The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This Post Could Be Bound in a Nutshell and Call Itself King of Infinite Space Were it Not That it has Bad Dreams

by Andrew Tibbetts

Christopher Booker’s sixth basic plot is tragedy. This narrative arc is a real downer. Things start out pretty well. In fact, somebody-in-particular has it made: a king, a prince, a salesman with a happy family. But human nature isn’t perfect and that somebody-in-particular has a flaw: jealousy, ambition, lust. Just by being themselves they start to screw things up. Things get bad. Then worse. And by the end, we’re talking bummer: catastrophe, death, dishonour.

I don’t buy the theory that our appreciation of tragedy comes from empathy. Oh, we may shed a tear or two, but we like the mighty to fall, it’s enjoyable. It’s a favourite story from high art - Oedipus, Othello - to supermarket tabloids - Lindsay, Lohan. It makes us feel better about our own lives, maybe? Tragedy is “I told you so” blown up to epic proportions. And while, “I told you so” over a friend’s ill-conceived haircut is pleasant, “I told you so” over the collapse of a kingdom is grand entertainment.

Not much Canadian Literature identifies as tragedy- even the low-level supermarket checkout kind we have to import from America. Partly this is because we don’t have kings; for a good fall, you have to set yourself up first, and Canadians don’t like to do that. In fact, that might be an element of our national character. We avoid tragedy by never letting ourselves get too big for our britches. Many of us had years of helpful training at the hands of relatives and school teachers- ‘don’t be a show off’, ‘who do you think you are?’, ‘look at that Andrew Tibbetts prancing around like the Queen of friggin Sheba’- sigh. And a common point of pride is that we aren’t as loud as our American neighbours, not as showy, not as temptingly pedestalled.

(If we did have a Canadian Tragedy, the main character’s flaw would turn out to be that he or she was too nice. Can’t you picture it?)

The other problem is our tendency to be resilient. I would have said The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is our best tragedy, but when Duddy pops up in later Richler novels - is it just the one? Barney’s Version? - he doesn’t really seem ‘fallen’. Maybe in Canada we’ve stopped believing that ‘flaws’ will necessarily ruin your career. Or maybe we’ve seen one too many ‘comeback tours’. Or one too many Hollywood sequels. (In fact if the Ancient Greeks were working now we might be deluged with Oedipus II: Rex Harder, Antigone III: Revenge of the King, or Medea’s Hair Salon in which “a woman fallen on hard times returns to her home town to open a hair salon. And finds true love”.)

Maybe the days of tragedy are gone, the simple days when a man who was down stayed down, when a woman who had murdered her children to spite her ex never did manage to put the past behind her and move on. Tragedy is when the past won’t be budged and what happened can’t ever be undone. Perhaps we creatures of self-help and self-definition don’t have the stomach for that.

Perhaps we’ll find more congenital ground in Booker’s seventh basic plot- Rebirth.


Blogger Anne said...

We're waiting for Ms. Harvor to weigh in.

Wed Nov 14, 03:33:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I like tragedy. It fits my world view. But you're right about Canadians. Not enough chile peppers for genuine tragedy.

Wed Nov 14, 11:40:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Duddy shows up in Solomon Gursky was Here, also, I seem to recall. As for Canadian Tragedy, doesn't Beautiful Losers end on a downer? Well, the whole book is a downward spiral, about trying to gain enlightenment; I just can't remember if he settles for something close or not...

Anyway, it's true. We don't like our peeps to get too big for their britches. That's why so many are so excited by this latest Mulroney chapter. Gleeful, in fact. Though, it's hardly tragic.

Thu Nov 15, 01:03:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I prefer tragedy in any form. I like my life happy though.

Fri Nov 16, 08:52:00 pm GMT-5  

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