#45 – A Week of This, by Nathan Whitlock

It’s always interesting to read novels written by critics, and I must say that I was looking forward to A Week of This with greater than average anticipation, because not only is Nathan Whitlock the reviews editor for Quill & Quire, he’s also quite well-known as a blogger in the somewhat limited circles I travel in. (I have linked to his blog above, but not his author-promo site, because it resizes your browser window, and quite frankly, fuck that.) The question one always has to ask with critics-cum-writers, is what will they do about all those pronouncements they’ve made over the years? Will they swing for the fences and attempt to be the next Gaddis or Pynchon, or will they play it safe, get their man on base and settle for being the next Mike Barnes or Elizabeth Hay? Nathan Whitlock, it seems to me, chose to bunt. What I mean (and I’ll drop the baseball metaphor now, I promise) is that Whitlock did not write an overwhelming intellectual labyrinth—and it’s clear, thank God, that he didn’t try to—but nor did he stick with the plodding, parochial, and more traditionally Canadian kitchen drama. He gave us something much more interesting than either.

A Week of This begins in medias res, the same condition in which it ends, offering little excitement or character development (if by character development you mean a measurable change in a character’s personality and behaviour). That was exactly the correct decision. A standard structure of character, conflict, and resolution would have killed nearly everything about this novel that feels surprising and fresh. Though it seems a contradiction to say it, it’s the banality of these characters’ lives that makes A Week of This surprising and fresh. There’s very little in the way of action in this book, no more so than you would find in a week of any normal person’s life, but unlike even the most claustrophobic and contained of kitchen-drama novels, there’s no Type A personality driving what little action there is, either directly or indirectly (I’ve come to believe that the “A” in “Type A” stands for “asshole”). The various parents that exist in the periphery of this novel (Manda’s obviously damaged mother and her deceased father, and Patrick’s dead father) could qualify if their influence wasn’t so subtle and sporadic. Patrick’s father, who exists for Manda and Patrick as a kind of belligerent ghost in their home could easily have been made into a scapegoat for both the couple’s relationship problems and their individual inertia, but Whitlock sidesteps that trap quite nicely and allows any number of factors, named and unnamed, to have their say. Manda, Patrick, Marcus as Ken form a stunted, underachieving quartet, trapped in their lives not only because of circumstances beyond their control, but because of the nature of their personalities. The Popmatters review claims that Dunbridge (the wonderfully named community in which the novel is set) has “broken” Manda, but I would disagree. In order to be broken one must first be whole. There’s no evidence that Manda was ever in control of herself or her life; Dunbridge is merely one of many issues that compound the problem, it is not the problem itself. There’s hundreds, if not thousands or even millions, of novels and stories that chart the course of the underachiever, the depressed and the stunted and the trapped. What makes A Week of This different is that Whitlock’s characters are not exceptions; they aren’t misfits living in a world of confident movers and shakers, and their lives are not solely as they are because (I’m looking at you, Michael Winter) they live in a small Newfoundland community, or their mothers have died of cancer, or whatever. A Week of This acknowledges that most of us live lives like this. For every hard charger out there explaining how all success takes is a positive attitude, there’s a hundred people out there who made reasonable (or even good) choices, took risks and thought positive, and still failed to get the life they wanted. Most of us belong with those hundred people, but books and films and other storytelling media treat those hundred as the exception (and why shouldn’t they? The follow-through required to realize a book or a film almost immediately places you outside the category of the hundred).

I hope that it’s clear that I’m using the word “banal” to mean “commonplace” and “trivial”, rather than “trite” or “hackneyed” or similar, sharper definitions. But in the context of A Week of This, I don’t think using the word “banal” to describe the lives of these characters to be particularly insulting, because as I’ve said above, the novel is suprising and fresh. Notions of the banal are as subjective as notions of the sublime, in any event. Some may recall a particularly beautiful passage about a sunrise from The Recognitions that I quoted some weeks ago. I think a sunrise is a perfect example; what could possibly be more banal an image? Millions, potentially billions, of people witness one every day, and have done so for as long as humanity has existed. What could possibly be less fresh and exciting and beautiful? And at he same time, how can one fail to be awed by a human being standing tall as he is struck by the light and heat of a nuclear inferno more than a billion kilometres across? It’s just a matter of how one is willing to look at things, really, and looking at things was, for me at least, a big part of my experience reading this book. I don’t consider it a requisite that a work of fiction force me to examine my choices or their outcomes (I only require that reading it gives me pleasure, and A Week of This certainly succeeds on that front), but I consider it an additional point in its favour.

