John Orange

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1400

Hugh Hood's style, including diction, characterization, symbolism, and tone, is very difficult to deal with in a general way. He is a very eclectic stylist and he does not seem to pay much attention to whether or not various techniques are actually suited to each other or mesh together—especially in the first two novels of The New Age. Since, for one thing, he is interested in ways of knowing various dimensions of reality, he incorporates the vocabularies and styles of different approaches to reality…. [The] reader is apt to run into lists of names of places and things which are given for their own sake. Along with this "Eaton's catalogue" style one also finds a journalistic recording of historical events as well as a listing of scientific data and theories, rules of games, features of old automobiles, and opinions on various and sundry local and global problems. On the one hand the diction can be very concrete. On the other hand it can suddenly become very abstract.

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Mixed in with the journalistic prose is the language of metaphysics, when a narrator is in a philosophical frame of mind, and along with everything else one finds the language of "intuitive reason"—poetic imagery, descriptions of almost mystical awareness, symbolism, word play in names of characters, obscure allusions, and connections to past works of art, the Bible, and Greek mythology. This last style comes closer to more conventional techniques in contemporary fiction and Hood can use them all masterfully.

This blending of prose styles has its thematic function …, and when it works it can both exhilarate and instruct the reader. When it does not work, and it often does not, the reader is confused and unsatisfied, as though he has been forced to listen to a radio which keeps rapidly changing stations back and forth across the dial. Just as the reader settles into one posture demanded by the conventions of one style, he is forced to change over to a completely different one. When Hood or his narrators become garrulous they can try the reader's patience to the point of abuse…. [However], Hood has set himself a tremendous task—one which is far too large for one prose style or one set of stylistic conventions. Once the reader catches on to what Hood is trying to do, and accepts his style on its own terms, then it becomes easier to relax with it while at the same time remaining alert for nuances of meaning even, for example, in the middle of what seems to be a rather dull geography lesson!

If the novels often contain a mixture of styles, most of the short stories are univocal and tightly controlled. Hood's prose is more like that of the 1920–1950 generation of prose writers than it is like the more poetic prose of contemporary writers such as Buckler, Leonard Cohen, Atwood, Kroetsch, or Munro. Hood's prose is usually lean and taut and in the short stories it is economical, evenly paced, and very effective for his purposes. He is closer to MacLennan, Garner, Grove, and, particularly, Callaghan than he is to the next generation of writers. As in Callaghan's works, the tone in Hood's short stories is quiet, his humour is usually understated, and metaphors, images, and symbols are usually used only when necessary and are seldom obtrusive. This kind of prose is suited to the kinds of characters and to the daily routine which the stories describe, as well as to their parable quality. Hood's "Flying a Red Kite" …, "Cura Pastoralis," "The Fruit Man, the Meat Man and the Manager," "The Good Tenor Man" …, "Socks," "Boots," and "An Allegory of Man's Fate" …, although they are not imitations of Callaghan, certainly resemble Callaghan's stories in prose style, tone, intention, and form, and they follow from his tradition.

There are other ways in which Hood is unlike the writers around him and these ways have to do with his techniques of characterization. Most modern fiction writers have emphasized the psychological complexities of character and they have used techniques of irony, the theories of psychology and psychiatry, gothic imagery and episodes, stream of consciousness and interior monologue, dreamscapes, and layers of symbols from the unconscious mind to try to probe the human psyche. Hood rarely uses these things in any sustained way. His characters are mostly faceless … and his usual style simply gives us physical dimensions of their persons or a summary word to describe them—"pretty," "old," "wrinkled," "tall," etc.—or simply a name. For at least two reasons, Hood's purposes usually do not require the presentation of psychologically complicated characters. First, he is often writing parables, and parables usually start off "There once was an old lady who had two sons" and that is all we have to know about her for the purposes of the story and its moral. Secondly, Hood tries to get at what he calls "a completely immaterial element" in characters as he says in … A New Athens. This kind of characterization is well suited to the short story form, but it is problematical in full length novels…. [As a solution to this problem, Hood] tries to invent episodes in the character's life which will in a metaphorical or allusive way reveal something about the character's attitudes, development, or the quality of his or her experience. (pp. 122-24)

A related problem is Hood's use of characters who are obviously moral centres of the novels and spokesmen for the author. Their speeches tend to have neon lights around them spelling out "author's message" and the reader begins to feel manipulated…. The danger of using this kind of character is that either he will disintegrate as a believable character when he is being so obviously used or he will come across as a rather condescending stuffed shirt thereby undermining his/her credibility. If they impress us as being just plain dull, then the author's credibility is undermined too. This problem is one which Hood seems to be wrestling with constantly. It is offset usually by narrators or protagonists who are slightly naïve, unsophisticated but sensible and worth accompanying most of the time…. (p. 125)

Allusions to classical mythology are also used as a kind of intellectual overlay and they can become obtrusive…. It is as though an author who is writing moral tales or parables and who is interested in metaphysical issues has no alternative but to include somewhere in the work itself explanations of what the work is about—a technique comparable to the homiletic sections which come after the parables of Jesus.

One further aspect of style which must be considered in any discussion of Hood's place in Canadian fiction is his usual tone. One does not find in Hood's work the finely honed cynicism which one hears in the voices of so many contemporary writers. Nor does one hear the wit, nor sense the multiple layers of irony at work, which we find in so many others. There is no pervasive gloom either. In the short stories, generally, and in the early novels, the tone of the narrator's voice is one of humility and of wonder at how things are in his world; but often it is also a voice of confidence…. Still, Hood is at times witty and often ironical. Parody and irony, for example, are close associates and Hood sometimes likes to use parody in his works…. In the longer works this element of parody often seems to conflict with the dominant tone of the work itself. When an author is shifting to another style inside his work, he usually has to signal the reader somehow that this is happening. Often this is accomplished by a change of tone. Sometimes Hood fails to change the tone and the reader is confused. Are those descriptions of Leofrican topography in You Can't Get There From Here really parodies, as John Moss suggests? Is Jean-Pierre Fauré meant to be taken as an over-bearing prig? How seriously are we to take Matt Goderich? How much sympathy are we supposed to have for Marie-Ange Robinson or Rose Leclair? Evidently Hood is still trying to work this out. It is, perhaps, his trickiest problem. (pp. 125-26)

John Orange, "Lines of Ascent: Hugh Hood's Place in Canadian Fiction," in Before the Flood: Hugh Hood's Work in Progress, edited by J. R. (Tim) Struthers (copyright © Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd., 1979), ECW Press, 1979, pp. 113-30.

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