||H. L. Mencken
by Michelle Ariss
'Oh. Dear Robert.'
'Who art in England.' Regina bowed her head.
'Hallowed be thy hair.'
'Thy cockdom come.'
'Thy lust be done.'
'On my willing body.'
'As it is on mine.'
We nodded solemnly. Regina let the jackets fall in place...
* * *
If a reference to 'The Demics', the1970s Southwestern Ontario rock band, rekindles memories of long-hair and drain-pipe jeans and of smoke-filled lofts in London, Hamilton and Toronto, then you have a head start on appreciating Uncomfortably Numb by Sharon English, its plucky protagonist Germaine Stevens and its outrageous characters, among them the "sexy" Regina, whose locker in the above excerpt is papered with a jerry-rigged photo of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant as a Playgirl centerfold.
Not that the book or its characters are difficult to appreciate. They aren't, no matter what your age. More difficult is translating that appreciation into literary terms, for Uncomfortably Numb consists of a series of short stories which share the same setting, protagonist, and minor characters. Taken together, the narratives trace the development of a group of counter-culture adolescents through their high school years. Not quite a novel, but not simply a collection of independent short stories either, a book of linked short stories, or spirelles, comprises a relatively young genre for which evaluative guidelines are still sparse.
In a heated but helpful essay exchange with professor and author Sam Solecki a decade or so ago, writer, critic and editor John Metcalf wrote that "stories are to be experienced. And it is through language, rhythm, texture, rhetoric and tone that we experience them." English's narratives demonstrate the essentials of Metcalf's comment. In the opening paragraph of the first story entitled "Monsters" for instance, Germaine and two of her equally hard-edged friends, Jackie and Bono, are en route to high school and in the midst of 'getting their kicks' from frightening the public schoolers they encounter along the way:
Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke... Friday morning: a fresh pack of smokes zipped in my pocket with five bucks for tonight's stash and my hair's getting long again, almost touching my shoulders after that Dorothy Hamill disaster Mom talked me into for graduation. 'Yahoo!' I shout, and pounce in the path of a grade fiver.
'Hey kid, wanna buy some acid?'
In this punchy introduction, readers experience, that is, figure out without being told, first the era by way of the reference to the American figure-skating star, and then Germaine's approximate age via the hair growth/public school graduation time line. Moreover, the author's repetition of 'F-words', words that start with or contain the letter 'f', reiterates the shock of the opening profanity and thereby asserts Germaine's startling youthful defiance. And, by including the softer-sounding 'pounce in the path of a grade fiver,' the author hints at the tenuousness of Germaine's bravado. For she is, as the journey through the stories reveals, a bright, beautiful, curious, tough but tender-hearted teenager trying to discover and understand the core of her character and the values that shape it. "Spliffs" and cigarette "shotguns" are the closest that she and her friends ever come to getting high on drugs.
In a stilted exchange about slipping grades, English uses shifts in rhythm and perspective to convey the nature of parental bewilderment and of rifts that develop between parents and child:
. . . 'What happened?' My parents gaping, hovering in my bedroom doorway on the edge of this strange new space I've been twisting from the old: lace curtains knotted, bed legs gone and the light bulbs too, replaced with 25-watt reds. Gaping wide-eyed with dumb worry, like children whose favourite TV program's been cancelled. What's happened? They flip the channels but the show's gone. I shrugged. Dad got angry. 'Pay attention!' But I am. What he meant was, Be like you were before.
There are also in English's writing, elements of what Metcalf calls "surprise and delight in language and device," language that "ambushes" the reader. In addition to the cheeky prayer to Robert Plant, Germaine's cocky language as in, for instance, the "genital pink" colour of Jackie's irritated scalp, often ambushed me. The 'delight' in Germaine's colourful vocabulary¨obscenity-ridden though it is¨is its veracity. She consistently talks the talk of a tough adolescent. Only once does she slip. When describing Bono, who was "more guy than most guys," she says: "There's no precedent" (italics mine). That doesn't sound like Germaine.
English's similes and metaphors also 'ambush'. The example below is taken from "Thaw", a disturbing narrative in which ominous undertones in the dialogue serve to emphasize the vulnerability of adolescents when their curiosity leads them into the nuanced world of adults. The story is set in one of the many gullies that define the landscape in and around London. English writes:
Everything looks sunken, as if the snow's melting from the inside out. Ahead, the trees surrounding the creek stand like spindly wet roots.
Others include the March day that is "as grey as a school hallway, the sun a dull fluorescent bulb behind the clouds," the suburb of "Greenview¨Land of the Walking Dead" and Germaine's mother who "squeals like some sorority case" upon seeing Germaine's grandmother. A few fall flat, like the one that follows the inset: "A crow rises from one of them and flaps slowly into the clouds, like it can do whatever the hell it wants."
