I was on book tour for much of the year. And when I tour, I read. I’m not sure how many books I got through exactly, but I read about quantum gravity, a few different translations of Beowulf, microbiology, and cave art. I read Elon Musk’s biography, meaning I can now more accurately predict the size and shape the coming apocalypse. I read many, many novels.
In looking at my read pile, I decided I needed a focus and narrowed in on Canadian books. But I immediately ran into a problem. What makes a book Canadian?
Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, a thematic guide to Canadian literature that searched for ways to define our national literature. Back then, American and British novels tended to dominate our bookshelves. Bookstores often had a curious shelf labelled Canadiana, where the local authors were tucked away.
We spent the next few decades searching for reasons to see ourselves as distinct. We often did this by pointing out who we were. When I was growing up in the ’80s, one of my favorite games was to name famous people who were actually Canadian and I still do this—Sandra Oh, Michael J. Fox, Drake, Pamela Anderson, and William Shatner. We hide so easily among others.
Since then, our ideas, our identities, and our writing have all expanded. Canadian literature, or CanLit, has its own hashtag (#canlit), but that’s about the only straightforward thing I can say about it. Now that it undoubtedly exists, we spend our time arguing about what it might be. The central question, as writer Russell Smith asked, “is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes?” But for many, CanLit also stands for what needs to change. It’s a shorthand for an out-dated colonial point of view, structural racism and sexisim, a lack of diversity and opportunity.
So after thinking it through, I’ve decided why the books on my list are Canadian: They have little or nothing in common. Each is different from the other. There are no similar themes that stand out. The authors have their own identities that are best defined by them. If you asked each author if they are Canadian, I think they would answer yes—but likely with some kind of qualification, caveat, or hyphen. They might include a second citizenship, language, culture, or country. And maybe two or three.
I’m aware that this isn’t exactly a clear definition. I don’t need it to be. And similarly, I don’t think CanLit is a particularly useful term anymore. We’ve grown beyond the need to agonize about what we are. But more, the act of defining artistic work involves creating a boundary. Who gets to draw that literary line? I hope that no person nor group would assume that they have the ability to define our books. I will be wary if they do.
So, here are a few of my favorite novels published this year, written by authors who, when asked if they are Canadian, would probably answer, “yeah, and…,” and start telling a long and complicated and fascinating story about their identity:
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
When I interviewed O’Neill earlier in the year, I confessed to a certain kind of creative jealously. I’d like to say that I’ve since matured, however I’m a writer. Her prose sparkles, her way with the metaphor is unparalleled, and this, her third novel, has an intricate construction. You know when someone folds paper, cuts little holes in it, and—like magic—smooths out a perfect snowflake? Reading it feels like that, except add in some cigarettes, sex, and swearing. O’Neill often writes about Montreal, which in her words is, “totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty.” Also a perfect description of this book.
Brother by David Chariandy
A perfectly sculpted novel, each word is placed with a heart full of hip hop. It tells the story of an enduring love between two brothers, Michael and Francis, who live in the suburbs of Toronto (though the T-word is never mentioned). The book gives voice to black and brown men with beautiful and complex emotional lives. As said in The Walrus, the novel shows, “a very different picture than what CanLit usually peddles: comfortable and self-soothing narratives about our supposedly progressive cities.” Brother is already out in Canada. It just won one of our biggest awards, the Writers’ Trust Roger Fiction Prize. It will be out in July.
American War by Omar El Akkad
A novel that follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old, in 2074, when a second civil war breaks out. Set in what used to be the South, it is told from that perspective. I went to the same Canadian university as El Akkad and asked about this choice. He explained that his work as a reporter often took him to the South. He would find himself talking to a certain kind of person, “incredibly hospitable, would give you the shirt off their back. But also deeply tied to some very old traditions, some of them good, some of them terrible, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” He went on to explain that he was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East, “incredibly generous people who are also tied to some very old traditions, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” In my view, that insight lays the framework for this brilliant book.
