UNPLOTTED, never fully formed, never illuminating character in "sudden" or postcard fiction (as in the Chekhovian manner), contemporary Canadian short stories are often wonderfully and amorphously postmodernist. Yet, in shaping or resolving a minimal conflict, they transmit "the silent artillery of the brain," as Dorothy Parker once put it.
Jancis Andrews's and jean McKay's fictions are in a sense complementary: one quite conventional, the other more experimental in dealing with moods and states of mind. Andrews, from West Vancouver but born in the UK, writes with elan and is deeply concerned about violence against women; McKay, originally from Vancouver but now living in London, Ontario, is a minimalist: terse, metafictional.
The characters in Andrews's Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair are outsiders: socially unconventional, yet delineated with a firm sense of place, mainly the West Coast. In the title story, an image of attractive exuberance develops as the main character, Ruby, inordinately fat, pursues love and sexual fulfilment -symbolized by the letting down of her hair. Lavish descriptions of food, suggestive of sexual satiety, save this playful fantasy from becoming a cliche. In the end, Ruby's longing is only partially fulfilled through Robert, her longed-for sex object; instead, we are left with the image of a hummingbird, dazzling yet tiny, and contrasting sharply with the obese Ruby. Andrews's mischievous hand has Ruby bent on naming her special dish the "Jewelled Bird" (Yeatsian?). Finally, Ruby imagines "his entering of her in the sweet contraction and expansion that was the movement of the universe, until his fire exploded in her womb, illuminating all that had been previously darkness in her." Pure "erotics," as Robert Kroetsch puts it.
"Eye of the Beholder" is an ironic tale of a church's refusal to help a battered women's organization rather than raise funds to buy a new organ. Bishop Lather of Kamloops comes into contact with the redoubtable Mrs Parrott, who inveigles him into judging a baby contest: and now he is on the verge of compromising himself, alas! In "A Thing of Beauty," Myra Dillon - a real beauty in a northeastern town - is the centre of attraction, the envy of all the other girls; but Myra "falls" when she gets pregnant by an older man. Here, as elsewhere, Andrews's strength lies in the sheer energy and gusto of her storytelling.
Jean McKay's The Dragonfly Fling consists of short fictions reflective of life in small towns (e.g. Timmins, Ont.), particularly in the 1950s and '60s. One or two pages long, these pieces vary in tone and pacing, and are chock-full of colloquial vigour.
Apparently banal subjects become points for exploration through shifting points of view: the voice is terse, resilient, invariably tough. Whole phrases, sometimes one-liners, attract: "I ... hauled up my shirt so I could look at my belly while they argued, wishing it had a window like a washing machine door" ("Skipping"); or,
"Kissing Mick Jagger is one thing I can do without" ("Essential"). McKay is particularly interested in the details of language: she dwells on the word "Ossuary," concluding: "Ossuate: the blessed state of having spit shit."
McKay's work seems both macabre and magical at the same time in pieces such as "View from Below," where death and life are juxtaposed and everything is viewed from "the bee-eyed centre of her brain"; and it's amazingly droll in "Doors," where her female narrator awaits coitus while fingering a condom and counting from one to five in French. In The Dragonfly Fling McKay's aesthetic energies can sometimes be overly condensed, however; other narrative strategies, more emotionally satisfying for the reader, may be necessary.
In Andrews and McKay the short-fiction form manifests its full range: it is all the ubiquitous unconscious, the kingdom of the imagination.