Techniques such as capitalization and personification delight and surprise too. In "Stories", for instance, Germaine is "talking about BORED," and about boys with "HB"s (Huge Balls) and "HC"s (Huge ... well, you know.) In "A Dirty Little Secret", the book's climactic penultimate story which turns on Germaine's fight with a nearly deranged campground intruder, capitalized words contribute to a highly effective description of a hangover:
Rubber air mattress plastered to my face and my poor feet stewing inside my sneakers¨which I'd passed out in, duh. DIE! DIE! GET BACK TO SLEEP OR YOU WILL DIE! TAKE OFF THESE SHOES OR YOU WILL DIE! howled Toes. Brain won¨Brain induced more pain. Dehydration. Didn't drink enough water Friday night, that was the problem. But how are you supposed to remember to drink water when you're stoned and drunk? That's the problem.
In "Heirlooms", personification is used in an unexpected manner to emphasize the pain that can accompany the revelation of a family's 'skeleton in the closet'. This textured story treats of secret papers and a watch that belonged to Germaine's dead grandfather. When, on moving day, they accidentally fall out of a formerly locked dresser drawer, Germaine puts an end to the emotionally-charged fracas that ensues by picking the watch up and shoving it deep into her pocket, "so they can all shut up¨Mom, the men, Grandma Scott, and the fucking drawer." This thrusting of the drawer into the role of traitor surprises us, makes us stop and consider the significance of Germaine's gesture for it is meant to reveal the emotional depth of this young girl and the profundity of her familial loyalty.
Author Nadine Gordimer once said that a short story writer should "find significant detail" and "drop little sketches or hints" of that detail "as the work goes along," thus enabling the reader to "build up the whole picture" of the character. For the writer of a spirelle, however, the need to 'drop hints' about a character sets up a dilemma: how to ensure the presence of sufficient significant character detail to enable a reader of one isolated story to construct a picture of the protagonist, without those details becoming repetitive for the reader who is enjoying the stories sequentially?
English addresses that challenge by introducing variations on the same significant detail. Germaine's taste in music is one example of a significant detail that she plays with. References to rock groups are sprinkled throughout the spirelle to suggest the protagonist's rebellious nature. Unlike Becky Matthews and her "music-geek" friends, Germaine's group shuns AM radio, preferring instead to play the albums of rock groups like Led Zeppelin, Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, The Rolling Stones, and of course, The Demics. The groups alternate from story to story, but the significant detail remains the same.
Other significant details that are present in some form in each story are those which convey the poor image that Germaine has of herself. Negative self-descriptions run through the narratives ranging from thinking of herself as "bad" for not telling her friend that her excessive make-up makes her look like a clown in "Monsters", to calling herself "hideous" in "Thaw" and "Miss Desperate" and "a spaz" in "Stories". In "A Dirty Little Secret", even after she realizes for herself the strength of her own moral fibre and the degree to which it surpasses that of her friends, she returns home from the campground driving her parents' freshly dented car and thinking:
Neat houses all in a row, good children nestled in bed, and here she comes, folks, the bad seed, the sleazy, sneaking, car-wrecking chick who makes the neighbours stare and whisper, the weed in the fertilized lawn.
Just as her rebellious nature and her lack of self-esteem are established in each story by varying certain details, so too is Germaine's uncomfortable numbness, the state of mind announced in the book's title, her sense of imposed inertia and of adolescent 'BOREDOM' with life in the suburban 'Land of the Walking Dead.'
Therein lies the allure of books like Uncomfortably Numb. The repetition of the same type of character detail rolls our thoughts back to the preceding stories and so, taken in tandem, the accumulation of significant detail enables us to fill in the lines of our mental sketch as we move out of one story and into another. Meanwhile, dialogue, action and sufficient "hints" at character ensure that each individual narrative if taken in isolation is still "a small history in a universal light" as Flannery O'Connor says a short story ought to be, "the author's thumbprint" as Mavis Gallant proposes, a "plucked thread" out of "the several thousand of intricately patterned, interwoven, anonymous threads" that Clark Blaise suggests life places at the writer's disposal.
"There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. . . ." says Del Jordan's mother in the title story of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women. While Germaine Stevens and "Regina Blow Job Queen" may not be quite what Del's mother had in mind, their spunky attitude and awesome spirit ring as true as Del's did a generation earlier. Comparisons between the two spirelles are inevitable and Sharon English's first book of fiction should do well by them. ˛