Stan Rogal walks the line, the fine line between the mundane and miraculous, love and story, heart and break. Other and self; self and other; either or both gone missing, stranded along the lines of least resistance in the name of What Passes for Love, the poet-and-playwright's first collection of ten short fictions, plus "Notes".
The Toronto-based Vancouverite opens our Ma Bell mediation explaining these notes:
"A lot of them are made up; they're kind of anti-notes." (Anti-dotes?) "I did that because, so many times you open a book, there are these authorial notes-like clues from God-and they give you these nice neat little packages of sources, influences, who you were reading, what you were thinking, and blah, blah, blah, right? Some of them are real, of course; but I made a lot of them up.
"In fact, one of them says, for the benefit of critics, `If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research.' That `information' is for people who are trying to understand, to put all the pieces together; and, okay, I threw in a few red herrings, not necessarily because I'm trying to thwart or obscure understanding, but.you know, writers just wanna have fun."
Funnily enough, the notes include references to the National Enquirer and People Weekly, citations for such as "the noted American philologist/amateur aviatrix and professor poeticus et historiarum at the University of California, Hosanna Gladioli (1948- )," and an apology to Rogal's mother-in-law "who read `Skin Deep' in magazine form and hasn't looked at me or my work in quite the same way since.
"She wrote me a letter and asked, `Just what is this all about? What are you doing to my daughter?' She takes everything at face value.
"Skin deep? Face value? We seem to be living in an age where people can't separate the narrator from the writer. I mean, in `Late-Nite, Subway,' did I stick my tongue in somebody's ear in the reflection? Well, no; but I've thought about doing that. This is about imagination, right?"
Imagination, in most contemporary books, takes a back seat to politically correct representation (a.k.a. censorship based on moral imperatives). Not so with Rogal, a writer who pays attention to the art and craft of the medium in which he delivers his message, casting aside voice-appropriation notions that only men ought to write about men, women about women, lesbians about lesbians, blacks about blacks, etc.
"We're Right in the Middle of It", a timely split-voice narrative told from the double perspectives of "he" and "she" in the context of "now" and "then", takes on Joycean overtones as its female protagonist begins by elaborating on "it":
".I mean, we're right in the middle of it, for godsakes. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I want to pinch myself or something. He's inside me. He's moving. Everything's feeling good. I mean, everything's feeling real good. I have no idea. Not an inkling. I'm just enjoying it."
"Well," deadpans Rogal, "imagination's part of it, right? And I guess that's part of the point; but I do confess that some stuff is semi-autobiographical because I was involved in certain things. Then, of course, I read about certain things-or I hear about other people who were involved in certain other things-and it's normal, it happens. Relax, folks. Every writer takes bits and pieces from here, there, and everywhere.
"But, with `Skin Deep', I really did have to reassure my mother-in-law her daughter was fine, I hadn't bought a gun, etc., etc."
"Skin Deep"? This particular five-page mono/ graph (à la Marie-Claire Blais) opens What Passes for Love:
"It started a few months back. My wife waking up one morning with someone else's leg. The left leg, I remember. If she was aware of the fact, she never said `boo' to me about it (which was typical for her, her being the type who needed to work-things-out-for-themselves, leaving everyone else in the lurch), and, of course, I never mentioned a word to her. How could I? I mean, it's not as though she couldn't know. How could she not know?"
The no-name narrator's intense and other-focused monologue recalls Gregor Samsa waking "one morning from uneasy dreams" and finding himself "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
Rogal acknowledges this debt to Kafka. But he says his compositions defy narrowly prescribed definitions of genre, technique, school, reference, and type: "I wanted to play with different forms, voices, tenses, echoes, and approaches, so I wasn't just writing the same story over and over again. I also wanted to make sure the stories were linked in terms of their thematic coherence, so to speak.
"Normally, in most collections, you get descriptive third-person past-tense; that tends to get boring, at least from a reading-and, come to think of it, writing-perspective. I experimented with monologue vs. dialogue vs. description, verb tenses, point of view, chronology, stuff like that. I wanted the stories to vary, to complement each other without jarring; so, while one story's naturalistic, another's what we call `magic realism' while yet another might be considered `symbolic'.
"I did have other stories; but they didn't feel like they belonged here, didn't quite fall in line with the thematic concerns of this specific collection. I wanted What Passes for Love to hang together thematically without passing judgement on the contents a specific situation presents in a particular story."