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
This novel came out in Canada in 2016 and in the U.S. this fall, but in our post-Harvey Weinstein world it feels more timely and urgent than ever. A family saga set in Connecticut, a respected teacher at a prep school is accused of sexual assault. The story follows the people who are closest to him, family and close friends. Without ever getting preachy, it draws an elegant line between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. I compared it to The Ice Storm or Ordinary People, but it has more contemporary companions, too, in The Interestings or The Woman Upstairs.
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The focus of Millions staffer Claire Cameron’s forthcoming novel is the poignant journey of a dwindling family of Neanderthals, diminished by hardship, nature, social taboos, and finally, Darwinian reality. The Last Neanderthal shines a mirror into our own humanity by featuring a family in peril, whose communication through rudimentary vocabulary is nevertheless sufficient to express the full range of human emotion. Meeting basic survival needs is more than a full-time job for these Neanderthals — not so different, then, from the vast majority of families in today’s world.
Against this spare background, an ambitious young scientist feverishly toils to untangle the story of Neanderthal remains recently discovered in a French cave. She works against the ticking clock of her advancing pregnancy and the shifting power dynamics in her professional field. The time period in which she lives may be infinitely more complex than that of the Neanderthals, yet we are clearly meant to find parallels between her challenges and the subjects of her research.
Why and how did Cameron land on this topic? What are we to take away from The Last Neanderthal? The author’s insights into how she mined this subject will enhance the reading experience of this unusual book.
The Millions: The Last Neanderthal is a book with a very unusual premise — the end of the Neanderthals. How did you come up with it?
CC: I have life-long obsessions, like many people do, but I didn’t realize the consistency of my obsessions until I started keeping notebooks. The ideas in my notebooks are often visual; there is a lot of cutting and pasting involved. A page doesn’t make any sense and I often can’t articulate why I’m collecting certain things.
Pictured is an example of a page where I combined marks possibly made by Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar with desert sand, feminism, and a domestic looking Will Oldham with a dog and a Volvo. All the big themes of my novel are there, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Evidence of Neanderthals in my notebooks traces way back, but my notes got more pointed in 2010 when a team of scientists found out that many modern humans carry genes from Neanderthals. People of European and Asian descent have between 1 percent to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. This is a sign of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, something that had only been in the realm of speculation before then (though to be fair, the people who write Neanderthal porn on the Internet already knew). That was the premise that intrigued me, how did the two groups make contact?
TM: How did you research/learn about the Neanderthals?
CC: A recent wave of research has helped to revise the scientific view of Neanderthals. Much of it, including the Neanderthal genome, shows they were more like us than we previously imagined. I wanted to write characters inspired by this research. I did a lot of study on my own, but the most important step I took was to work with John Shea, an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York.
When I first talked to Dr. Shea, he told me about reading an older Neanderthal novel. As a scientist, the story frustrated him so much that he tossed the book over his shoulder, scoring an accidental perfect hit into the wastebasket. We agreed that he would look for wastebasket moments in my work.
There were many wastebasket moments but his notes gave me a framework. I started to think of the science like a creative constraint. When I read convincing research, I used it as a rule that I had to work within.
TM: Although highly emotional, the Neanderthals’ story is told within a limited vocabulary, starting with their names — ‘Girl,’ ‘Him,’ etc. — presumably reflective of their brain capacity. Is this how you think of it, and can you tell us about how this kind of simplicity affected your writing process?
CC: When David Mitchell talked about writing in the future or past, he said he looks for what a character might take for granted. I want to see through the eyes of the main character. I develop a set of beliefs for her and, as part of that, imagine what she takes for granted. That is how I get immersed to the point where the story dominates my work—the character becomes big enough to crowd out the writer.
One of the things I decided is that my Neanderthals didn’t believe in talking all the time. They lived in a small family group and had intimate knowledge of each other. Every thought didn’t need to be said out loud. In fact, if they could hear me now, they might think I was a crowthroat — the crow being the worst offender when it comes to constant, mindless squawking. Also, I speculated that this was part of their culture because talking took more effort in the physical sense, they had to force out each word. So the cost of each word was considered carefully before it was spoken.
