It always seems a shame that there is such a strong tendency in Canada to divide our short fiction into camps: realistic vs surrealistic, psychological vs symbolic, rural vs urban, traditional vs cutting edge. Especially difficult to avoid is the Alice Munro conundrum; you're either with her, or railing against her seemingly far-reaching "establishment" influence. (This last is unfair to everybody, including Alice Munro, who, while remaining true to her voice, continues to take amazing risks in her stories.) That risk-taking and hybridity occur in all camps is perhaps what's most interesting and overlooked in our stories. Stylistically wide-ranging recent collections by technically grounded and innovative writers such as Annabel Lyon, Libby Creelman, Mike Barnes, Sheila Heti, and Shaena Lambert prove that it is difficult and maybe even wrongheaded to try to pigeonhole how we write (or don't write) short fiction as Canadians.
That said, it is hard to resist placing two new collections from Raincoast Books, Mount Appetite by Bill Gaston and Dianne's Warren's A Reckless Moon, into the character-driven, "psychological" camp of Canadian short fiction. Gaston's and Warren's stories are similar in that they try, and for the most part, succeed, in getting inside their characters' heads and hearts. There is a sense also of the characters searching for meaning in their lives, even if that meaning is somehow unrecognizable or unavailable to them. Set in "real" Canadian places, Mount Appetite and A Reckless Moon have a notion of solid geography in common, although their characters' perceptions of "location" often prove more ephemeral. Beyond these parallels, however, the collections diverge in terms of scope and voice.
In Mount Appetite, Bill Gaston's fourth collection of short stories, we encounter a drug addict, a parolee, a wanderer, a faith healer, a fish researcher, and a girl who can't make up her mind, among others. His quirky characters often find themselves on the brink, of themselves, or of the land¨many of the stories are set, fittingly, on Canada's coasts, where a sense of both possibility and edge-of-the-world uncertainty prevails and characters often arrive at "a clarity with no meaning to it at all" ("Comedian Tire"). In "The Northern Cod" a salmon researcher from BC takes a gig in Newfoundland studying cod breeding patterns, leaving behind a husband she suspects of being unfaithful. While on the Rock, her work first absorbs, then obsesses her, until finally the importance of "coupling" and its repercussions take on a whole new meaning.
Along with minds plagued by trying circumstances, Gaston plumbs the depths of those mired in chemically altered states. "Under the Influence" and "The Little Addict That Could" have at their hollow centres a wanton downward spiral that is common to many of the characters in the collection. In the latter, Tyson, a heroin addict, chooses his uncle Jack's island home as a space to kick his habit. Instead he quickly falls off the wagon, leading the option-bankrupt Jack into junkie-land. The two end up at a bar together, having "sucked Eve's breast" (Tyson's take on a heroin hit) and we understand that Jack has given himself over to Tyson's glamourous decline. This easy collapse feels a bit rushed and somewhat implausible, given how little space and time we have to get to know Jack and his particular brand of emptiness. However, the altered states (in several stories) do allow for some wonderful surreal imagery and a temporal, spatial "jumpiness" to the prose that makes for good reading, if not always concrete characterization.
In fact, it is exactly these blurry "fictions" for which that the narrator of the well-wrought "A Forest Path" has no time. The illegitimate, unrecognized and self-righteous son of Malcolm Lowry, and a teetotaler, he carefully rectifies the drunken inaccuracies in his father's prose, putting a new spin on his story "A Forest Path to the Spring" wherein a crouching cougar turns out to symbolize more and less than what Lowry and his readers might have imagined. Also notable for its pitch-perfect voice is "Where it comes from and where it goes", the story of a faith healer, Mr. Oates, from small town New Brunswick. Mr. Oates' colloquialisms are genuine without seeming over-the-top, which makes him an affable and sympathetic protagonist, even as he struggles to understand the gift that sets him apart.
The children and teens of "Mount Appetite" are also not immune to the world of adult anguish. They thrash and stare in its face, or become paralyzed by indecision when forced to enter it. Particularly strong, if one of the more macabre pieces in the book, is "Maria's Older Brother", in which the not-so-bright weakling in a bunch of merciless (normal) boys seeks an odd, literal way to voice his frustration at being picked on and excluded. This sense of exclusion is at the core of many of Gaston's stories, and although the role of outsider and onlooker is perhaps a staple of short fiction (and of fiction in general) he manages to give his loners a new twist by placing them in slightly freakish situations where it is likely they will lose control.