Thematically, the ten entries in What Passes for Love take issue with adultery, betrayal, passion, obsession, self-abnegation in relation to other-definition, compromise/accommodation, forgiveness, and the painful paradoxes of pleasure, while blending lyrical substance and a crisp, uncluttered, and often colloquial style with a gritty "been-there, done-it, bought-the-dust" approach that belies the author's disarming propriety concerning what does, in fact, pass for love. More to the point, it belies the credentials and qualifications that allow Rogal to draw his occasionally dark, usually playful, and always left-of-centre conclusions.
"Well," he responds sans façon, giving the impression he'd rather discuss plenty of elsewhere, "that is the point. I have my own idea of what passes for love. I'm learning that, eh? But God knows. I don't-can't really-know. When I look at relationships, I think of them in terms of a scale, a pendulum. Things really have to swing out of control before you finally go, `Okay, I better start thinking about getting my shit together and getting out of this thing; but then, things swing the other way the next day. Things aren't always black-and-white, good or bad, positive or negative. I dislike stories where everything's always so black-and-white, where it's easy for a character to walk out, to make a lifestyle change-fancy that!-or experience the big epiphany. Maybe something changes, maybe it doesn't, eh?
"Some readers expect a big hit on the head; but big hits on the head are hard to come by, except in the movies. In so-called real life, we put up with an awful lot because, as human beings, we're very adaptable. Even if we don't know the truth or the whole story, we still try to make sense of what we do know, try to adjust to the details we do have at our disposal.
"So, I invite readers to come into my stories and participate in the details. I do tend to shy away from the neat little big-picture wrap-up. If I tell everything, I'm bored; and, more often than not, they're bored. Receptive or perceptive readers with imaginations, I think, prefer to enter into the process of the story, to get their feet wet, their hands dirty, to dig in and figure out what's going on, to come to their own conclusions, to bring their own experiences into the equation rather than passively sitting back, reading the story, and going, `Yeah, great, fine, and thanks for the climax. Was it good for you, too?'
"All sorts of things can pass for love and it's a matter of what you're willing to tolerate. Many people hang in and onto sick-or unsatisfactory-relationships because they're afraid to leave. One person's idea of love is another person's idea of not-love; and, it's almost always about judgement and perception, right?
"For me, the trick is trying to withhold judgement. Like, here's the situation: You figure it out; you figure out what passes for love. And then, of course, time passes or the moment passes or whatever; but, mostly, it's about passing judgement, the thing I try to avoid doing as much as one can. I prefer to present a situation and allow readers to come to their own conclusions. Naturally, their assessments are going to vary depending on both their experiences and situations and their experience of my language, my selection of incidents, details, characteristics, settings, etc.
"Also, you have to believe there really is something called love. There are various degrees, kinds, and levels of love-love of God, country, mate, children, self, etc. It's all kind of interesting. The whole idea of love is très bizarre. I'm not sure what I would call love (or even if such a thing actually exists).
"Idealistically, of course, platonically speaking, there is something we consider love; but it's an ideal and something for which we kind of aim or shoot or whatever.
"Personally? I see love and hate in terms of a continuum. You flip back and forth: I hate you. I love you. I hate you, etc. . It means everything and nothing. Nothing means anything except for the meaning we bring to it moment by moment; so we have to find our own way through. I guess that's what the stories attempt to communicate; but whereas most writers simply tell you their truth, I try to incorporate as many different angles and aspects of that truth as I can. I aim for different sides of the story so the reader's not quite sure what's true, what isn't, and where, in fact, it all falls, usually somewhere in the middle, a fairly normal thing in so-called real life.
"You always have people-especially writers-preaching the way, the life, the truth. And as I see it, it's mostly neat little lies-usually beautifully told lies, definitely-but still, a lie's a lie. As my brother says, `There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine, and the truth.'
"What I try to do is make stories where all three sides enter the question; hence, the endings aren't really the answer, The End. Content-wise, the story continues. A lot of short stories are straight chronological link-by-linkages. I try to break the chain a little, to work with quasi-real time even though I'm fairly unrelenting, chronologically speaking. I take a chunk of time-not necessarily the beginning or the ending-I take that chunk somewhere in the middle and tend to bring it into focus. Quite often, readers don't know what's happened beforehand; it's just these characters involved in this situation.
