Serafin’s Stardust: Losing the best Canadian writer no one knows about

March 12, 2008 by  
Filed under Books

Stardust, by Bruce Serafin. Vancouver, New Star Books, 2007, pb. 226 pp. probably $20.

When Bruce Serafin allowed a Victoria, B.C. publisher of poetry monographs called Ekstasis Editions to publish Colin’s Big Thing in 2003, I wrote that the book contained the best writing about Vancouver ever committed to paper-and felt absurd saying it. The sense of absurdity didn’t come because I was exaggerating. It was because I didn’t think anyone would listen, least of all Serafin himself, who made a career of underplaying whatever hand had been dealt to him. So let me start out again, also feeling absurd, to say that this book, Stardust, flat out contains passages of the best prose ever written on Canada’s west coast. This time, I’m saying it purely for posterity. Serafin died in June 2007.

But don’t take my word for it. I can quote a quite long vignette from the book to show you what Serafin wrote about, and how well he wrote it. It’s from a little essay called “Chinatown”, near the beginning of Stardust.

“I looked in the window of a café. Men sat at the long counter, a few of them dressed in old suits. I liked the way they looked. I went inside and took a seat at the counter and tried to imitate the men’s demeanor.

But to do that I needed to relax. That was the secret. I’d worked in the BC Interior for two summers, and in each town I’d stayed at there’d been a Chinese café I could go into out of the hot afternoon, tired and at ease, watching whomever came in the door with lighthearted interest. But it was different here and I couldn’t find that lightheartedness in me. I was in Chinatown, not on a gravel street lined with trucks, with cottonwood seed blowing in the air and the early willow leaves falling into the river just a hundred yards away.

The counter faced a wall lined with old mirrored tiles that had discoloured so that looking at your reflection was like looking at a drowned man staring up at you out of dark water. A calendar showed a red-cheeked Peking opera singer. Cups in their saucers sat balanced three high in neat rows. With the rain falling hard outside, the café seemed like a cave cored out of the old building and the men themselves seemed like visitants from an earlier time, figures from old railroad shacks and plywood cafes come down to the coast.

The proprietor placed my coffee in front of me. I rolled a cigarette, and the man sitting to my right watched with interest. He had a delicate, highcheeked face and eyes as gentle as a poet’s. When the proprietor’s back was turned he slipped a bottle of Five Star out of his suitcoat and unscrewed it and put some of the whiskey in his coffee.

“You want?” he whispered.

“Why not.”

“Make your hot go.”

He winked.

I winked back and rolled a cigarette for him. He accepted it with pleasure. We smoked and drank the coffee and whiskey and watched the proprietor carefully mix crushed egg shells in with the coffee, then put the mixture into the pot to be perked.

Then in the booth behind us two people started to argue. They were a man and a woman.

“I love you. Don’t you understand that?”

“Oh, fuck.”

“Don’t swear at me like that.”

“Don’t swear at me like that,” he mocked her.

“You asshole.”

“You asshole.”

“Billy, stop this, please.” Now she was crying.

I turned on my stool. The man had gotten up from the bench seat and stood by the table. A Native man. He wore a T-shirt and jeans and he was tall and well built, with long hair and an impassive face.

“Don’t leave me,” she pleaded.

She stood up from the bench seat and moved toward him and tired to put her arms around his waist. Andnow I realized they were drunk. He moved back and she fell out of the bench seat of the booth onto the floor.

“Fuck, look at you.”

The man stepped back. Crying, her nose running, she started to crawl on the floor toward him.

“Please Billy. Please.”

“Fuck you’re disgusting. Get away from me.”

I sat motionless. The Chinese men in the café watched somberly. I got ready to move from my stool. Then the proprietor stood beside the man, his hand on his shoulder.

“Maybe you go now,” he said.

The man batted at the hand. But he moved away a few feet and the proprietor carefully lifted up the crying woman. “Come, you sit here,” he said and led her to a booth at the back. The man stood near the door watching. Then he went outside into the rain.

With the rest I turned back on my seat and smoked and drank my coffee and thought about how the proprietor had acted. A memory came to me. The spring before I’d been deadheading with a Canadian Pacific steel gang known as the Mission Boys, and that hot May afternoon we’d stopped near Three Valley Gap to pick up some equipment. The Shuswap was in flood and swallows swooped ecstatically inches from the water. It was a beautiful day. I’d been tanning on the roof of one of the bunk cars, reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle and watching the leaves in the nearby aspen grove glitter and tremble. Then someone noticed the graves. They were in tall grass near the white-capped river, not far from the tracks. A few sticks with Chinese characters on them, bleached by the sun nearly to invisibility. I’d jumped down to look, pushed more by joy at being alive than by curiosity.

