THIS POLITICALLY incorrect collection of stories is one of the most enjoyable reads to come my way this year. Qualities that lurked in Barbara Gowdy's two previous books (Through the Green Valley and Falling Angels) are here brought to the fore: a capacity for dreaming up startling images; and the power to impress them on her readers in language that can be spare and at times elegant. And amusing. "I am still a necrophile, occasionally, and recklessly. I have found no replacement for the torrid serenity of a cadaver," confesses the ingenuous heroine of her title story.
The characters in the eight stories in We So Seldom Look on Love are subject to various psychological and physical afflictions, some of which can fairly be termed extravagant. "Sylvie" and "The Two Headed Man," for example, are about the lives and problems of Siamese twins - a topic fraught with implication that Gowdy approaches without being in the least heavy-handed. Many of the other characters are strippers male and female, transsexuals, voyeurs, etc. "Ninety-three Million Miles Away" is one of the most enticing stories - for this male reader at least. In it, a bored urban wife, as she paints a self-portrait, finds herself giving in to exhibitionistic impulses she never knew she possessed (this story also makes an appearance in Slow Hand, Michele Slung's brilliant collection of erotic writing by women).
As for the plots, they are at times so surprising, and so much fun, that I don't want to give them away; but the following minor incident from "Lizards" is representative. The heroine's tall lover carries her baby on his shoulders into a restaurant; he fails to notice something deadly - the ceiling fan! It strikes the baby, who promptly tumbles to the floor, mortally wounded (shades of "The Pit and the Pendulum"). Much of the above may sound sensationalistic; but the curious thing is that the stories are often told in the most matter-of-fact voice. Indeed, at times they are so understated that they remind the reader of the late Raymond Carver - granted, a weird version of Raymond Carver. When the subject is horrific ("Presbyterian Crosswalk," the account of a hydrocephalic girl's brief life and death, for example), Gowdy tempers it with a discreet playfulness. And she has a great sympathetic imagination. In "Body and Soul," she intuits her blind heroine's perception of the visible world:
... she taps the bristles of her hairbrush for the tingling sensation that reminds her of drinking Coke. Julie believes that Coke looks bristly. Milk, being mooth,she thinks of as round. The only thing she cannot imagine, the only thing she is prepared to be surprised by, is colour.
The book is full of wisdom about the human condition. In "Lizards," the heroine, who is no more mixed-up than most of us, at last comprehends the world. It is a place where "...there are a million truths. She understands that she has no idea which ones matter." The wisdom emanates from even the most unlikely figures. It is the necrophile of the title story who presents us with this unchallengeable aphorism - "True obsession depends upon the object's absolute unresponsiveness."
Readers who prefer books that wear their hearts on their sleeves (figuratively) may not enjoy We So Seldom Look on Love. There's no obvious sentimentality in these stories Gowdy certainly doesn't patronize us. Or her characters. With all their apparent deformities, it turns out they aren't very different from ourselves. For them, appearance and reality rarely coincide though some of them wish it were otherwise, and that by simply looking in a mirror they could verify themselves. In "Flesh of My Flesh," the last story, a woman has made the devastating discovery that her new husband isn't a man at all, but actually a woman fitted with a rubber penis. As they lie silently together in bed, the wife considers:
If somebody were looking down on them ... they would seem like any other man and wife. They would seem content, she thinks. Peaceful, and lucky. Two people unacquainted with grief. They would seem like two happily married, perfectly normal people.
There are no "perfectly normal people" in Barbara Gowdy's fictional world. But that doesn't make it an unpleasant or an unfunny or an unwise world. Quite the contrary. Readers who take the plunge will emerge breathless and refreshed.