Robert Kroetsch

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Geert Lernout (review date March 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature, in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXV, No. 755, March, 1986, p. 38.

[In the following review, Lernout praises the essays in Gaining Ground.]

As the title of this book indicates, Canadian literature is slowly becoming recognized in Europe. But one of the editors, Reingard Nischik, warns against a too facile optimism. In her article on the history of European interest in CanLit, Nischik quite rightly points out that Canadians seem to lack a clear picture of what is really going on in Europe. In less than 30 pages she gives an account of the CanLit scene in 18 European countries and adds an admirably complete bibliography of European studies on Canadian Literature.

What emerges first in the article is that there has been European interest in Canada for only the past 10 years. This is hardly surprising. Ten years ago, when I was a sophomore in Antwerp, I was told that because America does not have a history it cannot have a literature. The people in power—European universities used to be a lot less democratic than North-American ones—stuck to Shakespeare, Milton and (maybe) a few romantics. Modern British literature is written by civilized Englishmen (preferably Oxbridge graduates) about civilized Englishmen. Usually only one person, a specialist in Shakespeare’s minor contemporaries who speaks an almost obsolete English, decides what will be taught, on what his students will write their dissertations and who will get the tenure-track jobs. It does not pay to specialize in Canadian literature, especially not if you’re interested in both Canadian literatures. That this situation is slowly changing is a result of the decentralization of the '70s, which saw the emergence of new and experimental universities and effective cultural policies on the part of Canadian embassies.

The critical essays in this volume testify to the seriousness of European critics. All of these essays could have been published in the best Canadian journals; they are all very well researched, take into account the latest criticism and show an acute awareness of critical theory that is sometimes lacking in similar Canadian work. Simone Vauthier’s essay on The Wars refers to Genette’s work on narratology. Pierre Spriet’s to Ruwet, Riffaterre and Chatman and there is even an essay by one of the foremost European narratologists, Franz K. Stanzel.

Only two essays discuss Québecois writers, an emphasis that partly reflects the marginal situation of minor francophone literatures in Europe but is surely aggravated by the fact that the vast majority of these critics comes from Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Another striking emphasis in this volume is the result of the relative novelty of CanLit in Europe: all but three essays discuss works of writers who are still active today and more than half deal with post-modern novels. There could be various reasons for this. Maybe the post-modernists travel to Europe more often (the idea for the book came to Kroetsch and Nischik over a Kölsch in the shadow of the Cologne cathedral); maybe Walter Pache is right when he states in his essay that whereas Canadian modernists anticipated a national identity by defining national themes, Canadian postmodernists “adopt themes freely from international sources and adapt them to domestic uses.” Today, the creative act itself becomes a productive force in the creation of a national identity. If this were true, Europeans would be more interested in the “domestic use” of international themes than in Canadian themes. I don’t think we are; the attraction of Kroetsch’s prairie novels, of Hodgins’s Vancouver Island stories and of Rudy Wiebe’s work lies in the themes and...

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in the settings, in the wildness and wonder of people and landscape.

In the most interesting essay in this collection, Eva-Marie Kröller writes a fascinating account of 19th-century Canadians visiting the Rhine valley. This is not just literary criticism, it is much more: Kröller moves from comparisons between the Drachenfels and Cape Diamond to Canadian reactions to the Franco-Prussian war, the influence of the Nazarene concept of art on Québecois frescoes and finally to the ironic treatment of German romanticism in Gallant’s The Peignitz Junction, Laurence’s The Stone Angel and Paul Hiebert’s Sarah Binks.

What I missed in Gaining Ground is a discussion of works by and about Canada’s immigrants, who are of course also emigrants from somewhere. Such a project could not be confined to high literary texts; it would have to include “pulp,” oral tales, diaries and travel literature, not necessarily in English or French. German, Portuguese, Dutch and Italian stories of emigration are as much a part of the Canadian heritage as West-Indian, Chinese and Japanese ones. It is here that European critics could make a worthwhile contribution. But this is merely an idea for a second volume, not a critique of this excellent collection of essays.


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Robert Kroetsch 1927-

Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Kroetsch's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 23, and 57.

Kroetsch is considered one of Canada's foremost practitioners and theoreticians of postmodern literature. Like many experimental writers, Kroetsch subverts such literary conventions as plot and character development and writes in a playful, ironic, and self-reflexive style. Central to Kroetsch's fiction is the importance of place and its impact on the psyche. He is particularly admired for his depictions of the Canadian prairie landscape.

Biographical Information

Kroetsch was born in Heisler, Alberta, Canada, and raised on his family's farm. His childhood in rural Alberta, where most of his fiction is set, informs both his fiction and his poetry. His family's penchant for storytelling imbued Kroetsch with a deep appreciation for oral narrative, which often emerges in his writing in the form of tall tales and ribald humor. After graduating from the University of Alberta in 1948, Kroetsch worked for six years in the Canadian North. His initial jobs on riverboats on the Mackenzie River led to the conception of his first and most conventional novel, But We Are Exiles (1966). In 1961 Kroetsch received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and he worked as a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton from 1961 to 1978. In 1978 Kroetsch accepted a professorship at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He has won several awards for his fiction and was co-founder and editor of the postmodern literary journal Boundary 2.

Major Works

Kroetsch's novels The Words of My Roaring (1966), The Studhorse Man (1970), and Gone Indian (1973) comprise what he calls the “Out West” triptych. In these works, Kroetsch explores the myths surrounding the Canadian prairie while also incorporating Greek and Roman mythic structures and recording momentous social changes from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Words of My Roaring also chronicles political upheavals in Depression-era Alberta. Kroetsch's next novel, Badlands (1975), revolves around a 1916 paleontological expedition in Alberta led by William Dawes, who is obsessed with finding large dinosaur fossils in hopes of achieving renown in the science world. In What the Crow Said (1978) Kroetsch uses magical realism to explore gender differences in Big Indian, Alberta. Alibi (1983) reiterates his interest in the quest myth and the rejuvenating power of water. William Dorfendorf, who procures objects for a mysterious oilman and collector, is sent on a worldwide search for the “perfect spa.” Through his quest, Dorfendorf comes to understand the fundamental dichotomies of body and soul, sex and death, and art and life. The Puppeteer (1995) is a postmodern detective story in which Kroetsch almost entirely abandons conventional storytelling techniques, settling instead on an experimental form in which he lifts and rearranges scenes and characters from previous works. In 1998 Kroetsch published The Man from the Creeks, a novel about the gold rush in the American and Canadian West in the 1890s. Several themes in Kroetsch's fiction recur throughout his poetry. In his early verse, collected in The Stone Hammer Poems (1975), Kroetsch depicts prairie life in an imagistic, unaffected manner. Much of his subsequent poetry displays an irreverence toward language in order to expand its limits. Since 1975, Kroetsch has been composing an extended long poem-in-progress entitled “Field Notes.” A collage of memories, anecdotes, documents, and tall tales reflecting his preoccupation with the difficulties of literary expression, persona, and the burden of traditional poetic forms, “Field Notes” has been published in partial form in the volumes Seed Catalogue: Poems (1978), The Ledger (1979), The Sad Phoenician (1979), and Advice to My Friends (1985). In 1989 the volume was published as The Complete Field Notes. Kroetsch is also highly regarded as a literary theorist, and his criticism is considered a major informative factor in all of his writings. The Lovely Treachery of Words (1989) exemplifies his thoughts on literature, writing, and language. In 1995 Kroetsch added to his writings about language by publishing A Likely Story, a memoir and explanation of his life as a writer.

Critical Reception

Kroetsch is considered one of the most imaginative and important writers of the postmodern movement. Highly influenced by theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, his fiction and poetry as well as his criticism are deeply entrenched in deconstructionism's focus on relativity and absence of definite meaning. While this quality has drawn much praise from some commentators, others have found his works oblique and at times overbearing with literary jargon and trends. Nonetheless, Kroetsch is admired for experimenting with literary forms and for his role in bringing contemporary Canadian writing to the forefront of the world literary scene.

Sylvia Söderlind (review date Winter 1987)

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SOURCE: “Views from Afar,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 35, Winter, 1987, pp. 111-16.

[In the following review, Söderlind praises Gaining Ground for its successful attempt to begin a dialogue between the literatures of Canada and Europe.]

In case anyone still doubted it, this collection confirms what has been rumoured for some time: Canadian literature is gaining ground in the universities of Europe. With few exceptions the seventeen essays included in the volume indicate that a good number of critics have spent considerable time and effort in getting to know our literature and our history. The authors represent a wide geographical, as well as critical, spectrum. The main centres for Canadian studies in Europe are found in West Germany, Italy, and France; and places like Kiel, Bologna, and Bordeaux have come to be synonymous with Canadian studies. The growing interest in the field is also illustrated in the seven associations devoted to Canadian studies that have sprung up all over the continent in the last decade. The most recent ones are found in the Netherlands and Scandinavia; a Swedish journal has dedicated a recent issue exclusively to Canadian arts, music, and literature. Reingard M. Nischik’s informative survey of the status of Canadian studies in the various countries shows that Canlit entered the European academic establishment by way of Commonwealth studies, a fact that may account for the rather poor representation of French-Canadian literature in the collection: only two essays deal with Québécois writers. The vigorous European branch of ACLALS (The Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies), which has been very active in promoting Canadian literature, is usually located in the English departments and tends to be geared towards the anglophone parts of the Commonwealth. The efforts of the Canadian government to sell the country abroad can also be discerned, for instance, in the choice of writers discussed in the various essays. Many of them have toured Europe at the expense of External Affairs. Besides giving a good picture of the history and the present status of Canadian studies in Europe, Nischik provides useful biographical information about the contributors, as well as an impressive bibliography of publications in the field from different countries. One aspect excluded from Nischik’s discussion is the question of translations. It would have been interesting to know what writers have been made available to a wider public in other languages, and to get an idea of how far Canadian literature has reached beyond the academic community.

The Commonwealth context gives a slant to the study of Canada’s literature different from the often deplored parochialism that has so long prevailed among the country’s own critics. The Canadian works are often seen in a context of other new literatures in English, or in a general framework of post-colonialism. Nischik, who teaches at the University of Cologne, sees the difference in perspective between European and Canadian critics as a result of the distance between them, which makes it possible for the European to apply a more rigorous critical methodology based on formal and generic features rather than on exclusively thematic ones. This does not mean that thematic studies are excluded from the collection; there are in fact several. Nevertheless, the essays represent a wider variety of critical approaches than is usually seen in Canadian criticism. This gives them an added interest: they reveal what particular types of criticism are popular in Europe at the moment. Psychoanalysis and deconstruction are rather conspicuously (some may say refreshingly) absent, and narratology and feminism seem to be more dominant. Cedric May’s study of Alain Grandbois’ poetry can be qualified as high structuralism, while Pierre Spriet’s analysis of Rudy Wiebe borrows heavily from Riffaterrean semiotics. Rather different from the other essays, Eva-Marie Kröller’s “Nineteenth-Century Canadians and the Rhine Valley,” which appropriately closes the volume, provides a much broader context and is one of the few that deal with a comparison between a Canadian and a European aesthetics. Rudolf Bader, in a discussion of Grove’s particular brand of naturalism, does touch on his roots in a European tradition, and Franz K. Stanzel talks about Eli Mandel and John Robert Colombo in the same breath as Peter Handke; but rather than a comparative study, these critics offer a more general generic discussion. European critics would seem to be ideally placed to provide this kind of juxtaposition of writers and literatures from the old and new countries, and its absence is a bit disappointing. Such comparisons would be particularly interesting in light of Canada’s frequent status as a mythical territory for European writers. (One only has to consult a major influence like Michel Tournier to stumble on this.) Indeed, much of the fascination Canada holds for Europeans seems to stem from its transformation from a mythic ground into a real place. The preoccupation with place in Canadian fiction has, of course, become a bit of a cliché, but it definitely comes through as the common denominator in the essays. Borges’ apocryphal remark about Canada being so far away that it hardly exists, which is quoted in one of the papers, could almost function as an epigraph for the whole volume: it is the becoming real of this far-away country that preoccupies the European critics.

With few exceptions the essays deal with contemporary writers and are placed loosely in a framework of postmodernism and, more implicitly, feminism. Three of them are devoted, wholly or in part, to Rudy Wiebe, a frequent visitor to Europe, two to Robert Kroetsch, and two to Margaret Atwood. Other writers discussed are Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, Aritha van Herk, Mavis Gallant, George Bowering, and Jack Hodgins. The short story has often been considered as the Canadian genre par excellence, and generically the “short story ensemble” (171) is the most dominant subject. Thus, for instance, Margaret Laurence is represented by A Bird in the House, Hodgins by Spit Delaney’s Island, Munro by Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?, Gallant by “Orphans’ Progress”; and Karla El-Hassan includes Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town in the same category. Only two essays discuss poetry: May’s analysis of Alain Grandbois’ Les iles de la nuit and Franz K. Stanzel’s study of the found poem. Stanzel’s discussion is perhaps the least interesting from a Canadian point of view. Rather than defining the typically Canadian characteristics of the poetry, Stanzel proposes a general typology of the genre, using Canadian examples merely as illustrations. A similar generic perspective is exemplified in Paul Goetsch’s discussion of Atwood’s Life Before Man as a novel of manners, in the tradition of Austen, Trollope, and James. Simone Vauthier, in one of the strongest contributions, sees Findley’s The Wars in the context of war fiction. Clearly influenced by narratological theories, Vauthier’s essay focuses on such aspects as focalization, space, and time, and elucidates the dichotomies between scriptor and implied author, and between novel and narration. A related approach is found in Nischik’s discussion of the novels of van Herk, a writer popular in Europe.

Another successful discussion in terms of generic convention is Coral Ann Howells’ “Worlds Alongside: Contradictory Discourses in the Fiction of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.” Howells analyzes their different treatment of the conflict between reality and fantasy and argues that, while in Atwood’s work the two are mutually exclusive, they coexist in a state of “mutual contrariety” in Munro’s (122). With its feminist slant and its insightful textual analyses, Howells’ essay is an example of the balance between methodological rigour and respect for the text, which is characteristic of good criticism. Rather than being imposed from a preconceived model, the dichotomy she discovers stems from the texts themselves. The same can be said about Giovanna Capone’s discussion of A Bird in the House, which approaches, from a more thematic angle, a motif similar to the dichotomy studied by Howells. Capone sees Laurence’s short-story ensemble as ordered by the opposition, or the distance, between the real and the imaginary, a familiar tension in Canadian fiction, and one that is also in the background of Wolfgang Kloos’s reading of Rudy Wiebe’s The Scorched-Wood People.

Wiebe is also the subject of Pierre Spriet’s essay on the thematics of failure, which demonstrates a familiar problem for many critics. Spriet concentrates on Wiebe’s latest novel, My Lovely Enemy, which he tries to make fit into a pattern already established for the author’s other works. Instead of questioning the validity of the thematics he has established as fundamental to Wiebe, Spriet insists on making the new text fit into it, and the result is not quite convincing. The essay also contains an unfortunate racial generalization in the opening paragraph, where Spriet lists among the protagonists of the “lunatic fringe” peopling Wiebe’s novels, “dreamers, dissenters, Indians, outlaws” (53).

The Commonwealth and post-colonial connection is particularly visible in Jürgen Schäfer’s discussion of the changing image of the Indian, by way of a comparison between Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear and Kroetsch’s Gone Indian. Schäfer draws several parallels between Wiebe’s masterpiece and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and he sees colonization in a wide sense as a metaphor for modern alienation. The Nigerian novel is arguably the best-known depiction of a post-colonial culture in disintegration, but the similarities pointed out between the two novels at times seem a bit strained. (It could probably be argued that Gone Indian is equally related to Achebe’s novel by way of their shared intertextual parentage in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” but that is another issue.)

Schäfer’s discussion of Gone Indian can be juxtaposed with that of Walter Pache in “The Fiction Makes Us Real: Aspects of Postmodernism in Canada,” which is more generic than thematic in its approach, as the title indicates. Pache, who clearly possesses a good knowledge of the history of Canadian literature, places Kroetsch, together with George Bowering, in the general framework of postmodernism, a concept which underlies many of the studies in the collection. Kroetsch is seen as the father of Canadian postmodernism, and The Studhorse Man and Gone Indian as “paradigmatic examples of postmodern narrative in Canada” (70). Pache, the driving force behind Canadian literary studies at Trier, West Germany, draws some interesting conclusions concerning the particularly Canadian brand of postmodernism. Although Kroetsch, like most of his colleagues, opposes the traditional imposition of order on the text, he is, says Pache, Canadian insofar as he does not go to extremes but rather strives for a balance between “structural artifact and unstructured fabulation” (71). It is thus caution, or at least moderation, that characterizes Canada’s variant of the genre. Pache’s emphasis on this want of extremism, however, may be due to his focusing on the latter aspect, the fabulation, rather than on the often ingenious formalism that characterizes Kroetsch’s novels. The structural intricacies of the two texts remain subservient to the story in a hierarchy that has been put into question recently. Kroetsch’s own contention that Canada never had a modernist period comes to mind when Pache claims that postmodernism and post-colonialism go hand in hand. It was not until American literature reached a point of exhaustion and lost its dominance that Canadian literature really came into its own.

Postmodernism is also the focus of Rosmarin Heidenreich’s study of Hubert Aquin’s novel Trou de mémoire. Like Pache’s and Spriet’s essays, it focuses on aspects of undecidability and openness, features that are generally seen as defining the genre. The choice of writers like Aquin and Kroetsch to illustrate the typical open work is, however, rather problematic and will only work if the emphasis is put on the fabulation that Pache underlines. Narrative, or diegetic, openness does not necessarily exclude or contradict a certain formal hermeticism. It could indeed be argued that some of the tensions often felt in what is generally called postmodern works stem from the simultaneous presence of the two opposite movements, as Pache implies, although his analysis does not quite bear it out. Heidenreich’s study of Holbein’s anamorphic painting “The Ambassadors,” which provides the central formal metaphor of Aquin’s text, would in fact seem to contradict the novel’s claim to openness. The painting is a rather strictly hermetic mannerist portrait, in which two images, one overt and one covert, stand in a clear relation of opposition. If, as Heidenreich claims, there is an obvious isomorphism between painting and novel, the latter’s claim to openness is illusory. There are no signs of the recent controversy surrounding the term “postmodernism” in any of the essays.

The shortest essay in the book, Waldemar Zacharasiewicz’s “The Invention of a Region: The Art of Fiction in Jack Hodgins’ Stories,” suggests a potentially fruitful direction for comparative studies. The author, who teaches in Vienna, juxtaposes Hodgins with writers of the American South, notably Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. The Gothic of the South is more commonly associated with the literature of Quebec or of rural Ontario, as in Howells’ discussion of Munro and Atwood. Although Zacharasiewicz’s comparison, which is based on both thematic and stylistic features, quite convincingly shows a number of similarities, particularly between Hodgins’ and O’Connor’s stories, his conclusion is questionable. He contends that Hodgins is more of a modernist than a postmodernist, a claim that would reveal the writer as something of an anomaly in Canada. It is the limitation of the comparison to Spit Delaney’s Island that permits this contention. Hodgins’ later stories would, no doubt, reveal a similar affinity with the South, but it is unlikely that the same thing could be said about his novels.

We can only be grateful for the enthusiasm shared by Kroetsch and Nischik over a beer in Munich that eventually led to the publication of this book. It is to be hoped that it will encourage further transatlantic dialogue.

Principal Works

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But We Are Exiles (novel) 1966

The Words of My Roaring (novel) 1966

The Studhorse Man (novel) 1970

Gone Indian (novel) 1973

Badlands (novel) 1975

The Stone Hammer Poems: 1960-1975 (poetry) 1975

Seed Catalogue: Poems (poetry) 1978

What the Crow Said (novel) 1978

The Ledger (poetry) 1979

The Sad Phoenician (poetry) 1979

The Crow Journals (nonfiction) 1980

Field Notes (poetry) 1981

Alibi (novel) 1983

Advice to My Friends: A Continuing Poem (poetry) 1985

Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature [editor; with Reingard M. Nischik] (essays) 1985

The Complete Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (poetry) 1989

The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New (essays) 1989

A Likely Story: The Writing Life (nonfiction) 1995

The Puppeteer (novel) 1995

The Man from the Creeks (novel) 1998

George Bowery (review date April 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Lovely Treachery of Words, in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 3, April, 1989, p. 22.

[In the following review, Bowery praises Kroetsch's literary criticism in The Lovely Treachery of Words.]

In Canada we often write “poet-novelist” before a writer’s name. We have to do this more than most countries do. Of course most of these poet-novelists toss off an essay from time to time. But we seldom feel that it would be sensible to write “poet-novelist-critic.”

Margaret Atwood writes reviews and makes the odd address to a group of elected representatives. A long time ago Michael Ondaatje wrote a little chapbook on Leonard Cohen; bp Nichol wrote in all three forms, but you had to take his word about which was which.

Robert Kroetsch was successful first as a novelist. Then he became the first novelist to influence the poets as a poet. Next to Atwood he is the most often interviewed writer in the country. All along he has been not only writing the literary essay, but also reinventing it. He has not just written the requisite papers of a writer who works at universities; he has produced famous essays. They have introduced famous phrases into the literature.

Some of those famous essays, such as “Unhiding the Hidden” and “An Erotics of Space,” reappear in this collection.

When I go to conferences on Canadian literature in New Zealand and Australia and Italy and Germany, it is Kroetsch I hear those foreigners writing about. Maybe this is because he practises literary theory. In so doing he breaks an old Anglo-Canadian proscription against thinking about what you are doing in the making of literature.

There are 17 essays in this collection. Some of them appeared in an earlier collection of Kroetsch’s essays, edited by bp Nichol and Frank Davey, and published as an issue of their journal, Open Letter in 1983. (It has been for five years a much-annotated college textbook.) The rest are treatments of narrative in Canadian fiction. In fact only one of the essays is in total about verse, the much-presented “For Play and Entrance; the Contemporary Canadian Long Poem.”

Kroetsch performs what seems to be a paradox (and he will not be unhappy to see that word). He casts his eye and nets wide over Canadian narrative, from Haliburton to Buckler, Ross, Laurence, and Audrey Thomas. He is all-embracing, too widely encouraging, according to some of his readers. He finds valuable stuff practically anywhere in our letters. Yet he is the most readable critic, and I think that is so because he treats his criticism as part of a multilogue with our other writers. In a book-length interview he once said, “I think criticism is really a version of story … the story of our search for story.”

That word “our” appears often in Kroetsch’s writing. His subject is sometimes the ways in which we can make ourselves Canadians. That is likely part of the reason that so many of these essays were begun as papers at international conferences. But Kroetsch connects finding ourselves with finding a way to speak. He takes chances, foolish ones sometimes, and that promotes our faith. He takes plunges, sees something delicious in the new European theory deli and gobbles it down without sitting at their table.

Narrative strategies are his preoccupation. Northrop Frye, he says here, is our epic poet. Christopher Columbus is the mythic hero. Christopher Columbus was an Orpheus. America was not his Hades but his Eurydice.

Kroetsch finds Orpheus all over Canadian literature, in which the wounded artist is so often the central figure, in which we find so many idyllic and doomed couples, in which our citizens are under the ground, at the bottom of a lake, buried by snow or earth or trees. Here we see the way that Orpheus haunts Malcolm Lowry’s fiction. Howárd O’Hagan’s Tay John is “an inverse Orpheus figure. He has come up from under the ground, not with speech or poetry, but with silence.”

What I like about things such as Kroetsch’s discovery of Orpheus among us supposedly placid Canadians is the excitement in the finding. Kroetsch does not present the waxed and polished fruits of his research. We see always the autobiographical, the search. We get a man standing by his words, not behind them. He is writing his reading. Thus we are invited to do and offer our own.

A bonus in this volume is an irregular piece called “Towards an Essay: My Upstate New York Journals.” This resembles The Crow Journals, and dates from 1970 to 1974. The last entry we get is another of Kroetsch’s demonstrations against closure: “I said to Jane, what is the subject of a love poem? She said, There can only be one subject of a love poem. What? I asked her.” Orpheus, we reflect, went to Hell to try to erase closure.

“To reveal all is to end the story,” Kroetsch says to begin one essay. So he tells us what he prizes among the deferred, the hidden, the secret, including silence as a narrative strategy. He loves those secretive writers: Grove, Lowry, O’Hagan, Sheila Watson. His famous “unnaming” and “uncreating” are actions taken against enclosing history. They are meant to return us to origins, where myth can precede factism, to “avoid both meaning and conclusiveness,” he once said.

So one might anticipate, while enjoying these essays, that there is more to come, more beginnings. Even though these essays are pressed between boards made by the Oxford University Press, Orpheus’s head will continue to sing along its river path to the never reachable sea.

John Clement Ball (essay date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: “The Carnival of Babel: The Construction of Voice in Robert Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ Triptych,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 39, Fall, 1989, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Ball examines the place and meaning of silence and voice in Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ series of novels.]

From one so concerned with the multiplicitous nature of voice and the elusiveness of meaning, Robert Kroetsch’s work has displayed a remarkable cohesiveness. As a writer whose many voices include those of poet, novelist, postmodern theorist, and intensely nationalistic critic of Canadian literature, he is also his own best explicator. A Kroetsch essay about an Atwood or Ross novel works equally well as commentary about the author’s own fiction, because of the way ideas echo back and forth. Likewise, his fiction can help unravel his often puzzling theoretical statements.

Kroetsch began his writing career as a novelist, and his most clearly formative period comprised the years 1966 to 1973, when the three novels of his “Out West” triptych—The Words of My Roaring, The Studhorse Man, and Gone Indian—were published. Most of his critical writings and interviews have been produced since then, and almost without exception their themes and assumptions can be traced back to problems tackled by Kroetsch in those three books. The “working-out” process so evident in the triptych is what allows Kroetsch the sure-footedness of the stances that he takes as a critic.

One of the many refrains that echoes through the text of The Words of My Roaring concerns what the novel’s narrator, Johnnie Backstrom, calls “the old dualities” (94). “We confuse beginnings, endings,” he says. “They are so alike so often” (7). The opposition, or duality, of beginnings and endings frustrates Johnnie, as do other dualities. He says to the disembodied voice of Applecart on the radio: “Always the old dualities. When you’re in a tight fix: mind and body, right and wrong. Fill the old grab bag with something for everybody. When you’re cornered: good and evil, black and white, up and down, damnation—” (94). Kroetsch as a critic often expresses concepts in terms of dualities. The two most important of these are founded on the opposition of horse and house, and of Coyote and God. In describing the two pairs, Kroetsch implies that the two sides are necessarily always separate and distinct; the very nature of the oppositions they embody demands it.

The horse-house duality is described in Kroetsch’s essay, “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction”,:

The basic grammatical pair in the story-line (the energy-line) of prairie fiction is house: horse. To be on a horse is to move: motion into distance. To be in a house is to be fixed: a centering unto stasis. Horse is masculine. House is feminine. Horse: house. Masculine: feminine. On: in. Motion: stasis. A woman ain’t supposed to move. Pleasure: duty.


As a metaphor for oppositions or dualities that occur at the level of plot and characters—that is, on the level of story—horse-house can be called the duality of story.

Kroetsch’s other duality, Coyote-God, can be called the duality of writing, or the duality of book, because it is a metaphor for two different approaches to the creation of a work of art, to the writing down of story. In “Death Is a Happy Ending: A Dialogue in Thirteen Parts (with Diane Bessai),” he proclaims:

the artist him/her self:

in the long run, given the choice of being God or Coyote, will, most mornings, choose to be Coyote:

he lets in the irrational along with the rational, the pre-moral along with the moral. He is a shape-shifter, at least in the limited way of old lady Potter. He is the charlatan-healer, like Felix Prosper, the low-down Buddha-bellied fiddler midwife (him/her) rather than Joyce’s high priest of art.


Coyote, by letting everything into his art—that is by making it inclusive rather than exclusive, unpredictable rather than familiar, an embodiment of chaos more than order—allows his text to exist “not as artifact but as enabling act” and permit “not meaning but the possibility of meanings” (208). Kroetsch puts the Coyote-God duality into the context of other, specifically Canadian dualities, later in the Bessai dialogue:

The double hook. The total ambiguity that is so essentially Canadian: be it in terms of two solitudes, the bush garden, Jungian opposites, or the raw and cooked binary structures of Levi-Strauss. Behind the multiplying theories of Canadian literature is always the pattern of equally matched opposites.

Coyote : God
Self : Community
Energy : Stasis


Coyote’s artistic stance becomes one of personal vision (self) as opposed to group vision (community), of energy over stasis. This final pair is significant in its similarity to the motion-stasis element of the horse-house duality. There appears to be some connection between the duality of story and the duality of book.

The most important duality to the story of The Words of My Roaring is established in the opening scene, where Johnnie is set in opposition (both on a real political level, and on a number of symbolic levels) to Doc. The two figures are contrasted through a number of details of appearance and behaviour:

Johnnie : Doc
holes in sleeves : “looks like a million”
parched throat : more water than he needs
perfect teeth : gold teeth
son (first-born) : father
death-manager (endings) : birth-manager (beginnings)
clown : hero
butt of jokes : maker of jokes
big : small
destroyer (Jonah, later) : healer
heavy drinker : light drinker
no money : lots of money
not talking (speechless) : talking

The last of these oppositions, the fact that throughout most of the chapter Doc is talking and Johnnie is silent, is notable in that it introduces Johnnie as a character whose natural state is speechlessness. There are dozens of occasions throughout the novel on which Johnnie is either “struck dumb,” “silent,” or “speechless.” As an undertaker, he says, “Silence is my business, I deal in silence” (23). At one of the many points that he is rendered silent by the presence of Doc’s daughter, Helen, he philosophises, “Speechless we come into this world; speechless we go out. What a hell of a state, to be speechless in between” (56).

However, although Johnnie can be seen as a character whose essential mode is one of speechlessness, he is also a character who grows into speech. When he finally does speak in the opening scene, he promises that it will rain. He has spoken where previously he was silent, given himself a platform where he had none before. He has by these few spontaneous words—and this is borne out by the events of the novel—turned himself from a nobody into a somebody. Throughout the story he is variously struck dumb by large crowds, Helen, Jonah’s death, people’s expectations of him; nevertheless, he also makes several significant speeches to large crowds, at least one to Helen, and manages to speak volumes by silently nodding at the auction for the Model-A. When the prophet speaks and commands a crowd just prior to that auction, Johnnie participates, heckling and asking him to elaborate, speaking quite comfortably instead of awkwardly remaining silent, as he did in the first scene until Doc put him on the spot. Likewise, a comparison of the first of Applecart’s radio speeches, at which Johnnie is the silent link between Applecart’s disembodied voice and the ears of the community, with the second of these, at which Johnnie’s own words are so filled with antagonistic energy that he smashes the radio, cuts off Applecart’s words, and replaces them with his own, reveals Johnnie as a character becoming increasingly less speechless. If he is speaking against the words of others much of the time, he is also speaking against his own silence.

If this is what Johnnie the character is doing on the level of story, it is also what Johnnie the storyteller is doing on the level of book. On this level he is not speechless at all: he speaks the entire book. The style of prose and the rhythms of the language that Johnnie uses to tell his story are those of oral speech. He repeats things, especially descriptions of himself, over and over. A passage like “I’ve got these huge hands. Huge. Positively huge” (162), especially when it comes after countless other passages about the size of his hands, feet, nose, chin, and so on, owes its origin to an oral model of storytelling. Recurring connectives such as “let me tell you” and “I must confess” also encourage the reader to hear Johnnie’s voice as an aural voice. The book can be read as a spoken confession, and as with any confession, the telling of story is as important as the content of the story itself.

In a 1972 interview with Donald Cameron, Kroetsch speaks of “the oral tradition which is the stuff of literature.” This oral tradition, which in Canada often emerges as a regional voice, is “where writers find liberation. What we have to do in Canada is concentrate on hearing this voice that is within us, and trusting it” (85). In Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, he tells how his bilingual parents stopped speaking German the day he was born so he would “be assimilated and totally English-speaking.” As a result, “there’s a sense of guilt in me about that silence that my birth occasioned” (141). When asked in what way language is an ongoing problem for him, Kroetsch says:

I started out with an interest in what I suppose we’d call voice—though it’s a hell of a difficult word to define—voice as a grounding in a speech model as opposed to what I learned to do as a writer of language. … I was very quick at learning this writing-it-down, and again I felt almost guilty at my ability to write out my own speech patterns or voice.


Further in that conversation, Kroetsch returns to the subject:

I have a particular faith, still, in the occasion of speaking, and I have, maybe, more trust of that occasion than the writing I engage in. And, yet, I go on writing, so why? … I suppose I write against systems. … And I write against silence too.


If writing against silence is what Kroetsch the author is doing, speaking against silence is what his hero, Johnnie Backstrom, is doing, narrating and confessing his story in place of the silence that would be there if he had not done so. On the level of book—the level of telling of story—speaking or writing in place of silence is the same as speaking or writing against silence, since silence is destroyed by that act. That act is also a creation of the self out of silence, which is the same creative act that Johnnie the character performs on the level of story. He creates himself in relation to his community by the act of speaking, beginning with the words, “Mister, how would you like some rain?” (8). There is an unusual correspondence, then, between the level of story and the level of book. On both levels the main event is a voice speaking against silence and creating a self.

This does not mean that the I-creator (Johnnie as narrator) and the I-created (Johnnie as character) have for the first time in the history of first-person narrative become identical. Not only is this theoretically impossible, but Johnnie is not even a particularly reliable narrator. He creates an exaggerated, larger-than-life version of himself, and there are some obvious dislocations between what he tells of himself and what his self-described actions show us, as when he describes himself as “seldom speechless” (73). However, there is an association of the two I’s in the same way that there is an association of the levels of story and its telling: on both levels, and for both creator and created, the same essential process is described by this book. Words is in fact about this very kind of unity—the bringing together of normally separate things, the resolution of dichotomies or dualities—and in doing this Kroetsch has undone his own interpretation of prairie mythology.

In “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction,” Kroetsch uses horse-house as a metaphor for a duality at the cornerstone of prairie writing. The separateness of horse and house is nothing short of the difference between man and woman—between the male’s typical role of orphan, cowboy, and outlaw, and the female qualities of domesticity, stability, and nurturing. This pairing is never satisfactorily resolved in a way that does not make the man “the diminished hero” and the woman “the more-than-life figure” (80, 81). Two metaphors are used in prairie fiction to represent the failure of male-female unity: the failure of sex and the failure of the dance.

The failure of the male protagonists, at the centre of each book, to enter into the dance, is symptomatic of what is wrong. The women can dance. Their appropriate partners cannot. The harmony suggested by dance—implications of sex, of marriage, of art, of a unified world—all are lost because of the male characters. The males are obedient to versions of self that keep them at a distance—the male as orphan, as cowboy, as outlaw.


The masculine-feminine (horse-house) duality has another important aspect in Kroetsch’s essay:

We conceive of external space as male, internal space as female. More precisely, the penis: external, expandable, expendable; the vagina: internal, eternal. The maleness verges on mere absence. The femaleness verges on mystery; it is a space that is not a space. External space is the silence that needs to speak, or that needs to be spoken. It is male. The having spoken is the book. It is female. It is closed.


Words breaks down the dualities in a number of ways. Johnnie comes together with Helen through the dance and through sex. As a dancer he is one of the best and most popular in town; and the sex takes place every night for a week in a beautiful, Eden-like garden. Moreover, Johnnie does not need a corresponding female character to speak his silence; he does it himself. In this context he is an embodiment of both male “silence” and of female “having spoken” and “book.” In these various ways Kroetsch is bringing horse and house, male and female, together, and in ways that do not diminish the man’s heroic stature or threaten the integrity of his role as cowboy, orphan, and outlaw. By unifying elements that he has said are not unified in prairie fiction, Kroetsch is writing against the prairie mythology (the “systems”) that he himself has identified.

This is a suitable project for the author, according to Kroetsch in Labyrinths of Voice:

Neuman: The telling of a particular myth in a Kroetsch novel then must be analogous to the act of deconstructing myth itself. It would not be unlike the turning of a particular myth, say the quest myth, into the activity of the writer. …

Kroetsch: That’s right. You tell your way out of the story, in a sense. I think what it really comes down to is that we are entrapped in those mythic stories; we can surrender to them or we can tell our way out. …


Kroetsch’s purpose in Words can be seen as the deconstruction of the systems that have defined prairie literature, through the integration of dualities that have always defined a separateness. The horse-house duality of story breaks down when we have a male character achieving union with the feminine world through dance, sex (albeit on an illicit level) and, most importantly, by speaking his own silence. This process of constructing a voice out of silence is accomplished by Johnnie as a character (on the level of story) and as a narrator (telling his story on the level of book); form and content are thus neatly aligned. What about the duality of book? Kroetsch presents Coyote-God as a metaphor for two choices, two different artistic stances, but a degree of integration occurs here as well. Johnnie, by the end of the novel, has found a way to integrate the anarchy of self with the order of community. Remaining himself, he has moved from the periphery to the centre, from outlaw to hero. As teller of his own story, he is both the trickster as author and the author as high priest (in the sense of proclaimer). And by turning the rhythms of oral storytelling into words on a page, Kroetsch and Johnnie have both integrated the ephemeral, spontaneous spoken word with the permanent, ordered written word.

As for Johnnie’s favourite duality of beginnings and endings, at the end of the book (which is also the end of his existence on the level of book), he is at the beginning of a speech. That closing speech begins where his opening speech ended, with the word “Rain” (211). On the level of story, Johnnie is, at this point, at the true beginning of speech—full, confident, resolved speech (even if the speech he is making is still in his head, and is therefore silent). On the level of book, the end is the first time since the beginning that Johnnie has stopped talking and become silent. The end is thus both the beginning of speech and the beginning of silence.

There is a neatness to Words, an order brought on by this knitting together of dualities, that Kroetsch undoes in the second and third novels of his “Out West” triptych. Writing and speaking, protagonist and narrative voice: these pairs of ingredients are as likely to form a violent concoction as a smooth and tasteful blend in The Studhorse Man and Gone Indian. In “The Exploding Porcupine: Violence of Form in English-Canadian Fiction,” a 1980 essay that can be read as a postmodern manifesto, Kroetsch writes:

The theory of answers, for us, is a dangerous one. We must resist endings, violently. And so we turn from content to the container; we turn from the tale to the telling. It is form itself, traditional form, that forces resolution. In our most ambitious writing, we do violence by doing violence to form.


If Words is the closest the triptych comes to “traditional form,” and Johnnie’s beginning-into-speech an ambiguous but nevertheless definite “resolution,” a comparison of Kroetsch’s treatments of two parallel incidents in Words and Gone Indian suggests what he might mean by more “ambitious” writing.

A tragic accident occurs in the first novel when the rodeo clown mistimes his jump away from a charging bull, gets caught, is severely mangled, and dies. In Gone Indian a similarly carnivalesque occasion (the ice festival) is the site of the cowboy’s ski-jumping accident; he lands on his head, but all we are told of his fate is three rumours: he’s dead, he’s in hospital and “silly in the rafters” (78), or he’s fine but being paid to keep a low profile. Kroetsch gives the clown scene in Words a definite resolution, the ultimate closure of death. He also gives it meaning: it becomes the motivation for Johnnie’s “first major speech” and the first time he shows himself “a leader” (108). In Gone Indian, however, the cowboy’s accident is both unresolved and without a clear significance: we are not told its outcome, and the sum total of its related effect on Jeremy is that he is “left alone again” (77). It happens, and then is over, forgotten, because something else is happening. It becomes just another incident, no more or less meaningful than any other. We ask, “What happened?” but where we look for resolution, Kroetsch has given us silence; where we look for a single voice, a single answer, he has given us several. “The ultimate violence that might to done to story is silence” (192), Kroetsch says in “The Exploding Porcupine.” The cowboy’s ending has not been, and never will be, spoken in terms of traditional narrative. Jeremy’s fate at the end of the novel is likewise unresolved.

Using Kroetsch’s ideas and language, this resistance to closure might be called the silence of the ending that is not spoken. But this would assume that a definitive ending does exist, and has simply not been put into words. Alternatively, the endings that are put into words—the three rumours about the cowboy and Madham’s speculations regarding Jeremy’s disappearance—can be considered to be all that really exists. This is to accept the primacy of text and the inseparability of story from its manifestation as text. Kroetsch often refers to Babel in critical writings and conversations; a world whose language has been confounded into languages he sees as a desirable dwelling place for a Canadian writer.1 In Labyrinths of Voice he calls the Babel myth “a great thing, one of the greatest things that has happened to mankind. From the Tower of Babel all of a sudden, we gain all the languages we have” (116). Further on he says:

I have learned a little more clearly that to go from metaphor to metonymy is to go from the temptation of the single to the allure of multiplicity. Instead of the temptations of “origin” we have genealogies that multiply our connections into the past, into the world.


In the context of Babel, Kroetsch’s multiple-choice endings are a natural response to a chaotic world whose meaning is not reducible to single answers, to simple resolutions. There are too many voices to be heard. Where Words presents a single voice, a single character, in a process of becoming that can be traced back to a single origin (“Mister, how would you like some rain?”), the older Kroetsch of The Studhorse Man and Gone Indian does real violence to traditional form not so much through silence as through an increased willingness to let loose the voices of Babel.

These voices creep in innocuously enough in The Studhorse Man. The novel’s opening reads like third-person narration focusing on a protagonist, but in the fourth paragraph the voice is revealed as an I-narrator. At this point the reader’s incipient sense of story is displaced; by definition this will be more than just Hazard’s story. And while this I-narrator, later identified as Demeter Proudfoot, self-appointed biographer of Hazard Lepage, remains the voice that speaks to the reader directly, this apparent singularity is deceiving. For unlike the simplicity of Johnnie Backstrom telling his own story with his own voice, Demeter is a man of many voices, and the story he tells is both his own and that of an other.

Demeter has a strong voice but not a consistent one. As a biographer he simultaneously believes himself to be presenting an “extremely objective account of the life of one good man” (145) and, now and then, “straying from the mere facts” (12), allowing himself, “of necessity, [to] be interpretive upon occasion” (18). He prides himself on research that enables him to list every object on Hazard’s bookshelves (9–10) and finds him measuring railway ties at a railway station (24); yet he admits, at one crucial point, that “I have not the foggiest notion how the two men got out of their fix” (99), and at another that he must infer material at a point “where I neglected to make notes, having somehow lost my pencil” (113). Such apparently contradictory approaches to his biographical “obligation” (61) highlight both Demeter’s own deficiencies as narrator, and the impossibility of any biographer presenting a complete, truthful, and “objective” account of someone’s life. The difference between Demeter and most biographers is that Demeter speaks not only in the voice of storyteller but also as commentator on the necessarily creative act of storytelling that biography is.

A number of other people’s voices speak through Demeter’s unifying voice. On the level of story, just as Doc Murdoch, Helen, and others speak through Johnnie’s narrative in Words, Hazard, Utter, and Martha are voices speaking through Demeter’s narrative. But while, on the level of book, or telling of story, Johnnie’s only research is his own experience, Demeter’s research is eclectic, and is affected by a number of voices both inside and outside the story of Hazard’s life. Demeter’s primary research appears to be several conversations he had with Hazard on the Eshpeter Ranch, most of which are preserved in note form. Other voices that inform Demeter’s narrative are those of Lady Eshpeter (who, being blind, describes scenes based on what she remembers overhearing), Martha, and of course Demeter’s own voice describing his experiences in the sections where his life overlaps with Hazard’s. Even the doctor who steals the chapters on Demeter’s theory of nakedness (98) is a voice: while only present as an absence, his is a censoring voice that nevertheless affects the way story becomes book.

Demeter’s narrative style also reflects a multiplicity that Johnnie’s, rooted as it is in oral confession, does not. Demeter’s voice is flexible, allowing him to sound on one page like a dreamy philosopher (“Is the truth of the beast in the flesh and confusion or in the few skillfully arranged lines?” [134]), and on another like a precision-minded scientist (“The space between must be filled with water that has been heated to a temperature of not less than 105°F. and not more than 115°F.” [137]). When describing Martha’s naked moonlit body his writing is so full of stock phrases (“the round perfection of her belly,” “her long and creamy thighs,” “my hard longing,” “my savage pleasure” [65]) that Demeter seems, for a page or two, to have co-opted an entire language, one drawn from an established subliterary tradition. Likewise a chase scene is described by Demeter (who was not there) with all the hilarious detail of a comic Keystone Cops-style film, blatantly copying that story model with all of its usual conventions fully intact:

The chase was on. Hazard galloped his horses through the city streets, yelled at, pursued, condemned, the milkwagon jumping over sidewalks and streetcar tracks, the load of milk bottles spilling out to become white telltale blotches on the snow. Policemen appeared from nowhere, a pair at this corner, a pair in that doorway. Streets became blind alleys. A track through the snow became a snowbank. “Stop! Stop him! Stop!” people yelled, standing motionless in swirls of powdered snow. “Stop that man!” a policeman ordered to a poor chap who had just driven his car into a lamppost. “Stop him!” two women pleaded when he galloped over their grocery cart behind a Safeway store. But, luckily, Hazard ran into a troop movement. The column of marching soldiers came between him and two dozen pursuers, and the soldiers, lacking a command, would not break rank. They would not stop.


Typically, Demeter drops this borrowed voice after the one paragraph, but not before the reader has been shown that his narrative owes as much to a fictional storytelling tradition as to a biographical one.

Other voices used in the text include the archaic and intrusive “Dear reader” addresses, the hockey-announcer voice that Demeter briefly tries on (122–23), and the voice of a biblical genealogical tradition that informs the history of the Lepage stallion (71–72). This jumble of languages and voice that Demeter employs, and that speaks through him and his research, is revealed gradually throughout the novel. The reader begins with no awareness that there is a narrator; once he makes himself known, the narrator is assumed to be reliable. Even his early discussions of the necessity to combine recording of facts with interpretation sound innocent enough. But as the elements of memory, on-the-spot research, note-taking, interviews with different participants, censorship, interpretation, guesswork, omissions, borrowed languages, and personal theorizing become apparent, the reader is forced to recognize contradictions. As the central figure and primary source of research, Hazard, next to Demeter, has the most prominent voice in the book, yet when Hazard’s memory of P. Cockburn differs from what Demeter’s study turns up (31), the reader must confront the unreliability of memory, and therefore of many of the “facts” in the book. Hazard, who tells his story to Demeter, is an unreliable narrator: his memory is inaccurate, and occasionally during their sessions he is so unwell that he can only “grunt and shake his head” (108–09). Demeter, who tells the story to us, is unreliable by definition if Hazard is, but he is also writing the story with incomplete and eclectic research, some twenty years after the events it describes, and from a madhouse.

Kroetsch, in a Canadian Fiction Magazine interview (1977), was asked if he liked unreliable narrators:

I might take the extreme position that there are no “correct” accounts. My narrators are simply like people in life—each one is of necessity an unreliable narrator. I—and the reader—have to hear something of the nature of that unreliability.


For the reader of The Studhorse Man, hearing that unreliability involves more than just accepting that the traditional unity of narrative has been undermined by a proliferation of voices. The reader must also witness the complete subversion of biographical form. The first major passage in which the rules of biography are broken occurs when Demeter abruptly shifts from Hazard’s story back some years to the erotic description of his own personal experience of spying on a naked Martha. This scene has nothing to do with Hazard, but has profound significance for Demeter himself. It is an event that, at the time, made him speechless: “I could find no voice to answer with. My very wanting had choked me into silence” (65). Like Johnnie in Words, however, Demeter is here giving voice to his own silence, speaking his own speechlessness. Significantly, this is the point in the novel at which he first tells the reader his name. As such it is a turning point: throughout the rest of the novel Demeter increasingly brings himself into the story, and describes from his own perspective incidents involving both himself and Hazard, to a point where, as Kroetsch puts it, “He starts to see himself as the hero as he sits in the bathtub writing the book” (“Interview” 39).

Demeter writes against the silence that his relatives, by institutionalizing him, have imposed. By turning the story of another man’s life into the story of his own, he defines himself, not just as a being, but as a kind of coyote trickster figure who achieves a peculiar version of integration completely different from Johnnie Backstrom’s speaking himself into union with his community. Demeter, alone in his bathtub, is both the epitome of house (stasis) as opposed to horse (motion), and of self (nonconformity, isolation) as opposed to community (integration). The old dualities have remained separate; yet, as Kroetsch explains, “Demeter literally gets himself together by putting those two figures—Hazard and himself—together” (Labyrinths 173). By speaking himself into existence as “D. Proud-foot, Studhorse Man” (156), he achieves a personal integration that is completely self-contained, and he does it through nothing more or less than an act of narrative.

Kroetsch has said one of his interests in writing the “Out West” triptych was the “questioning of narrative itself” (“Interview” 44). Narrative in The Studhorse Man turns out to be a slippery, often deceptive thing: omnipresent, its origins and purposes are not always apparent, and as a tool its powers can be employed towards virtually anyone’s personal agenda. While Demeter’s manipulation of narrative is both more obvious and more benign than Madham’s in Gone Indian, the fact that he usurps the hero’s role and deconstructs the reader’s expectations of the biographical form makes his use of narrative powerfully disarming. As an inheritor of the post-Babel world, the reader must recognize the multiplicity of voices and languages that may speak through a single voice, and the fuzziness of the boundaries between fictional and factual storytelling. When Kroetsch, through Demeter, says that Hazard is “terrified of history” (33), the reader may be tempted by the double entendre of history: his story. When story and history blur together and narrative forces an “objective account of the life of one good man” off the rails, the discomfited reader may indeed find the process terrifying.

For Kroetsch, this is the challenge that he sets the reader, the challenge of participation:

I’m interested in sharing with the reader the fact that I’m making a fiction. One of the assumptions of the old style realism is that the novel isn’t a fiction. Verisimilitude, the text-books demand. And I’m no longer interested in that. I want the reader to be engaged with me in fiction making. I work a reader pretty hard, I guess, in that I want him to enter into the process with me.

(“Interview” 42)

The reader in effect becomes another voice informing the narrative, which is an appropriate role given Kroetsch’s belief in the ubiquitousness of the storytelling impulse:

Go to any kitchen table at which there are more than three people assembled—People tell stories and in that sense use narrative to construct a reality. … Of course, they work in a very short form. The oral story-teller probably has less impulse to “deconstruct” his inherited conventions. … I think some of the conventions of fiction control too much our way of seeing the world. It starts to get interesting when you take those conventions and both use them and work against them.

(“Interview” 39)

Kroetsch’s development of this deconstructive approach through the “Out West” trilogy can be examined in the context of the relationship between oral and written storytelling. In Words, there is a direct correspondence between Johnnie’s spoken confession and the words on the page; there is one narrative and one voice. In The Studhorse Man, Demeter uses oral accounts of Hazard’s life provided by several people as part of his research, but these reminiscences often prove incomplete or inaccurate. Ultimately all such material must be filtered through the writer’s memory, his ability to take notes, his tendency to pursue tangents, and his personal reasons for writing the story in the first place. For this reason, the oral raw material and the “portentous volume” (175) that results from it may in some places directly correspond and in others deviate wildly, but with only one source of information (i.e., Demeter), and a fictional one at that, the reader cannot investigate the “truth” of such matters. In Gone Indian the oral raw material is presented directly, in the form of transcriptions. However, the primacy of Jeremy’s version of events is undercut in a number of ways. He takes the tape recorder on his journey not to fulfill a storytelling impulse—after all, he is talking to a machine, and therefore more to himself than to his absent audience of one—but rather acting on “instructions” from Madham and as a substitute for writing, because of “his inability to get things down on paper” (1). Upon transcription his oral account—his voice—is edited, commented upon, criticized, speculated upon, and roughly half of it is completely rewritten. Madham, who admits from the outset that he feels “under no obligation to explain anything” (1), takes possession of Jeremy’s story and uses it as a vehicle to construct, or at least reinforce, his own reality. By abandoning even the illusion of a single voice, Kroetsch takes his deconstruction of the conventional novel even further than he did in The Studhorse Man.

The purpose of this deconstructive approach is not, however, to do violence to form for its own sake. For Kroetsch it is part of a grander scheme in which the artist in a new country must, as he has most recently expressed it, “relate that newly evolving identity to its inherited or ‘given’ names” by holding “those names in suspension, to let identity speak itself out of a willed namelessness” (“Canadian Writing” 127). The concept of unnaming in order to name, first articulated by Kroetsch in his 1974 essay, “Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction,” is necessitated by the absence in Canada of an indigenous literary tradition:

The Canadian writer’s particular predicament is that he works with a language, within a literature, that appears to be authentically his own, and not a borrowing. But just as there was in the Latin word a concealed Greek experience, so there is in the Canadian word a concealed other experience, sometimes British, sometimes American.


If our language is inherited from elsewhere, then so must be the forms in which our language is ordered, expressed. Establishing a new literature requires not only finding a new language but new forms and structures to house it. The first step, however, for the writer setting out to “uninvent the world” (“Unhiding” 43) is to represent it symbolically through some form of unnaming engaged in by a character. In the three novels examined in “Unhiding the Hidden,” Atwood’s Surfacing, Davies’s The Manticore, and Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear, the process is represented in story as, respectively, a stripping away of the earthly artifacts (including clothes) that contain the past, a retreat into a cave, and the victimization of a native tribe. On the level of book, Kroetsch as storyteller increasingly deconstructs traditional (and therefore inherited) novelistic forms in the three “Out West” novels. On the level of story he demonstrates the complete cycle of unnaming and renaming only in the final book of the triptych, Gone Indian.

Unlike the initially silent Johnnie Backstrom who creates himself out of nothing by telling his own story, and unlike Demeter who creates himself out of someone else’s story, Jeremy Sadness must go through an unnaming—a loss of a previous identity—before he can be renamed. He begins his journey (paradoxically) as an American graduate student, with a name, an identity, and a two-part mission: to attend a job interview in Alberta, and to follow an innate impulse toward the frontier. Immediately upon arrival in Edmonton he loses his suitcase, a physical loss of identity that is also psychological: “Just for a moment, Professor, I couldn’t remember my name. For a fatal moment my stumbling, ossified, PhD-seeking mind was a clean sheet” (7). The sheet-cleaning process continues as Jeremy accepts the new identity thrust on him, misses his job interview, and buys a new set of clothes even after he has found his own suitcase. But the renaming that goes on initially—Jeremy as Roger Dorck, Jeremy as Winter King—only creates interim identities, as Jeremy becomes even further removed from his former self. The final abandonment—the final unnaming—occurs during the snowshoe race, and is symbolized by Jeremy’s discarding his jacket (and his keys). Just prior to this he has begun renaming his environment to suit the new identity he is preparing to take on, unhiding hidden things that he wants to see:

I dodged around a crater in the snow; a dip, I decided, that must conceal a buffalo wallow. A lone tree in the distance was a rubbing tree. I decided that too. Buffalo trails, deep ruts in the hidden earth, came down through the coulees, down to the slow river and the salt licks and the water. I swear I could smell the blood of a buffalo jump: right there in those hills the Cree and Blackfoot drove the unknown herds to a fatal leap.


At the end of the race Jeremy is mistaken for an Indian, and cannot identify himself otherwise because “I would not speak. For if I had tried, it would have been a tongue I did not understand” (93). Having unnamed himself, he has lost language; at this point in the cycle all of the languages of Babel are possible, but none has been claimed. Jeremy then meets Daniel Beaver and his wife, who assist him in his transformation into Indian (he already has braids at this point) by supplying moccasins and a leather jacket with fringes. In a dream Jeremy sees himself as an Indian warrior, and undergoes a renaming by Poundmaker, from “Antelope Standing Still” to “Has-Two-Chances.” In another dream he becomes a buffalo. So obsessed is he with his new identities that when called upon to fulfill a previously named role, that of beauty contest judge, he deconstructs the entire ritual by naming Jill, instead of one of the contestants, as Winter Queen.

The renaming of Jeremy Sadness into a multitude of identities—Roger Dorck, Has-Two-Chances, Buffalo, Grey Owl, and even vestiges of the former self that he never completely leaves behind—suggests that the uninvention of the world can open up a number of possibilities. Madham defines this as a “consequence of the northern prairies” and calls it “the diffusion of personality into a complex of possibilities rather than a concluded self” (152). In terms of Canadian literature, this means that a writer who peels away the layers of inherited languages and literary traditions to get to the silence of an unnamed world can build in a number of directions of top of that foundation. The languages that emerge may be as multiplicitous as those of Babel, but they will be the writer’s own. In “Canadian Writing: No Name Is My Name,” a recent essay that continues the work of “Unhiding the Hidden,” Kroetsch says:

It may well be that the villain (namelessness) turns out to be the hero in the story of the Canadian story. The nameless figure who seems to threaten us may in fact be leading us to high ground. To avoid a name does not … deprive one of an identity; indeed, it may offer a plurality of identities.


To what does this world of multiple possibilities lead? In general, it leads to an avoidance of simple answers or conclusions, to an approach to writing that “resist[s] endings, violently” (“Exploding” 191). In Gone Indian specifically, it means resistance to closure, resistance to an ending that would force more precise definition. Jeremy’s trip to Notikeewin does not so much end as become displaced from the present into the past, into history. Jeremy, in all of his various identities, moves from being a voice (or voices) present on the open prairie to being a silent absence. The writing down of a world of possibilities involves the recognition and expression of chaos, resisting the usual tendency of narrative to act as an ordering mechanism upon the chaos that is out there in the world of experience. When narrative itself evokes chaos, a number of changes must be made to the traditional roles of reader, writer, and text. What a world of multiple possibilities leads to, then, on the level of book, is a breaking down of established orders, of traditional roles and hierarchies. On the level of story Kroetsch has a metaphor for this: the carnival.

In a 1982 essay entitled “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation,” Kroetsch takes his interpretation of the carnival from the Russian critic, Mikhail Bakhtin:

“One might say that carnival celebrated liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed.”


In the world of carnival, the division between performer and spectator breaks down, and without the distancing properties of established order, a kind of chaos reigns. The carnival is a communal, participatory event, allowing “‘the free, familiar contact among people’” (114). Without hierarchies, identities are lost; the participants are temporarily unnamed and may create whatever identity they like and wear it as a mask. For Kroetsch,

carnival rejoices not in our completeness but in our incompleteness; the mask allows us to partake of several possibilities; we are allowed to cross boundaries; we can at once be serious and mocking, be ourselves and caricature other, be others and criticize ourselves.

(“Carnival” 116)

In all three “Out West” novels a version of carnival serves as a focal event, and as a turning point in the progress of the central character. In Words Johnnie moves from confused speechlessness during the search for Jonah’s body, even though “A compulsion to talk was storming inside me,” (75), to the confidence of his first big speech where “I didn’t so much speak as roar” (108), by finding himself at the centre of attention at two successive carnivals. The auction, where he heckles the prophet’s speech but does nothing more constructive than bid $128 that he does not have for the Model-A, is a kind of prelude to the next day’s rodeo. (Later that day he talks back to Applecart on the radio, and makes brief stabs at speeches, but to an audience of none.) The second and more important carnival-like event is the rodeo, at which the clown’s accidental death motivates Johnnie’s highly successful “hind-tit speech” (114). Johnnie, who has recently been saying “Sometimes it seems that chaos is the only order” (101), uses the bewildered chaos of the crowd after the accident as an opportunity: he orders the crowd behind him with a spontaneous speech that will unify them, and him with them. He creates his own role, and fulfills it, undergoing a kind of renewal in this carnivalesque environment.

