D.M. Fraser’s Brilliant ‘Class Warfare’

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This new edition of “Class Warfare” sheds new light D.M. Fraser, a brilliant, unsung writer who became an underground legend in Vancouver’s 1970s literary scene. With technical mastery and misanthropic humor, the story collection comes alive as a gloriously written call to arms.
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D.M. Fraser was a writer of great talent who died at the age of thirty-eight in Vancouver, in 1985. He published two collections of stories during his lifetime and left the world a small archive of journals and drafts and parts of a novel.

First published in 1976 (but never before released in the United States) and comprised of assertive missives and richly hued character studies, Class Warfare(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012) is a gloriously written call to arms firmly rooted in the politics and culture of the 1970s. Here, the late D. M. Fraser deftly pens a paean to the disenfranchised about the possibilities of “the sweetness of life” through poetic fiction. The following excerpt is an introduction to the book, written by Fraser’s friend and co-editor, Canadian writer and Arsenal Pulp Press co-founder Stephen Osborne.

On an afternoon in the summer of 1972, in Vancouver during a heatwave, the author of Class Warfare, then an unpublished writer, collapsed in the street while carrying a case of Old Style beer from the liquor store to his basement apartment half a mile away. His knees had begun to wobble, he told his friends later in the beer parlour, and he just managed to sit down on the curb before blacking out. A case of beer in those days consisted of twelve bottles, a heavy weight for someone of his physique, for he was a small-statured, ancient man even at the early age of twenty-six. When he woke up, he was lying on a stretcher in an ambulance, and the case of Old Style beer was, to his great relief, lying on the floor of the ambulance beside his shoes.

He left the hospital a few days later with a supply of nitroglycerin tablets, and his shoes and his case of beer were restored to him, as he said to his friends, intact. From then on he held ambulance drivers in the highest regard, as he did taxi drivers, bus drivers, and street poets.

D.M. Fraser lived for years in Vancouver in a dark, illegal suite in the basement of a California bungalow in a remote neighbourhood shaded by elm trees or oak trees and filled with the sound of lawnmowers on Sundays–a neighbourhood ignored by literature and loved by the Rhododendron League–and forever illuminated by his presence there, where he conceived of life on, or near, Masterpiece Avenue, in a narrative of monumental living written against and away from his sombre refuge and the life of student poverty that he never escaped even when his student life had been over for many years and he had relocated to a railroad flat above the junk store on Main Street, assisted by friends and followers, worriers about his health and admirers of his generous learned talk, people who wished to sustain him in life as long as possible, lenders of funds and good dope, professional drivers and hefters of books in boxes and his collection of years of the New Yorker. His sentences made you want to take them home with you:

Janey and Ambrose and Spiffy and I live on Masterpiece Avenue, in the historic site; we have had invitations to move elsewhere, generous offers, but we have always refused them. It is a thing of some consequence, after all, to be where we are, to have stayed here. In times of restlessness, we take pleasure in this; we stumble trustfully through the barren opulent rooms, fondling woodwork, plaster, chimney tile, groping the scabrous face of history.

“Masterpiece Avenue,” the second story in this collection, was first published in January of 1973, in the fourth issue of 3-Cent Pulp, a four-page literary zine published by Pulp Press Book Publishers, the “underground” literary press (now Arsenal Pulp Press) that included D.M. Fraser in its editorial collective. Fraser had worked up notes for the story in the Richard Pender Restaurant, the White Rose Cafe, and the Marble Arch beer parlour, and then composed his final version late at night, directly on the photo-typesetting machine in the Pulp Press office. Several of the stories in this volume were written in this way, directly into the machine (only a single line of text visible at a time in a tiny LED window). In the morning someone better trained than he would take the light-tight cassette out of the typesetting machine and process the paper galley and hang it up to dry. “The Sweetness of Life,” “The Letters,” and “The Examination” appeared over a period of weeks and months, and constituted in the eyes of the astonished editors at Pulp Press a minor miracle: it seemed that nowhere in Canada, or in North America for that matter, had anyone encountered sentences and paragraphs like the ones that emerged from the keyboard of D.M. Fraser in 1973 and 1974.

The shortest of the stories collected here was the first to appear in print, in December 1972, in the third issue of 3-Cent Pulp: a short profile of Santa Claus in retirement, “unrecognizably slim, cleanshaven, sporting a stylish black hairpiece and tailored clothes from Joe’s of Hollywood, in an attractive mobile home in Sunset Village, in Tucson, where he pursues the customary enjoyments of the aged.”