I know that there are some who would take issue with my calling any standard realist narrative “surprising and fresh”, and would consider my opinion that parts of it are an accurate representation of reality (and that those aspects have particular relevance to my own life) as a weakness not only in my critical approach (it may be; I don’t read “as a professional” unless I’m getting paid as such—I read as a pleasure-seeker) but also as a weakness in the work itself, realism being a stale, outdated, middle-class, and inaccurately named mode of writing fiction. My gut reaction is to call bullshit, but without giving reasons that’s not much of a statement. The argument that realism is stale and outdated may have some accuracy to it, if one were to speak only in generalities. The mode has been around in almost its present form for well over a hundred years, after all, and the seeds of it were around for at least a hundred years prior to that. But is this the same as stale and outdated? Absolutely not. One has to go from the general to the specific in order to find innovation. When a form has been established, like with graphic design or some other discipline, the challenge becomes, not necessarily to smash or challenge the form, but to create something unique and beautiful within its limits. I can think of dozens of beautiful and unique realist novels, but I can think of only a handful that smash those conventions entirely and remain compelling. Experimental fiction has been scrupulously predictable for most of my lifetime. Without limits (and here I’m thinking of limits an artist imposes on him or herself; I am in no way advocating any externally imposed limitations) most artist, writers or otherwise, tend to produce work that is little more than a shallow, chaotic mess, eliciting neither strong emotional or aesthetic reactions from any but the most dedicated and politically-motivated readers (or so my experience has led me to believe; statements to the contrary are welcome). As for middle-class, I can’t comment (although I read much of Ian Watt’s book on the subject), being as I am largely uninterested in such matters, but even if it is true, so what? Why must art be “for” the wealthy or the bohemian subsets of our culture? For what reason are they so deserving? (The correct answer is: for no reason.) And as for being inappropriately named, I can only say that I see terms like “verisimilitude” and “psychological realism” tossed around as though they somehow mean “mimesis”. Fiction is almost never genuinely mimetic, it’s iconographic; it does not enact reality or the truth, it merely points to it. I think the writings of J. Hillis Miller are relevant here (I apologize for the length of the following quotation):

Literature exploits the extraordinary power of words to go on signifying in the absence of any phenomenal referent. […] A literary work is not, as many people may assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality but, on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. This new world is an irreplaceable addition to the already existing one.


The referentiality of the words a work uses, however, is never lost. It is inalienable. The reader can share in the work’s world by way of this referentiality. Trollope’s novels carry over into the imaginary place they create (or discover) all sorts of verifiable information about Victorian middle-class society and about human life … [t]hose historical and “realistic” details however, are […] transposed, transfigured. They are used as a means to transport the reader, magically, from the familiar, the verisimilar, to another, singular place that even the longest voyage in the “real world” will not reach. Reading is an incarnated as well as a spiritual act. [..] Though literature refers to the real world, however, and though reading is a material act, literature uses such physical embedment to create or reveal alternative realities. (On Literature, p. 16-20)

When one reads a work of realist fiction, it’s important to understand that the prose is not attempting (nor indeed is even capable) of mimicking reality. Instead the prose points to something that we will recognize as a reality, and we fill in the blanks ourselves. We get hung up on superficial notions of what representation means; icons are just as much representations are are sculptures and portraits and photographs, they simply operate on a different level. Rather than thinking of a work of realist fiction as a model (a kind of representation) of the world or a specific human consciousness, I think it’s more useful to think of such works as being similar to the geometric drawings of men and women pasted to the doors of public restrooms. They don’t look much like real men and women (they aren’t mimetic), but that’s what we recognize them as. How close to “real” men and women they seem depends not just on how close we look at them, but on how willing we are to examine how we look at them. This could also dovetail quite nicely with effects like the uncanny valley, but that’s something for some other post. The most important thing to take from this is that the “real” in “realism” comes from the reaction the words create in us, in what they force us to recognize, not in any innate mimetic quality they may possess. And yes, I did just compare A Week of This to the door sign of a public bathroom. Don’t worry, it’s all good.

To represent the verve and subtle inspiration with which Whitlock writes about this most un-inspiring of subject matter I’m tempted to quote the fuck books passage that’s been making its way around various popular book blogs, but I don’t think its particularly useful to quote something so promiscuous. Instead I’ll leave you with a more considered, but no less damning, scene in which Ondaatje’s opium-dream mess, In the Skin of a Lion, is soundly thrashed:

Her library book was the same one she’d been struggling with for almost a week, was there, and she settled in to try again. It was the longest she could remember giving a book. On her shelves the spines of books she’d already read were starting to look tempting, and there was a new one in at the library that sounded at least a little more promising—something about the end of the world. The book’s biggest crime, as far as Manda was concerned, was not that it was boring—she’d yawned through enough trash to see that as inevitable, one time out of three—but that it made her feel stupid. It wasn’t like the out-and-out, over-her-head stuff she knew instinctively to avoid. Those books seemed to have been created for a whole other species, and she resented their existence about as much as a dog resents birdseed: she didn’t get them, she didn’t see the point, but it wasn’t for her anyway, so why worry about it? This book wasn’t simply too smart for her, it was condescending, and for that there was no forgiveness. She would never allow anyone or anything to condescend to her. Ever. (p. 238)

A Week of This was my first selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge (please note that all the books for this year’s challenge will be placed in the same category as those from last year’s challenge). Next up (not for the challenge), is Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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