But handling the sticks had felt strange.

“They’re old,” I said.

Duck, one of the Mission Boys, squatting nearby on his cowboy boots, said, “Fucking right.”

Four or five of us stood or squatted there in the sun, looking at the sticks. The oldest maybe twenty-three.

I drank my coffee now with the rain falling outside. How had those Chinese men felt, squatting like Duck in the night where a resort complex was now, smoking and ki-yiing to one another or listening to the river make his hushing noise? How had they died? Cholera? Influenza? Overwork? Some must have died of unhappiness. And some must have fallen soundlessly into canyons that were like the canyons in pictures of old China. Now they were ghosts, and these men in the café were their descendants.”

You can see from this that Bruce Serafin’s Vancouver wasn’t that scenery-and-shopping Asia-Pacific strip along the shores of Burrard Inlet with its population of 50,000 or so ski-jacketed BMW-driving Global Village cultural torpedoes who see nothing in their city beyond World Class, economic and technology convergences and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Serafin’s Vancouver is the one most Vancouverites have lived in over the last 50 years: the one with its moral and economic nerves sunk deep in a morass of kleptocratic enterprise that bred Clifford Olson and Willy Pickton along with Jimmy Pattison and the Bennett clan of backslapping Socred millionaires. Serafin, who spent part of his adolescence in the city, returned at nineteen and never again left for long after that, was born working class, and remained so, with occasional holidays, all his life. He loved his Vancouver passionately but without sentimentality-he understood, often with startling clarity, what it did to all too many of its inhabitants because it had done it to him.

The passage I quoted is characteristic. First, it is written without rhetoric and symbols. Things and people are what they are, no more, no less. Serafin’s prose is always terse and economical but the economy isn’t self-conscious style. The fluid way that Serafin moves things and people in and out of history and his private memory is also typical, as is the way he doesn’t inflate one against the other. The people in the quoted passage are the people he wrote-and cared-about the most: lumpen working or lower middle class people who live without narcissism just beyond the reach of self-help manuals and twelve-step rehab programs. They might know such things exist, but would find them inscrutable and the people who deploy them alien. They are relentlessly inside whatever moment of being they’re inhabiting and are inhabited by, these people, and Serafin never once served them up as more-or less-than that. The economy of his prose, meanwhile, keeps readers inside the moments with an understated virtuosity few of his generation of writers can approach. He wrote about these people because he didn’t think life was giving them a fair shake, just as it hadn’t really given him a fair shake.

As a younger writer, Serafin wrote the same elegant and clear prose you’ll find in Stardust. But late in his life he developed a unique ability to penetrate the brassy surfaces of the self-serving bullshit Vancouver’s political, economic and cultural elites churn out to maintain their illusions, and he kept that willful refusal to be fooled by the city’s glamourous but perspective-distorting scenery to the end of his life. The political animal in him, with its highly developed powers of empathy, could not, I think, accept that a city with cultural and physical assets so rich and remarkable could produce an intellectual and social climate so pedestrian and violent. There was, as a consequence, a magma of rage at Vancouver’s waste and inequity that percolated just beneath the surface of what he wrote in the last ten years of his life. It was not always a productive rage, either. For literally decades, he was paralyzed by it, and it often blistered his judgment when he did write.

Colin’s Big Thing was a personal breakthrough for him, and those of us who knew how intelligent and talented he was hoped he might articulate his vision more fully in subsequent books. Implicit in Colin’s Big Thing was the notion that the energies that fueled Vancouver’s dark side could be traced back to the fundamentals of resource-extraction capitalism. That’s hardly a revolutionary insight, but because Serafin’s appetites for ideology and abstraction were mercifully small, it drove him to examine it in terms of the city’s tropes of culture, landscape and people. That led him to the B.C. Interior, where the human and natural resources are extracted-and then misemployed and wasted. He was still on the trail of those connections when he died.

After Colin’s Big Thing came out, Serafin talked privately to Stan Persky and me about wanting to investigate those tropes, and we gladly offered him open access to dooneyscafe.com as a working space so he could carry out the investigation. Serafin uploaded sixteen pieces over a six month period in 2004, then went silent again, likely due to the initial effects of the illness that ended his life in June 2007.

