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“The Difficult” originated with author Stan Dragland’s thoughts about Lisa Moore’s novel “February” — or, more precisely, his reaction to a review of “February” which contended the work was “sexist.”
It’s composed of 15 chapters, or essays, ranging from two to 42 pages each in length.
But the bulk of “The Difficult” explores less mainstream material, including several schools of poetry, and especially a fictional work titled “The Obituary.”
Dragland is professor emeritus, award-winning critic, and founder of “Brick” magazine. As he explains, “‘The Difficult’ is about relationships between writer, text and reader. Discussing the work of some demanding writers, Canadian especially, I call for open-minded, open-hearted, ‘active’ reading, ‘reading as an event,’ that I would like to think promotes tolerance in a much-divided world.”
Hmm … seems like an elegant, straightforward goal.
“However, (he goes on to say) digression is a pit I keep falling into.”
It might also be kind of the point.
“I do hope you’re partial to Holden Caulfield’s take on this kind of thing, as I am: ‘The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.’”
Thus Dragland calls himself a “meanderthal writer.” It’s the tangents that allow him to cover so much ground.
This also makes “The Difficult” hard to summarize — I don’t think I can do justice here to the contents (which also include extensive notes and an Index).
“Most of what anybody reads, day to day, is easy to absorb: newspapers, magazines, flyers, food packaging, posters, emails, a bestselling novel, a blog, plain verse, billboards, a brochure or instruction manual of any sort, a crossword puzzle, a page of straight-ahead non-fiction; more, if you patronize social media, as I do not. I’m a print junkie, though, I’ll read anything, and I often delight in finding mild aberrations in workaday language. Sign on a St. John’s grocery parking lot: Customer Parking ‘Only’. Sign over a selection of necklaces in a Toronto convenience store: Neckless’.”
Dragland hardly restricts himself to such accessible stuff, though. He is drawn to the twisty, tricky, dense, unorthodox. The stuff that requires, and rewards, multiple readings. As such, this is a book for not simply for readers, but re-readers. Whether you’ve already encountered these publications or not, Dragland will guide/digress you through them.
For example, the longest section, “A Tale ‘Encrypted,’” is dedicated to “The Obituary.”
“Why is the book so unusual?” Dragland asks. “Let me slide into interpretation by listing and accounting for its many kinds of unexpected novelty: in visual appearance, language, syntax and narrative. … The simplest surprises are the defamiliarizing visuals. The word ‘and’ is scarce. The plus sign (+) mostly serves instead. The equals sign (=) also shows up. Certain words appear, but stricken out (“under erasure,” à la Derrida?) – vestiges of an earlier draft, perhaps; alternative trajectories of thought, cancelled but legible; unworthy thoughts suppressed but also admitted. The first passage of the book, on a page by itself, is entirely Xed out. Provinces of Canada are designated by their postal abbreviations: Montreal QC, Picher Creek AB. Extra vowels have crept into the names of some of the main character’s forebears, Veeera, Peeet, Reeef, and into other words as well. The last line in the novel is a one-word question; ‘Eeeeeeeengleeesh?’”
There are those amongst us — and we know who we are — who just got hooked by that description.
But he also explores quite popular writing.
“/And” takes a look at Dave Paddon.
“Paddon is comfortable with current technology, will record compositions on his phone, but his roots are deep in the oral traditions of his home place. He memorizes the poems he creates and recites them.” (Some fine examples have also been published with Running the Goat Books and Broadsides.)
Illustrating Paddon’s fusion of “ancient storytelling” with modern circumstances, Dragland includes a section from “Doctoring,” wherein “Uncle Jim” has been seconded into medical service:
First thing that went in was points and a coil
From his old outboard motor that burned too much oil.
Then a chainsaw spark plug and a brand new condenser
And from his wife’s K-Car, a PC valve sensor.
Along with Moore and Paddon, Dragland references and refers to such Canadian literary figures as Rudy Wiebe, Alice Munro and Don McKay, alongside critics like John Metcalfe and Carmine Starnino. They’re more than cited; they populate the pages.
Moore, for example, is present via both her published text and quoted dialogue. They have breath and volume for Dragland and he lends that to us.
This is a scratch-the-surface review. You’ll know if “The Difficult” is for you by answering True or False to this highly scientific survey quotation: “Reading is, as Bobbie Louise Hawkins puts it, ‘my darling pleasure.’”
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.