‘The Sentimentalists’ Is a Novel That Lives Up to Its Title

[11 January 2011]

By Zachary Houle

Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel The Sentimentalists has been grabbing headlines in Canada, for both good and bad reasons. The good is that, this past November, Skibsrud won the $40,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which has the richest purse of all awards in Canadian letters, and became the youngest recipient of the award at age 30 in the 16 years that the award has been handed out. Not bad for a writer who came out of nowhere, whose work was associated with the tiny Nova Scotia-based Gaspereau Press after being rejected by major publishing houses, and who wrote the book as her thesis paper for Concordia University’s creative writing program in Montreal.

The bad? Well, that gets a bit complicated. First of all, the novel was originally published in 2009 by the aforementioned Gaspereau Press, which still makes its books in old-fashioned, hand-bound ways. After the award was announced, the indie publisher made it known that it was only willing to produce the book with the greatest attention to antiquated detail and care, meaning that it would put out just 1,000 copies of The Sentimentalists at a maximum per week. (The book’s initial print run was 800 books.) This essentially would have meant that the novel would have been kept out of reach for curious Canadian book buyers, as demand would have obviously outstripped supply. Indeed, after the award was handed out, the largest bookselling chain in the country, Chapters-Indigo, didn’t even have a single copy of The Sentimentalists in stock.

This pronouncement drove up the price of the novel on Amazon, though it also caused a bit of a spike in e-book purchases. Still, for a few days it seemed that Gaspereau Press was willing to sell its author up the river by making her work out-of-print for most readers by not being able to keep up with general interest. Thankfully, Gaspereau was able to make a deal with the much larger Douglas & McIntyre publishing house, who was willing to publish 30,000 trade paperback copies of the book within a period of a week or so (with enough paper on stock for another 20,000 copies).

To put those numbers into perspective, a Canadian book is considered a bestseller in its home country if it has sold 5,000 copies during its entire publishing run. In the end, Skibsrud wound up in a win-win situation: not only would her book find a captive audience through the massive trade paperback run, becoming a best-seller six times over in the process, but Gaspereau would be able to continue to produce the novel in limited quantities for what could be termed an audience of, basically, book collectors. 

However, the controversy didn’t end there. In the days after the award was handed out, it was reported in the Canadian media that one of the Giller Prize’s three jurors, British novelist Ali Smith, had praised The Sentimentalists to a friend who happened to be a literary agent, who was then able to secure foreign publishing rights to the book – Skibsrud had been an unagented writer at the time. As a result, The Sentimentalists is now expected to appear in Europe sometime in the spring of 2011. This would be seemingly good news for the once-struggling Skibsrud; however, the problem was that Smith had made the accolade before the winner of the prize had been announced. Clearly, this did not look good, and raised all sorts of spectres of potential nepotism and impartial judging of the book.

You have to wonder if Smith was playing taste-maker, taking a hereto obscure writer and seeking to propel her to literary stardom by both making an acclamation to her literary circle friends, and wrangling other jurors to select this book for a major literary award. Talking publically about the books under selection was a definite no-no, and it has cast a bit of a pall on The Sentimentalists, suggesting that it is merely an example of an underdog that had been almost prodded and groomed through an award’s selection process to be a well-performing literary sensation.

In fact, all of the hype has taken some of the limelight away from The Sentimentalists as a piece of literature, as though the book has been all but forgotten about due to the controversies surrounding its publication and selection for the Giller Prize. Well, I hate to admit this, but the hoopla surrounding the novel is, in fact, more interesting that what’s between its covers. The Sentimentalists is, indeed, a sentimental book, recalling the writing style of Canada’s two famous literary Margarets – that would be Atwood and Laurence – and is ensconced in the tradition of old-style Canadian Literature. It has all of the hallmarks of a book published in Canada circa 1972, full of purple prose (courtesy of Skibsrud’s start as a published poet), a seemingly anti-American tract, and a classic rural setting, despite the fact that culturally speaking Canada is now, by and large, comprised of urban communities. All of these traits are so in abundance in old-school Canadian Literature, that anything new that follows that way of writing is bound to be considered stodgy by default.

