W. J. Keith

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151

If sensitivity is the hallmark of the artist, one wonders how he can be anything but an outsider in a crassly insensitive age.

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In this new volume of interrelated short stories [None Genuine Without This Signature], Hood offers a clue in the first narrative, "God Has Manifested Himself Unto Us As Canadian Tire" (a bold title—what story could live up to it?—but this one does). Here we are confronted by A. O. and Dreamy, who seem at first sight bitterly satiric creations crudely symbolizing a consumer society run riot. Hood saturates his prose with the rhythms and slogans of advertising. The couple are surrounded by the latest buys …; their culture consists of reading about the next sale …; Dreamy is physically enveloped by bargains…. But by the end of the story they are revealed as a pathetically unfulfilled pair, babes in a commercialized artificial-bonsai wood, only half convinced that they must be happy since they have everything, aware of a lack but unable to name it. For careful readers, however, the pathos of a self-imposed barrenness is intimated as early as the first paragraph: "Baby Car Seat by Travl-Gard conforming to all government safety needs. We'll never need one of those." Our ultimate response is complex. Contempt is no longer possible, but we are not allowed to relinquish the responsibility of judgment. An achieved insight beyond the reach of direct statement: such is the capacity of Hood's art. (p. 27)

In prose fiction, perhaps only Margaret Atwood can rival Hood in his presentation of the modern city (and I should make clear that Hood writes in this collection about New York, the West Indies, rural Ontario and "Sweet Cream, Manitoba" as well as Toronto and Montreal). I experience the same piercing insight into otherwise unknown lives in Atwood, but neither the range of character nor the sense of full compassionate understanding. In poetry, Raymond Souster can cajole or bully me into looking at Torontonians in a new way—but the effect is only temporary. In Hood alone I find a palpable extension of my sympathies and awareness. And this is achieved partly through the technical sophistication of his art (but Atwood has that), partly through an assured and tested religious and moral position. Hood begins with a faith that the world—even megalopolis—can be redeemed.

He has recently described himself as "through and through a Catholic novelist." Although fundamentally true, this has the unfortunate effect, for those without a religious commitment, of suggesting pious sentiments, limited subject-matter and sugared pills. On the contrary he offers a joyous acceptance, a healthily positive response to the things of this world, and above all a considered, anything-but-cloistered confidence…. Hood is, I suppose, Canada's most learned, most intellectual novelist. His philosophical credo, as offered in a recent interview, is as follows: "I think Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are co-extensive and that they stem from the Divine Being, and I think all created being, insofar as it is being, is good and beautiful." Which leads in turn to an artistic stance: "I think of art without Hope as inoperative art. It won't work." A refreshing change from "All's shit"—and far more firmly based.

From this religious foundation, it is only a short step to the idea of literature as "a secular analogy of Scripture"—Hood's sole point of agreement with Northrop Frye. But once again this sounds too solemn, too pretentious, for Hood's own practice. Comparisons with Dante, which Hood has made himself …, may be intellectually comprehensible but give the wrong impression. Ultimately, Hood is Hood and no one else. His viewpoint allows him to see the sacred in the profane, to turn even casual expletives back to the religious meanings which they originally defied. Set within his achieved context, religious allusions in ordinary speech regain their pristine impact…. Hood never insists on his allegorical or emblematic meanings. They are available in his fiction because he recognizes them as available also in the reality out of which his stories emerge….

The stories become increasingly intricate as the book proceeds. Inter-relations are frequent. In the name-story (it is typical of Hood that the actual human signature in the narrative should be a fake), an advertising campaign is initiated, and we are—or should be—reminded of the language of the opening tale. Three stories involve song-writers or singers, Hood's artistic equivalent in this collection to the painters in his earlier work. A "SOCIAL WORKER for God's sake" appears briefly in the first story; in "Gone Three Days" the phrase takes on a literal meaning. The narrator of the final story, "Doubles," eschews the solemnity of Mann's The Magic Mountain and explores his own "magic plain"—the terrain we come to recognize as the "strange geography" of all the stories here—and, indeed, of all Hood's work.

Hood's final distinction, in my view, is one that his critics have often denied him: he has extended the boundaries of fiction. Ironically, because he is seldom conspicuously innovative in technique, his firm artistic control is always in danger of passing unnoticed. One can read a long way in The Camera Always Lies, for instance, before the larger meaning beyond the Hollywood routines becomes manifest. Yet so multifarious are his interests that, in his more recent work, the normal limits of narrative form, whether in novel or short story, are inadequate to contain his vision. History, philosophy, politics, sociology, art theory—these and many others are grist to his mill, and he refuses to confine fiction to the traditional elements of plot and characterization. Often (and the numerous allusions to and quotations from Wordsworth are relevant here) he employs an essentially poetic form, as in A New Athens—which I believe to be his masterpiece to date—where the incidents are unified by image and emblem rather than by narrative succession. He has described himself as "probably not a novelist but another kind of fiction writer," and he is doubtless referring to an encyclopedic form that remains as yet unnamed. But if he isn't a novelist, he certainly isn't a short story writer either, since, here as elsewhere, his stories lose much by being extracted and belong not only to the volume as a whole but even to the order within the volume. (p. 28)

None Genuine Without This Signature offers what we have now come to expect from Hood—precision of detail, delicacy of nuance, firmness of (albeit inconspicuous) structure, a smooth felicity of language, and warmly human compassion. It is a worthy successor to the writing that so many of us have come to read in the last few years with ever-increasing admiration. The ramifications of the title are complex, but on one level the reference is to the writer and his work. Hood's signature here is undoubtedly genuine. (p. 29)

W. J. Keith, "The Case for Hugh Hood," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LX, No. 703, October, 1980, pp. 27-9.

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