Hugh Garner

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Miriam Waddington

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Hugh Garner has often been praised for his good heart when it is really his good ear and sharp eye that deserve our admiration. It is no use to praise him for his compassion because it is a matter of grace whether a writer has it or not, and a matter of cultural conditioning whether a reader values it or not. But a good ear for dialogue, speech rhythms, and local semantic nuances cannot be brushed aside as easily as mere goodness of heart.

The way a novelist hears words and uses them, has to do with all the complex problems of language, and even of culture. Speech is a form of action, and in the area of dialogue—which is action between characters—Garner stands out among his Canadian contemporaries. (p. 72)

Garner also makes a completely selfconscious and natural use of local place names, brand names and celebrity names. Any Canadian reader will easily recognize, scattered through Garner's pages, his own favourite beer, political party and TV show; he'll even find his most familiar moral dilemmas. And if anyone is still searching for that elusive now-you-have-it-now-you-don't Canadian identity he need search no further. Canada may claim two or more identities, but Garner conveys at least one of them through the conversations, attitudes and secrets of the characters who inhabit his small town. He is also the only writer I know of who has managed to capture what E. K. Brown called the mysterious and obnoxious quality of Toronto, and he certainly catches the furtive suspiciousness of its outlying small towns. (pp. 72-3)

Garner's concern with truth places his work in the realm of social realism. The typicality and representativeness of his characters reinforces this literary position. I am defining realism according to George Lukacs, who suggests that in realist novels, man is portrayed as a social being and not an isolated one, as he appears to the modern existentialist view. Lukacs has pointed out that in the modern naturalist novel, social norms no longer exist, while collective values have been replaced by a myriad of individual ones. In addition, the modern novel more and more denies the existence of objective reality; it has moved the theatre of human action from the outside world to some inner stage. In such a world time cannot exist; there is no past, no history and there can therefore be no future, no hope. There is only the eternal static present in which nothing can change except the individual's states of consciousness.

In realist fiction, however, characters change as a result of their encounters with objective reality. The world acts on them, and dynamically they also act on the world. This happens in A Nice Place to Visit, even though it happens in a very odd and surreptitious way. (pp. 73-4)

Miriam Waddington, "Garner's Good Ear," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 72-5.

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