The Museum at the End of the World by John Metcalf
Reviewed by John Delacourt
“Our reviews have become, at their worst, about the revelation of the reviewer’s opinion, not about a consideration of the book or an account of the small world that briefly held writer and reviewer in the orbit of a book. Reviews have turned into a species of autobiography, with the book under review being a pretext for personal revelation.
If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf. Yes, it’s rhetorical to blame any single person for the current state of critical affairs. But Metcalf, with his early books of essays … has been, at the very least, a spur to the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism.”
This is Andre Alexis from an essay he wrote for the Walrus magazine in 2010. It was an unusual statement from the novelist, an attack that seemed so personal and intemperate one read it and winced, imagining some contretemps between Alexis and Metcalf that had escalated beyond any hope of reconciliation.
Yet for those Walrus readers who knew of Alexis and not of Metcalf, it undoubtedly caused a few Google searches to occur, not least among a younger generation not learning code but still reading novels, who could not place Metcalf on any contemporary CanLit landscape.
Which is a pity. What they would have discovered with their Google searches was that Metcalf is not primarily a novelist – he is an Ottawa-based editor, essayist, writer of short stories and – more interestingly – novellas. They would have read about his reputation as a peerless mentor, well deserved when you look at the writers he worked with from their beginnings: Annabel Lyon, Russell Smith, Andrew Pyper. That reputation is built on the premise that literary excellence begins with close reading, and the power and precision of one finely wrought sentence after another will lead to the production of a gem-cut work of literary art; trust in the poetics and the foundations of each prose narrative will take care of themselves. Now at last, after publishing a couple of volumes of memoirs and one novella over the last fifteen years, he has finally put together a collection of short fiction – The Museum at the End of the World.
Here is the bad news for those intent on despising Metcalf and/or his influence: the stories here are beautifully written, vivid and frequently hilarious, the characters and dialogue exquisitely realized. They share the same protagonist, the British immigrant writer Robert Forde, with the first piece “Medals and Prizes” reading as an episodic bildungsroman. The narrative focus then shifts to Forde’s bleak years as a teacher of fiction and curmudgeonly aesthete here in Canada. There are pages of satire worthy of comparisons to Waugh, a high wire act of perfect pitch and deadpan comic brilliance: the awards ceremony at the Governor General’s in “Medals and Prizes”; the memorial service for New Brunswick poet Childe Chauncy in the story “Lives of the Poets”.
Yet there is also a melancholia that infuses the work, most powerfully in the title story, as Forde and his companion Sheila travel through Romania on a tour that takes them to Tomis – fittingly, the town where Ovid was exiled by Augustus (though that would be too heavy handed for Metcalf to mention in the story, thankfully). Yet the artist banished to the provinces in an age of iron and baser metals is a theme that figures prominently throughout the collection - whether in the story “Ceazer Salad,” where Forde’s walk down Sparks Street is a devastating catalog of national capital kitsch or there in Tomis, where Forde surveys the antiquities in a museum:
“The museum was intensely boring. The contents, mainly red Roman-ware, had nearly all been broken, and the missing shards had been reconstituted in white plaster. The two big rooms, at a glance, were a leprosy of red and white. No effort at aesthetics or selection had been attempted; if it had been uncovered at the site, in it had gone, the rumbled rubble of Greece, Rome and Byzantium. Shapeless, rusted lumps of iron were identified as ‘anchors’; the profusion of broken pots was labelled variously as ‘storage vessels’, ‘wine vessels’, ‘conical vessels’ and ‘vessels with spouts’; a row of pieces of corroded bronze was labelled ‘mirrors’; scraps and unidentifiable fragments were identified as ‘decorative elements’.”
In that “leprosy of red and white” and the “rumbled rubble of Greece” is evidence of a writer still alive to the potential of words of on the page to startle and delight with their vividness and broken music. It is assuredly Forde’s – and Metcalf’s – contention that those powers might be all that some of our best authors have left in this new age of the base and ersatz. If the stories in The Museum at the End of the World are indicative, however, this is some consolation.
The Museum at the End of the World is published by Biblioasis,