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 of autobiography. The first of these is the problem of form. The stories are divided into three groups. "The Montreal Stories", "The Keeler Stories", "The Thibidault Stories", each featuring a different central character. Yet the presentation of these stories as a collection, the similarities—despite the differences—between their heroes, the unifying impression that the sum of these stories depicts "a North American education" of one man, the writer who stands behind these various characters, all this implies an overall unity that is elusively not quite there. Together the stories achieve an impact that they would lack separately, but at the same time the inconsistencies between them, their shifting protagonists, are distracting. It makes the reader wish that the work had been revised so that it would come together as a whole.
My other, perhaps less important, objection is that the author-reader intimacy this book achieves is sometimes with an author who does not like himself very much—with the consequence that we are perhaps less desirous of the intimacy than aware of having it forced upon us. At its least unpleasant (though still somewhat grating) this comes across as the self-pitying tone of the Thibidault stories, but at its most mannered—in the priggishness of the narrator in the opening story who masks his insecurity behind an aura of self-love—or at its most intense—in the self-loathing that runs through all of "Extractions and Contractions"—it makes for a strained, rather schizoid, relationship between the reader and the teller of the tale.
But these are small reservations, and A North American Education is a work worth reading for its sharply drawn portrait of a man adrift between three cultures: the United States, English Canada, French Canada. The book is full of the knowledge gained by individuals enrolled in Blaise's North American classrooms, of the kind of hard lessons that must be mastered by the small boy of the final story, a young French-Canadian growing up in Florida: "that whatever the comforting vision before him … something dreadful could suddenly cut him down without warning"; "that nothing secret and remote was ever lost in the world, was ever perfectly private." Or, catching a strange and monstrous fish of some sort and having it mysteriously devoured before he can bring anyone to see it, the sense that "the fish at his feet or whatever it had been, had seen the worst thing in the world, whatever that was. The boy knew now that both things existed, the unnameable fish and the thing that had eaten it, and knowing that, he felt he had seen the worst thing too."
This is the essence of Blaise's method. The innocence of a small boy fishing, an idyll that turns suddenly sinister—for the catch is never the expected bream nor the longed-for perch; instead dredged up from the depths are those submerged moments of memory when the world was stripped of its illusions and … seen without those confidence-inspiring appearances we have all been taught to seek. In one of the work's epigraphs Blaise quotes Sartre on the way that memory condenses "into a single mythic moment the contingencies and perpetual re-beginnings of an individual human history." This is a part of Blaise's method surely, but the rest is to choose a certain kind of moment even among these, what he has described as the incident which contains "the hint of unfathomable complexity, the insolent infinity that defeats our humanity". Or as the narrator at the end of "Words for Winter" says, "I who live in dreams have suffered something real, and reality hurts like nothing else in this world." (pp. 115-16)
Russell M. Brown, "The Insolent Infinity" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 58, Autumn, 1973, pp. 114-16.