I Know You Are But What Am I?

by Heather Birrell
ISBN: 1552451399

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A Review of: I know you are but what am I?
by Cathy Stonehouse

Don't judge a book by its cover. The goofy, hand-drawn image on the front of I know you are but what am I?, Toronto writer Heather Birrell's much-anticipated first collection of short fiction, suggests that what's inside is all cartoon. Far from it: humorous, occasionally off-the-wall, the lens through which Birrell views the world is nevertheless piercingly sharp, photographic, even. If you are Canadian and under 40, you may even recognize yourself.
Birrell's protagonists are all young, awkward outsiders, rehearsing new identities either in foreign environments or the hostile surroundings of a home that has recently changed. In "The Golden Hour", Marion tries out stories about her life in conversation with a convict on a Greyhound bus to Buffalo, while in "Congratulations, Really", raised-as-hippie Katie experiments with being Christian at summer camp. Meanwhile, back in the city, Oldrick Pietraszek of "Refuse" tries to put his life back together in the wake of a break-up and in the midst of the Toronto garbage strike, and Fiona of "Present Perfect" adjusts to the constant translation necessary for life as an Anglophone in Montreal. Misunderstandings abound. When Oldrick attempts to communicate with an aggressive employee from the coffee shop downstairs he is rewarded with an unwelcome display of the barista's penis.
Fluent in the language of flowers, florist Jo in "Your Answer, Do" feels oddly shy and inarticulate around her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, before leaving Fiona to "find his path" in India, Fiona's ex-boyfriend Henry reads in a newspaper about a Japanese student dressed up for Halloween who arrives at the wrong American front door only to be shot on sight, having mistaken the word "freeze" for "please."
It's as if, like guests at a perpetual fancy-dress party, Birrell's characters are never entirely sure who, or with whom, they are. Playful yet alarming, their stories puzzle by asking, if "being yourself" is of utmost importance in this culture of individualism, what happens when that which contains and preserves the self is stripped away? Is the result liberation or nihility? As troubled boy genius Rational concludes, a name is merely "a receptacle for spirit and intellect, and in no way an indication of the person I will one day become."
Similarly, Birrell's Canada, constantly viewed in comparison to a range of elsewheres, is not the stable homeland of traditional Canlit, but a strangely provisional place of shifting, relative qualities, alternately longed-for and absurd. In "Not Quite Casablanca", Lisa, on vacation in the Canary Islands with her eccentric aunt, finds out that "Abroad, being Canadian was like being part of a second-tier sports team you never knew existed. There was a secret, swelling pride to it." Conversely, in "Machaya", 7-year-old Misha, on vacation with his mother in Florida, becomes acutely aware of his dislocated, immigrant parents' legacy of being "apatride. Without country."
Rooted in this "shadowy space," Birrell's fiction displays a postmodern edge. In true, self-reflexive fashion, I know you are but what am I? resonates with an awareness of the importance of stories, yet bristles with insights into the inadequacies of language to communicate with. In "The Present Perfect", Fiona, an ESL teacher, struggles to explain the vagaries of a verb tense that "might seem to you that because it is perfect, it's finished, an event completed, but it's not," while in "The Golden Hour", Marion comes to understand that "a story is just a glint: swift, shiny and vulnerable to vantage point."
Birrell's stories are themselves often slippery and surprising, built up by the accumulation of description rather than linear plotlines, frequently veering away from the obvious in favour of the tangential. The big event, such as the death of the narrator's father in "The Captain's Name was Ned", often happens at a story's edges, and all too frequently, just when a serious, dramatic theme rears its head, the narrative swerves away, as if to avoid outright conflict: a murderer on the loose is caught, not confronted; a camp counselor whose conduct is sexually inappropriate fades out of view. Much like real life, but not what is expected of traditional fiction, such structural false alarms can be frustrating. Indeed, some of the weaker stories, such as "Your Answer, Do", fail to come fully into focus, the final few pages a fuzzy anticlimax. Tellingly, the collection's most powerful story, the compelling "Trouble at Pow Crash Creek", is the only one in which the expected crisis actually happens and the full emotional weight of the protagonist's situation is consequently allowed to become manifest. In this story, reminiscent of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, autistic 12-year-old Rational's father, a victim of Gulf War syndrome, keeps his family on perpetual amber alert for the day they will need to "hunker in the bunker." Meanwhile, a more intimate apocalypse is encroaching, and the brilliantly controlled narrative quivers with casual threat, domestic danger.
Despite such unevenness, all nine stories in I know you are but what am I? are to be savoured for the quality of the writing, the sheer sentence-by-sentence pleasure to be wrung from their wit and insight. Like 9-year-old Maddie in "The Captain's Name was Ned", Birrell "squints the meaning into things" by viewing them sideways, whether it's childhood's "dirty, adorable, dismembered dolls graffiti and growth spurts," or the dizzying expanse of an unknown country, its "licence plates and other people's laundry." More significantly, there is a refreshing courage to Birrell's light touch, a pay-off to her decision to eschew self-conscious profundity. For, at its best, her fiction strings a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and encourages us to walk that vertiginous line. The fairy stories we tell ourselves, the fragile psychic islands we live on, surrounded by threat and possibility, are exposed for what they are, only to be restored-almost. When, at the end of "Not Quite Casablanca", Lisa's aunt Carla learns of the terrorist attacks on New York, she decides not to inform her niece all at once, but to leave her sitting alone, like a "Canadian Buddha" on the beach, knowing that "the bad news would seek her out, the way news, good or bad, always, eventually does."
Gorgeous, sexy, Giller Prize-begging it ain't: the jacket of Birrell's book sports an unwieldy title (shouldn't that be "I know who you are but what am I?") and a borderline-ugly cartoon illustration (Charles Checketts's sketches also stud the stories' title pages, and work much better in this context). Once opened, however, the paperback's creamy linen-laid pages seduce with a series of witty, well wrought, yet deliberately off-kilter stories that investigate questions of identity through the keen, absurdist lens of a literary Lynda Barry, and, in doing so, shed far more light on the absurd conundrums of Canadian-ness than your average award-winning intergenerational family saga. Take this book with you on your next flight to Florida, pack it along on the Greyhound to New York. I know you are but what am I? may sound like a needlessly confusing question, but Birrell's debut collection is more than well worth the read.

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