In fact, The Sentimentalists reminds me of the boring Canadian crud like The Stone Angel that they made us read in high school English classes, akin to the excitement of eating a bowl of bran cereal without any milk. It’s little wonder that this book got rejected from Canada’s major publishing houses in the first go-round. How this book won a major literary award in Canada is honestly beyond me, excepting for the obvious realization that the book jurors, particularly Smith, might have been hoping to create the equivalent of the book world’s Pitchfork effect, so they could then take all of the credit for “discovering” a new writer.

The Sentimentalists, essentially, has a thread-bare plot. It involves a drunken and morphine-addicted Vietnam War vet named Napoleon Haskell (and we don’t learn his first name until some 50-odd pages into the book – there’s a “literary” move for you), who decides to leave his trailer in Fargo, North Dakota and head north to the obviously fictitious eastern Ontario, Canada, small town of, get this, Casablanca. (And, yes, Skibsrud has her characters make the obvious Bogart impersonations through her work.) There, he moves in with the father of a dead war comrade.

Then, Napoleon’s daughter decides to move in, too, fleeing from a man who was sleeping around on her. Then, Napoleon begrudgingly begins to talk about his wartime experiences to the daughter, whom in turn seeks to gain a better understanding of her father, and why he’s turned out to be such a buffoon in his life, which is nearing its final days as he suffers from some unknown illness. Then… he dies. The end.

It’s interesting to note that the male protagonist is a bit of a jerk, for I took a film studies class in university where we had to read an article, written in the early-‘70s, positing that Canadian male film characters were either bullies, buffoons or clowns – and that there seemed to be no way out of that general characterization of men based on the overwhelming evidence that the author was able to argue in favour of. Even though Skibsrud is writing semi-autobiographically here – her own father was a Vietnam War vet and died in 2008 – I have to wonder if she read that same article, because she’s got the character of an unlovable, clueless Canadian moron right down to a T.

For one, Napoleon tries to build a boat, but never gets around to finishing it. He tries to kick alcohol, then finds himself downing more than half of a two-four case of beer while cooped up with his friend’s father. Before moving up to Canada, and we’re never clear exactly why he makes that move, he’s essentially trailer trash (though very well read trailer trash). It’s hard to really find much that is remarkable about Napoleon, and perhaps that’s the point of the book.

If Only We Had a Map...

What’s worse, though, is that Skibsrud’s narrative is completely confusing to the point of near-impenetrability. The novel starts out in Napoleon’s trailer in Fargo, North Dakota, and then we’re treated to a flashback involving his full family that takes place somewhere called Orono. Now, there’s an Orono in Maine, but there’s also a very small community east of Toronto with the same name. It’s only with a bit of surmising on the part of the reader that Skibsrud means Maine, though it is never named.

Then, Napoleon discovers his friend’s father lives only a four hour drive away from him. At this point, the Canadian reader might go, “huh?”, because Fargo is not a four hour drive away from eastern Ontario. (That drive would probably take a couple of days.) Maine does not seem to be a four hour drive away from eastern Ontario either, especially when you consider that it might take a bit of time to get through the Canada-US border. At this point, I personally had no idea where the story was taking place.

Things get progressively more confusing from there. The daughter is then wandering around a city with streets named Halifax, Division and Dominion. These are all Canadian-sounding place names, so I figured that the character was wandering around Halifax, Nova Scotia. It turns out a few pages later, however, that the daughter was living in New York. At this point, I was wishing that Skibsrud had included a map with the book, so that readers would be able to parse such a simple thing as the proper setting.

To be a bit more charitable, there is an interesting aspect to the novel, though Skibsrud sort of glosses it over. Casablanca, as fictitious as it may be, is based off of real-life eastern Ontario towns along the St. Lawrence River that had to be relocated circa 1959 to make way for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and its shipping lanes. In essence, entire villages were either moved or flooded over. To this day, there are old roads that lead right to the water’s edge and then are submerged underwater, and I believe there might be remnants of old buildings that must exist deep under the water’s surface, creating a sort of modern day Atlantis.

