Graeme Gibson - the subversive tale of two guilt-ridden young men. Gibson captures both their mortifications and their spirited resistance to all things WASP, themselves included, in stream-of-consciousness prose that is at once fluid, disjointed, and hilarious




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Graeme Gibson, Five Legs, House of Anansi Press; Second ed., 2013. [1969.]
read it at Google Books


First published by Anansi in 1969, Five Legs was a breakthrough for Canadian experimental fiction, selling 1,000 copies in its first week. At the time Scott Symons wrote that "Five Legs has more potent writing in it, page for page, than any other young Canadian novel that I can think of." Or indeed any young American novel — including Pynchon and Farina.

Five Legs is the subversive tale of two guilt-ridden young men, Lucan Crackell and Felix Oswald — one a professor, the other his student — caught in the grip of the North American Protestant ethic, with its emotional web-spinning and sexual torments. Gibson captures both their mortifications and their spirited resistance to all things WASP, themselves included, in stream-of-consciousness prose that is at once fluid, disjointed, and hilarious. Essential reading for any Canlit junkie, and quite a trip. This edition features a new introduction by Sean Kane.

Five Legs, perhaps surprisingly, is a novel of two — not five — parts.
The first is in the voice of Professor Lucan Crackell. Take “stymied creativity” and a “failed imagination”: an “amiable hypocrite who consoles himself with power in the institution, getting drunk with his students, and small-town Little Theatre”. Then, take the “fleeing trajectory of the creative spirit” which is embodied in Felix Oswald. Picture him: “tongue-tied and shaggy but with an x-ray vision that sees through every posture, including his own”. These summaries are drawn from Sean Kane’s introduction to the House of Anansi A List edition of Graeme Gibson’s classic novel. Now, put these two voices in a car together, travelling through a snowstorm on the backroads and city streets of Ontario, making their way to a classmate’s funeral. “Rough winter winds impatient at the window; rattling southward over evergreens and through the wretched branches of a thousand naked towns. Great, just great. As if this stinking morning and funeral aren’t enough.” Sean Kane’s introduction is tremendously helpful, as the bulk of Five Legs is not written with such a clear, direct style. For instance, a similar idea is later described as follows: “Wind and these driving clouds, Susanna Moodie longed for the formal world, for. London’s parlour light as desperately, foreign in a forest land, they cleared for sun. From the north, where the wild fish blow, and it tempted Louis Riel, it whispered to D’Arcy McGee. Strong and free. Gusting now against my car as I drive through layers of time to Stratford.” (Does it get much more Canadian than that? Moodie, fishing ballads, Riel, D’Arcy McGee? It’s as though one of my oversized history scrapbooks — if you studied history in a Canadian high school you’ll know what I mean — collided with my copy of Sound and Sense.) And far beyond this quintessential Canadian feel to it, the novel is considered “important”. (Quite likely the sort that appears on curricula, though it never appeared on those of my English classes.) The Canadian Encyclopedia describes Five Legs as a “complex, intertextual modernist work that exhibits Gibson’s thematic concerns with mortality and writing as it surveys the cultural malaise of its time”. (That is exactly the kind of description that sends me scurrying from a work, but the A List edition had already caught my attention before I understood its literary significance, and I do adore Gibson’s books on birds and beasts.) Anyhow, there are other sources, like Rob McLennan’s 2009 interview, 12 or 20 Questions, which offers another perspective, the sort which always piques my interest in a work:
Five Legs, which was my first book, changed my life because in desperation I had started another novel while it was being rejected in sequence by a Canadian, an English, and finally by an American publisher before the House of Anansi took it on. Then when Five Legs was published and sold out the first printing in less than two weeks, I experienced the seductive spasm that accompanies notoriety, and my fate was therefore sealed. I was going to be a writer.”
The novel does not let the reader coast through the prose; it’s a demanding experience, being inside the heads of these characters.
“Lucan Crackell drinks and stretches, rapidly blinking, staring. Got to assert the mind’s control! It’s a most, sip and swallow as he lights a cigarette, a most curious and a vulnerable situation. Yes indeed, oh yes. Ha! Calmly smoke in wreaths about his head. A superficial, but essential order. Yes, that’s the thing. I know she. Likes me. Yes she does! Perhaps she’d…”
Five Legs does have an essential order to it, but it’s not the sort of ordering that we expect to find between the covers of a novel. The characters indeed inhabit a “most curious and vulnerable situation” and readers might often find themselves blinking and staring (at least this reader did, though there was some snorting and smirking too, for there are certainly some humourous bits).
Have you read any of Graeme Gibson’s work?
Project Notes: 
Day 44 of 45: Were it not for reading projects and challenges, my brain could easily sink beneath the surface of the eggnog and settle in the bottom of the glass with the sweetest parts; books like Five Legs constantly give you a boot back to the surface, force you to view the world from another perspective, if only for 268 pages (though, sometimes, lastingly).
What’s the last book that you read which gave you a good kick out of your comfort zone (or drove you deeper into the drink)? - www.buriedinprint.com/?p=9402


