Whaling (a critique)

Victory MeatI’d considered calling this blog “Notes from an underpublished author” but worried I would somehow set my fate in concrete, jinx my last chance at writerly recognition, or that an agent or publisher would come along and say, “Sigh, a defeatist attitude. He’ll never sell. If only he had called his blog ‘I am so awesome!’ Shucks. Too bad.” But underpublished is a relative term, right? (No, it’s not – cousin is a relative term, as is uncle.) I mean, I remember once thinking that I wanted just one story published, that was it, that was my goal. Then no, five stories. Then, well I must have a book. Then, but that book must be a big one, not this slender…

Anyway, the point of this (that) opening paragraph is to lead into a self-glamourizing Google-found critique of one of my stories (“The Whales”) that appeared in a UK thesis on Atlantic Canadian fiction. As far as I (aka Google) can tell, this is one of only two published/public critiques of my work, not counting Goodreads reviews (Ryan Bigge mentions the same story in his essay “The New Geographers”, Descant 125, Summer 2004). The thesis, by Will Smith, focusses on the Random House Canada anthology Victory Meat: New Fiction from Atlantic Canada (2003) and is well worth reading. You can download the pdf here.

On my story, Smith writes:

“Lee D. Thompson’s ‘The Whales’ is an example of a disregard for realistic mimesis. Poetic in language, and peppered with reference to the ocean and to real street names, Thompson’s narrative is a dream-like tale of whales who migrate to the suburbs. In this fantasy, “the younger whale ripples to our driveway, flattens our prickly hedges” seemingly looking to reconnect nature and the oft-imagined bland anaesthetised vision of suburbia. Yet the fantasy turns into a nightmare as the last lines hint towards a cull of these fragile symbols, “I will pray for the sleeping children, whose hearts are innocent of all this, and who will soon wake to hear the shrill engines of slicing chainsaws…”

This is not conventional prose in the tradition of Ernest Buckler or Thomas Raddall, and in using a form of fable the writing shows a confidence in self reference. The home place, that other bastion of Atlantic Canadian literature, is similarly invaded in unexpected ways, using iconic themes of the East coast, the whales and the ocean, and yet evading ‘real’ life. Still, the action is a threat to stability. Meanwhile the active reference to the Mall parking lot sees an air of development and contemporaneity. This is not a story which invokes the past in any conventional sense, only in mythologising the whales’ “deep racial memory […] for their distant ancestors were once landbound”.

Trauma and natural angst instead preoccupy the family as they cling to the remnants of some absurd nostalgia.”

Will Smith, Re-Placing Regionalisms: Atlantic Canada in 21st Century Narratives

I remember working on this story, which is rare -I forget the process fairly quickly. I had a half-remembered dream image – these UFO-like ‘whales’ moving up the street and the feeling that this was old, ancient, recurring. The symbolism was loaded, but open. I remember writing at night (also rare), wanting to use an unnatural kind of dialogue, a hyper-real (surreal?) prose style. I’d come to love repetition, a sentence-building, layering, playing with meaning and ambiguity (all things I still love). I think I’d been reading lots of Donald Barthelme after binging on Joyce (I’d read Ulysses in six days – how is that possible?). I’d certainly been reading William Goyen’s hyper-poetic The House of Breath. And the part of me that’d wanted be a science fiction author hadn’t quite died (maybe it still hasn’t). In any case, realistic mimesis (a phrase I hadn’t seen before) has never much appealed to me.

Do I still like this story? I do. It was an experiment, as were most of the stories I wrote during this period. No agents or publishers came knocking down my door asking for more “Whales” and as just as well – for every success like this there were four weird failures, stories of sentient vending machines and cannibalistic gangs of midget T.S. Eliots and one about Mr Sump, I remember, come to rescue us from the waste of our future.

Every once in a while I’ll hear from someone who’s either read “The Whales” or my story “Why Do Birds?” in the Vagrant Revue of New Fiction. I guess those stories do stand out, even within their respective collections (not for being better, but being other). Sometimes they tell me they loved the story, and sometimes they just slowly nod, as I am, at this moment, typing this last line.

One thought on “Whaling (a critique)

  1. There is so much to be said regarding assessments. Feigning my usual disregard for buying into or selling I offer this comparison of the written word to objects of art.
    In a price guide for antique and classic cameras written for collectors the following lines appear on the opening page.
    “The price of an antique or collectable camera is solely dependant on the mood of the buyer and seller at the time of the transaction.”
    This taught me a lot about the “value” of things.
    I would like to offer the same approach for the value of written words.
    The value of written words are solely dependant on the mood of the reader at the time of the reading.
    Some are never in the mood for love. Some people are always in the mood for love.

    Liked by 1 person

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