I did get the feeling some of these stories had been deliberately truncated for effect, which can be frustrating for a reader. Strangely amputated endings call attention to a story's oddness only, which isn't always enough, and can make for a disappointing, rather than thought-provoking absence of closure. However, for the most part, reading Gaston's stories is like being submerged, momentarily, in strange waters; you're not sure you want to stay there long, but you come out dripping and shivering with the newness of it all, and prepared to dip in all over again.
Whereas Bill Gaston's tales offer relatively brief and visceral shots of consciousness, Dianne Warren's seven "short" stories in A Reckless Moon are, in fact, long and large in scope. Approaching novella status, they incorporate whole communities and explore an intriguing depth and breadth of interactions. Warren manages to achieve this through rich back-story, fully-realized atmosphere and subtle, colourfully drawn characters. The majority of these stories focus on the grapplings of women¨with family, autonomy, and work¨and many revolve around small gestures of rebellion, articulations of independence, confidences that blow up or fizzle sadly. They are not, however, limited in gender or theme. Indeed, part of the appeal of Warren's stories lies in the sense of expansiveness she manages to suggest through particular, telling details.
In the opening story, "Hawk's Landing", Edna and her mother Mrs. Carlsberg receive an unexpected guest, Hildie, the wife of one of Edna's recently deceased brothers. Hildie shakes up the mother and daughter's day-to-day living pattern and inadvertently brings some secret alliances to the surface. This situation is fodder enough for a short story, but Warren also seamlessly works in a neighbour boy's acts of rebellion, which in many ways mirror Edna's own buried restlessness. Set in Hawk's Landing, Montana, an isolated has-been resort spot, the setting itself plays a role in the women's sense of themselves and each other. Edna is wry, observant, and pragmatic as a character: "How stupid and careless, she thought, to let people you love get away. But there was no use thinking about that, no sense beating yourself up." Like many of Warren's women, she has accepted her lot, but under quiet protest. This is a story remarkable for its slow build, wherein apparently unrelated threads are woven loosely together at the end, with the impression that they could, momentarily, and without notice, unravel themselves.
The same light touch and superb pacing are evident in all the stories, but "Tuxedo" and "A Reckless Moon" are particularly noteworthy. The narrator of the former, although a younger city dweller, shares Edna's capacity for summing up people and situations: "I was thinking Lenore wasn't capable of doing terrible things. If she were, she would be a different person, possibly a happier one." The ending is a wonderful (bordering on farcical) scene at a wedding in which the narrator learns that everything she suspected, but refused to believe about a certain type of man, is in-her-face true. "A Reckless Moon" explores the reverberations of the decision of a dying patriarch on his family and his farm (and most especially his daughter's pride) in ways that are both revelatory and oblique at once. All of this in a drive to Prince Albert from Saskatoon! It is tempting to use writing workshop clichTs when describing Dianne Warren's stories¨her endings feel so, well, well-earned. But that term implies labouring or straining towards an outcome, which would be an inaccurate description in this case. Instead, these conclusions seem to simply "occur" to the stories, as an apt thought or idea might to a person. It is tempting also (and perhaps apt) to bring up that name¨Munro¨as comparison here. These stories are traditional, I suppose, in that they have at their core the "personal epiphany", albeit fragmented or incomplete. But however familiar their structures might seem, it is Warren's lucid, empathetic voice and vision that make the collection exceptional.
Although Warren's stories do stick to a fairly straightforward realism, there is something magical in some of her themes, and her characters' revelations, although not earth-shattering, are often surprising. In "The Bone Garden", she shifts easily between the perspectives of Dixie, a social worker returning from a meeting, Moe, the sixteen-year-old son of one of her clients (and a blossoming delinquent) and Carmen, Moe's soulmate, who's been forced into a road trip with her mother and brother. The three characters ultimately converge in a postmodern hell of a hotel in Saskatoon, where the two teenagers act out a bizarre, primeval passion play under the domed skylight. Here, Warren has taken a relatively simple situation and allowed it to web out into something farther-reaching; we feel not only the imaginative desperation of the kids, but also Dixie's resignation to it. The "hint" that pervades the story is that Carmen and Moe's behaviour is justified in the twisted world in which adults force them to survive.
The stories in A Reckless Moon are outstanding, infused with insight, and anchored by their unassuming, affecting prose. Both Warren and Gaston are writers who have excelled in other genres (Warren was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award for her play Serpent in the Night Sky, and Gaston's novel The Good Body was much praised). It is a boon for readers that they continue to enrich and broaden the realm of Canadian short fiction. ˛