Many of the pieces he uploaded are early versions of the essays that make up Stardust, while others were to be set within a travel book he planned about Alberta’s geographical and human underclass. When his illness accelerated, New Star Press tried to rush Stardust to publication, but it wasn’t to be, and Serafin died while it was at the printers. The Alberta travel book remains unpublished, and, I suspect, crucial parts of it died with him.

Stardust is a remarkable but unsatisfying book. It is remarkable because it was written by an intelligent man of extreme sensitivity, and because much of the writing is exquisitely clear and elegantly crafted. It is unsatisfying because it is painfully uneven, like Colin’s Big Thing, and because it runs out without making the connections it promises. In part, of course, this is because Serafin died in both mid-life and mid-thought. But in another part, it is unsatisfying because many of the judgments made are ungenerous and/or partisan to impenetrably obscure fidelities-which, because Serafin will write no more, can’t ever be explored and clarified.

There’s something else. In practically every sentence of Stardust, there is a hint of a bitterness that most Canadians who’ve grown up after World War II will recognize all too well. It’s the bitterness of knowing that you’ve lived a privileged life that doesn’t feel like a privilege, and of understanding that you really have no cause to whine because so many others-roughly 95 percent of your fellow human beings across the planet-are worse off. The difference is that for most of us, the bitterness is an intermittent “get real” signal to oneself, faint and coming mostly late at night while we’re depressed. For Serafin, that bitterness was rarely far from consciousness, such that it pervaded his empathy to others, and sometimes constitutes a shadow that can take the pleasure from even his appreciation of beauty, which is exquisitely honed in every other way.

There was, I think another book, beyond this one and the Alberta book, that might have broken through and resolved that bitterness, made the connections Stardust promises, and more. But there wasn’t time to write it, and Serafin, in his mortal haste, tried to cram everything into one book. It’s forgivable, but it remains regrettable because, well, what a fine and unique writer Bruce Serafin was at his best.

By itself, the elegance, courage and intellectual surefootedness of a half dozen or so essays in Stardust ought to establish Serafin as one of Canada’s finest writers and cultural analysts. It probably won’t, for the same reasons Colin’s Big Thing failed to. First, it has flaws in both structure and writing that resulted from Serafin’s refusal to work with an editor. Second, Canada’s publishing industry has become a genuinely two-tiered system in which the non corporate-owned tier of small literary presses established in the latter part of the 20th century have been thoroughly marginalized by the presence of fungibles-seeking Chapters Indigo and a discriminatory distribution network that prevents small publishers from getting their books into an equally discriminatory marketplace. Don’t get me wrong: New Star is a very good press, and the people who run it have been conscientious about editing and presenting Serafin as well as is humanly possible, and they will do what they can do get the book to readers.

Ultimately, the unfinishedness of Stardust is a truer reason why it won’t establish Serafin’s reputation nationally. Oh, the individual essays read well enough, and about half are brilliantly original. But toward the end, unfortunately, the essays are insufficiently realized, sometimes seeming like a string of disconnected vignettes. If all the essays were up to was to create some local colour, fine. But Serafin had bigger plans. At the beginning of the book, he set out that plan, and the book he produced doesn’t fulfill it.

Here’s that plan: again in his own words. I’ve extracted it from several essays, and because of its complexity, it isn’t summarizable in 25 words.

“As I walked to my bank machine at Penticton and Hastings on that warm, sunlit afternoon I felt I was in the heart of the world. I felt-not at home, that was impossible for someone who’d’ moved as much as I had-but alert, alive, aware not just of the physical dimension which the slanting afternoon sun seemed to embody.

That fall I would go to UBC-I wanted, so late in the day, to push the life I’d been born into behind me, push it all away. At the same time, I had a foreboding about my future at UBC (I would quit after just one semester), those yellow notepads with the dirt on their pages that made my pen skip were filling up with descriptions and mini-essays that kept going back in time, as if in was in fact the old natal world that I was really interested in.”

Serafin had kept his old job at the post office, and was commuting to Point Grey on public transit from his place in Vancouver’s east side. It was during those commutes that he began to see his beloved city as part of a larger system, and the plan began to form in his mind.

I watched the faces of the people getting on and off the bus, faces which in this part of town carried hints of Boston Bar and Spences Bridge, little towns in the BC Interior; and as I watched them hug and say hello, I thought they were people who knew each other, part of a community that stretched for hundreds of kilometers on both sides of the Coast Range, real and alive.

