"In All Things, a Slippage in the Works": Reading Place, Gender, and Genre in Michael Helm's in the Place of Last Things

By MacRae, Ian James | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2015 | Go to article overview

"In All Things, a Slippage in the Works": Reading Place, Gender, and Genre in Michael Helm's in the Place of Last Things


MacRae, Ian James, English Studies in Canada


He said the best art was most beautiful in those places where necessity broke out of the form. He told them to consider the shapes they'd drawn of their lives and asked if there weren't lines that would be truer if they were broken.

Michael Helm In the Place of Last Things

Russell Littlebury, the protagonist of Michael Helm's second novel, is a 230-pound former hockey hooligan with hands that fold naturally into fists. He has returned home to Colliston, Saskatchewan, and is grieving his father's death as the novel opens, a young man accustomed to death and cold and the irruption of a sudden, invariably "masculine" violence. (1) Against his father Mike, a war hero and local legend, Russ "measured himself and all others" and "he and they together fell short" (6). These are taciturn men who share "the unspoken agreement that just about everything went without saying" (39). This doubly encoded, entirely complicitous silence says much about Russ's relationship with his father, which is deeply committed and loving but also repressive and emotionally inarticulate. (2) It speaks also to Helm's version of the Canadian "prairie novel" as a familiar and received tradition that treats disappearing hamlets and foreclosed farms, big skies and emptied places, what Robert Kroetsch once called "unassuming people and an assuming environment" (213). With an ambivalence that characteristically oscillates between a learned, critical intelligence and a sensitive, more compassionate empathy, "At times Russ regarded this code as so much gender-locked horseshit, but usually he found it beautiful" (39).

Helm figures the northern prairie as a "featureless" landscape with few markers for memory, a land of "all-effacing snows" (20), and an ideal place for "forgetting" (6). In Colliston when things warms up it is still -20[degrees]c; in "The last five-week stretch thered been thirteen funerals, the usual winter kill" (5). At least since the work of Laurie Ricou (1973) and Dick Harrison's Unnamed Country (1977) up until at least the late 1990s, the English literature of the Canadian Prairies has been constructed "as if landscape dominates culture and geography effaces history" (Calder and Wardaugh 8). (3) These familiar and generic forms are clearly present in Helm's work and are etched quite close to the surface of things. This baldness of presentation is in fact the point, or at least one of them, such that we cannot miss the novel's method. As this paper suggests, the principal subject of this novel is not genre itself but how genre is read, how the reading and rewriting practised by Helm mobilizes familiar elements in a range of regional and generic traditions, and how in making these visible also makes them vulnerable, to contemplation, analysis, and critical revision. Helm's writing transforms a range of regionalist traditions, and associated masculinist subjectivities, into sites of metamorphosis, loci that can be productively tapped: deformed, disparaged, ultimately dispersed. The prairie novel is in the end only one of at least five genres that Helm's novel will reimagine, recontextualize and reinscribe: a familiar form to be constructed, supplemented, and partially dissembled in the place of last things.

In the Place of Last Things (2004) moves from a prairie novel of sons and fathers, dying towns, and repossessed farms to an urban campus novel, with Russ as professor of liberal arts at Wellington College and familiar questions of pedagogy, ethics, social justice, academic activism, and careerism at its core to an urban metropolitan romance, with conventions of courtship and labyrinths of desire finding expression in art galleries, bookstores, and on public transportation, as Russ becomes involved with a mixed race, trilingual, bisexual fellow professor named Tara Harding. Then the novel crosses the border into the United States and a species of travel literature opens up, a road novel of seedy bars and high plains drifting, with Russ as a capable and intrepid individual, isolated and adrift, unencumbered by social obligations or domestic relations on the "frontier," prepared for a righteous and retributive violence if and when necessary, in a clearly signaled variant of the western. …

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