Students of Fraser’s work will see in this understated comedy a foreshadowing of the more complex work that began to appear a few weeks later. Within a year Fraser moved into longer forms and the layered composition that we hear in “Marie Tyrell,” “Class Warfare,” and “Lonesome Town” (a story with deep allegorical overtones and a peculiarly Vancouver ambience).

3-Cent Pulp had a circulation of 1,000 copies and appeared nominally twice a month for eight years; it sold in bookstores across the country and to a subscriber list upwards of 300; when it folded, in 1980, it had published 117 issues, each notable on its own for scrappy presentation, scrappy aesthetics, and scrappy politics. D.M. Fraser was part of its editorial soul for most of those issues, and he contributed his own writing regularly under a variety of pseudonyms. In May 1974, while he was occupied writing the stories in this volume, he was coaxed by his fellow editors to write a response to Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, which had appeared to much acclaim in 1972. Fraser’s essay is one of the few negative notices of Surfacing that I can recall seeing at that time, or since:

There’s not a single realized human character in the whole of Surfacing–only a crew of one-dimensional clichés wandering around acting out the parts assigned to them by some Royal Commission on the Meaning of Life in Canada. There isn’t a single insight, a single flicker of political revelation, that hasn’t been hammered into baby powder by every liberal-bourgeois publication in the country since 1967. There isn’t a glimmer of self-perception that isn’t corroded, deformed, by self-indulgence, self-pity, the cant and posturing of Pop-psych. In place of feeling, we’re served a smorgasbord of leftover sentimentalities topped with cheap ironies like stale whipped cream; in place of thought, a catalogue of Information Canada platitudes; in place of reasoned political analysis, an undigested lump of anti-American rhetoric no selfrespecting paranoiac would lay claim to.

Surfacing was symptomatic to Fraser of the state of Canadian letters, and in his critique of Atwood’s fiction we can see that Fraser did not expect the literary project that he was inventing for himself to find a congenial home there (nor would he expect it to today, to any considerable extent). The world of Canadian letters was smaller in the 1970s than it is now, but just as encumbered by forms of ministered literature, a ready-made writing that today pours fromCreative Writing schools across the country.

… the real outrage here is that we are, as a “nation,” so obsessed with our (nonexistent) Cultural Identity that we are willing to settle for, and embrace, any sort of pretentious mediocrity which offers itself for our consumption, willing to accept any seriosity as seriousness, any topicality, however trivial, as Relevance, any narcissism as selfcriticism, any thesis-izing as evidence of intelligence, any“Canadian Content” as actual content.

Four months later, when Class Warfare appeared in its first edition, it carried a cover blurb borrowed (at Fraser’s insistence) from the eighteenth-century English wit Sydney Smith:

“This book appeared to us so extremely reprehensible, and so capable, even in the hands of a blockhead, of giving pain to families and individuals, that we considered it as a fair object of the literary police, and had prepared for it a very severe chastisement.”

Class Warfare was well enough received in Canada to go into a second edition in 1976. Fraser went on writing, or composing, stories that began to acquire a deeper resonance from his own biography and from his early life in Nova Scotia. In one of these later stories, entitled “Prelude and Theme,” he offers in a passage of reminiscence the clearest glimpse we have of the author at a very young age, “a weird small boy with big ears and a precocious vocabulary” learning to hear the world through “a litany of misadventures”:

In his parents’ house were told tales–murmured behind reticences of the dinner-table–rumours dark and bizarre, thrilling to the nerve of his erotic being. Next door Jimmie MacGregor, in a tequila fit one day, threw the Spode gravy-boat at his daughter Annie, rendering her so insensible that she promptly went and got pregnant–got herself pregnant, in the usage of the day–with the aid of Leo Holz, the Nazi sympathizer, who had kept his lights on all through the War and lived in shade forever after. Annie drowned the baby in her mother’s laundry tub, left it there for the elder MacGregors to discover when they came back from Bermuda a week later; Annie caught the bus to Providence, where she took up with a minor Mafia don and from whence she returned in glory every August, unpunished and impenitent, in a three-toned Packard convertible. Her erstwhile high-school sweetheart, Sgt. Jack Clooney of the R.C.M.P., shot the MacGregors, a visiting neighbour and himself in what the newspaper described enthusiastically as a Shooting Spree; nobody died. Meanwhile the lesbian sisters, Roberta and Josie, lived and perished at the end of the block; when Josie fell or was pushed down the basement stairs and broke her skull, Roberta locked herself in the linen cupboard and starved to death.