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Graeme Gibson, Communion, Anansi Digital, 2012. [1971.]


Exclusively available from Anansi Digital, Communion is one of the lost, great works by a Canadian literary titan.
Originally published in 1971, Communion continues the story of Felix Oswald that began in Five Legs. We meet Felix Oswald again, a self-mocking and obsessed hero, a voyeur, and all-time loser, after he graduates from school and accepts a job as a part-time veterinarian’s assistant.
A groundbreaking work of experimental fiction, Communion is a must-read for lovers of Canadian literature.
Featuring an introduction by Sean Kane


In COMMUNION, using a new clear, bone-spare prose, Gibson traces the ordeal of Felix Oswald. Felix is now working as a veterinarian's assistant in Toronto, where he becomes obsessed with a great white husky dying in one of the cages. His attempts to free the dog are interwoven with a series of possibilities for his own life, many sexual, some lyrical, and some nightmarish.
The narration proceeds in haunting rhythms which make it mesmerizing reading. By the end, they rise to a harrowing and purgative intensity.



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Graeme Gibson, Perpetual Motion, New Canadian Library, 1997. [1982.]
excerpt


Set in southern Ontario in the late nineteenth century, at a time when the machine age was coming into its own, Perpetual Motion chronicles the fortunes of settler Robert Fraser, a man obsessed with power and control. Driven by the idea of inventing a perpetual motion machine which will utilize natural energy, he neglects and destroys not only the nature around him but his own family too, as his overbearing rationality becomes a kind of tragic lunacy.
First published in 1982, Perpetual Motion is Graeme Gibson’s superb evocation of a time when faith in material progress is still challenged by superstition and a lingering belief in magic. It is an ironic yet compassionate examination of the painful consequences of human folly.



There is a wealth of detail in this well-researched, panoramic novel set in rural 19th century Ontario, where the doomed Robert Fraser is a reluctant farmer and inveterate dreamer. He spends his time trying to devise a perpetual-motion machine to relieve him of his labors in controlling nature. The novel begins as Fraser unearths a prehistoric skeleton with his horse-drawn plow. He soon determines to reap profits from the natural past (by exhibiting the specimen) to finance the construction of his toil-free future. His course of action over the ensuing 20 years yields only tragic consequences for him and his family and for nature itself. Gibson succeeds in implying an analogy between the folly of Fraser's project and contemporary environmental decimation through land speculation and development. Fictively, however, there is much lacking in character development and profluence of plot. Many physical descriptions are vivid, but Fraser and others remain as impenetrable as the forest that surrounds them. - Publishers Weekly
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Graeme Gibson, Gentleman Death, Emblem Editions, 2002. [1993.]  


Meet novelist Robert Fraser as he comes face to face with creativity, his mortality, and the deaths of his father and brother. Set mainly in Toronto, the novel also takes us to London, Scotland, Germany, and New York as we follow the escapades of two of Fraser’s fictional characters. There is Simpson, called into service as an anonymous sperm donor, and Dunbar, an enigmatic tourist in Berlin just before the Chernobyl disaster, where he meets the captivating Lena, with whom he begins to sense an almost forgotten freedom and elation. But at the centre of Gentleman Death is Robert Fraser’s own compelling story. Gibson juxtaposes reality and fiction in this compassionate, sometimes outrageous, often very funny exploration of the absurdities and alarms of aging, the nature of fiction itself, and the maturity that grows from reconciliation.