Yet nobody knew about them; nobody wrote or spoke about them. That was the thing-the untalked-about or unthought-about relationship between Vancouver and the B.C. Interior, between Vancouver and its past-that I’d first started considering one night in the downtown postal plant; it involved what I increasingly thought of as Vancouver’s colonial culture… ….I started to keep notes.

In its best moments, Stardust is the transcription and elaboration of those notes. But it is also at least two other books truncated, as I’ve noted above, and the other books get in the way. One of those “intruding” books is a spiritual autobiography of his early life, and the other-this one the least successful and most ambitious-is a book of literary essays. One or two are truly insightful. “Long Tall Sally”, which is ostensibly about Don Delillo’s Underworld, will send even the most sophisticated readers back to the original for another look, and have them rethinking the entire literary enterprise in Canada. But in several others, he half-heartedly tries to take a magisterial grip on our national literature, misreads both texts and some of the writers involved, and comes off sounding rancorously provincial. He’s still interesting when he’s screwing up, just mistaken. If he’d had another five or ten years, he’d likely have come around for another look, and gotten it right.

But then Stardust is also, one must remember, the product of Serafin’s oncoming mortality: he wanted desperately to get it all in before he went. The plan is there, but not quite the product itself.

Among the many good things the book does do with its wandering focus, is to give a clearer if unintentional account than it otherwise might have of why Serafin is so unique a writer. It demonstrates, in several hundred luminous vignettes, that he was singularly brilliant and empathetic as a reader both of specific range of people, landscapes, and books-the denizens of the lumpen working class of both Vancouver and its “underworldly” hinterland. It also reveals Serafin’s blind spot: he had trouble reading situations where elites or any degree of financial wealth intersected. Still, within the range of his competence, his empathy almost never degenerates into mere sympathy because of his ability to stay within the natural concerns of the people he wrote about: he felt their emotions with-at once-respectful distance and amazing fidelity, and he experienced their priorities and prejudices, however foreign to him they might be, without judgment. That’s no minor trick. I simply don’t know of another writer today-in Canada or elsewhere in the English-speaking world-able to do that as well as he did.

Anyone reading this can probably feel me reaching for superlatives about this writer-and for the most part, rejecting them because given the cultural conditions we now have-in which most writers are no longer important cultural interpreters but have settled for membership in the entertainment industry, feeding fungible lozenges into the marketplace, I have no way of making a successful case for Bruce Serafin as an important cultural figure. I became so frustrated with it while writing this, in fact, that I talked about it with John Harris, a colleague on this site and himself now perhaps the best living writer in Canada nobody knows about.

John described a telling encounter a few years ago with Serafin on the new pedestrian seawall in Vancouver that now extends from Stanley Park east along the harbour. John lives in Northern B.C., so Serafin was surprised to see him there. But there was more:

“…He was ecstatic that ‘a guy like me’ could be in a place like that. He kept saying it. He figured it was unusual — to Vancouver?

“It’s not of course. But I thought, this guy doesn’t quite think like me or most people I know, who might regard the walk as fixed up for tourists, as a money-making venture, as bread and circuses. There was that innocence. He wanted the professors to be like him, totally dedicated to literature. Yet he knew he wouldn’t find that.”

Indeed there exists, in everything Serafin wrote and did, the studied naiveté of someone who knows what the rules are but can’t live with them. It explains, sort of, the distaste for authority that pervades everything, the refusal to accept any of the comforts of the most limited collectives, even those of other writers who liked and admired him, and his refusal to shape his two books to meet the demands of any other audience than his own obscure muse. But knowing that this is the case, somehow, doesn’t ease the frustration.

That’s because Bruce Serafin is dead and there’s at best one more book to be extracted from his papers. It’s mostly likely going to be the Alberta travel book, and it will almost certainly be as incomplete as Stardust is: filled with splendid sentences, some piercing insights and marred by the maddening gaffes and misreads Serafin didn’t trust anyone enough to help him rethink. Ironically, Serafin understood, as an editor, that collaboration makes better writing. Yet he was never able to submit himself to an editor. If he had, and if he had lived longer…well, this would be richer, better world than the one Serafin left us with.

That just leaves me circling the funereal rubble, wringing my hands over what might have been: a wonderful writer who never quite got there.

Too bad.

3687 words March 12, 2008

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.