fiction stands out more. The raw has to be cooked to be understood; but no sooner is experience digested than it is seen as debased because it has been digested. This raw/cooked tension informs many of Blaise's best stories. Reason tries to explain the inexplicable; the historian tries to order time which denies order; the educated imagination learns that man is a beast; the rooted teacher thinks about his rootlessness and finds that he is lost. Here we have the ironies stated in their broadest terms—terms which are uniquely permutated in the stories comprising Blaise's two books of short fiction, A North American Education and Tribal Justice. (pp. 26-8)

Frankie Thibidault of the [last section of A North American Education is] … a wanderer whose father (in the title story of the collection) pointedly articulates the two fundamental questions that Blaise returns to again and again: "You want books all the time? You want to read about it, or do you want to see it?"

Regardless of how they "want" It, Blaise's characters end up getting It both ways. They are educated to life through the books which prompt them to believe that experience can be explained, and observed; but what they see defies learning, assaults sensibility with the hard "facts of life," as Princess Hi-Yalla in "A North American Education" makes clear. Education, as it turns out, means initiation into the body as well as the book. It means finding out about the physical as well as the abstract. The problem Blaise's characters face is that the reality they so painfully uncover destroys their inherent faith in the dignity of man and his creations. Without that dignity, why go on? One of the reasons people like Norman Dyer and Paul Keeler can't stop moving is that they are perpetually in search of an affirmation which can no longer be found. (p. 28)

To examine the nature of perception is to view the "I" and all its positions in "this world you have made for yourself." But a story called "Eyes" that is narrated in the second person carries with it other questions, other implications that cannot be framed solely in terms of the narrator's awareness. "You" is clearly the reader as well as Norman Dyer. The relationship Blaise concentrates on is involved with reader/writer meetings. Reader as voyeur. Author as exhibitionist. The tantalizing movement of revealed and unrevealed. Things happening behind the blind. Narrative gesture transformed into erotic narrative performance. The window, frame, stage. Connections echoing enough to direct us to the fact that "Eyes" is emphatically about Art and the forms of vision it engenders. Watch Norman act out the role of artist as voyeur, moving from window to window in search of the most gratifying stance: "You move again," "you move," "you start to think of moving," "you're wandering happily, glad that you moved." The windows, of course, are implied, but are nevertheless very real. (pp. 31-2)

[In A North American Education, the Blaise character says,] "Something infinitely small but infinitely complicated has happened to our lives, and I don't know how to present it—in its smallness, in its complication—without breaking down." That's a crucial sentence because it isolates the paradoxical impulse behind Clark Blaise's fiction. On one hand, tragic recognition of change; on the other, recognition that the nature of change can never be precisely articulated. The inevitability of imprecision makes art seem a futile means of dealing with the tragedy it isolates. When they confront this futility, Blaise's characters don't give up; strangely enough, they make art through their destruction of all they once thought Art meant. (p. 33)

In one way or another, all the stories in [the second] section of A North American Education are concerned with the effects of being locked in—to a building, to a fashion, to the doubts produced by knowledge, to a conception of existence which says: look, things are ugly and you will be framed by these things forever. Or, as Keeler says in "Extractions and Contractions," "everything will yield to roaches." (p. 34)

By the end of "Continent of Strangers,"… we're ready for a change, want more of Blaise's sensuous style, more of the appalling contrast between acute perception of, and pathetic surrender to, a raw, exquisitely present landscape. "The Thibidault Stories" focus on this contrast as it affects Frankie Thibidault, who is seen as young boy, growing boy, fat boy, and adolescent moving from place to place over the years. Like Norman Dyer in "The Montreal Stories," Frankie is a perpetual traveller over borders, the sensitive observer who wants to be "creating the world afresh with his own pronunciations of impossible names." What is it, Frankie wonders, "What calamity made me a reader of back issues, defunct Atlases, and foreign grammars?" It was all the movement, "The loss, the loss," the "tragic nosedive" which, after so much defeat, made him "stumble back to Montreal a middle-class American from a broken home, after years of pointless suffering had promised so much."… The stories in this section link [Frankie's] coming of age with the recognition of human failure and deceit, with an increasingly painful awakening to the fact that he is alone and always will be.

Yet it would be a mistake to treat such fictions as "The Bridge" or "The Salesman's Son Grows Older" in terms of conventional rites de passage patterns, for Blaise is primarily concerned with isolating the discrete instants of awareness which, in retrospect, give the maturation process meaning and form. (pp. 38-9)

How survive? By inventing the world anew. By retreating into art. Frankie's vision of the world he can make by mind is his only defence against the primaeval painting at the doorstep, the frightening thing outside. On the one hand raw, "shredded" nature; on the other, built-up art. Disarray outside; order within. The dichotomies may seem blatant, but they take on more intricate meaning when we realize that the Blaise character is never satisfied to let his ordered creation rest. No sooner has he made the world than he feels compelled to break it down so that he can have a reason to build it up again. The tension between apocalypse and generation, holocaust and birth, obliteration and identity. (p. 45)

