The Maleness of God by Brenda Baker
reviewed by Raywat Deonandan
Nov. 4, 2000
This article first appeared on the Prairie Fire website Nov. 1, 2000. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
You know, the backs of the three most recent books I’ve read have proclaimed each work to be “brilliant.” Now, “brilliant” is a fairly subjective word whose meaning is, of course, open to interpretation. But when applied to a work of literature, there’s one thing upon which we can all agree: if it’s supposed to be brilliant, we can expect it to at least be very very good. Despite the claim on the back of the book, Brenda Baker’s short story collection The Maleness of God is not brilliant. But in many ways it’s very good.
Baker is a bit of a media gadabout in her home of Saskatchewan, well known as a songwriter and children’s entertainer, even garnering her own television show. It’s difficult to separate her public cleansed persona from the very unclean and seedy elements touched upon in The Maleness of God. Therein lie both the work’s greatest immediate strength and its ultimate failing. It is a grand work for daring to look with refreshed eyes at the unconventional lives of street dwellers, religious fundamentalists, male strippers, bodyguards and subway drivers. But such explorations often fail for their lack of believability. One senses that Baker’s exposure to the world of prostitution in the story “The Progress of Man,” for example, was garnered solely from watching CBC documentaries.
Perhaps this sense is the result of Baker’s inability to write believable male characters. As minor characters, the men come off simply as vulgar ill-bred women. As major characters, straight men seem overly feminine in compensation, while gay artistic men seem deliberately skewed in the other direction. If this is a literary device meant to cause us to question our assumptions about stereotypical gender and orientation-based behaviours, then it is ham-fistedly delivered. I suspect it’s more a case of Baker having failed to capture, or sufficiently consider, the nuances that distinguish male and female speech and thought patterns.
But at least Baker attempts to describe gender differences. For a book titled The Maleness of God, a comparison of men and women is clearly mandated, and, to her credit, Baker certainly applies an even hand to her weighting of comparable evils perpetrated by and on the two sexes, though she rather carelessly applies generic boorish attitudes to almost all of the secondary male characters. The title story, about a Christian mother who struggles against rather unsubtle portrayals of religious patriarchy and the hinted at homosexual leanings of her youngest son, is a good example of a careless vilification of unidimensional masculinity without sufficient analysis or outcome.
This lack of sufficient closure is endemic, sometimes causing the stories to read like assignments from a writing class, with hackneyed ubiquitous themes of lost love and opportunity, angst and hopelessness. Unbelievably, this is largely forgivable given the superb technical quality of the writing. Baker’s form lacks the clumsiness that is now so common in this era of plethoric publishing. She experiments with a variety of literary devices: non-linear time, interspersing fictionalized memoirs, and something I will call “poetic subterfuge” the seeming compromise of narrative flow for the sake of versification. As a result of the latter, she sometimes struggles to catch up to the narrative, forcing in background information a tad awkwardly, as in this unfortunate passage from “Mobiles,” an otherwise excellent story:
She had let herself get pregnant. She’d miscarried early on. She worried that this was a sign she’d been damaged by the abortion she’d had as a teenager. That it had come back to haunt her. She had let herself wallow in guilt, self-pity, self-loathing.
Despite its stumbling at the mercy of poetic subterfuge, “Mobiles” is the gem of the collection, describing a woman’s unwise affair with a gay man, and the subsequent manner in which she must tell a terrible resulting truth to her mother. The story is masterfully laid out, building the suspense about the nature of the terrible truth in steady digestible intervals, and providing a rare, satisfying sense of closure, no matter how despairing its ultimate message of hopelessness. In “Mobiles,” we see the stirrings of brilliance in Baker’s writing.
Raywat Deonandan‘s personal website is at www.deonandan.com