09/11/16

“Spiked”: a review of ‘The Break’, by Katherena Vermette

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First, here’s the review (wholly unchanged from the last time I submitted it).
After its 1200 or so words, I’ve included some paragraphs of backstory.

Bleak Houses
A Winnipeg poet paints a downbeat portrait of life among vulnerable Métis women

The Break
Katherena Vermette
Anansi 368pp $22.95

by Brett Josef Grubisic

Within the sweeping generalization that opens Survival (1972), that influential study of Canada’s literature, Margaret Atwood writes: “The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.” She was introducing her notorious “Victim Positions,” which she regarded as hallmarks of the national literary imagination.
Atwood’s assertion surfaced over and again as I read The Break, the ordeal-intense debut novel by Katherena Vermette. Despite The Break’s jacket description—a “powerful intergenerational family saga” by an “exciting new voice in Canadian literature”—with its hints of downs but also ups (and maybe a moment or two of unequivocal triumph), this profoundly dispiriting novel appears to hold scant hope for its characters except scraping by. A Métis Winnipeg resident whose poetry volume North End Love Songs won a Governor General Literary Award in 2013, Vermette’s cooly documentary outlook impresses with its precise craft. More than the saga’s power, though, the novel’s deep-set forlornness sticks with the reader. She’s undoubtedly a new voice in Canadian literature, but “sepulchral” and “dolorous” offer greater accuracy than “exciting.”
Set in winter and wintry in tone (bleak, discouraging, unforgiving, perilous), Vermette’s story begins in the wee hours with a tense police interview following a scuffle on the “empty expanse of land” in Winnipeg’s North End locals call the Break. Stella is overburdened with kids, anxiety, and a crushing history (her mother froze to death in an alley after she was beaten and raped and later ignored as a ‘drunken Native’ at a hospital). Now Stella has witnessed what she believes is a sexual assault outside her house at midnight. Initially patronizing and dismissive, the police—who have taken four hours to answer the 911 call—regard Stella as unreliable, a hysterical overtired mom with a feverish imagination. Though seething with a “familiar rage,” Stella quietly swallows their judgement.
That pair of officers discover a mass of bloody snow and regard it as evidence of yet another territorial gang dispute. They’re not exactly indifferent but close. As the weary and snide veteran Caucasian cop mentions to his earnest young Métis partner (whom he callously nicknames “May-tee”), “Nates” in vicious combat isn’t exactly headline news. “Why fret,” his manner conveys.
With first- and third-person narration in chapters named mainly after women in Stella’s extended family, Vermette expands her view to include a larger community of downtrodden North Enders. For example, the following chapter, “Emily,” traces the dangerous path of Stella’s young cousin, a sweet if self-loathing thirteen-year old. Emily, who “feels ugly and fat most of the time and is positive that no one has ever, ever liked her,” decides to accept an invitation to an illicit house party. The impulsive decision—to meet a cute boy—leads to a frenzied attack in a snow drift. Its resultant trauma ties Emily’s experience to those of her female relatives across the generations. The next chapter, “Phoenix,” depicts the erratic trail of another teenager, a lost but broke and furious escapee from juvenile custody with a dismal family history who hides out in her drug-dealer uncle’s hovel. Phoenix is glad to return “home” despite the fact that the house is a “total dump” filled with garbage, stolen goods, the odour of “smokes, dope, and old food,” and passed-out young women with limbs blemished with “track bruises.”
Across 29 chapters Vermette gives voice as well to Emily’s mother Paul (Pauline), aunt Lou (Louise), grandmother Cheryl, and great grandmother Kookom (Flora). Subdued, these voices do express love, hope, and contentment. But that’s sporadic. Far more commonly, they speak of shame, regret, sadness, anger, loneliness; their stories are pervaded with the sense that whether it’s past, present, or future, life for mixed-race or Native women seems fated for an assortment of relentless disappointments and miseries. This state might be especially the case for the desolate North End. Although Tourism Winnipeg labels the locale “a culturally and architecturally diverse neighbourhood,” in The Break there’s a culture of poverty, violence, addiction, racism, subsistence, and entrenched hostility and mistrust between Native and Caucasian; as for architectural diversity, Vermette highlights an ugly desolation: run-down houses with sheets in their windows, cramped apartments, humming electrical towers, a frozen wasteland. No war has been officially declared, but the atmosphere is notably war-torn.
Generation upon generation this family’s women have endured violence and heartache. Victims or witnesses of rape, murder, abandonment, and hardship, they also have more than passing familiarity with addictive substances as a coping mechanism; shame, defeat, longing, grief, and sadness are their ordinary emotional states.
In The Break, personal and familial crisis points surface with disarming regularity. During a pivotal one, Lou and Paul, who’ve seen too much misery and faced decades of letdowns, losses, and pain, spit out frustrated words and experience-based philosophies:

“We live in a crazy world, Lou. It’s a fucked up, crazy fucking place and I don’t put anything past
anyone anymore. We’re so fucked. We’re fucked, we’re all fucked.”
“We’re fucked up, yeah, but not completely fucked.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means everything’s going to be okay.”

