Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2009

Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

Late Nights on Air won the Giller Prize (in prestige, the Canadian equivalent of the Miles Franklin Award) but it’s not a book that’s had much publicity in Australia.  That might be because it’s an introspective sort of book that takes quite a while to engage the reader. 

BEWARE: SPOILERS    

A small town radio station in Northern Canada is used to bring the cast of characters together.  There’s Harry, who mucked up a promising career down south by drinking too much, Dido who’s an exotic outsider with a sexy voice; Gwen – pale and wan and running away from everything; and Eddy, who seemed like a sleaze to me, but Dido ends up in his bed.  All these people have failed relationships, and it suits them to be somewhere remote and easygoing where they don’t have to worry too much about fitting in.  

By the requisite 50 pages, I had decided that I wasn’t much interested in any of them, but I did like the portrait of a Canada I know very little about.  It intrigued me perhaps because there was a time in my family’s life when my father’s career meant that a choice had to be made between moving to Australia or to Canada.   So it’s just a fluke that I grew up as a hybrid Aussie instead of a hybrid Canadian. We are city people, so it’s unlikely that my parents would have settled as far north as remote Yellowknife,  but landscapes of its type would have been part of my (hybrid) national consciousness  in the same way that Australia’s Red Centre is.  My interest in the land of the midnight sun is what kept me going when the plot itself seemed as lost as the lost souls in the story…  

Some great books, of course, use a plot based just on everyday events to achieve greatness.  Patrick White’s Tree of Man and James Joyce’s Ulysses are obvious examples.  Nothing much happens; the plot is a structure around which to play with language and to experiment with literary ideas or styles.  But Late Nights on Air doesn’t seem to be doing that.  I checked out the characteristics of Modernism in case Hay was cunningly doing something with that but no, none that I could pick up on, though of course it’s always possible that it’s a reworking of an ancient Inuit myth or something…  

By page 75, I was starting to wonder if they were ever going to start on the portentous canoeing trip promised by the back cover blurb.  A quarter of the way through the book I was weary of the political agendas (development v wilderness; tradition v modernism for indigenous peoples) and I knew more about the technology of broadcasting in the seventies than I wanted to.  I was also starting to notice some very long sentences, always a fatal sign for me when I’m reading.  (There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a long sentence; it’s noticing only that it’s long that’s the problem, and it usually portends that the book is going to take longer than it deserves for me to read it.)  

Although based in Yellowknife, where lawyers for the pipeline companies and the native organisations set out their formal positions, the enquiry would travel over the course of the next two years to settlements up and down the Mackenzie Valley, to communities on the Beaufort Sea and in the Yukon, and even to major cities in southern Canada, since at issue was the future of the northern wilderness, alternately considered a last frontier by developers and an indispensable homeland by the native people, but undeniably one of the last wonders of the earth. (p75)   

This excerpt sounds more like an undergraduate politics essay than a prize-winning novel to me…  

WARNING: CRITICAL SPOILER 

By p122, I was beginning to wonder whether this one should join the short list of books I have jettisoned without finishing.  Gwen the novice radio presenter and Ralph the photographer meet up at the beach.  He’s taking endless photos of watery weeds.   Each one is subtly different, he says.  (Hmm, I’m thinking, you must have to like seaweed a lot to spend your time doing this.)   

And then we get the foreshadowing, as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, something will happen, eventually.’  ‘The events of the following summer would make these pictures of Ralph’s almost intolerably moving.  But Gwen could not know that now.’  This was so clumsy it made me stop reading altogether. (That’s the last thing I want when it’s a book that I just want to finish so that I can read something better.) Ok, something bad is going to happen and it’s not going to happen to the seaweed.  Or to Gwen, since clearly she’s going to be around as well.  Clunk, clunk, and the plot pieces fit together: G+R+S-(G+S) = R, right?  

Hornby's cabin (Source: Wikipedia)

And how will this happen?  Well, let’s see.  We know there’s a fateful canoe trip coming – the blurb tells us so.  There have been plenty of heavy-handed allusions to the death of the Arctic explorer John Hornby and his trusting companions, and there’s been a retelling of events on pp 106-9 that suggests that it was Hornby’s failure to make preparations which caused the tragedy.   

Fortunately the book improves (a lot) once the trip begins.  There are some lucky escapes from peril, and yes, it does seem as if the group has over-planned the gourmet treats and the book-readings at the expense of a rifle to deal with wolves and bears.  Still, you know they aren’t going to starve like Hornby & Co, and this makes it more interesting.  The luck seems a little contrived here and there but it turns out that the omens and portents and tea-leaf/seaweed readings are all just a little bit wrong.   

