Lecker's Kroetsch

Robert Lecker, Robert Kroetsch.  Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986, 165 pp. Index and bibliography.

Lecker's study of Robert Kroetsch is number 768 of the Twayne World Author Series and like all members of that series is at once an introductory and a comprehensive study of the author's complete canon.  The requirement that the discussion be both elementary and thorough places heavy demands upon a scholar.  He is obliged to include biographical, historical, cultural, and critical information and judgement within the confines of no more than eight-thousand words.  At the same time his style must be sufficiently large-gestured that any person of average education and literacy will be comfortable with his prose.  When one combines the difficulty of these criteria with the inherent density and intractability of Kroetsch's fiction, the writer is confronted by a formidable task.

     Thus it is no disgrace that Lecker's study fails to do justice to Kroetsch's art.  Robert Kroetsch is one of the most interesting and most challenging of the very considerable number of excellent Canadian novelists currently in mid career.  He is the most articulate of them all about both his own fiction and Canadian fiction generally, and the most informedly avant-garde.  Kroetsch's years at SUNY Binghampton put him in touch with the fictional experimentation of Barth, Pynchon, and the whole school of so-called "post modernism" at a time when Margaret Atwood was still producing thematic studies of Canadian fiction.  Kroetsch was undoubtedly the first Canadian novelist to apply the fabular style to the Canadian scene — and he has written much to explain what he is about.

     Lecker, of course, has read everything by and about Kroetsch, and is at pains to pack as much of this reading into his text as possible.  That he should endeavour to do so is part of his mandate as the author of a Twayne Author's book.  Here, however, he encounters two difficulties.  First, Kroetsch is a comic writer.  His novels make one laugh.  Second, the "school" of fiction writers to which Kroetsch belongs specializes in the mise en abīme — both in their fiction and in their criticism.  By this I mean that the fabular fiction of Kroetsch teases the interpreter with a superfluity of archetypes, clichés, symbols, semiotica, clues, leads, interpretive devices, and what-have-you to the point where the intepretive imperative of the exemplary Canadian academic is entirely overloaded.  At least so I account for such discursive oddities as the following:

Such structural distortions [as those found in The Studhorse Man] may lead one to conclude that Kroetsch has written a novel that both represents and advocates the rejection of structure as a fictional ideal.  As we have seen, Kroetsch does see the writer's task as one of uninventing structures.  Yet at the same time, he is very much aware of the fact that structure is inescapable, and that the absence of structure only implies a structure of absence.  Thus while the story defies structure, it also proves to be rigorously organized.  Although Demeter [the narrator of The Studhorse Man] is incapable of structuring his narrative, Kroetsch plays with the structure, making it conform to the contrived pattern that he has imposed. (p. 59)

     In this paragraph Lecker is attempting to explain technique of mise en abīme as he finds it in The Studhorse Man.  In that novel (for which Kroetsch received the Governor General's Medal) an unreliable narrator relates an unbelievable tale, embroidered with a deliberately ill-sorted collection of allusions to myth, legend, history, and pure tall tale.  One cannot issue from this farrago with anything more lucid than laughter — a recourse Lecker studiously avoids.  Kroetsch has employed this device in every one of his novels since The Words of My Roaring (1966), and it has proved to be a very fruitful one for him.  All students of the novel know that it is at least as old as Don Quixote, but, as we have noted, it has become domesticated in "post modernism" in the work of Barth, Pynchon, Coover, Vonnegut, Marquesa, and Kroetsch.

     Lecker is uncomfortable with the fundamental unseriousness of Kroetsch's fiction.  He belongs to that school of critics whose name is legion, but who can all be traced to Scrutiny or Penguin Books, and all of whom believe that the touchstone of art is a complexity baffling to the uninitiate but accessible to those who have "passed through the gate".  He becomes irritable with Kroetsch when his hermeneutical antennae fail to pick up a clear signal from his sixth novel, What the Crow Said:

Kroetsch tells us that in Crow he tried to create a narrative that "expanded towards the tall tale, the mythological" (CJ, 11).  While he may use the terms tall tale and mythological synonymously here, his story alerts us to the fact that they are by no means synonomous.   Mythological fictions, like those which Kroetsch wrote prior to Crow, blend larger-than-life meanings and relationships with a recognition of daily, local, ritualized occurrences.  We see none of this blending in Crow, for the particularities of daily life and all sense of identifiable ritual are abandoned in the search for what is purely larger than life, for a rendition that is so fantastic that it in no way relates to the very environment and culture Kroetsch hopes to mythologize. (99)

I very much share Lecker's difficulties with Crow.  It is the one Kroetsch novel that I do not know what to make of.  It is not funny, but it is powerful and puzzling.  However, it prompts Lecker to register a fussy account of what Kroetsch ought to be doing — and has, allegedly, been doing — in his fiction.  It seems to me that the "blending of daily life and . . . ritual", is remote from the goals of the particular post modern style which Kroetsch, Barth, and Pynchon practice.  Lecker is still stuck in the New Critical expectation that ambiguities and complexities will and must be resolved — however antinomially — in the attendant sapience of the critic.  The Borgesian labyrinth, the Barthian Chinese boxes, the Marquesan maelstrom, and the Kroetschian meander are not for him.

     The Selected Bibliography and biographical sketch provided in this book will prove useful to the student and scholar alike — even though the biography occupies only slightly more than three pages.  Although spotty for reviews, the bibliography is thorough for books and articles.  The study is an excellent guide to current scholarship on Kroetsch, but not a significant new contribution to it.  Lecker's dependence on existing criticism is reflected in his treatment of Kroetsch's poetry.  He devotes only one of six chapters to the poetry, and really does not relate it all that well to his discussion of Kroetsch's general concerns and aesthetic practices.  However, I am inclined to agree with Lecker's emphasis here — and, in any event, it reflects the bias of the critical literature on Kroetsch.  While Kroetsch's poetry is interesting and worthy of attention, it is as a novelist that he ranks as a major Canadian writer, and as an important writer in the English language.

Leon Surette