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Has Serafin Given Us The Great B.C. Book?

No one has better captured tough truths about work and life in B.C.'s netherworld.

By Brian Fawcett 23 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The publication of Bruce Serafin's Colin's Big Thing is a major intellectual and artistic event for the West Coast. Or rather, it ought to be, but the book likely won't get the A-list play it deserves. As a reader, I've known about Serafin for almost a quarter century now. Literally everything he's written has been worth reading, and I and lot of others have worried over and regretted his reluctance to write and publish more than he does. 

A first book by Serafin was rumoured to be in the works 15 years ago, and even then, people were saying "It's about time." That it has finally been published is cause for celebration: Serafin has been writing some of the most elegant and thoughtful sentences written in, and about, Vancouver for a very long time. That the book has been released as a weakly-edited paperback from a small publisher is a shame, but it is not an accident.

Beyond yuppies and tourists

Serafin, who edited, all too briefly during the early 1990s, the remarkable Vancouver Review and helped bring it back to life again this year, has always had trouble standing up for his own abilities and skills and hasn't measured them accurately against those of his contemporaries. While the rest of us have babbled and published, Serafin has imposed on himself long periods of resentful silence. He's one of those solitary human beings who has to do everything on his own terms, and he insists on his own version of quality control. It's the kind that strains the patience of most publishers and other would-be collaborators.

Colin's Big Thing is a personal memoir, and a deeply courageous history of the unique netherworld British Columbia has done its best to hide from the outside world: its end-of-the-land brutalism, and the human and intellectual toll it takes on anyone who lives outside the narrow strip of New Age chrome and brass that rings the outer shores of Burrard Inlet. The tourism industry calls this strip Vancouver, and it has a population of about 200,000 souls too well-heeled for their own good, frantically in search of today, tomorrow, the day after--and its shiniest commodities.  Most British Columbians never quite get to this Vancouver, and a sizeable percentage live within the physical and psychic wreckage of its frontier, trapped in a netherworld of their own--and late capitalism's Darwinist--expectations.

Into the netherworld
Serafin has spent his adult life observing the B.C. netherworld at close quarters, refusing to accept the comforts of that other Vancouver, which he loathes with a passion that is both instinctive and perverse. The result is Colin's Big Thing, which contains the most elegant and accurate--and depressing--depictions of the netherworld that have ever been put to paper. 

"The house is down by the docks, on Odium Drive. It's old, stuccoed, but with a noticeable touch: next to it, separated from it by a tangle of blackberry bushes, stands a wooden building whose apartments seem to have rented out to whores: dozens of white condoms, obviously thrown from the apartment building's windows, hang from the brambles in the sun. The picket fence sags. The old concrete walkway is almost lost in the kneehigh grass. The stink from a chicken processing plant a few blocks away makes me lift my arm to my nose as I walk up the steps to the porch."

This passage, which I picked by opening the book and reading a page at random, is typical but hardly exemplary of how good his eye is. There are literally hundreds of passages as good.  It is an unblinking articulation of something everyone on the West Coast knows is there and which nearly everyone with sufficient physical and emotional resources studiously avoids. 

Is extracting it from Vancouver's glitzy surface a worthwhile project? Yes, certainly, if you compare Serafin's Colin's Big Thing to, say, the superficial account of Vancouver in Doug Coupland's City of Glass.  And for Serafin himself, the answer is clearly yes. It is also, I suspect, the precondition for everything he may subsequently publish, of which I hope there will now be more.

Bowels of the postal factory

Serafin's netherworld history isn't divisible from Serafin's private history--how else to get at it, or, for that matter, to survive it, which many don't.  Among the things he's survived is nearly two two decades working in the postal system, most of them spent on the night shift inside the bowels of the city's Main Post Office, which he describes with a specificity that captures both the excruciating boredom of routinized labour and its effect on himself and his fellow-workers. Nobody has written from inside the post office work-world this accurately before, and Serafin's unsentimental but often generous treatment of it puts a lot of dull "work-writing"--a West Coast specialty--to shame:

It's very quiet. I hear no laughter, none of the vivacity you'd find in the daytime. People are too tired for that. Their murmuring voices, the way they half-turn their heads to each other, their pauses and occasional sighs, and along with that, the rumbling sound of the big belts going overhead that you can only hear late at night when the machines are off--all this contributes to the sense I have…of being in a spaceship far away from the rest of society.

But Serafin's private history is occasionally more problematic--as literature--than his record of the netherworld. Throughout the book, he operates, and writes, by an elevated emotional vocabulary, one that describes emotional conditions I understand abstractly but have rarely experienced: Serafin yearns for people, places and times, his heart pounds with desire and fear, he is overwhelmed with anguish, and frequently exalted by events or ideas, or shattered by them. I believe that this emotional vocabulary is accurate to the way he experiences the world, and not exaggerated. But I also believe that it engenders--and renders--both intensities and volumes of emotional experience that are extremely uncommon.

A shy hypersensitivity

One of the apparent difficulties in the book is that Serafin seems unaware of this.  For me, one of the interests of his perceptual system is that it is oblivious and hypersensitive at the same time, and thus produces a characteristic fission for the penetration of his writing. The only writer I know who is even remotely similar is Toronto novelist M.T. Kelly, and the similarity yields similar results: passages of writing that are extraordinarily beautiful, even inspired--and passages that are oblivious, internal, and curiously flat.