Back at Yellowknife, the ends need to be tidied up, some predictable, and others not quite so.  (Dido, for example, doesn’t meet the end you might expect if you know your Virgil, depending on your view of self-sacrifice). 

So why did the judges award this book, which is IMO ok but uneven, the prestigious Giller Prize?  I get the impression from other reviews that a couple are a little bit doubtful too, but they’re right about the evocation of the tundra being superb.  See the New York Times, Quill and Quire, The Walrus and the effusive The Washington Post.  (I was disappointed to find that Kevin from Canada hadn’t reviewed it: I would have liked to know what he thought of it because he writes perceptive reviews that I have learned to trust.)

Author: Elizabeth Hay

Title: Late Nights on Air

Publisher: Maclehose Press, Quercus, London, 2007

ISBN: 9781847245502

Source: Personal copy, $29.95 from Benn’s Books, Bentleigh.


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa: I wasn’t blogging in 2007 when Late Nights in Air was published, so I have never reviewed it. It was my choice for the Giller that year, so I liked it more than you did.

    I think your critical observations are quite accurate, but those circumstances landed differently with me. All of Hay’s books feature incomplete “lost souls” who can’t quite come to terms with the ordinary world around them and devise their own notions of escape. That’s where I suspect this novel does not travel that well beyond Canada — most Canadians probably have first hand knowledge of a “lost soul” friend who decided that Yellowknife or elsewhere in the North was where they could find themselves. (I suspect Australia has an equivalent — I found both Breath and The Pages reminded me of this novel). They can’t even make Yellowknife work as an escape but the canoe trip becomes the voyage of discovery.

    Late Nights on Air is not a perfect book by any means and does require a level of reader tolerance. I also suspect that previous familiarity with Hay’s work (Small Change is an excellent short story collection) had a significant impact on my reaction to this novel.

  2. Hi Kevin, greetings of the season!
    You see, I was quite right, you do put a book in context for me, you clever man…and doesn’t this raise an interesting point about how we readers have come to include reading the blogs we trust about the books we’re interested in? I was bothered by my reaction to Late Nights…I wrote what I thought about it, and then as I try to do when not enamoured of a book, I went looking for alternative opinions – and was quite dismayed when I couldn’t find yours *droll pout*.
    I have, using my reading journal, blogged a couple of books that I read pre-blog, because I wanted to put the latest work in the context of the author’s body of work and ongoing preoccupations. But this isn’t something I want to do often…
    I’d be interested to know what you think about the role of contemporary editing in the kind of problems that Late Nights has. Reading someone like Penelope Lively for example, or Timothy Findlay, or Margaret Atwood, whose writing matured in what we can now see were the golden days of literary editing, it’s obvious that everything about their writing improved over time. The late work of Iris Murdoch shows what happens when a writer’s status makes an editor apparently redundant.
    But today, so many works seem to get through the editing process with problems that should have been resolved, and really good writers are moving through their careers without being told basics like, go home and cut the intro by 2/3 and then come back. Maybe this is because there’s an expectation that books be longer now, to give the consumer value for money? Maybe it’s because writers are expected to churn out more books more quickly so there’s no time for supportive editing? I’m reading Thea Astley at the moment (who I suspect would not travel well beyond Australia) and the book (1972) is only 158 pages long. These days a book like that is called a novella!
    Anyway, it’s great to hear from you. I hope it’s not too cold and miserable, there seems to be extreme weather everywhere these days. Best wishes, Lisa

  3. Hay is published by McClelland and Stewart and I am pretty sure her editor is Ellen Seligman (sorry the book is storage shelved and I don’t have it readily at hand to confirm), who is regarded as Canada’s best editor and who does have an international reputation. So I don’t think a lack of editing is the issue — my guess would be that Hay’s narrative style just doesn’t fit your tastes. I think you would find her other novels share the same problems you found with this book — she is an author I like but don’t love, with my concerns being similar to those you articulate. Perhaps that is why I found the short story collection more of a favorite — there is less room for distractive rambling. My own theory is that the growth in book clubs is a major factor in encouraging this kind of narrative style. The less disciplined style (from my point of view) does have the advantage of opening more entry points into the book, which fuels the kind of discussion that book clubs encourage.

    I don’t know if you read my blog essay on comparisons in Australian-Candian fiction —
    http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/an-essay-similarities-in-australian-and-canadian-fiction/
    I’d be very interested in your thoughts if you have. And would welcome any suggestions you have on antipodean novels that might lead me to further comparisons.


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