CONVENTIONAL publishing wisdom holds that short-story collections don't sell, except by authors already well known for novels. Fortunately, Canada's small presses have never fully agreed. Their support of the form has meant that many Canadian writers have found markets for short fiction, and it remains one of the strengths of Canadian literature. In fact, the form has advantages for both neophytes and experienced writers. Those new to fiction can experiment with its elements and feel a piece is finished without having to extend it for 300 pages; more practised authors can explore different characters, plot twists, or settings with a few deft touches. There is, paradoxically, room to experiment within the miniature frame. And readers pressed for time can enjoy a complete experience in one story without having to put the book down halfway through.
The most experienced writer considered here is J. J. Steinfeld, the Charlottetown author of five short-story collections and one novel. Dancing at the Club Holocaust (Ragweed, 282 pages, $14.95 paper) gathers new and previously published stories under a theme: the impact of the Holocaust on North Americans too young to have experienced it directly. Steinfeld's characters tend to be Jews who have managed to avoid much of the pain of their heritage until something brings it home to them; they are suddenly obsessed with tattooed numbers or the geography of Poland's concentration camps, and forced to act. These actions may seem absurd to others - pouring drinks on a couple dressed as Hitler and Eva Braun at a PEI masquerade party, for example - but they do let the characters strike back at the forces that erased so many of their relatives.
Steinfeld overcomes the unrelenting grimness this theme suggests by including moments of humour, eroticism, self-perception, and even success. In "A Woman Almost as Tall as Memory," a sportswriter's first visit to Auschwitz leads him to abandon his marriage to a Gentile, change his name back to its original Yiddish form, a and move beyond touchdowns and earned-run averages to ghost a biography of an immensely tall woman. Having already scared off three previous hacks, she ambushes him in a dark hotel room; but they eventually come to realize that they have both suffered from birth, and make a truce.
Steinfeld is a not a writer of tremendous range - many of his protagonists are writers or academics, who choose, as he does, to live away from Jewish communities. But within the territory he has delineated, he is very skilful. The similarities between his stories do not keep each from being engrossing and surprising. He deserves to be more widely read.
Ron Shaw's Black Light (Cacanadadada, 174 pages, $12.95 paper) is more problematic, since the suffering he describes often does not seem to stem from his own experience. The problems with this collection start with its cover (on which a nude African woman dances with her legs apart). Perhaps Shaw's travels over the past decade (he works in Third World aid and development) have meant that he has missed most of the recent debate here over appropriation and racism in fiction by authors in positions of power or privilege. Obviously writers can work "across" such power relations, but they should now make an effort to create characters from other cultures with respect and caution.
Many of Shaw's stories take the point of view of non-white Africans. While it is to his credit that he cares about Africans, the question is whether they would appreciate, or find accurate, his representations. Few of his African characters are particularly intelligent, accomplished, or powerful (although, to be fair to the author, most of the whites are drunken failures). However, the one story that deals with the power relations between white visitor and African native, "Eight-Bar Love Affair," works well and does raise ethical questions.
The collection's first story, "Ango Field," consciously embroiders a Graham Greene motif to good effect: a pilot forced to make an emergency jungle landing meets a dying, eccentric Belgian diamond prospector whose favourite reading material is A Burnt-out Case. The story is sure, melancholy, and memorable. In other stories, Shaw sometimes tells us when he should be showing us; by the second paragraph, we already know that one protagonist, Tankou, is "consumed by two ever present passions, the painful dragging march of his savings and the smoulder of a love, stunted like his legs at birth, and soured to acid hate."
My initial reaction to Carol Windley's first collection, Visible Light (Oolichan, 263 pages, $12.95 paper), was "Oh no! More award-winning fiction!" Windley's work, the blurb tells us, appears in the latest Journey Prize Anthology and has won prizes in the CBC Radio Literary Competition; the book itself won the "1993 Bumbershoot/Weyerhauser Award." This makes me expect stories that judges can compromise on: well crafted, smoothly written, and never too weird, shocking, or regional. To some extent, Windley's collection confirms this bias, but it also deserves attention for its distinctive merits.
Her stories are quiet, poetic, full of civilized characters busily trying to recreate the past or imagine themselves in the future. "Etruscan," for example, is a fine account of the shifting allegiances between Teddy, a 40ish man who is dying, a woman friend with an unrequited passion for him, and the young woman he has hired to took after him. Teddy is fascinated with the culture of the Etruscans, particularly their belief that the dead are always in touch with us, their spirits taking the form of birds after death. Windley creates an elegiac mood, yet celebrates the details of life going on as the dying prepare their exits. Her least successful tale seems to me to be the title one: it attempts to put some human reality behind the tabloid tales of people abducted briefly by aliens, but it never comes alive despite some powerful moments.
A very different sensibility - much closer to Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoons - is at work in the funny short fictions of M.A.C. Farrant's Raw Material (Arsenal Pulp, 136 pages, $12.95 paper). Inspired by Donald Barthelme (to whom one story pays tribute), Farrant has a method that works well: take a domestic situation full of apparently ordinary characters, and apply to it a surreal conceit. What if married couples had a secret airport hidden in their beds, or commas were physical objects that could be collected and traded, or the host told the hostess to "fuck off 'at the beginning of a social meal, or the husband is kept locked in the bedroom closet?
Farrant pursues these whimsies in quick, sly bites of deadpan prose that are a perfect antidote to the existential solemnity that much current short fiction exhibits. Occasional short-short pieces in italic add a more dreamlike quality. Take a representative sentence about receiving an invitation: "It had so many words at first I thought it was a chain letter threatening good luck." If you find that funny, you'll like the rest of this offbeat collection.
Younger writers with an attitude are featured in Stories from Blood & Aphorisms (SRP/Gutter Press, 189 pages, $16.95 paper), edited by Timothy Paleozny. Paleozny writes that the two-year-old magazine has "worked hard to ensure that style and the expression of individual experience... shines." On the whole, this collection bears out that claim: some writers have social or ethnic agendas (immigrant experiences, child abuse), others are more interested in style and sensibility. But the subject/verb agreement problem in the editor's sentence also contains a clue: the editors could be more careful. It's disturbing to read an otherwise satisfying story and realize that neither writer nor editors know the difference between "poring" and "pouring," or that "Alpha Romeo" is incorrect. A curious printing glitch that makes every "ng" stand out in bolder face in most stories adds a special emphasis to gerunds.
The stories that impress include J. Alexandra Duncan's "A Slice of Life," which offers some insight into what motivates those whose main preoccupations are piercing and scarring their bodies; "Wound Ballistics" by Stephen Manners, an account of a gun-obsessed female cop and her lover; and James R. Wallen's funny filmscript-formatted excerpt from Boy's Night Out, about an ambitionless office worker who absolutely cannot figure women out. While the collection is uneven in quality, there's enough variety and promise here for satisfying reading.