There's a difference between the two writers. Kelly reads the emotional states of those around him with an empirical accuracy greater than any human being I've ever met, and he brings to it an instinctive and unspecific empathy. At the same time, he is fabulously bad at reading himself, and thus his narration can seem overblown one moment, or the next instant, strangely absent. Being around Kelly, particularly when he's agitated, can be painful, because he has none of the conventional perceptual filters that get most people through the day. He sees everything, and everything enters; he processes so much incoming data that he often loses himself in the attempt to make sense of it. It is as if he has no skin, and it has been only his intelligence and his erudition that has enabled him to survive.

Serafin, likewise highly intelligent and erudite, is a shyer man, and more obtuse and introspective. -Thus he reads his own emotional responses and states with the same hypersensitivity with which Kelly reads other people.

What saves Serafin from being strangled by his own introspection is that he has an ability to read people who are emotionally inarticulate or damaged almost as well as he reads himself, perhaps because the kinship he feels with them offers him a degree of protection from both their dysfunctionality and/or their madness. They become, in effect, aspects of his own ego and imagination, which settles around them with a gentleness he doesn't offer to himself or anyone who isn't damaged like them. Anyone he believes is capable of passing judgment on him is a blank to him, or rather, he is blinded by his terror at the possibility that they might judge him, or by his rage when he decides that they have. Serafin is one of those supremely touchy writers willing to ignore or torch the good will of others if it doesn't coincide with his exacting terms.

Hard stare

Given the above, it is a miracle that Colin's Big Thing is as successful as it is. Yet on virtually any literary and sociological terms I can name, this is an interesting book, from the terrifying laconic adolescent fratricide Serafin was a witness to as a child to his heartbreakingly futile attempts to make contact with his French-Canadian mother as an adult by sending her copies of Michel Tremblay's plays, and through the countless fine details he offers of Vancouver's netherworld to his chilling account of what its like to work inside Vancouver's postal system. Again and again, Serafin shows a willingness to gaze directly into whatever is in front of him, as in this passage:

The sky grew larger as the street sloped down. Coming over the rise I saw what I thought was a Vietnamese woman squatting on the bare sidewalk with her hands held over a galvanized pail containing burning wood. She watched me pass.

Then I saw something I didn't take in at first. A small child stood in front of me wearing only a black garbage bag with holes cut out for its arms and head. It was crying. It had soiled itself: excrement stained its legs and the tops of its feet. The girl--I decided it was a girl--stood in front of the open doorway of a ground floor apartment set close to the sidewalk. I could see inside; in the dark hall lay newspapers, pizza boxes, pizza crusts, ripped-open bags of garbage, meat bones, beer bottles, and over everything, swarms of flies.

I looked at all this. Then someone inside shouted, "You just stay out there, you fuck!" and the sobbing child put her hands on top of her head in gesture of grief.

I walked on for a bit. Then I turned around.

Back on Commercial I went into the Blue Eagle Laundromat. Inside, in the warmth that smelled of hot clothes drying, I dropped a quarter into the payphone and punched a number.

The woman on the other end said: "Nine one one. How can I help you."

I explained what I had seen.

The woman said, "Okay. Did anybody hit the child? Did you see anything like that?"

"No, I didn't."

"So this is not a problem for the police."

"I guess not."

"So what would you like me to do, sir."

"I don't know. That's why I called."  My heart slammed in my chest. "Listen, maybe I didn't explain myself---"

"Sir, you did explain yourself. I'm just trying to find out if this is a problem for the police."

"Well, I think it is a problem for the police. That hall was filthy."

"Yes, you said that."

"And the girl was just wearing a garbage bag. Do you understand what I'm saying? She didn't have any clothes on!"

"She said, "Don't shout at me, sir."


"Okay. Now calm down, sir. All right?"

"All right."

There was a moment's silence. Then she said:  "All right. Now I've had a moment to think about this. I'll tell you what. I'll send a car out. Is that all right?"

I was silent.

"Is that okay?"

"Yes, that's okay."

It isn't okay, and Serafin is as sharply and courageously aware of what isn't okay as any writer I can think of. To be as aware of his surroundings the way he is involves a strain of courage few writers ever achieve.  It is kept from sentimentality by the virtuosity of his writing, and by the relentless will with which he pursues his goal, which is to describe the realities of the West Coast netherworld and the exact nature of the anxiety it invokes in himself and those he cares about. 

Big thing for West Coast

Yet for all Serafin's virtuosity, there are also passages of careless and occasionally overblown writing in the book. There are also passages in the book that are hermetic, and will be inscrutable to anyone unfamiliar with the city's east-of-the-beaches landscapes. He also operates a curiously inconsistent naming code throughout the book, providing the real names of some people, and using pseudonyms for others. Certainly the last two of these weaken the book as a historical document, although not enough to make it dismissible. A competent editor would have talked him out of the coding and would have cleared out the hermetics, but I'm pretty sure Serafin refused to allow that kind of editing. It's part and parcel of his distrust of the instruments--formal literature and the larger community of writers--he just as clearly wants the acceptance of.

The book's title is taken from a chapter, late in the book, about the cartoon artist Colin Upton, who displays nearly all of the character traits and fidelities Serafin is too shy to claim for himself. The title is therefore revealing, and not inaccurate, unless it makes readers miss the fact that Bruce Serafin's Big Thing is a much, much bigger one than it appears. Colin's Big Thing is a major West Coast literary event, and hopefully, the precursor to even bigger ones.

Colin's Big Thing: A Sequence by Bruce Serafin is published by Ekstasis Editions, Victoria, B.C. and Banff.

Brian Fawcett is the author of more than a dozen books, including Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, Virtual Clearcut (about globalization's toll on his hometown of Prince George) and, most recent, Local Matters. His website is Dooney's Cafe.  [Tyee]

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