In The Studhorse Man the wedding is the carnival. Traditionally a symbol of unity, order, and renewal, the wedding in this case is also Demeter’s first appearance in the main plot (i.e., the story of Hazard), and the first time Hazard and Demeter have come together in the same place. Apart from the one earlier diversion where he describes his peeping-tom experience with Martha, this is the first extended scene in which the story is told from Demeter’s perspective. It is, therefore, the beginning of Demeter’s transition from biographer to subject, and of the transition in narrative method from a researched story to a lived one. The further integration of Hazard and Demeter that has occurred by the end of the novel is begun here; this is where Demeter really starts to wear the mask he has been playing with off and on.

The carnival as event and metaphor is most prominent in Gone Indian. It is during the winter festival that Jeremy discards his jacket and keys, symbolically reducing his identity to a void from which he can recreate himself freely. Identities that are imposed on him, especially the identity of Dorck and the consequent role of beauty contest judge, he now has the ability to reject: given a choice of three identical possibilities he steps outside and makes up his own rules, thereby reinventing the roles of Winter King and Winter Queen. The identities that he embraces are those he chooses, and in a carnival world he not only can do that, he can get away with it.

While rodeos, weddings, and festivals are the most likely sources of the carnivalesque spirit, the environment of liberation from order and rebirth into multiple possibilities is itself situated within a larger place. In “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation,” Kroetsch says: “I grew up in a rural part of Western Canada, where a trace of carnival, if not the carnivalization of literature, was vital and alive. We measured time by wedding dances and sports days and rodeos” (120). The prairie, as the setting for the “Out West” novels, is the home of their carnivals. Kroetsch comes close to identifying the carnivalesque with the prairie itself when he quotes Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The significance of the Frontier in American History” as the epigraph to Gone Indian: “For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant.” If the prairie as frontier—as new place, as the boundary between known and unknown—is a natural location for the becoming world of carnival, it also is a natural metaphor for the larger place of which it is a part: the new, becoming country of Canada with its new, becoming literature.

In the essay, “On Being an Alberta Writer,” Kroetsch discusses his disillusionment when, as a young boy, his father told him that the place he was playing in was a buffalo wallow:

What buffalo? I asked. … When? From where? … Even at that young age I was secure in the illusion that the land my parents and grandparents homesteaded had had no prior occupants, animal or human. Ours was the ultimate tabula rasa. We were the truly innocent.


This experience, Kroetsch says, was “how I first began to be skeptical of the writing that I read” (218). That writing, suddenly, was rendered less pure when the land was revealed as being contaminated by previous users. Neither the place called home nor the writing that came from it had been formed from first principles. This early realization indicates two important assumptions of Kroetsch’s own writing. First, writing springs from a sense of place: the writing that comes from a place (such as the prairies) will be the writing of that place. Second, a tabula rasa, or blank slate, is a solid and desirable place to begin putting something—a home, an identity, a literature. These assumptions form the intuitive foundation upon which Kroetsch as critic and novelist derives many of his concepts: Jeremy’s need to strip off old identities before taking on new ones, the notion of unnaming in order to name, the attraction of carnival with its promise of renewal through the abandoning of structures. But perhaps most important, the reality of the prairie and the attraction of the blank slate that he thought he knew taught Kroetsch about the significance of silence, a silence that, he says, is most noticeable when it stems from an absence, an abandonment: “I responded to those discoveries of absence, to that invisibility, to that silence, by knowing I had to make up a story. Our story” (“On Being” 219).


  1. For example, see the last paragraph of Kroetsch’s “Beyond Nationalism: A Prologue.”

Works Cited

Kroetsch, Robert. “Beyond Nationalism: A Prologue.” The Canadian Literary Scene in Global Perspective. Spec. issue of Mosaic 14.2 (1981): v-xi. (Rpt. in Essays 83–89.)

———. “Canadian Writing: No Name Is My Name.” The Forty-Ninth and Other Parallels: Contemporary Canadian Perspectives. Ed. David Staines, Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1986. 116–28.

———. “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation.” Essays 111–22.

———, and Diane Bessai. “Death Is a Happy Ending: A Dialogue in Thirteen Parts.” Figures in a Ground: Canadian Essays on Modern Literature Collected in Honor of Sheila Watson. Ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie, 1978. 206–15.

———. “The Exploding Porcupine: Violence of Form in English-Canadian Fiction.” Violence in the Canadian Novel Since 1960. Ed. Terry Goldie and Virginia Harger-Grinling. St. John’s: Memorial U of Newfoundland, 1980. 191–99. (Rpt. in Essays 57–64.)

———. “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space.” Crossing Frontiers: Papers in American and Canadian Western Literature. Ed. Dick Harrison, Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1978. 73–83. (Rpt. in Essays 47–55.)

———. Gone Indian, Toronto: new, 1973.

———. “An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” With Geoff Hancock. Canadian Fiction Magazine 24–25 (1977): 33–52.

———. “On Being an Alberta Writer: Or, I Wanted to Tell Our Story.” The New Provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1905–1980. Ed. Howard Palmer and Donald Smith. Vancouver: Tantalus, 1980. 217–27. (Rpt. in Essays 69–80.)

———. “Robert Kroetsch: The American Experience and the Canadian Voice.” Conversations with Canadian Novelists. Vol. 1. With Donald Cameron. Toronto: Macmillan, 1973. 81–95. 2 vols.

———. Robert Kroetsch: Essays. Ed. Frank Davey and bp Nichol. Spec. issue of Open Letter 5th ser. 4 (1983).

———. The Studhorse Man. Toronto: Macmillan, 1969.

———. “Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 3.3 (1974): 43–45. (Rpt. in Essays 17–21.)

———. The Words of My Roaring. Toronto: Macmillan, 1966.

Neuman, Shirley, and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Western Canadian Literary Documents Series 3. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

Further Reading

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Garrett-Petts, W. F. and Lawrence, Donald. “Thawing the Frozen Image/Word: Vernacular Postmodern Aesthetics.” Mosaic 31, No. 1 (March 1998): 143–78.

Discusses Kroetsch's contribution to a postmodern aesthetic, one which consists of language's material presence, the frozen words trope, and how Kroetsch—as contrasted with Canadian pictorial art—engages in a vernacular exploration of visual/verbal limitations.

Additional coverage of Kroetsch's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 38; DISCovering Authors: Canadian;DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1.

John Thieme (essay date 29 November-1 December 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5493

SOURCE: “There's No Business Like Snow Business: Narrative Voice in Robert Kroetsch's Gone Indian,” in Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, November 29-December 1, 1989, pp. 202-16.

[In the following essay, Thieme discusses Gone Indian as a post-modernist retelling of the frontier story.]

In Gone Indian (1973), the second novel in Robert Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ triptych, an American graduate student, Jeremy Sadness, journeys to Edmonton for an interview for an academic post, which he never attends. On arrival at Edmonton Airport he is immediately confronted by a notion of alternative identity and what is referred to as ‘the possibility of transformation’,1 when he finds that the suitcase he has claimed is not his own, but that of one Roger Dorck, a barrister and solicitor resident in a town called Notikeewin. Strip-searched along with a character he initially labels ‘the world’s most beautiful blonde’ (p. 8), but who proves to be a transvestite, Jeremy quickly concludes ‘This is a peculiar land. … Illusion is rife’ (p. 8) and this episode proves to be a pattern for his numerous subsequent encounters with fluid or overlapping identities. The switching of suitcases suggests that Roger Dorck may be an alter ego for Jeremy, but this is only one of a number of possible alternative roles available to him. Accepting a lift to Notikeewin from a returning rodeo-circuit rider, Jeremy is struck by the white emptiness of the terrain through which he is driven and it seems that the signifying systems of his eastern academic upbringing are being confounded by the mirage-like quality of the prairie winter landscape. On arrival in Notikeewin his habitual modes of perception are further dislocated as he is plunged into the carnivalesque world of the town’s annual winter festival, at which Dorck (the name is slang for ‘phallus’,2 suggesting a Rabelaisian carnivalesque subversion3), who has suffered a snowmobile accident and is now comatose in the local hospital, was to preside as king.

Jeremy speculates that Notikeewin may be a Cree or Blackfoot word (p. 12) and in fact the name derives from the Cree ‘nolnigiwin-sipi’ which means ‘fighting river’.4 This is highly appropriate as the setting for a text which not only accords the mock-epic games of the winter festival (a kind of northwestern equivalent of Homeric or Virgilian games) a central role,5 but one which locates itself at the site of conflicting discourses. Jeremy is himself torn between different discursive systems: he is a product of his scholarly training, in which myth criticism appears to have played an important part, but frequently rebels against academe, opposing its language with a youthful, phallogocentric discourse; and he has ‘dreamed northwest’ (p. 6), availed himself of a particular version of the Frontier myth centred on the figure of the Englishman Archie Belaney who reinvented himself as ‘the truest Indian of them all’ (p. 80), Grey Owl.6 Inherent in Belaney’s transformation of self is the notion of the journey west as a journey to new beginnings7 and it is no coincidence that some of Jeremy’s abortive attempts at writing his doctoral dissertation have begun with a focus on the archetypal westward journey to the Americas, that undertaken by Columbus himself. The myth of western freedom and renewal is further underscored by Gone Indian’s epigraph, ‘For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant’ (p. [vii]), which is taken from the classic American text in the formulation of the myth of the Frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’.8 Within the novel a Tristan and Iseult parallel—Jeremy is sent to Edmonton by his supervisor, Professor Mark Madham, just as Tristan is sent to Ireland by King Mark9—provides another variation on the pattern of westward journeying.

However, in this latter-day version of the Columbus quest, Canada has become the Promised Land, has taken over the role of the place of potential renewal and references to western mythologies are compounded with allusions to polar exploration: at various points Jeremy’s journey is likened to those of Scott (p. 40), Ross in search of the lost Franklin (p. 57) and a member of Shackleton’s expedition (p. 124). The Canadian northwest is envisaged as the contemporary Frontier, the place where ‘the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant’ and Edmonton is referred to as ‘that last city on the far, last edge of our civilization’ (p. 6). Such a conception is, of course, like all versions of place, no more than a mental construct, but it is not one which is peculiar to the text. It can be related to a contemporary collective perception of the city, which is most evident in the coming together of those two quintessential latter-day expressions of the American Dream, the shopping mall and the theme park, in the form of West Edmonton Mall, reputedly the world’s largest shopping centre and a place of northwestern pilgrimage on the Canadian ‘far, last edge’ which even includes a replica of Columbus’s ship the Santa Maria as one of its central exhibits.

Gone Indian is, however, concerned with far more than a simple cultural re-reading of the myth of the Frontier in which the Canadian northwest has become the borderline place where new beginnings are possible. It is, even more obviously than the two previous volumes in the ‘Out West’ triptych, The Words of My Roaring (1966) and The Studhorse Man (1969), a postmodernist work which foregrounds signifying practices and constructs the Frontier as much as a site of liberation from prevalent discursive systems, among which academic analysis and legal and quasi-legal judgement are particularly prominent, as an actual geographical locus at which some kind of physical emancipation occurs. In Aritha van Herk’s words, Gone Indian is ‘a novel about the transformation of the novel, what happens to the old (academic) order when the postmodern writer attacks it’.10 Jeremy Sadness’s journey into the Alberta park lands becomes an initiation into a blank tabula rasa-like world, in which language breaks down and the text repeatedly associates the snow-shrouded landscape with death and silence, with a pre- (or post-?) linguistic world in which the distinctions of language that create the sense of discrete identity, whether for people, objects or concepts, dissolve into an undifferentiated primeval (or apocalyptic?) mass. As in other Kroetsch novels’,11 this world is associated with animal identity—particularly with the buffalo, but also with several other Canadian animals such as the beaver, bear, rabbit and owl; it is associated with Plains Indian identity, with a pure, Edenic-like lovemaking12 and, most prominently of all in Gone Indian, with the all-enveloping snow in which Jeremy repeatedly finds himself immersed.

‘Snow’ is a signifier that particularly characterizes the northern, Canadian world, and comments in two other Canadian novels of the 1970s provide an interesting context for the way in which it is used in Gone Indian. Both Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972) and Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974) stress the importance of words for ‘snow’ in Inuit culture. In Surfacing the unnamed narrator/protagonist bemoans the inadequacy of the English word ‘love’ for describing the complex range of emotions evoked by it and reflects that ‘the Eskimoes had fifty-two names for snow’,13 which has a similar, central importance in their culture. The Diviners echoes this, putting the count of ‘eskimo’ words for ‘snow’ at a more modest twenty-five and attributing this number to the Inuit need to be able to distinguish between different varieties of the substance in order to survive.14 One might argue that even in the English-Canadian context there is a need for a range of signifiers to provide some kind of account of the multiplicity of forms that the element can take: the blanket term ‘snow’ offers no opportunities for making distinctions amid this plurality. On one level, then, ‘snow’ provides an index of a complex, polymorphous phenomenon being strait-jacketed within a single, monolithic pattern of signification; ‘snow’ reduces multi-voiced disparate identity into univocal simplism. On another level Gone Indian suggests that this abnegation of differentiation offers liberation from ‘the old (academic) order’. Jeremy Sadness’s entry into the snow carnival world can be read as involving a loss of identity, a symbolic death, but such a death simultaneously offers the possibility of rebirth into a new identity—comparable with Archie Belaney’s metamorphosis into Grey Owl—and an alternative universe of discourse, which is associated with a Plains Indian sensibility. A comment by Kroetsch in Labyrinths of Voice, his book-length, deconstructed interview with Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson, elaborates on this:

To go Indian: an ambiguous phrase: to become released or wild in the carnival sense. And I was playing that off against the professor (Madham) and graduate student (Sadness)—people who are into the whole notion of control … ordering, explaining. It is their extreme movement from the professorial stance into carnival that interested me. Sadness arrives in a carnival: he is both released and realized by that: he is completed by that, even by the loss of identity and the shift into a new identity by accident, by the mixing of life and death that takes place, the kind of phallic connection. So the carnivalization is what? It’s happening to the characters and it’s happening to the novel. It’s double.15

According to one possible version of Jeremy’s eventual fate, offered in the closing pages of the text, he actually succeeds in finally realizing his Grey Owl fantasy. This account is disputed, but even the main alternative possibility has him dying/disappearing into a new identity as he leaps from a high-level railway bridge in the middle of a snowstorm.16

So ‘snow’ functions in Gone Indian both as the prime element of the winter festival world and as an index of the process of carnivalization which the novel itself is undergoing, the process in which the ostensible plot, a comic reworking of the ‘monomyth’ quest paradigm, outlined by Joseph Campbell17 and others, is being subverted. But ‘snow’ is also important in another sense: the narrative is a protracted snow-job, a labyrinth of suspect, if not downright unreliable traces, among which Professor Madham’s frame-narrative is the most elaborate piece of sleight-of-hand, and it is this aspect of the text, the playful, postmodernist use of narrative voice, which I wish to concentrate on as the main focus for the rest of this paper.

In Labyrinths of Voice a passage from Julia Kristeva, quoted immediately after the Kroetsch comment just cited as one of the many intertextual traces that productively disrupt the narrative flow of the three-way interview, draws attention to the unstable focalization of carnival discourse: ‘The scene of the carnival introduces the split speech act: the actor and the crowd are each in turn simultaneously subject and addressee of discourse.’18Gone Indian works in just this way with first-person narrators also occupying the role of second-person narratees—thus Madham both receives Jeremy’s tapes and mediates them by offering his own account of what happened to his protégé—to a point where authority is completely undermined, and with readers finding themselves in analogous situation to Jeremy Sadness as they are forced to cross a frontier of signification beyond which conventional conceptions of narrative coherence and unitary signification no longer obtain. Even the notion of stable, autonomous character collapses: towards the end of the novel Madham comments that the northern prairies frustrate normal ‘human definition’, because they make for ‘the diffusion of personality into a complex of possibilities rather than a concluded self’ (p. 152) and elsewhere Kroetsch himself has referred to the reader as:

a character out of one of the novels the novelist is deconstructing. He expects certain consolations: of plot, of motivation, of characterization, of conclusion. … And he, the old reader, must slowly unlearn concepts of character. Of motivation. Of plot and ending. He must, to sum it up in one expression, acquire Negative Capability. He has entered a world where possibilities not only co-exist but contradict.19

So the act of consuming the text propels its readers into the position of having to author their own versions from the incomplete clues that are on offer. As one critic has put it, Gone Indian ‘could be read as a detective novel where the intrigue takes place on the level of language, the suspects are words and the victim is identity’.20 In such a scheme the reader is consigned to playing the part of detective and, while this may always be true of the reading experience, it is a role which assumes a particular urgency in the consumption of a postmodernist prairie text.

The process of detection has to come to terms with the novel’s puzzling use of a polyphonic narrative method. Superficially there are only two narrative voices: those of Professor Madham and Jeremy Sadness. Madham is the main frame-narrator and he purports to offer an edited version—an edited version which suggests a kind of academic hatchet-job—of the audio-tapes Jeremy has been making during his time in Alberta. Sometimes Madham appears to be giving a verbatim transcription of the tapes—such is the level of narrative uncertainty associated with his voice that one hesitates to say categorically that these are Jeremy’s utterances; at other times he provides his own summary of Jeremy’s oral reports, freely admitting that he is only ‘transcribing a few passages’ (p. 1) and has ‘had to select from the tapes, in spite of Jeremy’s instructions to the contrary: the mere onslaught of detail merely overwhelms. We grasp at something else’ (p. 13). His account is, then, a doctored version and the particular nature of this doctoring is fairly clearly associated with the ‘old (academic) order’—on one occasion he even offers an academic footnote (p. 144)!21

So, on the surface, the text offers its readers a dialogue between two voices: between professor and student, between scribal and oral discourse, between academic control and youthful iconoclasm, between a westerner come east (Madham confesses his origins were in Alberta) and an easterner gone west, gone Indian. However, the element of split-speech does not stop here. Both voices exhibit tensions and inconsistencies which are centred on the dialogic aspects inherent within them: Jeremy makes his tapes for Madham and Madham’s narrative is similarly informed by the prominent presence of an addressee—he writes to Jill Sunderman, a young woman with whom Jeremy has become involved in Alberta.

Jeremy’s oral account is mainly narrated in the genre of confession. Chapter 16 of the text, in which he visits a priest and confesses his inability to be unchaste (‘Father, listen … I can’t get a hard-on in bed’, p. 35) is a clear parody of this mode of utterance, and more generally his monologues are a form of confession to Madham, against whose authority he frequently rebels. All Kroetsch’s earlier fiction, from But We Are Exiles (1965) onwards, is founded on a struggle between a patriarch and a young pretender who would usurp this older man’s power, and Gone Indian continues this pattern. Jeremy’s narrative, despite supposed censoring from Madham, is liberally dotted with undeleted expletives, many of which are directed against his mentor. So, although the version of his tapes that Madham offers shows him on one level to be a product of his eastern, academic upbringing, an element of western, carnivalesque subversion looms larger. Jeremy’s narration can be seen as representative of a new generation’s attempt to rid itself of the language of the Father,22 the old (academic) order’, but significantly Madham remains a necessary addressee for him until he chooses silence at the end of the novel. There is no overt Oedipal attempt, on his part, to dislodge the Father, though one could argue that the procedures of the text, which are themselves carnivalesque, involve just such a patricide.

While it is clear that Jeremy’s tapes exhibit the interplay of conflicting discursive codes, it is perhaps less obviously so where Madham’s narration is concerned. Madham may appear to write in a unitary unfragmented, academic mode, to act as a mediating voice for what he refers to as ‘the inconsistencies and contradictions’ (p. 5) of Jeremy’s recordings. Such a reading is, however, I would suggest, untenable. It is within Madham’s account that the real fragmentation, ironies and discontinuities of the text reside. He is both the ultimate puppet-master who pulls all the narrative strings and a chameleon-like trickster whose every word involves a kind of double-speak.

Gone Indian opens with a letter written by Madham to Jill Sunderman from an address in Binghamton, New York, which is the same as that at which Robert Kroetsch was living at the time of writing Gone Indian23 (another level of postmodernist play is at work here). Although Jill remains the addressee of all his subsequent utterances, the epistolary form is only used in this initial section. Its effect is to foreground her second-person presence as the recipient of his narrative. While Jeremy confesses to Madham, he is in a sense confessing to Jill Sunderman. Since the account he provides for her frequently records events in which she has been directly involved, some readers of the novel have objected to this method on the grounds of implausibility. Why should he be telling Jill what she already knows?24 There are, however, various possible justifications for such apparent recapitulation. Throughout Madham speaks in the avuncular tones of a professor who is used to having the last word. He is the possessor of the tapes and, within the dialogic structure of the novel, has the last word since he is able to comment on Jeremy’s account, a process which, needless to say, does not operate in reverse. His Christian name, Mark, suggests one of the most important ways in which academic authority is exercised and, from this first letter, which concludes with his assertion that he is ‘unfallen’ (p. 3), onwards, he displays little modesty or sense of self-doubt. Jeremy, in contrast, is constantly forced to come to terms with fallen identity—a fall into carnivalesque chaos is a major motif of Gone Indian on both thematic and discursive levels25—and finally he appears to find freedom through a fortunate fall into darkness, a void of signification.26

Madham’s relating to Jill what she may already reasonably be expected to know can also be justified in other ways. On one occasion he tells her that she may wish to square Jeremy’s account with her own recollection (p. 38), thus explicitly casting doubt on the reliability of the supposedly definitive narrative he is retelling. Most significantly of all, though, Madham’s own identity is not unitary. His name, like all the names in Gone Indian,27 is richly suggestive and among the possibilities it evokes are those of crazed professor (mad-ham); first man (Adam), fallen or unfallen; and gender bender (madam). Even more markedly than Jeremy, Madham is a split subject and his claim to perfection, enacted on a formal level by his attempt to encase Jeremy’s diffuse outpourings within the framework of his bland, superficially monolithic academic voice, can be read as the ultimate snow-job of the text.

While Jeremy has gone west, Madham has, many years before, come east, transforming himself from an Albertan frontiersman into a professor. So a role reversal is clearly implied, with Jeremy and Madham as obviously foils to one another as any pair of Conradian or Dostoyevskyan doubles. However, again more is involved than just this and the most satisfactory explanation of why Madham tells Jill what she already presumably knows is that he is, unbeknown to her, her father, and is consequently engaged in another kind of confessional discourse, albeit a veiled one. The evidence for such a reading is extensive, if not completely conclusive28—the open-ended nature of the novel’s postmodernist practice allows nothing to be finalized. After Jill’s father, Robert Sunderman, died/disappeared, he phoned his wife Bea, with whom Jeremy also becomes involved and with whom he ultimately dies/disappears, and so appears to have faked his death by drowning. Madham’s narrative offers several clues that he may be the former Robert Sunderman,29 among them a reference to his having been a hockey-player in his youth (p. 37), his remark that he has ‘come to love [Bea Sunderman’s]’ old house as well as if it were [his] own’ (p. 154) and, most suggestive of all, an apparent slip of the tongue close to the end of the novel when, speaking of Robert Sunderman’s disappearance, he says ‘I shall never forget it’ (p. 155). So the burden of evidence points towards a solution of the mystery in which Sunderman is seen as having killed off his old identity by sundering30 himself from his prairie roots and reinventing himself as Madham. Yet in important respects his past remains with him and this helps to explain inconsistencies which are prominent in his own behaviour. Although he criticizes Jeremy for his phallic obsessions, he is usurping his role by sleeping with his wife, Carol. Although he has repudiated the West by coming east and donning the mantle of a professor, he nonetheless engages in animal-like lovemaking with Carol beside the buffalo enclosure of a zoo on a hillside near Binghamton (p. 3).

So the role-exchange pattern cuts both ways, with neither character fully possessed of the identity to which he aspires. However, whereas Jeremy’s voice—as reported by Madham—moves away from a fixed position and finally at the end of his last tape surrenders itself to silence, as he lies in bed with Bea Sunderman vowing never to get up until, in a new ice age, he is enveloped by a glacier, ‘the primal stuff in primal motion’ (p. 150), Madham’s academic pontifications attempt to impose an enclosing univocalism, which is only transcended in the last moment of his account, when he envisages Jeremy and Bea leaping into nothingness from the railway bridge. The freeze-frame quality of this ending leaves the narrative open, with the kinetic lovers immortalized, but not finalized, in a moment of stasis reminiscent of those on Keats’s Grecian Urn.

The confusion and transformations of identity within the text are multiple: the transvestite youth Jeremy encounters at Edmonton Airport thinks he is a buffalo, as does Jeremy himself later on; Jeremy’s wife Carol is compared with Jill Sunderman; Madham is very probably Robert Sunderman. Jeremy, who throughout the action of the novel has been unable to make love while lying down (a curious example of vertical man unable to function in a horizontal world—to borrow Laurie Ricou’s terminology31) finally achieves regeneration in Robert Sunderman’s bed, as Bea sleeps with him, thinking he is her lost, young husband returned. And Jeremy’s identity is blurred not only with Sunderman/Madham’s, but also with that of the comatose Dorck. In a dream in which the Plains Indians repossess what is now the city of Edmonton, Jeremy is renamed ‘Has-Two-Chances’ (p. 106) and at the end of the novel may have fulfilled his Grey Owl fantasy. In short, Gone Indian is saturated with references to possible transformations of identity to a point where the very notion of discrete, separate selfhood withers away.

A central scene—it is anticipated more than once before it actually occurs—takes place when Jeremy is drafted into judging a beauty contest to find a queen for the annual Notikeewin festival. This reads like a bizarre parody of the Judgement of Paris, since there are three contestants who are identical in every respect, another instance of the winter carnival world’s confounding the academic urge to differentiate. Again the suggestion is that the northern plains render such activity meaningless and finally the text subsides into the silence of the snow-covered world, as Jeremy stops talking and Madham imagines him jumping into emptiness.

At the beginning of Gone Indian Madham presents his narrative as a response to Jill Sunderman’s request that he “‘explain everything”’, but says he feels ‘under no obligation to explain anything’ (p. 1). Despite his unreliability as a narrator, this comment can be seen to foreground the novel’s procedures: as a postmodernist text it resists transparent reading and notions of unitary and completed signification. However, the collapse of discrete identity and sharply individualized narrative voices in a world where snow is the Great Leveller is not simply a process of negation; it opens up multiple possibilities for transforming personality and cultural and discursive codes.

Gone Indian occupies a unique place among the cluster of revisionist texts that reshaped attitudes towards North American Indians in the late 1960s and early 1970s.32 Unlike such works as Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1971), it is only incidentally involved in promulgating a new Indian historiography. It is less concerned with celebrating the return of the vanishing American than with the potential Plains Indian culture offers for WASP self-renewal. Its Indian characters, Daniel Beaver and his wife, function primarily as the repository of an alternative mode of discourse—one which is associated with silence and a lack of competitiveness that is the antithesis of the American Dream. The Cree Daniel Beaver emerges as an archetypal Canadian beautiful loser, when he subverts the heroic ideal of the quasi-epic winter games in which he is competing by throwing a dog-sleigh race he has virtually won just before the finishing line (p. 79). Jeremy’s abandonment of his academic career and his tape recorder, his descent into silence, exile and cunning, involves a similar abnegation of language and the success ethic, and completes the process of surrendering autonomous selfhood in which he has been engaged from the moment of his arrival amid the snow of the winter carnival world. The text’s subversive use of narrative voice and carnivalization of the form of the novel involves a parallel movement away from definitive, unitary signification. Both character and novel have gone Indian.


  1. Gone Indian (1973; Nanaimo: Theytus, 1981), p. 7. Subsequent references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  2. Robert Kroetsch, letter to Jim Bacque, 28 November 1972, University of Calgary MsC

  3. Kroetsch discusses carnivalization, with reference to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva, in ‘Carnival and Violence: A Meditation’, Robert Kroetsch: Essays, eds. Frank Davey and bpNichol, Open Letter, 5, 4 (Spring 1983), pp. 111–22. See also Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, eds. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982), pp. 35–7.

  4. Hugh A. Dempsey, Indian Names for Albertan Communities (Calgary: Glenbow Museum, revised edn., 1987), p. 15, gives this as the derivation of the name of the village of Notikewin, which is further north in Alberta. The Battle River, the area in which the ‘Out West’ triptych is set, was once known as the Notikeewin. I am indebted to Robert Kroetsch for this information.

  5. Funeral Games was a working-title for the novel: an alternative title for an early draft entitled Buffalo Woman, University of Calgary MsC 27.12.1–3; and the first of eight possible titles which appear on the title-page of a second draft, University of Calgary MsC 27.12.4–6.

  6. Belaney was born in Hastings, England in 1888 and went to Canada in 1906. There he associated with the Ojibwa, married an Iroquois wife and, claiming in the first of his books, The Men of the Last Frontier (1931), that he was the son of a Scot and an Apache, began calling himself Grey Owl. In 1931 he began to lecture on conservation. In the same year he went to live in Western Canada where he wrote three very popular books, Pilgrims of the Wild (1934), Sajo and the Beaver People (1935) and Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936). His true identity was only discovered after his death in 1938.

  7. Kroetsch stresses the importance of the western quest for new beginnings in his review of Dick Harrison’s Unnamed Country, ‘The Disappearing Father and Harrison’s Born-Again and Again and Again West’, Essays on Canadian Writing, 11 (Summer 1978), pp. 7–9.

  8. Turner’s thesis was first delivered as an address to the American Historical Association in 1893. It is included in his The Frontier in American History (1920).

  9. Cf. Robert Kroetsch, letter to Ingrid Cook, New Press, Toronto, 17 November 1972, ‘… from Tristan to Columbus to Trudeau, men have gone west in search of new loves, new worlds, new identities’, University of Calgary MsC; and letter to Patricia Knox, New Press, Toronto, 13 April 1973, describing Gone Indian as ‘a novel about going west; not just my going, no, the going of Columbus from the Old World in search of the New, the going of Tristan in search of a new lay for the old king, the going out of and into that produced Canada, the Canadians, the change, the metamorphosis, ideally represented by and in the transubstantiation of the body and dreams of the English boy, Archie Belaney (fatherless, and seeking a father) into the Great Canadian Indian, Grey Owl … ’, University of Calgary MsC

  10. The Robert Kroetsch Papers First Accession: An Inventory of the Archive, eds. Jean F. Tener and Apollonia Steele (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1986), p. xxvi.

  11. Particularly Badlands (1975). See my discussion of this aspect of the novel in ‘Beyond History: Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Robert Kroetsch’s Badlands’, in Re-visions of Canadian Literature, ed. Shirley Chew (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1985), pp. 71–87.

  12. See particularly p. 147.

  13. Surfacing (1972; London: Virago, 1979), p. 106.

  14. The Diviners (1974; Bantam-Seal: New York and Toronto, 1975), p. 407.

  15. Labyrinths of Voice, pp. 36–7.

  16. Earlier in the novel a high level bridge has been associated with the possibility of a fall from language and fixed identity, when Jeremy makes love to Jill Sunderman in a cloud of snow on the High Level Bridge across the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton, p. 59. Jeremy’s first encounter with Plains Indian identity, in the form of Daniel Beaver, a ‘Pied Piper’ or spirit-guide in the process of his initiation into an alternative mode of discourse, also takes place on this bridge, p. 63.

  17. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 30, Campbell identifies the ‘formula represented in the rites of passage: separationinitiationreturn’ as the ‘nuclear unit of the monomyth’. Jeremy’s journey frustrates completion of this ‘formula’, when his initiation leads not to return but disappearance. Gone Indian also employs the pattern of shamanistic descent outlined by Campbell, op. cit., pp. 98–101, an aspect of the novel which is discussed by Peter Thomas, Robert Kroetsch, (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1980), Ch. 4.

  18. ‘The Bounded Text’, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 46. Quoted in Labyrinths of Voice, p. 37.

  19. Labyrinths of Voice, pp. 176–7.

  20. Sylvia Söderlind, ‘Identity and Metamorphosis in Canadian Fiction since the Sixties’ in A Sense of Place: Essays in Post-Colonial Literatures, ed. Britta Olinder (Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, 1984), p. 82.

  21. In an earlier draft of the novel Madham’s comments appear as footnotes, University of Calgary MsC 27.12.1–3.

  22. Kroetsch discusses paternalistic models of influence in Labyrinths of Voice—see particularly, pp. 19–24.

  23. 48 Lathrop Avenue, Binghamton, New York 13905.

  24. See Robert Kroetsch, letter to Jim Bacque, 28 November 1972, University of Calgary MsC

  25. The text uses the fall metaphor to suggest an attempted escape from the anxiety of influence. Cf. Labyrinths of Voice, pp. 25–6.

  26. Again an archetypal American theme, that of the felix culpa (see R. W. B. Lewis’s The American Adam, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), is displaced from a modernist, mythic reading to a postmodernist reading which foregrounds signifying practices.

  27. Jeremy has been named after Jeremy Bentham, by a lost father who wants him ‘to grow up … to be a professor’ (p. 52); he blames much of his ‘irrational need to seek out the wilderness … on the accident of his name: that one portion of identity which is at once so totally invented and so totally real’ (p. 51). The names in Kroetsch’s novels up to Badlands are discussed in W. F. H. Nicolaisen, ‘Ordering the Chaos: Name Strategies in Robert Kroetsch’s novels’, Essays on Canadian Writing, 11 (Summer 1978), pp. 55–65.

  28. In an earlier draft of the novel, it is conclusive: after visiting the comatose Dorck in hospital, Jeremy sees Madham walk by and realizes that he is the ‘dead and gone Robert Sunderman’, University of Calgary MsC 27.12.1–3.249.

  29. See Arnold E. Davidson, ‘Will the Real Mark Madham Please Stand Up: A Note on Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian’, Studies in Canadian Literature, 6, 1 (1981), pp. 135–9.

  30. Linda Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern (Toronto: OUP, 1988), p. 171 considers the implication of the name Sunderman in relation to Jill and Bea and suggests that ‘while there are indeed images connecting women to enclosure in Kroetsch’s novels … the notion of “sundering man” may well be a positive, in the sense of both a breaking-up of male hegemony and a contesting of the notion of single, coherent subjectivity’.

  31. Laurence Ricou, Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973).

  32. The novel’s title can, of course, also be taken to refer to the contemporary situation of the Indian.

David Creelman (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6776

SOURCE: “Robert Kroetsch: Criticism in the Middle Ground,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1991, pp. 63-81.

[In the following essay, Creelman examines Kroetsch's “critical plurality.”]


One of the things we seek, I think, is freedom from definition, because definition is as restrictive as cosmology.

(Labyrinths of Voice 7)

Robert Kroetsch’s career as a writer has been marked throughout by his attempts to “kick free” from the many literary traditions and models that threaten to confine his texts. In his novels, Kroetsch has disrupted the conventions of characterization and plot structure in an effort to make the reader a more active participant in the signifying process. In his long poems he has broken down distinctions of genre by mixing lyrical meditations and prosaic reflections, and has erased the distinctions between literary and non-literary discourses by filling his texts with passages from newspapers, seed catalogues, and farmer’s diaries. In his essays and interviews—our main source of information about his theoretical positions—Kroetsch makes similar moves to free himself from the logocentric and positivistic impulses of thematic criticism and New criticism, by searching out positions that proclaim a faith in process and multiplicity. His rebellion from the traditional critical stances of Eliot, Leavis, Brooks, and Richards is complete and certain; but Kroetsch is not always as clear about what positions he is rebelling towards. Having passed through stages in which he aligned himself with structuralist and phenomenological schools, Kroetsch has, in the last ten years, drawn closer to post-structuralist theories; though his relationship with those discourses are troubled at best. Robert Lecker has called his methods deconstructionist, and Donna Bennett has linked him with Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, and Barthes, but when we carefully examine the oppositions which structure his texts, and excavate the assumptions behind them, we discover that Kroetsch’s “kicking free” from logocentrism does not entail a complete acceptance of post-structuralist thought.1

Kroetsch’s search for critical plurality has drawn him towards a playful mix of epistemologies: at times he privileges concepts of presence; more frequently he is drawn towards theories of absence. Indeed, some commentators have characterized Kroetsch’s theoretical positions and critical practices through the use of a border metaphor: “If Kroetsch is a borderman it is because he chooses to live in two worlds, both of which he rejects.”2 For Robert Lecker and Linda Hutcheon, Kroetsch’s decision to promote multiplicity while recognizing his involvement with logocentrism becomes the essential and defining feature of his criticism:

Kroetsch’s poetic is about the paradox of creative choice, it is about the contradictions in the reading/writing process. If we ignore those contradictions, if we forget Kroetsch’s fertile border, we run the risk of naming an author who, like his tricksters, remains powerfully unnamed.3

This double seduction is never resolved in any ecstatic union of poles, however. The tensions remain unresolved.4

Both critics develop an image of an ever restless Kroetsch who tirelessly subverts “the one” while never stopping long enough to set down permanent roots of his own:

Any attempts at totalizing systems of thought or expression are subverted, even at the moment of their installation. The tension between use and abuse is critical: there is no resolution in either direction.5

As we shall see, this border metaphor is problematic, but at least it provides an accurate introduction to Kroetsch’s habit of structuring his world in dualities: his habit of fostering pluralities and chaos while still being marginally involved in the positivistic structures.

The benefits of tentatively linking Kroetsch to the border metaphor becomes clear as we investigate his interviews and essays and discover that he repeatedly develops his ideas through a series of comparisons and contrasts. As a result his texts are filled with oppositions, in which a first term concerned with a static vision of the world is rejected in favour of a second more radical term which focuses on process and activity. This movement from stasis to animation is at the base of Kroetsch’s desire to replace centrality with chaos, God with Coyote, myth with oral anecdote, metaphor with metonymy, and traditional reading styles with archaeological models. This shift also grounds his vision of critical writing as the continuation of story.

Fundamental to Kroetsch’s critical vision is a deep distrust of unitary and singular interpretations of the world. While he recognizes that “the temptation of meaning is upon us all the time” (Labyrinths of Voice 15),6 Kroetsch fears monolithic interpretations of the world because they destroy the diversity essential to life: “We don’t want that center which encompasses, which entraps. … One version of entrapment is simply being dead center, being caught in any dead center” (LV 130). Given his recognition that “making historical, cultural, or linguistic diversity into one is a present danger” (LV 118), it is not surprising that Kroetsch rejects the primary symbols of unity in Western culture: the Garden of Eden, and the Christian/Hebraic God. In opposition to logocentric visions of the world, Kroetsch endorses a decentering of unity through a recognition of the “total ambiguity” that lies behind language, society, and culture (LV 124). Within multiplicity Kroetsch finds the freedom to confront the chaos of experience and in that confrontation discovers the vitality of life. The new emblems of Kroetsch’s chaos become the tower of Babel and the trickster Coyote, both of which represent the confusion of a world freed from oppressive cosmologies:

I now happen to think that it was a great thing, one of the greatest things that has happened to mankind. From the tower of Babel all of a sudden, we gain all the languages we have.

(LV 116)

The trickster’s a mythic figure that really speaks to me. Partly this is because a trickster breaks down systems. There is no logic to his behaviour, or only an anti-logic. … He’s energy independent of moral structure and moral interpretation. He’s very subversive, very carnivalesque.

(LV 99–100)

The tyranny of system is also challenged structurally in Kroetsch’s essays as he refuses to develop logical arguments, preferring instead to follow the Coyote’s anti-logic by assembling papers from series of loosely connected fragments. By rejecting logical structures, Kroetsch frees his readers into a field of language from which they are able to construct their own significance. In the same way, Kroetsch endorses the forms of parody and satire for they speak by repeating a recognizable form or model while at the same time inserting a critical difference which reminds the reader that “you can’t believe that there is only one assertible meaning in that story” (LV 89).

In his fictions and in Labyrinths of Voice, one of the totalizing forces which Kroetsch works hardest to decenter is the power of myth. As a collection of narratives that has descended through the ages and accumulated a stable set of meanings, Western myth is something Kroetsch finds “frightening because it is entrapping” (LV 96). With its predetermined set of meanings and interpretations, myth, especially as it is used by the Moderns, removes the reader’s freedom to construct her own meanings and inscribes her within an already defined system. Kroetsch’s solution to the totalizing power of myth is not simply to abandon mythic structures and allusions, but rather to break them down by retelling them in a new context. The regeneration of myth through recontextualization is the focus of Kroetsch’s concept of the anecdote. As a fresh story which is grounded in a specific local context, and does not yet carry an inherited set of meanings, the patterns of anecdote provide an effective means of retelling/replacing monolithic myths: it “touches upon larger patterns without involving itself with them. … Anecdote stays looser than myth because it hasn’t compromised itself for a larger pattern. … Anecdote frees up the grammar of narrative” (LV 115).

Just as Kroetsch uses anecdote to disrupt myth, so he celebrates oral speech as a means of resisting the canons of literature. It is important to note from the beginning that Kroetsch’s privileging of the oral over the literary is in no way a rejection of, or even a resistance to, Derrida’s assertions that speech is a form of writing. In Of Grammatology, his seminal critique of Saussure and Rousseau, Derrida confronts western philosophy’s long tradition of viewing speech as a natural, direct communication, and “writing as an oblique representation of representation.” The privileging of speech represses certain features of language such as différance, which, if recognized, would undermine the metaphysics of presence that have characterized Western thought since the days of Plato.7 Through his work with the logic of the supplement, Derrida reverses this hierarchy of speech/writing, repositions speech under the broader category of “archi-écriture,” and thus demonstrates that all language, be it speech or writing, is part of a nonrepresentational, arbitrary, differential system of signifiers and signifieds.

Kroetsch’s celebration of the oral is not a return to a metaphysics of presence in speech; rather he sees, in the oral traditions of the “chant, song, ballad, [and] tall tale” (LV 39), and in the “art speech” of such artists as Wiebe and Laurence, a fluidity and transience that foregrounds the deeper absence of all languages.8 Oppressed by the canon of English literature, with its pressures to maintain a certain body of traditions which he finds “over-whelming” (LV 3), Kroetsch turns to the informalities and incompletion of the spoken word to decenter the conventional body of works. The literary / oral binary is an opportunity to violate the canon, to reopen the borders of literature and deny its totalizing impulses: “I keep thinking of Artaud: ‘Literature is bullshit.’ He didn’t say writing was bullshit, he said literature is bullshit, because to make it into literature is to systematize” (LV 160). As we shall see, Kroetsch eventually pulls back from the full implications of deconstruction, but at least he agrees with one of Derrida’s fundamental deductions: though one can be used to rejuvenate the other, “there is no difference finally between written text and spoken text” (LV 39).

At a more concrete level Kroetsch privileges a series of literary techniques which help texts—both critical and fictional—break from the confining practices of the past. For example, rather than encouraging the use of such figures as similes and metaphors—devices which create closed systems by replacing one term with another—Kroetsch stresses the importance of metonymy and synecdoche, figures which move the reader from a part to a whole, initiating him into a chain of signifiers which highlights the material and differential nature of language. Metonymy becomes a means of reminding the reader that reading a text is only a matter of following/choosing a series of traces: thus, instead of the “temptations of ‘origins’” inherent in figures of replacement, “we have genealogies that multiply our connections into the past, into the world” (LV 117).

As a writer, Kroetsch attempts to foster multiplicity and process by stressing metonymy, anti-logical structures, anecdote, and oral stories. On the other side of the page, he continues to encourage plurality by proposing that readers abandon traditional practises of interpretation, and adopt an archaeological model of reading which focuses on the fragmented nature of the text.

Though Kroetsch refers to the writings of Michel Foucault as he develops his model of archaeological reading, there is actually very little similarity between the two authors’ practises. For Foucault, “archaeology” is a powerful term referring to the process of unlayering the many ideologies and struggles which are imprinted in the text by the social and political powers of their day. Foucault rejects any possibility that language can be separated from the use of power, and thus his textual excavations are primarily concerned with the ideologies at work in the structures.9 Kroetsch, on the other hand, is not interested in the power structures embedded in texts; indeed, he claims “I’m quite aware of being without ideology” (LV 33). Thus archaeological reading practises become a way, not to a deeper understanding of western society, but to empower the reader and make her a more active participant in the signifying process.

In Kroetsch’s world all texts, be they postmodern or classic realism, are artifacts of language that are inherently self contradictory and fragmented. While traditional interpretive reading strategies encourage the reader to ignore the seams in a text, Kroetsch encourages us to focus on the textual breaks and the reader, “like the writer, becomes archaeologist, seeking the grammar of the fragments.”10 Like the realm of the oral for the writer, “archaeology, of necessity, involves violence” (EP 111), but out of this violation of unity comes a new freedom: “Archaeology allows [for] the fragmentary nature of the story, against the coercive unity of traditional history. Archaeology allows for discontinuity. It allows the layering. It allows for imaginative speculation.” (BAW 76). Kroetsch’s archaeological model for reading forces the reader to take control and construct his/her own sets of meanings in much the same way that Roland Barthes encourages the reader to read in a writerly way, to uncover and recover the playfulness of language which rests in every text. The activity of “uncovering,” “uncreating,” and “unnaming” a text encourages the reader to fully recognize and accept the jouissance inherent in the world of differential language. The reader, like the writer, is given greater freedom if he/she accept the second terms of Kroetsch’s dualities.

As Robert Kroetsch proselytizes for multiplicity, plurality, process, and chaos, he is well aware that he himself is caught in a contradiction. Each stage of rebellion against the unifying forces, each attempt to critique the logocentric, involves a certain level of complicity with the very forces that are being attacked. In order to encourage the absence and silence of meaning beneath language, Kroetsch must write and speak—involving himself in the traditions of Western discourse. To encourage anti-logic, chaos, and confusion, Kroetsch must, even in his most story-like criticism, retain some semblance of logic order and coherence in order for his message to be effective. The paradox that critique necessarily includes complicity is recognized by Kroetsch as he admits:

One can’t escape by discontinuity itself—it contains the word continuity doesn’t it? It says dis/continuity. I am totally involved in a sense of the tradition, but I relate to it by discontinuity. Not to have that is to be just absorbed into tradition or erased by it.

(LV 26)

As Kroetsch strengthens his vision of multiplicity, many of the traditional boundaries between genres begin to dissolve. Oral speech becomes a model for written text, prose is blended with poetry, and criticism is merged with the larger field of writing. Roland Barthes, in SZ, was one of the first post-structuralist critics to envision criticism, not as a metalinguistic supplement hovering over the text, but rather as a creative—even primary—extension of the initial text. Kroetsch echoes these sentiments when he claims:

I think criticism is really a version of story you see; I think we are telling the story to each other of how we get a story. It is the story of our search for story. That’s why criticism is so exciting. Not because it provides answers, but because it is a version of story.

(LV 30)

Kroetsch himself is aware that not all of his essays live up to these intentions to continue the story without providing answers and conclusions, and in many cases, as Barbara Godard has pointed out, “the deconstructive influence remains essentially a stylistic one.”11 For example, though the nine fragments of “Effing the Ineffable” disrupt the structural logic of an essay, in the last two sections Kroetsch suggests that writers can reach a state of wholeness called “Voice,” and then reaffirms this allusion to presence by poetically linking a series of writers with totalizing images which capture their characters: “Chuff Chuff says Lorna Uher, I am the Great Beetle of Love … Chuff Chuff says Robert Kroetsch, I am the Red-Winged Blackbird.”12 Nor, as shall be seen, is this essay alone in its return to rather structuralist and positivistic visions of the world. In a few cases, however, Kroetsch’s form and content come together to create a strong story / criticism that resists closure and unified meanings. Kroetsch is often able to walk the border in his essays without stumbling.

Kroetsch’s analysis of novels by Sinclair Ross and Willa Cather—“The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction”—was written in 1978, shortly before Kroetsch’s interviews showed the marks of his full initiation into deconstructive criticism; but nonetheless this essay does attempt to map out the gender concerns of the novel without providing a solid conclusion. As Jeanette Seim points out, Kroetsch’s subversion of the horse/house binary, and his portrayal of women as the controlling figures while men become the characters of compromise, shows a deconstructionist desire to rewrite the primary novels without proclaiming a single interpretation.13 Similarly, in “Beyond Nationalism: A Prologue” Kroetsch proposes that Canadians attempt to locate their literature though a genealogical model that affirms rather than represses the wide diversity of Canada’s many texts. Though the essay is limited by Kroetsch’s decision to trace the thematic rather than the formal multiplicities, the analysis does effectively resist any attempts to hierarchize the many novels under consideration, and suggests instead that we view the wide variety of fictions ranging from Ross to Hodgins as part of the “nightmare and welcome dream of Babel.”14 Perhaps the best example of criticism as story would be “For Play and Entrance: the Contemporary Canadian Long Poem,” a fragmented and wandering essay which grafts observations about the importance of beginnings, language, delay, and absence in the long poem, with many passages from the texts of contemporary artists. In the end, “For Play and Entrance” functions as much as a creative collage and long poem, as it does as a critical commentary.

Using the metaphor that Kroetsch continually balances and unbalances himself along an epistemological border is very useful in understanding the dualities which obsess him, the writing and reading practices that interest him, and the attempts he has made to produce a new type of response to Canadian texts. However, the border metaphor does have some disadvantages in that it veils those occasions in Kroetsch’s interviews and essays when he attempts to establish himself in a single, stable philosophic space.


I guess I have the absurd hope that if I provide twenty names, then somewhere I will reach a point where they all connect and become more realized or identifiable.

(LV 93)

As the many oppositions of his interviews and essays demonstrate, Kroetsch has attempted to kick free from the defining, oppressing power of logocentrism. But, while Kroetsch has fled away from the spectres of presence and unity, he is not always clear about what he is heading towards: his relationship with post-structuralist discourses—currently the dominant ideological alternative for those critics interested in overturning logocentric discourses—is troubled and uncertain. In such essays as “The Fear of Prairie Women,” “Beyond Nationalism,” “For Play and Entrance,” and most recently “Hear Us O Lord and the Orpheus Occasion,” he has ventured productively near post-structuralism, but throughout the rest of his work there are recurring hesitations that complicate the suggestions that Kroetsch happily flits between presence and absence along a borderline. Kroetsch’s frequent reservations about the full critical implications of post-Saussurian thought, his attraction to such traditional concepts as mimesis, and his underpinning need to preserve some elements of order, all indicate that Kroetsch has turned the supposed middle border he continually transgresses into a solid middle ground of his own—a position which rejects logocentrism while still resisting the full implications of post structuralism. There is, in Kroetsch’s criticism, as Barbara Godard has pointed out, “a metaphysical presence in the valorization of absence,” and this presence/position becomes clearer as we push into Kroetsch’s hesitations about contemporary criticism, and examine the apriorias of his thought.15

The foundation stone of post-structuralist discourse is located in Saussure’s discovery that the sign not only consists of a signifier and a signified that are related deferentially and arbitrarily, but that language is completely non-referential, having absolutely no contact with the continuum of reality. At first Kroetsch appears to accept this definition of the sign as we can see in this exchange with Shirley Neuman:

Kroetsch: I don’t think I understood at first how language is separate from what it signifies. I was interested in language as signifying things that were not allowed, were taboo … it’s only recently that I came to see that what language signified was language.

Neuman: In linguistic terms, every sign refers to another sign. So that in effect, the temptation of meaning … means resisting the linguistic convention of the unity of signifier and signified in the sign.

Kroetsch: Yes I think there’s a real danger in our society of a simple belief in that conclusion … Rudy [Wiebe] has a much stronger belief in that connection that I have for example.

(LV 143)

As language becomes nonreferential, as signifiers trace only to the next signifier, never fixing on the signified, the possibility of mimesis in literature disappears. Instead of writing so as to capture reality and communicate it to the reader, the “serious writer,” in Kroetsch’s mind, must now inject a “kind of mockery into our sense of security in the mimetic” (LV 200), in order to remind the reader that language can never capture the Truth.

Yet even as Kroetsch appears to endorse the basic tenets of post-structuralism, he sounds notes of resistance—sometimes simply expressed as a sense of unease that the sign is being too quickly divorced from its referent:

They made a simple equation between literature and reality. I argued for game theory in order to correct that oversimplification. Yet at this point I am somewhat worried about my own sense of divorce from the equation, from mimesis. One is always moving back and forth between positions.

(LV 73)

I’m uneasy about my own interest, really troubled. In fact I am uneasy about the whole South American school of magic realism. But I am totally seduced by it … that allowing into language of every story possibility, and thus the whole world … I’m very uneasy about my own fascination with language as that which is signified.

(LV 159)

This note of resistance sounds throughout Kroetsch’s interviews and finally near the end of Labyrinth of Voice he retracts his support for the differential arbitrary sign by regrounding language, tentatively, in experience. Although the exchange is lengthy it is worth reviewing in its entirety.

Kroetsch: But I think there is also another grounding and for me it’s very important to go back and test what I really call ground, using that word deliberately. Ground as something that precedes interpretation or categorization—or what I’m calling meaning. Realizing of course that the act of naming was already an alteration of sorts. … I do get satisfaction out of many kinds of accuracy. I go check things compulsively. But I don’t return to experience under the illusion that I’m going to write it down as it is. I mean, I’ll even go look at the color of the sky when I’m writing.

Neuman: Would it be correct to say then that your obsessive checking of things is an activity you know to be fundamentally meaningless since the language you use has to do with language, not with whatever is out the window.

Kroetsch: Well there’s another possibility that for me is very generative: I like the feeling of the physical world; it turns me on to look at a street or to think what does a hand look like? I find energy in the dialectic of language and ground.

(LV 200–202)

At the end of the exchange Kroetsch has clearly appeared in a newly constructed middle position. While agreeing that language cannot capture experience as it is, he pointedly refuses to endorse Neuman’s challenge that language is solely self-referential, insisting instead that some dialectic is possible between the sign and the preinterpretive ground of experience. Such a linkage of language and experience is radically different from such theorists as Barthes, Derrida, and Kristeva, and helps us understand how, in such essays as his 1985 “The Grammar of Silence,” Kroetsch can suggest that writers can discover a new native voice by “bringing the signifier and signified back into conjunction through a change in story model,” or that a new life is possible when the signified is “joined again with its signifier, and name and object come together.”16 The careful reader of Labyrinths of Voice cannot help but notice that while interviewers Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson are deeply grounded in the current French theorists (indeed they are the ones who compiled the many quotes which flood the book), Kroetsch is more reticent about the abysses in post-structuralist epistomologies.

In order to resist the full impact of post-structuralist discourse, while still rejecting the overt logocentrism and unifying power of traditional criticism, Kroetsch constructs a linguistic middle position. Nor are Kroetsch’s comments on language the only places where we can see the crystallization of this middle ground. Rather than viewing Kroetsch as treading the border between a series of binaries, it becomes much more productive to look for incidences of triads—textual moments when Kroetsch considers the contrasting ideas of new criticism and deconstruction and responds by constructing his own solid mediating voice.

In the first section of Labyrinths of Voice, Robert Kroetsch launches a brief attack against confining interpretative strategies by opposing logocentrism with the concept of game: “The difference between game and cosmology is an important one. Cosmologies invite closure. Game insists on its own fictionality” (LV 27). While such critical schools as the Leavisites insist that art represents life, reflecting its real emotions and problems (a position which forces the reader to draw moralistic conclusions about texts), Kroetsch proposes that literature should be approached as a game—a playful make believe world—separated from reality and the necessity of finding clear, firm answers. Initially, Kroetsch goes so far as to connect this playful criticism with the non-representational theory of language he later rejects:

I play on the edge of convention; I suppose that’s one place where I bend the rules. I think I also take the risk of falling right into language: the danger of language taking over. There is an anxiety about language being separate from reality or being its own reality. I think that a kind of erasure of self goes on in fiction making. It’s interesting that we play the game isn’t it? … The two words contradict each other in a significant way. Play resists the necessary rules of game.

(LV 50)

As a model of criticism that urges readers and writers to throw themselves into the differential fabric of language, the game model draws Kroetsch nearer to his anxiety about nonreferential signifying systems. Yet even as Kroetsch approaches the void here and elsewhere he defends himself, unconsciously, by situating the potential anarchy of play under or within the safer structure of game. For example, at one point Wilson criticizes Leavisite and psychoanalytic criticism which are bound by inflexible rules, and praises deconstruction for being “an informal game, such as children play on playgrounds where they simply kick the ball this way and that, without any anticipated goal” (LV 63–64). Kroetsch attempts to recuperate a sense of order not by contradicting Wilson, but by drawing an analogy. He proposes that “Surrealist literature is also a kind of informal play,” in which rules “do not seem to be operating,” however, “Surrealism, like all writing is true playing. By the time you write the work, you have a game plan” (LV 64). The potential purposelessness of surreal play is confined by Kroetsch within the structures of planned rules.

As the violence of play is contained Kroetsch begins to see, within the theory of games, the possibility of resurrecting the concept of mimesis. Just as he reconnected language to experience through the positing of a preinterpretive ground, so he suggests that game, while unable to represent the true substance of the real, may imitate the processes of the real. Literature as game cannot reflect real emotions, but may be able to enact the anxiety of people caught in the games of their lives:

First of all, game is seen as a preparation for life. If we look at children playing, or at animals playing, there is a kind of mimetic function at a further remove. It is almost a structuralist parallel, isn’t it?

(LV 64)

This must be one of the functions of art: to put us into situations where we apprehend the rules only up to a point. This is where art, by the paradox of its differences from life, again becomes mimetic. We are all in games where we can’t quite perceive the rules.

(LV 68)

By situating “games” within a framework of mimesis, Kroetsch displays a positivistic impulse which arises again at the end of Labyrinths of Voice and in the essay “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation,” when he endorses the theories of Bakhtin.

For a critic like Kroetsch, who is looking for the middle ground between logocentrism and différance, Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival is a very attractive option. In his work on nineteenth century novelists, Bakhtin develops the theory that fiction grew, not out of the romance patterns of the middle ages (a theory that suggests the novel is an essentially closed genre), but rather from the prose satires and parodies of the seventeenth century (a position that views the novel as inherently disruptive and ideologically challenging form). While shying away from Bakhtin’s Marxist ideology, Kroetsch cleaves to the concept of “the carnivalesque” in which texts, their readers, and even the whole society, sanction a temporary release from the repressive systems of society and indulge in a wild process of celebration and festival. For a critic who has already privileged multiplicity, Babel, Coyote, and anti-logic, the carnival’s emphasis on “becoming, change, and renewal,” through a “liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order,” and through a “suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions,” would be enormously attractive.17 One aspect of carnival that Kroetsch especially supports is the fact that though social structures are threatened they are never in danger of disappearing. As the carnival spreads through language, texts, and society, conventional structures are either: “temporarily collapsed” only to reemerge later when the festival ends (CV 101), “turned upside down and inside out” in the creation of a new society which is then the mirror reflection of its predecessor (CV 99), or in the most violent of occurrences the “carnivalesque is a process of renewal by destruction” (CV 104). The carnivalesque contains a revolutionary impulse in its vision of language as a disruptive force, but in the end Kroetsch ensures that some form of order will be maintained or rebuilt: “We are carnivalized into the possibility of our own being.”18 Neil Randall has pointed out that in his fiction Kroetsch uses the idea of carnival to attack the center, but in his criticism and theory, the carnival is used to retain that center.19 The logocentric, conventional world can be rejected, but that rejection through carnival need not include support for the opposite extreme of complete chaos and confusion.