"In `Home After All', for example, what really happens? This couple returns from a holiday. You don't really know what they've been doing; but, you sort of figure, yeah, someone's been apartment-sitting and, by the last paragraphs, you sort of know someone's taken over this other apartment and, of course, you assume something happens later; but-wait a minute-maybe it doesn't, right?
"So I take little chunks and hold back on details about what happened previously or what's going to happen. I leave judgements and conclusions up to individual readers and refrain from beginning-middle-endings in nice little packages; it's always, for me, anyway, a kind of open-endedness that allows readers to come in, to bring or to take their own experiences with them, and, with that, to try and make sense of what's given to them."
Perhaps the most densely sustained and certainly the most inscrutable selection here, "A Taste of Apricots", offers readers a sense of smoke-lit streets on planets of torpor while concurrently putting into new context landscapes generally associated with Italos Calvino and Svevo, Raul Brandao, Ursula K. Le Guin, Miguel de Unamuno, Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard, et al.
Here, a simple "knock at the door" provides the narrator with an opening for an extended examination of discontiguous proportion, jumping from the factual given of the laws of gravity, probability, and weatherly tricks to "a memory spun from the jukeboxed mind by a quarter so long rubbed between the fingers that both faces are blank."
When the male protagonist again hears what he merely imagines to be a knock, he opens the door to discover a woman seeking shelter, willing to sleep on the floor if necessary. "The two face each other and, as no other words are forthcoming, he steps aside" until, needs defined and menu outlined (chicken, potatoes, carrots, and apricot wine), he "speaks as one who is afraid not to speak, as if only the presence of words is strong enough to hold the world together."
The collection's closer, "A Taste of Apricots" is a protracted narrative that slowly plays out the main characters' past and present relationships and hinges upon notions of authentic identity and recognition vs. memory and objective recollection.
Rogal allows he wrote "A Taste of Apricots" over "a long period of time" and admits he "cannot really account for its density.
"I'm not sure why that is; but I put a lot of work into it. Maybe, it's its dreamlike quality, its weirdness. This woman comes by and knocks. It comes across very early something strange is going on. Both characters have their stories; and, I think, it's a bit confusing in terms of whether she really has been there before or, for that matter, at all. Is he making all this up? Is she kind of there going, `Like, who is this guy?' or `This is weird'?
"And we never know, especially if we take it at face value; then, it becomes even more bizarre because, well, who is she? Does she keep coming back and changing her name? Of course, there's his wife and all these others who are not really in the story. In most of the other stories, you don't really get a lot of auxiliary characters filtering information, relaying details and bits of stuff, you know? With this one, there are all these redheads-the girl, the wife, the woman-and who are all these redheads; plus, by the way, where in the hell is the author, anyway?"
In What Passes for Love, the author's on the back-cover flap in the artist, actor, and director Kirsten Johnson's oil-on-wood, "Stan", an exquisitely appropriate representation of which Rogal enthusiastically approves:
"I wanted an image where I was naked but looking straight out at the audience as if to say, `What are you looking at?' And I think a lot of people look at that as a metaphor, too. Like, I'm looking straight at you; but, you, what are you lookin' at, huh? You know, the look a modern painter gives to a woman bathing."
"Does that mean, by extension, you consider yourself a modernist?"
"Well," he says reflectively, "I think my stories tend to lean more towards out-of-country models-which is what I mostly read-as opposed to Canadian stories. I'm not writing what we call CanLit stories; but I'm not anti-Canadian, not by any means. I'm just trying for something slightly different. I read a lot of North and South American, European, `Eastern' literature, and stuff; so I tend to incorporate and borrow more from-I'm more positively influenced by-those points of reference.
"Also I have a difficult time with terms, terminology, and definitions. I suppose I would call myself postmodernist without all of the fear of postmodernism; but what passes for postmodernism, strictly speaking? For me, the allusions or echoes are from beyond our boundaries; and the more I read and write, the more I realize that, of course, I'm going to pick those things up from others because you don't simply write for yourself, do you?"
"Nope. I don't; but that's what Eliot et al. would, I think, consider part of The Tradition, right?"
"I would think so, yes."
"Well, does that make you a modernist, then?"
"Yeah, funnily enough, in many ways, I guess it does."
Judith Fitzgerald's most recent book of poetry is River (ECW), which was shortlisted for the Trillium Award.