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Clubbable Tales
by Donna Nurse

Often while writing book reviews I find myself referring to my notes from Professor Vicari's fourth-year course on the history of literary criticism, particularly her comments on Sir Philip Sidney's influential An Apologie for Poetrie. For Sidney, a sixteenth-century nobleman and poet, the word "poetry" represented various forms of fictional writing. "Apologie" in the literary context denoted "defence". Sidney, like many creative artists before and since, felt compelled to justify the value of his work before those who would disparage it as no more than an "edifice of lies".
In his Apologie Sidney protests against these charges: "For the poet he nothing affirmes, and therefore never lyeth. For, as I take it, to lye is to affirm that to be true which is false.. The Historian affirming many things, can in the cloudy knowledge of mankinde, hardly escape from many lyes.."
And though the facts of particular stories may be invention, practitioners of contemporary fiction ascribe to their art the task of communicating a character's emotional truth as well as broader, universal truths.
With Telling My Love Lies, the Vancouver writer Keath Fraser offers an apology that reminds us of the issue faced by Sidney. Only, rather than using the malapropos measure of veracity to judge fiction's merit, Fraser celebrates the imaginative spirit-that art of lying, if you will-at the heart of story-telling.
The novel's patently tenuous premise is built upon the dilemma of a book club in British Columbia whose members are tired of the "same old, same-old." As a last-ditch effort to keep the club together, the readers decide to start writing their own stories in the hope that adopting an alternative point of view will help reinvigorate the process. Much to their surprise and delight, the experiment proves wildly successful.
Fraser employs this novel (I use the term loosely) as a vehicle for stringing together a collection of his previously published stories. Telling My Love Lies is a story about an anthology, comprised of an anthology. Its construction is undisguisedly contrived. But then, that is just what Fraser means to underscore: the etymological link between art and artifice.
For Fraser, fiction is a matter of substance as well as style. Virtually every narrative in the novel opens with a reference to mendacious discourse of one sort or another. For example, in the story "Sikh", a loquacious young politician tries to convince his fiancée of his fidelity, after a slanderous newspaper article labels him a playboy. "Damages", the story of a motel manager who has resigned, begins with the protagonist's intention to libel herself.
Originally doubtful of their gifts for fiction, the club members very quickly astound themselves with their ability to fabricate. Inspiration issues from the least expected sources. One author locates the seed for his story about a grieving girl ("My Argentina") in a discussion about the collective noun for ostriches. The writer of "My Honour, Your Honour" derives his story, about the prosecution of a Nazi war criminal, through word association; a love of self-defence stimulates the idea of legal defence.
To help "jumpstart" their imaginations, the members have agreed that they can, if necessary, borrow from one another's stories. So, for instance, the author of "The Girl with the White Light", a piece about the healing properties of sunshine, credits "Damages" (the tale of the disgruntled motel worker) with sparking her creative flame. In Telling My Love Lies story-telling turns into a highly interactive affair.
Indeed, intertextuality, the way in which narratives refer to one another, seems to be the only critical notion to which Fraser appears to grant much credibility. That's intriguing, since for literate societies, intertextuality asserts a paradox: it challenges the authority of the author by accentuating the communal elements of story-telling found in traditional oral societies.
When it comes to critical theories, Fraser suggests that academics, critics, and readers of all kinds place too great an emphasis on psychological and biographical approaches. Even after five years of deep literary discussions, the club members have a difficult time discerning one another's motivations. Besides, as the collection's fictitious editor, Patricia Melmouth, writes, "We'd never appreciated how much fiction writers make up."
"We had the unfortunate tendency," she adds, "to credit experience and debit make-believe." Fraser implies that thinking less about authors' lives and focusing more on the imaginative experience would greatly enhance the entire process of reading.
Fraser's posture may be purposely provocative, but it is not necessarily anti-intellectual. His focus on the imagination in no way allots literature a diminished role. On the contrary, his book confirms story-telling as a primary social function. Indeed if the collection's varied protagonists share any one problem, it is that their planned life-scripts have failed to materialize. The most dramatic example of this occurs in "My Honour, Your Honour", when the Nazi war criminal moves to British Columbia in an effort to alter both his future and his past. After several decades, he is discovered and must undergo an extradition hearing.
The stories in Telling My Love Lies are full of images of hopeful schemes gone awry. Junkyards and dilapidated houses abound. A number of awkward characters roam this landscape: slightly ridiculous outsiders with lives marked by a devastating lack of profundity. Their feeble attempts at self-realization come through the assertion of voice-often through the public performance of song. The son in the title story, for example, becomes a second-string opera singer. In "Memoir", the husband steps up to the mike and begins to croon love songs.
Fraser's characters are often charmingly sad, yet they never absorb us completely. His clever deployment of word-play and metaphor get in the way. Fraser forces readers to recognize stories as both the substance and structure of our lives. He reminds us, yet again, that the "medium is the message." 

Donna Nurse is a Toronto writer.


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