Kroetsch’s rebellion against centered, monolithic systems is clearly more complex than the border metaphor or his interest in oppositions would initially lead us to believe. His rejection of confining and defining structures is complete, but his revolution does not go as far as the theorists who draw from the writings of Derrida and Foucault. Kroetsch insists on violence in language and through that violence the destruction of modernism, but once a new space is cleared Kroetsch is equally determined to rebuild and retell: “A loose generalization would have it that creation and destruction go hand in hand. But my destruction would have it take the form of trying to make an old story work, for instance having to almost destroy the old story to tell it anew.”20 Once again Kroetsch invokes the conditional ‘almost’ in order to halt the process of violence and restart the reconstruction. Robert Kroetsch has made productive use of such language-oriented terms as freeplay, violence, destruction, and decentering, but significantly missing from his critical lexicon is the verb dismantle. Unlike Edward Said who draws from Foucault in order to dismantle hierarchies rather than simply reversing them, Kroetsch insists on decentering only until he has created a space for his own voice, after which the revolutionary fervour subsides. Unlike the American deconstructionists who are distinguished from the New Critics, by Barbara Johnson, by their refusal to reassemble the discovered textual disorder, Kroetsch is tentatively willing to embark on rebuilding projects.21

Certainly there is an emerging “metaphysics of presence” in Kroetsch’s “valorization of absence,” or more precisely a negative hermeneutics, which arises as silence, absence, violence, and chaos all become conditions of the texts rather than processes in the text. The metaphysics of presence are further strengthened as Kroetsch shifts to more positivistic theories such as language’s dialectic with ground, game’s linkage with mimesis, and carnival’s retention of structure. Robert Kroetsch simply refuses to use the différance of language to deconstruct texts and leave them unassembled: he must begin his own theoretical and fictional reconstructions.

The theoretical impulse to secure a middle ground inevitably makes its mark on Kroetsch’s critical articles. His intentions as stated in Labyrinths of Voice, to make criticism into a version of story which provides no answers, begins to change as he attends to his negative hierarchies and his positivistic conceptions of language and game. The Kroetsch who speaks from his middle positions continues to speak against centering critical practises, but instead of using criticism to engage in creative play, he begins to evaluate themes and build structures, a process that involves a level of value judgement as well as a separation of criticism from the art it studies.

An example of Kroetsch’s tendency to move from playful criticism towards hierarchical criticism can be seen in his essay “Contemporary Standards in the Canadian Novel,” an essay written in 1978 two years before the marks of deconstruction really began to appear in his work. In this article—which reasserts the importance of Richardson, Ross, Buckler, Laurence, Davies, Ondaatje, Lowry, etc., as essential Canadian novelists—Kroetsch struggles with the issue of developing canons before establishing his own. Though he is “tempted to agree that the only way we can avoid dodging [new literary voices] … is by accepting everything,” he ultimately concludes that “one of the ways in which we build a culture is by selecting and elaborating a few texts.”22

Even after deconstructive terms appear in “The Exploding Porcupine: Violence of Form in English Canadian Fiction,” Kroetsch continues to treat criticism as a secondary, metalinguistic activity, by establishing a hierarchy of violence in Canadian fictions. Rather than playfully extending the texts in question, Kroetsch’s paper evaluates them and constructs three categories: he labels Watson and Ross novelists of disbelief; Wiebe and Hodgins are termed writers of the apocalypse; and finally Ondaatje and Thomas, the most disruptive of the set, are named violent “Gangsters of Love.” Kroetsch has succeeded in his rebellion against system and is now able to detail the formal and thematic value of violence in Canadian fiction, but his use of hierarchy signals a conventional vision of criticism underpinning his work.

Similarly, Kroetsch’s studies of Moodie, Haliburton, and Carrier, in his essay “Carnival and Violence,” show a continuing trend towards using and recuperating the concept of carnival by using it as a thematic guide rather than as a textual practice. By using Bakhtin’s theory of carnival as a touchstone, Kroetsch condemns Moodie’s conservative outlook, admires Haliburton’s ability to reverse orders, and praises Carrier’s violence in La Guerre, Yes Sir, but fails to disrupt the whole idea of value judgements. The same tame use of criticism can be seen in Kroetsch’s analysis of Grove in “The Grammar of Silence: Narrative Pattern in Ethic Writing,” an essay which details Grove’s logocentric visions of the world but does not attempt to challenge or dismantle the assumptions of the realistic texts.

Robert Kroetsch’s ability to form a mediating ground between the confining practices of traditional criticism and the dismantling practises of post-structuralism have given him a unique position in Canadian letters. As a writer of novels and poems, Kroetsch has made the most of his rebellion from unity, and has created a series of texts which force the reader to participate in the signifying process. As a writer of articles and a participant in interviews, Kroetsch may, at times, fall short of his own goal to erase the boundaries between commentary and art, but he has nonetheless articulated an innovative position from which he has made these major contributions to our understanding of contemporary Canadian fiction and poetry. Robert Kroetsch has resisted the full impact of post-structuralism, but he has constructed a very strong postmodern position from which he will continue to decenter and disrupt Canadian traditions.


  1. Robert Lecker, “Bordering On: Robert Kroetsch’s Aesthetic,” Journal of Canadian Studies 17.3 (Fall 1982): 132.

    Donna Bennett, “Weathercock: The Directions of Report,” Essays on Robert Kroetsch, Open Letter 5th ser. 8–9 (Summer/Fall 1984): 138–139.

  2. Lecker, 127.

  3. Lecker, 133.

  4. Linda Hutcheon, “Seeing Double: Concluding with Kroetsch,” The Canadian Postmodern (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988) 163.

  5. Hutcheon, 183.

  6. Robert Kroetsch, Labyrinths of Voice, eds. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982). Hereafter referred to as LV.

  7. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1974). For a very brief but clear introduction to Derrida’s thoughts see: Jonathan Culler, “Jacques Derrida,” Structuralism and Since, ed. John Sturrock (New York: Oxford UP, 1979).

  8. Robert Kroetsch, “On Being an Alberta Writer,” orig. pub. 1980, rpt. in “Essays,” Open Letter, eds. Frank Davey and b.p. Nichol, 5th ser. 4 (Spring 1983): 75. Hereafter referred to as BAW.

  9. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971).

  10. Robert Kroetsch, “The Exploding Porcupine: Violence of Form in English Canadian Fiction,” orig. pub. 1980. rpt. in The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989) 112. Hereafter referred to as EP.

  11. Barbara Godard, “Other Fictions: Robert Kroetsch’s Criticism,” Essays on Robert Kroetsch, Open Letter 5th ser. 8–9, (Summer/Fall 1984): 18.

  12. Robert Kroetsch, “Effing the Ineffable,” orig. pub. in 1976, rpt. in “Essays,” Open Letter, eds. Frank Davey and b.p. Nichol, 5th ser. 4 (Spring 1983): 24. Hereafter referred to as EI.

  13. Jeanette Seim, “Horses and Houses,” Essays on Robert Kroetsch, Open Letter, 5th Ser. 8–9 (Summer/Fall 1984).

  14. Robert Kroetsch, “Beyond Nationalism: A Prologue,” orig. pub. in 1981, rpt. in The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989) 71. Hereafter referred to as BN.

  15. Godard, 17.

  16. Robert Kroetsch, “The Grammar of Silence: Narrative Pattern in Ethnic Writing,” Canadian Literature 106 (Fall 1985): 71, 74. Hereafter referred to as GS.

  17. Robert Kroetsch, “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation,” orig. pub. in 1982, rpt. in The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989) 96. Hereafter referred to as CV.

  18. Robert Kroetsch, “Learning the Hero from Northrop Frye,” The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989) 160.

  19. Neil Randall, “Carnival and Intertext: Humour in What the Crow Said and The Studhorse Man,” Studies in Canadian Literature 14. 1 (1989).

  20. Robert Kroetsch, “Uncovering our Dream World: An Interview with Robert Kroetsch,” eds. Robert Enright and Dennis Cooley, Essays in Canadian Writing 18–19 (Summer/Fall 1980): 28.

  21. Godard, 17.

  22. Robert Kroetsch, “Contemporary Standards in the Canadian Novel,” orig. pub. in 1978, rpt. in “Essays,” Open Letter, eds. Frank Davey and b.p. Nichol, 5th ser. 4 (Spring 1983): 39–40.

Works Cited

Bennett, Donna. “Weathercock: The Directions of Report.” Essays on Robert Kroetsch, Open Letter 5th ser. 8–9, (Summer/Fall 1984): 116–145.

Culler, Jonathan, “Jacques Derrida.” Structuralism and Since. Ed. John Sturrock. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. G. C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1974.

Godard, Barbara. “Other Fictions: Robert Kroetsch’s Criticism.” Essays on Robert Kroetsch, Open Letter 5th ser. 8–9, (Summer/Fall 1984): 5–21.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Seeing Double: Concluding with Kroetsch.” The Canadian Postmodern. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988.

Kroetsch, Robert. “Essays.” Open Letter 5th ser. 4 (Spring 1983).

———. “The Grammar of Silence: Narrative Pattern in Ethnic Writing.” Canadian Literature 106 (Fall 1985): 65–74.

———. Labyrinths of Voice. Eds. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982.

———. The Lovely Treachery of Words. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

———. “Uncovering our Dream World: An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” Eds. Robert Enright and Dennis Cooley. Essays on Canadian Writing 18–19 (Summer/Fall 1980): 21–32.

Lecker, Robert. “Bordering On: Robert Kroetsch’s Aesthetic.” Journal of Canadian Studies 17.3 (Fall 1982): 124–133.

Randall, Neil. “Carnival and Intertext: Humour in What the Crow Said and The Studhorse Man.” Studies in Canadian Literature 14.1 (1989): 85–98.

Seim, Jeanette. “Horses and Houses.” Essays on Robert Kroetsch, Open Letter 5th Ser. 8–9 (Summer/Fall 1984): 99–115.

Dorothy Seaton (essay date Spring 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6246

SOURCE: “The Post-Colonial as Deconstruction: Land and Language in Kroetsch”s Badlands,” in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 77-89.

[In the following essay, Seaton argues that Kroetsch deconstructs the myths of land and language in Badlands.]

It is commonly argued that early imperial discourses of the New World inscribe an effort to make strange new lands familiar to Eurocentric systems of meaning and understanding.1 However, conceptualised from the start as the site of the strange, the new lands continued to resist European epistemological appropriation and whatever the imperial’s claims to control and knowledge, the sign of the land continued to enter the discourse as a site of the unknown and the resistant.2 Now, current criticism often characterises post-colonial writing as constructing counter-discourses to the once-dominant imperial discourse, writing against the imperial’s inappropriately Eurocentric systems of understanding, and instead writing the land as an element within local constructs of meaning and value. But the counter-discursive strategy still shares with the imperial certain basic assumptions about the relations among humans, discourse, and land: both discursive strategies still inscribe a belief that the land, though conceptualised initially as a site of the strange and the resistant, can somehow be controlled and familiarised by discourse, contained within the epistemological system of one discourse or another.3

However, a second, far more radically subversive possibility is available to the post-colonial effort of re-writing the strange land: that of the deconstructive. Unlike the counter-discursive, the deconstructive entirely rejects the possibility of achieving a “correct” or “appropriate” rendering of the land in any discourse, whether imperial or post-colonial, and it embraces instead the endless strangeness of both land and discourse, interrogating the very capacity of discourse to constitute the land. The sign of the land is conceptualised from the start as the site of resistance to discursive containment, this resistance understood within a larger system by which discourse in general, like the specific discourse of the land, depends upon an initial, irrevocable, and all-affecting assumption of difference, deferral, resistance. Any of the systems of understanding and containing the land, whether in the dominant discourse of the imperial, or in the post-colonial’s newer, presumably more appropriate counter-discourses of the land, are based upon an initial experience of displacement and otherness, and it is this radical strangeness that such contemporary novels as Robert Kroetsch’s Badlands seem to address in the writing of New World lands. Land and discourse are by definition signs ultimately of strangeness, of the undecidable and the resistant.4

In Badlands, the dominant image by which this deconstructive impulse works, in connection with the land, is that of archaeology. The image works to site the deconstruction of language in the land itself, in that the practice of archaeological excavation, entering the ground, deconstructs the New World myths of identity which have thus far created meaning in the intertextual tradition of post-colonial writing. Because of the nature of this breakdown of myth, language itself comes under scrutiny. Individual myths, along with the larger mythological systems of nation and identity, are broken down so that they can no longer express their appropriate values, even within the limits which they themselves set. The binary oppositions which the myths propose, in order to define their own values, are subverted.5 Archaeology, then—the act of entering the land—becomes the practice both by which myths are proposed, and by which these myths are subverted. The archaeological expedition as the reconstruction and retrieval of history, as an act of male heroic self-construction, as a journey in search of sources and origins (and so on), is also a journey of the loss and deconstruction of history, of the subversion of such male heroic myths as Dawe is entered upon, and of a movement away from sources. The land becomes the place where such oppositions, rather than being arranged hierarchically in order to structure meaning and value, are instead brought together and made at once to interact endlessly and undecidably, and eventually to collapse entirely into one another.

What is finally deconstructed are not only the myths of the land, but also the myth, perhaps, of language itself: if the basic structure of binary oppositions—in terms of which the elements of language are defined in relation to each other—are subverted, language itself becomes a problematic medium and practice. The land, as the object of archaeological examination, is written as itself a text, so that its treatment can be read as a discussion about the nature of language and discourse in general. This groundwork of language—groundwork for all the other discourses the novel examines—is itself the site being investigated, excavated, and contaminated.6 The archaeological expedition, then, becomes at once a search for and the loss of language. Discourse itself, in spite of all the words of the novel, begins to break down; and within this breakdown, the discursive constructs of land and language must become equally unstable—at the same time as they perform within the discourse as the agent and site of such a breakdown of the Western systems of meaning which they construct.

The archaeological expedition, of course, takes the form of a river trip, flowing downstream on the Red Deer, through the layers of time deposited over millennia of the land’s changes. The notion of the river trip as a journey of discovery is a familiar mythological construction in Canadian self-definition: as told in the proto-texts of Canadian history and identity, the exploration and fur trade narratives, it is largely through river voyages, of course, that Canada was explored, named, and defined. Dawe’s journey draws upon the ideologies inherent in these earlier journeys of national self-definition, in this case the defining given the particular form of the search for history and origins. Here, however, such a quest involves the search for dinosaur bones, the remains of dead and extinct creatures: the search for origins, on the basis of which to define the young nation, is the search for the bones of death. The binary oppositions of birth and death, of origins and endings, begin already to be brought into disrupting interaction, so that origins are to be discovered in death, and beginnings are positioned in relation to endings: the myth, for example, whereby national identity was seen to begin with river journeys of exploration, is rewritten as a journey as much into death as into birth.

Yet the paradoxes of the search for “bones” do not end with this scrambling of the basic life/death opposition. Web participates, however reluctantly, in Dawe’s search for dinosaur bones, but his real interest in bones is in the “bone-ons” he is perpetually developing throughout the novel, whether when contemplating Anna Yellowbird’s uncertain presence somewhere along the shore they are journeying past,7 or discussing the finer points of relationships between humans and snakes (16) or bears (155) or gopher holes (204). His “bone” is generally a central figure, one way or another, in his wild tales of physical and sexual prowess: the “western yarn[s],” the exaggerated stories of strength and achievement, which are another element of Western Canadian myth-making (45, Kroetsch’s italics). The stories deny in their simple volubility and vigour the death which the dinosaur bones suggests: speaking of his hypothetical death and the coffin he would be buried in, Web protests, “‘Bone-on I’m developing now, it’ll take them a week to get the lid down’” (16).

Web’s exaggerated and endlessly voluble discourse of the “bones” of masculine self-definition—and by connection, of Western Canadian self-definition—opposes Dawe’s alternative text of self-definition, of the dinosaur bonebeds, as is most graphically evoked in Tune’s dying in the effort to recover the bones of history. Though Tune has thus far not entered fully into the realms of masculine discourse which Web exemplifies, having failed to lose his virginity in the Drumheller whorehouse, his simultaneous admiration for and skepticism about Web’s tall tales (his tall tales about tail), suggest that he is coming to understand and appreciate the discourse. As the summer progresses, he is losing his boyish fat and growing into his adult body, in preparation for heading off to that other testing ground for discourses of male self-definition: war. But not having had a chance to experience fully the pleasures of Web’s discourse of “bones,” he is subsumed by Dawe’s alternative discourse of bones, sacrificed to Dawe’s fanatical desire for fame and fortune as a paleontologist:

From seventy million years deep in the black matrix of the past, the bones must leap to light. Must loose themselves from the bentonite. Must make their finders rich and famous. The bones that must satisfy their finders.


However, Dawe’s quest for self-definition, through the search for origins in the bones of dead dinosaurs, is not so different from Web’s constant self-definition through his repeated, endlessly elaborated adventures with his “bones”—as the reference to satisfaction suggests, in the above quotation. Both searches demand that the bones—the discourses—satisfy their readers’/writer’s needs.8 And both quests take size as the measure of their achievement: the bigger the bone the better—the bigger and more ambitious the myth-making, the more totalising the discursive system, the better. The final, largest dinosaur, Daweosaurus, is found when Web falls out of the sky while having sex with Anna Yellowbird in the middle of a twister, landing so that he straddles the fossil, “bone” and bone meeting painfully for Web, but fruitfully for Dawe (207).

But if this meeting of bones here favours Dawe’s notion of self-definition through the recovery of the text of the land’s past, equally strong is Web’s opposing view of self-construction through the rejection of the past, endlessly starting anew. Web has burnt down his father’s house, and possibly his father with it, before departing on the life that leads him, ironically, to Dawe’s expedition in search of the past (4). But though he participates, however reluctantly, in the river journey of Dawe’s effort to construct meaning from the text of the past, Web’s fear of water continues to signal his fear and rejection of this past. The muddy water of the river, perhaps even more than the bones of the dinosaurs, comes to suggest the connection between the past, as inscribed in the text of the land, and the men currently excavating that past—a connection particularly suggested in the events following McBride’s falling overboard. McBride finally reappears miles downriver, paddling his pig trough shaped like a coffin, and landing on the farmer’s shore, his emergence from the water becomes the emergence of the first land creature from the depths:

the … woman [the farmer’s wife] … saw … the man caked in mud from his feet to his hair, his body like an alligator’s; she saw him step from his trough and into the willows. And it was not the smell that came with him that made her hesitate; she knew the smell of skunk. It was the man himself, coming formless out of the mud. Onto the land. The mud, the grey mud, cold, reptilian, come sliding into the yellow-green flame of the shore’s willows.


McBride is the one man on the expedition who has “the ability to become a hero,” but “the wisdom not to” (45, Kroetsch’s italics): he is the one man who might actually live the heroism of Dawe’s and Web’s mythologising discourses, but he rejects such discourse entirely and abandons Dawe’s expedition into death, in favour of his life on the land with his family. Similarly, he is the one who lives the past, slathering himself with the mud from which he came, and emerging into human life, moving away from the bone-signs of the deadly discourses.

Web’s fear of this seminal water, contrarily, and his simultaneous self-creation through his myth-making, reiterate his fear of the past. But his fear, perhaps precisely because it is still accompanied by his own discourses of self-construction, does not allow him to escape the past—the river—as seen when he follows McBride to the ferry crossing. McBride’s escape from the journey into death and discourse takes the form of this ferry trip across the river, the irony being that the trip is precisely not the journey across the Styx into Hades, under the guidance of the other-worldly ferryman. Rather, as above, it is the journey of his return to life—a journey which the ferryman, associating Web with the expedition in search of bones, will not allow Web to make. “‘Dead is dead,’” the ferryman shouts at Web. “‘We don’t need none of you damned graverobbers down here’” (54). Web’s active rejection of the past—of the dinosaur bones of self-constructing discourse—nevertheless implies a continued connection with the past, as it allows or prevents self-constitution in discourse.

Dawe’s construction of the myth of the land’s history, then, is one way of defining self and nation, perhaps a notably staid and stodgy method associated with the established practices of the East—Dawe, after all, is only plundering the bone beds in Western Canada in order to take the bones back East and there to catalogue them into the accepted discourses of history and nation. Web’s myth-construction, on the other hand, enters as an alternative possible way of defining nation, as frontier, as the locus of heroic acts of self-definition, as the land of tall tales—a Western construction depending upon the myth that constructs the West as the place to start again, to escape the bonds of the past. Web’s tall tales are set against the long tails of the dinosaurs Dawe is excavating—against the never-recovered long tail of the Daweosaurus which was the intended object of the dynamite that instead killed Tune.

Both Web’s and Dawe’s discourses fail to fulfill their mythical agenda, however, of the construction of self and nation. Dawe’s exercise of recovering history is at best only fragmentary:9 the fossil of his Daweosaurus, as above, is missing its tail, which he must construct by guess-work in a museum back East. And his general practice, of searching only for the largest bones, blinds him to many of the other elements of the text deposited by time: he misses all the smaller and less spectacular signs of the land’s past. While Dawe is in Drumheller, for example, down in the coal mine searching for someone to replace McBride on the expedition, he is suddenly struck with

the truth of what he already knew: here, once, there were green branches of fig trees. Sycamores. Magnolias. A delta and a swamp. On this spot: Ornithomimus snapping fruit from the high branches, digging for the eggs of other dinosaurs. Carnivorous Tyrannosaurus rex stalking Saurolophus; dinosaur stalking dinosaur; the quiet, day-long hunt, the sudden murderous lunge, the huge and bone-cracking jaws finding at last the solid-crested skull, the long tails flailing the water a frothed red.


Yet he will still not stop more than momentarily to examine the leaf patterns in the piece of coal Grimlich shows him—the smaller signs in time’s text—and he heads immediately for the bonebeds again, the moment a new crew member has been recruited. The past he is constructing for Eastern notions of national identity is in fact only bits and pieces of the past, parts of it based upon the specimens found in the Badlands—specimens which are themselves already mineral substitutes for the actual dinosaur bones (56)—parts of it sheer guesswork, and much of it just plain absent.

Web’s alternative constructions, which speak of a more Western Canadian construction of identity, also fail actually to define such identity, in that they work far more to deconstruct the concept of nation than to define it. His stories invariably suggest a barely contained chaos of radical, directionless energy, far from the value-laden order and encompassing system which usually characterise national myths. Lies, he discovers, are far more interesting than the ostensible truth, in any case: speaking of his effort to trace the departed McBride and bring him back to the boat, he protests untruthfully that he saw neither

“Hide nor hair,” … elaborating his lie, delighting in the ambiguity of his discovery, the skeleton that was not the beast, not even the bones of the sought beast but the chemical replacement of what had been the bones: “Didn’t find hide nor hair—”


Neither his discourse of “bones,” nor Dawe’s dinosaur-bone discourse, answers the desire for wholeness and satisfaction that both discourses create,10 and the closest they come to constructing such individual or national identity as the myth-making might aim at, is through the ambiguous practice of lies—of endless substitution. The signs never speak directly of the reality or the truth, but only make gestures at it, offering uncertain dis-/re-placements which connect only with other such implacements. Thus, whether constructing or deconstructing ideas of nationality and identity, both of the discourses, as discourses, result in the same failure of language. In the much-quoted words of Anna Dawe, “there are no truths, only correspondences” (45, Kroetsch’s italics).

There is one moment of satisfaction for both Web’s and Dawe’s discourses—the one orgasm that Web actually has in the entire novel, while having sex with Anna Yellowbird in the storm—the incident ending when Web lands crotch first on the Daweosaurus. But the moment of satisfaction, as we have seen already, is the moment of reconnection with the dead, with Dawe’s dinosaur bones, which, bearing Dawe’s name, will be shipped back East to be incorporated into its stultifying systems of decided meaning. Web’s own description of his encounter with Anna Yellowbird—particularly, of course, the moment of orgasm—is couched in terms of destruction and death:

“we were locked together up there like two howling dogs. … And just goddamned then the lightning struck us. … the bolt came streaking straight at us, the ball of fire came WHAM—and sweet mother of Christ the blue flames shot out of our ears, off our fingertips, our glowing hair stood on end, my prick was like an exploding torpedo. …” Web trying to capture his spouting words. “And the crack of thunder deafened us. The inverted universe and undescended testicles of the divine, the refucking-union with the dead—”


The lightning storm might replicate the first galvanising lightning that is theorised to have catalysed life from the mud on the edge of the primeval water, but in Web’s use of it in his discourse of self-creation, it also links him back with the death of history. Web may try to escape the past by burning down his father’s hut with his father still inside, but as long as he is controlled by his “spouting” discourse, constructing himself through the endless substitutions of language, he can never escape the death and the bones of the past. As Anna Dawe comments of Web:

Total and absurd male that he was, he assumed, like a male author, an omniscience that was not ever his, a scheme that was not ever there. Holding the past in contempt, he dared foretell for himself not so much a future as an orgasm. But we women take our time.

(76, Kroetsch’s italics)

Web foretells the orgasm, which reconnects him with the death of the past, the death of discourse.

But as the last words of the quotation suggest, outside the oppositions which establish the differences—and ultimate similarities—between the male discourses, is a third possibility entirely: the female and the a-discursive: silence. Breaking into the interplay of life and death in the male discourses, then, is a radically alternative possibility, which, because it has thus far been so completely proscribed from the myth-making discourses of men—myths that construct meaning through the establishment and stabilising of such oppositions—breaks entirely away from all such oppositions, and heads into undefinable, unidentifiable, realms outside language. Archaeology in the novel has worked to excavate the various discourses of the land, whether the text of the land itself in its layers of time’s inscription, Dawe’s discourse of Eastern ideas of national and individual male identity, or Web’s “yarns” constructing a Western identity of wild action and superhuman performance. At the same time as the act of excavation reveals and orders the signs of such discourses, it demonstrates the incompleteness of discourses—of such falsely totalising systems of substitution—and thereby problematises the very notion of language itself. Having reached such a point, then, it is possible to speculate—only speculate, of course, in an area by definition of radical uncertainty and strangeness—about what might lie outside of the endlessly self-constituting, endlessly unravelling construct of language.

As I begin to suggest already, this speculation takes place in the novel principally under the sign of the women (and the native), especially of Anna Dawe and her namesake, Anna Yellowbird. Within the main discourse of the novel—that describing the actual archaeological expedition of 1916, interspersed with Dawe’s field notes—Anna Yellowbird represents one possible way of constructing the a-discursivity that surrounds the field of language. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the description of Dawe’s having sex with her, where Dawe tries repeatedly to construct her as the sign against which he is defining himself in his male myth of his self, but where she repeatedly fades away from his discursive grasp, always evading definition or focus:

at that split second of penetration he must, he would, raise up with him into that underworld of his rampaging need the knowledge of all his life: into that sought darkness, that exquisite inundation, he would carry in his mind, in his head, the memory of wife and home, his driving ambitions that had swept him into this canyon, the furious desire and dream that had brought him here to these badlands, to these burnt prairies and scalded buttes; conquer, he told himself, conquer; and out of that blasting sun, into the darkness of her body he must, rising, plunge:

and found instead that at each moment of entry into the dark, wet heat of her body the outside world was lost, and he, in a new paroxysm that erased the past, spent each night’s accumulated recollection in that little time of going in; the motion that erased the ticking clock, the wide earth:

… Until he began to believe that only his humped back might save him from some absolute surrender. … Dawe, not moving at first, wanting not to move, yielding to her passion, her violence, her tenderness; his male sense of surrender surprised and violated and fulfilled:

She made him lose the past. He began to hate her for that.


Dawe, trying to use Anna Yellowbird as the vessel, female and Indian, in which he can construct and thereby contain his personal history—his identity—finds in the moment of fulfillment that his discourse has failed, and that he has not made a monument of his history, but has lost it entirely. Her yielding to him becomes a kind of endless yielding of the discourse which he has tried to embody in her, with the result that the discourse falls apart entirely.

The land has appeared in the novel as the site and agent of the various discourses’ fragmentation—the storm rejoining Web to “the inverted universe and undescended testicles of the divine, the refucking-union with the dead” (207), and depositing him on the dead bones of Dawe’s satisfaction. Parallel to and extension upon this fragmentation is the female (and/or native) realm, not just of fragmented discourse, but also of complete departure from it. In the darkness of the coal mine, Dawe is presented, in the fossilised leaf, with evidence of the incompleteness of his falsely totalising discourse; in the darkness of Anna Yellowbird’s body, his discourse is completely subsumed, and during the time of his relations with her, he becomes vague and indifferent, and has great difficulty keeping up the field notes in which, thus far, he has been recording his journey to fame as a paleontologist.

An alternative approach to speculation about the a-discursive in the novel occurs in the use of the second level of narrative, of Anna Dawe’s framing narrative. At its simplest, the construct works to place a female voice outside of and surrounding the male discourses which appear in the framed narrative of the expedition. Then, the action which Anna Dawe’s narrative tells is precisely that of reading the male discourses and of destroying them. The reading she performs on the discourses is what is written in the first level of narrative: the level I have principally been examining. This reading is precisely one that deconstructs the discourses and that problematises the entire concept of discourse. Her framing narrative supports this process of deconstruction partly in the continuing comment on the specific incidents of the first narrative—such as those in italics—which encourage a reading of the first text involving the sort of discourse analysis I have attempted above.11

The texts of male discourse are thus subsumed by the discourse of a narrative which, at the same time as constructing them, has deconstructed them. Then, in the concluding pages of the novel, the destruction of the actual artifacts of Dawe’s discourse—his field notes—can take place. Significantly, this act of destruction takes the form of an alternative journey which writes over the older journey, reversing its direction, and heading for different sources, different points of beginning again, than Web’s or Dawe’s journeys did. Anna Dawe collects an aged Anna Yellowbird from the bar of a prairie hotel and heads West, back up the Red Deer river into the mountains—and towards the river’s source in a glacial lake. The journey is Westward, away from the suffocation of Eastern Canadian constructs of meaning; it is a journey to purge Anna Dawe of her father’s words: his dead dinosaur bones, his dead bones at the bottom of Lake Superior, his death-bringing “bone” that penetrated Anna Yellowbird and that fathered Anna Dawe. Unlike Dawe’s search for origins in the dead layers of history, the Annas’ quest for origins takes them to the brand new waters of the lake, untouched by history, untouched by discourse.

By the lake, laughing at the ridiculous figure of the male grizzly, his balls hanging from the net, they are at last freed from the weight of all the discourse they have been fleeing, and throw the photographs and field notes into the lake to drown as Dawe himself did.12 Leaving the lake under the light of the stars, in Anna Dawe’s description, they

looked at those billions of years of light, and Anna [Yellowbird] looked at the stars, and Anna looked at the stars and then at me, and she did not mention dinosaurs or men or their discipline or their courage or their goddamned honour or their goddamned fucking fame or their goddamned fucking death-fucking death. … And we did not once look back, not once, ever.

(270, Kroetsch’s italics)

The lake absorbs the deadly discourse, the death inscribed in constructions of history and identity, and the sight of the stars, while their very light refers to ages gone past, also suggests the possibility of endless renewal. While the land can be seen, as in the layers of the badlands, to be itself a text, a language, it also represents that which might be beyond the constructions and constraints of language.

In the imposition of their desires on the land—in their discourses—the men create the land as a linguistic construct, contained within and controlled by the encompassing effort of their discourses. But the very fact of the land’s being created as a language means that it must also cause the subversion and eventual deconstruction of the very constructs which rendered it as such a language in the first place. Then, the notion of language thus so radically destabilised, the land can be reintroduced as possible site of that which is outside of language entirely. The inescapable irony, that such speculation must take place within the very medium which it works to deconstruct—that Anna Dawe’s position as a possible representative of the a-discursive must be communicated by her in discourse—does not negate the deconstruction of history, identity and discourse that has been performed. Rather, it represents an opening into the endlessly circling argument that is language itself, in which the effort to define land and language—even to define them as sites of the radical undecidability and resistance to definition that characterises language—must precisely occur within this ceaselessly shifting and deferring medium of language itself. Anna Dawe’s discourse becomes an opening into a sort of impossible Möbius strip,13 that turns again and again back on itself at the same time as it twists to a new level of speculation and thought. Such an opening, by virtue of being an opening, also suggests the possibility of escape, at the same time as it implies here the entrance into an endlessly deferring, endlessly deferred en/closure. The land as discourse becomes such a Möbius strip, referring always to language at the same time as it perpetually suggests an alternative possibility of that which is never touched by language.

The result, then, is a post-colonial discourse that engages very clearly with all the activities of myth-making and history-writing that have been used to construct post-colonial belonging and identity here in these lands. The novel helps to inscribe the land, both as sign and as actual physical territory, as the authorising site of the values and meanings upon which the post-colonial counter-discourse bases its subversion of the once-dominant imperial discourses. But at the same time, the land, precisely because it is the object of this discursive and territorial contention between the imperial and the local, ultimately enters the discourse as the site of the radical uncertainty which suffuses all the junctures between the signs of a discourse: the land, as the endlessly unsatisfactory and fragmented object of Dawe’s discourses about meaning and identity, comes to represent precisely the fragmentations, replacements, and substitutions which characterise discourse in general, whether dominant imperial or post-colonial counter-discourse. This deconstructive post-colonial discourse, rather than merely replacing one system of meaning with another, instead destabilises the notion of any meaning, and locates the source of this instability in that very object which, in both imperial and counter-discursive epistemologies, has been constructed as the most stable and unchanging of ideologically-loaded signs: the sign of the land. In the deconstructive enterprise, the new land, like language itself, is still used to construct meaning; but at the same time, it must re-enter the discourse as precisely that which, endlessly and inevitably, subverts meaning, again and again.


  1. See, for example, Kateryna Arthur. “Pioneering Perceptions: Australia and Canada,” in Regionalism and National Identity: Essays on Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Topics, ed. James Acheson and Reginald Berry (Christchurch: Association of Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand, 1985), 202; I. S. MacLaren, “The Aesthetic Map of the North, 1845–1859,” Arctic, 38 (1985), 89; MacLaren, “Retaining Captaincy of the Soul: Response to Nature in the First Franklin Expedition,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 28 (1984), 57–58; D. E. S. Maxwell, “Landscape and Theme,” in Commonwealth Literature: Unity and Diversity in a Common Culture (London: Heinemann, 1965), 83–84.

  2. See, for example, my argument in “Colonising Discourses: The Land in Australian and Western Canadian Exploration Narratives,” Australian-Canadian Studies, forthcoming 1989. Arthur develops a similar notion, in her use of the image of ostraneniye to discuss early discursive responses to Australian and Canadian landscapes. The aesthetic strategy of ostraneniye (making strange), translated here into the aesthetic dilemma of artists and writers encountering an already-strange landscape, “[impedes] habitual reception, interferes with transmission, and so enforces a dynamic, constructive (or deconstructive) vision of the object [of the strange landscape]” (207). “Visions of the two countries are constantly altered. … Pioneering in the realm of perception is not just a thing of the past” (209). See also MacLaren, “The Aesthetic Map of the North,” 101–2; and MacLaren, “‘… where nothing moves and nothing changes’: The Second Arctic Expedition of John Ross (1829–1833),” Dalhousie Review, 62 (1982), 485–94.

  3. Helen Tiffin argues the correlation of the post-colonial with the counter-discursive in her “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourses” (Kunapipi, 9·3 [1987], 17–34), drawing upon Richard Terdiman’s discussion of “the potential and limitations of counter-discursive literary revolution within a dominant discourse” (Tiffin, n. 3, p. 33), in his Discourse/Counter-discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1985). Terdiman notes that counter-discourses “implicitly evoke a principle of order just as systematic as that which sustains the discourses they seek to subvert. Ultimately, in the image of the counterhegemonic … the counter-discourse always projects, just over its own horizon, the dream of victoriously replacing its antagonist” (56–57). In the context of post-colonial counter-discursive contention, Tiffin similarly quotes J. M. Coetzee’s expression of discomfort with a subversive, relativising reading he performs on several novels, when he says that “it is a mode of reading which, subverting the dominant, is in peril, like all triumphant subversion, of becoming the dominant in turn” (Tiffin, 32). The post-colonial counter-discourse of the land, then, may subvert the once-dominant imperial discourse, but it also inscribes an equally tyrannic version of writing the land, as part of local, post-colonial identity and meaning. There’s still a sense of a need to “get it right,” to see and thereby to write the land as it “really is,” rather than a movement, such as Homi K. Bhabha discusses, to go beyond the imperialism of this European-grown notion of an (ideal) unmediated text evoking a transcendental reality (“Representation and the Colonial Text: A Critical Exploration of Some Forms of Mimeticism,” in The Theory of Reading, Frank Gloversmith, ed. [Brighton: Harvester, 1984], 96–99).

  4. Finally, however, it ought to be noted that my distinction between counter-discursive and deconstructive efforts is somewhat artificial, each movement sharing strategies and effects with the other. Many of the subversive strategies to be found in Kroetsch’s novel could be shown to work within either general strategy of subversion. I note that Tiffin’s article suggests a different way of viewing the post-colonial’s subversive strategies, in that a division between counter-discursive and deconstructive practices and effects is not made at all. She says that the danger that the counter-discursive might become dominant in turn is not a problem in “post-colonial inversions of imperial formations,” because in the post-colonial context, these subversions are “deliberately provisional; they do not overturn or invert the dominant in order to become dominant in their turn, but to question the foundations of the ontologies and epistemological systems which would see such binary structures as inescapable” (32). However, this latter description seems to me to be a workable definition precisely of how the more generally subversive strategy of deconstruction differs from the counter-discursive as Terdiman describes it. In the context of my discussion, some distinction can be made, I think, between whether a novel works to replace the imperialist formulations of the land, which it works to subvert, with some other system by which to organize understanding of the land; or whether it seems to aim at a more general subversion of Western thought and of the constructs which constitute the thought, thus preventing the proposal of any alternate systems. As my argument runs, I see Badlands as primarily performing the latter action.

  5. Stephen Slemon similarly discusses the (eventual) breakdown of binary oppositions in another of Kroetsch’s novels, What the Crow Said, as a movement towards—or gesture at—a post-colonial discourse “beyond binary constriction.” (“Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse,” Canadian Literature, 116 [1988], 15.)

  6. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson, Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch (Edmonton: NeWest, 1982), 14–15. The discussion here of contamination of the archaeological site is in reference to a model of the text as object of intertextual excavation, tracing the influences, repetitions and subversions of precedent works; but I think the image can be applied to discourse in the way I attempt above, given the ubiquity of the structure, and the resulting multiplicity of its possible applications, in Badlands. (See also Brian Edwards, “Alberta and the Bush: The Deconstruction of National Identity in Post-modernist Canadian and Australian Fiction,” World Literature Written in English, 25 [1985], 164.) In the context of my argument, the site of discourse, in a sense, is contaminated by discourse itself—by the desire which informs its very existence.

  7. Robert Kroetsch, Badlands (Toronto: General, 1982), 16. Further references are to this edition.

  8. Neuman and Wilson, pp. 19–21ff.; Brian Edwards, “Textual Erotics, the Meta-Perspective and Reading Instruction in Robert Kroetsch’s Later Fiction,” Australian-Canadian Studies 5.2 (1987), 69–72.

  9. Neuman and Wilson, 9–11.

  10. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Literature, Politics and Theory (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), 151.

  11. Note particularly the passage I have quoted, writing Web as a male author arrogating total omniscience to himself (Badlands, 76).

  12. Paul Duthie, “New Land—Old Culture,” Unpublished essay, 1987, 37; Edwards, “Textual Erotics, the Meta-Perspective and Reading Instruction in Robert Kroetsch’s Later Fiction,” 165.

  13. “A continuous one-sided surface, as formed by half-twisting a strip, as of paper or cloth, and joining the ends” (The Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd ed.). The effect is a figure which, as one follows the surface through its turn, brings one both through a twist and thus apparently to a new surface, at the same time as it circles unavoidably back to its starting point. It both changes and doesn’t change.

Kathleen Wall (essay date Spring 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7778

SOURCE: “What Kroetsch Said: The Problem of Meaning and Language in What the Crow Said,” in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 90-105.

[In the following essay, Wall examines the meaning of Kroetsch's apparently chaotic approach to criticism in What the Crow Said.]

I think criticism is really a version of story, you see; I think we are telling the story to each other of how we get at story. It is the story of our search for story. That’s why criticism is so exciting. Not because it provides answers, but because it is a version of story.

(LV 30) 1

Were it not for Robert Kroetsch’s generous attitude toward the critic’s role, it would seem an act of hubris to attempt to interpret What the Crow Said, the novel that he wrote as his “own personal struggle with the temptation of meaning.” I think the critic can, however, delineate the parameters and expression of that temptation without ignoring his injunction that the temptation to impose meaning “is the reader’s struggle too” (LV 15). In this novel, the tendency to impose meaning not only creates a dilemma for the writer and the reader: it is a central issue for the characters as well.

The world of What the Crow Said is a world without order—as we conventionally expect it: time warps frequently, and the laws of probable cause and effect do not seem to operate in Big Indian. Winter comes after spring and lasts an entire year, Liebhaber remembers the future, Vera Lang is impregnated by bees, a man missing one leg and his genitals impregnates Rose Lang, a child who sings in the womb is born into silence. The improbabilities in Kroetsch’s text go on and on.2 The community’s response to this chaos is to assign meaning and causality willy-nilly: in fact the book opens with just such an attempt to explain life in Big Indian:

People, years later, blamed everything on the bees; it was the bees, they said, seducing Vera Lang, that started everything. How the town came to prosper, and then to decline, and how the road never got built, the highway that would have joined the town and the municipality to the world beyond, and how the sky itself, finally, took umbrage: it was because one afternoon in April the swarming bees found Vera Lang asleep, there in a patch of wild flowers on the edge of the valley.


Nearly everyone partakes of this strategy: when Skandl loses Martin Lang’s body, he blames it on the comatose Liebhaber. Liebhaber’s four minutes of coherence in the Lang Household are attributed to Tiddy’s statement: “It’s snowing” (39). People believe that the first hand of schmier dealt at the Church of the Final Virgin was brought about by Eli Wurtz’s comment, “Du son of a gun” upon seeing the unwell, diminished Liebhaber. Blame for the “war with the sky” is variously attributed: some “blamed recent developments on the moment when the ice began to form on the wings of the Piper Cub in which John Skandl was flying home to Big Indian” (146). Others believe that Vera’s boy is somehow to blame. When the plague of salamanders arrives, “Someone blamed the wind. Someone said it was the departure of the black crow that did it” (150). Vera’s decision to take a husband is said to be caused by the cry of Joe Lightning as he falls out of the sky. People also respond to the uncontrollable chaos by trying to assert that they might have or can have some control over events. When, in August, it continues to snow, men aver that things might be different if they found Lang’s corpse: “If they had found the corpse, the few men who went on seeking it, then something might have changed. The digging of a grave, attendance at a wake, the ceremony of burial, any one of those events might have made things normal again. The bees were to blame” (44). These myriad efforts to attribute cause and lay blame are a desperate attempt to assert that some kind of order, some kind of definable causality, regardless of how bizarre, operates in Big Indian.

It is appropriately difficult, given Kroetsch’s preoccupation with the “temptation of meaning” to decide which causes actually operate meaningfully in Kroetsch’s border cosmos, and which are asserted by the inhabitants of Big Indian in an effort to impose a perceived, explicable order on a world that seems to defy one’s logical or experiential expectations. This difficulty is attributable to Kroetsch’s use of a communal third person narrator, one who has entered the world of Big Indian with the inhabitants, and refrains from making judgements about the characters’ behavior. Complicating matters even more is our own distinct sense that Big Indian does indeed have its own laws that do not necessarily have a direct referent in our world.3 It is only with respect to “what the crow said” that we begin to suspect that the attribution of meaning and causality is a desperate and foolish effort. Thus the work deconstructs itself for us, leaving us uncertain about which attributed causes are operative and which are wishful thinking.

It is initially the year-long winter that unhinges the characters’ sense that the world they inhabit is predictable and orderly. Certainly, Martin Lang’s death illustrates the fate of those who, either on the prairies or in Big Indian, expect to “believe June was June” (18). John Skandl’s response is another kind of folly: in opposition to the temporal and spatial blankness of an unending winter, he decides to construct a tower made from the very materials that winter provides. Needing to fix himself in a now unreliable, floating universe, Skandl will construct “a beacon, a fixed point in the endless winter” (33). His tower will assert meaning in the face of unmeaning (blank) winter, will function as “a center. A beacon. A guide. A warning sign” (41). Pre-deconstructionist man, he believes his phallic signifier is transparent, its meaning utterly clear. As a tower of babble (49), it demonstrates both man’s foolish impertinence in believing he can control and manipulate his world, and the “danger of making everything into one” (L 118), echoing the structuralist belief that language is a transparent medium with a single dimension, a single meaning.

In spite of Robert Lecker’s assertion (99) that the old binaries, which typically cause an interesting tension in Kroetsch’s work, are not present in What the Crow Said, I find them functioning in a very lively way. The most common (culturally imposed) binary opposition between men and women becomes obvious in the scene where members of the community evaluate and comment upon Skandl’s tower. It is the “men who would dream it in that snow-buried town” (41, emphasis mine). The women, on the other hand, argue against the ice (49). Tiddy Lang, in particular, is concerned about the implications of the tower: “Tiddy now recognized that the men, in their desperate confusion, were trying to get to heaven. They must be stopped. She was trying to find words. Tiddy, who did not argue at all. She was trying to imagine words” (50).

The men have, through their construction of the tower, been attempting to impose order, meaning, even purpose on the year-long (now seemingly endless) winter; in building the tower and in turning ice to profit they are asserting the primacy of culture over nature, and attempting, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words, to “transcend” the limitations or circumstances imposed by nature.4 Tiddy’s sense that they are attempting to get to heaven and Skandl’s assertion that they must continue to build the tower higher and higher are both images of transcendence. It is a sterile proceeding, however, this icy preoccupation, one that the earth eventually defies by sending spring thaw.

The women’s general opposition to the tower makes us aware that their response to the untimely and protracted winter has been of an entirely different order than that of the men. As Lecker (98) and Thomas (102) have both pointed out, Kroetsch has gone out of his way to emphasize the chthonic qualities of the Lang women, both through oblique—and often subverted—references to myth and through evocative, concrete details of their involvement in the earthly cycles and farm matters. Vera, Tiddy, and Old Lady Lang are indeed virgin, earth mother, and wise old crone. Vera’s mating of the bees recalls Danae (Lecker 98), who is also the north European triple goddess, Danae (Walker 206–7); floating down the river in the granary, her hand on her pubis, she recalls both Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Ceres, goddess of grain. Tiddy, with her perfect breasts, recalls the earth mother, Cybele the many-breasted. When she turns her mourning for Martin to an effort to heal Liebhaber, she recalls Demeter, who in her grief for Persephone became nursemaid to Demophon and nearly conferred immortality upon the child. This proliferation of goddess imagery allows Kroetsch to avoid being “entrapped in those mythic stories” (L 96), entrapment that might occur if he were to fall into repeating the myths in which the figures play a major part. Instead, the many oblong, oblique references invite the unfolding of many layers which evoke, but do not necessarily mean a whole range of feminine archetypes.

One of Kroetsch’s first entries concerning What the Crow Said in his Crow Journals concerns his wish to make not only the tall tale and the mythological part of his book, but to maintain at the same time “always the hard core of detail” (CJ 11). This endeavor on Kroetsch’s part has been questioned by Lecker (99), who obviously ignored the rich, evocative detail of daily domestic life on the Lang farm. Perhaps the hard core of detail of women’s lives is invisible in more ways than one; however, the descriptions of the women’s routines illustrate that while the men have been building a tower, the women have gone on with their chores and their lives, not particularly disturbed by the strange weather, except insofar as it is an inconvenience. Vera, for example, knows that spring is inevitable. And descriptions of Tiddy evoke a woman comfortable in time, in life, and in nature:

Sometimes the cows mooed. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the chickens laid. Sometimes they needed oyster shells. Sometimes the thistles or the pigweeds grew faster than the wheat. Sometimes hail fell instead of rain. Sometimes the dust blew through closed windows. Tiddy, with her hardheaded radiance, held together the past and the future. Her daughters went on maturing. Her mother grew older, more wrinkled, forever clutching her ball of sorrow in a pocket of her apron. JG was more work than all the others, all the conundrums of the world, put together. He grew larger. He said nothing. Tiddy accepted his existence as she accepted the stinkweeds, the grasshoppers, the green grass in the spring, the sun.


The scene at the tower, the men approving the endeavour, the women opposing it, crystallizes the binary opposition of man and women, culture and nature, the transcendence and entrapment, except that in Kroetsch’s cosmogony, the last element is reversed. By attempting to control and utilize the weather or give a meaningful centre to the blank landscape, the men entrap themselves in their preoccupation. It is the women who transcend by continuing their chthonic life, accepting of the weather and unconcerned about its implications. Vera, knowing spring will inevitably arrive, calmly plans and waits, learning about bees.

Liebhaber, however, doesn’t quite fit in the male category, largely I suspect because his relationship to language and order (the phallic signifier of the tower of babble)—to meaning—is more problematic. While Tiddy is marrying, Liebhaber is fighting with the double bind of language. On the one hand, words, despite their arbitrariness, remain fixed: no matter how or where he distributes the letters, “out” remains “out.” This culturally-defined fixedness that he recognizes he cannot transcend seems to bind him to death with its over-determinacy. In an attempt to foil the over-determinacy of the letters O U T, Liebhaber attempts “a sequence of illogical sentences; he printed across the linoleum of his living room floor: I’M NOT ALONE. REALLY. He ran out of punctuation. He found his apostrophes and periods, what few he had, in a shoe box under his bed. He concluded his trilogy of sentences with I’M NOT” (55). The problem with Liebhaber’s three sentences is not that they are illogical, but that they have too many meanings. Our immediate reaction is to “naturalize” those three statements,5 so that they “mean” something, so that they assert that Liebhaber strongly believes that he is not alone; we see them as a psychological protestation against his loneliness as Tiddy marries. Doing so, we discover another property of language, its ability to express false statements; for Liebhaber, at the moment of Tiddy’s marriage, likely feels more alone than ever. Yet the sentence, “I’m not,” which we take as a reiteration of “I’m not alone,” might also refer to Liebhaber’s ontological status as a character in a book who both exists, as a linguistic phenomenon, and does not exist. These and other possible meanings make us aware that language is not an unbiased medium; it can be used to lie. Nor is it transparent and entirely clear, for it conveys the meaning (or illogical non-meaning) that we expect it to convey.

Liebhaber’s ambivalent relationship to language recognizes the problem of meaning, just as Liebhaber recognizes the ridiculousness of Skandl’s tower. If Skandl is pre-deconstructionist man, innocently able to assert his ability to create a transparent, meaningful, directive phallic signifier (which Tiddy finds attractive, as do some of the French theorists find Lacan’s notion of the phallic signifier), Liebhaber is on the way to becoming a post-structuralist, uneasily aware of language’s problems, in spite of the fact that, like the post-modern writer, he makes his living/meaning through language.

Also like the post-modern writer, Liebhaber believes uneasily in the ability of language to create an ontology. During the dedication of the tower, Liebhaber at first attempts to undermine Skandl’s ascendency/transcendence by lying about the signs of spring: “I heard a flight of geese heading north”; “‘Cowpie,’ Liebhaber shouted. ‘I found a soft cowpie. Somewhere the grass is green’” (48–9). Part of this strikes us as sheer bravado; part strikes us as truth: for indeed, somewhere the grass is green; part strikes us as prophecy. We finally must acknowledge the creative element of language when the narrator comments that “Liebhaber, recklessly, in an endless winter, invented a spring” (49). Even Liebhaber’s use of language to evoke, lie about, create a spring, bespeaks of language’s multiplicity, its multiple uses.

In spite of Liebhaber’s more realistic attitude toward meaning, he nevertheless succumbs to a desire to control, to order the world around him. Because he’s relatively useless around the farm, Liebhaber helps Tiddy choose a hired hand: Liebhaber’s candidate is Mick O’Halloran, who is missing one leg and his genitals, “and while his disability limited his usefulness on the farm, Liebhaber felt it was more than compensated for by the security he provided in a household made up of a grass widow and six unmarried young women” (66). Yet Liebhaber’s judgment proves to be wrong when Mick, against all probability and reason, impregnates Rose.

His second lapse in judgment occurs when he helps Tiddy with cow breeding and ends up perfecting the three-titted cow (70); again a pregnancy results, this time the relationship is between Nick Droniuk, who helps with the artificial insemination, and Anna Marie. Finally, Liebhaber agrees to referee the hockey games, a role in which he exults: “Liebhaber, as referee, removed yet always there, watched the disputes, the hard checking, the high sticking, the errors, the affections and dissatisfactions of the swarming, eager players. The rougher the game became, the clearer his vision. He was some kind of arbitrator, the civilizing man: at the center, and yet uninvolved. The dispassionate man at the passionate core, witnessing both jealousy and desire, separate from either” (72). As referee, Liebhaber is the representative of civilization, culture, order, a patriarch who takes pride in his ability, “single-handedly, to restore order” (73).

But this effort of control, belief in order, patriarchal absolutism, also collapses when we find that Gladys was impregnated on the ice by “everybody”—and perhaps it was even her presence on the ice that limited the dispute. In spite of his judicial pretensions, Liebhaber finds he cannot control the fertility of Tiddy’s daughters, as if the female and natural world remains uncontrollably outside his dominion. It is his inability to control, grasp this unfolding, fecund world, as well as his inability to see the world truly, or to see the same truth that others see, or to live in a world where one can identify absolute truth—that accounts for the protracted game of schmier. For in yet another of those questionable attributions of cause, we are told “That was the cause of the schmier game—the inadequacy of truth” (76).

I was interested in the literal use of game in daily life. In a small town, in a rural area where card playing especially is very central, I was influenced by the old women in the community who would read cards. I had two aunts who on occasion would read cards and read them with an ambiguous sense that it was just playing but at the same time that it was serious. That ambiguity intrigued me no end. I think that even in the most elaborate games, like religion, there is that double sense. The notion of necessary fiction really relates to that, doesn’t it?

(LV 49)

Thomas has complained of the sheer volume of human excrement in Kroetsch’s novel (115), yet the unappetizing conditions of the schmier game aptly illustrate the lengths to which Liebhaber and his crew will go in order to confine themselves to a microcosm that has definable rules. In both The Crow Journals and Labyrinths of Voice, Kroetsch discusses his view of the world: that we exist within the godgame. That is, we know some, but by no means all, of life’s rules. Games seemingly exist as antidotes to or relief from the godgame. Huizinga, whose book, Homo Ludens, influenced Kroetsch, describes those parameters of game that make it a free space, in some way unhampered by the unknown or partly known rules of the godgame: “Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom. A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (quoted in LV 66). Playing schmier, the men separate themselves from the world they cannot control, placing themselves in a microcosm where they are capable of “ignoring the weather, ignoring time, family, duty, season; ignoring everything but their one passion” (90). Moreover, the rules of the game structure their lives in a way the rules of the godgame, with its year-long winters and genital-less men who impregnate girls, cannot. In Labyrinths of Voice Kroetsch comments: “I take a card game very seriously. For me, a card game is a model of life. … Card games are interesting because, on the one hand, there are absolute rules and, on the other, inside those rules there is absolute chance, or at least an indefinite mathematically large number of chances that even to deal yourself the same hand would be a grotesque unlikelihood. There are absolute rules and there is chance” (LV 64–5).

The second use of cards intrudes for a moment as Old Lady Lang “reads” the players’ hands. When Old Lady Lang predicts Liebhaber’s future, to die, of love, in the Lang house, Liebhaber plays even more ferociously: “That was the first time, really, that he recognized the seriousness of their game” (93). At this point in the novel, the deck of cards has two orders of meaning, one as a referent to the lives of the players, one as the symbols in the abstract order of the game. Although the men give some credence to her interpretation, having “never seen their cards in quite that way before” they would seem, ultimately, to reject the referential possibilities of the deck, concluding that “there was no meaning anywhere in the world” (94).

When they finally move their game from the Lang household to Isadore Heck’s shack, they attempt to escape the world of meaning, to leave Old Lady Lang, who believes the cards can have a divinatory function, to move into the shack of Heck, who disbelieves in everything. Only the possibility of love calls them away to the wedding ceremony at the Church of the Final Virgin, though here Eli Wurtz’s chance comment, “du son of a gun”—so unfit do they look for real life—“causes” them to deal another hand. It is in the basement of the Church that the game is invested with a referential significance by the entry of Marvin Straw.

The desire, first of Liebhaber, then of the whole crew, to save Jerry Lapanne’s life invests the game with a purpose it has previously lacked, changing the rules, making them unusually flexible and fluid, even imposing different rules on different players. It would almost seem that this flexibility, the cracks in the otherwise rigid society, allows the entry of Martin Lang’s ghost into their midst, as if to say ‘This is what happens when you relax the rules a little: the unpredictable bursts in on you,’ leaving the players “totally without hope” (113), except in their belief that Skandl will return. When they are told by Vera that Skandl has disappeared, we see the extent that they have created an isolated world for themselves. Liebhaber does not want to believe in Skandl’s death because it will force him to “surrender … the world” (123). The creation of insular cosmos of the schmier game has allowed them to ignore what they previously could not control. Playing schmier, their lives structured by other rules and other kinds of chance, they have avoided the unpredictable, natural world, refusing “to give any credence to the weather, especially to the idea of seasons” (123).

The schmier players have, in a parodic way, created a culture, an organization of human beings governed by shared values and established rules. It is a culture designed to insulate them from the unpredictability of the natural world and the domestic hegemony of women.6 Their culture, however, in its exclusivity and insularity is not, in the long run, “civilized.” Ignoring the needs of their bodies and the impact of the weather upon their health, developing a “technology” solely devoted to making moonshine and eating without being involved in the production of their food, ceasing to use tools altogether, their lives are a parody of civilization. When Tiddy comes to seduce them with food, we find Liebhaber “ahead in the game, about to win a few nails and some pieces of broken glass and a pile of round stones they’d dug up from the frozen riverbed with their bare hands” (126). Even the medium of exchange, while still governing their insular culture, has no intrinsic value.

Yet the offerings made by Tiddy suggest that, unpredictable as nature is, it has continued: she has butter, jam, preserves, honey in the comb. It is the women who, as a productive, patient part of the natural world, have transcended, the men who have remained static, imprisoned within the card game that provided the structure of their microcosm.

