Reviewing a current national anthology of short stories is much like taking a pulse: it's a quick and painless way to determine the health of the subject. If Turn of the Story
(edited by Joan Thomas & Heidi Harms, Anansi Press, 280 pages, $22.95 paper) is any indication of the state of fiction-writing in Canada on the eve of the millennium, I'm happy to report that CanLit is in peak condition, ready to take on the world.
Lame title aside (I couldn't help being reminded of Henry James's Turn of the Screw instead of thinking "turn of the century" as the editors had no doubt intended), the writing in this book is exceptional. The authorial voices are distinctive and utterly convincing. And these are only the twenty whose work made it into the book. As the editors point out in their introduction, "[b]ehind this book, imagine two or three `shadow anthologies' made up of the fine stories we had to send back for lack of space, the work of writers who were too busy with other projects to submit to this anthology, and stories by writers the two of us haven't discovered-for the time has passed when an active reader can expect to be familiar with most of the interesting writing in Canada."
In these stories, it is easy to see signs and portents of millennial anxiety, reflections of a decadent society and sick Earth. But the overall effect is actually one of hope. The tales, noticeably lacking in cynicism and mean-spiritedness, are filled with curiosity, humour, insight, and compassion. And they are brought to life in language that is efficient and spare.
It is tough to choose favourites in such a strong collection. These are just a few. "Leonard Dobie's Condition" by Connie Gault is an imaginatively told story that skillfully sketches an entire life in under twenty pages.
In "The Jimi Hendrix Experience", Guy Vanderhaeghe brings to life the hilarious wildness/weirdness of adolescent (mis)adventures, evoking that roller-coaster mix of menace and childish vulnerability evident in the behaviour of some teenaged males.
"Banana Chaudefroid" by Monique Proulx (deftly translated by Matt Cohen) made last winter's ice storm more real for me than did any of the photographs, news stories or conversations with affected relatives. Proulx economically interweaves three stories: that of the ice storm and its effects on the natural, constructed, and social environments; that of a young woman's encounter with a family displaced by the storm; and that of her changing relationship with her boyfriend who is in France at the time, and with whom she regularly chats on the phone. It's a masterful story from a writer who deserves to be better known in English Canada.
And Mark Jarman's "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" is as close to poetry as prose gets in this anthology-or for that matter, in most books that aren't books of poetry. Savage, funny, sad, elliptical. Brilliant.
If a unifying thread exists in this anthology, it has to do with the intense human drive to form a connection with others. The Canadian writers represented here appear to be looking forward and constructing a future, rather than living in a static, solipsistic world or inhabiting a past either haunted or comforting. This forward momentum could simply be a product of the editors' decision-making process, or perhaps it represents a Canadianness that invisibly links the storytellers. It certainly does not derive from any apparent homogeneity of the writers, who seem to be a mix of the well-known and not-known-at-all, the young and the old, and who come from a variety of places in and outside Canada. Therefore, although difficult and disquieting subject matter is a feature of these stories, we come away feeling that it is possible to set our faces to the wind and prevail. Somewhere between the burned-out energy of Europe and the polarized manic energy of the United States is a Canadian energy: self-aware, strong, funny, unsentimental, and optimistic, without being unrealistic. Does the next century belong to CanLit? On your mark, get ready...
Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.