Books, by Jack Ruttan

la cartographie du hasard ("Mapmaking by Chance")

Originally published in Place Publique


This is a book column, but no books so far have arrived yet to read. Well, one, but it will get a column in later weeks. So for now, I'll play a cheating version of Gail Scott's game "la cartographie du hasard" from her novel Heroine.

In the game, you would cast a coin on a map, and where it ended up, you went, and wrote a poem or story about the site. In a literary frame of mind, I am casting myself along Boulevard Saint Laurent, on the last week of August. Today the street is closed off, for the twice-yearly street fair. Books are being sold nearby, outside of the used book shop I help out at. Dollar books, the rejects from the piles people bring us. Not worth enough for us to sell for regular prices in the shop. Not worth taking home. Still there can be finds, if eclectic ones. I've found "It Can Happen Here," by Sinclair Lewis, and a German edition of drawings by Titian.

A friend of mine who worked with the Association of Anglophone Editors of Quebec had a little place in an alley just off the Main, near the corner of Rachel. She called it her "cabin in the woods." In reality it was a converted version of the type of storage shed that must have sat behind many of the commercial buildings in years past. This place was her reason for staying in the city, she told me. When it fell to one of the area's too-common incidents of arson, she moved away, first to Alberta, then a tour around Arizona, finally to her parents' basement in Regina. It's not as miserable a story as it sounds. In the meantime she won a literary prize of a thousand dollars, for a story about an earlier disaster, the death of her cat.

So out of ashes arises change. Perhaps I've been dismayed by the number of good writers who have left the city. Ann Diamond has decamped to Hydra, Greece, to finish up her detective novel. Yeshim Ternar is off to teach in Guatemala. Golda Fried, who seemed to be a rising young writer, is gone to Malaysia. The Far East has become what Europe was for earlier generations: the place to exile yourself from your native society, and to collect your Bohemian credentials.

Not too far away is another bookstore on the street. New books this time. The location has gone through a few incarnations: selling cigarettes and magazines, then "cutting-edge" and fringe literature, now children's books and general literature. It's hard for a new bookstore to stay afloat, what with the taxes on prices already made high by the US/Canada exchange rate. Taped by the cash register is a snap-shot I wanted to see. It's a picture of the late beat author William Burroughs, taken when he visited the Oboro art gallery in April of 1989.

It was a busy occasion, but not jammed to overflowing, as was Ginsberg's later visit to Concordia University. One could walk up and have a word with the cadaverous-looking writer (I imagine these days he's more so [now definitely, since he's died after this article was written - J.R..] in his trademark grey suit. and fedora hat. He had little to say, in that familiar croaking voice of his, except to politely acknowledge his star-struck fans. A trio of McGill-based poets proclaimed themselves in front of him "The William S. Burroughs Appreciation Society." I left early, to go to a bar with some friends, saw Burroughs walking down the street with seemingly the entire attendance of the gallery following in his wake. Leading them, he seemed like a shepherd, and in his influence he has been so, taking his flock down the paths of rebellious literature.

Graffiti by the steps leading to the McGill Library gives a quote from Naked Lunch: "THE ZONE TAKES CARE OF ITS OWN - William Lee." The zone that is the Montreal literary landscape takes care of itself too, surviving but transforming.

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