New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction

by Kathleen Frederickson

University of Chicago

Copyright © 2000 by Kathleen Frederickson, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Marie Vautier's, New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction . Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 1998

  1. Marie Vautier's New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction offers an ambitious, wide-ranging examination of a selection of English-Canadian and Québécois fiction published between 1975 and 1985. The book's title points to the breadth of Vautier's endeavour: in choosing to invoke myth-criticism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism within a single framework, Vautier has set out to negotiate the complex relationships between three discourses that are already vast and varied fields of critical inquiry in and of themselves. After an initial chapter that presents a dense and erudite survey of the theoretical discourses that inform her study, Vautier proceeds to pair three Québécois novels (Jacques Godbout's Les Tétes à Papineau, Jovette Marchessault's Comme une enfant de la terre, and François Barcelo's La Tribu) with three English-Canadian novels (Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People, Joy Kogawa's Obasan, and George Bowering's Burning Water) in a series of close-readings on themes ranging from historiography to identity politics.
  2. Vautier's ambitiousness is commendable, and is backed by extensive research that is communicated succinctly and deftly. Nonetheless, the breadth of her study occasionally obfuscates her intentions. In discussing Ernst Cassirer's claim that "we must know what myth is before we can explain how it works" (4), Vautier objects that Cassirer "assumes that myth can be clearly defined" (125), a position she rejects on the grounds that myth can mean different things to different writers. While the many different approaches that have been taken to myth-criticism over the years back her up, the fact that she generally refuses to adopt a single myth-critical framework renders her claim that New World Myth revises "traditional markers of myth" (120) somewhat vague. Perhaps the most common thread throughout Vautier's argument is that "New World Myth" offers a plural, fluctuating, and unstable challenge to the "fixity" (280) of "traditional" mythology. Yet even Northrop Frye--whose theories about "traditional" myth Vautier cites frequently in contrast to "New World Myth"--maintains the plurality and shiftiness of myth, writing that myth allows for a "a world of swirling currents of energy that run back and forth between subject and object" (169). It is not always clear which or whose "traditional myths" New World Myth is supposed to revise.
  3. Neither is it always clear exactly what constitutes "New World Myth." Claims that Pierre Falcon in The Scorched-Wood People "addresses a recurrent theme in New World Myth" (69) or that Comme une enfant de la terre's salute to a corporate demon occurs "in typical New World Myth fashion" (128) seem geared towards placing the novels under consideration within a broader literary tradition. But what tradition exactly? Are all books published in the "New World" inherently New World Myth texts? Or is it a term that refers only to the nineteen-seventies and eighties? Are New World Myth texts necessarily Canadian or necessarily postmodern? Are the texts themselves New World Myths, or is New World Myth conveyed within them (or both)? Insofar as Vautier seems to be establishing a tradition of "New World Myth" through her examination of these novels (although with some influence from Margery Fee), it is somewhat tautological to claim that the novels demonstrate practices that are "typical" of New World Myth when this tradition remains undefined except with reference to these very novels.
  4. Moreover, it is not that her readings need the critical frame of "myth" in order to stand as astute, provocative commentary. Her discussion, for example, of the tensions between Burning Water's metafictional subversion of ". . . the importance of factual knowledge" (252) and Bowering's overuse of phrases that assert claims to truthfulness ("in fact," "if truth be known," etc.) is engaging on its own terms. So is her discussion of the relationship between memory and history in Comme une enfant de la terre, and of the intersection between Naomi's silence and her difficulties in finding a viable means of self-identification in Obasan. In many such analytical passages, though, Vautier abandons the topic of myth for long stretches at a time, frequently only returning to it with a blunt declaration that the quality she has remarked through her analysis is "typical" of New World Myth.
  5. Here again, a clearer sense of the book's stakes would be an asset. While New World Myth may be somewhat scattered in focus, it is nonetheless rewarding as a sequence of readings of Canadian fiction. In addition, given that Canadian literary criticism is frequently divided between English language and French language circles, Vautier's well-informed enterprise in comparing Québécois and English-Canadian literary traditions, which many critics would lack the linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to undertake, also makes New World Myth worthy of note.

Works Cited

Cassirer, Ernst. The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale UP, 1946.

Frye, Northrop. "The Koine of Myth: Myth as a Universally Intelligible Language." Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974 - 1988. Ed. Robert Denham. Charlottesville VA: UP of Virginia, 168-82.

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