IN "CASSIE, CASSIE," the first story in Sarah Murphy's new collection, The Deconstruction of Wesley Smithson, the personal myths of a wealthy family are being dismantled by the "insane" vision of elder daughter Cassie and the innocent voice of Younger daughter Polly. Polly describes postmodern architecture with its exposed colour-coded pipes and air vents:
It was very fashionable to show how
buildings worked, to turn them inside
out or skin them like an anatomy diag-
ram to show the veins and arteries:
You can show how anything works as
long as it's not the world, Cassie
Like the other two pieces in this collection, "Cassie, Cassie" has the vigour of writing that is grounded in a concern with how the world works. The girls' father is an ad man tied to the industrialmilitary complex; he thinks he's immune from Third World suffering and the degradation of the environment. Their mother, meanwhile, is receiving messages: death threats from the air, the water, and the food.
In "Paramilitary Parafictions," the second story, a series of footnotes around blank pages succeeds brilliantly in writing a story in the imagination of the reader. The footnotes provide background material concerning the imprisonment and torture of a Salvadoran man, and his subsequent resettlement as a refugee. The blank pages speak of the silence of the author/observer before a story such as this. They speak of how the tortured are silenced by censorship and by the very enormity of their experience.
The title story is about a journalist in Central America trying hard to hold on to his North American reality. Like the father in "Cassie, Cassie," who believes that he is above it all, Wesley Smithson remembers the time when he was only a witness; now, through the metaphor of physical disease (red moles "like bleeding hearts" appear all over his body), Murphy shows how implicated he really is.
Snapshots: The New Canadian Fiction is a dim-sum collection: 88 delectable (mostly) morsels of arresting images and distilled experience by 21 writers. The premise here is that less is more, that intensity of effect is in inverse proportion to length. Because the short-short and postcard-story forms have become so popular recently, the book serves as a useful introduction to new writers; among the names in the table of contents, only Leon Rooke's could be considered well known.
Short-short stories demand a poet's discipline and a poet's restraint. M. Anne Mitton in "Her Mother's Brother" uses the best words (just 113 of them) in the best order to tell the most chilling tale of child sexual abuse I have ever read. Beverley Daurio also makes brilliant use of the form. Her selections from 100 Times I Turned to the Window and Saw Your Reflection There are remembered moments of childhood: the sudden realization of love between two girls at a carnival, the insidious creeping conformity of children painting pictures to meet their teacher's expectations.
Some short shorts have the force of parable. F. J. Holdstock's "Catching the News" is about trying to live one's life while media images of world-wide disaster intrude daily. The narrator has to cope with newspaper settling in layers in every comer of the house: "You've shredded some of it tossed, stir-fried the leftovers. They quite liked that. You worry about the ink of course, but what can you do?" Jon Cone's "City" is an allegory of how through time we come to embrace the sort of life we once deplored.
J. A. Hamilton's visually rich "Hummingbirds" conveys the crazy ambivalence of being a new mother. Elizabeth Hays "Baby" is a more literal treatment of the same theme. Two new mothers talk soberly about what having responsibility for a baby will mean for their own lives:
The Inuit word for starvation means
in between. In between summer and
winter when it was hard to hunt -
the snow too soft, ice too treacher-
ous. In between lives -- this period
with a new life which isn't my own.
After reading Snapshots, I'm sold on the short-short story. It's the perfect form for some things. For close-ups, minute observations, it works like imagist poetry. For big subjects, a whole life, it has a looking-through-the-wrong-end-of-a- telescope effect, exaggerating the ironies and the crazy correspondences between events by condensing them. It's also the form for crazy, fanciful, surrealistic absurdities, the sort of thing that must be said, but can't be said at too much length.
These stories might seem no more than one of the typical forms of our time, the quick literary fix. Like all concentrated forms, however, the best of them have a way of expanding in the mind after consumption.