“Get it right,” Rob Allen told me. “You have no idea how few novels you will actually write in your life”
The last time I saw Robert Allen he talked about death. For years, whenever I passed through Montreal, I would stop in to see my former M.A. supervisor. Rob’s fifth-floor office in the McConnell Building at Concordia University had a wall of partly marbled glass that gave straight onto the abyss of the eight-storey-high foyer. From the library, on the opposite side of the building, you could look across the chasm and see whether Rob was in his office.
In April 2004, on a flying visit to read at the Blue Metropolis literary festival, I hurried up St. Catherine Street on one of those murky Montreal spring days when gritty cloud battens down the whole island. Rob’s office, with the glass wall on one side and a wall lined with books on the other, reflected his conversation, in which a disarming lightness of touch belied his fundamental seriousness. His sheer facility with words, his allegiance to an avant-garde rooted in the American 1970s, when he studied at Cornell University and taught at Kenyon College, could lead people to underestimate him. Just when his fixation with American popular culture threatened to verge on triviality, he would nail you with an insight born of a lifetime of free-range reading: Rob maintaining that the 200-page novel belonged to a different literary genre than the 400-page novel and, when challenged, offering striking illustrations of how the two genres’ internal mechanics worked; Rob pinpointing how writers’ approaches to autobiographical material changed between their first and second novels; Rob telling his graduate students that as all writers had strengths and weaknesses, we must devise literary forms that displayed our strengths and concealed our weaknesses.
As graduate students in the 1980s, we perceived a tension of aesthetics and personal style between Rob, with his ebullience and love of flamboyant language, and Terry Byrnes, the other pillar of the Concordia creative writing program. Terry’s precision revealed the cracks in the most integrated work of fiction, laying bare its inconsistencies of structure, language or point of view. The two men were temperamentally different. Terry, a resident of working-class Verdun, gave his students feedback on their stories in the form of forty-five-minute telephone critiques; Rob, who lived in a cabin in Ayer’s Cliff, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, was less diligent and spent more time socializing with his students. Among ourselves, we had “Rob and Terry” conversations, balancing the aesthetics of bold language against the aesthetics of earned emotion and rapt point of view. Through these conversations, we began to define our own voices.
In November 2002 I was invited to read at Concordia. I had dinner with Terry Byrnes, and I spoke with Judith Herz, who had taught me Milton; after the reading I went to McKibbin’s Irish Pub on Bishop Street with Rob, Stephanie Bolster and some graduate students. Rob was at his most expansive. In full flight, he paused. “I’m fifty-six. When Judith Herz retires, Terry and I will be the two oldest people in this department.” The realization didn’t sit well with him. But, with characteristic lightheartedness, he shrugged it off.
The man I found in his office in April 2004 looked shrunken and grey-faced. He described how exhausted he felt after months of driving every weekend from Montreal to Georgian Bay to tend to his father, who had died recently after a long illness. I don’t know for certain whether Rob had been diagnosed with cancer by then, but mortality was on his mind. I tried to divert the conversation to writing by telling him about the novel I was working on. “Get it right,” he said. “You have no idea how few novels you will actually write in your life.”
I spent much of 2005 and 2006 on other continents. During a fleeting return visit to Canada in May 2005, I read in Winnipeg with Jon Paul Fiorentino, one of Rob’s collaborators on Matrix. Jon Paul suggested I submit something to Matrix. That fall, Rob wrote to apologize for a tardy reply: “I’ve been out of circulation due to some medical matters. I’m fine now, even though I’m on medical leave. It’s like a free sabbatical so I might as well count my blessings.” On March 25, 2006, he wrote to tell me that my essay had appeared; he would mail me a cheque and a copy of the magazine. When I came back to Canada, neither had arrived: I sent him a reminder. At the beginning of November, two months after my return, I heard that he was dead.
I didn’t make it to the memorial service in Sherbrooke. My grandmother died two days later and I was on a plane to the U.S. for the funeral. The trip reminded me that the most incongruous fact of Rob’s life was that he was born in England and immigrated to Toronto only at the age of ten. Rob and I both had English, American and Canadian identities jostling inside us. This was a point where we met, but also where we diverged. Having lived for six of my first twenty-six years in the United States, I lost interest in the country shortly after completing my M.A. Finding stimulation in the juxtaposition of Canadianness with the realities of Europe and Latin America, I made these the scenes of my personal and literary explorations. Rob suppressed his English accent, followed American literary models, lived as a rural Quebec Anglophone detached from many debates in English-speaking Canada, and spent his summers driving around the southern and western United States soaking up Americana. As I reread sections of some of his fourteen books, I’m struck by the disjuncture between his exceptional powers of expression and the flimsiness of the social context, in which flourishes cribbed from Thomas Pynchon or John Barth substitute for engagement or strong feeling. Rob’s acolytes celebrated these twists as the birth of a Canadian metafiction; I’m no longer so sure. As a tourist at Graceland and Key West, Rob assimilated Americanness as literary mannerism. Some of his poems stick with me, but the book of his that I like best, A June Night in the Late Cenozoic, is a collection of imaginative short stories set nowhere in particular. When he used Canadian settings, as in his last novel, Napoleon’s Retreat, the acquired mannerisms failed to bring the places alive.
It is probably the destiny of every protegé to betray his mentor. My treachery goes like this: I ask myself whether Rob wouldn’t have written stronger fiction had he harnessed his inventiveness and linguistic exuberance to the worlds where he lived most of his life rather than lavishing his talent on the popular culture of a country to which he never quite succeeded in immigrating.