Coming Attractions 89|
by Maggie Helwig And Bronwen Wallace
89: Best Canadian Stories
by David Helwig And Maggie Helwig
Post Your Opinion
by Gary Draper
IF YOUVE been wondering about the health of the short story in Canada, I have some good news. Not only is it alive and kicking, it's in extremely capable hands. The evidence is in these two annual short-story collections from Oberon Press.
Let's look at Best Canadian Stories first. Anthologies are, by their very nature, provocative. Why was this story included, the reader wonders, why was that one left out? When the title declares its contents to be the "Best" there are bound to be even more quibbles raised. Let's just assume that what the editors really want us to understand is that there are some very fine short stories between these covers. If so, they're right.
The concluding story in this volume is by Alice Munro, and it's called "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass." At 35 pages it is the longest in the collection. It also goes a long way towards justifying that "Best" in the title. Munro is a writer who keeps getting better because she continues to challenge and to stretch herself. Some of Munro's hallmark themes are here: love, the past, memory. Reading this story is like walking through a house of fabulously intricate design. Around each corner is a surprise.-Each turn alters your view, adds to the whole, and seems, in retrospect, inevitable. You reach the exit and discover that you are leaving by the way you came in. This is, in other words, insightful, polished, and, above all, well-crafted work. It demonstrates how much can be achieved within the apparently restrictive form of the short story.
Perhaps it's because she is so very accomplished that I am always sorry to see new writers compared to Munro. The publisher's staff writer who announces each new young writer as the next Alice Munro does both of them a disservice. Munro's voice is unique. But so are the new voices. There are some other wonderfully accomplished writers in this collection. None of them is the new Alice Munro. None of them needs to be.
Bonnie Burnard's name was familiar to me, but I'm sorry to say that I had not read her work before. This is an oversight I intend to remedy immediately. She is represented here by a sensitive, wonderfully credible story called "Deer Heart," which focuses on the relationship between a mother and her teen-aged daughter. It includes a luncheon with Queen Elizabeth and the death of a deer on the highway. Bizarre as this may sound, there is absolutely nothing of the bizarre in this story. Burnard is one of those very rare writers who can take the utterly everyday and transform it into something splendid and alight.
Sharon Butala's "The Vision of the Hohokam" has some of the same strengths, though Butala takes a few more liberties with straightforward narration than Burnard does. Her story, too, is entirely credible, and filled with insight about real feelings. Her subjects include fate, love, free will: life, in other words. A number of the stories in this collection feature particularly strong endings, but none better than the extended image of the rising balloon that is the perfect conclusion to this one.
"On Strikes and Errors in Japanese Baseball," by Steven Heighton, takes still more liberties with chronology and connection, and has a similarly powerful central image: a high fly ball that is at the same time the atom bomb failing gracefully, fatefully to earth. Dave Margoshes's story "Gag" left me feeling somewhat bewildered, but nonetheless highly entertained.
One of the things I like best about this collection is that there are probably no stories that do not deserve to be here. Most of them I enjoyed very much. Another reader will no doubt have different favourites from mine. But even the stories I did not enjoy are well crafted. There are no stories here without some obvious strengths, no stories that are careless or ill made.
Coming Attractions allows the reader to sample fewer writers, but each of them at greater length. It includes three stories each by jean Rysstad, Brian Burke, and Michelle Heinemann.
As with Best Canadian Stories, I think the appropriate distinction is not between good stories and poor ones, but between stories that will appeal more to one taste than to another. The stories of Jean Rysstad are the ones that most suited my palate. She writes simply, takes few liberties with the conventions of realistic fiction, and never aims for pyrotechnical display. "Contiguous" is a straightforward, honest story about love's ways. I think we may learn something of Rysstad's approach to her material in these lines from her second story, "Hometown Papers": "Nothing is ever washed away. Not even a day like this, so unimportant in the scheme of things. A day that means nothing." "Singing in the Dark" is her most ambitious story, and also her strongest.
Though I enjoyed Rysstad more consistently, the single most impressive story is Brian Burke's "Love & Limerance." Burke writes clean, strong prose, and reveals in this story a dry, selfmocking voice that is very attractive. In his other two stories I think he relies too heavily on the sensational -- incest, the death of a child. Here, in a story of a father's relationship with his daughter, and with other women, he demonstrates that the sensational is not a necessary ingredient, but is rather a distraction from his very real talent.
I was less taken with the fragmented, surreal stories of Michelle Heinemann, but there is no denying that they are strongly felt and well constructed. No doubt for another reader she will be the best discovery this book has to offer.
It's a great comfort to know that the future of the short story is in such good hands. I'll be going out directly to buy the books of some of the writers I've encountered here for the first time. I am grateful to all three editors for their work and their selections. The unhappy postscript to all this is that Bronwen Wallace's untimely death obviously took from us not only a gifted poet but an excellent editor as well.