I actually read an excerpt of this novella on Google Books during one particularly lazy afternoon a couple of months ago, and so when I spotted a copy of it for sale at the Bookshelf in Guelph when I was there back in September, I jumped at the chance to buy it so I could finish the rest. For the majority of this blog’s target audience, John Metcalf needs no introduction: he is an author, critic, literary gadfly, esteemed editor for countless writers in Canada (RR among them), and, most recently, the target of a sideswiping by Andre Alexis in the pages of The Walrus. Due to the array of hats that Metcalf wears in CanLit circles, we can sometimes forget that he is also an accomplished fiction writer in his own right. Forde Abroad is a slim, taut volume brimming with hilarity and curmudgeonly anguish, a novella that definitely punches above its weight.
The book stars Metcalf’s reoccurring character Robert Forde, first introduced in the 1986 short story collection Adult Entertainment. In Forde Aboard, we find our cranky protagonist – a writer who may be just a wee bit based on Metcalf himself – on the cusp of a minor brush with international fame. His novel Winter Creatures is about to be translated into Serbian; he has been invited to take part in a literary conference in Slovenia; and his work has drawn the attention of a young scholarly admirer from East Germany named Karla. All of this occurs much to the chagrin of Forde’s caustic but steadfast wife, Sheila. The middle-of-the-night calls from the translator drive her to distraction; she can’t understand why Forde wants to go and ‘consort’ with academics for whom he has zero respect; and she’s deeply concerned that Karla’s interest in Forde goes well beyond what resides between the covers of his books. Forde decides to go to the conference anyway, charging himself with the duty of using this international stage to debunk myths about what literature from Canada actually is; and naturally, upon his arrival in Slovenia, a string of middle-brow amusements of the Waugh/Burgess/Kingsley Amis variety ensue.
One thing you spot right off the bat in Forde Abroad is how brazen Metcalf is in relegating the notion of ‘story’ to the back burner. This is not a tale that’s overtly concerned with a regimented sequence of events or what happens from once section to the next. Indeed, many of the occurrences in the novella could have gone the other way or been excluded entirely and it wouldn’t have taken away from our pleasure in reading this book. That’s because the joy of much of Metcalf’s writing isn’t so much in the story he’s telling as it is in the language he embraces in order to tell it. I mean, the way he uses a well-timed paragraph break or even a single piece of punctuation to infuse a scene with humour, meaning or even simple cadence is truly breathtaking. Nobody else quite writes like this. Metcalf has full command of his indirect third-person narration and in the end you simply don’t care where the story is leading you. You’re too busy enjoying how these sentences send the synapses of your brain firing.
Of course, a complaint one might have with Forde Abroad is that there just isn’t enough of it. There are lots of avenues that this novella could have explored; there were a lot of doors left open. But that’s okay in my books. Better to have 64 pages of pure textual bliss than 640 pages of exhaustive literary posturing that doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a single sentence.