The schmier game intensifies the binary polarization. At first, it is a time that is pleasant; the women in the kitchen watch over sleeping babies, talk of gardening and sewing, enjoy having the “men in the dining room, out of the way, playing cards” (81). By doing the men’s chores, the women allow the players to remain apart from the more demanding “real world”; they allow the separateness of the world of the schmier game and the world of the godgame. Eventually, Tiddy realizes the benefits of the system: “the women were running the world better than had the men; she was content to let them go on with their game of schmier” (85). That the schmier game is meant partly to protect the men from the women is revealed when the men discuss whether or not to attend the wedding of Cathy and Joe Lightning; they consider not going because it will mean “surrendering to the women” (101). Unlike Lecker (104), who believes that the female characters are parodies, I am inclined to see the male characters as parodic. Obviously Kroetsch is “questioning precisely those binary male/female divisions” (Lecker 104), but while the women may seem almost static in their chthonic associations and habits, at least they persist, without damage to themselves or to others; nor do we see their sensuous persistence as quite so ridiculous as the frantic efforts of men to escape what they cannot control or control what they cannot escape. At times I am inclined to see one tension of the novel in terms of two distinct plot types: the plot of the male quest to tame the universe vs the plot of the chthonic woman who is content to “ing.” Perhaps Lecker’s (male) reading which views the women as “a joke” and my (female) reading which views the men’s various ferocious struggles as ridiculous illustrate how the tension of two different types of possible plots deconstruct the novel.

Back last night from Castlegar, B.C. Flew in there from Calgary. The plane goes down a river valley, with mountains on both sides, makes a sharp left turn around a jump, a shoulder of mountain, a cliff. We turned. A small plane crossed the landing field when we were almost down. Great surge of engine power. Great surge of adrenaline. Got down next try, and I lectured myself on loving the earth, not the sky. Came time to drive to Fred Wah’s mountainside house—a mud slide had closed the road. Had to drive 65 miles to go 15. On the mountain roads. Next day I lectured myself on loving the sky.

(CJ 53)

This conflict between male and female, between quest and persistence, between transcendence and immanence is continued in the war with the sky, which Thomas views as a “parodied ‘metaphysical’ version of [the] conflict of purpose” between the men who are trying to get to heaven and the “closure of female locus” the men are attempting to escape (Thomas III). But the men’s battle is more than an escape from female closure, it is a war fought against time and death and nature, those laws outside our province but which “culture” seeks nevertheless to control with technology. In this war, the sky, the very symbol of transcendence, turns against them as if to indicate the folly of the undertaking.

The death of Skandl is the first symptom of the war between the earth and the sky, Skandl’s death in the piper cub mocking his effort at transcendence. The natural world similarly mocks the predictions, already difficult to interpret, of Vera’s boy. J. G.’s death indicates the folly of any search for eternity/infinity (symbolized by his figure eights and his agelessness) and escape from time: indeed, J. G.’s seeming physical escape from the kind of time that ages results in the innocent stupidity that allows him to believe he can fly.

The first battle actively fought arises as a result of the men’s decision to go hunting rather than to clean up after the salamanders, which they regard as women’s work. Yet later they admit that they wanted to avoid, could not face, “the stink of death.” In this novel, women deal with death while men attempt to ignore it. Going hunting involves them in another exclusively male society, and another “game,” but here nature plays a part and adversely changes the rules: the wind is so high and fierce that the ducks can’t get down to the earth, and the ammunition the hunters fire turns on them.

While having a referential tie to the climate of the prairies, the war with the sky illustrates the male characters’ second response to the world they cannot control. No war seems to exist as long as the predictions of Vera’s boy are accurate, and the farmers believe in a friendly, predictable universe. Once the salamanders remind them of death, as part of the natural cycle of things, once the plague reminds them that nature’s overwhelming force is outside the province of their control or prediction, their only response is an aggressive one.

Joe Lightning is one of the few male characters whose attitude toward the war seems sensible: “being the descendent of warriors, he knew when not to fight” (154). Playing, perhaps, with the stereotype of the native as “natural man,” Kroetsch creates a character who believes “in the union of elements,” and who, rather than antagonistically battling with the sky, seeks to learn its secrets. As a shuffleboard champion, Joe is invested with the obsessive horizontality of the prairie dweller, though unlike the other characters, he brings some skill and purpose to his obsession. His flight with the eagle is all the more heroic because he allows the new, vertical perspective to challenge his expectations and perspectives: “He was surprised at how small the town looked, the once immense town where he’d been ignored, insulted; perhaps the recognition occasioned his first laugh” (157). His fall has the character of ecstacy about it. Although he does not master the sky, he learns something of the truth that Heck glimpsed from his canon, something of the perspective and awe that generates “a version of a prayer, a kind of holy laugh” (159). As one of the first people, it is ironically appropriate that he experiences the Adamic fall into the church outhouse hole. His adventure in the sky does not kill him, however: he is one of the few who takes on the sky without dying—because he does so in a non-adversarial frame of mind. What does kill him is society’s unwillingness to rescue him lest they get shit on their Sunday clothes: implying that those who do not war with the sky are outside community, outside society, outside the false “transcendence” of the male characters in the book.

In contrast, Nick Droniuk’s accidental death is caused by his raging at the sky for not conforming to Vera’s boy’s predictions; Eli Wurtz is killed by a train while he hopes the thundershowers predicted by Vera’s boy have finally arrived. The train arrives instead. Mick O’Halloran dies of a loss of faith when he finds his oil well is dry: he puts his weight on his missing leg and it fails to support him. Such deaths are caused, however, not so much by the sky’s determination to do battle, to be hostile, as by the victims’ foolish beliefs that nature is predictable. Their folly is highlighted by their choice of oracles. Nick and Eli, along with the rest of the community, place great faith in the predictions of Vera’s boy, in spite of the fact that the narrator makes a point to remark on the unintelligibility of his pronouncements: “The only minor difficulty was that he spoke, always, a language that no one quite understood” (139). One is tempted to recall the Oracle at Delphi, which required expert (and even suspect) interpreters. Even his last “prediction,” “The ercilessmay unsay shall urnbay us,” (144), is a description only of the present, not of the future. It is, in short, the community’s need to believe that the natural world is predictable, thereby giving them some mode of control or controlled response, that causes the deaths attributed to the sky. Meanwhile, the prairies are simply going on as the prairies, predictable only in their unpredictability and their harshness.

Their other oracle, the crow, is no more reliable. Our narrative experience of the crow is of a rather filthy-mouthed bird whose most common oracular pronouncement is “total asshole.” He does, indeed, curse the people with abnormal deaths—which come true (with the notable exception of Liebhaber). He understands Vera Lang’s relationship to the natural world; when Liebhaber does not, the crow suggests that Liebhaber kill himself. In short, the crow curses and belittles: he is not oracular. Yet in the midst of the first battle with the sky, “the black crow was first quoted as an authority. Men asked each other, what did the crow say about the flight of birds in a high wind? What did it say about salamanders? They wished the crow hadn’t left them; they wanted to ask all the questions they’d neglected to ask while the crow was in their midst. And even while the crow had been talking, meditative and wise, they’d neglected to listen, they realized. Now and then someone claimed to quote the black crow on the subject of women or guns” (152).

In short, is it the same quest for meaning, known causality, predictability—for truth—that catapulted them into the schmier game that now launches the battle with the sky. If manly separation into a more predictable, ordered world of cards and drink is no longer possible, then aggression, downright war is a second-best alternative. They want the world to have a coherent meaning, and in typical patriarchal fashion think of beating it into submission.

Liebhaber’s quest for immortality, which he believes capturing the truth will bestow on him, is present at the outset. It hinges upon his ability to fix truth with a certainty that he attributes to Heck toward the novel’s close, when Heck so officiously proclaims that someone left his canon out in the rain, ruining it: “Liebhaber was indignant: no man could be certain of anything on this lunatic, spun and dying planet. Heck was unyielding; he had guessed the way to heaven” (206–7). For Liebhaber, language is one of the possible vehicles of truth: in an earlier endeavor he had tried to reach truth by composing “absolutely true accounts of events; he would print only one copy before distributing the eight-point type back to its comforting chaos” (67–8). For some reason, this habit of Liebhaber’s makes me recall the old “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it” question. Certainly, this approach to truth does not satisfy Liebhaber, for it is made in isolation from community; he is soon back on Tiddy’s farm, perfecting the three-titted cow. Yet while language is here presented as an agency of truth, and hence immortality, Liebhaber also views it as part of what binds him to death (54); Kroetsch’s text suggests, however, that Liebhaber comes closer to the truth when he claims that Gutenberg is the evil agent of language’s death-like grasp.

Print fixes: by recording a symbolic representation of the past, it makes memory irrelevant (116); it organizes, through the alphabet, much of our life, subjecting us to the “tyranny of rote” (68). Once again, the male/female binary is evoked with respect to this ambivalent fascination with print: “It is his men who are print-oriented, who are therefore maimed and destroyed by their need to imprint themselves in a visual manner on their place and time. His women, earthy and fecund, exist in another world, one closer to the natural yet ritualized continuity of folk traditions” (Hutcheon 54). For the female characters, language has a fluidity, a flexibility that it does not possess for men, indicated by their use of the expression “It’s snowing.” These words have a metonymic as well as literal meaning, given that they signalled Tiddy’s first moments of desire after her husband’s death, and her subsequent impregnation by Skandl/Liebhaber. Thereafter, they indicate her daughter’s pregnancies.

Only fear of death frees Liebhaber from Gutenberg’s curse, without which “he would have lived another life” (163). Yet, under his boat, believing that he is about to drown, believing that he’s free of Gutenberg and movable (or immovable?) type, he makes an effort to “write his own story, at last. He tried again, working with furious intent: Enough would be enough. He liked that. He could account for events, announce the presence of design, under the apparent chaos. Enough. That one, sufficient word, so neatly balanced against itself. He had no idea how long he’d been under the hull. Perhaps it was night now. Surely someone would miss him. All night he would type; everything set, everything forgotten. But now he had escaped; he had recovered the night, a dream, and memory. He would compose a novel one sentence long, a novel anyone could memorize. You in my arms. Yes, that would do it. He tested for revision, recited the four words …” (163–4).

The scene strongly suggests that it is not language that is problematic, for it is to language, to story, that Liebhaber turns in the moment he believes to be a prelude to his death. What he is free of is not language, but the tyranny of convention, here symbolized by the fixedness of type and its immutable record of the “past,” and overcome by Liebhaber’s evocative, suggestive texts that swell with but do not limit meaning. At the outset of the novel, he remembers the future, and he could then and there have typeset Martin Lang’s death, except that he feels the possibilities to snatch Lang out of his own story seem lessened if the record already exists. Yet the experiences of Lang and Lapanne suggest that people cannot be snatched from their stories; that their life-narrative continues regardless of Liebhaber’s attempt to avert Lang’s freezing and Lapanne’s hanging. Like the post-modern writer, Liebhaber is trapped by the self-generated direction of narration, in spite of his efforts either to subvert or follow the conventions.

Liebhaber’s ambivalent approach to linguistic meaning echoes or influences (one is not sure of the causal relationship here) his approach to the war with the sky, which expresses love as well as war. The canon used to shoot the fertilising bees is certainly as phallic as it is martial. The rain-coated and hail-encased bees suggest a kind of literal “seeding” of the clouds that gives the water vapor a centre to cluster around until it becomes heavy enough to produce rain. On a second level, however, the canonade of bees is symbolic of the sexual act, almost partaking of the conventional in its symbolism. It is the expression of paradoxical war and truce, rage and love. By articulating the paradox of Liebhaber’s response to nature, the canonade symbolizes acceptance of nature’s own, indifferent, paradoxical role in life and death, in time and timelessness.

The acceptance of death at the novel’s close frees Liebhaber from the tyrannies that have so preoccupied him: he admits that Gutenberg is only a scribe and that the agent of tyranny is not print or language, but the way they are inscribed, with believed absolutism, by humans. He cannot quite understand what the crow says (217), now not needing to attribute meaning wherever possible.

Emphasizing this acceptance, he lies in Tiddy’s bed, contented, knowing “after all, he is only dying” (217)—evoking the Renaissance pun on dying—and thereby language’s exuberant refusal to be fixed by Gutenberg or anyone else. Finally, time itself seems free from absolutes: Gladys’s daughter bounces her ball off the housewall and Grandma Lang is breaking the sprouts off the potatoes, as she is at the novel’s outset, evoking the cyclicality of time, its crafty ability to turn back on and repeat itself. At the same time, however, human memory allows for the collapse of time so that, lying in bed with Liebhaber, “Tiddy remembered everything. She could hardly tell her memory from the moment; all her life she’d meant to write something down” (214). But because she has not succumbed to the conventions of chronology by fixing her story, her experience is endowed with a spontaneous richness:

Tiddy, then, taking every man who had ever loved her. It was dark outside. The tower of ice, in the depths of her present mind, flared a crystal white. The white tower was almost blue. He had been so huge, John Skandl; he smelled of horses. Her husband was plowing the snow. His arms upraised against the night, against the held and invisible horses, his hair alive in the combing wind. Those same men who had loved her. Liebhaber: ‘Whoa.’ … She is living for the moment. She kisses Liebhaber, hard. And hard. He, the having lover, thirty-three minutes in one best trial. Tiddy was proud of him. “Now,” she said. “Now. No. Now. Child. Husband. Son. Brother. Old man. Friend. Helper. Enemy Lover.


I deconstruct even after I’ve come to the end of deconstruction:

(CJ 67)

Kroetsch’s text ultimately means not to expect/impose/attribute meaning (carelessly?). To do so is to trust unworthy oracles, to depend on the undependable, finally to be part of one’s own wounding or demise in one’s war with a world that does not operate according to “human” rules. To accept the ambiguities of life, to accept, for instance, that one is only dying, or to “live for the moment” frees one from the fruitless quest for meaning, locates one in a rich present that contains within itself the past and the future.

The novel does, as it were, deconstruct itself as the conclusions that we draw about the text—beware of expecting/imposing meaning—must ultimately be turned loose on the text itself. What the crow actually said was not particularly important or insightful: what about what Kroetsch said? The novel might indeed be said to express the post-modern angst of writing against the sense what one creates has no (fixed) meaning. It might equally well be said that the novel expresses the playfulness released when one is freed from the “temptation of meaning.” Or, like Liebhaber’s three “illogical” sentences composed as an attempt to escape the fixedness of print, What the Crow Said might also be said to express the exuberance of language, narrative, and myth that results not in meaninglessness, but in manymeaning. In his Crow Journals, Kroetsch writes “I am sick of the tyranny of narrative. And fascinated by the narrative that I’m creating. And that’s the whole story” (67). In a very real way, that ambivalence is the whole story behind both the writing of What the Crow Said and Kroetsch’s own struggle with his postmodern view.


  1. Robert Kroetsch’s non-fiction will be cited parenthetically in the text, using the following abbreviations: LV for Labyrinths of Voice, and CJ for Crow Journals. References to What the Crow Said will appear with page numbers alone.

  2. I speak here of improbabilities in the logical sense, in the sense that in order to avoid committing the causal fallacy one must be able explain the way in which the cause produced the effect. We cannot, for example, determine how Eli Wurtz’s comment caused the game of schmier. Yet within the context of the novel, the causal sequences do not always seem improbable.

  3. Kroetsch has commented on the problematic relationship between art and world in Labyrinths of Voice: “Yet we do draw from the world: the great novels, in some way, are drawn from the world. Now how they are drawn from the world is the question? It isn’t just a question of illusion or mimesis or anything like that. It is a question of axioms. … Finally, I don’t believe that art is completely removed from nature, but I don’t know what the hell nature becomes in art. … One thing that used to trouble me was the way in which so many readers and writers didn’t see the game dimension at all. They made a simple equation between literature and reality. I argued for game theory in order to correct that over-simplification. Yet at this point I am somewhat worried about my own sense of divorce from that equation, from mimesis. One is always moving back and forth between positions.” Kroetsch’s final comment upon this dilemma is that “I would suggest that the fascinating place is right between the two”—between, that is, game and mimesis” (72–3).

  4. The following passage from The Second Sex aptly describes the culturally determined roles of immanence and transcendence Simone de Beauvoir attributes to women and men, roles which are echoed in Kroetsch’s novel: “[Woman’s] role was only nourishing, never creative. In no domain did she create; she maintained the life of the tribe by giving it children and bread, nothing more. She remained doomed to immanence, incarnating only the static aspect of society, closed in upon itself. Whereas man went on monopolizing the functions which threw open that society toward nature and toward the rest of humanity. The only employments worthy of him were war, hunting, fishing; he made conquest of foreign booty and bestowed it on the tribe; war, hunting, and fishing represented an expansion of existence, its projection toward the world. The male remained alone the incarnation of transcendence. He did not as yet have the practical means for wholly dominating Woman-Earth; as yet he did not dare to stand up against her—but already he desired to break away from her.” (83)

  5. See the concept of naturalization in Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics.

  6. Kroetsch himself identifies the quest as a flight from women and from their social and erotic hegemony. See The Crow Journals, 20.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1982.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: Oxford, 1988.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Crow Journals. Edmonton: NeWest, 1980.

———. What the Crow Said. Toronto: General, 1978.

Lecker, Robert. Robert Kroetsch. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Lernout, Geert. “Twenty-Five Years of Solitude.” Canadian Literature, 104 (Spring 1985), 52–64.

Neuman, Shirley, and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

Thomas, Peter. Robert Kroetsch. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Weedon, Chris. Poststructuralist Theory and Feminist Practice. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Manina Jones (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4453

SOURCE: “Rooting the Borrowed Word: Appropriation and Voice in Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, 1992, pp. 113-22.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses the problem of finding an authentic Canadian voice in “Seed Catalogue.”]

“Once upon a time he was a gardener of the possible fruition.”

(Kroetsch, Completed Field Notes, 255)


Robert Kroetsch’s essay “Unhiding the Hidden” begins with an expression of the desire for—and the impossibility of producing—genuinely “original” writing in Canada, that is, writing rooted entirely in its place of origin, writing that speaks with a singular Canadian voice. “The particular predicament” of the Canadian writer, as Kroetsch describes it, is that he1 doesn’t really live in a new world, but inherits a pre-existent linguistic and experiential grounding from elsewhere: “he works with a language, within a literature, that appears to be authentically his own, and not a borrowing,” but which, no matter how familiar it may initially seem, is in fact borrowed (17):

The Roman writer borrowed a Greek word into a Latin context. The Canadian writer borrows an English word into an English-language context, a French word into a French-language context. The process of rooting that borrowed word, that totally exact homonym, in authentic experience, is then, must be, a radical one.


Kroetsch reiterates the problem in his essay “No Name Is My Name”: “The Canadian writer in English must speak a new culture not with new names but with an abundance of names inherited from Britain and the United States. And that predicament is in turn doubled—by the writing done in the French language in Canada” (51). Despite the “Adamic impulse” Kroetsch sees as characteristic of the literature of a “new place” (“No Name,” 41), then, the Canadian writer is no Adam in a New World garden, speaking a pristine language and simply naming the world into existence; his predicament (the word is used in both essays) is that his language and his world are prae-dicare, already spoken forth.

Kroetsch’s speculation on the problem of Canadian voice in both these essays fails to recognize a number of issues, not the least of which might include the different predicaments of Canadian writers whose first language is neither English nor French, or that of First Nations writers for whom the geography now designated as Canada is not a “new place” at all. What Kroetsch at least potentially does identify is a kind of postcolonial political struggle at the level of the sign. Even more generally, his essays skirt the possibility that the Canadian writer’s predicament is a particular version of every language-user’s struggle with what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as the always “‘already bespoke quality of the world,’” which is tied up with “the ‘already uttered’ quality of language” itself (331):

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.


This “dialogic inter-orientation with the alien word,” Bakhtin notes, significantly, is a condition of speaking that could have been escaped only by “the mythical Adam, who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word” (279). Bakhtin condemns poetry—implicitly lyric poetry, which presumes to speak with an individual voice, for a unitary consciousness and single intention—as the form least capable of evoking the dialogic process. The language of the (lyric) poet, according to Bakhtin, aspires to be Adamic, appears to be his own: “he makes use of each form, each word, each expression according to its unmediated power to assign meaning (as it were, ‘without quotation marks’) that is, as a pure and direct expression of his own intention” (285).2

Kroetsch’s “Seed Catalogue” is a poem that is self-conscious about putting quotation marks and their equivalents into poetry. Quotation marks and various inferential agents3 indicate the appropriation of the words of others from elsewhere and their insertion into the poem, drawing attention to—and celebrating—the mediated assigning of meaning, the impure, indirect nature of expression. Shirley Neuman has described the conspicuously intertextual result of this strategy in Kroetsch’s poetry. The “intertext” (Kroetsch’s term) is “the space shared by the relations between different poetic texts in the frame of a larger ‘Collected Poem.’ The ‘poem’ exists in the lacunae and intersections between the different texts it holds in its space” (“Allow self,” 115). “Poetic text” is, in the case of “Seed Catalogue,” clearly a relative designation, since it encompasses much material that leads another life as discursive prose. “Seed Catalogue” is, in Neuman’s term, a “collected poem,” because it is a poem whose constituent elements are obviously collected from elsewhere.


Despite the garden imagery that permeates “Seed Catalogue,” then, it is a text that resists the myth of organic form, according to which a poem grows “naturally” and homogeneously from the innate properties of its material and the personality of the poet. “Seed Catalogue” begins, for example, by drawing attention to the fact that it has already begun. It opens, not with the words of the poet, but with a citation from a seed catalogue advertising “Copenhagen Market Cabbage” (32), whose name reinforces its status both as a vegetable strain “foreign” to Canadian soil, and as an instance of the “alien word,” an imported textual product. While the poem begins, naturally enough, with the label “I,” the citation itself is tagged “No. 176,” emphasizing a slippage or discontinuity between “inside” and “outside” texts.

Each textual component of the poem is, to use a figure associated with gardening, “grafted” onto the larger body. The term “graft” is employed in Arturo Schwartz’s description of what he terms (recalling Dadaist practice in the visual arts) the “printed ready-made,” an extract of a printed text introduced by the poet into his composition: “Such intervention is of botanic nature: it has affinity with the grafting practised by the gardener to modify the flower or fruit of a plant” (29). This intervention may be of a botanic nature, but it is not, strictly speaking, organic. Indeed, the method is also a “graft” in the sense that the poet illicitly “plays dirty” with the poetic conventions of both lyric voice and organic form.

In “Seed Catalogue,” further, it is impossible to sustain an opposition between “rooted” and “grafted” texts. E. D. Blodgett identifies as dialogic—or what he terms “interdiscursive”—the effect of this strategy: “the various texts become commentaries for each other” (202). “Seed Catalogue,” then, is a choric locus, or what Kroetsch calls a “shared book” (“Statement,” 311), but not only because it is a communal document that incorporates other people’s words. The individual word is opened up and multiplied, and lyric voice itself is exposed as a fiction. The poem thus provides a provocative response to the linguistic dilemma posed in the two Kroetsch essays cited at the beginning of this article: it is literally pro-vocative in its teasing out of a multiplicity of voices using the “inherited word.” In “Seed Catalogue,” Kroetsch, significantly, finds (rather than originates) a response precisely by the repetition of inherited language, with a significant difference. Instead of attempting to replace the borrowed word—repeatability, as Derrida demonstrates, is a feature of writing (179–80), so that replacing “used” language is an impossibility—“Seed Catalogue” suggests a re-placing or resituating of it through citation. A citation is by definition a text that has precisely the same form as its historical antecedent; it is, in the words of “Unhiding the Hidden,” a “totally exact homonym” that “reroots” the word by excerpting and contextually rerouting it.

In “The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues,” Kroetsch describes the “translation” of the 1917 seed catalogue he found in the Glenbow archives in 1975 into the poem “Seed Catalogue” as one such rerouting/rerooting (11). This “idiomatic” movement, in which the poet is as much an interpreter of the given text as an originating speaker, is clearly one version of “homolinguistic translation,” a poetic tactic Douglas Barbour identifies with the denial of the lyric impulse (58). In “Seed Catalogue” homolinguistic translation has the effect of producing a heterogeneous poetic voice which emanates, not from an “original” poetic speaker, but from within the already spoken or written local, communal language of the prairie town. “Seed Catalogue” repeatedly inquires into the origin and development of the poetic speaker—“How do you grow a poet?” (41, 42, 43, 44)—but as Blodgett comments in his discussion of Kroetsch’s The Ledger, the appropriation of “outside texts” into the poem prevents the poetic totalization of language, the exclusive valorizing of voice as monologic presence (200), because the “origin” of the “text” is another text. Indeed, to return to the Edenic scenario proposed earlier, “Seed Catalogue” not only parodies the myth of the Fall, as Smaro Kamboureli observes (112), but also parodies by textualizing the myth of an Edenic, “original” language. The poem is writing about writing about the desire for, the imagination of, as-yet-unrealized gardens: “Into the dark of January / the seed catalogue bloomed // a winter proposition, if / spring should come, then” (33).4 It is the seed catalogue, and not a garden that blooms forth here. The implied duplication of the poem’s title (“Seed Catalogue”/seed catalogue) is a reminder—indeed, an epitome—of the textual, citational nature of the poem’s affiliation with the “outside” that it literally reproduces. The title’s doubleness also signals the ambivalent relationship between prosaic and poetic texts that “Seed Catalogue” sustains.

One response “Seed Catalogue” provides to the question “How do you grow a poet?” (42) consists of a list of prescriptions that again contradicts the idea of an original, Adamic lyric speaker. The list humorously indicates not only the obvious necessity that the poet’s physical well-being be maintained, but also suggests the importance to the poet of an already written inheritance of language, and the pre-scripted nature of the linguistic utterance itself. “Seed Catalogue”’s prescriptions incorporate local wisdom about spiritual and physical health into the poem, re-reading and revaluing the “prosaic” regional idiom:

For appetite: cod-liver
For bronchitis: mustard
For pallor and failure to fill
the woodbox: sulphur
& molasses.
For self-abuse: ten Our
Fathers & ten Hail Marys.
For regular bowels: Sunny Boy


The question “How do you grow a gardener?” doubles the query about growing a poet. The former question is followed earlier in the poem by a listing of seed-names (34), and the parallel implies a correspondence between poet and gardener, gardener’s seeds and poet’s prescriptions: words themselves. Indeed, the Derridean association between the Latin word for seed, seme, and the Greek for sign, sema, is persistently evoked in “Seed Catalogue.” This is, significantly, a false etymology, an apparently original “root” connection that turns out to be a purely textual one.

When the question “How do you grow a poet?” is again posed, the response takes the form of another foregrounded prescription, the citation of a product testimonial from the seed catalogue: “‘It’s a pleasure to advise that I / won the First Prize at the Calgary / Horticultural Show … This is my / first attempt. I used your seeds’” (42). The seed catalogue is a publication that provides a kind of local forum—it places on display (in order to profit from) the statements of its community of correspondents. So too does the “Seed Catalogue,” but the poem encourages a generically (at least) double reading. The happy gardener of the prose citation is, in effect, already a poet and doesn’t know it (“advise” and “Prize,” for example, are rhymes)—“Seed Catalogue” shows it. The gardener’s “first attempt” at horticulture is not primal (“I used your seeds”), and neither is the poet’s citational gesture original. The writer of the testimonial letter in the seed catalogue and its re-writer, the poet of “Seed Catalogue,” achieve a “spectacular” success based, in effect, on the fruitfulness of someone else’s prior seminal product …


… And on their own ability to tend seeds and attend to words, respectively. The poet in this context must be an avid listener to language: “My mother said: / Did you wash your ears? / You could grow cabbages / in those ears” (32). It should be noted that these lines are themselves a citation, a linguistic inheritance from the poet’s mother—they are juxtaposed with a quotation from the seed catalogue (another vernacular inheritance) that describes the Copenhagen Market Cabbage in terms of genealogy: “[it] is in every respect a thoroughbred, a cabbage of highest pedigree” (32). The poet, because he has attended to the metaphorical resonances of the language of the catalogue, has recognized its “poetic” potential, “transplanted” it into the poem, and allowed it to grow in significance.

This passage about the poet’s ears might elicit recollections of the poet in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, a similarly fecund character whose voice is also both interrogated and interrogatory: “His ears are toadstools, his fingers have begun to sprout leaves (his voice is drowned under the falls)” (83). Williams’ poem is a kind of pre-text for “Seed Catalogue” in its “listening” to and poetic recitation of the language of locality, its use of unassimilated citations to generate a localized voice and sense of place. Paterson cites Ezra Pound’s comment on Williams’ refusal of formal closure in his poems: “Your interest is in the bloody loam but what / I’m after is the finished product” (37). The poets of both Paterson and “Seed Catalogue” have what amounts to a “dirty mind”: they provide a fertile matrix for the growth of given germs of meaning. “Seed Catalogue”’s interest in the “growth of the poet’s mind,” as Shirley Neuman perceives, places it in relation to Wordsworth’s The Prelude as well (“Allow self,” 121). The poet’s mind in Kroetsch’s text, however, is not presented as the source of an integral voice, but as a locus of textual intersection.5

What does remain of the lyric impulse in “Seed Catalogue” is an openness to, and foregrounding of, what Northrop Frye calls lyrical “babble” (275), in everyday speech, a playful affirmation of the singing voice of language, its musical possibilities that border on nonsense: “I don’t give a damn if I do die do die do die do die do die / do die do die do die do die do die do die do die do die do / die do die do die do die do die do die do die do die do die / do” (40). The words of this silly—but memorable—little ditty are, ironically, about the defiance of death. Their musical sound functions typically as a mnemonic device, demonstrating the “death-defying” ability of language to survive over time through the significant poetic gesture of recitation. “Seed Catalogue” is not just a “collected poem,” then; it is also a re-collected poem, in which recitation is a method of translating “then” to “now,” of “seeding/time” (44), or growing a past: “But how do you grow a poet? // Start: with an invocation / invoke—// His muse is / his muse/if / memory is” (41). The word itself is a kind of muse, and voicing it is in itself both an inspiration and a remembering. Implicit in the word “muse,” for example, is a connection between inspiration, the musical, mnemonic elements of language, and the poet’s meditative musings: “no memory then / no meditation / no song (shit / we’re up against it)” (41).


The last lines of this passage seem to emphasize the poet’s limitations, which are elaborated at length in the list that catalogues “the absence of …” various commodities and qualities in the prairie milieu (39). “Seed Catalogue,” however, not only counteracts but subverts such limitations by producing what might be seen as a productively excremental vision (what more fertile place is there than up against shit?), in its poetically unconventional emphasis on the colloquial bawdy/body and its functions; in its formal recycling, via a citational strategy, of what might normally be considered a corpus of verbal refuse; and in its oral folk-tale or “bullshitting” impulse. Scatological imagery, for example, is used to describe the kind of record or trace that the poet leaves in his passage through the landscape:

          only a scarred
page, a spoor of wording
a reduction to mere black
and white/a pile of rabbit
turds that tells us
all spring long
where the track was.


The poet of “Seed Catalogue” tracks down accounts of the past, leaving a literally documentary record that is the trace of a trace of a communal past: this is, notably, “a pile of rabbit / turds that tells us” (emphasis added). In a poem named for a seed catalogue, “spoor” inevitably resonates with the botanical “spore,” and evokes the textual process of dissemination, a sowing/scattering-about of meaning, a planting that is limitlessly transplanted.

Early on in the poem, “Seed Catalogue” makes a connection between its scatological preoccupation, the notion of poetry as song, and the language of the seed catalogue:

No. 25—McKenzie’s Improved Golden Wax Bean: “THE MOST PRIZED OF ALL BEANS. Virtue is its own reward. We have had many expressions from keen discriminating gardeners extolling our seed and this variety.”

Beans, beans,
the musical fruit;
the more you eat,
the more you virtue.


Virtue, it would seem, is its own re-word. This popular children’s rhyme about flatulence (which is, after all, like the folk tradition of the tall tale, an expulsion of “hot air”) is (re)cited, and itself takes in the language of the seed catalogue, censoring the traditional last word of the verse in favour of the more decorous, but nonsensical “virtue.” Few readers of the poem, however, would forget that the conventional last word is the musical word, the word that rhymes, “toot.” Beans—and, by humourous extension, the linguistic endowment of the poet’s past—are both extolled and re-told/tolled (or resounded), with a difference.


In a 1978 article on Kroetsch’s poetry, Susan Wood expresses what is essentially a dissatisfaction with the unconventional nature of this strategy, or what she calls Kroetsch’s “wavering” in “Seed Catalogue” between prose and poetry, as well as his unwillingness “to transcend the prairie town reality, which he records in its flat colloquial language. … We’ve ‘heard it’ before, so what’s new?” (36). Wood, in effect, restates the problem of originality, and relates it to the poem’s indeterminate genre. One effect of the generic instability Wood identifies is the possibility that the “flat colloquial language” used might be seen as a kind of prose poetry in its ability to voice a prairie colloquy. It is not, according to the logic of the poem, necessary to “transcend” prairie town reality in order to read it as “poetic.” In fact, “Seed Catalogue” offers the possibility that it is necessary only to repeat that colloquial language in a new context, to (aesthetically) frame it with quotation marks, to (poetically) re-cite it.

The poem stresses its own reliance on the oral tradition of re-sounding old phrases and stories, a tradition in which the storyteller is not an “original,” but remembers, elaborates on, and recontextualizes a legacy of stories: “—You ever hear the one about the woman who buried / her husband with his ass sticking out of the ground / so that every time she happened to walk by she could / give it a swift kick? //—Yeh, I heard it” (40). This “dirty” joke presents yet another twist on the botanical metaphor of “planting.” Not only is the anecdote strategically “planted” in the poem by the canny poet, the joke is that finality is again spurned through an act of iteration, since the wife in the story always gets another kick at the can. As does the storyteller: the punchline of his joke is the listener’s response, which draws attention to the context of reiterated telling. Or, to put it another way, response is, in this context, the “kicker.”


“Seed Catalogue” represents another incident in which the speaker’s father tells and retells the story of his shooting at a badger, allowing the tale to conform, not simply to his original intention when he shot at the badger, but to his reconstruction of intention with each recontextualized telling. In the first version of the story, the poet’s father shoots at the badger, but misses and mistakenly hits a magpie, “A week later,” however, “my father told the story again. In that version he intended to hit the magpie. Magpies, he explained, are a nuisance” (35). In the context of the oral folk-tale, intention is not simply a prior design, a predetermined, immutable meaning; it is, pace Wordsworth, a postludic act, a playful reinterpretation of the given verbal text. In the interview Labyrinths of Voice, Kroetsch points out both the importance of the linguistic inheritance of the past, and the danger of “the heirloom model for inherited stories,” which suggests that the past is “a fixed thing”: “I suppose that is one of the things print did to us: we suddenly have a fixed text. I’m still tempted by oral models where the story in the act of retelling is always responsive to individuals, to the place, to invention” (13). The re-telling of received stories in “Seed Catalogue” unfixes the given text, gesturing toward certain characteristics of the oral tradition, and placing the poet in what appears to be a long (story/genetic) line of prairie bullshitters. His recontextualized telling of the father’s story allows yet another range of possible inflections, but it also allows the accents of his father’s voice to remain: the badger “was digging holes in the potato patch, threatening man and beast with broken limbs (I quote)” (35, emphasis added).

Since “will” or intention is something shown to be less than final in the inheritance of the past, the inclusion in the poem of a “last will and testament” must be seen as ironic indeed. What is inherited in that will, however, is not simply the material objects that it represents—“To my son Frederick my carpenter tools” (47)—but also the language of the document that is simultaneously prosaically familiar and poetically defamiliarized. “Seed Catalogue” uses the materials at hand—the will, the seed catalogue, letters, and other inherited texts—in order to reconstruct and revalue the local past, a past on which the present community depends for its existence. It is significant, then, that when the question, “How do you grow a prairie town?” is posed, the response provided—“Rebuild the hotel when it burns down. Bigger. Fill it / full of a lot of A-1 Hard Northern Bullshitters” (40)—allies the notion of reconstruction with the exaggerating impulse of the tall tale as “bullshit.” It also, significantly, names storytellers after a local variety of a seed (“A-1 Hard Northern”).

The poet’s father passes on the narrative tradition of the tall tale. It is his mother, however, who subtly alerts the poet—as well as the poem’s reader—to the traces of semiotic multiplicity in the most mundane of expressions. The poet in/of “Seed Catalogue” listens carefully to the inherited words of the (m)other, the voice that is at once familiar and alien, and represents it: “Bring me the radish seeds, / my mother whispered” (33). “Radish” is a word whose root is “root,” and “seeds” a word whose meaning is, at least in the false etymology already suggested, “meaning.” “Seed Catalogue” represents a search for roots and meanings, and, inevitably, a search for roots as meanings. This “radical” approach means that the poem is not simply a nostalgic return to an original Garden, or even a garden, but rather, as the title of the larger work of which it is a part indicates, the prolific yield of a “field” of “notes.”


  1. I would like to thank Susan Rudy Dorscht for her valuable advice on this paper.

  2. The gendered pronoun is Kroetsch’s. I have maintained it for the sake of consistency.

  3. For a discussion of the difficulties Bakhtin encounters in trying to maintain the ultimately untenable binary opposition novel/(lyric) poetry, particularly when his theories about the dialogized nature of consciousness and the internally dialogized quality of the word itself are taken into account, see Tzvetan Todorov’s Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle.

  4. Julia Kristeva calls “inferential agents” words that mediate between the author’s enunciation and that of others, such as “if, as Vergil says …” “and thereupon Saint Jerome says,” etc. (see pp. 45–6). As E. D. Blodgett implies, spatial arrangement in “Seed Catalogue” might be considered an inferential agent, since it too designates the enunciation of others (202).

  5. All references to “Seed Catalogue” are in Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes.

  6. For more on Field Notes and autobiography, see both Neuman articles listed in the Works Cited, and Susan Rudy Dorscht’s “On Sending Yourself: Kroetsch and the New Autobiography.”

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans., Michael Holquist, ed. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981.

Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric/Anti-Lyric: Some Notes About a Concept.” Line, 3 (Spring 1984): 45–63.

Blodgett, E. D. “The Book, Its Discourse, and the Lyric: Notes on Robert Kroetsch’s Field Notes.” Open Letter, 5th Series, 8–9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 195–205.

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, trans. Glyph I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977: 172–97.

Dorscht, Susan Rudy. “On Sending Yourself: Kroetsch and the New Autobiography.” Signature, 2 (Winter 1989): 27–41.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957.

Kamboureli, Smaro. On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980.

Kroetsch, Robert. Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

———. “The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues.” The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford, 1989: 1–20.

———. “No Name Is My Name.” The Lovely Treachery of Words, 41–52.

———. “Reciting the Emptiness.” The Lovely Treachery of Words, 34–40.

———. “Statement by the Poet.” The Long Poem Anthology. Michael Ondaatje, ed. Toronto: Coach House, 1979: 311–12.

———. “Unhiding the Hidden.” Open Letter, 5th Series, 4 (Spring 1983): 17–22.

———. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

Neuman, Shirley. “Allow self, portraying self: Autobiography in Field Notes.” Line, 1.2 (Fall 1983): 104–21.

———. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: Double or Noting.” Open Letter, 5th Series, 8–9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 176–94.

Schwartz, Arturo. “Contributions to a Poetic of the Ready-made.” John A. Stevens, trans. Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades, etc. (1918–1964). Paris: le Terrain Vague, 1964: 13–41.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Vlad Godzich, trans. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1963.

Wood, Susan. “Reinventing the Word: Kroetsch’s Poetry.” Canadian Literature, 77 (Summer 1978): 28–39.

Martin Kuester (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Kroetsch’s Fragments: Approaching the Narrative Structure of His Novels,” in Postmodern Fiction in Canada, 1992, pp. 137-60.

[In the following essay, Kuester presents an overview of the narrative techniques used in Kroetsch's novels.]

In this age of postmodernism, the belief in a coherent world governed by logically derived laws of causality has given way to a cosmology seeing man in a shattered world of fragments. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the concept of postmodernism stressing the disorientation of the individual (and the artist) in such a fragmented world, was applied to literature by American critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Richard Wasson. For Wasson, the postmodernists represent a new sensibility: whereas for some modernists, such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, “experience was full of paradoxes and contingencies which the great poet ordered through metaphor,” postmodern writers are no longer able or willing to create such all-encompassing metaphors. They rather “desire to get back to particulars, to restore literary language to its proper role which for them means revealing ‘the raggedness, the incompleteness of it all’” (Wasson 462, 476).

Among those contemporary Canadian writers who have taken an active part in the theoretical discussions regarding postmodernism, Robert Kroetsch certainly holds the top position. As a professor of English who taught for over fifteen years in the United States, Kroetsch has always been in close touch with American theories of postmodernism, all the more because he was co-editor, with William Spanos, of the only journal completely devoted to the study of postmodernism, Boundary 2. His interviews and essays are among the most important statements of a postmodern Canadian position, so that it cannot come as a surprise that Canadian and European critics alike have referred to him as “Mr Canadian Postmodern” (Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern 160) or “Canada’s postmodernist extra-ordinaire” (Lernout 137).

Much of Kroetsch’s interest in his postmodern narratives centres on experiments with perspective and point of view and, above all, on mythological and archaeological patterns of postmodern writing. Frank Davey sums up Kroetsch’s philosophical position as one implying “radical suspicion—ultimately denial—of the existence independent of temporal embodiment of idea, archetype, essence or Platonic form, and its rejection of traditional systematic philosophy in which all being is to be harmonized and explained” (Davey, 8). The word deconstruction becomes the key term in Kroetsch’s aesthetics, describing his attitude towards all convention, tradition, or cosmology. It is based on his “deep suspicion of all referential frames, myth, fictions, the sensory world” (Thomas, RK 14–15). For example, Kroetsch is obsessed with one of the first conventions that human beings are confronted with: that of naming. He is all in favour of uninventing the word (and thus the world), of the un-naming of place before it can be re-named in a noncolonial, non-European, truly Canadian way: “The Canadian writer must uninvent the word. He must destroy the homonymous American and English languages that keep him from hearing his own tongue. But to uninvent the word, he knows, is to uninvent the world” (“A Canadian Issue” 39). However, he does not only apply the principle of deconstruction in a nationalistic and thematic way: “Kroetsch’s compulsion to deconstruct is contained in this wish to strip down complex narrative forms to elemental story” (Thomas, RK 120). In the following pages, I want to have a closer look at the way in which the incoherent cosmology of postmodernism is reflected in Kroetsch’s work, especially in the narrative structure of his novels. References to his theoretical statements, most of them collected in a special issue of the journal Open Letter or in his Selected Essays, The Lovely Treachery of Words, will be made in passing.

Kroetsch’s first novel, But We Are Exiles (1965), is still in many regards a very conventional novel. Peter Guy, a young student, loses his girlfriend, Kettle Fraser, to Michael Hornyak, whom he had thought of as a friend. Smarting, he heads up north, away from civilization, and takes a job as a riverboat pilot on the Mackenzie River, but then his boat is ironically bought up by Hornyak. The latter dies in an accident that Peter might have prevented, and—like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner—Peter has to carry the burden of guilt until he replaces Hornyak’s corpse in his canoe and/or coffin in a snowstorm on Great Slave Lake. Whereas the novel is, generally speaking, a third-person narrative told from Peter’s perspective, there are also situations resembling that of the author lost in the postmodern world. Peter, the pilot, is the only person who can make any coherent sense out of an almost postmodern mass of details: “These were his secrets. … An order maintained as precariously as that maintained by the hands on the wheel. The chaos held in check …” (18–19). In this description of Peter Guy as the centre of the world that is “held in delicate and fluid balance by the pilot” (18), traditional narrative structure is ‘exploded.’ While at first, Guy’s thoughts are still rendered through the voice of the narrator, soon his views are expressed in first-person narrative without any conventional notation of direct speech: “Here the pilot’s eyes and hands were in isolated yet absolute command. Pure. He wanted to shout the word. This is mine. Storm, ice, wind, rock—those can challenge me” (19). In the end, he loses that challenge.

Morton Ross’s criticism of Exiles, that “Kroetsch’s choice of method leaves the more profound dimensions of his material in the realm of chaos—provocative, but in the last analysis unclear” (Ross 104), is looking for a certainty and clarity that Kroetsch is simply not willing to give him. But whereas the world described and its chaos have already postmodern overtones, the writing is still rather traditional. Postmodernism does not extend to the structure of his writing yet, and the same might also be said of Kroetsch’s second novel, The Words of My Roaring. Published in 1966, it is the first of three novels set in a fictional part of rural Alberta. Words depicts the region of Notikeewin, Coulee Hill and Wildfire Lake in the 1930s, at the beginning of the era of the Social Credit movement, whereas the second part, The Studhorse Man, shows it towards the end of World War II, and the third, Gone Indian, is set in the author’s present in the 1970s. One might say that the trilogy approaches the future constituency of John Backstrom MLA from three different narrative perspectives.

Backstrom, undertaker and candidate for public office, is the hero and first-person narrator of The Words of My Roaring. Highly aware of the implications of his use of different narrative structures and perspectives, Kroetsch explained his changing over from the third-person narrative in Exiles to first person in Words as “a change in our view of what we know and how we know it,” because “we’re reduced to private visions in our time—there’s no longer a trust in the shared, the community vision” (Cameron 89). Nevertheless, this kind of community vision exists in Kroetsch’s work, even in first-person narrative, when he falls back on the tall tale tradition of the prairies and its deconstruction of notions of realism: “The people in the beer-parlour, they both know that they’re lying and that they’re telling the truth. They know they’ve stretched it and it’s fun to stretch it but they’ve also said something” (Neuman and Wilson 237). The voice of Words is clearly such an orally conceived one with overtones of the tall tale and carnivalistic exaggeration, of beer-parlour bragging and electoral campaigning: “Our endless talk is the ultimate poem of the prairies,” Kroetsch claims, “In a culture besieged by foreign television and paperbacks and movies, the oral tradition is the means of survival” (“One for the Road” 30). Backstrom introduces himself in this very style: “My name, let me say once and for all, is Johnnie Backstrom, and I am six-four in my stocking feet, or nearly so, a man consumed by high ambitions, pretty well hung, and famed as a heller with women” (4). His political leader, William Applecart, has a simple message for the drought-stricken farmers: “He just ripped loose about everything. It made us all feel a lot better, even me” (33). Whereas his rival Doc Murdoch stands for the old order, Backstrom’s only true belief is in chaos: “Sometimes it seems that chaos is the only order. The only real order … I needed chaos, the old chaos …” (101). In the end, his prophetic election promise of rain comes true in the scorched region.

Peter Thomas calls Johnnie Backstrom’s an “expansive, hyperbolic subjective voice which ‘explodes’ the fearful, repressed symmetries of Kroetsch’s first novel.” But he has to admit that, although “The Words of My Roaring is not a formally innovative novel, it opened the way to what was to come” (Thomas, RK 39, 50). So once more, as in But We Are Exiles, most of the postmodern aspects of the novel are to be found in its content—the apocalyptic vision of William Applecart and Johnnie Backstrom—rather than in its form, but Backstrom’s kind of reasoning and of structuring his fragmentary thoughts by free association already points in a certain direction: Kroetsch has given up on the modernist’s structuring metaphor which was all-encompassing and replaced it by a new way of reading the world that has strong affinities with the cosmology of the postmodern. This new way of reading the world finds its appropriate epistemology in the anarchistic randomness of knowledge envisaged by Paul Feyerabend, for whom knowledge has become “an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into a greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of completion, to the development of our consciousness” (Feyerabend 30). This kind of knowledge resembles in its structure the bricolage of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s myths that often “look more or less like shreds and patches, if I may say so; disconnected stories are put one after the other without any clear relationship between them” (Lévi-Strauss 34). Just as, according to the above quotations, knowledge is randomly assembled, mythical thinking builds narrative that is loosely structured around the “odds and ends” of history.

The modernists had used ancient myths in order to give a formal structure to their narratives: T. S. Eliot saw the “mythical method” as “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot 188, 187). While thus at least in certain kinds of modern literature a definite mythical structure can be found, control and order are often the very notions rejected by the authors of postmodern literature: classical myths used in Joycean fashion cannot express the incoherence of the postmodern world. The myth of the bricoleur is a much better structuring device in postmodern works of literature. Kroetsch, who himself points to his indebtedness to Lévi-Strauss’s theories (Neuman and Wilson 92), claims that “the Modernist was tempted by the cohesive dimension of mythology, while the Postmodernist is more tempted by those momentary insights that spring up here and there” (112). “We have sought out the decentering rather than the centering function of myth” (130), and here myths are no longer God-given but rather man-made, avoiding meaning as well as closure.

Even though The Words of My Roaring as a whole does not yet have this kind of bricolage mythical structure, it contains scenes in which Backstrom gets carried away in his anecdotes and approaches and becomes a bricoleur constructing new myths. Before the background of a (postmodern?) chaos of furniture and household goods, Backstrom encounters a prophet, a man for whom any causal relationship, any logical way of arguing is nonexistent. The prophet’s car becomes an example of the creation of a tale, or a bricolage:

Right before my eyes, people started making up stories about it, guessing where it came from, what kind of speed it was good for. “Doesn’t run on gas,” somebody said, “runs on water.” “Where would you get the water?” somebody asked him. “That old coot is well over a hundred,” somebody said. “Shouldn’t be driving to begin with.” Then an argument developed over the prophet’s age; some people insisted, give him a bath and he’ll look like a young man. “Give that car a good scrubbing,” somebody said—he bent and spat on a fender and rubbed the dirt—“and it’ll look like new.”


A similar bricolage structure also works in the second Out West novel, The Studhorse Man, even on the level of its contents: it depicts the victory of technology over nature, and its ending foreshadows one of the most revolutionary developments in human society, the invention of the birth control pill. As in a bricolage, relics from the past are here put to new use in the present: the horse—whose old function has become superfluous in the agricultural structure of the modern world—is now integrated into its pharmaceutical structure. But the first-person narrator in The Studhorse Man, Demeter Proudfoot, is certainly unaware of this structural peculiarity of this complex narrative in which he proves to be even less reliable than Backstrom was in his wildest election speeches. Demeter Proudfoot re-constructs the biography of Alberta’s last studhorse man, Hazard Lepage. His reliability as a biographer is not necessarily enhanced by his being confined to a mental institution. He controls the narrative and can do as he likes, unhampered by any rational pattern. His metafictional remarks illustrate the reader’s dependence upon him, even when unfortunately Demeter often finds himself “straying from the mere facts” (12). And he, the scribe “long[ing] for a whole image of the vanished past” (34), does not have anything but fragments from which he reconstructs Hazard’s odyssey. Working in his bathtub, he sorts his material on filing cards. Every now and then he feels the urge to restructure the past in order “to suggest an order that was not necessarily present in Hazard’s rambling conversation” (40). His contemplations regarding the order of the world are relevant to a postmodern view: “I myself prefer an ordered world, even if I must order it through a posture of madness” (61).

Kroetsch has often used the image of the archaeologist for his technique of writing, and this is also the technique that Demeter uses: like an archaeologist, he relies on single specimens, found objects, “so called real situations” (Hancock 36) and real persons. These found objects are of course only fragments, in no order whatsoever, but as Kroetsch says, “I like the sense of fragment and what fragment does: the demands fragment makes on us for shaping, for telling, for imagining” (Neuman and Wilson 167). A good example of the construction of a whole story (and history) around a found object is the stone hammer in Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poems, in which the process of imagination starts from the position of the observer and leads to a “weblike” structure of association in which “each separate strand … is finally perceived to be part of a pattern” (Wood 30).

The shaping of a narrative out of fragments also involves the reader, since it is not only the author who is engaged in this process. Kroetsch knows, however, that sometimes readers are not willing or able to take part in the “archaeological act” (Kroetsch 1989, 69) of reestablishing the connections and missing links between the objects found on the site, because they are used to seeing them in “the museums where it’s all carefully assembled and tagged and explained” (Neuman and Wilson 167): “Archaeology allows the fragmentary nature of the story, against the coerced unity of traditional history. Archaeology allows for discontinuity. It allows for imaginative speculations” (“On Being an Alberta Writer” 76).

In The Studhorse Man, Demeter’s view of the world from the asylum, a peculiar perspective, is made possible through a special contraption enabling him “to see out of my window without leaving my bathtub. A mirror is so placed above my sink that I have been able to sit for hours, attempting to imagine what in fact did happen (allowing for the reversal of the image) exactly where I imagine it. It is the time that I must reconstruct, not space” (85). Unfortunately Demeter himself, whose credibility has been shown to be more than questionable, often does not trust Hazard’s own account of his life. But if he has to admit to some weaknesses in his hero’s character, he relativizes those by alluding to other historical figures: “It is not easy to admit of weaknesses in one’s hero. Sir John A. Macdonald tippled, let his biographers quibble as they will. Hazard Lepage was a man of inordinate lust” (31).

Through Demeter’s metafictional remarks, The Studhorse Man becomes of course more overtly postmodern than the earlier novels. Peter Thomas remarks for example that it “is Kroetsch’s first novel where the self-conscious demonstration of narrative technique, the book’s reflection upon its own process, is a predominant interest” (Thomas, RK 121). One may even, with Brian Ross, “find in Hazard Lepage’s quest an allegory of the writer’s search for the future of his art” (B. Ross 67). The novel’s metafictionality and the problematization of its narratorial voice turn The Studhorse Man into the first of many texts that justify Linda Hutcheon’s calling Kroetsch Mr. Canadian Postmodern.

Whereas in The Studhorse Man a biographer reconstructs another character’s life, thoughts, and motivations, in Gone Indian the narrative structure is even more complicated: in this third novel of the Out West trilogy, we see a narrator editing another person’s narrative. For the first time in Kroetsch’s novels does the subject of a ‘biography’ have a chance to speak for himself. An eternal Ph.D. candidate in literature, Jeremy Sadness is sent from New York State to Edmonton by his thesis supervisor, Professor Mark R. Madham, who is from this very part of the world. Due to a sequence of chance events, Jeremy does not go to the University of Alberta for a job interview but rather ends up judging a beauty contest at the Notikeewin winter festival and disappears into the Albertan winter together with a woman who has long been waiting for her vanished husband. This husband in turn, as Arnold Davidson convincingly argues, has re-surfaced in the States as Madham, Jeremy’s supervisor. Madham’s explanation and interpretation of Jeremy’s Albertan odyssey—a framed first-person narrative—is addressed to Jill Sunderman, the above-named lady’s daughter, and it is based upon the thoughts and insights that the not very eloquent graduate student had to confide to a tape recorder because he cannot bring enough order into his thoughts to be able to write them down. Madham, the professorial narrator in the frame narrative, denies any responsibility for his story and feels “under no obligation to explain anything” (1). Far from trying to transcribe the tapes in a scholarly manner that aims at establishing the truth, he is guided by personal prejudice and sexual interest in Jeremy’s wife, even if all this is disguised as belonging to the “professor’s domain: the world of reflection, of understanding. The insight born of leisurely and loving meditation” (13). That is why he is “transcribing a few passages from those same tapes, simply that you might better appreciate the kind of rascal you found yourself involved with” (1–2). Madham’s assertion that Jeremy’s tapes “can be taken at face value” is undermined by Carol Sadness’s assertion that her husband “was faking everything from the moment he spoke the first sentence into the recorder” (2).

Gone Indian is the first of Kroetsch’s novels to overtly have two narrators. Both of them share the postmodern world-view, so that Madham should know better than to try and establish a coherent argument out of Jeremy’s fragmentary tapes. Kroetsch himself claims that “Madham is a very devious character and I think he is also acting out the reading act, he is taking fragments … and he is imposing an order: that’s what readers do” (Neuman and Wilson 176). Of course, Madham’s point of view is far from impartial since he wants to establish Jeremy’s death as a fact in order to legalize his affair with Jeremy’s wife, Carol, but the last small fragment in his jigsaw puzzle is missing, and thus his universe does not cohere. While Demeter in The Studhorse Man said that “I myself prefer an ordered world, even if I must order it through an order of madness …” (61, emphasis added), the narratorial posture in Gone Indian is broken up into the two narrators Madham and Sadness.

Many critics regard Badlands as Kroetsch’s best novel. This judgment may also have to do with the fact that, at first sight, Badlands is less experimental than its predecessor and thus comes close to being a traditional novel in the realistic vein. Set in the Alberta badlands, it goes back to the time of the First World War, William Dawe’s first archaeological expedition and the recovery of Albertan (pre-)history by—and on behalf of—(Eastern) Canada. What is clearer than in the other novels is the distinction between the two time-levels, that of the original Red Deer River expedition in 1916 and that of Dawe’s daughter Anna coming to Alberta in 1972 in order to do research on the spot. This latter narrative is a first-person narrative, whereas the rest, the report of the original expedition, is a third-person narrative.

A ‘chronology,’ a list of events at the beginning, gives the novel a quasi-factual dimension as it seems to establish a verifiable and reliable structure underlying the narrative: among them most importantly Dawe’s 1916 expedition and, in the summer of 1972, Anna’s attempt at ‘reconstructing’ her father’s history and at freeing herself from the grip that her father still has on her. Anna has only her father’s field notes, the conversations before his death, and the memories of her native friend Anna Yellowbird, who had accompanied her father, to rely on when trying to form her own picture of the expedition. His field notes prove to be less than accurate and reliable sources for the expedition report that Anna pieces together. In Robert Wilson’s words,

The parasitical relationship to the story which shows up already in Demeter also shows up strongly in Badlands where Anna is parasitical upon a slender and stunted story of her father’s but tells it and then comments upon it so that she does create herself through a parasitical relationship to the story which is both retelling and interpreting it.

(Neuman and Wilson 175)

The difficulties that “a reader accustomed to the conventional, modernist handling of narrative angle” has in assessing the narrative structure of Badlands are summarized by Laurie Ricou, who claims that “Badlands, by having no explicit fiction about the narrative angle, expresses Kroetsch’s own frustration with the demand for consistency” (Ricou 120).

Anna’s introduction to the novel situates her as the narrator and archaeologist of her father’s biography as well as of her own material. She had never received a personal letter from her father, only field notes: “God help us,” she sighs, “we are a people raised not on love letters or lyric poems or even cries of rebellion or ecstasy or pain or regret, but rather on old hoards of field notes” (8). The field notes integrated into the novel are from the start commented on and criticized, and thus relativized, by the narrator:

Tuesday, June 27. Arrived Trail Creek shortly before noon. Climbed up out of the valley in order to find a farm or ranch, buy some fresh food, send off some letters. And then, either to amplify his heroic endurance or to underline his disappointment, he added: Encountered a pitiful young squaw who seemed to think—He broke off the enlarging sentence, surprised at his own unscientific noting of the world. He scratched, righteously, pompously, in his cramped hand on the next line: she would accompany my expedition.