Four chapters later, on the novel’s penultimate page, the women briefly return to that debate: “We’re fucked up but not fucked.” As far as statements of optimism go, that’s it. As a realization, as a baseline measurement for existence, that gallows humour is breathtakingly close to nihilism.
Ultimately, Vermette’s vision is disturbing because it’s so oriented toward a future of loss or defeat. She cannot or does not opt to give any of these women the gift of a better life or a feasible escape. Nor does she envision any means to heal individuals or communities. In the end, instead, Paul vows: “I’m going to give up feeling so hopeless. Or at least I’m going to try to feel hopeful as much as I can.” But Vermette—a novelist, not a documentarian; writing fiction, she could pack their bags and move them to the sunny Okanagan if she chose to—offers her characters nothing better than trying not to feel hopeless. The seeming implication? Deadbeat men will continue to let women down, hurt them, or rape them; gangs, violence, and drugs will flourish; direct or implicit racism will remain oppressive norms. And there’s no changing it. The best these Native and mixed-race figures can do is remain alive, and hope that no one will assault them or their kin again. As a portrait of existence, it’s stunningly bleak. And as a portrait, it’s an instructive lesson about just how crushing one author views daily existence in one region of a supposedly progressive, affluent, multicultural, and “highly livable” nation.
At one point Cheryl asks, “They’re already so broken, could they break any more?” Vermette’s despairing view suggests that the adult women will continue to struggle with addictions, serial heartbreaks, and calamity; already in the system, assaulted, or tempted by the fatal promise of gangs, their teenage offspring have just begun to comprehend life’s stacked deck. Like winter storms, further breakage will come. Vermette presents a far-reaching indictment that touches on race, gender, history, and governance. Her perspective is finally so dismaying because it perceives the damaging and corrosive  dysfunction of the system as perhaps unfixable and, certainly, a fait accompli.

 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 

The book review would be “spiked,” the email informed me. I hadn’t run across that term and assumed it was journalistic slang for cancelled.

The review in question had been written by me about The Break, a debut work of fiction by Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette. Well before this announcement the review had already been revised once (per the fiction editor’s comments). When the now-satisfied fiction editor passed that version of the review to the editor-in-chief, it was bounced back to me with further directives regarding a “responsible” next revision. The most recent revision, I was told, had made things even worse. (For those interested in the economics of freelance book reviewing: had the review been published by the journal that assigned it, for the hours spent reading the novel, writing the review, revising it, and revising it again, I’d be paid $110.)

By “things” and “worse,” I understood that the review came across as potentially racist to the editorial readers. True, “racist” was never spoken; I inferred that. The word I read and heard over and again was “insensitive.” As with “responsible” (another word I read and heard repeatedly), what I took away in a reading-between-the-lines kind of way was that the review registered negatively with the Toronto-area editorial staff. Evidently, it appeared insensitive about a subject that required kid gloves, irresponsible—or perhaps not responsible enough—about a subject that needed placement in a highly particular context. To my ears, the subtext of the emails (and, later, a conversation) related to the social politics of unequal power and privilege. Still, as a gay Caucasian male taking up media space to opine about heterosexual Métis and Aboriginal characters in a novel written by a Métis woman, I believed I’d understood the dimensions of the situation. The charge of insensitivity, then, baffled me. (Also, it embarrassed me: the implicit accusation of embodying or reflecting white masculine privilege didn’t jibe well with my own self-perception. The history of my people [ie, sodomites], after all, was nothing but marginalization and Othering for millennia.)

Eventually, thirty minutes of actual telephone conversation with the editor-in-chief culminated with mutual non-understanding, tense words (“censorship” and “Well, that’s not how I see it),” and abrupt call termination (that latter was me, hotheadedly).

The editor-in-chief and (I was reminded several times) additional readers at the office of this literary review journal had perceived the review as dwelling on Vermette’s negative depiction of the lives of her characters in Winnipeg’s troubled North End as indicating my 1) blaming the characters for their plights, and 2) faulting the novelist for not writing a story with a happy ending. To me, neither of these accusations made any sense; they struck me in fact as perverse misreadings of the review.

My own perception is that the review does not disparage the novel at all; there is no fault-finding per se. Instead, the review identifies the overall wintry tone of The Break and speculates on the author’s reasoning for highlighting such a menacing, despairing, and hopeless atmosphere. Further, the sole “responsibility of the review,” I was instructed, was to situate the novel in context to a national dialogue about violence and missing First Nations women that had been going on for the past few years. By that logic any other way of regarding the novel was irresponsible; there was only one correct way to view it and talk about it. About this matter of any review’s primary ethical obligation, the editor-in-chief and I retreated to diplomacy: “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

Rather than print the review, which would—I assume—somehow sully the quality and reputation of the literary journal, its editor would simply make the review disappear from sight. Evidently, in its pages no public discussion or assessing of Vermette’s novel was gauged preferable to an “insensitive” one. Instead of agreeing to the disappearing of the review, I withdrew it from consideration (with a tearful sayonara to $110) and gave it pride of place here instead.

→ Btw, Wikipedia’s entry on “spiking” places the term in the following ethical frameworks:

“In journalistic parlance, spiking refers to withholding a story from publication for reasons pertaining to its veracity (whether or not it conforms to the facts). Spiking is relatively rare and usually happens late in the editing process (after the assigning editor has signed off on it). It is only required when a simple edit or questioning the reporter or assigning editor cannot fix the problem. Reasons for spiking include a clear bias (someone on an opposing side of an issue did not respond, despite the fact that said response is central to the story), a major hole (many, if not most, readers will have a question after reading the story), a sudden change in events (three more people have died, but getting details from officials is impossible on deadline), or suspicions of plagiarism or other ethical violations on the part of the author.”

Looking now at the usual rationales for spiking—from “clear bias” to “ethical violations on the part of the author”—I’m once again surprised at the differences between my perceptions and those somewhere else who read the review and decided that spiking it was a best plan of action. The whole episode feels like an instructive moment, yes, but I’m still pretty unclear about the nature of the lesson.