"It must be violent." Did Andy Stubbs, author of Myth, Origins, Magic: A Study of Form in Eli Mandel's Writing, tell me that? Have I adapted it from Wallace Stevens's "Adagia"? Or am I making this up? Whatever the source (perhaps an attentive reader could help me out), it's an idea I'm interested in tracing with a view to describing what Canadian writing-and specifically the Canadian short story-is and can be. While we rightly deplore violence in the world, can we argue against its function, its value, in art?
Certainly in the imaginative region that James Reaney and Alice Munro and other Southwestern Ontario writers have mapped for us, violence is a pervasive, disturbing, often suppressed, and for these reasons especially powerful element of the human psyche: a force that is at once destructive and creative. Violence, whenever it erupts in art-or, sometimes more terrifyingly, when it just threatens to surface in art-shows us, draws us more deeply into, a typically uncharted, typically resisted, but crucial part of our own being. In short stories like Reaney's "The Box Social", which opens this volume, or the still more fantastic and delightful "The Bully", in any number of the eleven stories comprising this volume, violence teaches us to see and to feel. Perhaps it can even be said to radiate with a beauty all its own.
James Reaney's stories, however, are not only violent; they are genuinely rooted and genuinely transcendent-important qualities, for me, in Canadian writing in general and the Canadian short story in particular. The gentle protagonist of "The Bully" recalls his impression, as a young boy, of the way his oldest sister, Noreen, would feed the hens: "Each night she would sprinkle the grain out on the ground in the shape of a letter or some other pattern, so that when the hens ate the grain, they were forced to spell out Noreen's initials or to form a cross and a circle..Sometimes, I know, Noreen spelt out whole sentences in this way, a letter or two each night, and [I] often wondered to whom she was writing up in the sky." As in this description, so it is throughout James Reaney's stories: time and eternity intersect, as on a symbolic cross, and they form patterns-a circle around a cross, a mandala.
This simultaneously worldly and otherworldly feeling is also conveyed by the description, in the gratifyingly gothic story "The Car", of a schoolboy's daily three-mile journey by bicycle between farm and town: "When he was alone he could say over his lessons to himself, or watch things or just be a bicycle. Mostly, he watched things: the colour of tree branches, pigeons on a barn roof in the sun, grass along the fence bottom; the sun on a frozen puddle over in a field..The two wheels of his bicycle always reminded him of the map of the two hemispheres at school. He rode through the stars with the New World and the Old World for wheels." Like the poetry of one of Reaney's great influences, William Blake, these stories are both rooted and transcendent-simultaneously, with each quality intersecting with, working with, strengthening the other.
Most of the stories seem to belong to a particular space, the countryside not far from a town sometimes named Stratford. Most of the stories seem to belong to a particular time, the middle to late 1930s, though in a couple of instances (the haunting fairy-tale-like "Embro", and "Sleigh without Bells: A Ghost Story about the Last Two Weeks of the Donnellys", which concludes the volume), stories are set more than fifty years earlier. Yet for all their historicity, the stories are nonetheless fully imagined; that is, they draw as much from art as they do from life. Like the writing of another of Reaney's great influences, Emily Brontė, these stories feel more real precisely because they are so sharply and brilliantly imagined.
Certain of these stories-like "The Box Social" and "The Bully"-altered the landscape of Canadian short story writing, expanded the possibilities that subsequent writers could in turn envision, when they first appeared in magazines or anthologies in the late forties and early fifties. As Margaret Atwood remarks of "The Bully" on the back cover of this collection, "Strong in local atmosphere, which is not used however for the purposes of strict realism, combining the comic with the pathetic, proceeding by an associative dream language, resolving itself through image rather than through plot alone, it offered us a whole new way of looking at the possibilities of the world available to us..Without `The Bully', my fiction would have followed other paths. If there are such things as `key' reading experiences, `The Bully' was certainly one of mine." And now this collection as a whole-containing both early stories and others whose times of composition I am convinced are more recent (which is not to say that the older stories do not feel just as new)-is available to illuminate a new generation's sense of the possibilities of our cultural landscape.
Interestingly, it's not just Reaney's inventions with the form of the short story itself that captivates us here, but his approach to the form of the short story collection. In the collection August Nights Hugh Hood entitled one story "Every Piece Different" after a slogan on a candy box, as a statement of the individuality of the various pieces in each of his collections. The contents of Reaney's The Box Social & Other Stories, we realize upon finding out what's actually in the attractively wrapped box Sylvia prepares for her ex-lover in the title story, are not pieces of candy (nor are Hood's stories, for that matter). But the stories here are notable as much for their similarity as for their individuality.
Three of these stories make one story; or, rather, one story is divided into three parts: "The Ditch-First Reading", "The Ditch-Second Reading", and "The Ditch-Third Reading". (Surely this is a playful hint of the tradition of Christian allegory that Reaney's work not only descends from, but also reinvigorates.) These three are arranged at intervals throughout the book, "an idea I garnered from my father's copy of Gage's Third Reader"-the protagonist, Robert, tells us-in which "my father's favourite poem in the reader", Tennyson's "For I'm To Be Queen of the May", was divided in like fashion. Of course in Reaney's world, things are never as unequivocally childlike or innocent or romantic as they may first seem, not even childhood: "my father's choice of such a tear-jerker was coloured by the fact that he had a brilliant sister who died of eating cucumbers when she was twelve-appendicitis, attended medically too late-and she had been reciting the poem around the house before her appendix burst." And then there's the wider, darker canvas of this triptych about Robert's family history: the curious and frequently troubling behaviour, and in some cases writings, of the young protagonist himself, his father and mother, their hostile neighbours, his new stepfather, his schoolteacher, and the keeper of a nearby institution for the insane.
Shocking, merry, tangible, and magical: these stories are further confirmation of the lasting importance of a writer whose talents, for half a century, have moved easily among poetry and fiction and drama-bringing much from one form to another. At seventy, James Reaney is still adventurous, and I look forward to more by him: an edition of his Christmas cards and other emblem poems perhaps, an interesting mix of his essays on subjects literary and historical, new work in any of the forms in which he delights-who can predict?
J.R. (Tim) Struthers, a member of the Department of English at the University of Guelph, is the editor and publisher, with Red Kite Press, of two short story collections by the late George Elliott, The bittersweet man (1994) and Crazy Water Boys (1995). In 1996, he edited On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe (Oolichan Books); and, with his colleagues Ajay Heble and Donna Palmateer Pennee, he recently finished co-editing New Contexts of Canadian Criticism (available from Broadview Press in March 1997).