Anna Dawe’s report differs from her father’s male narrative. She does not rely, like Demeter or Madham, on “the curious little narrative tricks of a mad adventure: the lies that enable the lovers to meet, the mystery of who did the killing, the suspense before victory.” Men “have their open spaces, and translate them into a fabled hunting.” Women, however, “have only time to survive in, time, without either lies or mystery or suspense; we live and then die in time” (27). Commenting on a tall tale, she dismisses its author as a “total and absurd male” assuming “an omniscience that was not ever his, a scheme that was not ever there” (76). Whereas male authors and narrators are striving to establish an order out of their fragments, however chaotic it may seem, Kroetsch’s first female narrator, Anna Dawe, has finally developed the better strategy: she patiently awaits the further development of the story. This is what Anna Yellowbird, the incorporation of the old native as well as the postmodern spirit, has taught her: “the possibility of harmony, of accepting inconsistency and opposites. … one exchanges the comfort of absolutes or absolution, for life which is a mixture of darkness and glory that resists our attempts to order it” (Grace 33). And Anna Dawe, after reconstructing her father’s story, but before having written anything down, arrives at a moment of release from the gathering of documents, from the (male) obsession to find an order, to “fill the gap.” High up in the mountains, having read Dawe’s rather pompous final entry—“I have come to the end of words” (269)—she “took that last field book with the last pompous sentence he ever wrote, the only poem he ever wrote, a love poem, to me, his only daughter, and I threw it into the lake where it too might drown” (270). She must, one is forced to conclude, have quoted the field book from memory in the version that she tells in Badlands. The loss proves to be no loss at all because it gives her the possibility to create “a woman’s form for a woman’s view of the west” (Ricou 120), and because “in the act of telling itself, she creates an unexpected empathy with her father writing which helps to proclaim her own identity, and even, perhaps, to bridge the great divide of death” (Williams 236).

What the Crow Said is Robert Kroetsch’s flirt with magic realism, in which he leaves behind not only the demands of realism that he had seemingly come to accept in Badlands. Big Indian, a little town straddling the border of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, is confronted with fantastic events that take place during a time span of several years. Everything starts with the impregnation of the virgin Vera Lang by a swarm of bees, and the story culminates in a great flood. The events include a talking crow, prophecies correct and false, memories of things past and future, unbelievable success stories, and an apocalyptic war between earth and sky. The story is told by an omniscient narrator, a community voice, that can no longer rely on a more or less factual background or on “the hard core of detail.” This and the laws of causality and realist fiction have been left far behind in the magically realistic realm of Big Indian. The hero of Crow is Gus Liebhaber, typesetter, printer, and sometimes editor of the Big Indian Signal, who—since Gutenberg’s invention made remembering the past superfluous—has acquired the art of remembering the future. What the Crow Said has moved away from the dualism of narrative perspectives, which is often also the dualism of “creative characters” and “ordering interpreters” (Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern 160), that was dominant from Exiles (Michael Hornyak/Peter Guy) through Words (Backstrom/Murdoch), The Studhorse Man (Hazard/Demeter) and Gone Indian (Sadness/Madham) to Badlands (William Dawe/Anna Dawe). Liebhaber, though certainly an important figure who sometimes would like to become the scribe of his community, is only one among many characters. Although chronological, the plot of Crow is fragmented into many directions, so that it is difficult for a casual reader not to lose his orientation. Sam Solecki even had the impression, “erroneous probably—that Kroetsch wrote What the Crow Said simply by writing one extravagant episode after another until his creative energy and imagination gave out,” and he finally calls it “an assembly of brilliant parts that fail to cohere into a significant whole” (Solecki 327). Equally disappointed, Peter Thomas states that “it would be unproductive to summarize the ‘plot’ of a novel which is clearly part of the war against plot (to adopt the title of one of Jeremy’s abortive theses)” (Thomas, “RK and Silence” 38).

In spite of his knowledge of the future, Liebhaber is no longer able to compose a coherent story when he is confronted with “the heaped scrawls and scratches and guesses and advertisements” that his boss leaves to him with the instruction to compose a newspaper: “He couldn’t finish the story; he couldn’t complete the page and add the quoins, check the footstick, the sidestick, lock up the form …” (16). Chaos confronts him in the form of his collection of wood type, an “intricate knot of language that bound him to death” (54). He tries to ‘deconstruct’ language but is still confronted with the presence of letters that have a residual meaning. At one point, trapped under his boat, he seems to have worked out his philosophical problems and frees himself from Gutenberg’s curse: “Yes, he was writing his own story, at last.” He has found the key to chaos:

He could account for event, announce the presence of design, under the apparent chaos. … [N]ow he had escaped, he had recovered the night, and dream, and memory. He would compose a novel one sentence long, a novel anyone could memorize. You in my arms.


Consequently, Liebhaber knows now that “Gutenberg, too, was only a scribe” (216), and finds refuge with the women of the Lang family: “Liebhaber is happy. He cannot remember anything” (217).

What the Crow Said no longer can or even tries to establish its own reliability by means of reference to sources, fragments (or in Kroetsch’s terms, excerpts) from the real world; its universe is isolated from any outside civilization. Here we have what Robert Wilson describes as the goal of many fabulists: “to replace reality, to find in the emergent literary alternative a self-contained and independent structure that cannot be judged by the actual world but may judge it” (Wilson 38). One may wonder, however, to what extent it is possible to judge the world from an independent structure that is totally cut off from the real world. Robert Lecker argues that whereas Kroetsch’s earlier “mythological fictions” “blend larger-than-life meanings and relationships with a recognition of daily, local, ritualized occurrences” (Lecker, RK 99), such a recognition is no longer possible in Crow. Normally, although Kroetsch believes in the “uninvention of the world,” the deconstructive activity is for him not purely destructive but rather “implies, for all its attraction to disorder, a recovery of order, control” (Kroetsch 1989: 109). Or, as David Creelman (77) has it, “unlike the American deconstructionists who are distinguished … by their refusal to reassemble the discovered textual disorder, Kroetsch is tentatively willing to embark on rebuilding projects.” In Kroetsch’s own words, “to go into pure chaos is to vanish” (Neuman and Wilson 25), and in order to keep himself from slipping into this chaos, he normally hangs on to some basic facts, some non-literary structuring devices around which he constructs his narrative: found objects, texts, a ledger, a seed catalogue, snapshots, lists, genealogies. In Crow, he leaves these behind, and challenges his readers to come to terms with a Kroetsch novel without a binary structure to fall back on.

In Alibi, his latest novel, Kroetsch returns to the binary structure of “creative characters” and “ordering interpreters.” Still, it is his most experimental novelistic work in that he shows us a narrative in the process of being written and revised much in the way that an alibi sometimes tends to need revision. At the end of the novel, the alibi is still under revision: he leaves us alone with a series of notes. The dualistic structure between underlying notes and a parasitic new version produced on the basis of them provides us with a similar relationship as that between subtexts and supertexts in Gone Indian or Badlands. Here, the underlying text is William William Dorfen’s expedition report. Dorfen—or, for short, Dorf—works for the oil baron Jack Deemer, for whom he travels all over the world acquiring obscure collector’s items. In Alibi, he searches England, Wales, Portugal, and Greece for a spa that he finally finds close to his home town of Calgary in the Rocky Mountains. While in Portugal, Dorf is suspected of having murdered Julie Magnuson, his own and his employer’s mistress. He claims, however, that Julie must have stolen his car and driven, or have been driven, down a precipice. This version of events, Dorf’s alibi, suggests that another one of Julie’s lovers, dwarfish Dr. De Medeiros, might be responsible for her death (145).

Whereas the reader at first has the impression that he or she is reading Dorf’s entries in a journal that his sometime companion Karen Strike had given him for his birthday, one realizes towards the end that the chapters composing the main part of the book are not Dorf’s original entries but revisions. Only the appendix, “Dorfendorf’s Journal,” is the “true” underlying text, giving us entries that have not yet been transcribed and end abruptly on August 13. As these are the notes that Dorf took while transcribing the older entries, they are full of metafictional comments.

The very last entry describes an event which may explain the sudden end of the journal and novel: Dorf has retreated to a solitary cabin by a lake in order to finish his literary work in close contact with nature. Trying to keep the approaching De Medeiros from disturbing two newly hatched ospreys, he makes no effort at saving the doctor from the danger of drowning, so that his sudden disappearance is not surprising.

The “parasitical” commentary on the underlying text just summarized is given from Karen Strike’s perspective. She is supposed to be finishing the process of editing that Dorf had started, of giving the text a presentable form: “Let Karen put in some headings, some chapter titles to trap the unwary eye and lure the customer; she with her gift for compromise” (231). That is what she has done: her headlines are partly synopses of the contents, partly cryptic allusions that can only be understood in a second reading, such as the mention of a “Journal that William William Dorfen Kept but Did not Keep” (168), and partly ironic devices by means of which the omniscient editor keeps her distance from Dorf’s comparatively ignorant text.

At first sight, Karen’s headlines seem to be the only editorial intervention in Dorf’s expedition report and “unedited” notes. Considering Madham’s manipulation in Gone Indian and Anna Dawe’s in Badlands, however, one may doubt Karen’s reticence: not only translators can be traitors—editors also have the opportunity to manipulate texts or to deconstruct them and use them parasitically to further their own purposes. Whereas Karen’s visible influence seems to be limited to “some headings, some chapter titles,” it may well reach much further than Stanley Fogel assumes when he comments upon the last, “autobiographical,” entries in Dorf’s journal: “He remains, after all, at the end of Alibi, writing his own alibi, the journal that is the sign of his continuing condition” (Fogel 92). Robert Lecker is fully aware of the novel’s ambiguous narrative structure: “Although Alibi first appears to be a relatively conventional narrative presented by Dorf, it is in fact a highly contrived story presented via Karen, whose role as editor and editorializer is only revealed at the end of the book through what is presumably Dorf’s ‘authentic’ journal” (Lecker, “Con/Texts of Desire” 92). Lecker’s analysis does more justice to the complexity of Alibi, but Fogel’s “continuing condition” is also an important element of the novel: writing as process. As in the case of Badlands, different interpretations are not only possible; they are even encouraged by the ambiguous narrative structure. Ambiguity is part of the novels themselves.

While Dawe’s field notes in Badlands, the truthfulness of which was severely doubted by Anna, were notes written in the distant past, Dorf himself starts the process of writing and editing his own notes. The main part of the novel consists of his own revisions—or emendations, as he calls them—but the text underlying his revisions is the diary: “The original notes, Karen’s birthday journal, to me are only the negatives which now I develop” (232). The text edited by Karen thus is not at all the original journal, the original event, and consequently the reader is one step further removed from the “truth.”

On the other hand, Dorf’s metafictional comments in the appendix afford an insight into the process of writing. This time the comments are not those of an editor who is removed in time and space, but those of the writer himself who—through the writing process—distances himself from the original events and consciously prohibits or impedes the suspension of this distance: “I transcribe the notes from my journal into a proper manuscript. I tear out the transcribed page from the journal” (229).

It is hardly surprising that Dorf, who is after all composing his alibi, destroys his original notes. Madham and Anna Dawe had done the same. The revised version replaces the underlying original text, and it is factually and temporally removed from the original situation. Writing is a process of re-telling by means of signs, a process that involves differences and manipulation. This mode of distancing is comparable with Derrida’s principle of différance. In Derridean theory the text, which is composed of signs, is temporally and spatially different from the original event:

… the substitution of the sign for the thing itself is both secondary and provisional: it is second in order after an original and lost presence, a presence from which the sign would be derived. It is provisional with respect to this final and missing presence, in view of which the sign would serve as a movement of mediation.

(Derrida 138)

Derrida’s concept of the différant text as a provisional arrangement is also applicable to Alibi, as the underlying text was destroyed and one can no longer find out what (and if) anything was changed. The semiotic indeterminacy of the text is even more apparent in our case because the narrative point of view of the first-person narrator cannot be pinned down. The tense of his reports shifts between present and past, and sometimes words like now seem to refer to the time of the entry into the journal, whereas at other times they relate to the moment of transcription. When the remark “last Wednesday” (8) at one point seems to qualify him clearly as a narrator “in the midst of things,” he also has information at hand that he can only have as a narrator reminiscing in hindsight. For example he concludes at one point, “In sum, I was a happy man. And I might have remained such, had Deemer not sent me that unfortunate message” (7).

Not only Karen Strike’s commentary is parasitical in (probably) using Dorf’s text in a way that differs from his original intention; Dorf’s own text is also parasitical, as it re-interprets the situation depicted in the journal and integrates it into the new frame of an alibi. Karen is right when she points out to him that “You invent yourself, each time you sit down to make an entry …” (61), and “You do these real ‘takes’ on this Dorf guy that you’re trying to put together” (62).

Dorf admits that the construction of his text has involved manipulations, when he insists on the reliability of one particular self-quotation: “I must let this entry stand as I originally wrote it, in the interest of making clear my own integrity; I have emended and summarized elsewhere only to establish a narrative account whose clarity matches my insight …” (100). At other instances, Dorf also refers to the important function of his own commentary, for example when he comments on the collections that he acquires for Deemer: “The collection itself only confirms the discontinuity of this scattered world; it’s my talk that puts it together. I rave the world into coherence for Deemer” (195). But there is one collection of fragments that Dorf has to re-interpret and make coherent for himself: “I am trying to make sense of my journal, since I was sometimes remiss, sometimes left little gaps here and there. I make a correction, where necessary” (231). What makes up the special character of Alibi is that both processes of editing—Dorf’s editing of his journal and Karen’s comment upon his text—take place at the same time (even though one after the other) and that both have not come to a conclusion at the end of the book:

Yes, today, even while I tear out sheets from the front of the journal, I write new notes on the sheets at the end. The journal itself was intended to cover a mere calendar year. Even with those first pages vanishing, a handful each day, I have too many blank sheets remaining.


The transcription of the journal is thus an unfinished process: as Fogel put it, a “continuing condition.”

In Alibi, Kroetsch has integrated the parodic process of self-editing into his novel. The reader realizes that Dorf’s writing about himself and Karen’s editing result in texts shaped and determined by certain purposes; even if Dorf pretends to have written them for nothing else than self-knowledge: “I will show my journal to no one …” (135). Both textual levels are “deconstructive” as they re-interpret old relationships and embed them in new contexts. Dorf correctly realizes that many events only make sense in hindsight, when they are embedded in new and all-embracing interpretations: “Yesterday made sense, I can see it all now, but today doesn’t. Maybe that’s what journals are about” (39). Past occurrences only make sense in the present context, new texts only in comparison with old ones. That is why diaries have to be rewritten. The revised texts are parasites feeding on the energy of the original text and redirect it by embedding it in a new context, whether it be by adding many lines (like Dorf) or by just inserting a few titles (like Karen). If this technique is reminiscent of the technique of parody mentioned at the beginning, that is no coincidence. Linda Hutcheon once remarked in an essay that “parodic art both deviates from a literary norm and includes that norm within itself as background material” (Hutcheon, “Parody without Ridicule” 204). In Alibi, the norms parodied are that of the diary (Dorf’s birthday journal is parodied in his expedition report or alibi) and that of the expedition report itself, which is parodied by Karen’s comments.

While a novel such as The Words of My Roaring displays this act of parody or—in Lévi-Strauss’s terms—bricolage on the autobiographical level of Backstrom’s reminiscing about his own life, and while Badlands is an example of the use of such techniques on the biographical level of Anna Dawe’s reconstruction of her father’s life, Alibi unites in itself the characteristics of both strategies. Dorf writes his version of the search for the lost spa as an autobiography dominated by his endeavour to construct an alibi. Karen, who had warned him that his alibi “had better be airtight” (219), adds a biographical level to Dorf’s autobiographical one.

The alibi constructed by Dorf is double: alibi is defined by Webster’s as “a plea of having been at the time of the commission of an act elsewhere than at the place of commission.” This refers to Dorf’s involvement in Julie Magnuson’s mysterious death in Portugal. On the other hand, alibi can also mean “an excuse usually intended to avert blame or punishment (as for failure or negligence),” and if we understand the word in this sense, it would refer to Dorf’s responsibility for Medeiros’s death. Here, as well as concerning the narrative structure of his book, Kroetsch leaves us in doubt. The only thing we as readers can understand and ‘trace’ is the act of writing, not the events to which the text refers, an insight already won from historiographical metafiction. Alibi sketches what happens when we write alibis, and in a sense all human memory tends to be selective and becomes a kind of alibi, especially historical writing. There is always a difference between a written text and the truth, because the purpose for which a text was written frames its views and our views of it. The construction of alibis was already part of Kroetsch’s earlier novels, witness for example Demeter Proudfoot’s version of Hazard Lepage’s story, or Mark Madham’s version of Jeremy Sadness’s tape. In order to render past events plausible in hindsight, one has to go beyond pure description and documentation. Kroetsch’s writers and editors all do what Dorf suggests to Karen when she starts to film a documentary: “Fake the real” (52).

Reading and tracing the narrative structures of Kroetsch’s novels from the relatively simple third-person perspective of Exiles through the tall tales of Johnnie Backstrom, Demeter Proudfoot, and Mark Madham, through Anna Dawe’s female version of her father’s story, to the magically coherent incoherence of What the Crow Said and the Derridean trace of an alibi in Alibi, the reader participates in the endeavours of an author who again and again lives up to his claim that “I work a reader pretty hard, I guess, in that I want him to enter into the process [of fiction making] with me” (Hancock 42). Kroetsch’s interest in and production of writerly structured narratives rather than traditionally formed ones shows that he, too, believes that traditional narrative is dead if we mean by that a narrative relying on “a social order of meaning, a political economy and collective psychology.” The writer of a postmodern text can no longer rely on such a firmly established world-view, and this is Kroetsch’s message to his readers. Thus—and more radically so than most of his Canadian colleagues—he does what Richard Harvey Brown defines as the task of the postmodern writer: he “tries to invent a new way of reading the world. Instead of reconstructing the world in terms of an earlier, conventional code, he deconstructs conventional experience through a new form of encoding” (R. H. Brown 545, 546).

Works Cited

Brown, Richard Harvey, “The Position of the Narrative in Contemporary Society.” New Literary History 11,3 (1980): 545–550.

Brown, Russell M. “An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” University of Windsor Review 7, 2 (1972): 1–18.

Cameron, Donald. “Robert Kroetsch: The American Experience and the Canadian Voice.” Conversations with Canadian Novelists. Vol. 1. Toronto: Macmillan, 1973. 81–95.

Creelman, David. “Robert Kroetsch: Criticism in the Middle Ground.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne 16,1 (1991): 63–81.

Davey, Frank. Introduction. Open Letter 5,4 (1983): 8.

Davidson, Arnold E. “Will the Real R. Mark Madham Please Stand Up: A Note on Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian.” Studies in Canadian Literature 6,1 (1981): 135–139.

Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Speech and Phenomena And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973. 129–160.

Eliot, T. S. ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth.’ Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. 175–178.

Feyerabend, Paul K. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: New Left Books, 1975.

Fogel, Stanley. A Tale of Two Countries: Contemporary Fiction in Canada and the United States. Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.

Grace, Sherrill. “Wastelands and Badlands: The Legacies of Pynchon and Kroetsch.” Mosaic 14,2 (1981): 21–34.

Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 24–25 (1977): 32–52.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.

———. “Parody without Ridicule: Observations òn Modern Literary Parody.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 5,2 (1978): 201–211.

Kroetsch, Robert. Alibi. Toronto: Stoddart, 1983.

———. Badlands. 1975. Toronto: General Publishing, 1982.

———. But We Are Exiles. 1965. Laurentian Library. Toronto: Macmillan, 1977.

———. “A Canadian Issue.” Boundary 2 3,1 (1974): 1–2.

———. Gone Indian. 1973. Nanaimo, B.C.: Theytus Books, 1981.

———. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.

———. “On Being an Alberta Writer.” Open Letter 5,4 (1983): 69–80.

———. “One for the Road.” Open Letter 5,4 (1983): 30–31.

———. Seed Catalogue. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1979.

———. The Studhorse Man. 1969. Markham, Ont.: PaperJacks, 1980.

———. What the Crow Said. 1978. Markham, Ont.: PaperJacks, 1979.

———. The Words of My Roaring. 1966. Markham, Ont.: PaperJacks, 1977.

Lecker, Robert. “Con/Texts of Desire: Robert K’oetsch’s Alibi.” Open Letter 5,8–9 (1984): 83–98.

———. Robert Kroetsch. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Lernout, Geert. “Postmodernist Fiction in Canada.” Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas. Ed. Theo D’haen and Hans Bertens. Amsterdam: Rodopi; Antwerpen: Restant, 1988. 127–141.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. New York: Schocken Books, 1979.

Neuman, Shirley and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982

Ricou, Laurence. “Field Notes and Notes in a Field: Forms of the West in Robert Kroetsch and Tom Robbins.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 17,3 (1982): 117–123.

Ross, Brian L. “The Naked Narrator: The Studhorse Man and the Structuralist Imagination.” Canadian Literature 104 (1985): 65–73.

Ross, Morton L. “Robert Kroetsch and His Novels.” Writers of the Prairies. Ed. Donald G. Stephens. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973. 101–114.

Solecki, Sam. “Letters in Canada: Fiction.” University of Toronto Quarterly 48,4 (1978): 326–27.

Thomas, Peter. Robert Kroetsch. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

———. “Robert Kroetsch and Silence.” Essays on Canadian Writing 18–19 (1980): 33–53.

Wasson, Richard. “Notes on a New Sensibility.” Partisan Review 36,3 (1969): 460–477.

Wilson, Robert. “On the Boundary of The Magic and The Real: Notes on Inter-American Fiction.” The Compass: A Provincial Review 6 (1979): 37–53.

Williams, David. Confessional Fictions: A Portrait of the Artist in the Canadian Novel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Wood, Susan. “Reinventing the Word: Kroetsch’s Poetry.” Canadian Literature 77 (1978): 28–39.

Richard Lane (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3792

SOURCE: “The Double Guide: Through the Labyrinth with Robert Kroetsch,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1993, pp. 19-27.

[In the following essay, Lane examines Kroetsch's novels and poetry in order to understand his literary theory, particularly in Labyrinths of Voice.]

How do we find our way through a textual labyrinth? Already, in the etymology of its name, the notion of doubling forms part of a trace that leads us to the Minotaur and the Classical world. But readers of literary criticism know that the concept of a labyrinth can also lead into the contemporary postmodern world of uncertainty. Just over ten years ago, Robert Kroetsch published his Labyrinths of Voice (1982),1 with which some critics believed the Canadian postmodern had arrived.2 Douglas Barbour soon noted how the “questioning” of the three speakers in Labyrinths is a “quest/ioning”. Barbour’s word-play, or oscillation of meaning, brings us to another important postmodern concept: that of the unresolved quest (unresolved, since resolution would neatly unify or package postmodern fragmentation and uncertainty). As Barbour said, way back then:

Robert Kroetsch is one of the most self-consciously aware writers around today, fascinated by the theoretical roots of his art; in the theoretical routes of the labyrinth of the interview which is no longer simply interview, he and his co-speakers/seekers lead us into a series of open-ended speculations about contemporary writing and literature as a whole.3

The word “roots” switches to “routes”, neither signification gaining priority. Both signifiers are part of the labyrinth metaphor; the search backwards to some kind of entry-point to the labyrinth can only take place through the process of speculation and writing, the route of Labyrinths. “Open-ended” speculation, because in the postmodern labyrinth, knowledge-structures contain their own aporetic fault-lines leading to self-deconstruction.

But where does this leave the reader, trying to find her or his way through Labyrinths, knowing that every argument is liable to fracture, to go off in a number of directions, or to disseminate itself across the text? Perhaps we should follow the common-sense advice of an early Labyrinths reviewer, who notes that “If you really want to understand Kroetsch better, re-read his novels and poems”.4 Ironically this advice, which suggests steering clear of too much theory, argues for a shift from the mainly spoken form of the pseudo-interview, to the written form of Kroetsch’s fictional texts, a clue that behind the common-sense lurks Derrida, after all.

Open-ended speculation and “quest/ioning” are found, most obligingly, in Kroetsch’s Alibi (1983).5 Indeed, if Alibi is used as a guide through Labyrinths, we quickly find that the two texts share similar strategies, undermining the separation of “criticism” and “art”. Thus both texts reveal the intersection of legacy (literary/critical heritage) and the creative or artistic “leg-work”6 of Kroetsch’s texts—in other words, a plexus composed of structural enclosures and the creative, internal critique (of such enclosures). As the narrator of “Seed Catalogue” says: “We give form to this land by running / a series of posts and three strands / of barbed wire around a quarter section”.7 The metaphoric logic of the enclosure in Kroetsch’s texts works in much the same way, where the legacy is that structure “fenced in” which the deconstructor then interrogates from within: “Systems are open to adjustment, to change, to game, to our elaboration”.8 An oscillation continually takes place between the enclosure of influence and the labyrinthine reworking of given forms. However, it still might not be clear as to why the labyrinth should even be considered an enabling metaphor for postmodernism, since in spatial terms, the labyrinth could be regarded as an essentially closed or finite form that counter-acts the ethos of postmodernism, that is the labyrinth as having an absolute origin and centre. There are two ways of complicating such a static view. First is the concept of the labyrinth within a labyrinth, that is the pseudo-infinite regress of paths leading to themselves (an idea of great interest to Borges). Second is the notion that any fixed structure contains the possibility of its own transgression. That is to say, we are back to the aporetic fault-lines, but this time by suggesting that the limit is a symbiotic partner of transgression, where we understand the labyrinth as an algorithm (a procedure, a method) rather than a static figure standing in for postmodernism in some limited way.

As signalled by the novel Badlands (1975),9 the enclosure in Kroetsch’s work (any static form), must be archaeologically uncovered, disturbed and disseminated across the land/text. The digging tool or writing implement is thus doubled, becoming simultaneously the “creating tool”. Digging and creating equals the simultaneous action, or “hard graft” of the legacy/leg-work. This simultaneous action explains the continual critical reference to Kroetsch’s need to create a paradoxical silence with words, new literary forms with the building blocks of the old. Sherrill Grace notes:

Language for Kroetsch can be liberating. Paradoxically it can be used to suggest the silence of the uncreated because it is only with language that we can break free from, or decreate, the prisons of inherited words or stories in order to discover a fresh reality that expresses us better than the inherited one.10

Enclosure, legacy, inheritance: all suggest a classification of literary forms, a theory of the literary that belongs to a scientific desire to objectify the features of a text. The foregrounding in Kroetsch of the internal critique shifts the labyrinth structure from work of fiction to work of criticism and back again, a continual movement back and forth that resists the classificatory desire, forming a more flexible form of “literary critique”.

“Literary critique” in its poststructuralist sense reads “literary gaming”. As Edward Said notes in Beginnings, “Theory assumes the evident irregularity and discontinuity of knowledge—and hence its lack of a single central logos …”.11 Thus theory/gaming images the epistemology of its own production, yet, in producing meaning itself, multiplies meaning: “True theory, says Deleuze, does not totalize, it multiplies.”12 Said is concerned here with Vico (amongst others) in relation to literary and philosophical beginnings. Here is a way of recuperating the historical legacy, with this notion of beginnings, where “a beginning is at once never given and always indefinite.”13 The power of the legacy need not overwhelm the contemporary project of writing: “As Vico himself said, just because a belief is fantastic to us now does not mean that that belief did not serve some valid purpose for the mind that created it and held it: this is the most insistent lesson of his historiography.”14 History, become narrative, become game, rejects the closure of teleology; there is a switching here from the designs of nature, to the designs of the narrator, that representative of the effaced author whose signature constantly throws him or her back into view. When Kroetsch calls Roland Barthes a “creative writer”,15 he simultaneously signs himself as critic-creator.

The critic-creator performs a more complex writing task than the common-sense critic would perhaps envision. An example of this complexity can be discovered by regarding the “Banff Springs Hotel” scene in Alibi as a textual palimpsest, upon which the etymology of “legacy” is traced. Alan Bass, the translator of Derrida’s Postcard, notes in his Glossary how “the original pronunciation [of “legs” = “legacy”] was the same as lais, from the verb laisser, to leave … lais was both the ancient form of legs and the term for a narrative or lyric poem.”16 The legacy is not just that which is left behind; it has a double sense in that it is also the process which must be worked out (“leg-work”), the process being the construction of signification operating with the simultaneous critique of the inheritance. Thus Alibi is the construction of a narrative inextricably linked with other generic forms. The “Banff Springs Hotel” foregrounds this interplay of signification: “I found a dark, stone stairway. I went down carefully, carefully I went down, the heavy stone steps. Into a darkness that was watery thick.”17 The genre of the detective story becomes mixed with that of the Gothic novel; the labyrinth metaphor enables the writer to cross generic forms, or, as at an intersection, quickly switch the text into other generic modes. As long as the labyrinth metaphor is the horizon of the text’s own writing or creation, the narrative does not have to remain within any single system of closure. In other words, the metaphor initiates further textual production, further textual strategies to avoid/evade generic closure.

Back in the “Banff Springs Hotel”, the floor of the room that Dorf enters is also made of the cold stone of the stairway in the labyrinthine entrance. The entrance to the labyrinth has, of course, led to more labyrinths where the reflections multiply “three recessed windows [which] imitated the squares in the rug” and “the panelled walls, dark, almost invisible, were a maze too …”.18 Dorf loses his sense of direction, but this is not surprising when out of the darkness he steps into doubling and reflection. The rug that is there to screen the cold stone floor is both a simulation of a fixed stylistic period, the twenties, and of “something infinitely old”. The rug both recreates the signs of a historic period and sweeps them away in its obvious synthetic quality; it signals the genuine and the simulacrum. “Infinitely old” suggests a period without origin, a beginning that can be endlessly duplicated, at any time (“Fake the real” Dorf will say later on, but the “real” is already a simulacrum in this sense of beginnings, where authenticity as a concept is erased—thus “the real would suffice”).19

The “game” section of Labyrinths gives the reader a clue as to how literature can be criticism, and vice-versa, in Kroetsch’s work:

It’s interesting that we play the game, isn’t it? There is a double thing that goes on even in the statement which is very fascinating to me. The two words contradict each other in a signifying way. Play resists the necessary rules of the game.20

At this point in Labyrinths, Wilson and Neuman are both concerned with the reification of game conventions. Two positions are offered: first, where the rules of the game (the strict boundaries regulating literary production) are regarded as being “more rigid than they actually are”, and second, where the rules of the game are incorporated into the text to undergo criticism, to enable the critical freedom of playing with these regulations. As Neuman notes, Sterne does both: “In the example of Tristram Shandy … Sterne can only play against the rules by first incorporating them into his text, but incorporating them in a more rigid form than they have taken in the novels against which he is reacting. He must pretend they are more rigid than they actually are.”21 I will argue that, in the postmodern text such as Alibi, the rules are not artificially inflated to be blown down or away, and that the notion of play (as part of the very productive structure of the text) does not mean that such texts cannot be read in a more conventional manner. For example, it is possible to take a conservative position where a narrative such as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 would be read as reinforcing the conventional quest motif, reinforcing a literary tradition rather than playing “against” that tradition. The “game of chess” is never really over in these literary terms, so long as the pieces remain in play. Somebody may say, as Wilson remarks, “‘Well, that’s not chess’ and walk away”,22 but another person can just as easily decide otherwise: the game is now called postmodern chess, following an altered set of rules.

For Kroetsch “game” equals “literature”, whereas “play” equals “writing”. Writing is that which constantly escapes rigid formulation, escapes producing game-rules which cannot be broken. Another doubling occurs here; for the writer constantly to evade the formulation of rigid rules, he or she must perform a vigilant self-criticism. How does the critic respond though, if the criteria of evaluation are constantly undergoing transformation? How does the critic go beyond the catalogue, the list, the discussion of the markers of postmodern carnivalization?

Dorf’s double in Alibi is Manny the spa-doctor, a dwarf involved in the rites (or rut) of carnival, the desire-process that overturns routine and an acceptance of things as they are in the world. A political reading of carnival (of which there are accounts ad nauseam) may suggest the revolutionary power inherent in such an activity and/or discourse, such as Kristeva’s proposal “that the infraction of formal literary codes of language is identical to challenging official law.23 This is analogous to the concept of disrupting the game:

All play has its rules. They determine what “holds” in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over.24

Huizinga suggests that the “spoil-sports” who ruin the game may sometimes create a new community of their own, with a new set of rules. What is suggested in his account of game/play, is that the game is in a sense perfect or ideal for it to be ruined in the first place. For the writer as player, this is not so, and thus the rules of the game must be constantly transgressed.

Another view of the play-activity “carnival” is that of a temporary, self-contained activity after which order will always be restored. This is where the carnivalesque inversion serves to magnify a structure that is already in place (in the game-rules), revealing the subjugated signifiers that the subject depends on. A place of legitimized carnival (although the players are supposed to be temporary residents) is the spa. The carnivalesque reveals that, with the activity towards cure, arises the production of “poison” (the pharmakon).25 The spa town of Bath, for example, was described in the 1700’s as “A valley of pleasure, yet a sink of iniquity … The plain fact was that for a gentleman to visit the place was as likely to bring on the pox as cure it.”26 Similarly, the mud bath at Laspi in Alibi, reveals the behind of society, that in which Dorf has trouble immersing himself: “I couldn’t quite immerse myself in that stinking thick mud where all the sick and the maimed did their suffering and their hoping. And their pissing and their bleeding and their farting.”27 However, once he has entered the mud, a strange transformation takes place: “The others began to turn their heads into masks, into sculptures, into faces that were other than their own … I looked down at all those floating heads on the mud, and suddenly they were beautiful; those men were strong and powerful and handsome again.”28 The transformation from the grotesque body to the heroic masks and sculptures of a more classical representation entices Dorf to experience (once more) the pleasures of the body. For the duration of the game-space of the mud-bath, the sick and the maimed are restored to health and beauty; the mud which acts as a supplement or ornament, becomes in the suspended space of the game the “essence” (under erasure) of being, where sickness belongs to another world. But this carnivalesque inversion does not exclude the signs of the sick body, for a more accurate description of this process is that of “inmixing” the signifiers of the subject; the fat man “is” the smelly woman. As White and Stallybrass put it:

Carnival gives symbolic and ritual play, and active display, to the inmixing of the subject, to the heterodox, messy, excessive and unfinished informalities of the body and social life. It attacks the authority of the ego (by rituals of degradation and by the use of masks and costume) and flaunts the material body as a pleasurable grotesquerie—protuberant, fat, disproportionate, open at the orifices.29

The emphasis in the quotation should be placed for our reading on the “unfinished informalities” not only of the body, but of the carnival structure itself. Kroetsch plays with the carnival as a way of dis-playing the fixed game rules of the literary legacy (doing the work of the normally “external” critic). The carnival is not a fixed structure (except in its abstract ideality); rather there is a collection of events, of discourses, that may be grouped in passing under the heading “carnival”. The carnivalesque is a play concept that constantly undergoes self-transformation to escape the confines of a strictly rigid critical definition. As Stallybrass and White note, “… a convincing map of the transformation of carnival involves tracing migrations, concealment, metamorphoses, fragmentations, internalization and neurotic sublimations …”.30

We have seen that the strategies of Alibi double those of Labyrinths (and vice-versa), the focus on Kroetsch’s writing as a “play” structure showing one way in which rigid formulations are transgressed. In Alibi, the fictional narrator is the text’s own literary critic who tears out the pages of the journal, transcribing the playful writing “into a proper manuscript”, or that which, as De Man says, already deconstructs itself: “Literature—the only language that is already deconstructed, that manifests its own mediated, rhetorical, nonreferential status without any help from the critic.”31 The doubling of “journal” and “novel”, with the various mediators, can be read as disrupting the relationship of legitimation between reader and text, where the reader claims a certain amount of stable knowledge (the stuff of which academic papers are normally written). In Labyrinths, Neuman makes a provocative statement concerning the need for “other disciplines” to account for knowledge, since the focus upon the signifier as that which disrupts the enclosures of knowledge (writing as signifier as play) would tend to weaken “the conviction that language is knowledge”.32 Thus, by systematically mapping out the game rules of deconstruction, postmodernism/structuralism, archaeology, etc, the critic can account for the literary text. As Dorf says: “I am trying to make sense of my journal, since I was sometimes remiss, sometimes left little gaps here and there. I make a correction, where necessary.”33

The desire for knowledge from “other disciplines” suggests that the postmodernist focus upon language as writing (in the Derridean sense), destroys any notion of stability, which is a fallacy. Kroetsch notes: “I was interested in language as signifying things that were not allowed, were taboo …”.34 The most taboo signification of all may be that language may be viewed as a process which signifies only more or other language (and here we can opt for a Schopenhauerian pessimism35 or a Nietzschean affirmation36 in such an endless process). At the opening of Alibi, the effaced character “Jack Deemer” sends messages which must be acted upon, but which have no ground other than their performance, the use to which they are put:

… he’s a great one for sending messages. His minions live in a kind of dread of memos or post cards or, for that matter, scraps of toilet paper scrawled with instructions for which there is no explanation, no place to seek clarification.37

These messages are not to be explained in a conventional way at the end of the novel, for the end is unlocatable. Deemer’s physical arrival (that hoped-for referent behind all those annoying signifiers) is endlessly replayed where “Karen must fake the end of her documentary. She has persuaded her little gang to restage the arrival.”38 What is left is the protagonist living with the violation of the darkened spa, yet still writing, through a process of transliteration and transcoding. The textual play of the signifier continues, both where Deemer’s messages are acted upon as the incentive for further questing (the ever-expanding collection) and with the “faking of the real”—the simulation of the signifier.

Have I answered my opening question, or doubled it? Have I turned the question inwards, upon itself, in that process so annoying to those who seek a way through the postmodern labyrinth? The mirroring, or back and forth movement between Labyrinths and Alibi, has shown that the answers to questions of guidance lie “within” the texts; that the complicated aporetic structures that are a necessary condition for postmodern transgression also explain Kroetsch’s use of a Derridean, playful writing. Those waiting for a transcendental signifier from Jack Deemer, or elsewhere, with which to relève39 themselves up out of the labyrinth (that is, to revert to the metaphysical system of rigid significations which the postmodern process undermine) will be waiting a very long time indeed.


  1. S. Neuman and R. Wilson, eds, Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982.

  2. J. Conklin, review of Labyrinths of Voice, Quill & Quire, April 1983, p. 31.

  3. D. Barbour, review of Labyrinths of Voice, NeWest Review, 8, No. 9, Summer 1983, p. 16.

  4. P. Precosky, review of Labyrinths of Voice, Canadian Book Review Annual, 1982, Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1983, p. 233.

  5. Robert Kroetsch, Alibi, Toronto: New Press, 1983.

  6. Alan Bass, translator’s note to Jacques Derrida, The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987, p. 292.

  7. Robert Kroetsch, Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch, Toronto: McClelland & Stewert, 1989, p. 42.

  8. Labyrinths, p. 28.

  9. Robert Kroetsch, Badlands, Toronto: New Press, 1975.

  10. Sherrill Grace, “Wastelands & Badlands: The Legacies of Pynchon and Kroetsch”, Mosaic, 14, 2, Spring 1981, p. 23.

  11. Edward Said, Beginnings, Intentions & Method, New York: Columbia UP, 1985, p. 378.

  12. ibid.

  13. ibid, p. 350.

  14. ibid, p. 361.

  15. Labyrinths, p. 41.

  16. Postcard, p. xxiii.

  17. Alibi, p. 47.

  18. ibid, p. 48.

  19. ibid, p. 52.

  20. Labyrinths, p. 50.

  21. ibid, p. 52.

  22. Labyrinths, p. 52.

  23. A. White & P. Stallybrass, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen, 1986, p. 201.

  24. J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, London: Routledge, 1949, p. 11.

  25. See Jacques Derrida’s discussion of the pharmakon in his Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

  26. R. S. Neale, Bath 1680–1850: A Social History or A Valley of Pleasure Yet A Sink of Iniquity, London: Routledge, 1981, pp. 12–17.

  27. Alibi, p. 165.

  28. ibid, pp. 165–6.

  29. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, p. 183.

  30. ibid, p. 180.

  31. G. Ulmer, “Jacques Derrida and Paul De Man: On/In Rousseau’s Faults”, The Eighteenth Century, 20, 2, 1979, p. 174.

  32. Labyrinths, p. 159.

  33. Alibi, p. 231.

  34. Labyrinths, p. 142.

  35. See, for example, Georg Simmel’s discussion of the “Metaphysics of the Will” in his Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, trans. Helmut Loiskandl, Deena Weinstein & Michael Weinstein, Urbana & Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1991.

  36. See, for example, Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, especially pp. 292–3, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

  37. Alibi, p. 7.

  38. ibid, p. 231.

  39. See translator’s note 23 in Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982, for a discussion of Derrida’s relève, a translation of Hegel’s Aufhebung or sublation. Aufhebung literally means “lifting up”; but it also contains the double meaning of conservation and negation (p. 20).

J. R. Snyder (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6475

SOURCE: “A Map of Misreading: Gender, Identity, and Freedom in Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1993, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Snyder examines the ways in which Gone Indian has been misunderstood and suggests ways to correct the misreadings.]

M. E. Turner, among several others, has contended that the discussion of Robert Kroetsch’s work is too often based upon the critical positions set out in Kroetsch’s own theoretical work; Kroetsch’s literary output has enjoyed a high level of acceptance because Kroetsch’s criticism implicitly posits his own works as models for postmodern fiction and poetry. Although Turner’s argument is overstated, it is often difficult to separate Kroetsch’s novels from his critical pronouncements. In at least one instructive case, though, this tendency results in fallacious conclusions, not because of the naive linking of an author’s artistic and critical statements, but because of a fundamental misreading of both the critical and the literary texts.

“The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space” is Kroetsch’s most frequently cited theoretical statement. Gone Indian is perhaps Kroetsch’s most underappreciated novel. Both works have been consistently misread on the basis of what critics have anticipated Kroetsch ought to be saying, what they were prepared to accept his saying. Recently, from the perspective of “third-wave feminism” (or “feminization of deconstruction”), Susan Rudy-Dorscht identifies the central misreading of Kroetsch’s “Erotics of Space” (a misreading which is apparent even without that perspective). It has been read as being prescriptive of Kroetsch’s conception of male-female relationships rather than descriptive of the relationships discerned in previous prairie fiction:

Although Kroetsch recognizes that traditionally we have “conceived of external space as male, internal space as female. More precisely, the penis: external, expandable, expendable; the vagina: internal, eternal,” his reading of the sexual/textual politics between male and female overturns these phallocentric assumptions.

(The Studhorse Man 26)

Rudy-Dorscht seeks to replace both first-wave feminism—that which calls for “texts written by biological women … [to] be recognized, included, and valued within the canon”—and second-wave feminism—which “rests upon the notions of femininity as an essential difference and of female writing as a writing of the body” (26)—with third-wave feminism because the prior two positions perpetuate the reductive dualism of male-female. As she writes in Telling the Difference: RereadingWoman,’ her doctoral thesis on Kroetsch’s novels (but not, except glancingly, Gone Indian),

The third attitude in feminist thinking undermines the hierarchy of the binary opposition which permits questions of equality to be asked and finds, with Barbara Johnson, that differences between seemingly stable categories are based on “a repression of differences within entities, ways in which an entity differs from itself.”


Critics of Kroetsch’s fiction, and of Gone Indian in particular, similarly perpetuate the repressive binarism his characters seek to escape. His characters are typically plagued by a dichotomous view of existence, and critics tend to be entrapped by that view as well, seeing the resolution of each novel as an assertion of the primacy of the vital, active half of each binary opposition over the repressive, stultifying half. As David Creelman writes,

his texts are filled with oppositions, in which a first term concerned with a static vision of the world is rejected in favour of a second more radical term which focuses on process and activity.


Instead, though, the novels portray the struggle to escape the definition of identity in the restrictive binary form of “if I’m not that, then I must be this.” Kroetsch’s protagonists typically find—although usually not by seeking it—a way to define identity without resorting to that binarism, or evade defining it at all. Rudy-Dorscht’s position, clearly, is applicable to the larger question of identity, whether its derivation is related to gender or not. If Jeremy Sadness, the central character in Gone Indian, defines himself as opposite to Professor Madham, or embraces Western Canada as opposed to Eastern Canada, or seeks to be Indian as opposed to White, or establishes his maleness in opposition to femaleness, or establishes any facet of his identity by differentiation on the basis of the many binary oppositions at play in the novel, his sense of identity is still constructed and constrained by the reductive, dualistic thinking which sponsors the binaries.

Jeremy Sadness has been saddled with a quest and an identity not his own. His struggle to earn a Ph.D. and become a professional academic derives from the wish of both parents that he should be unlike his seaman father, and from Professor Madham’s example and advice as his thesis supervisor and surrogate parent. Jeremy’s journey west in search of academic employment is also clearly not of his choosing. His precarious marital and financial situations seem similarly to have been imposed upon him. Evidently as a result of these burdens, Jeremy is burdened also with a handicap: he cannot achieve an erection lying down. To find a cure for his sexual dysfunction, Jeremy must cast off inherited and imposed restrictions on identity, not only his own but those of others. Jeremy’s response is to embark on a quest westward in order to become Grey Owl. Transforming himself into Grey Owl—going Indian—is the active half of the binary: Jeremy opposes his dream of becoming Grey Owl to the dream his parents and Madham share of his becoming an academic: he will become Grey Owl instead of becoming Jeremy Bentham.

Professor Madham, responding to Jill Sunderman’s appeal to “explain everything” (1) about the disappearance of Jeremy with her mother, Bea, constructs a narrative out of the cassette tapes he claims Jeremy filled while on his quest. The book’s forty-six sections are narrated alternately by Madham and Sadness. The doubled narrative pattern suggests the binary opposition of Sadness and Madham: Jeremy feels himself to be antithetically opposed to Madham and what he represents, as many of the critics have noted. But, as Sadness is progressively affected by his experience in the Northwest, he feels less and less need to speak to his cassette recorder and to Madham—he removes himself from the dialogue. As Jeremy tends increasingly towards silence late in the book, Madham fills the silence for him, interjecting commentary into even those sections ostensibly narrated by Jeremy. The final chapter should be in Jeremy’s voice, but since that voice has been silenced—at least in terms of this coercive, reductive narrative dichotomy—Madham has the last word.

Professor Madham clearly is, if not a madman, then a seriously unbalanced and unreliable narrator. Madham tells Jill that, while he has done some editing, most of the narrative is a direct transcription of Jeremy’s tapes, but she and the reader have only Madham’s assertion for this. We have no way of confirming the veracity of any of the information presented, so the game becomes to learn about the narrator and to try to piece together the story through his disorderings of it. The reader is forced to accept that there is no final solution, no single ending—“Endings be damned” (24). Like the prairies’ promise of diffusion of identity rather than a concluded self, the book remains an open field, a wealth of possibilities offering a series of metamorphoses, rather than a single switch from one pole to its opposite.

One of the dangers for the reader playing this game is to fail to maintain adequate critical distance from the attitudes and assumptions of the characters, or mistakenly to identify them with Kroetsch’s own. Peter Thomas, for example, simplifies the novel as being typical Kroetsch: “once more Kroetsch pairs a restrained central character with his unrestrained doppelganger” (69). To Robert Lecker the novel presents “a typical Kroetschian conflict between a father figure aligned with the East, the rooted past, narrative definition, and institutionalized learning, and a surrogate son whose dream is counter-East, who responds unpredictably to immediate circumstances, who thrives on inventing himself” (62). Arnold Davidson refers to the book in terms of the “hoary opposition of youth versus age. …” (136). Peter Sinnema concludes that Jeremy and Madham remain trapped in a dialectic opposition:

Whereas Jeremy can see himself becoming Madham within the dialectic … he cannot go Indian. Braids versus brush-cut is a gap impossible to span, but the episteme of Binghamton … binds Jeremy into a system of knowledge enabling dialogue with Mark Madham. Overdetermined by the valorized ambiguity of Gone Indian which throws him into a dialectical contiguity with Madham, Jeremy cannot abandon notions of indigenous Otherness in the very moment he quests to go Indian.


Jeremy’s dream is “counter-East” and to “go Indian” initially, but by the end of the novel, he has dropped out of the dialogue that Sinnema cites: Jeremy no longer “quests to go Indian.” Jeremy originally wants to become Grey Owl, who “killed” his former self as Archie Belaney to become reborn as an Indian naturalist and author. Stanley Fogel contends that Jeremy’s dream “To become Grey Owl is to free himself from the welter of words that paralyses him …” (84). Most opinions of the novel similarly view the dream to become Grey Owl as freeing, but Jeremy’s vague struggle to become Grey Owl actually paralyses him from taking action, leading him to reject actual possibilities for transformation. Jeremy’s wilful attempt to become Grey Owl is as wrong-headed as Madham’s trying to turn Jeremy into a younger version of himself. When Daniel Beaver tells Jeremy that Grey Owl would be proud of the way Sadness handled himself in the fight after the snowshoe race, Jeremy’s reaction makes clear that it is to a misty ideal of Grey Owl that he aspires:

“He was a good fighter,” Daniel explained. “He killed a man himself one time, in a fight.”

“He killed himself,” I whispered. I didn’t dare flex a muscle. “He killed Archie Belaney. Then he became Grey Owl.”

“I never heard of that,” Daniel said. “But once he killed a man. Another man. He was quick with a knife, Grey Owl. He liked to drink. He liked women. …”

“You didn’t know him,” I said aloud, defending Grey Owl. No one could say those things about my borderman. My pathfinder.


The temptation to which Fogel and others appear to succumb is to see Madham as the negative role model and Grey Owl as the positive role model simply because Jeremy sees them that way. Surely Madham, rather than being merely emblematic of a “rooted past” and the repressive East, is as much a product of transformation as Grey Owl, even if we disallow the hinted possibility of his being the mature Robert Sunderman, Bea’s absent husband. Madham grew up in the West and reinvented himself; he dreamed East and pursued a counter-quest to become an academic intellectual. And, just as surely, Grey Owl is as much a concluded self as Madham, his character set down, idealized, and reified in the books he published and the invented history he told—no refuge from a paralysing welter of words there.

Jeremy’s first name was the dubious last gift of his father, who disappeared after naming him for Jeremy Bentham in the hope, Jeremy’s mother tells him, that he would grow up to be a professor (52). Madham takes over as surrogate father, further encouraging academic discipline and rationality. Again the temptation is to label this inherited desire negative and Jeremy’s desire for transformation positive, but the desire to become a professor would surely seem a dream of transformation for Jeremy’s father, a rootless sailor, and for Madham as well, who has undergone such a metamorphosis, leaving behind in his boyhood the Northwest Jeremy seeks. And the dream of becoming Grey Owl is equally an inherited desire. The tailor across the hall from Sadness’s childhood home, who also assumes the role of surrogate father, provides an alternative to the ambition Jeremy’s real father held for him: “He gave me his dream of the European boy who became … pathfinder … borderman … the truest Indian of them all” (emphasis added) (94). The desire to become Grey Owl, however positive that ambition may seem when contrasted to the notion of emulating Jeremy Bentham, is nonetheless someone else’s dream and a dream to adopt someone else’s identity.

The misreading of the critical text and the novel are linked most clearly in the reactions of most critics to the role of female characters in Gone Indian; the critical responses tend similarly to simplify the complexity, ambiguity, and indeterminate nature of most of the characters in the book, male or female. Few characters in the novel are what or who they seem to be, and fewer still remain consistent throughout the narrative, so it is unlikely that a whole class of characters could be relegated to a single, unambiguous and unchanging role. Citing Thomas, though, Lecker notes a typical male-female opposition:

… Jeremy must flee several constraints. One of these is Woman. Like Dorck, Jeremy persistently tries to escape from Bea and Jill Sunderman, both of whom threaten to sunder man in time. Conforming to Kroetsch’s female stereotype, they are cast “as representatives of the female claim in time.”


Lecker, like Thomas and many others, fails to recognize that this “female stereotype” is being exploded in Kroetsch’s work. Lecker confuses the stereotype of the entrapping, domesticating female Kroetsch perceives in earlier Prairie writing (and describes in “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction”) with the role of the female in Kroetsch’s own fiction.

The role of Woman as Lecker and Thomas discuss it corresponds more with how the male characters and narrators perceive the female characters than with how the reader comes to understand them. Linda Hutcheon attributes at least some of this distortion to the gender-bias of male critics, but, regardless of its source, her description of its result is germane. She points out that there are varied images of the female in the novel, not just the entrapping Woman:

… while there are indeed images connecting women to enclosure in Kroetsch’s novels, these are often the images offered by a male narrator and reflect more upon his individual (limited) view of women than upon the text’s view as a whole. Bea and Jill … may indeed be named the ominous “Sunderman,” but … first of all, it is Bea’s husband’s name, and second, within a postmodern perspective, the notion of ‘sundering man’ may well be a positive. … Kroetsch has always … worked to show how male and female roles are fictions. …


Madham’s reaction to Carol Sadness’s last statement in the book indicates the degree to which the reader’s perception of the female characters is determined by their presentation by the male narrators. As he attempts to convince her that her husband must have died in the collision with the train or the fall from the bridge, Carol interrupts, “I would have gone with him.” “It is that kind of silliness that intrudes upon reason” (153) is Madham’s only comment, but the surprise the reader experiences at Carol’s remark is due to the limited perspective both Madham and Jeremy—and so the reader—have of her. Neither can see her as anything but a single, stereotypical entity. To Jeremy, she is the demanding shrew of a wife he left behind; to Madham, she is the youthful, adoring sop for his ego. Jeremy defines her as being like Madham; Madham defines her as opposed to Jeremy; neither sees her as herself, or guesses that she may share the desire for freedom that each imagines is a solely male quest.

Critical views of this book, then, tend to over-simplify the oppositions—East-West, male-female, stasis-flux, reason-intuition, and the rest—by not giving full weight to the shifting nature of the opposed pairs, and to what often turns out to be the near identity of apparent opposites. Kroetsch’s position is not that we live in a dualistic, dichotomized world, but that the human mind seeks dualistic structures and easily assimilated binary oppositions. What he says of the doubled world of The Double Hook is clearly applicable to his own work: “should not the dichotomies themselves be dissolved?” (“Death” 210). In the same passage Kroetsch notes that James, the pivotal figure in Sheila Watson’s novel, is “freed … from freedom,” from the need to be the questing male, seeking invulnerablity in isolation. Kroetsch’s novels similarly celebrate those characters who break out of the binary pattern, albeit often only briefly, not those who demonstrate the dominance of one aspect of a dualistic opposition, even if it is the “active” half. Jeremy is not celebrated for championing the West versus Madham’s East, or for asserting male isolation over female domesticity, but because at the end, and briefly during the narrative, he is able to make his mind a virtual blank, to experience without interpreting, without reducing existence to a system of binary opposites. When he is with Bea in bed, for instance, he feels like the “free man freed from his freedom” (149), is “as blank as the darkness” (146), and considers writing a thesis entitled “The Quest Unquestioned” (149).

And although Sadness is thought to be in opposition to Madham, the two are more alike than not. Throughout the novel Jeremy is tormented by the notion that “There is always a loser. … There is always a winner” (120), a logical outcropping of the habit of binary thinking. He may disdain Madham’s academicism, but he is possessed of it as well. When Jeremy is asked at the Winter Carnival to pick the Winter Queen, to distinguish again between the winner and the losers, he is unnerved by the silence of the virtually identical candidates. Despite his dream of returning to elemental silence in the indifferent North, the experience of actual silence engenders only confusion and anxiety and leaves him yearning for the comforting if illusory solidity of Madham’s scholarly outlook:

Not once did any one of the candidates speak a word. Not a human word. To me, a man forever attracted to the maelstrom. Something in me wanted to write in the margins of those lives: Awk. Frag. Emph. Cap. Fig. Instead I was offered silence. What in heaven was I supposed to judge?


Sadness shares Madham’s tendency to reduce the world to a comprehensible form, despite his attraction to the “maelstrom,” and as the narrative unfolds it becomes increasingly apparent that Madham is also more like than unlike Sadness, taking over Jeremy’s role as the mate of Carol, even imitating the lovemaking of the buffalo as Jeremy aspires to do. He shares, Jeremy says, Jeremy’s impotence, and while Sadness has been stalled on his dissertation for nine years, Madham has been unable to finish his own masterwork for fifteen. Madham is not simply an Eastern, establishment academic who desires order for its own sake; he claims to have experienced at an early age the dissolution of identity and the fearsome indifference of the blank prairie that Sadness now faces, and he has asserted order in opposition to it. If anything, Madham is more aware than Jeremy of the opportunity afforded by the frontier for transformation, noting that Carol could not “grasp the consequences of the northern prairies to human definition: the diffusion of personality into a complex of possibilities rather than a concluded self” (152). Immediately after the passage above, he complains of being stifled by the Binghamton weather, one of the many signals that Madham is not the “concluded self” he believes himself to be.

The lack of solidity in the apparent opposition of Sadness and Madham is emblematic of the fluid state of identity in the novel from its beginning. Entering the carnivalistic world of the Northwest at Edmonton airport, Jeremy gets his first exposure to a land in which “Illusion is rife” (8). Having mistakenly picked up baggage belonging to Roger Dorck, he is detained in a holding cell with a young woman who turns out to be a young man, who claims further to have been a buffalo in a past life. Inspired by this vision of transformation, Jeremy determines to escape, “DISGUISED AS MYSELF” (11). That Jeremy considers his own public self a disguise underscores the distinction between perceived self and the unconcluded self or selves concealed by that pretense. This is one of the many transitory and unsatisfactory metamorphoses Jeremy will undergo. Although he already dresses and wears his hair like an Indian (albeit a stereotypical Indian—Daniel Beaver’s children mock him for this [65]), he feels he has become even more an Indian when he receives Daniel’s jacket (93). He has also become Roger Dorck, and so the carnival’s Winter King and the judge of the Winter Queen contest. He becomes a mock prisoner, and, in his dream, a buffalo and Has-Two-Chances (106). He becomes a corpse in a coffin, and flirts with being Robert Sunderman. Significantly, though, it is when he is not consciously seeking to become someone, but merely thoughtlessly voids his own received identity, that he finds the freedom and peace he seeks. In Madham’s words, as he allows Digger, a fellow reveler, to assume his identity, “The metamorphosis, one is tempted to say, was complete. Jeremy [was] no longer himself,” having “unwittingly lent his precious self to that old gravedigger” (139).

