by Derek McCormack, Chris Chambers,
by Derek Mccorma
Wish Book: A Catalogue Of Stories
by Derek Mccormack
Post Your Opinion
|Mccormack’S Ideal Sample Case
by Darren Werschler-Henry
The fellow beside me opened up his grip. Ten trays folded out, all of them empty.
“It’s the ideal sample case,” he said. “Comes in brown or black leather. You got your celluloid covers. You got your genuine aluminum trays, whatever size suits you. Guaranteed for twenty years.”
(Derek McCormack’s “The Bell-Ringer”)
Derek McCormack is the guttersnipe of Canadian Literature. Patiently sifting through the garbage dumps of the fin-de-siècle, he extracts, polishes, and sorts the odd, irreducible, teratological, and forgotten fragments of (his? someone else’s? no one’s?) culture. When his sample case is full, he takes his latest collection of tiny marvels on the road, shilling his wares from door to door like a literary Watkins man.
Wish Book, a series of linked stories, is the highly successful result of McCormack’s most recent excavations. Like the ideal sample case from “The Bell-Ringer”, there is a ruthlessly surgical quality to Wish Book’s overall structure. No matter how dainty or dubious the contents of a story, nothing slops over the edges of its metaphorical “genuine aluminum” frame into the next compartment, unless the author wants it to.
McCormack has been extremely lucky in terms of the small press designer-publishers that he’s been able to work with on these stories. Beth Follett’s Pedlar Press and Ian Phillips’ Pas De Chance both produced deluxe sneak previews of some of the stories in Wish Book which, in different ways, manage to amplify the weird pseudo-historical quality of McCormack’s fiction.
Wild Mouse, from Pedlar Press, which includes the stories, “The Newshawk”, “The Freak”, and “The Carny”, along with poems by Chris Chambers, is a sumptuous, tasteful exercise in fine printing tricks, including embossing, blind-stamping, textured and coated paper stock, and gorgeous red and black duotone treatments of photographs from the Canadian National Exhibition archives.
Pas De Chance’s Halloween Suite, which contains the stories, “The Party-Pooper”, “The Curator”, “The Emcee”, and “The Magician”, is equally gorgeous, but draws on the aesthetics of kitsch rather than fine printing: the cover is flocked orange, and features a crowned jack-o’-lantern burned into the surface with a custom-made branding iron. Inside the back cover, tucked neatly into a pocket rubberstamped with the phrase, “Peterborough Public Library”, and, in large capitals, “DISCARD”, is a library check-out card, signed out every October 31st from 1935 to 1957. The book’s interior illustrations, assembled from fragments of old Halloween decorations and printed in exaggerated halftone screens, perfectly complement the text’s goofy postmodern typeface.
Phillips was also enlisted to design Wish Book, easily the most handsome volume produced by Gutter Press to date. Here, the design conceit is an old-fashioned department store catalogue, complete with an order form from “J. Turnbull’s” of Peterborough. Though reminiscent of Chris Ware’s scathing, cynical, and misanthropic Acme Novelty Library, Phillips’ design for Wish Book is slightly softer and more forgiving, like McCormack’s stories themselves.
The best term for McCormack’s writing style might be anti-nostalgia. In Wish Book, McCormack presents us with the simulacrum of a pre-WWII Canadian boyhood, patched together from ads on the backs of comic books, yellowing scrapbook photographs, newspaper clippings, and book-learned carny lore. This rich source material is saturated with the adolescent desire for the forbidden and the unknown, as this innuendo-laden passage from the collection’s first story, “The Joker”, suggests:
Some kid rifling though fireworks. Victory Dipped Sticks. Golden Shower Torches.
I call him to the counter. Show him girly cards. He shuffles though them, popeyed. In his pants—an exploding cigar.
What saves McCormack’s writing from the treacly sentiment that dominates Canadian historical fiction, though—and what makes him stand out from the current pack of young Toronto fiction writers—is his departure from normative style. If Proust’s writing stands as the acme of the realist novel of memory, then McCormack’s spare prose, evocative of Hemingway, Stein, and the other modernist technicians of the very short sentence, is closer to its antithesis.
Flensed of most adjectives and adverbs, and even the odd noun or verb, McCormack’s text presents the reader with several stylistic disjunctions. Wish Book is full of precise reportage of events that never took place, and clipped, apparently dispassionate recounting of deeply emotional events.
A kewpie caught me square in the face. It shattered. My teeth like hopscotch markers on the ground.
I fell. Stanley fell on top of me. Yanked down my pants. Plowed his dick in.
After a while he grunted. Buckled up. “Biggest in the world,” he said.
I touched my hole. Spongy flesh stuck out. Semen like plaster running down my thigh.
And, though the emotional valence of the incidents remains ambiguous, there is a ruthless, ironic structural symmetry to the writing. The narrator of “The Sculptor”, a maker of cheap plaster carnival prizes who has surreptitiously been making casts of Stanley the Giant’s body from his shoes and gloves, is used in turn as a kind of mold.
The style, the historical setting, and, ultimately, the title of Wish Book point to the real subject of the book itself: sexual repression, or rather, its opposite. In these stories, desire and longing never fail to find a way to surge over the edges of whatever container they’re forced into, no matter how tight the lid appears to be. Because of that repression, though, whether the cause is societal or personal, the manifestation of desire is frequently ugly, violent or vengeful. In “The Elf”, a floundering young department store worker writing letters to children from Santa outs the gay colleague who helped him keep his job in order to curry favour with a handsome manager who does nothing but criticize him:
“Jesus,” the manager said. He was standing behind the two-way. “How’d you know?”
I shrugged. “He tried to make me go fairy, too.”
He clamped my shoulder. “You did good, kid.”
I thanked him. I could smell his talc. His aftershave. He was beautiful. Blue eyes. Blue shaven. Lips pink as nipples.
Though such desire permeates the pages of Wish Book, it rarely results in anything like mutual gratification. In fact, this book may set a new record for the greatest number of gay characters who don’t get laid. More frequent are endings that serve as signs of desire’s frustration: explosions (of confetti, shrapnel, anal gases), beatings, and murders. As the book progresses, the fates the characters meet become increasingly gruesome. When someone is simply rejected, as in “The Jeweller”, it comes as something of a relief.
Still, there is a quiet, matter-of-fact queerness to these stories that insists on confronting cultural homosociality regardless of the indignities that are heaped on the protagonists as a result. The characters in these stories are like cultural litmus tests, gauging just how much it’s possible to blur the line separating masculine cameraderie from love and lust. This is not to suggest that Wish Book is full of martyrs; many of the characters are petty, corrupt, and venal. Rather, the implication is more that, as in “The Ghost”, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, gay or straight: Bing Crosby is still sexy in an uptight, pinstripey kind of way. •
Darren Werschler-Henry is a poet, critic, and editor at Coach House Books.