THIS HASN'T BEEN a good decade for white males, not so far anyway. The dead ones -- like Christopher Columbus -- have been reassessed and found wanting, recalled like defective Pintos. The live ones -- like the majority of the characters in Clark Blaise's new short-story collection -- are just plain breaking down.
Man and His World chronicles the decline with a cynical eroticism and weary eloquence. The first story, "A Tour around My Father," sets the tone for the book. Mixing regret and resignation, the narrator, a middle-aged writer, comes to terms with his father's failures and, by extension, his own.
Later, in "Did, Had, Was," Blaise maps out, with painstaking precision, the emotional and mental collapse of a fiftysomething journalist. The protagonist, Paul Picard, has come a long way from his roots in rural Quebec. He has become respected and famous -- "our Orwell," a friend reminds him. But despite his success, Picard's personal life is falling apart; his clearest memories are of the distant past. Meanwhile, the narrative shifts back and forth between Picard's unravelling thought processes -- between what's already lost and what's slipping away.
Whether the stories in Man and His World are psychologically dense, as in "Did, Had, Was," or quirky and fanciful -- as in "The Love God," a strange tale about a man fathered by a horse -- they are all linked by a common quality of desperation. (They should, incidentally, be read in sequence.) It's as if the characters are trying hard to regain their balance or simply catch their breath. "After a certain age," Picard explains, "chaos becomes exponential in a man's life and the brain rebels."
What Blaise, 52, brings to all of these stories is an unflinching eye for the dark side of the male mid-life crisis. There's no safe ground, no neutral territory, as the protagonist of the title story -- a man who's kidnapped his son from his estranged wife -- recognizes: "The adjacent space, he had learned, may always be evil." There is also less and less to look forward to, as another of Blaise's middle-aged characters confesses:
I have learned that after fifty, a man
encounters no more surprises, every-
thing is vaguely predictable. By the
age of fifty, the millions of random
thoughts, the thousands of people
we've met, the hundreds of thousands
of separate articles, books, words, all
begin to coalesce. Our character
becomes multiple contingency...
It's been six years between short-story collections for Blaise (his last book was Resident Alien), long enough, perhaps, for readers to forget just how intelligent and instinctive a storyteller he is. Man and His World is a wonderful reminder.
At one point, the narrator of "A Tour around My Father," one of the more overtly autobiographical pieces in the book, refers to his own writing as "an acquired taste." There is some truth to that. A story like "Meditations on Starch," for example, seems a little disjointed at first, but by the final scene -- the narrator visits Freud's house in Vienna -- every theme Blaise takes on in the story, including the decline of European culture and tradition, comes sharply into focus. "Dunkelblau" is similarly hard to find your way into. Once there, though, it's a deftly realized view of the world, circa 1945 -- "the best and worst year in history" -- through the eyes of a troubled, precocious child.
Probably the best thing about Man and His World is Blaise's fresh, idiosyncratic approach to what a short story can and should do. The classic definition of the form centres on overcoming its limitations -- in terms of length or character development or narrative unity; Blaise focuses instead on the expansiveness of the form. A short story, according to Blaise, provides the opportunity to say everything there is to say about a single incident.
My favourite example here of how this philosophy is put into practice is "Sweetness and Light." One of the most intriguing short stories I've read for a long time, it covers a remarkably rich and broad range of territory, telling how a widower from Chicago ends up in an obscure village in India, on a Fullbright fellowship, married to a local prostitute, and observing the behaviour of monkeys.
For all its surprising offbeat material and plot twists, and despite Blaise's lyrical prose style, this is a disturbing, often gloomy book. Even the stories that don't deal specifically with middle age -- like "Dunkelblau" and the equally engaging "Snake in Flight over Pittsburgh" -- are relentlessly dark. In the end, though, it's an illuminating darkness.