Although Jeremy often yearns for the solidity of identity that Madham represents, he desires equally the release from fixed identity that Madham rejected when he fled the Northwest in his youth. Madham’s escape is typical of the many responses by men to similar threats to their sense of an inviolate, unitary identity. The evasion of responsibility and vulnerability is the quest for freedom for the novel’s men, but Jeremy is “freed from his freedom,” his need to pursue that quest further. Kroetsch’s novels typically present an elemental opposition of earth and sky, of body and soul, represented in images of the spirit soaring and then being pulled to earth again by the weight of the body’s demands. Also typical is the male characters’ seeking freedom from domesticating women. The desire to fly, to escape the pull of the earth and of women becomes a central motif in this novel too. Sadness imagines Dorck’s snowmobile accident as a beautiful moment: “… he leaped up and over; like a dream of himself he climbed, into the night air, free of the earth at last, his freed engine roaring” (26). The only drawback to this sort of flight, of course, is that it ends in a fall: it cannot be sustained. The liberation that Sadness finally arrives at by rejecting this opposition of earth/sky and man/woman can be sustained, perhaps, because it does not depend upon the continual escape from women. Rather than the flight from Woman ending in a paralysing fall back to earth, Jeremy soars with a woman and manages to stay aloft. Although this is only conjecture—the fate of Sadness and Bea is ambiguous—it is supported at least by Jeremy’s choice of vehicle. Like Dorck before him, Jeremy’s flight begins on a snowmobile, but rather than a Skidoo or Bombardier, Sadness identifies the make as a Sleipnir, which confuses Madham (somewhat improbably) (137). (The immediate source of Sleipnir is likely As For Me and My House—a central text for “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction,” too—in which the narrator, Mrs. Bentley, imagines that the men in her life would like to transform their horse into a “Sleipnir or Pegasus” to escape her [140].) The snowmobile is named for the legendary eight-legged steed of Odin, the Norse equivalent of Pegasus. Among other deeds, Odin rode Sleipnir into the land of the dead and returned again, and it is exactly that kind of experience that is suggested here, especially in that an undertaker supplied the vehicle and that Jeremy emerged from a coffin to begin his journey. The dissolution of Jeremy’s identity, the breaking down of the schematized patterns of thought, is a kind of death, but, unlike the “deaths” of Sunderman and Dorck, it is not a descent into paralysis, into the closure of coma or the freezing waters (or the paralysis of a “concluded self” that Madham suffers). Rather, it is suggested, Jeremy and Bea leap into the abyss but are saved from their apparent fate by their choice of vehicle and, more importantly, the warmth of each other’s body—everything else, all of the restrictive elements of identity, falls away. Again, it is not a matter of fleeing Woman—except as a constraining, falsifying conception—but of breaking out of the prison of perceived identity, being a man and a woman, not Man and Woman, which even Madham recognizes: “Perhaps what really matters is the warmth each finds in the other’s body. Two bodies. Warm. The rest is fiction …” (157).

Before this end is reached, though, the journey on the snowmobile takes Sadness first to Sunderman’s house, WORLDS END. During his first visit, he had seen it as a contrast to the images of flight and freedom. Jeremy likens it to Madham’s house, its interior an “imprisoned garden” (31), a world of plentitude and fertility encased, contained, controlled. The house is filled also with clocks—“Someone didn’t trust the sun” (32)—which no longer tick. This house of clocks is the evidence claimed by most critics, Lecker, Thomas and Fogel among them, for labelling Bea and Jill as “representatives of the female claim in time” (Thomas 72), and Bea as “seeking to reduce the questing male to slippered pantaloon” (Thomas 79). Robert Lecker, citing both of the statements by Thomas above, insists that WORLDS END is “filled with artificial time. … dominated by time, days, dates, numbers, history, closure. … both Madham and Bea are interested in closed structures that leave no room for Jeremy’s achronological quest” (70). But time is not an issue in Bea’s house; the clocks do not tick and the plants do not depend upon seasons, so the interior of the house is “achronological” too. Also, Bea and her house are in a virtual state of suspended chronology because of her abandonment by her husband—and by Dorck, who had taken his place—so it does not seem fair or logical to associate that state with “Woman.” As Hutcheon suggests, it is Robert Sunderman who does the sundering, not his wife and daughter, who have had that name and the state it suggests imposed upon them.

Lecker and Thomas and others talk in terms of Jeremy’s escaping Madham, Jill, and Bea so that he can be freed into his quest, but in this novel, as in Kroetsch’s others, freedom consists not of the liberty to pursue the quest but in being liberated from it. Although Sadness initially likens Bea to Madham because he believes that she, too, wants to fix his identity, to transform him into her errant husband, Jeremy comes to perceive in Bea an opportunity to avoid establishing a concrete, singular self. When he returns to WORLDS END on the Sleipnir, he finds not a trapped Eden but a pre-Edenic darkness, a blankness, in which he is able to escape the academic need to explain and to find “a suitable metaphor” for his experience (148). He sees himself as the “free man freed from his freedom” (149), freed from the demands of the imposed male quest story that drives most of Kroetsch’s male characters.

Jeremy’s flight is clearly not away from women or even Woman, especially in that his ability to gain an erection in bed with a woman is the barometer of his psychic well-being. It is when Jeremy’s focus shifts from his desire to escape domestic entrapment and preserve his male solitude to a desire to interact openly and directly with a woman that that barometer begins to rise. At WORLDS END, Jeremy joins Bea in bed, and, finally, instead of envying and emulating the flight of Robert Sunderman and Roger Dorck, Sadness empathizes with the woman they have abandoned:

All those years she had been waiting and now he had returned to the bed that was kept for him. … As if every woman kept a bed, not for a husband, not for her everyday lover, but for the mysterious youth who one night years ago walked into the darkness, vanished from the very surface of the earth. … And after all the waiting of all those women, one figure had finally returned. Finally. At last.

And then I made a discovery.

I was in bed. I had an erection.


Clearly, then, it is not Bea, or Woman, or even WORLDS END itself that restrains Jeremy, since when he returns to all three with an altered inner vision he finds himself healed and liberated by them, not weakened and entrapped. It is worth noting, too, that the males in the story seem more desirous of stopping time than the females: not seeking to live outside time or with time, but selfishly to halt it, as it appears to be stopped in Bea’s house. Madham suggests that it is Robert Sunderman who seeks to halt the flow of time, imagining the young Sunderman on the ice of the river: “his child-bride pregnant, the boy-husband alone, already regretting the boyhood he could not quite surrender …” (155). Dorck’s flying and falling result in a similar halting of time: when he wakes, he remembers nothing from the moment of Sunderman’s disappearance (155). Time is restarted for Bea and Jeremy at WORLDS END, not because Jeremy has completed his quest for a new identity, becoming Grey Owl, but because he has been freed from his male need to escape Woman and Time. WORLDS END, then, is not World’s End with a missing apostrophe, not the trapped, entrapping Eden; it is instead a promise that worlds do end, that the “cosmologies of belief” (to use Kroetsch’s phrase) can be escaped. Jeremy does not assume, so far as we can know, a new identity, but appears to allow the layers of identity to become diffuse and open. He is very nearly a blank, unthinking and nonverbal, by the narrative’s close.

The depiction of the experience Sadness has on his journey to WORLDS END is typical of how Kroetsch images the fluidity of identity. In such cases, the character is exposed to some overwhelming elemental force: an overflowing river, a whirlwind, a swarm of bees, an avalanche, or the like. To reach Bea, Sadness must pass through a blinding blizzard. The elemental chaos of the swirling snow forces him to find his own way, to create a new path, just as he is seeking to find a native, fluid identity instead of appropriating another’s. “I was in the trackless snow, making my own path” (144), no longer seeking to become Grey Owl, “my pathfinder” (101), nor even becoming his own pathfinder, but forging entirely new, untrodden paths. He puts his trust in “a homing instinct that resided as much in my hands as in my head” (144). Upon his arrival, he becomes aware that something different, something alive, has entered the house with him: “Of this I am certain, however: a clock that had not been ticking began to tick” (146). As in the blizzard when he found that his instinct and body were a better guide than his intellect, now, in bed with Bea, “All thinking had swooned from my mind. I was as blank as the darkness around me” (146). The cause of his previous impotency becomes clear when it recurs briefly: “Yes, I was thinking again. … I was paralysed into thought. I was once again a total stranger to my own prick. I was at a dead loss as to what I must do.” (147). Fortunately, Bea possesses the solution. She, “That invisible woman,” is suddenly an earth figure, bringing to the entire room, the “smell of earth”:

… not of flowers only, but the dark breathing silence of ferns in crevices of rock. The lichens, orange and yellow, on a rotting limb. The green moss, cool to the sliding mouse. The smell of a northern forest, where the snow melts itself black into the last shade.


She facilitates the final step in the process of dissolution of Jeremy’s identity, the confrontation with silence, at which Jeremy paled earlier. Bea does not represent the caretaker of imprisoned Edens, but:

The Columbus quest for the oldest New World. The darkest gold. The last first. I was lifting my hidden face. To the gateway beyond. To the place of difficult entrance. To the real gate to the dreamed cave. …

I had tongued the unspeakable silence.


Jeremy, by his physical union with Bea, has transcended language and his inherited voice to find the silence and fresh beginning he had sought. It is a perpetual return to the point of origin, of creation, always beginning again, never concluding. Their union is beyond words:

To speak would be to boast. And I was speechless. Perhaps I roared. I am not certain now. I did not moan. To say that we were joined, Bea and I, would be, once again, to underline the failure of language. We were wedded in the smithy of our mutual desire. Fused in the bellowed flame. Tonged and hammered. … No no no no no no. I have ransacked my twenty-five years of education for a suitable metaphor. I have done a quick review of logic, called upon the paradigms of literature and history. I have put to test the whole theory of a liberal education.


Absolutely nothing.

I only know that for a long, long time I had not heard the ticking clocks.


The clocks continue to tick—time is not stopped—but in his altered state, they are no longer a source of anxiety for Sadness. Unlike the other male characters in the story, rather than running away from Woman and Time, Sadness has come to terms with time and mortality by accepting and connecting with an individual woman, cutting through the layers of inherited and imposed identity which imprisoned both him and Bea. In terms Kroetsch has used often, Jeremy is freed from being questing Ulysses, Bea from being patient Penelope.

Again, then, according to most readings of the novel, the possibilities of transformation offered Sadness in Gone Indian are represented by Madham and Bentham on the one hand and Grey Owl on the other. Jeremy Bentham figures in the narration only in the image of his preserved body in a glass case in University College, but early in the novel the other two possibilities are opposed in Jeremy’s mind. His discussion with his professor makes clear that he can become Madham or Grey Owl:

“Sadness … there’s only one problem in this world that you take seriously. … Why did Archie Belaney become Grey Owl?”

“The story of a man,” I agreed, “who died into a new life.”

“He faked the death.”

“But woke up free nevertheless.”

“Be serious.”

“One false move, Professor, and instead of addressing you, I’ll be you. That’s serious.”


By the end of the novel, though, all of the models of identity are rejected. Jeremy Bentham is permanently fixed in his glass case, having “become his own icon” (51). Grey Owl’s created self is permanently set in type. And Madham, who has similarly re-invented himself, strives mightily to maintain his concluded self and resist further transformation. Of all the characters in the novel, Jeremy ends up most like his real father, rather than any of the surrogates. His father’s identity is an enigma, his only connection with the family since Jeremy’s birth an unsigned postcard from Genoa—like Jeremy, he appears not to trust his own name. But unlike even that role model, and contrary to the claims of Lecker, Thomas, Fogel, and others, Sadness does not seek freedom by escaping Woman and Eastern intellectualism by dreaming West in order to become Grey Owl or anyone else. Instead, he discovers the fluidity of identity and recognizes that both he and Bea have been trapped by the restrictive conceptions they have of themselves and each other. In an interview with Alan Twigg, Kroetsch responds to the comment that women often escape traditional roles only to discover that there are no obvious alternative roles by agreeing, but saying also that the same is true for men. More importantly, though, Kroetsch views this lack of clear role models as a boon:

In order to go west, a man had to define himself as an orphan, as an outlaw, as a cowboy. With those definitions, how can you marry a woman? How can you enter the house again? You have to lose that self-definition. That’s the problem for the male. He must break his self-inflicted definition of maleness.


Kroetsch’s characters may experience an initial anxiety at this dissolution of identity, but this anxiety is typically followed by an acceptance of the continuing freedom that dissolution brings. Rather than escaping Woman, Jeremy finds a woman, recognizes the entrapping and isolating nature of the male quest he has followed, and achieves an authentic relationship with her on the basis of that recognition. He and she are not Man and Woman, but human, possessed of protean identities that continue to shift because they are not rigidly fixed in a repressive dichotomy of gender.

Works Cited

Creelman, David. “Robert Kroetsch: Criticism in the Middle Ground.” Studies in Canadian Literature 16.1 (1991): 63–81.

Davidson, Arnold. “Will the Real R. Mark Madham Please Stand Up: A Note on Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian.” Studies in Canadian Literature 5 (1980): 127–37.

Fogel, Stanley. A Tale of Two Countries: Contemporary Fiction in Canada and the United States, Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction, Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988.

Kroetsch, Robert. “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space.” Open Letter 5.4 (1983): 47–55.

———. Gone Indian. Toronto: new press, 1975.

———, and Diane Bessai. “Death is a Happy Ending: A Dialogue in Thirteen Parts.” Figures in a Ground. Ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978. 206–215.

Lecker, Robert. Robert Kroetsch. Twayne’s World Authors Series: Canadian Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Ross, Sinclair. As For Me and My House. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

Rudy-Dorscht, Susan. “How The Studhorse Man Makes Love: A Postfeminist Analysis.” Canadian Literature 119 (1988): 25–31.

———. Telling the Difference: Rereading ‘Woman,’ with Robert Kroetsch’s Writing. Ph.D. dissertation. York University. June 1988.

Sinnema, Peter W. “Quest(ion)ing Gone Indian’s Dialectic: Subversive Repetition and the Possibility of a “Centred” Indigene.” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 85–95.

Thomas, Peter. Robert Kroetsch. Studies in Canadian Literature Series 13. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

Turner, M. E. “Canadian Literature and Robert Kroetsch: A Case of Canonization.” Dalhousie Review 67.1 (1987): 56–72.

Twigg, Alan. “Male: Robert Kroetsch.” For Openers: Conversations with 24 Canadian Writers. Alan Twigg. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1981. 107–116.

Douglas Glover (review date February 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848

SOURCE: A review of The Puppeteer, in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 1, February, 1993, pp. 40-41.

[In the following review, Glover calls The Puppeteer “a literary confection of the first order,” but concedes that it may not be for everyone.]

I once knew a man in New York who worked as a buyer of rare works of art, which he collected worldwide, mostly as a tax dodge for wealthy clients who paid low prices and then donated the works to institutions at inflated paper values. One of his clients happened to be a Calgary oil baron who might have been a model for the mythically rich, half-blind transvestite millionaire named Jack Deemer who narrates Robert Kroetsch’s clever new avant-garde novel The Puppeteer.

Jack Deemer is a collector extraordinaire—of people as well as objects d’art. He has warehouses full of the latter, but people he has found somewhat less tractable. His wife Julie, for example, is dead, killed in a mysterious car crash in Portugal four years before, after spending a vacation in bed with Billy Dorfendorf, Deemer’s collecting agent, and a Portuguese dwarf named Dr. Manuel De Medeiros, who scouted spas for his wealthy but ailing master.

Dorfendorf subsequently murders Dr. De Medeiros in an undeveloped British Columbia spa called Deadman Spring, although no body is ever found. Hunted by both the police and Deemer, Dorfendorf has gone into hiding in Vancouver where he works nights as a, yes, social-worker-cum-pizza-delivery-man known as Papa B.

Enter a writer named Maggie Wilder, recently settled in Vancouver after abandoning her icon-collecting husband to his obsessions in Greece. Maggie plans to hole up in her cousin George’s house (George is a botanist, a collector of rainforest plants that litter the house) and write a biography of her wedding dress, which she happens to be wearing the night she opens the door to take delivery of a pizza.

Maggie’s wedding dress just happens to be the wedding dress Julie wore when she married Jack Deemer. It was hand-made by a woman named Josie Povich who just happens to work in the pizzeria for which Dorfendorf makes deliveries. Maggie bought the dress second-hand, after Deemer returned it to Josie the day after his wedding. The dress is the reason Maggie married her icon-collecting husband—the dress is a strange and magical object, the reason for everything and the object of everyone’s desire.

It is not clear why Jack Deemer wants the wedding dress back, but he does. Nor is it absolutely clear why he returned it to Josie Povich after the wedding in the first place. But this is part of the structural charm of the avant-garde. Motivation, a stalwart crutch of verisimilitude, isn’t important, whereas coincidence, repeating imagery, and repeated event are.

The Puppeteer is a whimsical tissue of coincidence and repeated pattern (embroidered on the wedding dress is a miniature copy of the wedding dress). At every point it intentionally disappoints conventional novelistic expectation. It leaves its tools in the wall, so to speak.

It plays with literary echoes—and is a sort of murder mystery (though it turns out there hasn’t been a murder). The puppeteer motif brings to mind John Fowles’s The Magus. Deemer is an ancient magician, an oil-patch Tiresias. And the unexpected shifts of point of view—the novel begins in the third person in Maggie’s mind but intermittently slips into Jack Deemer’s first person—look backward to Nabokov or Hubert Aquin.

The Puppeteer also relies heavily on set-piece riffs, heavy with implication and connected to the narrative proper by a network of analogies and repetitions. For example, there is a lovely sequence of scenes after Papa B. takes refuge in Maggie’s attic. Papa B. turns the attic into a Greek shadow-puppet theatre, acting out his version of the novel (like the dress embroidered on the dress), mesmerizing Maggie, gradually winning her over and luring her into the (shadow) play.

This is all splendid fun, a literary confection of the first order that is still perhaps an acquired taste (some readers will balk at giving up their standard plots and emotional hooks). And it is not without meaning. Kroetsch deploys two of his own early literary hobby-horses—collecting and spas—as, one suspects, a half-mocking critique of white Western civilization. Are we not, he seems to say, dooming ourselves to pratfall and tragicomedy with our obsession about controlling material things and prolonging life?

But such thematic interpretation is peripheral to Kroetsch’s main project, which is really a critique of conventional theories of meaning and the traditional novel. The book’s final joke involves some Greek icons that Deemer is trying to collect (read, “steal”) from Maggie’s husband, one of which represents the face of God.

The substance of The Puppeteer keeps disappearing as the reader reads, and the ever-beckoning, ever-receding picture of God is like the meaning of the book, an emblem of all meaning—which is to say that the universe is a riddle, sure enough, and a bit of a tease.

Douglas Reimer (essay date Spring 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6298

SOURCE: “Heideggarian Elements in Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Canadian Literature, No. 136, Spring, 1993, pp. 115-28.

[In the following essay, Reimer locates Heidegger's notions about authentic truth and being in Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue.]

Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue is neither phenomenological nor structuralist, to borrow a distinction made by David Carroll in The Subject in Question (15). That is, it is neither subject-centered nor language-centered, but belongs, instead, to a third, rare, more sylleptic mode of writing aware of and making use of the conventions of the other two. As David Arnason has shown in “Robert Kroetsch: The Deconstruction of the Metanarrative of the Cowboy,” Seed Catalogue deconstructs ideologies which have become familiar to us concerning the Western hero and the purpose and function of the poem and the poet on the prairie, and is concerned with language and the way writing is a supplement to speech and experience.1 Yet the poem seems to some extent at least to have retained the phenomenological subject, the philosophical subject. Furthermore, it appears to be deeply concerned with the problem of truth and, in this light, practices a Heideggerian uninventing and unnaming. It uninvents spring, for instance: the spring season that opens the poem is not renamed but deconstructed much like the dismantling of storm windows (Brown 154) when the weather changes:

We took the storm windows/off
the south side of the house
and put them on the hotbed.
Then it was spring. Or, no
then winter was ending.

(Seed Catalogue 109)

For all its promised warmth and renewal, the spring retains winter and cold and death within it and this metaphor (with its negating “no”) appears to reflect what Heidegger thinks about both truth and Being. Dasein, authentic Being, is fundamentally aware of its own dying, knows that death is its “ownmost” possibility. Authentic, moral living cannot come about without the newness and the extra-ordinariness which angst and the certainty of death, unmitigated by transcendentalism or spiritualism of any kind, give to dasein. Truth and untruth have a similar paradoxical relationship and neither is without the other, any more than Being is authentic without the knowledge of history (change) at its centre. The poet in Seed Catalogue is a Heideggerian poet who, through his consciousness of Being and his facing up to death, provides for his people and for his prairie community.

The philosophical subject is central to Heidegger, though as William Barrett notes, nowhere in his writings do you find references to either “man” or “consciousness” (218): the subject is too important a question to name and thus, like the existential humanists or the pre-Romantics (and to an extent the Romantics), to bind and imprison within one, permanent, unchanging and suffocating understanding of his Being—to take history “forever” out of the Being of being. The poet, who falls off his horse in the poem’s opening lines, is never named either—he is just the nameless cowboy unhorsed,2 yet he is also the conventional autobiographical subject, the poet writing a poem about becoming a poet. Not unlike the description of the will-less protagonist which opens Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House (1941),3 this first picture we have of the subject is self-deprecating:

Winter was ending.
This is what happened:
we were harrowing the garden.
You’ve got to understand this:
I was sitting on the horse.
The horse was standing still.
I fell off.


This subject is not the ordinary prairie farm boy who, if he ever fell off a horse, would fall off one that was galloping, or at least in motion. Eventually this incompetence makes sense. The subject is a budding poet—a “sissy” (Arnason 82), not quite a man, someone who, on the prairies, is looked upon with contempt and expected to “hang around the girlies.” His father’s prohibition against writing, and particularly against writing poetry, makes clear the extent to which the poet is alienated from the prairie community, to the point even of having his sonship implicitly questioned. The father attempts to drive the poetic spirit out of his son with hard work:

First off I want you to take that
crowbar and drive 1,156 holes
in that gumbo.
And the next time you want to
write a poem
we’ll start the haying.


But the father doesn’t succeed and the rest of the poem continues the fragmented story of the boy’s growing consciousness of the world around him and of his development as a poet in the unlikely poetic soil of the Canadian prairies. His memories include the death of his mother, his father’s unsuccessful attempts at shooting a badger on the farm and the myth he builds for himself about the event later, his various experiences with sex as a boy, drinking bouts with friends and their revelries, and his own perceptions of the role of the poet in the community.

You can’t escape the fact of the phenomenological subject in Seed Catalogue which is a prairie künstlerroman; an autobiography; our prairie version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. The poem is not, however, at all self-conscious in the sense of Romantic (Hegelian, Kantian) self-consciousness, the sort which Geoffrey Hartman describes in his “Romanticism and ‘anti-selfconsciousness’.” In fact, its purpose is to re-write or unname exactly that sort of super self-consciousness which makes an idol of individual self-awareness. We do find out a little about the subject: the location of “the home place: N. E. 17–42–16-W 4th Meridian,” the names of a few relatives, and the fact that he has certain writer friends such as Al Purdy and Rudy Wiebe. Because of the general sparseness of detail, however, and the unconvincing neglect to provide enough biographical information to help the reader locate the subject neatly in time and place, the poem is really not a traditional autobiography. The biographical specificity is more the identity of the home of all prairie small-town people than of the poet himself. Seed Catalogue’s self-less consciousness is the self under erasure.

If Seed Catalogue is erasing the self, finding only traces of the past of self whose Being is no longer recoverable, and who is always-already Being in a future time, then it is writing as supplement, writing that is aware of its own disjunctiveness and dissociation from the “reality” of the thing it has chosen to describe. The subject is “Pinch Me” (Seed Catalogue 131n) who is left at the end of the poem when Adam and Eve both “got drownded” (44). He is the “Pinch Me,” of “pinch me to see if I am dreaming,” and the ending (all endings which conventional poetry dramatizes are rewritten in this poem) is only the question after which you hope to find an answer or at least a response—some sort of continuation.4

Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” is helpful here. In it, he establishes the “thingly character” (19) of works of art:

Works of art are shipped like coal from the Ruhr and logs from the Black Forest. During the First World War Holderlin’s hymns were packed in the soldier’s knapsack together with cleaning gear. Beethoven’s quartets lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar.


“Thingness” is the essence of an entity before various traits have gathered around it: “Obviously, a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which that aggregate arises. A thing, as everyone thinks he knows, is that around which the properties have assembled” (23). Things, for Heidegger, including works of art, are not simply constructs without a reference outside of the “mere” chain of signifiers which describe them. The early Greeks knew about this “rootedness” of things. Things had in them a thereness, a Being of beings: (“hupokeimenon … the core of the thing, something always already there” 23). Not so for the Western world and the interpretation of Being (presence) it standardized later. There was a rootlessness to its understanding of Being from the Romans on—an inautheticity at the heart of all things that resulted from the falseness of their translation of Greek experience into their language: “Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek word. The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation” (23). There is for Heidegger an original, irreducible, essential quality in things; in this sense he is essentialist.5

This question of the thingness of the work of art is important for Seed Catalogue. Out of its thingness the work of art derives all its power for it is, like any other work, functional, and productive. It has “reliability” and it describes the reliability of the objects and experiences it focuses on, as, for instance, Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant’s pair of shoes tells all about the work they do (Shaver 244); about the industry of the one who used them, about the particular function they served for the user, as well as about something more original in which these shoes are rooted—a truth about shoes: “The art work let’s us know what shoes are in truth” (35). So, the object of art is to get us in touch with the original Being of things. Art, itself an original thing before the concept of art, has incredible power to present Being which is by nature hidden from us. In this sense, in his discussion of what it means to be an artist on the prairie, the poet of Seed Catalogue is engaged in the question of the truth of his art. How does his work truly represent the prairies? How can a poet be made in an environment which is so unfriendly to poets? In a world in which no cultural things work on the imaginations of the inhabitants nor act out their equipmentness and their reliability, how can you hope to ever begin the poetic project? How can the truth of art and the truth of being a poet originate in a land where such Being has no visible being?

This dilemma is the very heart of the list of absences in the
How do you grow a past/
to live in
the absence of silkworms
the absence of clay and wattles (whatever the hell
they are)
the absence of Lord Nelson
the absence of kings and queens
the absence of a bottle opener, and me with a vicious
attack of the 26-ounce flu
the absence of both Sartre and Heidegger


and so on. Are these merely absences, merely the presence of metaphysical trace as Barbara Godard suggests in “Other Fictions: Robert Kroetsch’s Criticism” (17)? If they are presences, then what sort of presences are they and how is the poet making us aware of the presence rather than the absence of the thing he is attempting to “set forward”—the prairie and its concealed Being?

Heidegger says about things that we experience their presence by experiencing their absence. We cannot receive a strong impression of a thing’s thingness without closing ourselves to its sensations: “In order to hear a bare sound we have to listen away from things, divert our ear from them, i.e., listen abstractly” (26). The thing which is the sound cannot be brought near without abstracting it and removing it from its context. The Parthenon, the Cathédrale de Chartres, Sartre and Heidegger become clear to us in the remove of the context of Seed Catalogue. We know them better and more fully here than they could be known in their own fully familiar and sensuously cultural homeland. They are objectified here. This is a duplicity which startles the prairie writer/reader who is accustomed to lamenting the absence of culture in his back yard. The thingness of Sartre is closer to us than to the French, thus, but the unknowable Being of Sartre’s being is not. We have it more and in purer form than they over there, but the abstraction of Sartre and the other cultural icons onto Canadian soil makes the whole unpalatable and inordinately unlikely:

In the thing-concept … there is not so much an assault upon the thing as rather an inordinate attempt to bring it into the greatest possible proximity to us. But a thing never reaches that position as long as we assign as its thingly feature what is perceived by the senses. Whereas the first interpretation keeps the thing at arm’s length from us, as it were, and sets it too far off, the second makes it press too hard upon us. In both interpretations the thing vanishes.


The insertion of the familiar in the midst of the unfamiliar does two things: it heightens our awareness of the thingness (Being) of the prairie objects slipped into the list of cultural absences (a condom dispenser, Louis Riel, The Western Producer, the principal’s new car, and so on) and it displaces the nearness of the European art/ifacts and either makes them less inordinate and out of context or makes them more “pressing” and so irrelevant to us. This is exactly the poet’s role in the process of finding out truth. If this juxtaposition of prairie experience and European art/experience is serviceable to us as a “work” then Seed Catalogue is continuing to uncover the truth.

The question of truth in works of art leads to the question of the best truth-teller society can expect to find, and thus ultimately to the role of the poet in the community. Related to the way we try to experience things, as familiar and as unfamiliar, is a third possibility which is to leave the thing in its constancy. The latter is what the poet does best. Kroetsch, in the list of absences, is not analyzing the things themselves, but setting them in such a light, in such a state of dasein (startled and startling into sudden emergence into light), and in such a state of opposition that thinking occurs. Not inordinate “philosophical” thinking, and not the splitting of the object thought about from itself (the subject), but thinking which leaves the thing thought about whole: “We ought to turn toward the being, think about it in regard to its being, but by means of this thinking at the same time let it rest upon itself in its very own being” (31).

The truth of a thing, the Being of a being, is revealed by remaining unrevealed, though thought about. Truth is also untruth. Knowing is also not knowing. Inventing is uninventing:

But it is not we who presuppose the unconcealedness of beings; rather, the unconcealedness of beings (Being) puts us into such a condition of being that in our representation we always remain installed within and in attendance upon unconcealedness.

(“Origin” 52)

The subject of Seed Catalogue, the poet, is the thinker, and this is just as much a dichotomy as truth = non-truth, and being = non-being. How can the poet with his unsystematic methods and his dependence on and attendance on the emotional be a thinker in Heidegger’s sense of a thoughtful mind which by mediation works at preventing the race of the rest of the world towards technological thoughtlessness?6 Furthermore, how can a thinker be grown on the prairie? You can train and educate an analytic philosopher, the academy can build a scientist, but how can the small town (Heisler/Todtnau) grow a poet? How can it grow a poet as indigenous to its place and earth as carrots and turnips and radishes? The paradox of “how do you grow a poet?” is precisely, too, how do you grow a thinker? How do you grow a thinker about truth in a land and age (epoch) which resists poetry and thinking—where the best we can come up with is a digger of fenceposts, a writer of huge fiction and a galloper of caribou horses through restaurants?

The good poet is the best thinker, “the precursor of poets in a destitute time” (“What Are Poets For?” 142). He heralds in the future with his work. In fact, the future’s presence would not be available to the world without the poet: “The precursor, however, does not go off into a future; rather, he arrives out of that future, in such a way that the future is present only in the arrival of his words” (142). The good poet is not just one manifestation of truth in the world but the very measure or gauge of present Being whose work is the place to look for evidence of the state Being is in, in the world. He has to, then, be more of a thinker, more willing to risk rejection, and more deeply involved in authentic living himself than the philosopher could be. The location of authenticity, Seed Catalogue tells us, is in the garden and not in the academy, in the clearing and not in the library. The title of the poem, the narrative voice which tells us that love “is a leaping up and down” (113), the colloquial and humorous voice of the seed catalogue persona imitating, poorly, what it thinks is a refined British voice, the voice with its cowboy concerns which informs the reluctant waitress that Pete Knight, the king of all cowboys is dead (123), all these are authentic, oral voices,7 The voice of being is the voice of people who are kin to nature—the farmer and the poet familiar with the farm,8 the poet-manqué in one sense, are the best gauges of authentic living.

The best gauge of Heidegger’s thinking about the poet is his own poetry. In an appropriate selection called “The Thinker as Poet,” Heidegger explains, in verse, the qualities which make the good poet. Good thinking is discursive thinking: “That is the proper hour of discourse. / Discourse cheers us to companionable / Reflection” (6). Prophetic vision, clear sight, “precursive” sight, is poetic sight: “Only image formed keeps the vision. Yet image formed rests in the poem” (6). Poetry is dangerous to thinking, but it is a “good” danger: “The good and thus wholesome / Danger is the nighness of the singing poet” (8); but “philosophizing” is a “bad” danger to thinking: “The bad and thus muddled danger / is philosophizing” (8). Good thinking is courageous, slow, patient, and possibly most of all, “playful.” The way poetry “plays” with language, philosophy cannot:

All our heart’s courage is the
echoing response to the
first call of Being which
gathers our thinking into the
play of the world.


The central concern for both Heidegger and Kroetsch about thinking and Being and the event of things (lovers, towns, poets) is their growing: “But poetry that thinks is in truth / the topology of Being” and “Singing and thinking are the stems / neighbor to poetry. / They grow out of Being and reach into truth” (13). In the spirit of this assertion, Kroetsch asks, “how do you grow a poet?” (118). As a way of answering his own question, he dramatically, and intellectually, deconstructs the myth of the sterility of the prairie.9 The winter of the stillness of poetic presence, the presence of thinking, on the prairie is over:

The end of winter
How do you grow
a poet?


This poem is the beginning of seeding time—the poem about a seed catalogue is a planting in the “ground” of the “oral” prairies (the written word planted in the oral ground to gain or impart fertility), the non-intellectual prairies, the place of farmers, seeders, of poets of a new order (not of the sort Britain produced over the last 700 years, for instance), and the question about growing a poet is the seed in the ground of prairie stillness and the invisibility of prairie presence. The poem’s question about the poet is the precursor of future prairie presence, prairie culture becoming, emerging into light. It is the poet nurturing “our” being, the “crackle” of “our” voices as Dennis Cooley says it is The Vernacular Muse (182), and in that sense it is a rescuing of prairie from its status as a marginalized and self-deprecating lower class which always already shuts up in the presence of high European culture.

The absences in Seed Catalogue, the absence of Aeneas and Heraclitus and the Parthenon are presences of a past which mean little for the present. Kroetsch thinks into being our “dwelling” (“Being, Dwelling, Thinking” passim). The absence of Aeneas is replaced by the presence of “the Strauss boy [who] … could piss higher on a barn than any of us” (29). The absence of kings and queens is replaced with a story of “bullshitters”10 unreserved carnival celebration: “the absence of a bottle opener, and me with a vicious attack of the 26-ounce flu (29).” Notice how there is no desire in the imported absences mentioned while the “present” prairie absences are all about the juice and “fire” of living: “the absence of a condom dispenser in the Lethbridge Hotel,” “the absence of the girl who said that if the Edmonton / Eskimos won the Grey Cup she’d let me kiss / her nipples in the foyer of the Palliser / Hotel,” and being in “love” with “an old Blood whore” (29). Here there is “poetry” we understand.

Kroetsch is “setting back” Seed Catalogue into the earth of the prairie, of small town Alberta, in order to let that earth be earth: “That into which the work sets itself back and which it causes to come forth in this setting back of itself we called the earth. Earth is that which comes forth and shelters. … The work moves the earth itself into the Open of a world and keeps it there. The work lets the earth be an earth” (“Origin” 46). Part of the prairie earth is the indigenous, indestructible, eternal brome grass, for instance:

Brome Grass (Bromus Inermis): No amount of cold will kill it. It withstands the summer suns. Water may stand on it for several weeks without apparent injury. The roots push through the soil, throwing up new plants continually. It starts quicker than other grasses in the spring. Remains green longer in the fall. Flourishes under absolute neglect.

Brome grass is hardy, of course, but so are prairie people. Another part of this prairie earth is the peculiar mixture of homegrown remedies for physical illness and spiritual “diseases”:

For appetite: cod-liver
For bronchitis: mustard
For pallor and failure to fill
the woodbox: sulphur
& molasses.
For self-abuse: ten Our
Fathers and ten Hail Marys
For regular bowels: Sunny Boy


And there are also our particular prairie encumbrances to “romance”: always a pair of skates in every story, always ice skating or hockey at the heart of every narrative:

          or that
girl in the skating
rink shack who had on
so much underwear you
didn’t have enough
prick to get past her/
CCM skates


The prairie world blossoms, grows, emerges in this poem, becomes unhidden and uninvented. This “new” world is, in Seed Catalogue and out of it, as particular and complex, as capable of being set forth and of sheltering, as there is will to think about it or time and space for the work to record it. The poet’s work cares for this world in a way which does not analyse the earth out of its context and out of significance.

All the questions Seed Catalogue’s subject asks—“How do you grow a gardener?” (111), “How do you grow a past?” (116), “How do you grow a prairie town?” (117), “How do you grow a lover?” (115), “How do you grow a poet?” (119)—are dramatizations of methods of consciousness: the desire to know, the ache to separate things from their ground and to analyse them as distinct and unattached things, as objects outside of history. Such questioning is usually the mark of a Western philosophical, analytical inquiry. But these particular questions are somehow all wrong, too, for that analytic tradition. They are not questions about justice, Truth, God, Trees, the Sun, and so on, detached from human emotion. They are a poet’s questions—a poet’s consciousness which is, in this case, not logical but evocative. These questions never get answered; are dropped as soon as asked. The formula doesn’t get completed. There are no certainties. The questions, no more than the imperative, finally, to the poet to “teach us to love our dying” (42), do not provide solutions but answer back with more poetry. In that way they partake of the Heideggerian principle that poetry with its natural duplicity, its trait of being set back in the earth, is the thought of truth.

This last point about dying is, perhaps, the most Heideggerian aspect of Seed Catalogue. Here we have Heidegger’s notion of the difference between the one undifferentiated, “pre-philosophical” self who has not yet encountered the terror of his own non-being and the self who has and whose struggle with angst will eventually lend dignity to existence. The poet of Seed Catalogue is an alone and “anxious” Self, speaking his way toward understanding in the Heideggerian non-abstract sense of “unconcealedness” and “un-hiddenness”:

In this world that lies before him, open beneath the light, things lie unconcealed (also concealed); but unconcealedness, or un-hiddenness, for Heidegger, is truth; and therefore so far as man exists, he exists ‘in the truth.’ Truth and Being are thus inseparable, given always together, in the simple sense that a world with things in it opens up around man the moment he exists. Most of the time, however, man does not let himself see what really happens in seeing.

(Barrett 222)

In the realm of speech and language, death is best represented by silence. Tongue-tiedness. Wordlessness. A fighting for breath. The truth of death is silence, just as death finally leaves each of us speechless. Tongue-tied. Silence is language confronting the absence at the very heart of presence. That is, silence is courage. A standing at the edge of the abyss. A looking at the terror, a looking right at non-being. Silence is an awakening; a being born of understanding. Language without silence is simply chatter, just another one of the ways modern Being avoids facing the silence of its own non-Being.

When Being faces its own non-Being, all the everyday ordinariness of Being and Being’s nothingness or nowhereness disappears: Being is brought face to face with death. Angst brings you to a place of something, a not-nothingness. In that sense, Seed Catalogue is, in aggregate, a gift to the people of the prairie, the poet’s contribution to their survival and his part in “keeping the farmyard in shape.” This is important for understanding the duplicity of the poem. That the question of dying is central to Seed Catalogue is made clear by the preponderance of deaths in it: the mother in her grave when the poem begins; the magpie and badger, one shot at and killed by the father (112); the husband who has been buried “with his ass sticking out of the ground” (117); the Crees “surprised … to death” (121) on the Oldman River by the Bloods; Pete Knight, “King / of All cowboys” (123—whose death by falling off a horse, implicates the poet, who also has fallen off his horse, in his own death);11 Henry L. Kroetsch, patriarch, whose “last will and testament” (124) are recorded in the poem; Freddie Kroetsch, the best barn builder in the area, dead but “remembered” (124) by the poet; the poet’s cousin Kenneth MacDonald whose bomber is shot down over Cologne in 1943 (126); and finally Adam and Eve themselves who we are told “got drownded” (127). The powerful request, “Poet, teach us to love our dying” (126) is a cry for help rising out of the community which has not allowed itself to recognize the neurosis which living and dying entail, made all the more unbearable by the suppression inherent in the various simplifying dualities by which people live and think. The poet knows, for instance, that religions tend to make us “love” our dying and to provide easy solutions for the fear of death by proclaiming everlasting and joyous living after this life. Such promises are placebos and solaces which keep life ordinary and “secure” and are illustrated by the priest’s facile solution to the poet’s and Germaine’s expression of the great body and soul problem. The two young people have discovered the pleasure of each others’ bodies and when the boy makes a confession, the priest shows no willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the conflict between culturally-determined codes of behaviour and raging natural desire. He simply calls it “playing dirty” (114) and admonishes him: “keep your peter in your pants for the next thirteen years” (114). Typical of the independent spirit of the poet, he can’t and doesn’t listen to advice, and he and Germaine choose, instead, to “die” once more: “we decided we could do it / just one more time” (115).12 If the love in “love our dying” means “loving” private angst, having the conscience to experience it, and having good faith that drives one to look into the abyss of death and non-being, then such a “work” which can do this is, for the good poet, a worthwhile and moral work. If “love” on the other hand means skirting death and loving death falsely, loving what is really not death at all but an escape from it, then such a work would be unworthy of the good poet. In either case, the concern with the poet’s role in ‘teaching’ the community (presenting Being for the community) and the climactic position of death at the centre of this autobiographical poem shows Heidegger’s influence.

“The history of being (for the West), Heidegger says, begins with the fall of Being. Kroetsch’s cowboy/poet falls into an originary site of Being—back into the garden. Paradise Regained. Eve is at the centre of this garden; but she is dead. She has experienced dying; knows it well. She whispers for the poet to bring her the radish seeds while the people about him call to him to be taught about death. She has already (always/already?) learned this and her whisper is seductive and oddly generative:

This is what happened—at my mother’s wake. This
is a fact—the World Series was in progress. The
Cincinnati Reds were playing the Detroit Tigers.
It was raining. The road to the graveyard was barely
passable. The horse was standing still. Bring me
the radish seeds, my mother whispered

This poem is not authenticity all done, fait accompli, nor the utter relinquishment of power and will and a clear-eyed facing of death. The will to power is still there and it expresses itself in the fact of the poet’s words, in his backward-lookingness, in his longing to superimpose the stories of his youth over the problems of today, and in his very love of life, which is a looking at the past. Heideggerian Being is historical, but it is forward-looking history because the primary mood of Being is awareness of the future—of death. The poem ends with that realization and it plays out the sequence of obsession with the past, of the young life of the poet with his desires—for language, for the garden, for Germaine, for another.13 But the questions, the “how do you”’s, point him always back to the future.

Seeing is not seeing. Answering is questioning. The clarity of Aristotle is blindness. The questions of the poet are answers. They are desiring sight without seeing. They are supplementing the presence which is all around them in science books, in seed catalogues, in the ir/replaceable objects of the sort Mary Hauck brings with her to Canada, to Alberta, and which burn to the ground in the Heisler Hotel fire. They are the real absences at the centre of Seed Catalogue. From expository discourse the poet returns to the interrogative. The interrogative is a paradox—it too has doubleness at its centre. Answered, the interrogative is all of Western philosophy in a nutshell—completion, ending, transcendence above the now of Being into the eternity of knowing, truth without history or change, the end of the matter. Unanswered, it is the orient. Unanswered, it is Openness, only a beginning, a failure in the best sense of the word. Unanswered, it is the failure of completion, the postponement of orgasm14 and the death of desire. Unanswered, the interrogative is the angst of failure, and the call for more.


  1. See the essay in general, and specially his discussion of Derrida’s notion, in Of Grammatology 141–57, of the utter absence of signification outside the text.

  2. See “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction.” Kroetsch discusses here the tension between house and horse on the Canadian prairie and the perennial struggle for male independence (80).

  3. Kroetsch has often said that Ross’s As For Me and My House was the most important book in his development as a prairie writer proud of his heritage. See “The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues” 4.

  4. Seed Catalogue is thus one side of a dialogue. In this sense, the poem is Derridean in its double, saying what it never yet has said, not answering its own questions, finding the aporias in the utopian text, laying traps for the logic of this text about Adam and Eve and the poet in the paradisal garden.

  5. The idea of the essential, transcendental, and metaphysical quality of things is the core of Derrida’s argument with Heidegger.

  6. In Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger distinguishes between calculative thinking and meditative thinking and says that it is the second kind which the modern world needs more of. “[Meditative thinking] is thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is” (46).

  7. For discussions of orality in Seed Catalogue see among others Arnason 84, Wood 84, Ricou 116, and Munton 91.

  8. This recalls Wordsworth’s famous injunction in the Preface to The Lyrical Ballads about rustics being the most fit subjects for poetry.

  9. According to Laurie Ricou in “Prairie Poetry and Metaphors of Plain/s Space,” Seed Catalogue and other Kroetsch long poems refuse the “abstractions” (112) and “disappearing landscapes” (115) typical of conventional prairie landscape poetry.

  10. “Bullshit artists” are the best poets in an oral tradition according to Kroetsch. See his discussion of Glen Sorestad’s poetry, “The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues” (17–18).

  11. The poet’s death is further suggested by the fact that he falls into a garden; no one is left in the garden at the end of the poem.

  12. The connection between death and sex is made more explicitly in the “I don’t give a damn if I do die do die do die” scene (117) which, as Arnason points out, involves a priest catching a boy in a graveyard in the act of masturbation and warning him that he will die if he carries on with his “self-abuse” (86).

  13. He wishes to be a postman so he could “deliver real words / to real people” (117). The poem begins and ends in a garden, the home garden and the Garden of Eden; the last garden is lush and inviting, a place “where the brome grass was up to [Cindy’s] hips” (127). The incident with Germaine is left unfinished and begging for completion or continuation; she seems to be there waiting for him, whispering to us. His mother’s death, though mesmerizing as a voice speaking from the grave, is not lamented by the poet—even here there is incompletion and powerful, unfulfilled, interrupted desire.

  14. Frank Davey’s very important essay on the debate between “delay” and “prolongation” takes issue with Kroetsch’s assertion that the long poem in Canada is essentially a story of neurotic compulsion and the failure to end the poem out of fear of climax and closure. What Kroetsch discusses as a fear of orgasm, Davey calls instead a celebration of prolonged, continual orgasm (“The Language of the Contemporary Canadian Long Poem” passim).

Works Cited

Arnason, David. “Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue: The Deconstruction of the Meta-narrative of the Cowboy.” Contemporary Manitoba Writers New Critical Studies. Ed. Kenneth James Hughes. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1990. 79–92.

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Brown, Russell, “Seeds and Stones: Unhiding in Kroetsch’s Poetry.” Open Letter 5.8–9 (1984): 154–75.

Carroll, David. The Subject in Question: The Languages of Theory and the Strategies of Fiction. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1982.

Cooley, Dennis. “The Vernacular Muse in Prairie Poetry.” The Vernacular Muse: The Eye and Ear in Contemporary Literature. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1987. 171–83.

Davey, Frank. “The Language of the Contemporary Canadian Long Poem.” Surviving the Paraphrase: Eleven Essays on Canadian Literature. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1983. 184–93.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1974.

Godard, Barbara. “Other Fictions: Robert Kroetsch’s Criticism.” Open Letter 5.8–9 (1984): 5–21.

Hartman, Geoffrey II. “Romanticism and ‘Anti-Self-Consciousness’.” Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Norton; 1970. 46–56.

Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

———. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971. 15–88.

———. “The Thinker as Poet.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971. 1–14.

———. “What are Poets For?” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971. 89–142.

———. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971. 143–62.

Kroetsch, Robert. Seed Catalogue, a/long prairie lines, Ed. Daniel S. Lenoski. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1989. 109–32.

———. “The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues.” The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford, 1989. 1–20.

———. “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space.” The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford, 1989. 73–83.

Munton, Ann. “The Structural Horizons of Prairie Poetics: The Long Poem, Eli Mandel, Andrew Suknaski, and Robert Kroetsch.” Dalhousie Review 63.1 (1983): 69–97.

Ricou, Laurie. “Prairie Poetry and Metaphors of Plain/s Space.” Great Plains Quarterly 3.2 (1983): 109–19.

Shaver, Gilbert J. “Martin Heidegger: Poetry, Language, Thought. Boundary 2 1.1 (1973): 742–49.

Wood, Susan. “Reinventing The Word: Kroetsch’s Poetry.” Canadian Literature 77 (1978): 28–41.

David Wylynko (review date July-August 1993)

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SOURCE: “Pulling Strings,” in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXII, No. 821, July-August, 1993, pp. 43-44.

[In the following review, Wylynko praises The Puppeteer for Kroetsch's examination of the ephemeral and the permanent.]

Like a pulp fiction murder mystery, Robert Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer leads a host of bizarre characters through a fast-paced chase for icons, money and one another. But the plot line is merely a disguise for Kroetsch’s mockery of this popular form, and a mockery of the human need for permanence that motivates these pursuits. As in all of Kroetsch’s fiction, the novel’s central task is to illustrate how sharply humanity’s approach to life conflicts with the ways of nature.

In a universe whose only true constant is change, we tend to surround ourselves with things. We buy products, and their apparent permanence allows us to see life itself as a product, a stable entity. The reality we fear is that life is a process, one of birth, maturation, decay and death, with no preconceived universal meaning. Kroetsch ridicules this fear, and encourages the reader to embrace the beauty of life’s cyclical quality.

The action is steered by the novel’s narrator, Jack Deemer, a millionaire Calgary oilman who uses his wealth to collect a wide variety of items. Deemer fancies himself a descendant of history’s great collectors—Hadrian, Phillip II, and of course, Columbus, who, in acquiring the so-called New World for Europe, was “perhaps the greatest collector of them all”. As a puppeteer uses strings, Deemer uses money to manipulate the other characters in aid of his passion for collecting.

The novel is a sequel to Alibi, in which Deemer sends his agent, the despondent middle-aged William Dorfen, to search through Alberta and Europe for a spa, symbol of youth and regeneration. Along the way, Dorfen becomes implicated in the suspected deaths of Deemer’s wife Julie Magnuson and her doctor/lover Manuel de Meirdos. The bodies are never found. When The Puppeteer begins, Dorfen, fearful of Deemer’s vow to gain vengeance for Julie’s death, has been hiding out in Vancouver for four years. Here he meets Maggie Wilder, a middle-aged writer who, having fled her husband, sits in the attic of a borrowed house in her wedding dress, typing.

Maggie’s wedding dress is representative of the sense of permanence humans seek in material goods. A wedding dress is typically bought, worn and stored in the attic. On a much broader level, Deemer sets out to collect all the natural and man-made attributes of the world, until he has “four warehouses crammed with collections from around this spinning top we call a globe”. The novel suggests that this is the human approach to all of nature, the planet having “become an attic” through which we “rummage”.

Intrigued by Dorfen, Maggie journeys to Deadman Springs near Banff to uncover his past adventures. There she finds Karen Strike, a documentary journalist employed by Deemer to photograph, piece by piece, the entire lake where Dorfen presumably was involved in Dr. de Meirdos’ death. Absurdly, he sends her back each season to photograph the lake all over again. The function of photography is central to the collection of products. In order to collect things and to assign them value, we must first delineate them from another. In taking pictures, we specify an object and separate it from the natural whole. This act facilitates the Cartesian subject-object dualism that is central to Western thought, the scientific classification and dissection that helps us to understand nature’s components and at the same time lose sight of its essential unity. Framed, the photograph captures the object in a permanent time and place, allowing us to believe that permanence exists.

In the narrative structure, Kroetsch attempts to break down this sense of permanence by showing novel writing, like life, to be a process. When Maggie returns from the Spring, she finds that Dorfen has moved into her attic and is making puppets that mimic the novel’s characters. Harrassed victim turned puppeteer, Dorfen’s rendition of events reveals Deemer’s version to be merely a contrivance, subject to the changing whims of the ultimate puppeteer, Kroetsch himself.

This brand of narrative trickery, common throughout his work, has claimed for Kroetsch the reputation of ultimate postmodern writer. Writing that acknowledges itself as contrived corresponds perfectly with Kroetsch’s effort to illustrate the contrivances of all of humanity’s constructs, and the impact these constructs have on nature. In the race to collect, to gather, to put under glass, we transform the natural community into something artificial, unnatural, a purely human playground.

Yet, as Kroetsch also realizes, words themselves function every bit as much as photography to delineate objects, give them a human meaning, and provide opportunity to foster the sense of permanence we crave. In the quest for icons that brings the novel to a tumultuous climax, tantamount to a cops and robbers television series with everyone rushing to get the money, Deemer sarcastically asserts that he would “put words themselves under lock and key” if he could, along with beaches, lakes and the very darkness he lives in. In like manner, the novel will be collected as a finished product and put on the shelf.

In The Puppeteer, Kroetsch the artist melds with the theorist to at once provide a brilliant depiction of the human need to make an ephemeral world permanent while acknowledging that his own written work will fall victim to this obsession. But for the same reason the collector collects, the artist must write. As Kroetsch notes in his essay, “Beyond Nationalism: a Prologue”, it is simply our nature that “(h)earing the silence of the world, the failure of the world to announce meaning, we tell stories. ‘Once upon a time there was …’”

Liz Caile (review date September-October 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Alberta, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 5, September-October, 1993, p. 15.

[In the following review, Caile praises the second edition of Alberta.]

The Canadian province of Alberta corresponds to states to the south wherein plains and mountains meet. In Alberta, Robert Kroetsch describes the contrasting elements of splendid peaks and vast rolling plains, of wide rivers and parched homesteads, of coal mines, wheat and oil fields, of an Indian past and robust upstart cities.

Alberta’s settlers have maintained their distinctive cultural groupings to a greater extent than in the United States, however. Its northern placement introduces muskeg and glaciers to the equation. Its people—in many ways the focus of the book—seem a thinner layer atop a larger land.

Robert Kroetsch gives us a writer’s travel guide—a profile of a province, a portrait of the people who live on it. Names roll out from his account with their own poetry. He utters them with obvious relish, appreciating their intrinsic rhythms and imagery.

NeWest’s Alberta is a second edition, coming 25 years after the original publication. It opens with a foreword, a 1990s writing-class road trip, and closes with remarks by novelist Rudy Wiebe. The several parts of the book fit together, yet easily break apart into separate sections.

The middle of the book, Kroetsch’s original Alberta, is itself a pastiche of seasons and road trips, interviews and vignettes, camping and horse-pack adventures, shot through with history—like veins of cinnamon. The virtue of the book lies with Kroetsch’s dry wit, his fascination with individual Albertans, and his poetic prose:

In the south, the Oldman and the Bow flow together to become the South Saskatchewan, and all of them sprout tall cottonwoods in the shortgrass country of Blackfoot memories and cattle and wheat.

One of the most pleasing stories is of a trip he, his wife, and another couple made from Banff to Jasper, with time to marvel at the Athabasca glacier. The trip is quintessential car camping, before the sport had been attacked by a merchandising fervor.

Kroetsch does not theorize much, except perhaps on the attraction of Bible-belt religion to the people of the province where he was born. We are left to form our own opinions, trusting his telling of the story. He never overreaches his experience as the descendant of European immigrants, though he shares respect and sorrow with the tribes of the province. Wiebe’s afterword expresses a contemporary rage at the way the tribal past of the province has been discarded by other writers.

Reflecting on the simple entertainments of rural Alberta, Kroetsch remembers his time on the baseball diamond:

Maybe that did it, I thought—maybe that was one of the things that turned me into a writer—my playing far out in the field. The playing, and the watching that went with it. The listening, out there. The wanting to enter the game while fearing that someone might hit the ball in my direction. The being isolated, out there in the prairie wind and the summer light; my striking up a conversation with a nearby gopher as I watched the pitched ball. … The caring so much, so enduringly, for the movements of small creatures, for the ongoing game, for all the shouting and the laughter that are some of the various names of love.

From left field, Kroetsch gives us Alberta. His perspective is enhanced by the photographs of Harry Savage—small reproductions, nicely composed, framing the colorful features of the land.

Robert Kroetsch with Lee Spinks (interview date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Puppets and Puppeteers: Robert Kroetsch Interviewed by Lee Spinks,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1994, pp. 13-22.

[In the following interview, Kroetsch discusses his fiction and poetry.]

The following conversation took place in Hull on 24 October 1993 over a period of two hours. Robert Kroetsch speaks slowly and deliberately, often pausing to revise a word or qualify a phrase or statement. His sentences are frequently punctuated by a staccato burst of laughter.

[Lee Spinks]: Perhaps we might begin, Bob, with your most recent novel. Why did you return in The Puppeteer to the landscape and characters of Alibi? Was it from a sense of unfinished business, or did the earlier novel continue to nag away at your imagination?

[Robert Kroetsch]: No, I had originally planned a much more ambitious story. I was going to look at this group of characters every ten years or so and see what happened to them, to treat them as human beings in a certain way. But after the second volume I think I’ve abandoned the idea. It was a wonderful idea [laughs]. But somehow it just isn’t working for me.

So the characters were going to be periodically picked up, dusted down, and reintroduced into your fiction?

Well I was going to pick up different characters at different stages. In the next volume I had planned to pick up on that young woman Karen Strike and see how she looked at the story. That was my idea.

Is there any connection here with the cyclical narrative model of, say, Updike’s Rabbit novels in which the repetition of a character becomes an index for the state of a nation?

Well I thought it would reflect that and also I thought it would reflect what I thought about the novel at the time from a stylistic point of view. I wanted to get a changing record of my different opinions about the novel’s styles and possibilities. But that’s off the agenda now. It was wearing me out.

So The Puppeteerwasn’t originally conceived simply as a sequel?

Oh no! You see I had never really intended it as a sequel because you might be given a narrator in later novels who takes you back into earlier times. I had, in a certain way, thought of the novels as a diptych: the notion from art of two facing pictures. As my larger scheme collapsed, the notion of a diptych became more attractive.

The idea of a family of interconnected novels, with characters floating across different times, appeals to you, doesn’t it?

Yes, that’s right. I think that’s because I write short novels—or shorter novels at any rate—but I’m always attracted to the idea of a larger novel and the idea of a group of stories was my way to get at it. I think in some literatures—I think Chinese is one—the shorter novel and the longer novel are different genres. The same distinction between forms holds for me: I think of the short story as a very different form from the short novel. I have very little understanding of the short story. I think that the short novel is my form in a way [laughs] … 230 pages or whatever.

One interesting feature of The Puppeteer is your decision to introduce the narrative voice of Jack Deemer. What was the reason for this?

I was interested in Jack Deemer’s impulse to collect everything, to collect the world in a sense. This obsession of his had several consequences: one was that he would want to collect other peoples stories and, ultimately, other people. I had planned that in a vague way all along. But the dialogue he gets into with that third person came as a surprise.

The figure of the collector recurs frequently in your fiction: Demeter Proudfoot collects the smallest details of Hazard Lepage’s life, William Dawe collects dinosaur bones, Jack Deemer collects unusual cultural icons. What attracts you to the type of the collector?

Well, first of all, I’m not a collector in any way myself. I’m fascinated by it though because collecting functions as a model for what culture is in a way, even in a basic activity like education. It’s a very long story, I know, but even by the time you move from a culture of hunting and gathering to whatever comes after, collecting becomes possible and ultimately significant. And the idea of collecting as a metaphor for this kind of development is very interesting to me.

Is there a sense in which the collector functions as an encyclopedic realist novelist in contrast to the imperatives of our “postmodern” age?

Oh, I think so. I think he has a strong impulse to make the world cohere in any way possible. In a certain way, he’s a modernist, I suppose, in my sense of what a modernist is. Collecting also throws up interesting interpretative problems because it insists upon taking things out of context. Nowadays we tend to believe that context is so important; but by taking things out of context and placing them in a museum, or whatever, it’s possible to radically alter their meaning. And that makes us uneasy. Just look at our contemporary unease about past archaeological and anthropological studies. We live in an age of enormous doubt and the urge to collect is an interesting expression of this condition.

There’s contradiction in Deemer’s position, though, isn’t there? In Alibihe collects to escape time, but in The Puppeteer he collects versions of eschatological narratives, plural interpretations of the end of the world. Doesn’t he seem to hesitate between univocity and polyvocality?

Sure, although we shouldn’t put the whole blame on Deemer; this is, after all, partly my fear of a single story [laughs]. There’s an important point here though about the paradox of narrative: the storyteller, by writing the story down and arresting time and story makes it possible for interpretation to function. Deemer’s different narratives or collections rely to some extent on the notion of a single narrative; but then the single story opens out into a number of different narratives. His activities as a collector, in a sense, almost violate the principle of story. And that’s why he’s positioned as both reader and writer in the text, looking over Maggie’s shoulder as a reader but also intruding all the time to the point where he starts believing that it might be his story that he’s writing down. And let’s not forget: there’s a question all the time about how well he can really see. He exploits the notion that he can’t see and he exploits the notion that he can. Which is itself a version of an old, rather classical, conceit: the blind man seeing.