Once I shut up in my mind — or taking more silence for granted — I could hear all the thoughts I have that I don’t articulate. If you want to move a chair to a different part of the room, as one example, you do a silent calculation. It would be difficult to put into words what you are thinking. And if you practice keeping your trap shut, your senses wake up. You start to notice new things, like a bird that often calls when I step outside. I imagine she is an early warning system to let the other critters know, maybe, “Hey everybody, the squawking long pig is on the move!” So, I don’t see the Neanderthal language as a reflection of a simpler thought process, but as a sign of a different kind of strength.
TM: There is a leopard that seems to have a similar level of cognition to the Neanderthals in the book. Can you talk about that?
CC: My story is told through the eyes of a Neanderthal. We see the world much as she does. One of the things she believes is that there is little distinction between herself and the land around her. There is a glossary of Neanderthal words at the beginning of the book. One of the words, deadwood, expresses this idea.
Deadwood: A body on the other side of the dirt; used as an equivalent to our idea of death, though it expressed a change of state rather than a permanent end.
I developed the glossary as way to get inside the head of this particular Neanderthal, another attempt to uncover what she took for granted. If she saw herself on a continuum with other animals, rather than distinct or special in some way, it followed that she didn’t see much of a physical difference between her body and the land. She might also blur her mental identity. If she is interested in hunting or tracking, she assumes that another animal thinks in much the same way.
TM: Nature plays a critical role in your fiction. Your last novel, The Bear, opens with a tragedy at a campsite — two parents killed by a bear — and their two young children left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. We are outdoors for most of The Last Neanderthal as well. How do you think of the role of nature affects your storytelling?
CC: I often write about the place I am not. I lived in London, U.K., for about eight years and one day I got out of the tube at Oxford Circus. It was busy and as I tried to exit, I got stuck in a human traffic jam. There were too many people squished into an underground corridor. It became a gridlock of hot bodies pressed against each other. My inner Canadian quietly panicked, but this was London. Everyone remained calm and reserved. A message passed along the corridor until enough people backed out at one end and there was room to move again. Shortly after I started to write my first novel, The Line Painter. It was about Canada and specifically the vast, empty-of-people north of Ontario. I wrote out of a longing to be there, like it might be the antidote to being stuck in a human traffic jam.
If I write from that place, of longing, then the place I am writing about becomes like an obsession. I feel intense homesickness and idealize it in the same way. The place is mine and I can imagine it as an intense version of itself. That also means that I use the setting to serve the story and forget any urge to create a faithful portrait.
Right now I live in an urban neighborhood in downtown Toronto. I miss the access to Europe that I used to have from my London base. I miss the mountains. Though I get outside as much as I can, the life that I used to live, the one where I spent months in the wilderness, now resides most predominantly in my imagination. That’s why I write about it.
TM: In each of these novels, you are making keen observations about parents, even if they are absent. Can you comment on that?
CC: I love what Alexander Chee said, “you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.” My father died when I was young. I struggled with grief for many years. First I was locked in and couldn’t talk about it and after a while I got angry. I went through all the steps, but as I did, I held fast to the idea that I would eventually get over it. That’s how we talk about grief, that it is something to overcome.
I was surprised to find that when I had kids, I went through a stage of grief again. This time I grieved for my dad. I understood what it must have been like to know you are dying and to leave small children behind.
Grief doesn’t go away, it’s something you live with. And hopefully it becomes something that makes you stronger. I suppose that’s why it keeps coming up in my work, because I’m trying to figure it out.
TM: The stark vocabulary of the Neanderthals is especially marked in contrast to the parts of the novel that takes place in the present when we are in the company of archeologist Rosamund Gale, or Rose. What role does Rose play in the narrative, including her impending motherhood and her professional struggles?
CC: In 1921, H.G. Wells wrote a short story about Neanderthals called, “The Grisly Folk.” He described them this way, “a repulsive strangeness in his appearance…his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature.” This was very much the thinking of his day, that a Neanderthal was like the archetype for an ogre. Since then our view of them has evolved, but we’ve really used them as a foil to ask questions about ourselves: What makes humans special? Asking questions in a self-centered way hasn’t given us much insight into them.
I wanted to focus on Neanderthals. In some ways, Rose is a foil for the main Neanderthal character, Girl. While Rose’s experience are important, she is also a way to gain insight into what a Neanderthal might have been like. Girl is the star of the show.
TM: Given today’s sense of — or lack of sense of — community, is there a message embedded in the relationships between and among members of “the Family” of last Neanderthals, and similarly, among the characters who live in the present time?
CC: I think of a novel as a question that takes the length of a book to ask. I was not searching for a message so much as thinking through the implications of how our modern family structure works.
I got interested in this question when my neighbor, a private, quiet person, told me about growing up in Newfoundland without central heat. He slept piled in a bed with his brothers, the youngest a bed wetter. My neighbor remembers getting up in the morning with a wet leg. When he stood, his pajamas would freeze and crackle. As he is so private I assumed this must have driven him mad, but when I asked he looked at me like I was crazy. Without his brother’s body heat to keep him warm, it was his body that would have frozen.
So I started thinking about that, what if we thought about family like that — the people who literally keep you alive? Grocery stores, electric lights, and central heat change how we think of our physical needs. Do they also change how we think about families? And what do we need to survive, both physically and mentally, in modern life?
TM: Rose is a scientist who seems to have an instinct to “go it alone,” even though she is close to nine months pregnant. In that sense, she relates to her subject of study — Girl. How did your sense of female independence inform your development of these characters?
CC: Rose gets pregnant and assumes this is a fairly natural and ordinary thing to do. As baby starts to grow, the timeline for her project gets crunched. Her pregnancy gives her a sense of impending doom. When she becomes a mother she will be sidelined, whether by herself or by others, so she needs to get shit done.
There is a group of women scientists on Twitter, many with an interest in archeology, who are posting photos with the hashtag #pregnantinthefield. I love the photos because seeing the possibilities helps us all believe them. Polly Clark, author of Larchfield, wrote eloquently about this, “I wasn’t a reluctant mother at all. But I had no notion of being simply a vessel: I stubbornly continued to think that, as an individual, I still mattered.” The women in these photos matter.
But the other day I said a quiet apology to Rose for giving her a sense of urgency about her work — I know she is the kind of female character that might be criticized. I had to write about her though, specifically how her professional interests and personal ambition sits at odds with parenthood. This was my experience. This is the experience of so many parents.
TM: What can we learn from the Neanderthals in thinking about our own humanity?
CC: We can fall into the trap of thinking that the way we do things now is normal, but it’s important to look back for context. As the always quotable Winston Churchill said, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” We are Homo Sapiens, a self-obsessed people who like to tell stories. I’m really writing about modern humans, aren’t I? A novel becomes a way of looking at history to think through our inheritance.
TM: Do you have a new novel in process, and if so, can you tell us about it?
CC: My obsessions sometimes turn into novels and sometimes they don’t. Or sometimes they combine to become something I didn’t expect.
At the moment, I’m trying to understand the advances in physics, specifically how ideas about quantum gravity have completely changed our understanding of reality. I’m also comparing translations of Beowulf, what does the Irish poet Seamus Heaney do with an Old English poem, versus J.R.R. Tolkien’s handling of a similar passage? I can only hope that these two interests don’t combine.
A puzzling entry in an old encyclopedia, a country not to be found on any map, the subsequent search through libraries, book stores, atlases, and obscure travel memoirs, leading to the discovery of a centuries-old secret society: this is not the plot of some paperback thriller you bought in an airport. It is the outline of a classic story by Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine author with a taste for impossible libraries, unlikely literary discoveries, and esoteric history. What saves it, what keeps “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” from becoming hackneyed or pulp, is Borges’s vast learning and irrepressible erudition. He seems to have read everything, from the Eleatic aporiae and the Gnostic heresiarchs, to Chesterton’s endless volumes. His stories are often about books, about their power and danger, a subject he knew as well as anyone. So when he writes about discovering unimaginable encyclopedias, or fragments of archaic poems, and feeling like “the secret portals of heaven” had opened up over his head, we get the same feeling.
Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, the recently translated collection of lectures that Borges gave during the fall of 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, is itself an unlikely discovery. The original tapes of the lectures were lost, recorded over, or misplaced. But now, thanks to transcripts and some impressive editing by a pair of Borges scholars, it seems like the blind professor is giving his seminar on English Literature again, as if we had stumbled upon one of those eddies in the circularity of time that he loved to conjecture about. The voice we find in Professor Borges is less formal than in Borges’s essays, though much of what he spoke about in class found its way into his non-fiction. In fact, reading his essays is a better way to approach much of this material. They are more felicitously composed, while these lectures feel more extemporaneous. But the informal character of Professor Borges is also refreshing. The book is lighter reading. The lectures were meant for undergraduates, and like any good teacher, Borges tried to inspire his students with his own enthusiasm. He explained why he loved a particular passage or a poem so that they might share the feeling with him. There are dull moments, when he repeats himself or grows vague, that are hard to imagine ever finding in his prose. But there are also moments in this book when Borges’s love for his subject matter seems irresistible.
The encyclopedic Argentine taught English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires for more than 20 years, beginning in 1956. And the first thing that will surprise anyone curious about his seminar is where he starts: he spends seven of 25 classes discussing works written in Anglo-Saxon, a language that has almost nothing in common with modern English. This era is remembered mostly for the epic poem, Beowulf, though Borges’s students learned much more. He had already published several volumes of translations into Spanish, and could recite from memory lines like “Helmum behongen, hildebordum, beorthum byrnum, swa he bena wæs.” Not much literature remains from the Anglo-Saxon world, which lasted roughly from 449 to 1066, just four codices, or manuscripts of compiled poems. One of these manuscripts was found in a library in Italy in 1822, a literary discovery like those Borges often imagined in his fictions. In the preface to his Breve Antología Anglosajona (A Brief Anglo-Saxon Anthology), he described it this way, “About two hundred years ago it was discovered that English Literature contained a kind of secret chamber, akin to the subterranean gold guarded by the serpent of myth. That ancient gold was the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.”
Borges describes this esoteric literature with fluency and ease. He glosses over the historical context gracefully, for he can quote Tacitus from memory just as easily as The Venerable Bede. But his interest in the poems is literary, as he makes clear in the very first moments of his course. He wants to explain why they are beautiful, and his little descriptive touches render them more vivid. Consider this description of the 10th-century poem, The Battle of Maldon. Borges doesn’t hesitate to speak admiringly of it, or to add details and comparisons that help bring the scene to life:
The fragment begins with the words “brocen wurde,” “was broken.” And we’ll never know what was broken…Then the narration begins, but we don’t know who the subject is. We imagine it to be the earl, because he orders his men to fall out, to spur their horses on, to whip their horses so they will advance. He is obviously speaking to a group of warriors, who were probably peasants, fisherman, woodsmen, and among them are the earl’s guards. Then the earl tells them to form a line. Far off, they will see the tall boats of the Vikings, those boats with the dragon on the prow and the striped sails, and the Norwegian Vikings, who have already landed. Then there appears in the scene — because this poem is very beautiful — a young man, whom, we are told, is offan mæg, “of the family of Offa.”…And this young man is, as we can see, a young aristocrat passing through; he is not thinking about war because he has a falcon on his fist; that is, he is doing what is called falconry. But when the earl issues these orders, the young man understands that the lord will not abide cowardice, and he joins the battle. And something happens, something that is realistic and has symbolic value, something a movie director would use now. The young man realizes the situation is serious, so he lets his beloved falcon (the epitaph “beloved” is very rare in this iron poetry of the Saxons) fly off into the forest, and he joins the battle…In fact, the young man is later killed.