Gentleman Death is a modern danse macabre. A wise and powerful chronicle of fathers and sons and brothers on a new voyage of discovery to the end of the night.”–Alberto Manguel

“In this engaging novel, Graeme Gibson uses the foibles of an aging novelist to address the unaccountable fears that obsess us all sometimes in the small hours of the morning.…His story steams along, effortlessly propelled by fine prose, wit, and insight.…Delightful.…”
Quill & Quire (starred review)

“An intense, passionate, deeply felt meditation on human mortality and mutability which speaks directly to the heart as well as to the mind.…[A] tour de force.…”–Kitchener-Waterloo Record
“Utterly involving.… An elegant, poignant novel and a repeatedly funny one.”–Financial Post
“An engaging exploration of memory and death. Complex yet accessible, it is an illuminating guide through the rich territory that W.B. Yeats called the “rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”–Maclean’s
“A richly mature book, which made me cackle with laughter and stare into the distance with recognition.…For me, Gibson’s free-wheeling and noble-spirited novel was a gift: one of those rare books which provide grown-up sustenance.”–Dennis Lee

“Gibson writes clean, hard prose and his literary sensibility seems tough and unflinching. His insights into the mellowing capacity of middle aged are particularly fine.”–Winnipeg Free Press
“Without a doubt, Gentleman Death is a courageously eccentric book.…Delicate and admirable.…”
Kingston Whig-Standard

“Right from the first page you know you’re in good hands.…The language and sensibility of this novel is both gritty and beautiful.…Gibson writes for a highly literate audience while remaining accessible to anyone interested in the power of language and storytelling.”–Calgary Herald
“With his hardy, no-frills style, Gibson adroitly shows how real life and fiction blend, how dreams and memories merge and how each of us makes what we can out of life–and death.”–Vancouver Sun
“Not every novelist dares as much and delivers as much as Graeme Gibson does in Gentleman Death.…This is serious stuff, but it is carried off in such exuberant language and with such memorable characters and incidents that reading the novel is like taking a ride on a roller coaster through comic and tragic neighbourhoods of life.”–Canadian Forum





Graeme Gibson was born in London, Ontario, in 1934 and educated at the University of Western Ontario, but he has lived most of his life in Toronto. Early in his career, he taught at the Ryerson Institute of Technology, now Ryerson University, and in the 1980s was writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo and the University of Ottawa.
Since first putting pen to paper, Graeme has lived the writing life. He has published four novels, roughly one per decade: Five Legs (1969), Communion (1971), Perpetual Motion (1982), and Gentleman Death (1993), as well as the short story “Pancho Villa’s Head.” He has also written for film, radio, and television, and in 1973, released a book of interviews, Eleven Canadian Novelists, including a conversation with his future wife, Margaret Atwood.
As well as a writer, Graeme is a lifelong birder. His twin obsessions came together in 2005 in the highly original The Bedside Book of Birds, a miscellany of avian representations in poetry, prose, and art throughout human history. A companion volume, The Bedside Book of Beasts (2009), explores relationships between predators and their prey. Graeme was instrumental in founding the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, he has been a council member of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, and is currently Joint Honorary President, with Margaret Atwood, of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club. He continues to lead birdwatching tours to Cuba.
An activist with a passion for the power of collective action, Graeme was a founding member and Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, as well as a founding member of The Writers’ Trust and PEN Canada. In 1973 he began a literary resource guide, concurrently developing the Book and Periodical Development Council, which he later chaired.
Graeme’s literary achievements have been recognized with the Toronto Arts Award (1990) and the Harbourfront Festival Prize (1993). He was induced as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and as an honourary Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2007.
In 1991, The Writers’ Union recognized his service to Canadian writers by establishing the Graeme Gibson Award, given “for varied and remarkable contributions to improve the circumstances of writers in Canada.”– Merilyn Simonds



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