The Puppeteer, it seems to me, is organized around two central images: Julie Magnusson’s wedding dress and the figure of the puppeteer. What attracted you to these images?

Well, in a way I began from the notion of icon; I was interested in discovering exactly what the contemporary icons are. That’s why I got interested in pizza: it looks like an icon to me. I first got interested in the great Byzantine icons because of the traditions behind the painting. There’s a certain kind of resistance to perspective that interested me; the trick of perspective that we get in the renaissance is, after all, a trick: you get tired of it after a while. And as a consequence of resisting the depth of perspective, the notion of surface gets to be so interesting. We have become so adept at seeing depth that we can hardly recognize surface anymore. We can hardly see a cup of coffee. I can’t remember exactly how I got interested in the wedding dress, but once she put on that wedding dress I was away; it was a very important moment for me in the story. She put it on and it enabled her to talk. I have no idea where it came from. In some way, I suppose, it’s got elements of Magic Realism, especially since what’s on the wedding dress keeps changing. The emergence of the puppeteer image is a little more defined. When I was over in Greece I became interested in the idea of the shadow puppets, who seemed to enjoy a certain advantage over our string puppets; the mechanics were different: you could use those lovely bright colours, and shadows, in a different way. And then I began to study the puppet figures that they were using, and Karaghiosi was a trickster-tricked figure and I’m always a sucker for that idea [laughs]. So I got, interested in that. And also the whole notion that the Greeks used these puppets as a rather subversive method of telling stories when they were occupied by the Turks; and then behind that the entire unravelling story that goes back to China and Indonesia or wherever the shadow puppets come from.

This seems to link up with those scenes in Maggie’s attic where characters go to see a show but then become so implicated in or consumed by the events they witness that these stories take over their lives.

Absolutely. And this raises that whole question of how we enter the story. Instead of separating the characters from the action by the arch that you might find in some theatres, I was much more interested in the idea of carnival where you can be looking around, enjoying your distance, while being at the same time part of the spectacle. I was excited by the possibility that these characters could start off outside the story, almost in a critical position if you like, and then gradually become seduced into entering the story. And carnival also has those other aspects—the subversion of order and the overturning of hierarchies—that have always attracted me.

Both the image of the wedding dress and the puppeteer are bound up in some way with the endless reproducibility of story and the human need to keep shuffling between versions of identity. Might The Puppeteer be described as a modern Shakespearean romance in which people have to adopt different disguises to become what they really are?

Yes, I’m sure it could. Frye’s book on Shakespeare was a very instructive book for me because he showed me what Shakespeare was up to. Insofar as I’m really far more attracted to a comic rather than a tragic vision, the comparison with romance is a fascinating one. I’m interested in doubles; and the book plays with the idea of moving between genders. It’s a complicated question where I stand in relation to romance, but one connection is that I like the outrageousness of the storytelling. To tell a story is, after all, already a slightly preposterous thing to do: the world is already too jumbled to accept a single narrative structure. And that’s also the idea in romance, that people need to accept disguises to discover more about their real self. That appeals to me: I’m totally opposed to the notion that underneath my mask there’s a true self, because the masks are, in an important sense, what I really am. That idea that we’re fooling anybody with our disguises is to fool ourselves, especially since the masks we pick for ourselves are so revealing. I think the book says “The Pizza Man. That was her first name for him.” So as she goes through names it’s not a question of one being wrong and another being right; it’s a far more complex problem. It’s the idea that identity is actually found through narrative or story. And this is linked to a very contemporary resistance to the idea of a bounded self: the idea that this, here and now, is what I am and that I have to be consistent with it, when it’s the gaps and contradictions that enable me to be alive in the world. There’s an obvious connection here with the discontinuities of the postmodern novel and what I’m saying here about identity. But then I think that postmodernism, with its whole set of illogical responses and contradictions, is a much better guide to how we live than most.

The plots of both Alibi and The Puppeteer oscillate between Canada and Europe, and between the Old and the New World. Are you conscious of this tension elsewhere in your work?

Yes, although I was much more conscious of this binary when I was younger. I call it a binary, and it is, but it’s much more than that: it gave me permission to write in an important sense. The whole experience of the new place demanded a new telling of the story. Mind you, my whole notion of story was different then. In later years I’ve become more and more intrigued by—this is probably not true [laughs]—the way the act of telling becomes part of the story. I always was though, wasn’t I, from The Studhorse Man onwards or even before then? So I probably have to take that back [laughs].

Any discussion of the relationship between the Old and New World must include the various effects of linguistic and cultural colonialism. Do you consider yourself a post-colonial writer, and if so how has this perception influenced your work?

Well, first of all, let’s remember that the phrase “post-colonial” wasn’t around very much when I was a younger writer. I wish it had been, because I think it’s a very useful phrase for me. I suppose at an early stage a lot of what’s now called post-colonial thought was based upon the model of margin and centre. I think there’s a danger in making that a very stable or static model because what, after all, is the “centre” or the “margin”? These things are very fluid and we need forms that are able to accommodate that fluidity.

You have written of the Canadian experience of inhabiting a “mandarin language” that doesn’t have its roots in the New World landscape. Was this mis-match between the world you perceived around you and the codes available to represent it one reason for your abandonment of realism as a literary mode?

That’s a good question. It touches on some issues that are really important to my conception of the act of writing but that I haven’t really resolved. Perhaps I write because I haven’t resolved them. Could you say some more? It really fascinates me, this question of the relationship between realism and a mandarin language.

Well, it could be said that one of the defining features of realism as a mode of address is that it eliminates the space between experience and representation in the name of discursive transparency. But this makes realism a problematic mode for the post-colonial subject which defines itself by the difference between the landscape it inhabits and the codes available to represent it.

Gee, that’s great; I really like that. That really explains things for me. And this is exactly why I can’t be a realist; it’s all tied up with this notion of difference and language.

This ambivalence about realist fiction has always been present in your work, hasn’t it? I’m thinking of even those early stories like “That Yellow Prairie Sky” which juxtapose mimetic description with dislocated paragraphs of highly charged poetic discourse.

That’s right; God, it’s weird to see these connections. But you’re right. I remember the editor of the journal in which that particular story was placed was a little uneasy about it—that distance from or distrust of a realist frame. But it’s certainly there: that desire to break down any semblance of a coherent discourse, even in that story, which was actually one of the first longer pieces I ever wrote. God, I’ll have to think about this more; I had never fully made the connections in my mind.

This whole question is bound up, though, with the problem of writing a new country in an old language, isn’t it?

Oh, yes, without doubt. I just today read an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement about Mark Twain and how apparently when he was working on Huckleberry Finn he had heard a young black boy speaking and he picked up some linguistic clues from there on how to tell a story by breaking up a certain conventional kind of realism. And this distrust of realism runs right through North American writing: they embrace it but they also buck against it.

Probing this question of writing in a mandarin language, one of the most remarkable features of your fiction is that each of your novels adopts a different style: one is written in a realist mode, another in a kind of postmodern pastiche, a third borrows from Magic Realism. What motivates your continual experimentation with literary form?

Well, I’m not sure that this should even be called experimentation; I think it’s a manifestation in the writer of the things I’m talking about in the stories. One keeps changing, redefining oneself, and there isn’t a secret centre, although this loss of a centre has its attendant freedoms. It enables you to say one thing, shift your voice a little, and then you can say another thing. If you shift the story form you can always say something else and explore different angles. It also makes sense that given what I’m saying about narrative and identity in a single novel that I would begin to write a group of interrelated novels out of this method. This kind of constant metamorphosis is also a strategy for survival: if you think you’re on the margin you keep shape-shifting; this stops you being caught or at least defined against your own wishes.

It’s a very different idea of survival from the Atwood thematic, isn’t it?

Oh, absolutely. And make no mistake: it’s often very tough on the reader, because they have to keep entertaining new possibilities. An Atwood reader is offered a certain kind of security; at least they have a ground or footing that they can feel sure about. I’ve gone the other way; perhaps some of my readers have fallen off the edge [laughs]. I was talking to an agent in London a week or so ago, and he said I go too far in a certain way: you lose readers like this. I have to admit that’s not just a possibility; it’s probably a fact. On the other hand, one hopes that it’s rewarding to the reader in the long run.

Do you see any similarities between the themes and concerns of Canadian writing and those of writers from the other former colonies: Australia, West Indies, India for example?

Sure, I’m fascinated by an Australian writer like Peter Carey, for example. His work is very instructive to me. This term “post-colonial” is necessarily very broad, though; I learned a lot from nineteenth-century American writing, where the American writer still felt that he or she was in what we would now call a post-colonial situation. So you get, as in Twain, their railing against Europe but their running off towards Europe, or Hawthorne literally going to live in Europe for a long time. Or even the heavy-duty argument you get running through the Modernist poets about what to do about Europe: Eliot and Pound going to Europe, and Williams and Stevens saying “That was fatal; you never should have done that”. Australian writing interests me: Illywhacker is a form of Magic Realism, I suppose, which delights in this outrageous making of story out of this marginal world. I think that with the writers on the margins there’s this sense that the hierarchy’s broken down so you can use what you please; you don’t have to say “This wouldn’t be proper in a novel,” or “This would violate the rules”. It’s all just material sitting out there. This happened more, I think, for the Australians than the Canadians because they’re so far from the world, in a way, and we’re always so close to America. So I feel a great sympathy with the Australian fiction writers, although I must say that their poetry often seems a little old-fashioned to me.

Moving on to your poetry, one of the things that interested me when I first read it was the phenomenological impulse to get back to the bedrock of place and identity before the land was written. Do you recognize this impulse in your work?

Oh yes. In fact I was very much taken by the concept of phenomenology earlier in my life—I’m thinking of Stone Hammer Poem in particular—and the challenge of making it an active, not a fixed concept. The challenge of getting back before the land was written by anything else, something that exists prior to language or writing. But at the same time feeling it slip away on you as you try to write it down. The same thing happened to me when I went to see the Rosetta Stone: the fact that here was a language that no one could read; it would just drive you mad to try. And so surface becomes engrossing once more.

The poetry that you wrote in the 1970’s, though, seems to inhabit a deconstructive vocabulary. Were you consciously aware of this transition?

Very much so. Although I didn’t read the notion of “deconstruction” and then systematically apply it to my work. I was doing it, getting it often from American poetry, I think. But deconstruction gave me a way to talk about the tensions and contradictions that I had already experienced. It also gave me a more solid theoretical base, I suppose. I was just ready for that theory to strike [laughs]. The whole notion of writing language against itself fascinates me. And there’s a whole extended notion of the post-colonial there: what is the mandarin language concealing or not concealing? Which brings us back to how you write in the language that you were given. For me it was a matter of going to sub-literary sources: using the ledger, for example, which hadn’t been thought of as a literary tool. Or the seed catalogue, which seemed totally unliterary and gave me a new way to go back to the language I had inherited.

Are the Field Notescontinuing or has The Puppeteer consumed all your time and energy?

Well, I’m working on a novel right now which I think is independent of the Field Notes. It’s a kind of anti-autobiography. Its anti-autobiographical in the sense that I think “autobiography” is a fairly fraudulent notion although a fascinating one: it trades on the belief that a statement must be true because the author said it, when the person least likely to tell the truth is the author. It trades on a fraudulent discourse of truth. The Field Notes, it seems to me, was a genuine attempt to write a long poem which I’ve now either finished or abandoned. This anti-autobiography that I’m working on now could conceivably have some poetry in it, but it’s difficult to insert poetry into an autobiographical form. At the moment I’ve written four or five essays that may go into it. One of my strategies is to take a small event and read it very hard to see if it might have had consequences for my thinking, like my going up North, for example, which I’ve written an essay about: it’s called “Why I Went up North, and What I Found When He Got There.” So the genres will get a little bent once again. But it’s probably bad luck to say too much about the new book. You’ll have to wait and see.

John Clement Ball (essay date Summer 1994)

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SOURCE: “Framing the American Abroad: A Comparative Study of Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian and Janet Frame’s The Carpathians,” in Canadian Literature, No. 141, Summer 1994, pp. 38-49.

[In the following essay, Ball discusses similarities in the treatment of colonialism in Gone Indian and Frame's The Carpathians.]

It is the paradox of Columbus’ perceptual moment that it cannot end. The moment of the discovery of America continues. Its reenactment becomes our terrifying test of greatness; we demand to hear again and always the cry into mystery, into an opening. We demand, of the risking eye, new geographies. And the search that was once the test of sailor and horse and canoe is now the test of the poet.

Kroetsch “Moment,” 25

When Christopher Columbus “discovered” America he was, like other explorers, acting as the agent of a higher authority that remained nominally in control from a relatively stationary position—at home on the throne, at the centre of imperial power. Once he set sail from that imperial centre, however, Columbus himself was the one really in charge: no higher human authority was present to direct or curtail his actions, or to prevent him from making one of the most significant and far-reaching errors in Western history. When Columbus began treating the Americas as Asia, he was unknowingly subverting the very project he had been authorized to undertake. His freedom to do so demonstrates an unpredictable dynamic that straddles the gaps of geography and power established by any act of imperial exploration. There is potentially a big discrepancy between the agent-explorer’s actions faced with a concrete object of discovery and the authorizing mandate from home that frames his journey. As middleman, the agent-explorer subdivides the familiar colonial gap—between imperial oppressor and the peoples and places over whom it exercises its self-appointed power—into two gaps. Versions of those two gaps—between the imperial project’s two locuses of power, and between the agent-explorer and what he encounters—appear as textual dislocations and narrative gulfs in two quest novels from former settler colonies: Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian (1973) and Janet Frame’s The Carpathians (1988).

The Kroetsch novel has an explicit Columbus intertext. Its protagonist, Jeremy Sadness, is an American graduate student from Manhattan sent by his supervisor, Mark Madham, on a journey to fulfill his “deep American need to seek out the frontier” (5). Jeremy’s thesis, which he is perpetually unable to begin, let alone finish, has, as one of its false starts, the following first sentence: “Christopher Columbus, not knowing that he had not come to the Indies, named the inhabitants of that new world—” (21). And there it ends—or doesn’t. One of the titles he tries out is “The Columbus Quest: The Dream, the Journey, the Surprise” (62). Like Columbus, Jeremy has a dream—of the frontier of his imagination, and of himself as Grey Owl—he makes a journey—to the small Alberta town of Notikeewin—and is surprised—repeatedly. His quest is deconstructed in the surreal, carnivalesque world of the prairies during a winter festival, a world where social roles are exchanged and identities become so blurred that Jeremy can be unnamed—stripped of his previous identity—and renamed into a multiplicity of new identities that include buffalo, Roger Dorck the Winter King, and Indian. He can dream the dreams of a mute aboriginal woman. He can subvert his original mission, to attend a job interview arranged by his supervisor, simply by failing to show up for his appointment. Like Isabella and Ferdinand back in Spain, Madham is unable to control the activities of his agent-explorer. Or is he? Just as Columbus’s voyage was framed by the imperial project of which it was a part, Jeremy’s adventures as narrative are framed and ultimately controlled by Madham, who, from his fixed position in Binghamton, New York, is the stationary centre of power over this text. To Madham at the time of framing, as to us, Jeremy exists only as text, as narrative. Madham transcribes, edits and critiques the tapes on which Jeremy reports his experiences. As motivating cause of Jeremy’s journey, and as intrusive framing narrator, Madham retains control over his apparently out-of-control agent by reconstituting Jeremy’s actions as a U.S.-based narrative. In this late twentieth-century recasting of the Columbus quest, the neo-imperial centre of power has become what 500 years ago was the object of discovery: America.

The inclusion of a U.S.-based framing narrator is just one of many intriguing correspondences between Gone Indian and The Carpathians. Both novels follow the travels of a “child of Manhattan” (Gone Indian, 5) to a fictional town in, respectively, Alberta and New Zealand’s North Island. The town’s names, Notikeewin and Puamahara, suggest aboriginal languages, and both Kroetsch and Frame use aboriginal history and experience as touchstones for the local, and for their explorations of such themes as the reconstitution of language, the appropriation of narrative point of view, and the destabilization of the subject. But while both novels concern quests for knowledge of the other, the unknown, generically they are cast as very different kinds of story: Gone Indian as a parody of the picaresque western with the roaming cowboy hero, and The Carpathians as suburban anti-pastoral with a female protagonist and a domestic setting.

In Janet Frame’s layered metafiction, narrative frames blur ontological boundaries both from inside and outside the story, multiplying narrative points of view even more than Kroetsch’s book does. Frame’s questing protagonist, Mattina Brecon, is manipulated as text first by Dinny Wheatstone, the “imposter novelist” of Kowhai Street, who provides a typescript for Mattina to read which describes, in the past tense, Mattina’s actions over the next several weeks. Because the typescript substitutes for the events it describes—because, as Susan Ash explains, “It is Mattina’s process of reading the typescript which makes these events actual or ‘real’” (2)—the novel here places signifier and signified in an overlapping relation that renders them indistinguishable. Another character in the text, Mattina’s son John Henry, is revealed in opening and closing notes as the text’s Ur-narrator, creator of “this, my second novel,” in which “The characters and happenings … are all invented and bear no relation to actual persons living or dead” (7). Claiming at the end that his mother and father died when he was seven, John Henry the framer fractures the expected correspondence to himself as a character, Mattina’s son John Henry who writes his second novel within the pages of the framer John Henry’s fictional creation. And the concluding note’s teasing remark that “perhaps the town of Puamahara, which I in my turn visited, never existed” (196) is simply the final spin on a destruction of “the painful opposites and contradictions of everyday life” (114) that is Frame’s procedure and her theme. Frame conflates experience and imagination, text and event, envisaging a universe in which “it seemed that lost became found, death became life, all the anguished opposites reverted to their partner in peace yet did not vanish: one united with the other” (114). And while John Henry’s concluding remarks may, as Suzette Henke points out, permit a reading of ‘his’ novel as “a psychic strategy for coping with … Oedipal loss” (36), the novel that Janet Frame has written challenges, through its narratorial free play, the reader’s attempt to pin down an interpretation based on the apparent dictates of any one of its multiple frames. The narrative layering creates too many ambiguous ironies and deferrals of meaning. So even though John Henry, the text’s apparent framer of last recourse, is set up like Mark Madham as a U.S.-based controlling voice, the model of neo-imperial invasion and exploration seems here to be built on too destabilized a foundation to embrace without more detailed comparison of the concerns and strategies of the two novels. Not least among the destabilizing factors is, of course, the irony that while both novels posit U.S.-based framers as the controllers of discourse, both are post-colonial fictions created and controlled by their real framers of last recourse, the Canadian Robert Kroetsch and the New Zealander Janet Frame.

Kroetsch’s interest in Columbus revolves around “the perceptual moment” in which the explorer misrecognized and misnamed the “Indians” of the Americas. That moment of misnaming is paradigmatic of a process of imperial appropriation through textual authority that has become, for Kroetsch, the chief burden and challenge of the New World writer. In his essay, “Unhiding the Hidden,” he writes:

At one time I considered it the task of the Canadian writer to give names to his experience, to be the namer. I now suspect that, on the contrary, it is his task to un-name. … The Canadian writer’s particular predicament is that he works with a language, within a literature, that appears to be authentically his own, and not a borrowing. But just as there was in the Latin word a concealed Greek experience, so there is in the Canadian word a concealed other experience, sometimes British, sometimes American.


Gone Indian can be read as a fictional enactment of that process of unnaming. Jeremy’s experience of the frontier turns him into the very opposite of the “integrated Being” that Madham struggles to remain: Jeremy’s unnaming and renaming into multiple possibilities represents what Madham calls “the consequence of the northern prairies to human definition: the diffusion of personality into a complex of possibilities rather than a concluded self” (152). While the processes of unnaming and renaming occur throughout the novel, beginning from Jeremy’s arrival at the airport, the central event is a literal stripping-down of identity symbolized by the discarding of his jacket and keys during the snowshoe race. At this point, language has also been discarded: misrecognized as an Indian after winning the race, Jeremy replies to questions and harassment with silence because “if I had tried [speaking], it would have been a tongue I did not understand” (93). And even though as Indian, Jeremy is restricted by definition to the inauthentic imposter-status of his model, Grey Owl, this new identity nevertheless becomes an ennabling condition of imagination, allowing him to enter the dreams of the silent Indian woman, Mrs. Beaver. And along with the other identities that he collects along the way, it allows him to escape quite literally from the fixity of lived experience to the realm of imagined, multiple possibilities. Defying the control of his American framing narrator, he frustrates closure by disappearing without a trace, leaving Madham to speculate on various imagined ends. As Peter Thomas explains, Jeremy uses “trickster cunning” to “escape into ficticity and story” (78). Kroetsch dramatizes the post-colonial problematic of cultural inheritance and independence by locating textual authority in the neo-imperial centre and then undercutting that authority through liberating gestures within the story.

Simon During describes the initial encounter between whites and Maoris in New Zealand as a site of misrecognition and misnaming. Like Columbus misnaming the Indians, the Pakeha invaders misrecognized the locals as “cannibals,” “savages”; they in turn were misrecognized by the Maori as “gnomes,” “whales,” and “floating islands.” The words of pre-colonial Maori language, adjusting to new social realities, “began to lose their meaning until no consensus remains as to what certain words ‘mean’” (41). Janet Frame, not unlike Kroetsch, centres her novel on an event that enacts “the natural destruction of known language” (Frame, 119). Portrayed as a quasi-science-fictional, Kafkaesque nightmare of unexplained and unexplainable occurrences, Frame’s apocalypse, with its alphabets raining down like nuclear fallout and its transformation of ordinary New Zealanders into non-verbal, primal-screaming victims, is a more ambiguous, far less hopeful event that Kroetsch’s liberation into possibilities. As Susan Ash points out, “The Carpathians narrates the collapse of language without attempting to symbolize its possible replacement” (1).

The differences between Kroetsch’s and Frame’s prospects for language are evident in their varying uses of the motif of writer’s block to represent a failure of words. Kroetsch’s Jeremy, despite years of unsuccessful attempts to write his thesis, never stops trying to begin, and his many aborted titles and first sentences become at least a catalogue of the possible. Mattina’s husband Jake, struggling for thirty years to write his second novel, appears no further ahead at the end than at the beginning; his excuses and earnest promises are the only verbal products related to his novel that we are shown. The fact that he has been writing journalism and essays seems almost unimportant to him, to his family and to Frame’s novel in the mutual preoccupation with his failure to novelize—for in Frame’s world imaginative fiction is a privileged discourse.

In the aftermath of the midnight rain and the collapse of language it brings about, the forces of destruction, silence and obliteration of memory appear to have triumphed. Frame evokes totalitarian paranoia in her descriptions of anonymous, androgynous figures dressed in white removing the residents of Kowhai Street in vans and putting their houses up for sale. The only voice available to speak for the new reality is the eerily evasive real estate agent Albion Cook, whose name combines Blake’s England with Blake’s contemporary and the Southern Hemisphere’s nearest equivalent to Columbus, James Cook. Far from Kroetsch’s themes of purgation and renewed authenticity, Frame appears to suggest a regression to a colonial state where tribal memory is under siege and “strangers” (as the Kowhai Street residents call themselves) become silenced victims scarcely remembered or mourned by their successors. The Gravity Star, Frame’s astrophysical metaphor for perceptual sea-change, can become a liberating phenomenon only to those who are prepared to adapt to “the demolishing of logical thought, its replacement by new concepts starting at the root of thought” (119). For those wedded to the traditional binary oppositions of self and other, “here and there” (14), that supported the imperial projects, the failure to adjust to post-colonial necessities will have tragic consequences. It is one of Frame’s bitter ironies that the motivation to “preserve the memory of Kowhai Street and its people” (165) comes not from New Zealanders, but from Mattina and her family, invaders from a neo-imperial power filling a perceived void with a necessary act of appropriation—appropriating story and point of view.

Nicholas Birns says that The Carpathians, “with its emphasis on time, loss, and continuity, is clearly Frame’s most explicit effort at confronting New Zealand’s cultural inheritance” (18). Recently New Zealand has made strides towards recuperation of the losses its aboriginals suffered in colonial history, but Mark Williams points out that this “understandable cultural wish” carries the risk of self-deception. If Maori culture is embraced by the Pakeha as no more than “a decorative sign of difference,” its use as a sign of distinctiveness from European culture remains ironically structured on a European dualism that preserves “the separation of head and heart, reason and feeling” (18–19). In Puamahara, this reclamation takes place in both Pakeha and Maori communities, represented by a learning or relearning of Maori language that means different things in the two contexts. Madge McMurtrie’s Pakeha grandniece Sharon, learning Maori at school, points to an absorption of the previously denied “other” into the dominant culture; this activity can be viewed either liberally as progress or territorially as appropriation. On the other hand Hene Hanuere, the Maori shopkeeper, tells Mattina wistfully that “it’s not so easy” relearning Maori at her age because “it’s been away so long”:

“We’re all changing back now. It’s strange, you know. Like someone you turned out of your house years ago, and now they’ve come home and you’re shy, and ashamed of having turned them out and you have to get to know them all over again and you’re scared in case you make a mistake in front of the young ones, for the youngest ones know it all. You know, it’s been lonely without our language. People from overseas sometimes understand this more than those living here.”


The Maori children, who are further away temporally from the suppressed past, can get psychologically closer to it because their elders have “been brought up Pakeha” (26). This generation gap creates an uneasy sense of fracture and discontinuity between past reality and whatever form its present resurrection and transformation will take, casting a shadow over the good intentions of the recuperative project.

The aboriginal contexts provide both Frame and Kroetsch with tangible historical models for the post-colonial theme of the decimation of language and the systems of thought that rely on language. In the historical contexts of Cook and Columbus and their successors, that destruction was part of an incipient colonizing project of subjection and assimilation. In the contemporary context, a parallel process, whether it is called “unnaming” or “the natural destruction of known language,” carries the potential of liberation from colonial mentalities. And in a social climate that stresses revaluation and recuperation of aboriginal cultural losses, these narratives of deferred, slippery referentiality and unrealistic events are able to sink strong roots into the ground of real political projects. In fact, Kroetsch’s novel, if not exactly prophetic of the current Canadian climate of increased sympathy to aboriginal perspectives, certainly finds itself open to interpretations that foreground its conceptions of “Indian” and language now more clearly than might have been possible in 1973. Jeremy is mistaken for an Indian by his fellow whites and later finds his dreams infiltrated by a Blackfoot tribal memory. In one dream he becomes Poundmaker’s warrior, an Indian subject, and absorbs the memory of the other into his own through an act of imagination. As Buffalo Man making love to Buffalo Woman, he gains a stake in the land as the Indians knew it—in the ecosystem that white intervention disrupted. And his role as “listener” is, for Mrs. Beaver, a victory; he is the white man empathizing with and taking responsibility for a past in which his racial forebears were the other, the enemy. By reclaiming her lost past through his imagination, she helps him internalize a new point of view and a new language, an act made possible by his willingness to “uninvent” himself—to enter other identities and reject the language that articulates “the systems that threaten to define [him]” (Kroetsch “Unhiding,” 43–44).

But if there are positive transformations possible in these encounters of white with aboriginal, both authors remain conscious of the delusions enabled by insincere or inauthentic appropriation. The failure of perception that causes Kowhai Street’s tragedy is demonstrated in part by the residents’ isolating attitudes and the provincialism that locates quality elsewhere—in the “centres” of Auckland, England, or America. But it is symbolized by the cynicism that surrounds the town’s “rediscovery” of the Maori legend of the Memory Flower. Distracted by the perceived bright lights of other places or times, residents like the Shannons, Dorothy Townsend and Hercus Millow are inclined to view the Memory Flower as of no more significance than any other “tourist promotion” (21), a clever way to give visitors “a feeling that when they’re in Puamahara they’ve arrived somewhere” (39). And perhaps no more serious attitude is deserved by the lonely, shabbily-maintained kitsch sculpture that represents the Memory Flower. Perhaps the local cynicism is simply a reflection of the attitude behind its government-sponsored rediscovery in the first place. It is only the outsider Mattina who takes the legend’s ramifications seriously; for the locals it is a missed opportunity. As she says:

“I thought … that I’d find the Memory Flower, the land memory growing in the air, so to speak, with everyone certain as could be of the knowledge of the programme of time, learning the language of the memory, like the computer language, to include the geography, history, creating the future. … It sounds crazy, I guess. It’s the idea you get about other places. But I do feel that having the memory at hand, even if it is buried in legend, is having access to a rare treasure. Such memories are being lost rapidly and everywhere we are trying to find them, to revive them. Puamahara in the Maharawhenua could be the place for pilgrims (I guess I’m a pilgrim) to be healed of their separation from the Memory Flower.”


It is because of this failure that the destruction visited upon the Kowhai Street residents does not result in the kind of renewal that Kroetsch’s novel imagines.

However, there are difficulties with Kroetsch’s use of aboriginal materials, too. When Jeremy “dreamed always a far interior that he might in the flesh inhabit,” his model was Grey Owl; he tells the Customs agent on arrival in Edmonton that he wants to “become” Grey Owl (5–6). As a white man perhaps his choice is unavoidable, but his desire to become an imitation of Indian rather than the thing itself becomes problematic when he later declares Grey Owl “the truest Indian of them all” (80) because he refused to kill animals. Here Jeremy seems to be using white stereotypes of Indian identity and philosophy—simplified notions based on the interconnectedness of human and animal realms—to render the inauthentic white version of Indian “truer” than the authentic Indian experience, which does involve killing. Clearly there are dangers of misrecognition and misnaming in the present-day encounter of aboriginals and whites as profound as those of Columbus and Cook. Gone Indian also undercuts its own optimistic themes by locating the desired unnaming and renewal in a farcical narrative acted out by an often passive, impressionable and erratic character, a renegade American trickster whose enactment of a necessary process takes place with a cavalier, self-centred individualism that uses but does not include the members of the Canadian community in which it takes place.

The duality of individual and community is one that Kroetsch has articulated in his criticism. Explaining that “Behind the multiplying theories of Canadian literature is always the pattern of equally matched opposites,” he associates “Self: Community” with “Energy: Stasis” (Kroetsch and Bessai, 215). In another essay he establishes some related dualities:

The basic grammatical pair in the story-line (the energy-line) of prairie fiction is house: horse. To be on a horse is to move: motion into distance. To be in a house is to be fixed: a centering unto stasis. Horse is masculine. House is feminine. Horse: house. Masculine: feminine. On: in. Motion: stasis.

(“Fear of Women,” 76)

Kroetsch’s paradigms are apt to a comparison of Gone Indian and The Carpathians. Where the Kroetsch novel privileges the “masculine” principles of motion, energy and the individual quest, including sexual conquest, Frame’s Mattina pursues her antipodean quest through a largely static domesticity, rarely leaving Kowhai Street, undergoing even such dislocating experiences as the reading of Dinny’s typescript and the trauma of the midnight rain within the walls of her temporary home. The people Mattina observes, the Kowhai Street residents sheltered in their homes, also seem static compared to the constant motion of Kroetsch’s characters. The act of observation rarely transcends the fixed binaries of observer-observed, self-other, and it is tempting to interpret the failure that Frame’s novel seems to imply as related to an absent element of the carnivalesque. In his essay “Carnival and Violence,” Kroetsch borrows Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque to describe a liberating state of being located on the frontier, one in which normally fixed identities and hierarchical social roles are in a fluid state of becoming, of mutation, transformation and exchange. While the spirit of the carnivalesque is productive in Kroetsch’s novel, it is absent from Frame’s more pessimistic vision.

And while Mattina’s quest is an individual one, she is not the subject of The Carpathians in the way that Jeremy is of Gone Indian. The residents of Kowhai Street—a group that fails to achieve its potential as a community—are the narrative’s main interest. Mattina is important primarily as a frame: as the observer and interpreter of the community, and as preserver of its story as memory. Ultimately, of course, even these framing roles are superceded by John Henry, the largest framer within the text, just as Jeremy as subject is controlled by Madham, and his subjectivity threatened by Madham’s attempts to assert himself as subject.

It is more important to the post-colonial visions of both Gone Indian and The Carpathians that their superceding narrative frame-narrators are American than it is that their central characters—the agent-explorers Jeremy and Mattina—are American. The explorers, despite their limitations, do strive for an open-minded and positive embracing of the requirements of place; they respond and adapt to their destinations rather than imposing themselves. Once the explorer has left the “centre” of neo-imperial power—New York—for the “margin”—Puamahara or Notikeewin—she or he becomes implicated in the place itself, in its stories and realities, just as Cook and Columbus did. But if the final mediating power—the framer, Madham or John Henry—remains located at the centre, in a place with expansive global “cultural authority” (Said, 291), a gap of narrative control will be constructed that sustains the colonial tensions of speaking versus being spoken for. As long as this gap exists, there will be competing claims on authorship and authority. What power the “margin” has to tell its own stories will be overshadowed by a stronger interpretive power located elsewhere, just as the political authorization for Columbus and Cook’s journeys remained at the centre. Kroetsch, by making Madham such an articulate spokesman for his own egotism and delusions, offers more hope for dismissing the centre’s claims for authority than Frame does; her John Henry as Ur-narrator is so minimally presented as to be almost invisible. An important but uncomfortable post-colonial problematic emerges from these two novels: they deliberately compromise their own status as locally framed and authorized texts by deferring narrative authority in the text to an “other” located at the centre of global cultural imperialism.

Works Cited

Ash, Susan. “The Narrative Frame: Unleashing (Im)possibilities.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 5 (1991): 1–15.

Birns, Nicholas. “Gravity Star and Memory Flower: Space, Time and Language in The Carpathians.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 5 (1991): 16–28.

During, Simon, “Waiting for the Post: Some Relations Between Modernity, Colonization, and Writing.” Ariel 20.4 (1989): 31–61. Rpt. in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism. Ed. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1990. 23–45.

Frame, Janet. The Carpathians. 1988. London: Pandora, 1989.

Henke, Suzette. “The Postmodern Frame: Metalepsis and Discursive Fragmentation in Janet Frame’s The Carpathians.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 5 (1991): 29–38.

Kroetsch, Robert. “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation.” Essays 111–22. Rpt. in Lovely Treachery 95–107.

———, and Diane Bessai. “Death is a Happy Ending: A Dialogue in Thirteen Parts.” Figures in a Ground: Canadian Essays on Modern Literature Collected in Honour of Sheila Watson. Ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie, 1978. 206–15.

———. “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space.” Crossing Frontiers: Papers in American and Canadian Western Literature. Ed. Dick Harrison. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1979. 73–83. Rpt. in Essays 47–56. Rpt. in Lovely Treachery 73–83.

———. Gone Indian. 1973. Nanaimo, B.C.: Theytus, 1981.

———. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

———. “The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues.” Essays 25–32. Expanded and rpt. in Lovely Treachery 1–20.

———, Robert Kroetsch: Essays. Ed. Frank Davey and bp Nichol. Spec. issue of Open Letter 5th ser. 4 (1983).

———. “Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 3.3 (1974). 43–45. Rpt. in Essays 17–21. Rpt. in Lovely Treachery 58–63.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Thomas, Peter. Robert Kroetsch. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

Williams, Mark. Leaving the Highway: Six Contemporary New Zealand Novelists. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1990.

Laurie Ricou (review date Autumn 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040

SOURCE: A review of The Puppeteer, in Canadian Literature, No. 146, Autumn, 1995, pp. 140-41.

[In the following review, Ricou praises Kroetsch's deft use of language in The Puppeteer.]

Robert Kroetsch’s novels always pause to make you think. They make you think about truth and desire, about who tells story and what language is worth. They often make you stop to marvel at how things happen or why some machine works the way it does. I especially like the way they often force you to re-think everyday things you had never thought deserved thinking about.

The Puppeteer made me pause to ponder pizza. Pizza, I thought, is closer to a truly multinational, multicultural food than the infamous Big Mac. It is predictably, unpredictable: it can have an infinite number of toppings mixed in an endless confusion. Except when it is rectangular, it is round—both a satisfying whole and without beginning or end. Pizza is food for puppeteers.

The Puppeteer makes you think about how pizza is like a novel: “The rubble and design of a pizza, its ordered blur of colours and textures and shapes, arouse in me the collector’s will to win.” The design is more dependent than any of the earlier novels (except Alibi, to which it is both sequel and, perhaps, the field notes) on that paradigm of postmodernism: the detective mystery.

Maggie Wilder is contemplating her own murder. Julie Magnuson’s car went off a cliff. There is no body. Jack Deemer is the murderer or the narrator or the detective. Manuel De Medeiros, dwarf spa doctor, is suspected of the murder. Maggie, guided by the old buzzards Ida Babcock and Josie Pavich, sets off through the mazes of Italian streets and gardens in search of the murderer. Papa B, the pizza delivery man in the Greek cassock, retreats to Maggie’s attic where he tries to find, in elaborate productions of shadow puppetry, the ultimate narrative variation which will solve every mystery. Alibi’s Billy Billy Dorfendorf, Deemer’s agent, may be Papa B. There is a design here, and the suspense of a rainsoaked west coast mystery by Earl W. Emerson. But perhaps the suspense resides in the mystery of (the desire for) motive. You think you know what you’re eating, but you keep being puzzled by this or that morsel under the mozzarella. The design of the pizza is discovered in accident and the ingredients to hand.

Many of the varieties listed on this menu will be familiar. An endlessly elusive intertext in The Puppeteer consists in Kroetsch’s rewriting characters, motifs and incidents from his earlier work. Most of the cast of characters from Alibi find new alibis and aliases here; but in the blur of colours, we also readily detect the obsessive collector of Badlands, the out-West tall tales of What the Crow Said, Demeter Proudfoot’s irony of biography, the puzzles of conjunction from the The Sad Phoenician and the garden mysteries of Seed Catalogue. Borrowings are overt yet puckish: in that wedge, I tasted Bowering; in other slices I found Ted Blodgett, Robert Harlow, bp nichol, and David Lodge.

The novel is a pizza of places. It evokes Vancouver’s nights in dramatically rainy scenes. But it also has exquisite descriptions of the Tivoli Gardens, of the streetscapes of Sifnos, and of the piazzas of Rome. The novel cherishes cappucino, gelati and obiter dicta. And it delights in the writer as compiler, in the language of collection. It sustains the joy of Alibi in collecting collections. Any collection will do as long as it is already in the form of a collection: “one hundred and twenty-four weak excuses. Portions of a tongue. Eighty-two reasons why up and down are the same thing.”

That’s the pizza formula: put anything in you like, don’t fret over the combination, cover it in cheese and bake in a very hot oven. Presto. A novel you can read with your fingers.

Of course, you can’t review a pizza by listing its ingredients, however exotic or ordinary. The best way to convey the flavour is to share a slice or two. I have persuaded myself that I can recognize a Kroetschian sentence—I like to imagine that if I found a cold sentence in the refrigerator I would know if it had been baked by Kroetsch. Something like, “Maggie in that instant wanted to believe him” or “He was deaf, the man, to any kind of snooping.” In the first example ambivalent love is puzzled by a prepositional phrase. Normative syntax would likely have “That instant Maggie wanted to believe him.” Or, possibly, “for that instant.” Kroetsch’s sentence exaggerates the interruption between subject and predicate, between human being and desire, and the textures mixed by the drifting modifier ‘in.’ Kroetsch likes to focus on those nuances of connection that are prepositions. The second sentence also has a built-in hesitation, an unnecessary apposition, but also one removed from its antecedent. It offers precision and delivers confusion; it offers tentativeness and delivers wonder.

I began this review by celebrating Kroetsch’s focus on the banal but beautiful detail. Imagine if one of the “poetic” and “idiosyncratic” essays in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies had been devoted to pizza. Now expand that cynicism and delight in mass culture to novel length. The Puppeteer gives a comparable pleasure of style. So perhaps the best way to end a review is by chopping up some of the ingredients in Kroetsch’s kitchen. Make mine a syntax special. A large please.

Far above, something terrible was happening. Had happened. Would happen.

They were in the belly of a great whale, and the whale was the shape of light, barely sustaining itself against the Pacific darkness.

And if the two old women, a single moment earlier, had been little more than a pair of strangers, in the moment of Maggie’s speaking they became her allies, friendly co-conspirators in a treacherous world.

The floating words attached themselves to tongues.

No, I am not a foreigner, but I am a foreigner, yes.

Papa B., the narrator muses, speaks pizza as if it were a language. And Robert K., I am persuaded, savours language as if it were a pizza.

Tim Bowling (essay review November 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

SOURCE: “A Somewhat Schizophrenic Package: Robert Kroetsch’s Anti-Memoirs,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, No. 8, November, 1995, p. 15.

[In the following review, Bowling finds A Likely Story compelling but ultimately uneven because of Kroetsch's overbearing use of theory.]

The most important point to make about A Likely Story is that it’s not an autobiography, at least not in any conventional sense. In fact, the author himself claims that such a genre is impossible. As a result, the book is entirely free of literary gossip, contains only a minimal amount of personal information, and avoids the axe-grinding that often accompanies writers’ explorations of their careers. Yes, this does sound dull, but Robert Kroetsch is one of Canada’s liveliest and most original literary theorists, not to mention an accomplished poet and novelist, and what he has to say about writing makes for a compelling, though uneven, read.

The opening piece, “Why I Went Up North and What I Found When He Got There”, sets the tone for the whole book. Here, Kroetsch investigates his reasons for heading to the Northwest Territories as a young would-be-writer fresh out of university, and his recollections of that experience are vivid and enlightening. He writes of a dangerous journey on a riverboat and of losing his virginity, but these are only incidental stories: what matters most is how the North changed and shaped his attitudes towards identity, and informed his ideas about narrative, time, voice, all those ingredients essential to the storyteller’s craft:

“Insofar as the North carnivalizes given Canadian assumptions—turning upside-down assumptions about time, about direction, about urban ambition, about America—it seemed an escape from the authority of tradition and hierarchy, an escape that would allow me to become a storyteller.”

In the most general terms, Kroetsch is postmodernist. He approaches the art of writing with a questioning, probing, even suspicious mind, repeatedly asking himself and the reader, “What is the real story? Is there such a thing?” Whether he’s discussing Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners or the effect of the prairies on a writer’s development, it’s obvious that he feels passionately and thinks deeply about literature. His essay “D-Day and After: Remembering a Scrapbook I Cannot Find” is particularly interesting; its anecdotal style houses many subtle and intelligent statements on literary craft.

But halfway through, A Likely Story bogs down under the weight of so much theory, and what begins as a winning mixture of the personal and the academic becomes a private game designed for those with some specialized knowledge of current critical discourse. The long closing essay, “The Poetics of Rita Kleinhart”, is especially frustrating, as the author’s attempt at a humorous mock-biography comes across as self-indulgently clever.

Ultimately, these seven essays and three poems form a schizophrenic package, one that is alternately fascinating and opaque. Readers looking for specific comments on Kroetsch’s own poems and novels will be disappointed by his detached tone and refusal to engage in intimate revelation.

However, as an exploration of certain technical themes that haunt many contemporary writers, A Likely Story proves a useful and insightful reference.

Wanda Campbell (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7742

SOURCE: “Strange Plantings: Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1996, pp. 17-36.

[In the following essay, Campbell argues that Seed Catalogue depends on an organic structure that evokes meaning from its content.]

My poem Seed Catalogue is about a prairie garden. I actually used the McKenzie Seed Catalogue from McKenzie Seeds in Brandon. This was part of my effort to locate the poem in a particular place and then I expanded the poem outward to whatever other models I wanted—the garden of Eden or whatever—so that I could get all those garden echoes working together. We have an experience of particular garden here. There are certain kinds of things we can grow and certain things we can’t grow. The garden gives us shape.

(Robert Kroetsch qtd. in MacKinnon 15)

It is my impression that all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring.

(Charles Olson, “Projective Verse” 21)

Much has been made of Robert Kroetsch’s use of an archaeological model derived from a variety of sources including Martin Heidegger, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Michel Foucault, but, in his long poem Seed Catalogue at least, Kroetsch makes use of what might be called a horticultural model. As Robert Lecker points out, Kroetsch “continues to wrestle with tradition and innovation” (123) in his poetry. The patterns that grow out of the poem are not merely accidental unearthings on the part of the reader, but the result of intentional plantings on the part of the writer. Influenced by Olson’s emphasis on process and kinetics, Kroetsch seeks a form that emerges directly out of the content rather than one that is artificially imposed, and yet he manages to write “a long work that has some kind of (under erasure) unity,” (“For Play and Entrance,” LTW 118). He does so by adopting as his central metaphor the seed, which signifies both intentionality and surprise, flight and ground.

As Kroetsch himself suggests, the central model for Seed Catalogue is the Garden of Eden, which informs the text from the opening descriptions of planting to the final riddle. The Garden for Kroetsch becomes a kind a sacred middle ground between the male field and the female house, the most fertile ground for the growth of the poet which is the central subject of the poem. The plantings are “strange” and the harvest unexpected, but there is no doubt that a gardener has been at work.

Despite his “distrust of system, of grid, of monisms, of cosmologies perhaps …” (“For Play and Entrance” LTW 118), Kroetsch writes that he was “much and directly influenced” by The Secular Scripture (“Learning the Hero from Northrop Frye” LTW 160). He also expresses enthusiasm for Carl Jung; “He is something of a goldmine, especially his works on alchemy” (LV 104). In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung summarizes the attractions of the horticultural model:

That we are bound to the earth does not mean that we cannot grow; on the contrary it is the sine qua non of growth. No noble, well-grown tree ever disowned its dark roots, for it grows not only upward but downward as well.


The energy of Kroetsch’s long poem Seed Catalogue emerges from the tension between this downward and upward movement, between the seed full of explosive potential and the careful containment of the catalogue (Greek kata down + legein to select). The “notes” of Kroetsch’s poem are not simply the jottings of the archaeologist, or “finding man,” but those of a composition that is more carefully orchestrated than we have been led to believe.

The implications of the metaphor of the seed are manifold. By emphasizing “the kind of unwritten poem implicit in the seed” (Marshall 44), Kroetsch carries the image beyond the traditional associations, an enterprise for which he finds a model in the poetry of William Carlos Williams, who refers early in his long poem Paterson to “[t]he multiple seed, / packed tight with detail, soured, / … lost in the flux and the mind. …” (12). Kroetsch expands upon his understanding of Williams’s use of the image of the seed:

Again it’s so different from the metaphoric use of seed that we have, say, in the Bible. I think we are seeing the seed in quite a different way now as poets. Partly because we resist … we resist metaphor. Why the hell use it metaphorically when the-thing-itself is so interesting.

(Marshall 25)

The image of the seed is especially attractive to Kroetsch because of its dual potential for upward and downward movement, a “double vision” ingrained in Kroetsch’s imagination during his childhood in Heisler which, as a farming and a mining community, provided both surface and underworld metaphors (MacKinnon 3–4).

Just as the structure of The Ledger was determined by an actual ledger kept by Kroetsch’s grandfather and presented to him by his Aunt Mary O’Conner, the particular structure of Seed Catalogue was suggested by the document named in the title. Kroetsch reveals that the similarity between the two poems might well have been more pronounced had he not forgotten his notes in Winnipeg when he set about writing the poem (Cooley 25). Responding to a 1917 seed catalogue he found in the Glenbow archives, Kroetsch set about writing a poem that would bring together “the oral tradition and the myth of origins” (“On Being An Alberta Writer” 76), and provide a poetic equivalent to the ‘speech’ of a seed catalogue, which for Kroetsch was not just a random document: “When my mother died I became the family gardener. … When I found that seed catalogue my whole self was vulnerable and exposed” (Marshall 50). He reveals that self through a tale of origins expressed, not as chronological autobiography, but as synchronous garden.


Seed Catalogue begins abruptly with a listing from the catalogue for “Copenhagen Market Cabbage” complete with catalogue number. Pamela Banting expresses regret that even those critics most sensitive to textual nuance tend to “privilege the Kroetsch-written sections” over the subtext (qtd. in Brown Long-liners 290). The passages from the catalogue merit careful attention, both for what they say and do not say. According to Russell Brown, the lesson implicit in the opening lines of Seed Catalogue is that “from the apparently innocent, ‘documentary,’ past we may inherit imported meaning and ways of seeing” (“Seeds and Stones” 158). A cabbage bearing the name of Denmark’s capital is “introduced” into a prairie garden, bringing with it a history and a pedigree. Both the cabbage itself and the language that describes it are inherited stories, and throughout his writing, Kroetsch expresses a skepticism about history.

The fact that this peculiar landscape demands new ways of seeing is imaged in the storm windows which are removed from the house and placed on the hotbed. The same windows offer two ways to defeat the weather, keeping the “flurry” of snow out, and keeping the “flurry” of growth in. Like lenses, the windows provide the double vision necessary to cope with the prairie’s unpredictable climate: the palimpsestic notion of “under erasure” to which Kroetsch refers in “For Play and Entrance” (LTW 118), also operates: spring is discarded but still faintly visible. In the original Turnstone edition of Seed Catalogue, the text of the poem is printed over a palimpsest of actual pages from a seed catalogue, an effect which visually reinforces Kroetsch’s intertextual technique. Dominated by the extremes of “January snow” and “summer sun,” prairie weather does not offer the temperate transition of spring that is so central to the poetic tradition elsewhere in the world. The absence of spring draws attention to the need for a new mythology to interpret a new landscape.

Following directly upon the heels of the poet’s rearticulation of the climate is a letter of response to the producers of the seed catalogue. The inherited vocabulary and cheerful hyperbole of W. W. Lyon’s letter resembles the text of the catalogue but stands in sharp contrast to the poet’s efforts to be accurate about his environment. The literary formality of the letter, despite the demotic “Cabbage were dandy,” also contrasts with the genuine orality of the mother’s voice: “Did you wash your ears? / You could grow cabbages / in those ears” (I.17–19). Her assertion at first appears as exaggerated as those of Lyon, but as the poem develops it becomes clear that the young poet’s ears are, after all, a garden in which language (both imported and indigenous) is taking root. Kroetsch often refers to his early initiation into the oral culture of the prairies through a multitude of voices ranging from relatives to hired men. He is able to distinguish between the various voices that enter his poem by using a flexible left-hand margin, a technique he learned from Williams and Stevens, and which, according to Kroetsch, reflects the space and silence of the prairies (Cooley 27).

The poet’s fall from the horse in the opening section is central to the imagery of the poem in two major ways. First, it establishes the position of the poet in relation to the dominant myths of prairie life and, second, it foreshadows a fall from innocence. The stage is set: “We were harrowing the garden” (I. 22). Harrowing, of course, means the ploughing or loosening of the ground with a farm implement equipped with discs or hooks, but it can also mean “to distress greatly” (OED). Since the previous passage establishes the poet’s ears as a garden of sorts, the ridicule that follows his fall from the horse may well be a torment to him. According to Kroetsch, the horse in the prairie dialectic signifies the male myth, a designation that corresponds to the traditional associations of the mounted knight, a posture which he himself failed to achieve. So, the young poet falls from the male world of the horse into the ambiguous garden where his mother invites his participation in the acts of creation and naming. Kroetsch re-articulates the fall from grace into nature as a fall into language and “ground.” As the hired man points out, “the horse was standing still” (I.32). For the poet, the horse is standing still—the romantic tradition of the male as hero has ground to a halt. But the horse is still standing; the male tradition and the tall tales which celebrate it are still available to the poet as fuel for his imagination. Unlike Pete Knight, “the Bronc-Busting Champion of the World,” who falls off a horse into death, the young poet falls off a horse into life, to be rooted in the garden of new possibilities: “Cover him up and see what grows” (I.51).

Much as the mother’s gentle whisper intersects the boisterous commentary of the hired man, the blooming of the seed catalogue intersects the winter in which it arrives. Remembering a future season through the magic of language, the catalogue is “a winter proposition” (I.35)—a scheme, an invitation, a truth to be demonstrated. The seed catalogue is itself a kind of tall tale, insisting that “McKenzie’s Improved Golden Wax Bean” is “THE MOST PRIZED OF ALL BEANS” (I.38–39). Kroetsch works to undermine this hyperbole through a rhyme which substitutes “virtue” for “toot,” thus suggesting that such a notion is the mere passing of wind.

The mother, meanwhile, is ordering her corner of the world with binder twine. Later, it is upon sacks in which binder twine is shipped that the poet and Germaine become “like / one” (III.39). The female presence is binding up the distances and binding up the wounds. In contrast, the father’s tools for ordering his world are fenceposts and barbed wire, items to keep things in and out. He is confused by the gentle intimacy of the garden world,” puzzled / by any garden that was smaller than a / quarter-section of wheat and summerfallow” (I.52–54). He commands a home place defined by the points of the compass and surveyor’s math: “N.E. 17–42–16–w4th Meridian” (I.55), a place where both absence and presence are defined by extremes.

No trees
around the house.
Only the wind.
Only the January snow.
Only the summer sun.
The home place:
a terrible symmetry.


However, even in this brief passage describing the prairie as a place of absence, we find allusions to two poetic models, one indigenous and one imported. “Only the wind” echoes the closing lines of Anne Marriott’s The Wind Our Enemy, a poem about the prairies in which the appearance of absence is revealed to be a powerful source of presence. The phrase “a terrible symmetry” echoes Blake’s (and Frye’s) “fearful symmetry”: the prairie landscape may appear always as “tyger” and never as “lamb,” but even the tyger is a result of the creative act, the framing hand, the speaking word. Even absence provides a kind of symmetry. “Even abandonment gives us memory” (“On Being An Alberta Writer” 71). It is in this context that Kroetsch introduces the first of the questions about growth that echo through the poem as a kind of refrain: “How do you grow a gardener?” (I.66) The catalogue of garden varieties that follows reminds the reader that the poet is not only referring to the actual gardener, but also to the poet himself who, like Adam, was both gardener and namer. Listed without context, the names of the various vegetables take on a music of their own. According to Olson, from whom Kroetsch learned some of his poetic craft, “words juxtapose in beauty” through their syllables (17).

The “terrible symmetry” of the home place is mirrored by the terrible symmetry of life and death, garden and grave. The road between these extremes, though “barely / passable” (I.76–77), must be travelled by the poet. Even as the poet remembers the moment in which his mother is planted in the earth, he remembers her invitation to creativity through the newly planted seed: “Bring me / the radish seeds, my mother whispered” (I.77–78). As Kroetsch says elsewhere: “Endings have stems and blossoms” (Completed Field Notes 231).


Juxtaposed against the gentle simplicity of the mother’s voice that closes Section One is the elaborate mythologizing of the story-telling father in Section Two. What appears to be a tall tale of the contest between man and badger can also be interpreted as an exploration of the confrontation between “talking father” and “writing son,” the story teller and the poet. Just as the antics of the badger inspire the father’s tale, the father’s challenge inspires the badger to extravagant escapes, which parallel the son’s literary endeavours. In Kroetsch’s poem “The Silent Poet Sequence,” the poet describes his clandestine activity: “I go out at night, with my shovel, I dig deep holes / in the neighbours’ lawns” (Completed Field Notes 76). Later in Seed Catalogue the father offers labour as an alternative to an activity that he cannot understand: “And the next time you want to / write a poem / we’ll start the haying” (VI.66–68). Similarly, the father cannot understand why “so fine a fellow” as the badger would choose to live under ground. In the opening section, the young poet has fallen off a horse and into the earth: “just / about planted the little bugger” (I.50). The poet, too, looks “like a little man, come out / of the ground” (II.5–6). The poem, like the seed, becomes Kroetsch’s record of his search for the ground from which he came. The poet, like the badger, is attracted by “the cool of roots,” the solace of isolation, and the violence implicit in the act of unearthing. Though the father is puzzled by this downward desire because it contrasts with his own upward desire for building and flight, he cannot, of course, shoot the son. The son, likewise, can never fully escape the father: “They carried on like that all / summer” (II.11–12). The twine that binds the two together despite their differences is love. In love, the father threatens over and over. In love, the son repeatedly stands up to his challenge. In love, the son burrows into the ground that gives rise to the poet. In the end, the father tells a different story, in which a different nuisance (the magpie) is destroyed, while insisting that that was his original intention: “Just call me sure-shot, / my father added” (II.26–27). The story is not the story, Kroetsch reminds his readers, but the process of the story, not the harvest but the planting. There must always be enlargement, re-invention and change.


Love is first introduced as a binding element between man/father and badger/son, and in Section Three the notion of love is expanded to include Eros. This new direction is signalled by the sensual language of the catalogue entry for Hubbard Squash. To this point, the vegetables listed have promised pedigree and virtue, but the Hubbard squash rewards mankind’s “particular fondness” with sensual delights. As the catalogue writer points out, where there is a need, nature provides. In this context, the italicized phrase: “Love is a leaping up / and down” (III.4–5) describes more than the action of the badger who refuses to get shot and refuses to dig his holes elsewhere. Similarly, “Love / is a break in the warm flesh” (III.6–7) signifies more than the penetration of the father’s bullet into the feathers of the magpie. The growth of the sensual squash is described in the seed catalogue, but the young poet must discover the growth of Eros for himself. He must ask: “But how do you grow a lover?” (III.12).

The “winter proposition” offered (with illustrations) by the priest is not, like the seed catalogue, a promise (with illustrations) of coming fertility, but rather an insistence upon chastity and the fires of hell. The difference becomes painfully clear to the children on only the second day of catechism. Here Kroetsch provides an important clue to the structure of the poem as a whole. Catechism, a method of instruction which proceeds by question and answer, may well be the model for the series of questions that give Seed Catalogue its shape. Many manuals of catechism deal not only with questions of scripture and doctrine, but also with questions of behaviour and morality such as “How must we express our love to our fellow creatures?”

Against such a backdrop, the poet must consider his own question: “How do you grow a lover?” He had believed that it meant becoming “like/one” as Adam and Eve did in the garden, but he discovers, to his dismay, that Adam and Eve fell out of the garden into sin. Still innocent, and without a name for the union they have dreamed, Germaine and the poet climb into a granary and become “like/one” (III.39). Only after the priest calls it playing dirty is the thing they have discovered dis/covered into nakedness and shame. They fall from myth into language, and it is language that transforms a tale of sexual initiation into something more profound.

The fact that Germaine and the poet make love on “smooth sheets” of paper from the gunny sacks reinforces the parallel between the sexual act and the writing act, a connection Kroetsch often makes in essays and interviews. Germaine, “with her dress up and her bloomers down” (III.50), becomes a muse for the young poet. She, as her name suggests, is fertile ground in which he plants the seeds of his imagination. But the priest names their world “out of existence” (III.44). Language creates absence as well as trace. The lovers have fallen from the garden, the boy has fallen from the horse, and the poet’s understanding of language has fallen from innocence. Now he must unname it back to the beginning.

In so doing, Kroetsch attempts one more retelling of the Genesis story, “one meta-narrative that has asserted itself persistently in the New World context” (“Disunity as Unity” LTW 31). Apparently, this dream of Eden first entered Kroetsch’s psyche through the various tellings of his mother and father—his mother who lovingly learned the names of the flowers and birds of her native Alberta, and his father who “had for all his life an intense Edenic recollection of a lost home,” the green pastures of Ontario (Thomas, Robert Kroetsch 11). Kroetsch is fascinated by the story of the Garden of Eden because it invites a variety of tellings that range from ancient myth to child’s riddle. In Seed Catalogue, the riddle of “Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me” is given in answer to the poet’s question “But how?” How does one become a lover when the priest insists upon abstinence? How does one become a poet when the land insists upon silence? These questions await answers, just as the riddle awaits a solution.


