Deluded Your Sailors (Michelle Butler Hallett)

It seems curious that Canadian literature has suffered this book to live. About halfway through Michelle Butler Hallett’s novel Deluded Your Sailors, one of these titular sailors (in the early 1700s) inflates and deflates a passage of poetic description:

On deck, Walters got jovial and told a story about calenture, a fever that struck in great heat. He giggled. ‘And the poor man,’ he said, ‘gazed out on the grey sea, grey as dug-up gravecloth, and he described it all as the most vivid blue. Called it one of the blues God must see when he decides how to paint the sky. He went on about greens, next, green like grass in the brightest sun. Then he got stuck, trying to tell us about a little dimpled sun he’d once held on the palm of his hand. He meant an orange. We dragged him below, tied him to his hammock and spoke gentle words, but he only babbled about colours.’

Here Hallett simultaneously reproduces and mocks a prose style often derided as typical of Canadian historical fiction. In “Fuck Books: Some Thoughts on Canned Lit,” his much remarked-upon essay for Canadian Notes & Queries, Steven W. Beattie criticizes the novels of Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje (among others) for deploying just such a style, calling it a “persistent and virulent strain in CanLit” and evidence to support the notion of a “CanLit orthodoxy” (a label Beattie quotes from Douglas Coupland).

Whatever the political implications of this rococo style (especially salient due to its prevalence within historical fiction), Beattie has neatly summarized its primary artistic sin: “The writing is overwrought and obsessed with its own showiness, but for all that, it remains strangely lifeless on the page.”

So what has Hallett accomplished in this passage? The context troubles the situation. Walters has just been presented as a prideful and ignorant captain whose ship, on the same page, is then wrecked off the shores of Newfoundland due to his incompetence. He tells his jovial tale to a crew suspicious that just such a wreck might be imminent. The man mocking poetic description is about to fall at the hands of poetic justice.

Moreover, the scene is contextualized both as a supposed historical occurrence and also as the material of a play that the character Nichole Wright has been commissioned to write celebrating Newfoundland history. The play cancelled, we learn that Nichole has decided to turn the manuscript into a novel. Deluded Your Sailors sails straight in the wake of a Canadian literary tradition that Linda Hutcheon has identified with the unwieldy yet accurate moniker “historiographic metafiction,” much of which replicates the style that Beattie and Walters each mock.

I make too much of this passage, just as Beattie and Coupland make too much of the “CanLit orthodoxy,” but there remains some truth in their complaint just as there remains some thread worth worrying in a passage almost certainly not intended by Hallett to comment on anything outside of the immediate scene.

What is curious is how Hallett’s writing is overwrought and obsessed with its own showiness, but for all that, has life. It can be difficult at times to follow precisely what Hallett is trying to communicate, but it always seems necessary. She has an unusual talent for revitalizing techniques that, in the hands of other authors, have become a stock-in-trade, so much so that many contemporary Canadian authors (Beattie names a few) have chosen either to satirize or steer clear of those rocks, self-consciously aware.

Hallett, by contrast, sails straight for the rocks. She seems at once unaware and unconcerned of the weight of historical fiction’s Canadian history, except of course she cannot be, and so suddenly a passage like the one quoted above breaks through the waves and seems to comment directly on this state of affairs (if only in a certain light). Another such moment appears early in the novel, when Nichole Wright defends her mental state to her psychiatrist:

—I can’t be bipolar. Depressed, sure, but I’m not manic. I’m creative.
—Many bipolar patients experience delusions of heightened creativity and intelligence with manic episodes.
—My novel’s a delusion, is it?
—Is it published?
—Not yet.
—Then it’s a product of one.

Ouch! The novel Nichole is talking about here is a different novel, not the one she decides to build from her unproduced play (which may or may not be Deluded Your Sailors), but one that, in fact, does seem to be a delusion (and dissipates). The exchange is funny and snappy, without wasted words, yet seems naturalistic — precisely the opposite of how the prose operates elsewhere. Much of the novel is presented through first-person accounts dated in the early half of the 1700s, and the narrative voice has oracular and vernacular qualities that engross and alienate at turns.

The suggestion that novels are either delusions or the products of delusions has philosophical heft, yet does not burden the scene. Tellingly, it is also possible to read this passage as a sly critique of the contemporary novel as a form of self-therapy (also, of the bad books this trend has produced, or of the delusions that persist of their grandeur). As in the previous passage, it seems unlikely that Hallett intends any such criticism, even though at moments the novel seems to have an uncanny self-awareness.

This seeming self-awareness is likely a side effect of the sheer density of Hallett’s approach. Her title, Deluded Your Sailors, brings delusion to the fore, and an epigraph provides the source of the phrase: a folk song called “Maid on the Shore” (the full line is given as “I deluded your sailors as well as yourself”). The maid in the song can be seen alternately as either a siren-like monster and/or feminist avenger, and in either instance possesses a spectral quality. Her story has some parallels to the novel’s core story, that of Captain Kit/Matthew Finn, a woman masquerading as a man who as a child joins a ship’s crew, survives wreckage off the coast of Newfoundland, and later comes to pilot her own ship (towards a similar wreck).

The book’s back copy tries to slot Deluded Your Sailors into an almost campy box, noting that “Nichole’s got fierce competition from her equally off-kilter friends and acquaintances for the who’s-the-most-wounded award.” Nothing new: CanLit orthodoxy, you can let this book slip by unnoticed! As it more or less did. “A startling story of violence, loss and love.” Nothing to see here! Inside, we read this:

Grandfather softened me up, groomed me photo after photo, every time a new camera came on the market I’d get excited, and damn it, there’s the fuckery: I’d get excited. Special special special, all grown up if I’d just pose right and then suck him off

And a little further down the same page, oddly unrelated:

[I] watched a father abandon his daughter to the cold ocean. He hacked off her fingers as she clung to the kayak. One by one, he cut away his own daughter’s fingers, because he feared how much she might eat and what offspring she might bear.

A “story of violence, loss and love”? I guess. But there’s something fundamentally disturbing about the way Hallett works, something that cuts through the knots of her prose. There’s nothing here of the showiness of her flashier moments nor the sparking of her funnier moments, but sheer brutality.

Hallett, strangely, has taken every overworked trend in Canadian literature (re-visioning history, framing said history with metafiction, unsustained bursts of magical realism, vague incorporation of aboriginal mythology, etc.), and crammed it into one novel — yet made each jostle against the other in a manner more exciting than strained.

She has even included passages that appear to comment on the fact of the novel’s undeniable connection to “CanLit orthodoxy” in a way that appears accidental yet still meaningful. Deluded Your Sailors reproduces any number of the qualities of this supposed “CanLit orthodoxy” even as it injects them with new life through violence.

In a dream, the character Cannard sees many men in a library, “scribes all . . . goose quills behind their ears. They all sought ink. Yet why? Why, when already so many scrolls reached to the sky, to God.” Why indeed? We know what God thought of Babel.

When Cannard, in the dream, grabs a scroll in order to prove his point, it crumbles. Deluded Your Sailors manages a similar feat, displaying and discarding the worn hallmarks of its genre, ambitious and fierce.