And Other Stories of Ottawa
by Andre Alexis,
Coming Attractions 94
by D. Glover, M. Helwig,
A Litany in Time of Plague
by K. D. Miller,
Passion Fruit Tea
by Eleonore Schonmaier,
Snow over Judaea
by Kenneth Radu,
Post Your Opinion
by Kevin Connolly
OBERON PRESS'S ANNUAL COMING Attractions anthology features a selection of work (two or three stories) from three new writers, and has had more of an impact over the years than its dowdy presentation might suggest. Patricia Seaman, Rick Hillis, and Cynthia Holz were all introduced in past issues, and Coming Attractions 94 (111 pages, $25.95 cloth, $12.95 paper) -- featuring the Newfoundland writers D. F. McNeill and Lisa Moore, and Toronto's Elise Levine -- is consistent with the high standard set in the past. If Oberon unloaded the retro, 1970s- style covers, aired out the pages a little, and added some 20th-century marketing, these anthologies might become annual events that are anticipated rather than ignored.
McNeill's historical pieces, set in Newfoundland in the 1930s and '40s, are a little heavy on detail and not entirely free of cliche. "Cosy and Nell" does well with dialogue, and not so well with an anachronistic self-consciousness the characters have towards the key icons of the period. Lisa Moore's stories benefit from sharp dialogue and original phrasing, but they are slow and abstract, and use logic more appropriate to poetry than to fiction. For example, "Haloes," in which the 1988 St. John's fire figures prominently, evokes the lives and imaginations of its characters with striking, atmospheric images, only to meander into nowhere, finishing on a pithy, uprooted image that has little meaningful connection to the whole.
Elise Levine's stories are better constructed, and if they tend to be overwritten they are also indisputably stylish. "Angel," a gritty lesbian love letter, is terribly derivative of Kathy Acker and some of the Beats, but there are moments of forceful poetry and its sheer audacity makes it worth reading. Best, perhaps, is "Boris," a dark, Gothic tale of a troubled suburban childhood. Levine approaches a dysfunctional family dynamic via the fixation a young girl and her brother have about Boris Karloff films. It's material that has been tried before, but rarely without irony, and never in the way Levine does it, treating the real and the imaginary with the same subconscious alarm.
K. D. Miller's advance credentials (twice included in the Journey Prize Anthology, and a finalist in the CBC- Radio Literary Competition) leads you to expect big things from her debut short story collection A Litany in Time of Plague (The Porcupine's Quill, 167 pages, $12.95 paper). But it is only late in the collection -- in the title piece, and in the compassionate, uncompromising "Requiem" -- that Miller delivers on that promise.
In what is becoming a common pattern for new collections, the stories are linked: characters from early stories are picked up later, so that the whole book takes on some of the qualities of a novel. When it works, it's as good an approach as any -- books by Alice Munro and Linda Svendsen come to mind -- and publishers tend to embrace it because it addresses a perceived resistance to short fiction in the general public.
But as Miller's book shows, there are potential problems. For starters, linked stories are usually presented in chronological order, which in Miller's case forces the best pieces to the back of the book. Further problems arise if the work is uneven. Good work in one story can be tainted or undone by poor handling of the same themes and characters elsewhere.
Take, for example, four stories in this collection that focus on Arley, a troubled actress whose near-abduction as a child in the (badly written) opening story sets up a painful, dark notion of eros that haunts her in later life. It's difficult subject matter, and Miller never handles it convincingly with respect to Arley. "Stigmata," however, which shows Arley confronting similar questions in college, observing the cruel dynamics of a gay acting instructor and his unwanted lover, does work -- so well that it makes you wish it weren't so reminiscent of a failed subplot in the other Arley stories.
"Requiem," a tender meditation on sex, loneliness, and self-knowledge, is similarly undermined by an earlier story; and the title piece would work far better without a tenuous (and, I think, unnecessary) link to the Arley pieces in "Author Of." Still, Miller is a writer with a strong voice and considerable wit. If she has a major flaw, it's her habit of taking something that works and ruining it with overuse. It is difficult sometimes to tell the difference between genuinely bad writing and bad writing that is just good writing, overdone. For the most part, Miller's "bad" moments fall into this latter category.
Unfortunately, no eleventh-hour reprieve is forthcoming in the unilluminated dirge that is Kenneth Radu's Snow Over Judaea (Vehicule, 212 pages, $13.95 paper). Reading Radu, it's tempting to call for a moratorium on short stories about cancer victims, ex-music teachers, and the sexually repressed offspring of small-town church ministers. Radu's withered, bookish introverts and misfits are stolidly characterized in the author's affected fashion, but rarely do they come to life as real people. Let's see ... there's the sketchy, introverted Theresa of the title story, more religiously fervent even than her clergyman father; her first menstruation occurs on the back of a camel during a childhood trip to the desert in Judaea. Then there's poor, closeted, overwrought Iris in "The Night She Heard Yma Sumac Sing"; despite years of therapy she believes she can talk to the animals. And then there's the terminally ill Margaret, who dies in great pain over 20 excruciating pages, slowly losing her hearing while her daughter plays classical music for her on the CD player.