The absences that define Heisler, beginning with the absence of silkworms, are cleverly catalogued in a list that interweaves the cultural and the historical, the public and the private. The wit, however, does not disguise the fact that the books and historical records which might provide models for the re-invention of the self are largely missing. Kroetsch describes the “three or four books” that were in his house while growing up: one about looking after horses, one on wild flowers, and one on threshing machines (Hancock 47). In the absence of the written word, the poet turns to the spoken word as a means of survival.

Mary Hauck arrives in Heisler on a January day, bringing her hope chest, which, like the seed catalogue itself, is full of imported elegance and dreams yet to be fulfilled. Only when the contents of her hope chest are destroyed by fire, and her European and Eastern Canadian inheritance is lost, can she find a place in this new world. The way is now clear for the growth of a prairie town. However, the gopher which provides the model for the prairie town’s human structures (telephone pole / grain elevators / church steeple) and the human needs they represent (communication / physical / spiritual sustenance) is apt to vanish as suddenly as it appeared. In the process of learning how to grow a past, the prairie town is perpetually threatened by absence. Nonetheless, the “Bullshitters” confront the silence with talk that includes both the fanciful and the profane. Even the joke “about the woman who buried / her husband with his ass sticking out of the ground” (IV.62–63), maintains a continuity with the theme of planting that recurs throughout the poem.


The fusion between imported and indigenous that occurs in the heart of the fire completes the apprenticeship of the poet, which is as arduous as that of the gardener. Just as the gardener’s first planting is devoured, his first efforts to “deliver real words / to real people” are ignored (V.5–6). His father wishes him to become a different kind of “postman,” driving fenceposts with a crowbar. Meeting with no success or encouragement, the youth gives in to despair: “I don’t give a damn if I do die do die …” (V.9), but even this apparent submission becomes a kind of song (in contrast to a story), echoing a line from Ervin Rouse’s “Orange Blossom Special” popularized by Johnny Cash. In this echo of the rhythm of the train-track, the positive (do) struggles with the negative (die), but the final word of the incantation is “do,” which prepares the way for the next question to be posed, “How do you grow a poet?” Out of the furnace, and out of the fusion, a seed is born.


In Section Six, at the heart of the poem, Kroetsch lays bare his technique, and his telos. His seed catalogue is not just an enumeration, though it certainly incorporates lists of all kinds; it is a catechism designed to instruct and reveal through questions and answers. Having explored the beginnings of his personal apprenticeship, Kroetsch now outlines the struggle for poetry in a prairie literature dominated by fiction. The environment may be hostile, but Kroetsch, for one, is determined to develop a hybrid that is up to the challenge.

The seed catalogue offers information on how cauliflowers should be grown, but not on how poets should be grown. Where does one begin? There are, of course, the classical formulas, the first of which is the invocation of the muse. The young poet turns to the muses for inspiration, only to be reminded that they are the daughters of Mnemosyne, and on the prairies Memory has been undermined by fire, forgetfulness, and the fearful symmetry of an empty landscape. Instead of Calliope, or Erato, or Polyhymnia, the poet finds only the girls he has “felt up,” “necked with” or fondled in the skating rink shack (VI.20–33). Perhaps the prairies offer no adequate muse. (Significantly, Kroetsch dedicates the Completed Field Notes to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war he describes as “that undiscoverable and discovered reader towards whom one, always, writes,” and to his daughters.) The tender portrait of the mother that appears in the poem’s final pages suggests that she may well be his most enduring muse, but in this part of the poem she still represents an absence.

What then of the other opening formula, “Once upon a time …”? The poet attempts to apply it to the home place, only to be stopped by the realization that it is a fictional rather than a poetic device: “—Hey, wait a minute. / That’s a story” (VI.35–36). In an attempt to explain his observation that “the prairies developed a tradition of fiction before developing a tradition of poetry,” Kroetsch suggests that the realistic mode of fiction lent itself to the “harshness” of the prairie experience (“On Being An Alberta Writer” 74–75). Once again, he is faced with the fact that “story” intervenes with the growth of the poetic tradition.

His parents know the formulas for growing a healthy boy (with cod-liver oil and Sunny Boy Cereal) and a competent farmer (with hard labour and haying), but no one has yet devised a way to grow a prairie poet. The father gives form to the land with barbed wire, but clearly this is an inadequate model, as is the prairie road which merely marks “the shortest distance / between nowhere and nowhere” (VI.71–72). If this road is a poem, there is no sign of its maker:

As for the poet himself
we can find no record
of his having traversed
the land/in either direction.


The creator has disappeared. He is lost. All that remains is “a scarred / page, a spoor of wording” (VI.83–84). However, like the poet’s secret shining from the bottom of the sea in A. M. Klein’s “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” this humble trace of words, this mere “pile of rabbit turds,” is enough to reveal “all spring long / where the track was” (VI.88–89). Spring on the prairies, we have been told, is a season that hardly exists. But for that briefest of moments, we can see the poet’s path.

The phrase “poet … say uncle” (VI.90) is followed by the italicized question “How?” which both echoes the earlier questions and implies that the poet either does not know how or is unwilling to give up or admit defeat. Also, by making tongue-in-cheek reference to the greeting of the Hollywood Indian, Kroetsch prepares for the poet’s real life encounter with the aboriginal, the truly indigenous, in his environment.

The novelist Rudy Wiebe is now introduced into the poem, insisting that the only way to conquer the vastness of the prairie landscape is to “lay great black steel lines of / fiction” (VI.92–93). In this, Wiebe echoes the desire of the poet’s storytelling father who insists that the only way to give form to the land is “by running / a series of posts and three strands / of barbed wire around a quarter-section” (VI.60–62), and those who believed that the “great black steel lines” of the railway would allow the iron horse to conquer prairie distances. Despite his quarrel with Wiebe’s insistence upon fiction as the preferred prairie genre, Kroetsch acknowledges the gifts Wiebe has bestowed upon his writing friends, including glimpses of indigenous history and inherited language. The word Lebensglied which Wiebe points out, appears only once in Rilke’s poetry:

Auf einmal fasst die Rosenpflückerin
die volle Knospe seines Lebensgliedes,
und an dem Schreck des Unterschiedes
schwinden die [linden] Gärten in ihr hin
All at once the girl gathering roses seizes
the full bud of his lifelimb,
and at the shock of the difference
the [linden] gardens within her fade away(1)

One tribe of Indians is “surprised … to death” by another in the “coulee,” a prairie word for a deep ravine or dry stream bed. Similarly, the rose gatherer of Rilke’s poem takes hold of the “lifelimb” or “life’s member” only to be overwhelmed by it. Every garden holds its surprises, and “the shock of the difference” is not to be underestimated. Perhaps the giant “geometry” of prairie geography and prairie fiction is an effort to fulfill humankind’s “blessed rage for order.” Yet, Kroetsch warns against a simple belief in the convention of the unity of signifier and signified, a temptation to meaning he suggests is attractive to Wiebe (LV 143). In the sections that follow, Kroetsch posits several alternatives. Kroetsch uses the form of the catechism to achieve a kind of unity, while resisting “the ferocious principles of closure” (“For Play and Entrance,” LTW 118) by providing many possible answers to each question.

Thus far, many possible models for the prairie poem have been implied, ranging from badger hole to rabbit turd, but the most developed and powerful image of the poet can be found in the description of Brome Grass that opens section seven. Though the passage resembles the previous quotations from the seed catalogue, there are several significant differences. The entry does not begin with the usual catalogue number, nor does it employ the high-flown and hyperbolic language of the earlier entries (with the possible exception of “Flourishes”). In addition, both the common and the Latin names are included, as if to acknowledge the dual heritage of the Canadian poet. Through a factual description which captures the vernacular simplicity of the spoken word, Kroetsch manages to foreground many of the qualities already highlighted as essential to the development of the poet. “No amount of cold will kill it. It / withstands the summer suns.” The poet both withstands and stands with the terrible symmetry of his home place. “Water may stand on it for several / weeks without apparent injury.” Though Adam and Eve are “drownded,” the poet remains. “The roots push through the soil, / throwing up new plants continually.” Delighting in the duality of the border-place, the poet moves downward into the earth and the buried past, and upward into the glory and grief of flight “… continually.” The poet is forever involved in the process of story, of language, of strange plantings and unexpected harvests. “Starts quicker than other / grasses in the spring.” Even before the snow has melted, the poet’s track is visible. “Remains green longer in the fall.” The poet’s fall from the horse is a fall into the garden, not out of it; refusing to surrender to absence and death, the poet retains the desire for greenness and growth. “Flourishes un- / der absolute neglect.” Despite the absence of “Aeneas” and “clay and wattles” (as in Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innis-free”), and the presence of crowbars and mustard plasters, the poet endures his long apprenticeship. He survives the winter to arrive at last at “seeding / time” (VII.8), a phrase which implies both the time for cultivation and the cultivation of time. In explaining his dual allegiance to fiction and poetry, Kroetsch writes: “There’s something you can do in a poem that you just can’t do in a novel—concepts of time and of language” (Cooley 31). Freed from narrative chronology, the poet can allow all of the fragments he uncovers to “juxtapose in beauty,” to use Olson’s phrase.

For the last time Kroetsch asks the central question of Seed Catalogue, “How do you grow a poet?” and again, he provides, not one answer, but many. There is no right answer, no single version. “Even in the Genesis story,” Kroetsch reminds us, “one discovers that there are three versions, one on top of the other” (LV 118). The palimpsest of prairie poetry implies a similar multiplicity. In Sections Seven through Ten, Kroetsch explores a variety of muses, models, and methods which add to his understanding of the poetic process and contribute to his apprenticeship as a prairie poet.


One of Kroetsch’s guides in learning to respond to life as it is lived around him was Al Purdy. “In abandoning given verse forms for the colloquial, the prosaic, telling yarns in the oral tradition, Purdy was central” (Cooley 28). Purdy and Kroetsch reject the “still point of the turning world” offered by T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton, in favour of the “turning centre in the still world” (VII.13). The power of poetry allows Purdy to gallop a Cariboo horse through an Edmonton restaurant, to transform a dinner party into a carnival, to surprise an ordered world through language. Through metaphor he becomes a new kind of cowboy, creating a new mythology.

The poet also finds muses among his own relatives, his own memories. The poet remembers the Last Will and Testament of his grandfather who gave “Uncle Freddie” his carpenter tools. This builder who mapped his world with perfect horse-barns endures even when the world has no more use for his artistry. Uncle Freddie refuses to say Uncle. He learns not only to make, but to make do. Although his craft appears to have outstripped its usefulness, its perfection endures. The craft of poetry may also be “archaic like the fletcher’s” (Klein), but that does negate its worth or excuse the poet from bringing new forms to life. Uncle Freddie has been bequeathed carpenter tools, but he reminds his nephew that the greatest tool of all is the imagination. Although deeply impoverished, he maintains his rituals and his pride, replacing the coffee he cannot afford with hot water with cream and sugar in it. From him the poet learns how to honour the illusion, how to remember not to forget.

This lesson is reiterated by the cousin who drops bombs on the land of his ancestors. His fall from his plane, reminiscent of the cowboy’s fall from his horse, signals a “fatal occasion” (IX.16). He forgets that the land upon which he brings destruction (“It was a strange / planting” [IX.11–12]) is the land where his family first took root. Forgetfulness is a dangerous muse, burying the past and devouring the future. She has “Blood / on her green thumb” (IX.35–36), resulting in a “terrible symmetry” from which escape is impossible.

The poet finally reveals his ultimate muse in the person of his mother, who is addressed in a passage preceded by the final entry from the seed catalogue. This listing for the Spencer Sweet Pea is a price list reminiscent of the passage in William’s Paterson where the chattels of Cornelius Doremus are appraised (45–6). But Kroetsch’s list reveals that the more you purchase the less it costs—the more you invest, the higher the yield. The sweet peas, like all the other plantings in the poem, are at once upward, “climbing the stretched / binder twine,” and downward, rooted in a deep and familiar soil. The poet believed himself to be bereft of models in a world of absence, but he now remembers the simple lessons taught to him by his mother and her garden: the grace of living, the beauty of weariness, the strength of place.


The poet must be open to the experience of life as captured in literature and in art, though these must be defined in the widest possible sense. To illustrate how the seed catalogue is a document as revealing and as valid as any other, Kroetsch shows how the entry for the “Japanese Morning Glory” evokes a variety of possibilities for interpreting the home place. A harsh environment teaches the characters of Sheila Watson’s novel a harsh lesson: to catch the glory is also to hook the mourning. “The double hook: / the home-place” (VII.36–37). In the particular Japanese print to which Kroetsch refers—Hiroshige’s “Shono-Haku-u”—the surprise that upsets man’s careful plans is also a confrontation with an unpredictable climate. The artist Hiroshige belonged to the Ukiyo-E school:

“E” means picture in Japanese, and Ukiyo (literally “floating world”) suggests the transitory, shifting, at times treacherous existence to which man is condemned. Ukiyo-e are the genre depiction of people who, although well aware of the snares and tricks in store for them, still do their best to snatch as much pleasure and enjoyment out of life as they can.

(Suzuki 6)

The print entitled “Shono-Haku-u,” which portrays “bare-assed travellers, caught in a sudden shower” (Seed Catalogue VII.31), perfectly captures the philosophy of the Ukiyo-E. Caught in a storm they could neither predict nor avoid, the men rush forward into the weather with heads bent. For them there is no shelter. Only the rain. Only the wind. A terrible symmetry. Always the double hook, the glory and the mourning, in Japan as on the prairies. The phrase “the stations of the way” (VII.38), which closes this description, refers to the title of the series of Japanese prints, “Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido.” These depict many of the stations or post-towns on the Tokaido Highway, which stretched a distance of about 300 miles from Kyoto to present-day Tokyo. In the context of what follows, it may also be an allusion to the stations of the cross that lead to “the other garden,” Gethsemane. (In a 1976 entry in The Crow Journals, Kroetsch’s mention of “The Stations of the Cross” on a hill in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, is followed by an elaborate rejection of the tenets of Modernism [58]). For Kroetsch, as for the pioneers who preceded him, ordering an unfamiliar terrain with familiar forms is a double-hook experience. Eden and Gethsemane go hand in hand. Nonetheless, Kroetsch hopes to grow like the brome grass of the prairies, to flourish under neglect, to catch the glory as well as the mourning, to combine the imported and the indigenous into a hybrid that can survive.

“How do you grow a garden?” Mary, Mary, quite contrary, plants her garden with silver bells and cockle shells. Mary Hauck of Bruce County, Ontario plants hers with silver spoons and English china. But the prairie poet cannot afford to be contrary or ecologically ignorant regarding which hybrids will thrive in his home place. He must plant his garden with varieties as strong and sturdy as brome grass, plants that endure drowning and cold to grow as tall as a horse’s hips. The intimate tone of the letter describing “the longest brome grass” in one individual’s memory contrasts sharply with the distanced and artificial voice of Lyon, whose cabbages were “dandy.” This letter, with its combination of the ordinary and the evocative, like the garden itself, suggests a pattern for the prairie poet. It is signed by “Amie,” a real person perhaps, but certainly a friend.


The prairie poet must discover new ways to “deliver the pain.” When the Bronc-Busting Champion of the World falls off his horse into death—his own death and the death of the male myth of the conquering hero—the way is cleared for a new hero. Both a real cowboy who achieved international success in rodeo between 1932 and 1936, and one of the last representatives of the chivalric order suggested by his name, Pete Knight finds his story coming to an abrupt and unceremonious end. The rock upon which the Western myth is built has eroded. The once epic hero has been diminished out of existence and his myth dismissed as madness (“You some kind of nut / or something?” [VII.20–21]), thus clearing the way for the poet. In his essay “Learning the Hero from Northrop Frye,” Kroetsch draws attention to the following passage from The Secular Scripture:

The real hero becomes the poet, not the agent of force or cunning whom the poet may celebrate. In proportion as this happens, the inherently revolutionary quality in romance begins to emerge from all the nostalgia about a vanished past.

(LTW 178)

The hero falls off his horse and dies, in contrast to the poet who, in the poem’s opening section, falls off his horse and lives. “Cover him up, see what grows.” The poet is, indeed, as the lady at the end of the bar would have it, “some kind of nut” from which new mythologies will sprout.

The “terrible symmetry” that haunts the entire poem is reflected typographically in the opening of the poem’s final section, in which the double column format that Kroetsch had earlier used in The Ledger to “express a dual perception” (Thomas 29) is again in evidence. The use of the slash in the left hand column invites a further multiplicity of readings. In the line, “After the bomb / blossoms,” the slash allows the word “blossoms” to be interpreted as either a verb or a noun, implying both endings and beginnings. Similarly, in “Poet, teach us / to love our dying,” the phrase “our dying” can be interpreted as the process of mortality that we must embrace as a necessary half of the double hook. “Our dying” may also be interpreted as those among us (mother, father, cousins, uncles, great-grandmother … ) who have succumbed to “the danger of merely living” (IX.1).

“West is a winter place” characterised on the surface by absence, death, the empty page. It is also a “palimpsest.” Under the erasure, another text can be read. Under the snow, a seed is burrowing. Into the January darkness, the seed catalogue blooms. The harshness of winter may invite a flight, an escape and evasion, but the model of the garden offers a place to be rooted, and a place to grow.

Does the world of Seed Catalogue remain harsh to the end, as some critics have argued? The reprise of the passage in Section One that first established the land as absence appears to confirm that it does. However, the echo of Marriott, “only the wind,” is now incorporated into a sentence, as if to suggest that the presence of the wind is sufficient to challenge the absence of trees, to inspire and to animate. The land may suggest absence, but the celebration of that absence results in a poem.

Seed Catalogue closes with one last “method” open to the poet, the riddle, an ironic extension of the catechism which reflects the postmodern resistance to closure and elitism. The riddle, according to Kroetsch, is more than just a “purely verbal game … You can start to read a riddle as a great insight into human uncertainty, self-deception and so forth” (LV 81–82). The riddle in Seed Catalogue that is begun in Section Three and continued in the final lines is only completed in the mind of the reader:

Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me
went down to the river to swim—
Adam and Eve got drownded.
Who was left?

The poem itself resists closure, but the answer of “Pinch-Me” that arises in the reader’s mind establishes a connection of tremendous immediacy between the poet and his audience. For this kind of poem to succeed there must be complicity between actor and audience, poet and reader, a reaching across the spaces between people (as in a pinch). Adam and Eve (the original gardeners, namers, lovers) and the poet’s parents may have vanished, but the poet and Pinch-Me remain. Kroetsch accomplishes what he set out to do. Throughout the poem and in its final lines he brings together the oral tradition and the myth of origins. Eden endures, though in accordance with the archeological model, as riddle and repository.


  1. I am indebted to Angela Esterhammer at the University of Western Ontario for her assistance with the translation of Rilke’s poem. The German language allows for the invention of compounds such as Lebensgliedes. Leben can only mean “life” but glied has several implications: its primary meaning is “limb” (both botanical and anatomical), but it can also mean “member, part, organ,” which can mean “penis” or “virile.” Other less common meanings are “link” as in “the missing link” and the biblical idea of “generation” (Langenscheidt’s). Such a multiplicity of meanings would certainly have been attractive to Kroetsch. The italicized definitions are from the OED.

Works Cited

Brown, Russell. “On Not Saying Uncle: Kroetsch and the Place of Place in the Long Poem.” Long-liners Issue of Open Letter 6. 2–3 (Summer/ Fall 1985): 257–266.

———.“Seeds and Stones: Unhiding in Kroetsch’s Poetry.” Open Letter 5.8–9 (1984): 154–75.

Cooley, Dennis, and Robert Enright. “Uncovering Our Dream World: An Interview with Robert Kroetsch. RePlacing. Downsview, ON: ECW, 1980. 21–32.

Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 24–25 (Spring/Summer 1977): 33–52.

Jung, Carl. Psychology and Alchemy. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. London: Routledge, 1953.

Klein, A. M. The Collected Poems of A. M. Klein. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Kroetsch, Robert. Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch. Toronto: McClelland, 1989.

———. The Crow Journals. Edmonton: NeWest, 1980.

———. Labyrinths of Voice. Eds. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

———. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

———. “On Being An Alberta Writer.” Robert Kroetsch: Essays in Open Letter 5.4 (Spring 1983): 69–80.

Lecker, Robert. Robert Kroetsch. TWAS 768. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Marshall, John. “From The Remembrance Day Tapes: Interviews with Robert Kroetsch.” Island 7 (1980): 35–50.

MacKinnon, Brian. “The Writer Has Got to Know where He Lives: An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” Writers News Manitoba 4.1 (1982): 3–18.

Suzuki, Takahashi. Hiroshige. London: Elek, 1958.

Thomas, Peter. Robert Kroetsch. Vancouver: Douglas, 1980.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Classics, 1951.

David Williams (essay date Summer 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7505

SOURCE: “Cyberwriting and the Borders of Identity: ‘What's in a Name’ in Kroetsch's The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey?,” in Canadian Literature, No. 149, Summer, 1996, pp. 55-71.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses the notion of self in the post-modern world as it appears in The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey.]

Borders are fast disappearing in the new Europe, along the information highway, and in the mega-channel universe. Hong Kong’s Star Satellite, carrying five television channels to fifty-three countries, has already changed the face of Asia. In India, a new generation openly celebrates the country’s “Californication,” while their elders debate “The Challenge of the Open Skies” (Joseph) to a state broadcast monopoly. Given such a fundamental shift in the mode of information, we might ask whether the nation state, or local culture, or even the concept of a substantial self can survive the communications revolution?

Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg threatened speech communities in Europe with a similar loss of identity. With the benefit of hindsight, we can understand how the book redefined the human subject as being self-bounded and self-contained, much like the bound volume which came to occupy a reader’s inmost consciousness. “I think; therefore I am,” the philosopher established as the surest ground of metaphysics; but what made this idea thinkable was the very subjectivity engendered by the book. The new religion of the Book also brought about a revolution in church and state, undermining age-old hierarchies. Henceforth, the privileging of a sovereign consciousness, which demanded increasingly liberal values, would change all the old forms of social and state organization.

Now, in the midst of another communications revolution, the modern philosopher announces “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing.” Though Jacques Derrida has had little to say about electronic writing per se, several comments suggest that he would locate us between the epoch of the book and that of the electronic mark. In Of Grammatology he argues that the artificial intelligence of the “cybernetic program” has tended “to oust all metaphysical concepts—including the concepts of soul, of life, of value, of choice, of memory—which until recently served to separate the machine from man” (9). In consequence, the very “constitution of subjectivity” (113) in technological societies has been altered, as Mark Poster claims in his study of “Derrida and Electronic Writing,” by the immateriality of new forms of script: “The writer encounters his or her words in a form that is evanescent, [as] instantly transformable” as mental images, and so “the human being recognizes itself in the uncanny immateriality of the machine” (111–12).

This uncanny “mentality” of the machine underwrites the paradigm shift in recent theories of the humanities which have made language or culture, not nature, the final ground of interpretation. Forty years ago, Roland Barthes foresaw that, because “man in a bourgeois society is at every turn plunged into a false Nature” (156), the mythologist must decode the myth of a culture, to expose it as an alibi. Today, it remains the critic’s task to expose the stubborn alibi that linguistic determinations and other forms of social construction are really facts of nature; questions of race and gender have also brought to light transcultural systems of domination which at every turn oppress women and non-Europeans. Again, it is Derrida who, as Gayatri Spivak says, “has most overtly investigated the possibilities of ‘the name of woman’ as a corollary to the project of charging ‘the ends of man.’ In Of Grammatology he relates the privileging of the sovereign subject not only with phonocentrism (primacy of voice-consciousness) and logocentrism (primacy of the word as law), but also with phallocentrism (primacy of the phallus as arbiter of [legal] identity)” (Spivak 144).

This large-scale critique of the metaphysics of identity no longer privileges the subject as a sovereign consciousness, nor gender and race as facts of nature. Even the nature of our sensory perceptions—our entire positivist epistemology—is called into question by computer-generated virtual realities. For the first time, those who make it down the on-ramp onto the information highway sense how their nerve-endings no longer stop with their fingertips, but reach around the globe. And so the “uncanny immateriality” of the machine raises new questions about the space of our communities and even the integrity of our bodies. Where should we re-draw the borders of an identity once based on the book?

A longtime spokesman for the critical avant-garde, Robert Kroetsch has been gradually reworking French anti-humanist assumptions into a recognizably Canadian context. In an essay entitled “No Name is My Name,” he argues that a “willed namelessness” has always been the cultural norm in Canadian writing, a norm that he values since it holds out at least a hope of “plural identities” (Lovely 51–2)—an obvious social good in a society made up of so many races, languages, and ethnic groups. But Kroetsch also confesses his scepticism about the “very notion of self” (47), such scepticism being perhaps “the most significant consequence of structuralism: its rejection of the notion of the ‘subject’” (Culler 28).

By contrast, a writer of colour from a more traditional society, such as Rohinton Mistry, seems to take the old humanist assumptions as a given. Such a Long Journey, the first novel by an Indian immigrant to win the Governor General”s Award for Fiction (1991), sees the threat of ethnocentrism to personal identity, but takes refuge in a kind of universalism tied to English itself as the guarantor of identity. When a Parsi character bemoans the loss of his familiar world in the changed street names of Bombay, Mistry’s protagonist asks, “What’s in a name?” To which his friend Dinshawji replies:

No, Gustad. … You are wrong. Names are so important. I grow up on Lamington Road. But it has disappeared, in its place is Dadasaheb Bhadkhamkar Marg. My school was on Carnac Road. Now suddenly it’s on Lokmanya Tilak Marg. I live at Sleater Road. Soon that will also disappear. My whole life I have come to work at Flora Fountain. And one fine day the name changes. So what happens to the life I have lived? Was I living the wrong life, with all the wrong names? Will I get a second chance to live it all again, with these new names? Tell me what happens to my life. Rubbed out, just like that?

(Mistry 74)

What Dinshawji laments in the loss of the old names is the loss of the old logocentric security, that metaphysical reassurance via language “of the meaning of being in general as presence” (Derrida 12). Though Dinshawji resists the loss of his social identity and even his personal history to the politics of “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians” (73), the erasure of the old names also eradicates his world, makes absent what should be “naturally” present. Ultimately, he experiences the rewriting of the map of his neighbourhood as an interruption in his self-presence. A life by any other name would not be the same life. But in terms of the old metaphysics of identity, his ultimate appeal is to the fixity of print.

Conversely, the characters in Kroetsch’s latest novel, The Puppeteer (1992), are regularly “exchanged for each other, and again” (126); lovers engage in “Finding other names” (127); and the words of two narrators—one speaking and the other typing—blend on the page as their personal identities begin to merge. The Puppeteer marks something of a narratological departure, even for someone as experimental as Kroetsch. It should come as no surprise that this is his first novel composed on the computer. It seems to me, the effect of the new technology on the writer’s process is decisive: “Writing at the border of subject and object” (Poster 111), the old Cartesian subject no longer stands “outside the world of objects in a position that enables certain knowledge of an opposing world of objects” (99). Instead, the experience of “computer writing resembles a borderline event, one where the two sides of the line lose their solidity and stability” (111).

The epochal difference between the typographic and the electronic mark may finally serve to determine “What’s in a name?” for both Mistry and Kroetsch. But we would first need to locate the differences in writing between an electronic society (Canada in the 1990s) and a traditional one (India in the 1970s). What are the consequences in either case for the character of the book? Can Mistry, who has lived in Canada since 1975, possibly resist the effects of his new milieu? Or can the country he recalls in his writing ever escape the logic of technology?

In Jacques Derrida’s critique of Western logocentrism, the breakdown of the classical logic of identity occurs in the shift from an epistemology based on speech and presence to one based on new forms of writing, belatedly exposing an absence at the heart of writing in general. But technological change only exposes what Derrida claims was repressed in the whole history of writing by a metaphysics of presence—that language itself is “always already a writing” (106). For alphabetic script reveals what was always intrinsic to the system of language, even as its phonetic character helped to maintain our illusion that what we read was “united to the voice and to breath,” and so was “not grammatological but pneumatological” (17).

A computer monitor more obviously takes our breath away, dispersing the mind and its mental images in a mirror outside itself, even as it “depersonalizes the text, removes all traces of individuality from writing, de-individualizes the graphic mark” (Poster 113). Yet alphabetic writing always had the same hidden power to open “a fissure between the author and the idea” (Poster 125), to disperse the identity of a speaking subject still conceived in the instant of “hearing (understanding)-oneself-speak” (Derrida 7). The “electronic mark” only “radicalizes the anti-logocentric tendencies that deconstruction argues are inherent in all writing” (Poster 123), for it “puts into question the qualities of subjectivity … [vestigially] associated with writing and more generally with rationality” (112–13).

“The Battle of Proper Names” in Of Grammatology concludes that what’s in a name is more likely the whole coercive network of relations bounding the subject. Only the phonocentric illusion of hearing/understanding oneself speak hides this coercion and helps to naturalize the whole system of differences. But what the “concealment of writing and the effacement and obliteration of the so-called proper name” can no longer hide is “the originary violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying … In effect, it reveals the first nomination which was already an expropriation” (Grammatology 112). To name is to mark off territory, to set social bounds or limits, to forcibly erect boundaries which seem natural, which are “perceived by the social and moral consciousness as the proper, the reassuring seal of self-identity.”

Mistry’s protagonist in Such a Long Journey, expressing an awareness that “the reassuring seal of self-identity” is a social and political fiction, says, “Why worry about it? I say, if it keeps the Marathas happy, give them a few roads to rename” (73). But the novel seems to foreclose on such political questions when Gustad’s friend protests the violence done to his own identity, meanwhile ignoring the violence done by the British name-giver to Maratha identity, much less the “originary violence” of naming itself.

Resisting loss at every turn, the narrative structure of Such a Long Journey thus enacts what Derrida saw in Lévi-Strauss as “a sort of ethic of presence, an ethic of nostalgia for origins” (Writing 292), which sends Gustad Noble on his own long journey toward a recuperation of lost beginnings. The “original” loss in Gustad’s life is the innocence of a happy childhood, when the Noble family could still afford a vacation with the luxury of mosquito nettings at a hill station: he likes to recall “That picture of my mother—locked away for ever in my mind: my mother through the white, diaphanous mosquito net, saying goodnight-Godblessyou, smiling, soft and evanescent, floating before my sleepy eyes, floating for ever with her eyes so gentle and kind” (242). Even a toy seen in the Chor Bazaar reminds Gustad of the thieving uncle who gambled away his father’s bookstore: “And what had become of the Meccano set? Lost with everything else, no doubt, during the bankruptcy. The word had the sound of a deadly virus, the way it had ravaged the family” (101). Even the feel of a fountain pen between his fingers evokes a powerful nostalgia for the world of childhood: “This was the bloody problem with modern education. In the name of progress they discarded seemingly unimportant things, without knowing that what they were chucking out the window of modernity was tradition. And if tradition was lost, then the loss of respect for those who respected and loved tradition always followed” (61).

His son Sohrab’s lack of respect for paternal authority threatens Gustad’s traditional values with their inner contradiction: “He will have to come to me. When he learns respect. Till then, he is not my son. My son is dead” (52). Just as hard on his friends, Gustad will not forgive Major Jimmy Bilimoria for packing up and leaving their apartment building without a trace: “Without saying a word to us. That’s friendship. Worthless and meaningless” (49). The xenophobic force of tradition even shows up in a symbol of seeming inclusiveness, a sort of ecumenical wall separating the apartment compound from the street. A refuge from the Hindu majority, the concrete wall is a border marked by the odour of a counter-territoriality. Each day at dawn, Gustad suffers both the stench of urine and the sting of mosquitoes as he performs his kusti prayers, sheltered all the while from the stares of passersby. He hires a pavement artist to draw pictures of the gods and goddesses and saints and mosques of all the world’s religions. But the wall is neither as holy nor as ecumenical as it first appears, since its saintly face masks a more divisive purpose: to preserve the Parsi in his self-sameness and hierarchical privilege, and to protect him from the threat of difference, of Otherness itself.

Gustad also erects other walls to hedge him in from the world. To his wife’s dismay, he will not take down the blackout paper tacked to the windows nine years earlier, during a devastating war with China when even Nehru broke under the treachery of his Chinese brother Chou En-lai. Gustad has learned too well the truth of brotherhood, as revealed in the biblical story about “Cain and Abel … Fairy tales, I used to think. But from the distance of years, how true. My own father’s case. His drunken, gambling brother who destroyed him as surely as crushing his skull. And Jimmy, another kind of Cain. Killed trust, love, respect, everything” (178). All that saves Gustad from the fate of Abel is a few pieces of rescued “furniture from his childhood gathered comfortingly about him. The pieces stood like parentheses around his entire life, the sentinels of his sanity” (6).

Neither is he alone in this novel in clinging to remnants of a happier past. Miss Kutpitia, a neighbour in Khodadad Building, appears to be an Indian Miss Havisham, a Dickensian woman who has stopped the clock in her apartment at a point thirty-five years ago when her motherless nephew—her sole reason for living—was killed in an auto crash. Tenants who come to use her telephone are kept at bay in a little vestibule, and are never permitted to see beyond the closed door into the inner apartment where, “Like tohruns and garlands of gloom, the cobwebs had spread their clinging arms and embraced the relics of Miss Kutpitia’s grief-stricken past” (284).

Ultimately, so many images of loss remind us of the condition of the emigré author for whom Gustad’s sentiments are quite natural: “How much of all this does Sohrab remember, he wondered. Very little, I think. For now. But one day he will remember every bit. As I do, about my father. Always begins after the loss is complete, the remembering” (210). The childhood home is not so easily foregone, it would seem; its loss looms large within and without the text, as does the nostalgic yearning to reconstitute that absence in language, in a logocentric guarantee of presence. No wonder, then, that the names must not change, lest it should turn out, as Dinshawji says, that he was “living the wrong life, with all the wrong names” (74).

And yet, as Laurie Coutino tells Gustad in shame and terrible anguish, “Mr Dinshawji has ruined my own name for me” (176). For the incorrigible flirt and joker, playing on the Parsi word for the male member, has told her that he wants her “to meet his lorri. … ‘You can play with my little lorri,’ he said, ‘such fun two of you will have together.’” In his thoughtless way, Dinshawji has named her his thing, has committed precisely the kind of linguistic violence that Derrida describes in “the first nomination which was already an expropriation” (112). For Dinshawji has literally made the woman’s proper name improper, has turned “Laurie” into the metaphorical measure of his own narcissism by appropriating her identity to that of his “lorri.”

A third story of naming is just as violent, and ultimately quite as disruptive of self-presence. The local physician, Dr Paymaster, had some fifty years ago purchased the closed-down dispensary of Dr R. C. Lord, MBBS, MD Estd 1892. Revered for a sense of humour which could make his patients laugh their sickness away, Dr Paymaster one day committed the terrible blunder of removing the old doctor’s sign and putting up his own shingle. “The very next day, the dispensary was in turmoil. Patients were marching in and marching out, demanding to know who this Dr Paymaster was” (113). The only way the new doctor could recover his practice was to hang up the old sign with the former doctor’s name on it, “and the confusion vanished overnight. And overnight, Dr Paymaster sorrowfully realized something they never taught in medical college: like any consumer product, a doctor’s name was infinitely more important than his skills.” But he has had to give up his proper name to practice those skills, has had to accept being renamed within the generalized writing of a community which resists real change. And so the loss of his proper name turns out to be no change at all; it is simply another means of conserving the past.

Even in its narrative form, there could be a parallel between the novel and what Mistry calls “a country stuck in the nineteenth century” (155). Technically, there are very few risks, and very few discoveries, in the use of a limited third-person narrator to present differing points of view at the level of alternating chapters, or scenes, or even paragraphs. Narrative omniscience, like the fixity of print in a sign that cannot be changed, becomes a larger mark of continuity with the past, of the reassuring sense of an author-God.

Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer, on the other hand, demands to be read in the new social context of “the borderline event” of electronic writing. The borderline between the writing and reading subject immediately begins to blur as the apparent narrator, Jack Deemer, reads the typescript of its protagonist-author Maggie Wilder in the very process of its production. In Deemer’s words, “Maggie Wilder is writing this. Reading over her left shoulder, I become a loving supporter, the champion of her need to get the story of her wedding dress down on paper. Now and then I say a few words, joining myself into her train of thought. Sometimes, perhaps just to tease me, she scrambles a few of my words in amongst her own” (17).

The “borderline” identity of the narrator is further complicated by questions arising out of various forms of theatrical performance in the narrative. At the heart of the story is a puppet show put on by Dorf, the narrator of a previous Kroetsch novel, Alibi, who is now hiding out in Maggie’s attic from his old boss Jack Deemer. Maggie, in the early stages of a separation from her husband, has walled herself in from the world quite as much as Mistry’s Gustad Noble with his blackout paper on all the windows, much less Billy Dorf disguised as a monk and hiding in her attic, calling himself Papa B. Yet Dorf, alias Papa B, who has also spent three years in hiding in a Greek monastery, tries to reach Maggie through “Karaghiosi, the most popular of all the Greek shadow puppets” (115). Within the frame of a simple set, screened by a white bedsheet, the puppet comes knocking

with his long, hinged right arm. “Are you locked in there, Maggie Wilder? Do you want out?”

“I’m not at home to you,” a voice answered. “Leave me alone.”

There was no figure to be seen inside the house, only a voice to be heard. Papa B was speaking both voices, but neither was his. The voice of the second and invisible speaker, Maggie recognized, was an imitation of her own.


Wishing to unmask the pretender, Maggie wilfully violates the theatrical frame by speaking in her own person to the puppet, the stage persona of Papa B: “Karaghiosi, you are always pretending to be someone you aren’t. I know that much about you. You’re pretending to be Papa B” (117). Papa B, who is pretending to be Karaghiosi, is accused of pretending to be Papa B, of playing himself. Yet he is also pretending to be Maggie, using her voice to ask her to give up her own identity, to play their mutual friend Inez: “Maggie was shocked and yet excited too, by the name she was given. She had become part of the play. She liked that” (117). And so the audience of one surrenders her proper name to the play of signification, crossing the line into the space of performance. Like the users of electronic message services, she appears to embrace the circumstance that “Identity is fictionalized in the structure of the communication” (Poster 117).

Later, however, when Maggie is seated once again at her desk, another puppet dressed up as a monkish Papa B addresses her in her own person: “Tell [Karaghiosi] that you don’t want to be alone” (121). The breaking of the frame from the other side of the stage now strangely unsettles Maggie: “She could not, that second night, bear the directness of the puppets’ approach. One of the puppets was asking her simply to play herself, and Maggie found the assignment impossible” (122). The borders of identity begin to blur as well for Papa B whom Maggie has forced to play himself: “The voice of the monk was almost but not quite that of Papa B. Papa B, trying to imitate his own voice, was hesitating” (121). The “real” voice of Papa B now belongs to Karaghiosi, as it were, while his imitation of himself sounds inauthentic—authenticity receding into infinity in all these deliberate confusions of identity. Now it is Jack Deemer, the narrator, who puts the problem most succinctly: “Who was the puppet, who the puppeteer?” (123).

Since it is Deemer who winds up with the girl at the end of the novel, his narrative substitution of himself for Papa B almost makes up for his impotence to change the past. Certainly, he would have us believe that the whole affair has been staged for his benefit: “Maggie, I suspect, felt that in telling me the story of her love affair with puppets was telling me back into my own desire” (119). Ultimately, then, Deemer calls for another ending to the whole performance:

They were the puppets, Maggie and Dorf, not Karaghiosi. That ancient Greek shadow puppet became master. It was he who manipulated their desire. … Karaghiosi, that slave and fool, became master. … Maggie taking the pain of Karaghiosi’s heave. They were exchanged for each other, and again. They were orphaned into rhapsodies of desire. … “Karaghiosi,” she said, calling him back. She said the name, making a small experiment into the naming of a wish. The whispered name was a reassurance to her own wet tongue, and she wondered whose hair touched her small breasts. … They were a frenzy of silence. They laughed, then, after, finding shirts and socks, pyjama bottoms and the cold cups of brassieres, there in the rank dark. Finding other names.


In the act of love, the lovers have been exchanged for one another, have for the moment become truly Other. Crossing borders of flesh, they have “traded places,” to cite the title of Maggie’s first published collection of short stories. And so have the puppets and puppeteer been exchanged for one another, even as the reader (Deemer) and the author (Maggie who types the text before our eyes) have also traded places.

The other site of borderline events in the novel is the elaborate wedding dress which Maggie wears to the typewriter because “she could hear the story she intended to tell” (2) whenever she puts it on. Maggie wants “to write the autobiography of a wedding dress” (15), partly out of the conceit, as she says, that “dresses could talk” (27), and partly out of a conviction, as another character says, that “Brides look alike—in the long run, it’s the dresses that differ” (28). Now, even the boundaries of genre begin to blur as the speaking subject is displaced from person to thing, and history (or perhaps biography if the dress has a “life”), dissolves into auto-biography, the dress “writing” its own story as told to Maggie, just as Maggie writes her own story as told to Jack Deemer.

The dress, however, is not unique to Maggie; it has been worn before by Deemer’s wife Julie Magnuson, and it seems, according to its maker, to have been “double digit bad luck” (52). As a signifier, it encodes a social practice whereby each bride who wears it is supposed to find a new name and a new social identity. Julie was supposed to become the wife of Fish, who had even “asked for one small detail to be included in the flow and drift of details on the dress” (58)—a rainbow trout. But the dress, which keeps its identity as a differential mark in a system of differences without positive terms, contains a myriad of signs, just as a bride like Julie who marries and remarries carries the potential of many new names. The sign of the fish cannot even save Fish from being waylayed en route to the altar, where the bride is claimed instead by Jack Deemer: “In the tumult of the dress we were the story,” Deemer says, “that Josie Pavich had only guessed; we were the lovers in animal form that she had so carefully pictured, the man with the body of a fish, the horse-headed man, the woman with octopus arms” (137). The dress, in other words, is a sign of the whole underlying system of metamorphoses encoded in weddings; it speaks of the bride and groom as shape-changers, and of their shifting identities in marriage.

Even Jack Deemer, who dons the dress in disguise at the end of the novel, becomes other than he is, and henceforth speaks differently: “I put it on. And then something precious happened. Wearing the dress, I was no longer simply myself” (251). At first, the dress merely puts him in mind of the woman he once married: “Waiting there, sitting, pacing, I came to understand how Julie Magnuson must have felt on the morning of her delayed wedding” (252). And yet he continues to wear the dress after an accident at the Greek chapel where the “monk” Dorf falls over a cliff to his death. The ruthless old collector who had once sought Dorf’s life is apparently changed enough by the dress to persuade Maggie to live with him and to work “on—dare we say?—a saint’s life” (264). “Papa B is seen as something of a saint by the monks and priests of Mount Athos” (264), not least because his cassock has turned him into “the monk he had so long pretended to be” (250), the true performer of his part. So, too, Deemer is transformed by his performance as “Maggie puts a beach towel over the shoulders of my wedding dress and tells me to close my eyes, which is hardly necessary, and she shaves me and does my hair. “‘You must look the part,’ she tells me, often, while she is doing this” (266). Feminised by the dress-as-sign, this most manipulative of men winds up in the role of a bride.

Of all the borders which are crossed in The Puppeteer, this one—the subversion of gender identity—is the least “natural” or, in narrative terms, the most forced. For Jack Deemer is a man who is not above murder, a wealthy thug, by his own admission, whom “people mention with curiosity and disgust. You don’t put together a collection of collections without first putting together a little heap of the stuff that buys collections. Once in a while I had to make the rules fit the occasion” (71). How, then, could such a macho man be so easily taken over by his own disguise? Or how could a dress—even if it is a linguistic sign—gain total control over its speaking subject? Why, in a word, should we be willing to see an incorrigibly male identity erased at the touch of another signifying system?

In a postmodern society already beginning to ask whether gender is determined by anatomy or by culture, the wedding dress evokes the “genderless anonymity” (Poster 121) of electronic communications. For individuals linked through computers now converse, “often on an enduring basis, without considerations that derive from the presence to the partner of their body, their voice, their sex, many of the markings of their personal history. Conversationalists are in the position of fiction writers who compose themselves as characters in the process of writing, inventing themselves” (117). In the immaterial medium of the new writing, material differences such as gender no longer have to determine the old borders of identity.

Though a wedding dress is not a computer, it is clearly a form of address, serving as a medium of communication. “If dresses could talk” (27), Maggie says, then dons it to write “her autobiography of a dress” (23). Much like the “mirror effect of the computer” which “doubles the subject of writing” (Poster 112), the dress doubles Maggie’s subjectivity. Her identity is thus dispersed as much as Deemer’s in wearing this dress, much as any writing subject in computer communications is “dispersed in a postmodern semantic field of time/space, inner/outer, mind/matter” (Poster 115). Through the fluid medium of the gown, the writer is made an amanuensis for the object itself which turns into a speaking subject. So inner/outer, mind/matter, are also reversible semantic fields in the dress.

The indelible mark, however, of the new context of communications to which the dress belongs is a figure of itself. Almost at the outset of the story, Maggie notices “for the first time, in the intricate embroidery and beadwork on her lap, the outline in miniature of the dress she was wearing. The dressmaker who had filled the dress with detail had, with the same care, left blank an outline of the dress no larger than a postage stamp” (3–4). This self-reflexive sign of the sign—the so-called mise en abyme—puts into an abyss, or subverts the authority of, the real, as does a television monitor on the desk of the television announcer, receding into infinity. We are reminded that the world we “see” is mediated, or constructed by, the medium which shapes our perception; it no longer has its “real” ground outside itself, and yet it has the power to change the way we see ourselves.

Take another look at Such a Long Journey and you will find, even in a supposedly traditional novel, the telltale mark of this same mise en abyme:

Gustad looked closely at what seemed a very familiar place. “Looks like our wall,” he said tentatively.

“Absolutely correct. It’s now a sacred place, is it not? So it rightfully deserves to be painted on a wall of holy men and holy places.”

Gustad bent down to get a better look at the wall featuring a painting of the wall featuring a painting of the wall featuring a …


The infinite regress of a picture on the wall of Gustad’s compound shows how Mistry’s traditional world is no more immune than Kroetsch’s postmodern world to the effects of modern technology. Here, however, we might read the sign of Mistry’s postcolonial resistance to a form of realism which would naturalize the status quo, or legitimate the existing social order. For the self-reflexive picture displays a figure founded only on itself, a sign which is wholly arbitrary and conventional, and yet which has been allowed to stand, in the name of Dada Ormuzd and kusti prayers, as the ground of social division. In this space of the wall-within-a-wall can be seen another space in which the post- of postcolonialism, “like that of postmodernism,” emerges as “a post- that challenges earlier legitimating narratives” (Appiah 353). Suddenly, the painter’s mise en abyme, like the postrealist mark of cyberspace, puts into an abyss the social reality of a wall which on its painted side displays the face of universal brotherhood, but on its blank side reveals the face of social partition.

Finally, in this space, we ought to observe how the postrealist ideology of postcolonial writing can have a very different motivation from that of postmodern writing. As Kwame Appiah remarks of a postrealist impulse in African writing of the past two decades:

Far from being a celebration of the nation, … the novels of the second, postcolonial, stage are novels of delegitimation: they reject not only the Western imperium but also the nationalist project of the postcolonial national bourgeoisie. And, so it seems to me, the basis for that project of delegitimation cannot be the postmodernist one: rather, it is grounded in an appeal to an ethical universal. Indeed it is based, as intellectual responses to oppression in Africa largely are based, in an appeal to a certain simple respect for human suffering, a fundamental revolt against the endless misery of the last thirty years.


Mistry’s delegitimation of the nationalist project of the postcolonial bourgeoisie is nowhere more apparent than in the suffering of Gustad’s long-lost “brother” at the hands of RAW and the Indian Congress Party. As Major Jimmy Bilimoria says on his deathbed, “Gustad, it is beyond the common man’s imagination, the things being done by those in power” (280). This same subplot of embezzlement and atonement nearly defies belief, using wild gossip and innuendo to offer a postrealist critique of the elected oppressor. But Mistry’s inclusion of pseudo-documents and digests from newspapers also delegitimates the “realism” of journalism itself as a tool of the national bourgeoisie who equate Mother India with Mother Indira: “the line between the two was fast being blurred by the Prime Minister’s far-sighted propagandists who saw its value for future election campaigns” (298). In the concluding “morcha” of the people on their corrupt governors, the novel ultimately appeals to an ethical universal which Dr Paymaster, its reluctant leader, can only trope in terms of suffering human flesh: “You see, the municipal corruption is merely the bad smell, which will disappear as soon as the gangrenous government at the centre is removed. True, they said, but we cannot hold our breath for ever, we have to do something about the stink” (313).

In the final analysis, doing “something about the stink” in this novel requires more than direct political action. The political and the aesthetic meet again in the figure of that wall which speaks of universal brotherhood and social partition. Since both meanings are imaginary constructs, not facts of nature, the sign itself is bound to change. In the end, Gustad has to accept the idea that the social wall must come down. “The pavement artist, awaiting his turn to speak, said despondently, “Please, sir, they are telling me I have to give up my wall.” Gustad had gathered this from the new notice on the pillar, the cement-mixers, and the waiting lorries. For the briefest of moments he felt the impending loss cut deeply, through memory and time; the collapse of the wall would wreck the past and the future” (329). But in the battle of demonstrators to save the wall, it is the idiot Tehmul, the neighbourhood man-child who worships Gustad, who is killed. Tehmul, it seems, has been made a scapegoat by Gustad’s wife Dilnavaz, by a mother who is willing to sacrifice one of the “children of God” for the sake of her own estranged son. For Dilnavaz employs a witch in the person of Miss Kutpitia to cast a spell on Tehmul in hope of purging the evil from Sohrab; coincidentally or not, the idiot dies because his life means less to her than her own child’s life. Thus the wall of family continues to partition the world even behind the outer wall of Parsi identity.

Gustad, however, is surprised to find that the “wreck [of] the past and the future” which he had feared in the tumbling of the wall only makes him more open to past and future both. At the death of his mother thirty years before, he had been unable to shed a single tear: “Seeing his once invincible father behave in this broken manner” had made him swear silently “to himself, then and there, that he would never indulge in tears—not before anyone, nor in private, no matter what suffering or sorrow fell upon his shoulders; tears were useless, the weakness of women, and of men who allowed themselves to be broken” (101). But at the sight of the idiot child’s broken skull, something finally breaks in him as well: “His voice was soft and steady, and his hand steady and light upon Tehmul’s head, as the tears ran down his cheeks. He started another cycle [of prayers], and yet another, and he could not stop the tears … the salt water of his eyes as much for himself as for Tehmul. As much for Tehmul as for Jimmy. And for Dinshawji, for Pappa and Mamma, for Grandpa and Grandma, all who had had to wait for so long” (337). In weeping for his dead mother, Gustad cradles the head of the dead man-child in a way which makes him virtually a Parsi Pietà, as truly feminised as Kroetsch’s Jack Deemer.

What Gustad has not yet seen, of course, is that he has already assumed the role of a father to poor Tehmul; every “child of God” is become as one of his own sons. But accepting the loss of this child finally opens his eyes, quite literally: “Gustad turned around. He saw his son standing in the doorway, and each held the other’s eyes. Still he sat, gazing upon his son, and Sohrab waited motionless in the doorway, till at last Gustad got to his feet slowly. Then he went up and put his arms around him. “Yes,” said Gustad, running his bloodstained fingers once through Sohrab’s hair. “Yes,” he said, “yes,” and hugged him tightly once more” (337). The estranged son and the lost child Tehmul have also traded places.

Though the reader and narrator are not explicitly exchanged for one another in Such a Long Journey, the pavement artist is at least aware of such aesthetic economies: “In a world where roadside latrines become temples and shrines, and temples and shrines become dust and ruin, does it matter where [I go]?” (338). Not that he has entirely escaped the temptation himself of monumental art: “The agreeable neighbourhood and the solidity of the long, black wall were reawakening in him the usual sources of human sorrow: a yearning for permanence, for roots, for something he could call his own, something immutable” (184). He has even given up his coloured chalks not long before this and has begun to paint in oils, giving way to the aesthetic temptation to construct a wall against time itself. But in the best Hindu fashion, he learns that nothing is eternal, not even art. And so the aesthetic wall is breached anew, if in a different sense from the way in which Kroetsch’s puppeteer “had gone through the frame” (153). For here, too, the reader finds that art cannot erect a boundary against life, though Mistry more modestly concedes the superior power to nature and to social forces which exceed his own technology.

Finally, it is the entirely natural force of decay—a sign written indelibly in human flesh—which marks a significant difference between the postcolonial and the postmodern novel. As Deemer relates the story of Dorf’s death in The Puppeteer, he tells how the latter “had fallen straight down [the cliff] and landed on his head, somehow causing some of the bones of his neck to force his tongue out of his mouth” (257). But in bringing the body back up the cliff, “the sling either slipped or broke and poor Dorf was in for a second crash” (260). This comic treatment of a corpse points to what has been left out of cyberspace or the world of virtual reality: the body which suffers. But it also opens to question that founding absence in the “science” of grammatology: the breath of the body. For, as Derrida notes with astounding equanimity, “What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit’s relationship with itself” (Of Grammatology 25). That indifference to the presence of the body (of writer or of reader) and its material conditions exposes the continuing idealism of the postmodernist or the poststructuralist—the material trace of writing somehow exceeding, or transcending, the material conditions of its own production.

By contrast, the scene of Dinshawji’s funeral in Such a Long Journey conveys “a certain simple respect for human suffering” which is never far from view in the postcolonial novel; inevitably, it restores us to the terrible burden of human flesh and the limits of the mortal body. On the march up the hill to those hideous vultures waiting in the Tower of Silence, Gustad realizes how the solemn sound of feet on the gravel “was magnificent, awe-inspiring. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Grinding, grating, rasping. The millwheel of death. Grinding down the pieces of a life, to fit death’s specifications” (253). Which is not to say that a Parsi can see no humour in death: in a repeated funeral scene the “vulture controversy” between orthodox and progressive Parsis turns as funny as any comic scene in Kroetsch.

But what lingers in this second funeral scene is the gratitude of the sole other mourner for Major Bilimoria, a Muslim comrade whose life he had saved on the battlefield in Kashmir in 1948: “Ghulam wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He said, his voice steady now, ‘Your Parsi priests don’t allow outsiders like me to go inside’” (322). In the end Gustad’s story takes down the wall between Parsi and non-Parsi alike. Now Mistry can take us up the hill with Gustad where not even the women are allowed to go, but where we—women and other outsiders—are permitted vicariously to pay our last respects to the dead. To return to one of the book’s predominant visual figures, the blackout paper which the protagonist takes down in the end allows us to see in as much as it allows Gustad to see out. And what we find at last is that story does—has always done—what is not unique to the new technologies: it blurs the boundaries of subject-object division, does away with borders, displaces the binary of Self and Other. Finally, what the Anglo-Indian writer reminds us in the West is that Eastern identity has always been given to ceaseless change.

Works cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 336–57.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill & Wang, 1972.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1975.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

———. Writing and Difference. Trans. with introd. by Alan Bass. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1978.

Joseph, Abraham. “The Challenge of the Open Skies.” Paper presented to the Xth International Conference of the Indian Association for Canadian Studies, Goa University, May 10–13, 1994.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

———. The Puppeteer. Toronto: Random House, 1992.

Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991.

Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.

David Creelman (review date Spring 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

SOURCE: A review of A Likely Story: The Writing Life, in Canadian Literature, No. 156, Spring, 1998, pp. 145-46.

[In the following review, Creelman praises A Likely Story, although he admits the book contains little new material.]

For decades post-structuralists and cultural historians have been reminding us that the subject/self is an unstable construct of an unstable language, and that the author—if alive at all—is a function of the culture and not an independent creative identity. Yet despite these admonitions, we are still tempted to explore the inner-workings and reflections of the besieged writer. A collection of essays by Robert Kroetsch and two volumes of interviews by Jean Royer and Eleanor Wachtel sharpen this sense of temptation as they promise to inform us about the writer’s life.

Although promotional materials refer to the collection as “confessional,” the acknowledgement page of Robert Kroetsch’s A Likely Story distances the text from the problems associated with autobiography, noting that “these fugitive pieces … are concerned with the writing life, not with the personal life, of the writer.” A well known star of Canadian literature, Kroetsch frequently addresses literary conferences, and this volume brings together some of the talks he has given since 1989. The pieces are designed for public presentation; they are witty, humorous, allusive to personal experience, and strongly oral in their style and tone. Kroetsch is a brilliant story-teller and these essays mix disarmingly casual narratives from childhood and early adulthood with incisive comments about literary texts. Arranged according to the dates when they were produced, the informal essays address some of Kroetsch’s key concerns as a writer.

Beyond all else, Kroetsch is fascinated with the process of writing. Steeped in contemporary theory, he employs his poetic sensibility and develop metaphors, symbols, and simple narratives to examine the writing game without suggesting that the process can be stabilized or contained. Though he does not develop new or innovative critical positions, Kroetsch insists that writing is a mixture of desire and promise, trace and absence. Multiple analogies are suggested. Writing stories, he claims, is like venturing into the north to discover the “silence that would let me tell stories of my own.” The writer then mutates into a wanderer like the mad trapper Albert Johnson who “wore the silence of the artist like a badge, an indication of his will toward self-destruction.” Texts eventually function like scrapbooks which allow “us to bring into play whole areas of memory. And desire. And laughter.” The collection reiterates the idea that literature is a form of play and is finally impossible to pin down.

At the same time as Kroetsch insists that writing constantly slips away from definitive interpretation, he also suggests that writers are deeply influenced by culture and geography: “the plains or the prairies enable us to recognize ourselves as writers.” He claims that prairie writers have been educated in the assumptions of the European tradition, but they simultaneously recognize their existence on a geographic margin and thus must always reinscribe and resist the centrist discourse. For a writer who claims to suspect essentialist practices, Kroetsch comes close to reading geography as a transcendental signified, capable of defining all those who write within its bounds: “we who are twice marginalized cannot forget, dare not forget, the unspeakably empty page. The page that is our weather, our river, our rocks.” But then Kroetsch has always loved to dance along the edge of deconstruction and essentialism and these essays provide entertaining examples of his skill on the tightrope.

Besides the talks which examine literary absence and regional presence, A Likely Story also includes some fine discussions of specific writers including Wallace Stegner, Rudy Wiebe, Rita Kleinhart, and Margaret Laurence and two lyrical poems which are anchored in family experiences. For Kroetsch scholars who have been mining The Lovely Treachery of Words for nearly a decade, patiently waiting for a collection to document Kroetsch’s latest critical shifts and innovations, A Likely Story: The Writing Life offers little fresh material. But for readers who are looking for witty, challenging, and entertaining reflections on a writer’s experiences, this is a fine, pleasurable text.


Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 23)