YEAR and a half ago, barely recovered from a gruelling cross-country tour to publicize Vie Telling of Lies, Timothy Findley talked to the Toronto weekly Now about two well-advanced manuscripts. One was a "large" novel, the other a "joined sequence" of short stories. "I've fallen upon two characters who don't appear to belong in a novel but in episodes that are more story-like in shape and size," he explained. Findley's only previous collection of short fiction, Dinner Along the Amazon, was published in 1984. For that, he gathered together 12 short stories written over 30 years, of which all but one had been published before, or read on the CBC. Now Stones, his second book of short fiction, appears. Of the nine stories, only four have been published previously, all within the last year and a half. It is not just a collection of separate stories dealing with separate characters; the nine narratives are inextricably joined or linked, in various ways.
Most obvious are the links between characters in the stories within Stones. The first two present episodes in the tangled
marriage of two writers, Bragg and Minna, who may be the two characters Findley said that he had "fallen upon." In two others, "Me Name is the Same" and "Real Life Writes Real Bad," Neil Cable traces the disintegration of his elder brother Bud. 'Men there are links with other works by Findley. Neil and Bud appeared in "War" and "About Effie," stories in Dinner Along the Amazon. The final story, "Stones," is linked with The Wars (1977) and Dieppe 1942, a script for which Findley won an award in 1979. Even more fundamental is the thematic consistency that makes Stones not .merely a collection but a unified, self-contained work and at the same time part of the larger unity of Findley's fictional world, the world that he has been revealing gradually for more than 30 years.
In his introduction to Dinner Along the Amazon, Findley wrote that the "real" world, for writers, is a world inside their heads, a world fed, selectively, by "the world we all share," and he spoke almost apologetically about his "obsessions," adding that it is these obsessions that signal "whose world you are in."
The obsessions in the nine stories in Stones, these latest bulletins from the world of Timothy Findley, are disturbing. Although there are scenes in London, on the stony beach at Dieppe, and in the interior of Australia, the world of these stories is Toronto, realistically, solidly mapped out, with precise street and bridge names, a divided world that extends from the stultifying privilege of Rosedale to the turmoil and degradation of the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. 'Me very solidity of Findley's physical world makes even more disturbing the lives of those who inhabit it. They are solitaries who fail in their attempts to communicate. Marriages are marked by ruptures, mutual destruction, attempted murder. Within the family, fathers betray; incest threatens. There is a continuous process of physical and mental decay: alcoholism, inoperable cancer, nervous breakdowns, paranoia, dreams that take over the waking world, transferred to the psychiatrists who cannot help their patients. Minna, the writer, "pursued by storms and demons," keeps her "journal of despair." Colin, her husband's lover, "could tell, before he put his hands out, where the snakes were going to be."
One of the most disturbing facets of Stones is that Findley, through his shaping of often extraordinary materials -- a researcher appears to take on the aspects of a fox; blood from a dream blinds the eyes of a psychiatrist -- succeeds in making them quite acceptable, almost ordinary, making his "selection" represent "the world we all share."
This success is due in part to the structure, often a relentless process of unfolding and revelation. It is also due to Findley's adroit handling of point of view or angle of narration, in the first and third person. But supplementing these voices is the one that helps to give Stones its unity: the often obliquely presented fictional voice of the presiding narrator; it might be called the "Findley voice." This is, however, the voice of Findley the writer; a persona, and not necessarily the same as that of Findley the man. In "A Gift of Mercy" a writer is described:
'Me thing about Bragg that gave his writing its "voice" was his savage sense of humour -- laughter that only reached the page; he had no gift for laughter in his life. Bragg was perfectly aware of the written humour's source. All his life he had known he was set aside from the comfortable mass by the fact of his homosexuality....
So this was his private fund of rage: the rage that produced his written humour -- and the rage, by most accounts, that saved his writing from the spoils of too much darkness.
This passage indicates another factor that sets Stones apart from the earlier Dinner Along the Amazon. In that book, there is one relatively minor character, "poor deadly Conrad," who describes himself as a "faggot." In Stones Bragg, the homosexual writer, is given a central role in the first two linked stories, which occupy one-quarter of the book. It is his sexuality that de
termines the progress and outcome of the narrative. He is, perhaps significantly, one of the few characters who achieve a final positive resolution. Yet Bragg is not to be identified with either Findley the man or Findley the writer in this work. Although he is quite frank about his homosexuality, Findley said in 1987 that he required a "mythic distance" before he could make homosexuality one of the engines of his writing.
In "Bragg and Minna" Findley presents the husband and wife as two opposing kinds of writers, leaving no doubt which is the more valuable. Bragg's books, meticulously, laboriously written in isolation, are "rather like etching in brass." Minna says of her works: "It's putting an end to all the silence out on Queen Street. It's putting words where no words are and giving articulation to all that noise behind the eyes I've been watching." She plots "the overthrow of silence." Ibis same drive to defeat the silence leaves the researcher in "Foxes," after every attempt at articulating the theories arising from his findings, paralysed -- "not unlike every other kind of writer," the narrator adds. Findley himself speaks of "a post-natal slump" -- after the process of writing and delivering. He adds, however: "After it's over, that's when you discover what the unity was about." And it is the unity of this world, so powerfully portrayed, that makes Stones one of Findley's most disturbing and at the same time, finest works. 0