“Trying to be happy is like trying to be tall,” writes Ray Robertson, referring to the period of depression he experienced in 2008 after completing the first draft of his novel David. His latest book, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, is not a memoir of that depression, but instead a reflection upon the things he yearned for most from his darkness. Each of the 15 essays in the book – with titles including “Work,” “Individuality” and “Humour” – is an attempt to understand what makes life worth living, and what happiness means.
In spite of the general nature of these ideas, Robertson’s address is profoundly personal – “So listen to me as if I were speaking to myself” reads part of the epigraph. Robertson admits that his approach is limited by his own experience, and also by what he has read – though this is actually not much of a limitation at all, with references to writers from Flannery O’Connor to Baudelaire (and also to TV detective Columbo and hockey player Tiger Williams) in the first four pages alone.
For Robertson (BA 1993 VIC), reading is one of the most essential reasons to live – but not just any kind of reading. Throughout Why Not? he calls upon Canadian readers to be more critical of their national literature, and to demand artistic works that generate an authentic aesthetic response. With these critical skills, readers are thereby equipped to better understand the world, and also to articulate their experiences of it – both two great pleasures of being alive.
He gives other reasons to live as well, including love, and meaning, and friendship, and solitude, each essay offering surprising illumination about ideas that might seem familiar. In “Duty,” Robertson connects a story about his wife’s futile recycling efforts to his own commitment to creating the kind of literature that goes uncelebrated in a culture of “middlebrow mediocrity.” Never, ever boring, within the wild trajectory of each piece, Robertson backtracks, repeats himself, changes his mind and displays his characteristic ribald humour. Why Not? is intentionally provocative, stirring readers to vehemently agree or disagree. But this is Robertson’s point: to be stirred at all, regardless.