Professor Borges contains many similar off-the-cuff narrations. We must remember that, when he gave these lectures, his vision was already failing. He could no longer read and he was quoting from memory, without the use of notes. The reader may wish for more analysis of the poem, but Borges was trying to entice his students to fall in love with it, to go study the material for themselves. What a pleasure to listen to an expert discuss this archaic poetry in such an unacademic, captivating style, like an old raconteur.
The superstition of the mysterious double, called the doppelganger in Germany, the fetch in Scotland; the idea that history repeats itself cyclically, which Borges liked to call the eternal return, or circular time; the book (or library) as metaphor for the universe; many of Borges’s favorite topics come up in these lectures. It is tempting to say that he even reveals some of his sources, the authors who inspired concepts that seem so Borgesian to us today, but this kind of speculation is pointless. Were esoteric medieval bestiaries, which often included fantastical and legendary creatures, the inspiration for his Book of Imaginary Beings? Impossible to say and probably not worth worrying about. But one of the best things about Professor Borges is the way he draws connections between authors and ideas so freely, comparing the Anglo-Saxon description of a panther (a creature those people had never seen) with a line from T.S. Eliot that has always perplexed him, for example, or the description of a whale with a line from Paradise Lost. The links are often personal, sometimes unlikely, but they seem sincere, and you get a sense of why he liked what he liked.
Another surprising thing about Professor Borges is how much material he skips over, effectively jumping straight from the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, to Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. He lingers on Boswell’s biography, tells the story of James Macpherson and his apocryphal Ossian, gives us the highlights of the Romantic poets, and then goes straight to the 19th century. This is not a comprehensive survey of English Literature so much as a guide to Borges’s tastes, and a series of opportunities for him to be brilliant, like in this speech on James Boswell’s role as a biographer:
There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says we are not the actors in our lives, but rather the spectators…I, for example, was born on the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations, pathetic in others. And, as I have always had him in front of me, I have ended up identifying with him. According to this theory, in other words, the I would be double: there is a profound I, and this I is identified with — though separate from — the other.
Whatever Professor Borges lacks in the detail of its analyses and the grace of its prose, it makes up for with these moments of lucidity, with brilliantly drawn connections and the teacher’s own overwhelming enthusiasm. Though nowhere near as coherent and powerful as his non-fiction — if you haven’t read it yet, go right now — this book seems to offer a secret and impossible window through the years, turning us into unlikely spectators.
“Reading should be a form of happiness,” Borges said in a famous interview given in 1978. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory.” Few writers can claim to have read as much as Borges did, and there are almost no other writers whose imagination was so fixed on literature, on books, and on reading. But even though he taught at a university for decades, Borges refused to consider studying literature work; he wanted his students to enjoy reading. He chose reading for pleasure over the kind of “sad university-style reading” that emphasizes the importance of citations, references, and footnotes. We can’t help being impressed by the incredible array of books and authors Borges discusses in his fictions and his essays, but we must remember that he read them because he loved them, because when he opened up those volumes he felt the “secret portals of heaven” opening up over his head. This blind librarian, teacher, and brilliant author was a self-proclaimed literary hedonist. Punctilious professors take note.
Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was the most satisfying shock in my reading this year. Maybe because I’m translating Beowulf each day and working on such short lines, I loved the manic freedom of Jeet’s sentences. The world he describes, of opium dens, is fascinating, and he was electric on stage in Australia and the Netherlands reciting his poetry and rapping the lyrics from his band. A great writer and performer. And I just have to say the very best performance I’ve ever seen on stage by any writer was by Jeanette Winterson this summer at the Edinburgh Lit Festival. Even impromptu, in response to audience questions, she was able to say the most beautiful things in perfect sentences.
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For six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.
It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory.
That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself.
In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married…with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell).
With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment…But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.”
And we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.
For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned.
I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married.
Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.‘”
“Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them. Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind.
Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas.
It begins with the whole “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself.
Mad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be.
But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially – every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed.
Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side?
Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt.
I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas.
The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that.
And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football.
This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image.
I don’t care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers.
To be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either.
Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn’t changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same.
This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end.
There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more.
What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks.
My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.