Class Warfare took thirteen months to come into the world, from the writing of the first story to the publishing of the full collection. Fraser’s second book, The Voice of Emma Sachs, appeared nine years later. It brought together stories written while the author was developing ideas for a novel that might allow him to extend the themes and motifs revealed so far in his work; but the novel was never finished.

After his death in 1985, sections of the novel appeared as Ignorant Armies, a fragmentary work that points the way toward the larger works that were kept from him.

D.M. Fraser was a tiny, ramshackle man. He had a bad heart and a weak constitution and he refused to align his life with the advice of doctors. He smoked Sportsman cigarettes and drank three-star whiskey. At any odd hour he would settle fitfully into a corner of the office to leaf through manuscripts and letters, scratch notes into little black books, or clatter energetically on one of the Remington typewriters. He belonged to no coterie; he shunned literary scenes inside and outside of the universities–but literature was his life.

His friends were dope dealers and draft dodgers, union organizers, posties, professional drivers, pool sharks, race track habitués, and a few poets and fictioneers who shared his tastes in literature and politics. The Vancouver beer parlours where we met during those years were the Marble Arch, the Alacazar, the Picadilly, the Niagara, and later the Inn Transit, the bus drivers’ private club, to which D.M. Fraser had an honorary membership. He conversed through clouds of cigarette smoke; he spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, slowly, so that one could follow his thinking, just as he was following it. He seemed barely to belong in the world, especially in this Canadian world, where all traditions and cultures, to borrow the words of Hannah Arendt writing of Kafka and Walter Benjamin, had become equally questionable to him. In an undated memo written on one of the office typewriters toward the end of the seventies, an era remembered for the War Measures Act, the Vietnam War, the bombing of Cambodia, the rise of feminism and Aboriginal resistance, and the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, we can hear the same voice, in its semi-private urgency, that we could hear in the bar, as we listened to Fraser talk during those years of Class Warfare and other stories:

At some point–and I remember it as being, approximately, between mid-1965 and the end of the summer of 1967, naïve idealism spoke with a clear voice. It would doubtless embarrass us now to recall the words it spoke, and we would feel constrained to laugh if we heard others speak them. It was an uneducated voice: if it knew anything of contradictions, they were elegant intimacies of the printed, wicked Marxist page; and accordingly there were no contradictions, only problems (like those in arithmetic books) for which the answer was always in the back of the book. Love and the Revolution would set us free.

I, for example. I wrote, One day we shall unite all the contradictions in love. That was written to a lover in1968, in a letter, every word of which I still subscribe to.

Four years later, I remembered it and put it in a story, out of any context but the one I alone knew: I needed the Word, and it came back, in the Vancouver beer parlour where I was writing the story. In the first draft, I gave it a special emphasis; in the others (and there were several) I didn’t. Gradually I buried it where it belonged, among the trite and tender mouthings of romantic conversation.

It seems to me now that we shall not, ever, unite all the contradictions, in love or otherwise; we may at best stick a few of them precariously together, with glue and patience, for a time.

D.M. Fraser was a writer of great talent who died at the age of thirty-eight in Vancouver, in 1985. He published two collections of stories during his lifetime and left the world a small archive of journals and drafts and parts of a novel. He was admired by other writers for the beauty of his prose and the intensity of his conversation. I worked with him for many years in Vancouver, where he pursued a literary life in precarious circumstances until his death from a “general metabolic collapse,” an event that left me stunned and emptied out by grief; at the wake, I was unable to speak in front of the other mourners. Then one day as I was riding the number 17 bus, I saw the apparition of his face rise into the sky from behind the mountains in the north; I got off the bus and it was still there. It was not Fraser, it was his likeness, smiling and rather handsome, hovering over the city like an immense photograph taped to a stick; it was a perfectly bland sunny afternoon in the city, and I remember that earlier in the day I had been offended by the unrelenting pleasantness of the weather, which had become a pitiless reminder of the emptiness of all things. Now as I stood on the sidewalk I heard Fraser’s voice speak into my ear, and then his apparition vanished from the sky. It was a hallucination and a blessing and the beginning of a restoration to the world.

Reprinted with permission from Class Warfareby D.M. Fraser and published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012.

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