Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Cynthia Sugars. Canadian Gothic: Literature, History, and the Spectre of Self-Invention

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Cynthia Sugars. Canadian Gothic: Literature, History, and the Spectre of Self-Invention

Article excerpt

Cynthia Sugars. Canadian Gothic: Literature, History, and the Spectre of Self-Invention. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014. xii + 291 pp. $150.

Canada is a haunted house. Cynthia Sugars argues in Canadian Gothic that Gothic has been a congenial mode for English-Canadian authors because its vision is so uncongenial; that is, its grotesque forms express the anxious historiography of a settler culture that has never felt quite at home in the land it settled. With an eye for paradox, she calls Canada an unhomely home, whose "settled unsettlement" (166) has been evoked over the years in Gothic styles that treat literature as a kind of exorcism-a "spectre of self-invention" according to her subtitle. Canadian writers articulate a "national uncanny" (73), a sensibility seeking national authen ticity from a past that promises legitimacy, only to produce monsters and ghosts. Gothic forms are perversely congenial because they summon, but promptly confound, the polarities by which European settlers justified their conquest of America such as primitive-modern, supernatural-natural, wild-civilized, body-mind, female-male. Sugars teases out these conflations to show how they have provoked an anxious national narrative. Being anxious is a good thing, however, because according to Freud, who also haunts these pages, anxiety is humanity's defining neurosis: we are all wonderfully twisted beings. Because the Gothic is both wonderful and twisted, it is just what the doctor ordered.

Applying Freud's model of loss and reward, Sugars detects a "fort-da dynamic in Canadian literature" (6) by which the spectre of nationality is simultaneously invoked and rejected, sought only to vanish. This frustrating fate does not prevent her from designing an orderly history of Gothic manifestations, from first encounters with an inhospitable land to the latest multicultural confusions. As co-editor of Penguin's bulky Canadian Literature in English, she is well acquainted with the scope of Canadian letters and is admirable in studying the nineteenth century, when romance was a dominant mode. She focuses on fiction, somewhat less on poetry, and less still on drama. It is revealing, although what it reveals is not explored, that drama is especially important in modern Native writing. Each of the seven chapters defines a Gothic style in accordance with the cultural climate of a period defined by that style. Taken in sequence, they compose a Gothic tale of their own, as the spectral is in turn projected, rejected, respected, invited, domesticated, reinvigorated, and embraced-fort-da. The chapters investigate:

1. first contact with an alien wilderness inhabited by alien people

2. the felt absence of a national ghost in a colonial outpost: "a haunt ing by an absence of haunting" (15)

3. the fondness of early English writers to dress up Quebec in Gothic garb

4. defamiliarizing the uncanny through a "double negative effect" that makes it "un-uncanny" (109), that is, companionable

5. a postcolonial Gothic of atonement and restoration surfacing in the 1960s and 1970s

6. the "meta-haunting" (180) of Gothic ethnicity

7. indigenous Gothic

Each stage is illustrated by examining the unsettling ideological effects of suitable texts. Here, the breadth of Sugars's expertise is especially useful and her analysis is adept. The fact that Canadian Gothic is a volume in "Gothic Literary Studies," an international series published in Wales, may explain why readers are also given patient guidance and plot summaries.

As my list of themes shows, there is no literary motive that cannot be gothicized, that is, read as contemplating its own insufficiency, exclusion, or erasure. …

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