However, Skibsrud does nothing with this. Casablanca, for all intents and purposes, could be any old town anywhere in Ontario, really. She has, perhaps, an interesting metaphor for the submerged houses being a substitute of Napoleon’s deep memories of the war that he is a bit unwilling to share and remember, but the metaphor is just so fleeting, it’s almost as though it doesn’t exist in and of itself. It’s too bad, for there was a real missed opportunity here to plunge to a depth and richness that might have made The Sentimentalists a bit more engaging.

The novel does get a little more action-packed in its second half, which involves a recounting of an incident where American soldiers burned down a village and killed innocent civilians in Vietnam in 1967, but the narrative, once again, is jumbled and packed with incidental characters who only add confusion, not clarity. (Which might have been the point, but I digress.) This is also, naturally, where the book gets a little anti-American, which is par for the course in post-colonial Canadian fiction, and while that’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself, I’ve just seen this kind of thing crop up way too often in the Great White North’s fiction to be utterly effective, anymore.

By the end of The Sentimentalists, I had to exclaim to myself, “Really? This was the best Canadian book published during the eligibility period for the Giller?” While I’m happy that Skibsrud won the award for being so young – I have been told that being 35-years-old, as I currently am, is considered to be incredibly youthful for a fiction writer – the book does read like a novelist’s debut, and I can only hope that Skibsrud only matures as a wordsmith from here on out. Her writing style is so rarefied and poetic, which might be an appealing trait to the snooty and elitist, that it just comes at the expense of precision. It’s as though Skibsrud was in love with her writing as she penned this novel, though she does create moments of lyricism, which comes across in the following passage where a young Napoleon is saying goodbye to his father and mother before leaving for Vietnam:

How he extended his hand to his son, and how Napoleon had taken it, but limply, and then, after thinking for a moment, how the father had taken up the son very briefly in his arms in an attempt at an embrace. One that fell, however, so short of intimacy that for Napoleon the gesture rather emphasized instead of bridged the divide.

Still, Skibsrud’s use of language is just, to me, so over the top that I almost would have preferred that she wrote The Sentimentalists as a long-form poem. Clearly, this is a book that shoots for academia, which probably isn’t surprising considering that it came from there, and is just full of so many hallmarks of Can Lit that the entire book almost seems clichéd. Maybe that was appealing to those judging the Giller, but I can honestly point to better writers who have deserved, and failed to win, the prize in the past.

For example, Ann-Marie MacDonald wrote an amazing novel called Fall On Your Knees that was published in the mid-‘90s, and she lost to, wouldn’t you know?, Margaret Atwood. Also, the late Paul Quarrington wrote in his memoir Cigar Box Banjo that he fell into a funk when his 2008 book The Ravine failed to make the Giller shortlist. To me, that book is one of the best things to come out of Canada since poutine, and I fail to understand why it didn’t even make the shortlist, let alone win. Maybe because it was populist, funny, profound and littered with pop cultural references? You know, the kind of stuff that Canadians would want to actually read.

All in all, I’m trying to find something nice to say about The Sentimentalists and all I can think of is that it is, indeed, a novel that lives up to its title. It’s also, thankfully, a short read. And that’s about it.

The Sentimentalists represents a lost opportunity by wrapping itself in the tropes of old-style Canadian Literature, and a lost opportunity for the Giller to pick a book that’s truly progressive and, you know, urban. There still is lots of time in front of Skibsrud to hone her craft and write something truly compelling.

I’m not so sure about the Giller Prize. It’s been around for 16 years, and it, by and large, seems to pick the most tear-inducing boring books as the best that a country has to offer. While Skibsrud’s future still is yet to be written, I can say in all honesty that 2010 might be the year that I finally stopped caring who won the Giller Prize. In the end, the following might be the most controversial thing that might have happened to the award during this annum: an interested reader tuning out of the work being produced in his own back yard.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/134863-the-sentimentalists-a-novel-that-lives-up-to-its-title/