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Gambler's Fallacy

by Judith Cowan
197 pages,
ISBN: 0889842256


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Extending a Precedent
by Chris Jennings

The novel dogs short fiction. Comparisons between stories and novels inevitably privilege the latter and judge the former on their authors' ability to accommodate some aesthetic or cognitive failing that keeps them from rising to the challenge of the Šhigher' form. Even Alice Munro still suffers the carping implications of those who measure her short fiction against the foreign standard of the novel. In the first paragraph of his review of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in the London Review of Books (23:24, 13 Dec. 2001, 26-27), for example, Benjamin Markovits implies that a lack of "constancy" in Munro's art dictates her choice of form when he writes, "It's no accident that Munro prefers short stories to novels." Whatever critical values such judgments may uphold, they don't address the satisfactions of a good story.

The illusory progress of authors who achieve a level of success writing stories before producing a first novel feeds a similar association between short fiction and apprenticeship. Michael Winter and Dennis Bock are recent pilgrims on that path, and, alas, for the reputation of short fiction, even long-time story artisan Alistair MacLeod found a sort of apotheosis in his first novel's international success. Though Gambler's Fallacy is Judith Cowan's second book of short fiction, she appears to be on this well-traveled path. Her new stories are almost twice as long as the average story in her first book, More Than Life Itself (Oberon 1997), and they all take place in Trois-RiviFres. No sequence or cycle develops, but several characters slip the border of one story to reappear briefly in another, usually via some connection to the CafT ZTnob. Slight connections, hints really, give the book a superficial coherence, but even this slight advance on the territory of the novel causes Cowan to depart from the craft that made her earlier stories remarkable.

It feels like very little happens in these stories, or rather the stories seem to tilt under the weight of extended recollections and framing devices to the detriment of the small, meaningful details of incident and action. In More than Life Itself, Cowan balanced recollection and incident to an advantage that the increased length of the new stories has dispersed. In "Monterey Gilbert" for example, coyotes stalk the aged war-bride Marian as she sits in the grass with a loaded rifle and stares into the home of her neighbour, a flying ace turned dissolute and disappointed heir, on to whom Marian projects a nostalgic refraction of her feelings for an old lover who had jilted her. Compare the tension between memory and moment in this story's undertones of desire, disappointment, and ambient threat with the relative stasis of "The Launching", which consists largely of an extended exercise in people-watching at a poetry reading. Cowan conveys two possible intersections of detachment, observation, and insight in "The Launching", and there are some amusing satiric touches in her portraits of the various attendees, but these are colder pleasures than the earlier story offered.

Cowan is too conscious of the formal demands of the short story to increase the role of retrospection without assigning it thematic purpose. Her title is key. A gambler's fallacy assumes that, say, a lifetime of ill luck, hardship or bad decisions must be balanced eventually by equal good fortune, as though some mathematically naive version of fate were at work. It manifests in the title story as an animated will, "an invisible pattern of intelligence." Having returned to Trois-RiviFres for his father's final illness and death, the aging chansonnier Pierre inherits his father's farm but not the inclination or knowledge to work it¨Cowan has him literally flee his fathers shoes. Having narrowly avoided a lightning strike, Pierre is convinced "that he had felt something real and that it had spared him, Pierre, when it could have destroyed him." For a failure of a son who fractured his family's rapport with the land to pursue the typical vices, that narrow miss is "in itself a form of absolution." He commits the prototypical gambler's fallacy, thinking that "[t]he blind gamble of standing out in the thunder, under the expressionless sky, and of giving himself up to the electricity of the air offered a way of moving back through the countless layers of lost chances and therefore through all of lost time and vanished history, because he was still alive and survival was paramount. The merest moment could redeem everything." Moving back through lost time accurately describes the role of memory in several of these stories though no outside power ever makes good on that promise of redemption.

For every glimpse of an animate universe, Cowan provides a subtle counterimage. A city truck waters Pierre, passed out drunk in a bed of flowers, "[i]mpartially" and with "infinitely detached mechanical mansuetude." In "The Best Time of Night", Jacques, in stubborn denial about the finality of his separation from his wife, "closed the window against the birdsong, then drew the blind carefully down, to keep out as much light as possible." Cowan's strengths are these freighted images and understated moments that don't ring of cleverness or trickery. Both suffer when a story projects too much present significance against a character's past.

The finesse with which Cowan manages the accretion of particulars both drives her stories and gives them structure. In "The Small Circle", Cowan describes fourteen-year-old Saskia's boorishly disinterested father and Gilles, her harsh, punitive riding instructor, in the same terms and tones she uses to describe the horses Saskia rides. When Cowan writes that Saskia "still believed that there was a better understanding to be acquired, the secret of communication with the brute," the line could refer to her father, to Gilles, or to the horse beneath her, rousing more implications for the girl's ability to ride out her relationship with the intractable men than for her difficulty bending geldings to her will (yes, geldings). A similar pattern isn't quite as integral to "The Unknown Poet", but the thread that runs through an anonymous valentine, a monument to unknown poets ("poets who were unknown must find themselves in that position because they weren't very good"), an ice storm, and an attempted sexual assault ends with the disturbingly clement description of someone chipping at the ice as "the small persistent sound of hopeful human purpose." Control over the pregnant minutia of daily incidents gives these stories their associative depth and density, while the constraints of limited narrative space amplifies their effect.

Gambler's Fallacy gestures toward the realm of the novel but the book's pleasures are those of short fiction. The stories falter when they try to be something that they're not, and more portentously, they seem to suspect their own virtues. Short fiction doesn't fail them as a form, the stories fail when Cowan tries to make them something other than short fiction. Cowan may become an excellent novelist and she has already proven her talent for short stories, but she struggles to reconcile her impulse for the longer form in Gambler's Fallacy. The attempt proves just how distinct the two forms really are. ˛

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