The trouble with a party of eccentrics is that in the absence of regular people, they all seem ordinary. Encountered at an office party, each offbeat character would appear delightfully quirky and charming to anyone who appreciates originality and the tics and mannerisms that often accompany it. But oh dear, how tiresome to move from one brilliant oddball to another, never finding relief in the predictable but gentle co-worker, the shallow yet engaging party animal, or the shy accountant with a secret passion for the music of Mahler. And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with Best Canadian Stories '96.
Perhaps Douglas Glover has just read too many short stories and ought to give this particular form a rest until he can again appreciate a wider range of expression. Perhaps his collection reflects an appetite for the new and unusual that I don't share. Or perhaps his organizing principle inadvertently came to lack coherence or elegance. Whatever the reason, this group of stories began to seem like a sameness of differentness. Even in a collection of short stories, I like the thing to be well considered; on a journey, to have plains as well as mountains, expanses of slowly shifting sky broken by the busy detail of cities and then the pleasant, diverting sights of rural landscape; a harmony of design that may draw attention to itself because it is by and large unfamiliar and strange, but now and again gives some rest to the eye.
In this book, almost every story is, for one reason or another, unconventional. I don't mean to suggest that none of the stories work; some of them do. It's just that the overall effect is more of cleverness than profundity. As a whole, the book brought to mind Samuel Johnson's famous words to an aspiring author: "Sir, your book is both good and original; but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good."
In quite a few cases, the author seems to be conducting an interesting experiment with form or content-a permissible and desirable thing for an artist to do, but not something that the general reader is likely to appreciate unless the experiment is successful. For fiction writers or would-be fiction writers, however, this book could be useful because certain ideas might prove inspirational to them, and the result could be some really first-rate work.
One story stands out. Dave Margoshes' "A Book of Great Worth" is gently humorous and quietly poignant. Set in New York earlier in this century, it concerns the narrator's journalist father, his pregnant mother, and a mute stranger from Montreal. Its rare quality lies, I think, in the unusual insight and compassion shown by a child toward his parents. The parents are presented here without either sentimentality or resentment, yet they are still felt and understood as parents and not as strangers or "characters". This is a tender, subtle story that, as the best stories often do, memorably illumines the human condition.
Coming Attractions '96, is an entirely different kettle of fish. Thoughtfully edited by Diane Schoemperlen, it is in fact a carefully constructed aquarium for exotic ocean life, its simple, elegant form allowing us to see clearly, in the magical fish within it, the imprint of the Great Designer in the Sky-each darting fluorescent life force totally unlike the others, and yet obviously part of the same family of creatures.
Experiencing oneself as an outsider may be an essential component in any artist's psyche. The detachment of otherness helps to sharpen analytical skills that, when used as a prism to view society, can produce some surprising truths. For this collection, Diane Schoemperlen has taken outsider status as a point of reference, and it is a strategy that works. Though each of the authors writes about a different place from a different point of view, they share the clear view of a place that comes from not being in it or not feeling part of it.
Here, each of the three selected young authors has three stories to showcase their talent; they make the most of it.
Lewis DeSoto lives in Canada but writes of his native South Africa. Each of his three stories gives a vivid glimpse of the felt experience of living in a country so tense and divided that none of its inhabitants, whether privileged or dispossessed, can live an instant without being aware of it; and where extreme violence of one human to another is never far away. DeSoto's characters, even when nameless, are finely drawn in spare, effective prose. As the country itself must be, there is always something unsettling in the situations in which the characters find themselves. It's interesting, too, to note that though they may be to some degree aware of themselves, these characters are neither deeply inward nor outward-looking. Their energy is poured into the drive for survival, which takes all they have.
Murray Logan lives and writes in Canada but he too writes from the point of view of an outsider. For starters, all his narrators or protagonists are women on the margins: old, divorced, or childless. Second, these women are placed in some rather strange situations. One is an old woman who decides she's going to get a tattoo as a birthday present to herself. Another woman accompanies a friend and her mother on a ritual visit to the cemetery to commemorate the bizarre death of the friend's father some years before. A third tries to buy a used car from a very odd man. These stories don't seem peculiarly Canadian. The setting could be almost anywhere in North America. But I think Murray Logan is one of those writers who can make their locales, peopled with their created characters, seem to exist in a time and place all their own. Outside this small universe, the characters might seem improbable and the situations absurd; within it, both have a fetching, funny logic.
Like a cat choosing gingerly to put down a paw here, or there, Kelley Aitken chooses her words. Like a cat, too, she is not very often wrong. The paws come down in the right place, the path is chosen well, the destination reached, it appears, effortlessly.
These are stories to shout about. They are boldly, daringly original without being difficult to understand-no mean feat. The first-person voice, a common feature of writing these days, is made to do unexpected things, to behave in unexpected ways. Yet it feels so natural, so unforced, that it is only afterwards the realization comes: that was amazing!
I believe that poetry is the most enduring component of any art form. (Yes, there can be poetry in music and poetry in visual art as well as in words.) By poetry I mean: that which by rights shouldn't, but does, make sense in a beautiful, mysterious way. When analysed, poetry's sense dissolves, only to reappear magically once the cold beam of rationality is turned off. And this is what is so wonderful about Kelley Aitken's stories: they are poetry. From first to last, she carries us along on a singing river of words and images; we inhabit her senses and her mind because she reveals them so deeply.
Everything in Kelley Aitken's world is so real and believable, her observations so achingly acute, her unflinching honesty and integrity so apparent, that she wins you over completely. By the end of each story, you are rooting for her narrator. You dearly want things to turn out well for her, though you fear it might be difficult for someone of such a sensitive nature to weather the rough-and-tumble life of a regular intimate relationship; and you'd hate to see the artist sacrificed to domestic contentment. But the astonishing thing is how much you care.
I'll end this review with Kelley Aitken's words (from "Nickname"): "The mud clutches at my feet and legs. We're alongside the channel now, a deep wide muddy trough. On the other side mangrove roots dangle above the mud, in the air, dainty verticals waiting for the tide. Everything is base and beautiful here. Everything is just what it is. I will not tell Nicky any of this. I can't explain how it is that moments of love come at me from the craziest places, escaping from the gaseous pockets in the sucking mud, from the slippery strata of what we've seen and cannot avoid. This skin. This knowledge."
Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.