"If a story is not to be about love, then I think it must be about fear." These are the opening words of "The Look of the Lightning, the Sound of the Birds", one of 21 stories in Diane Shoemperlen's meaty new collection. Indeed, many of this author's stories are about love, but fear and insecurity are rarely absent, though masked by a dry and supple wit.
Red Plaid Shirt: New & Selected Stories contains works from all of Schoemperlen's previously published collections: Frogs and Other Stories (1986); Hockey Night in Canada (1987); The Man of my Dreams (1990) and the Governor-General Award-winning Forms of Devotion (1998). Also included are a few stories that have appeared only in literary magazines.
As well, Schoemperlen has published two novels: In the Language of Love (1994) and last year's Our Lady of the Lost and Found. The first of these, subtitled "A Novel in 100 Chapters", is a beautiful, poetic work which offers snapshots of the life of its protagonist, Joanna, depicting (in a non-chronological way) her childhood, her love affair with a man she sends away, her love affair with a married man about whom she is obsessed, and finally her marriage to a supportive man and the birth of their son. Each of the 100 chapters bears a one-word title taken from an old-fashioned psychology test. Though the novel's unusual structure might make it appear obscure or difficult, it repays patient readers with compelling insights and a lovely emotional uplift at its conclusion.
In Schoemperlen's more recent novel, a female writer receives a surprise visit from none other than the Virgin Mary, looking for a quiet week of much-needed R&R. Though structured in a more straight-forward fashion than her previous novel, it is nevertheless typical of her work in that it is filled with gentle, self-mocking irony. Many of Schoemperlen's female protagonists (including the narrator of Our Lady of the Lost and Found) bear a strong resemblance to their author, and Schoemperlen delights in implying both that her stories are, and are not, autobiographical.
For example, the title story in this new collection is a disturbing tale of domestic violence which is revealed to the reader through the enumeration of various articles of clothing the protagonist has worn, such as the eponymous shirt. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Schoemperlen thanks the owners of a Kingston restaurant for loaning back the red plaid shirt she had donated for charity. This story is also notable for a different reason: it is written in second person¨the protagonist is "you". This technique has lately become popular in literary fiction, and has been seized upon by rising literary stars such as Zsuzsi Gartner and Nancy Lee. Using this technique makes the story seem more universal: the implication is that similar stories are happening simultaneously all over the world.
Schoemperlen also delights in using terse headings in block capitals to divide her stories into sections. The headings become part of a pedantic pretence: the writer pretends to be informing the reader about dry academic topics. For example, in "This Town", the writer provides a summary of the salient facts about a small Alberta town; in "A Simple Story" she commands herself to describe the key elements of the story; in "Forms of Devotion" she addresses abstractions such as "Faith", "Memory" and "Knowledge". Taking the pedantic pretence one step further, in "How Deep is the River?", the author tells her story by posing mathematical problems. One can almost picture the author, with her hair in a bun, peering through severe horn-rimmed glasses as she taps her pointer on a blackboard and says, "Now, class, pay attention. Train A and Train B are travelling toward the same bridge from opposite directions. (Assume that once Train B crosses the bridge, Karen will imagine it and all other bridges like it bursting into jubilant flames behind her). Therefore, how deep is the river? Anyone?" The effect of this device is to heighten the emotional impact of the story, or the irony of the reflections that appear under these dry, enigmatic headings.
After experimenting with this type of story occasionally in her early collections, in 1998 Schoemperlen produced an entire volume of such stories, titled Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures. It is an artistic tour de force from start to finish, brilliant both in concept and execution. The dedication page reads, "For my son, Alexander, who said it was too bad my books didn't have pictures in them," and consequently, every story is illustrated with old-fashioned wood cuts and line drawings. Some of these drawings have the same tongue-in-cheek seriousness as the accompanying prose, as they gravely illustrate vital organs or important virtues, while others are surrealistic collages reminiscent of Monty Python. For the three stories included in the new collection, the illustrations were dropped¨which is a pity, since they were more than mere decoration, but added significantly to the ironic pose of the narrator.
Schoemperlen's fondness for experimental styles does not mean she cannot also write fine traditional stories. Consider "Losing Ground", in which a young girl¨later a young woman¨visits a small Manitoba town where her grandfather lived until he was sent to a nursing home in Winnipeg. "Losing Ground" is a classic coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of a small Canadian town, such as writers like Alice Munro are famous for crafting.
Equally memorable is "Hockey Night in Canada", in which a young girl slowly becomes aware of the suspicious undercurrents in her father's relationship with a female friend. It ends with perfect control, the painful truth known to all but never spoken: "'Be quiet, she'll hear you,' my mother said, meaning me."
"Stranger than Fiction", though perhaps not the very best story in this collection, is nevertheless the story that best captures the whole of Schoemperlen's art. It begins on a broadly comic note, with the narrator musing about preposterous scenarios while boasting that she has got "the proof" that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. The narrator¨herself a writer of short stories¨is wrestling with a story about a woman named Sheila. Events in the narrator's own life keep causing her to modify her character's actions and preferences. This is Schoemperlen having another good-natured go at the reader, who cannot help wondering how autobiographical the story is. The fictional writer, struggling with her character, goes to a bar (named "The Red Herring") where she meets a woman named Sheila who resembles the woman she is trying to create.
At this point, Schoemperlen drops her bantering, self-mocking tone and reaches for those other, quieter, but ever-present elements in her stories¨the "secret sadness at those moments when I should have been happy," and the insecurity that causes her to fantasize about being struck by "a car (red with black interior, air scoop, chrome, shining) running the red light at 100 mph." And this, in turn, leads her to reflect on the nature of her art itself, both in its searing pain, and its soaring wonder:
"Sometimes I imagine that I am the driver of the car, with the radio on and my foot to the floor, and the bodies scatter from me like pages or petals, unleashed. Or then they are not bodies at all but balloons, of different colours, full of wonder, words, and hot air, bobbing up and away, bouncing off asphalt, the rooftops, the pain, and a cloud." ˛