The publication of Bruce Serafins Colins Big Thing is a major intellectual and literary event for the West Coast. Or rather, it ought to be, but the book likely wont get the A-list play it deserves. As a reader, Ive known about Serafin for almost a quarter century now. Nearly everything hes written has been worth reading, and I and lot of others have regretted his reluctance to write and publish more.
A first book by Serafin was rumoured to be in the works 15 years ago, and even then, people were saying Its about time, and so the publication of Colins Big Thing is cause for an overdue celebration. That the book has been released as a weakly-edited paperback from a small publisher is a shame, but it isnt an accident. Serafin, who put together, all too briefly during the early 1990s, the remarkable Vancouver Review and then helped bring it back to life again this year before retreating once more, has difficulty standing up for his own abilities and skills and he hasnt measured them accurately against those of his contemporaries. While the rest of us have babbled and published, Serafin imposed on himself long periods of resentful silence. Hes one of those solitary human beings who insist that everything be done on his extremely exacting terms. Those terms strain the patience of publishers and other would-be collaborators.
Colins Big Thing is not so much a personal memoir as history of the unique netherworld British Columbia does its best to hide from the outside world. Serafin has created an unyielding record of its end-of-the-land brutality, and of the human and intellectual toll it takes on anyone who lives outside the narrow strip of New Age chrome and brass that rings the outer shores of Burrard Inlet. The tourism industry calls this strip Vancouver, and it has a population of about 200,000 souls too well-heeled for their own good, frantically in search of today, tomorrow, the day after-and its shiniest commodities. Most British Columbians never get to live in this Vancouver, but a larger population lives within the physical and psychic wreckage of its frontier, trapped in a netherworld of their own-and late capitalisms Darwinist-expectations.
Serafin has spent his adult life observing the B.C. netherworld at close quarters, refusing to accept the comforts of that glitzy Vancouver, which he loathes with a passion that is both instinctive and perverse. The result is Colins Big Thing, which contains the most elegant and accurate-and depressing-depictions of the netherworld that have ever been put to paper.
The house is down by the docks, on Odlum Drive. Its old, stuccoed, but with a noticeable touch: next to it, separated from it by a tangle of blackberry bushes, stands a wooden building whose apartments seem to have rented out to whores: dozens of white condoms, obviously thrown from the apartment buildings windows, hang from the brambles in the sun. The picket fence sags. The old concrete walkway is almost lost in the kneehigh grass. The stink from a chicken processing plant a few blocks away makes me lift my arm to my nose as I walk up the steps to the porch.
This passage, which I picked by opening the book and reading a page at random, is typical but hardly exemplary of how good his eye is. There are literally hundreds of passages as well drawn. The book is an unblinking articulation of something everyone on the West Coast knows is there and which nearly everyone-writers included-with sufficient physical and emotional resources studiously avoids.
Is extracting the netherworld from Vancouvers upscale facades a worthwhile project? Yes, certainly, if you compare Serafins Colins Big Thing to, say, the superficial account of Vancouver in Doug Couplands City of Glass. And for Serafin himself, the answer is clearly yes. It is also, I suspect, the precondition for everything he may subsequently publish, of which I hope there will now be more.
Serafins netherworld history isnt divisible from Serafins private history-how else to get at it, or, for that matter, to survive it, which many dont. Among the things Serafin has survived is nearly two decades of working in the postal system, most of them spent on the night shift inside the bowels of the citys Main Post Office, which he describes with a specificity that captures both the excruciating boredom of routinized labour and its effect on himself and his fellow-workers. Few have written from inside any work environment this accurately before, and Serafins unsentimental but often generous treatment of it puts a lot of dull work-writing-a West Coast specialty-to shame:
Its very quiet. I hear no laughter, none of the vivacity youd find in the daytime. People are too tired for that. Their murmuring voices, the way they half-turn their heads to each other, their pauses and occasional sighs, and along with that, the rumbling sound of the big belts going overhead that you can only hear late at night when the machines are off-all this contributes to the sense I have
of being in a spaceship far away from the rest of society.
But Serafins private history is occasionally more problematic-as literature-than his record of the netherworld. Throughout the book, he operates, and writes, by an elevated emotional vocabulary, one that describes emotional conditions I understand abstractly but have rarely experienced: Serafin yearns for people, places and times; his heart pounds with desire and fear; he is overwhelmed with anguish, and frequently exalted by events or ideas, or is shattered by them. I happen to believe that this extreme emotional vocabulary is accurate to the way he experiences the world. But I also believe that it engenders-and renders-both intensities and volumes of emotional experience that are extremely uncommon.
One of the apparent difficulties in the book is that Serafin seems unaware of how extreme and uncommon his responses are. For me, one of the interests of his perceptual system is that it is oblivious and hypersensitive at the same time. . .Given the above, it is a miracle that Colins Big Thing is as successful as it is. Yet on virtually any literary and sociological terms I can name, this is an interesting and important document, from the terrifying laconic adolescent fratricide Serafin witnessed as a child to his heartbreakingly futile attempts to make contact with his French-Canadian mother as an adult by sending her copies of Michel Tremblays plays; and through the countless fine details he offers of Vancouvers netherworld to his chilling account of what its like to work inside Vancouvers postal system. Again and again, Serafin shows a willingness to gaze directly into whatever is in front of him. . .
To be aware of his surroundings the way he is involves a strain of cognitive courage few writers are capable of mustering. It is kept from sentimentality by the virtuosity of his writing, and by the relentless will with which he pursues his goal of describing the realities of the West Coast netherworld and the precise nature of the anxiety it invokes in him and those he cares about.
Yet for all Serafins virtuosity, there are also passages of careless and occasionally overblown writing in the book. There are also passages in the book that are hermetic, and will be inscrutable to anyone unfamiliar with the citys east-of-the-beaches landscapes. He employs a curiously inconsistent naming code throughout the book, providing the real names of some people, and using pseudonyms for others. Certainly the last two of these weaken the book as a historical document, although not enough to make it dismissible. A competent editor would have talked him out of the name codes and would have cleared out the local shorthand, but Im pretty sure Serafin refused to allow that kind of editing. Its part and parcel of his distrust of the instruments-formal literature and the larger community of writers-whose acceptance hes just as clearly after.
The books title is taken from a chapter, late in the book, about the cartoon artist Colin Upton, who displays nearly all of the character traits and fidelities Serafin is too shy to claim for himself. The title is therefore revealing and not inaccurate, unless it makes readers miss the fact that Bruce Serafins Big Thing is much, much bigger than it appears. Despite its flaws, Colins Big Thing is a major West Coast cultural event, and hopefully, the precursor to even bigger ones.
Brian Fawcett (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada