A Review of John Metcalf's The Museum at the End of the World
Review by Naben Ruthnum
“Medals and Prizes,” the first novella in John Metcalf’s new sequence of stories, evokes a type of midcentury British writing that I love and miss. Robert Forde, Metcalf’s writer-protagonist in the four stories in The Museum at the End of the World is not yet a writer when we meet him in Britain in the mid-fifties. Rob’s an adolescent living in Bromley and envisioning escape through education and music with his great friend, Jimbo Palmer. (The funny and eloquent Jimbo will eventually become “James” before departing the pages of this book and Rob’s life, which is regrettable to this reader and probably to Metcalf as well, but the demands of realism won’t allow adolescent pals to remain connected forever).
Metcalf orients the reader in prose and characterization from the first page, with the entrance of Jimbo’s father, “the Major,” a character who may have stridden out of early Waugh or Wodehouse (both authors Forde mentions in later pages as influences), but who’s perhaps most particularly reminiscent of the broadly-drawn but still quite human comic figures in Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing. Metcalf’s Major has a smudge moustache, a Webley revolver, finds hot toast “offensively American,” and doesn’t understand his son’s “lack of manliness.” Both Jimbo and Rob are immersed in aesthetics and the aesthetes, with Rob trying to read Huysmans and Jimbo digesting the OED and infecting Rob with an addiction to the mot juste and, eventually, jazz.
Metcalf’s language and capacity for low humour delivered in the high style shine in this first story, the least acid and satiric of the bunch, which recreates all the sensations and moments of discovery and disillusionment embedded in an artist’s adolescence. Forde and Jimbo’s bonding over jazz and eventual drifting away from each other and from the music they once loved evoke, very closely, the correspondence between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, both enormous fans of the early New Orleans jazz of Sidney Bechet and co., and both outspoken enemies of what jazz would become with the entrance of Coltrane and co.: an indication, perhaps, of the conservatism in other areas, political and artistic, that Larkin, Amis, and Robert Forde would all display in middle and old age.
The continual name-dropping of the very authors that Metcalf’s (and, presumably, Forde’s) prose evokes shows us that Forde’s career will rely on the ecstasy of influence, with all of Forde’s anxieties focused on the reception of his novels by a public and institutions that he views as increasingly dull. As the stories move forward in time and Forde ages, it becomes clear that Forde has absorbed the aristocratic leanings of Waugh and Wodehouse along with their stylistic aims: the ceaseless, Larry-David-like argument against civilization’s descent into illiteracy in the book’s second story, “Ceazer Salad,” eventually becomes more of a satire of Rob’s smug bitterness than of the society around him.
Forde’s railing against CanLit institutions, funding bodies, the Governor General’s medals, the academy, and a dumbed-down public that only buys 523 copies of his novel Father Would Have Wished, which reviewers suggest may be a manifestation of Forde’s genius, prevents him from acknowledging the very real possibility that not only is he a mid-list author, but he’s also a middling talent. In the later stories, “Lives of the Poets” and “The Museum at the End of the World,” as well as the closing incident of “Medals and Prizes,” Metcalf draws Forde as an observer, a noticer of life, as a passionate stylist and devoted reader of his old heroes, and a great listener and absorber of the tales and lives recounted to him by others. But Forde’s tragedy, perhaps, is that he lacks insight, in a way that Metcalf does not.
A proper satirical protagonist has to be treated with a bit of cruelty, as Cervantes treated the hapless Quixote. While Metcalf’s fondness for the character that many reviewers have called his on-the-page double in the Roth-Zuckerman manner is clear, the mass of Forde’s grudges and his general disdain for the world around him cannot be entirely shared by Metcalf, who continues to look for and bring forward talented new writers, such as Kevin Hardcastle and Anakana Schofield.
Forde, on the other hand, has become so focused on the nostalgic loves of his literary youth, the Chekhovs and the Joyce Carys, and so fixated on the regionalist literary scene bullshit that he loathes, that it’s impossible to imagine his venturing into a bookstore and picking Marias or Krasznahorkai or Thomas Bernhard off the shelf. In his hatred of the literary scene that failed to do him justice, Forde becomes a familiar tragic figure: a CanLit-hating writer who forgets that writing and reading happen in other countries, too.
Naben Ruthnum lives in Parkdale, where he writes literary and genre fiction. He also writes criticism, and was last year's Crimewave columnist at the National Post. Naben won the 25th annual Journey Prize for his short story, Cinema Rex, and continues to publish widely.