Putting aside the worst moments, Radu's fiction is bad writing masquerading as good writing. There's something studied about the way the author goes about larding his stories with symbols, characters, and situations of a kind commonly associated with literary seriousness. When you look at the stories closely, there is little that is fresh, and they're told in plodding prose of the most frustrating variety:
Deep in his eyes, as if inseparable from his perception itself, she saw Death looking out at her. A hallucination, she later admitted and, as it turned out, her father lived for ten more years, dying before her twentysecond birthday. Neither cloaked nor cowled like a monk, neither skeletal nor seated on horseback, Death sat, unmistakably, inimitably, a concept rendered, if not material, then visible, accessible ... . Theresa recognized inescapable truth and understood the awful meaning of death for the first time, not as an abstraction, but as an informing principle attached to every step, every action, like her own shadow.
Radu has an annoying tendency to overvalue, and then repeatedly emphasize, cash-and-carry symbology of this kind. In this story, death "assumes residence" in Theresa's father's eyes at least three times, and the laughable menstruation image is revisited on several occasions. Radu's forced, momentary insights are most offensive when he tries to pawn them off on his characters. The strategy is obvious enough: each story turns on a glimpse of the metaphysical or the profound as experienced by a misfit or emotional refugee, people self-consciously presented as "poor candidates for revelation." The sought-after effect is dramatic irony, but Radu's characterizations are so casual and unconvincing that the tone is less ironic than it is patronizing and smug.
Though Passion Fruit Tea (Roseway, 99 pages, $12 paper) is no better than Radu's book, one is inclined to give Eleonore Schonmaier more credit -- if only because her writing is unpretentious, and because she seems to do more with less. The first five pieces focus on life in a small seaside village called Porcupine Bay, not far from Halifax; the others deal with the lives of mostly young, mostly workingclass Canadians.
There's a documentary quality to Schonmaier's vignettes, and the characters are credible, but realism of this kind needs direction and some kind of subcutaneous structure. Stories that begin promisingly finish arbitrarily or just drift off into nowhere. The endings, such as they are, are anti-climactic, and in fact there's very little tension -narrative, symbolic, or stylistic -in the stories at all. It's not long before a reader feels like a voyeur rather than a participant, and when what you're looking at is a dreary, repetitive depiction of East Coast life, the role gets old in a hurry.
In an altogether different class is Andre Alexis's Despair, and Other Stories of Ottawa (Coach House, 229 pages, $16.95 paper). Nothing is as it first seems in these striking stories. In the first place, the book has little to do with Ottawa; even stories set there play themselves out in the minds of Alexis's characters. There is something expressionistic or fantastical about all of them, from the horrific tale of sexual draining at the hands of a vampiric
"soucouyant" that the young Michael is told by a dying neighbour in "The Night Piece," to the five Kafkaesque parables that comprise the title story.
Rather than use artificial or heavily stylized language, Alexis likes to take an element from the unconscious of his besieged characters and externalize it, often using it as the premise for that story's fragile reality. "The Third Terrace," for example, presents a world in which hands are an illicit focus of sexual attraction but which remains recognizable in most other respects. The descent of the protagonist begins when, because of his beautiful hands, he lands a role in an erotic film; he then goes on to indulge in increasingly perverse variations on his fetish, moving from pornography (fingers caressing exotic fabrics and textures), to prostitutes (who expose only their hands), to a growing fixation on malformed and then injured hands. In the process he is robbed and has his own hands badly broken, a crime that drives him to exact a sordid and awful revenge.
Alexis understands the potent allure of the perverse, the erotic charge that the subconscious invests in what is otherwise monstrous or deformed. Alexis draws from the local geography of his settings, from Caribbean folklore and myth (he is of Trinidadian descent), but what is most noteworthy is how allusive these stories can be -- you hear echoes of Cortazar and Borges, Poe and Kafka and Calvino -- without surrendering any of their strangeness and originality. Taken as a group, the stories also construct a persuasive argument for the ways in which they are told, one that gradually exposes fact as irrelevant and troubles the reader's faith in a verifiable physical plane. In this way the apparently "false" epiphanies of Alexis's withdrawn and psychosexually besieged characters are recast, almost validated:
This night, I was to have my most thrilling philosophical moment .... arse in a can, I seemed to glimpse a purpose to the universe: everything is pushed from behind or held in place. The stars couldn't move. The sun was held fast; the earth was constrained. All we could do, any of us, was spin. All that we want, and all we pursue, gives the illusion of movement, of liberty. There is no movement, no liberty, only local phenomena of such paltry significance it's a wonder we get out of bed for them.
the most accomplished and original first book of stories by a young Canadian writer to come along in quite some time.