Being a relative newcomer to the Canadian literary scene (I think it’s safe to say that I’ve only been aware of “the scene” for about six or seven years, which makes me a definite newcomer), John Metcalf’s books are like UFOs. People talk about Metcalf and his books. Some people even claim to have read them (especially people who have been around since the ’70s). Bringing up his name is always controversial. But what happens if you go out looking for his books on your own? You’re not likely to find one at all. Bad UFO metaphors aside, here in Toronto, the capital of Canada’s publishing industry, I had to go to nine bookstores to find even a single copy (I found two, both used and both nearly two decades old), and the staff at less than half of those stores even knew who I was asking about. Mr. Metcalf’s name is one that I’ve been hearing ever since I became a dedicated reader of Canadian fiction, somewhere around 2001 or 2002, but rarely were any specifics mentioned. I know he’s supposed to be hugely influential, but I don’t really know how, or on what or whom. I also know that he’s supposed to be at the centre of some kind of controversy, but I don’t know anything about it, and nobody will tell me (here’s a note for all you journalists and commentators and what not who like to allude to the controversy: chances are good I was still seeing spot run when this controversy began, and I’m almost 30 years old; if you aren’t willing to come right out and explain what it is you’re talking about, please just shut the fuck up about it entirely). His essay in the Salon issue of CNQ was kind of venomous, so maybe it’s all just blunt talk and hurt feelings. Metcalf also had a story in the TNQ Salon issue, and it was quite wonderful (therefore my trek to nine bookstores).
Metcalf’s Englishness should be apparent to anyone who reads widely. There’s something simultaneously straightforward and musical about English prose (English as in the nationality, not the language) that doesn’t seem to happen in other dialects, and it’s present in Adult Entertainment. I haven’t thought enough about it to be able to cite a specific sentence and then take it apart to explain how it works (is it diction, syntax, some culturally specific combination?), but it’s a kind of rhythmic smoothness. Metcalf seems to have an excellent eye for detail as well. Paul Denton’s sexual frustration comes fully alive in “Polly Ongle” thanks almost entirely to the specifics of clothing, body parts, food and sound that serve to either exacerbate or distract from that frustration. We get the sense of Paul’s senses being so acute, so sharp, only because Metcalf’s prose is acute, sharp. “Travelling Northward”, a story about a respected but broke and horribly selfish novelist called Robert Forde—the subject of the TNQ piece as well—is successful for much the same reason. If Metcalf wasn’t able to take us so fully into Forde’s remarkably comic sensebility, we wouldn’t have much sympathy—or antipathy, come to that—for anyone in the story, be it Forde himself or any of the mostly well-meaning but equally ridiculous secondary characters. Metcalf wrote in TNQ that he will have a new collection out sometime soon, and that it will include some Forde stories. I am looking forward to it with great anticipation.
Adult Entertainment was my tenth selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Rebecca Rosenblum’s debut collection, Once.