"Snow People" appears as a collection of random incidents picked from a life which is random. Yet these stages in Frankie's life, displaced as they are, tell us much about the character of Clark Blaise's own tragic vision. Take the opening scene. By the end of the first sentence Frankie has been hit ("his nose smelling bone and all his side-vision gone"). By the end of the first paragraph he is remembering a brush with death. By the end of the first page a tone has been set: the story will gravitate to violence, lifelessness, and Blaise's sense of betrayal ("George Stewart had saved his life" … "now it was George … who had somehow killed him") There is, of course, the Blaise counterforce to all this loss: Frankie's ability to stand back, even as he "pitched to one side," and consider his injury with rational savoir-faire. There he is vomiting, yet pausing to note "the yellow carton of Serutan on the toilet ledge" which "assured him that he was home" (only Clark Blaise would have caught this telling detail—the carton imprinted with "Natures" in anagram); pausing to choose toilet paper over towels because "Blood, his mother always said, left a permanent stain." And in the midst of all this "sweating and shivering," what does Frankie worry about? "He wondered if the blow on the head had made him a moron." Then he thinks of dying. The connection between stupidity and death is important: for Frankie, intelligence is life. But his tragic error is to assume that others share his view. So in the next episode Frankie is assaulted again because he has been stupid enough to let others know how smart he is. He had the nerve to be "an almost perfect reader who had polished off the year's book on the first night of classes," he was the odd one who "knew the capitals, all the capitals, and he knew the birds and fish of Florida." Still, there is one Blaise lesson he has vet to learn: his intelligence will always isolate him and make him a social outcast. And that is perhaps the fundamental paradox at the heart of all Blaise tragedies: to have education, sensitivity, and awareness is to experience pain, loneliness, and rejection. It shouldn't be that way. Always there is this sense of astonishment when the Blaise character realizes that his literacy has made him unhappy, this sense of frustration at the suspicion that perhaps ignorance is bliss. (pp. 45-6)

It is true that A North American Education traces sexual and social processes of initiation, but most of all it draws us into an aesthetic awakening. In one way or another all of Blaise's characters are marked by perceptual scars, lacerations made by the language they have condemned themselves to use. The narrators in Tribal Justice are also straining their eyes, not only by reading, but also by staring so intensely at their relationship to time and place. Again we find an emphasis on individual movement, rootlessness, the wanderer as hero, but the meaning of transience has become more personal. The stories in Tribal Justice's three parts are narrated by deeply self-conscious men who make fictions about their self-consciousness. Although the narrators have different backgrounds and different names, their combined voices give the volume a rough sense of chronological structure in that the stories trace experiences progressing from youth to age. To concentrate on this progression, however, is to force upon the book precisely the temporal and spatial order which its narrators cannot find. Like the aborted structure of Tribal Justice, their lives are ultimately disconnected, yet they do all they can to convince themselves that some progression is there. The great deception afflicting Blaise's narrators is the belief that time and space can be controlled through art. But the movement in Blaise's stories is a metaphor of movement without centre. All the attempts to recollect, to put the past in perspective, imply that the world has lost touch with its origins, and Blaise wonders: how can society know itself without knowing its history? How can you figure out where you are if you don't know where you've been?

Some will say that these are old, old questions, and Blaise, I think, would agree, might even say that they are the only questions worth addressing again and again. A Clark Blaise story is always marked by the presence of a narrator who, in one way or another, is trying to enter history and understand how it has affected him. And the consistent conflict is this: the narrator who thirsts for continuum knows that he will never have it; the narrator who wants continuity and the world will have to be satisfied with a motel room, a trailer, a car. What do you do when you can't recapture worlds, generations, histories of the tribe? You resort to metaphor and see the universe in what's at hand. So the tribe in the book's title does not only mean family and heritage; it refers to all societies and the rituals which make them cohere and incohere. In Tribal Justice, Blaise concentrates again on the North-American tribe and on the primitive impulses directing a society which thinks that it lives by reasonable rules called "justice," when in fact "justice" means retribution or irrational attack. The irony is obvious: the tribe is contemporary life; its justice is the crime it perpetrates by alienating those who are different, by displacing those who evade the fortress of communal identity. And who are "those"? Clark Blaise's French Canadians, blacks, Jews. Clark Blaise's narrators, who all sense that what everybody calls civilized is actually crude and primitive. Clark Blaise's outcasts, who cook experience (make it just so) while everybody else is scavenging for animal shreds (hungry, ready to eat anything, no matter how it comes).

Tribal Justice yokes two warring worlds: one world holds within it swamps, alligators, hurricanes, crudity, poverty, filth, aggression; the other tries to hold within it history, golden cities, timeless patterns, essence of things, the conviction that man can civilize the tribe and record its unspoken rules. (pp. 48-9)

You can look back over Clark Blaise's short fiction and read your way out of the maze. You can say, here are the dichotomies which form the mural's gut. And you can begin chopping at the stories until you get beneath the mask to see the livid, pensive face. But when you get that far the fiction turns and walks away, mocks the stupid assumption that its ambivalent ethos will yield a single truth, a single stance that can be called Clark Blaise. He's there, but he ghosts by in abstraction, shadings, philosophical nuance. You track him in his darkness, trying to find the lair, and you find it, but it's empty. So you walk down the trail and begin to wonder: how does a Clark Blaise story really feel? (p. 66)

Robert Lecker, "Murals Deep in Nature: The Short Fiction of Clark Blaise," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), No. 23, Spring, 1982, pp. 26-67.

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