EMOTIONS -- which are what we live for -- are so exhausting that sometimes we think we'd rather die. Even love can tear you apart." So writes Kent Thompson in his new novella, Married Love: A Vulgar Entertainment. 'Me book is the story of Labour Day weekend, 1983, at the Fredericton home of Alice and Harry and their six year-old son, Jake. Coming for the weekend are Harry's mother; his stepfather, Walter; his younger sister, Elaine, who is 16; and 15-year-old Jackie Boy, Walter's son by a previous marriage. story of the complicated emotions this collection of people provoke in each other. Finally, it is not so much that even love can tear you apart, but that it is especially love that both has and gives us the most power.
The weekend, like a situation comedy, unfolds in incidents. For example, Alice serves cold cuts, bread, cheese, and tomatoes for lunch even though she knows full well that Harry's mother is allergic to tomatoes. Harry's mother doesn't eat them but gets sick anyway, convinced she's been poisoned by the cold cuts. There is some
thing more than step-sibling friendship going on between the two teenagers, Jackie Boy and Elaine, even though Harry's stepfather still thinks they're like harmless little kids watching Sunday-morning cartoons in their Doctor Denton pyjamas. Harry's mother meets a skunk. Harry asks Alice if his mother is giving her a hard time; Alice says, "'Your mother is always giving me a hard time' . . . In her imagination Alice could see her ancestors battling one another -- sudden figures in the fog, the slash of a sword, a glint, a grunt -- and the sudden, surprising splash of blood."
All of these characters are talking, always talking, and Thompson is a master at writing dialogue that is wonderful, hilarious, and true. Definitely entertaining, Married Love is only "vulgar" in the best sense of the word: it is the story of ordinary people living out their ordinary lives.
Bonnie Burnard, from Saskatchewan, also writes about ordinary people, women mostly, coping with the vagaries of ordinary daily life. Although Burnard's stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Coming Attractions 1983 and Best Canadian Stories 1984, Women of Influence is her first book-length collection of fiction.
In a recent interview with Stuart McLean on CBC Radio's "Morningside," Burnard questioned the assessment by Patrick Lane (which appears on the back cover) that these stories are about loss. She said she didn't intend them to be about loss. Indeed, to see them as such is akin to seeing a photograph in negative, or a glass of water as being half empty rather than half full. The stories, carefully crafted and strongly plotted, are about confrontation and strength. Loss, grief and fear are the catalysts to growth for these women. In the title story, for example, a woman deals with both her mother and her aunt lying terminally ill at the same time in different hospitals. In "Wolf Spiders," the story of a family coming apart is told through the metaphor of two white spiders in their web.
Burnard directly and fearlessly tackles subjects and situations that a more cowardly writer might well have shied away from or left to implication or imagination. In "Joyride," for example, a woman driving the highway alone at night is pursued by three men in two pickup trucks. She is so frightened that she is urinating and gagging as she tries to escape them. 'Me ending of this story falls short: the woman finds haven in a pizza place, only to find all three men sitting there too: "She knows she should act, now, while they are close." She asks for the owner, Frank, who is "likely sane." He talks to her, "making a point of looking very forcefully at her face, as if this will help. She leans over and turns her head to look out through the door . . . ." But will she really report them? 'Me story is powerful and frightening, like a bad dream that hangs over you all day.
In "The Knife Sharpener," a young girl is lured away by a man clearly intent on molesting her. She is rescued just in time by her mother, who at the end of the story contemplates her choices: "she could call her husband, who would likely call the police. She could describe the knife sharpener. She could make it so bad for him that he'd never show his face in their world again. Or she could say absolutely nothing, to anyone, ever. She could take a calm liberal stance... Or she could take a grey ceramic ashtray from the coffee table and hurl it across the room at the fireplace where it would shatter and come to rest in pieces among the ashes."
'Me most troubling aspect of Burnard's stories is that her characters, women of influence or not, find themselves in situations where their influence runs out and they reach the wall of ultimate powerlessness. They are strong women, but the stories, particularly "Joyride" and "Me Knife Sharpener," seem to end, by implication, in ineffectuality. No matter how good it might feel to throw the grey ceramic ashtray at the fireplace, no matter how many times we might have done just that or wanted to, we also must know even in the act that it can accomplish nothing. In the "Morningside" interview, talking about "The Knife Sharpener," Burnard said that it is a mother's job to imagine awful things happening to her children as a guarantee that they never will. Perhaps that is also the job of the writer "of influence."