||More Bridges, Please
by Sherie Posesorski
It is too easy to dismiss bestselling mass market fiction, and to sneer: to sneer at the sappy sentimentality and purple crudity of the prose of Robert Waller's The Bridges Of Madison County; the cardboard characters and no-style prose of John Grisham's The Firm, and at the over-the-top melodrama and the unwieldy and weedy prose of any of Danielle Steele's women-in-jeopardy novels.
But what is not quite so easy to dismiss is the fact that these stories hit home for many readers, emotionally and imaginatively. And not just, as Salman Rushdie once lamented, because mass market audiences have no taste. Who doesn't hope and dream of finding their soul mate and being transformed by love, even in middle age and even in the Midwest, as in The Bridges Of Madison Country, or fears that the ascent on the corporate ladder actually may be a descent into malignant corporate muck, as in The Firm? These stories have undeniable visceral pull and characters that compel our concern, though lacking in literary finesse.
Ideally, literary fiction aims to give readers a lot more than sheer storytelling power and a visceral hit. Its home truths are not simply railroad tracks for the story to run along, but the foundation of the story, and are explored with psychological, moral, and philosophical depth, yielding insight, and illuminating human behaviour and nature. Characters are not merely vehicles of the plot but unpredictable, lively, vivid, original, intractable human beings who become unforgettably real. And the narrative prose is not merely slave labour for the plot-line but an vessel itself for meaning, beauty, and delight.
Mass market appeal and accessibility and serious literary fiction are not antithetical. Just look at the crossover appeal, wide recognition, and popularity of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, Timothy Findley, Mordecai Richler-all wonderful storytellers and wonderful writers.
Yet there is a strain of literary fiction that is insular, self-absorbed, and narcissistic in its aesthetic and other concerns; a fiction that makes so few narrative and other concessions to invite the common reader into their worlds that the impression that literary fiction is only for the chosen select is sadly reinforced.
Such is the case with Lisa Moore's debut collection of short stories, Degrees of Nakedness. Her stories are have been previously published in magazines like Prism, Canadian Fiction Magazine, and The New Quarterly, and were included in the collection Coming Attractions 1994.
This collection leaves no doubt about Lisa Moore's talent and ability to write. There are many things to admire in her work: her skill in creating visually lustrous and emotionally evocative tableau scenes and passages; the poetic density and intensity of her sentences; and the often striking originality and force of her images.
Yet, as a whole, the stories are a frustrating, joyless read. Moore's characters, milieu, and themes are in the vein of Raymond Carver: set in the Maritimes and Toronto, they portray the middle class's striving to survive and obsession with the often flimsy and failing refuge of relationships. Her stories focus on women's and men's struggles to understand themselves, and to understand their often turbulent connection with each other and with their families.
There are few bridges into Moore's stories, and many obstacles. In story after story, the characters and the narrative are so wilfully distanced that I kept asking myself, "What's the story here?" and "Just who are these people?"
The stories combine an odd blend of abstraction and particularity; the narrative distance gyrates between being too close and too far. As well, the deliberate narrative discontinuity from paragraph to paragraph, and sometimes from sentence to sentence, instead of working as a mechanism to provide time to think, just becomes annoying. If you are giving the readers to time to think, they also need something to think about, and unfortunately, there isn't much philosophical and psychological meat here to mull over.
The story Glandular is a typically frustratingly elliptical story about a woman questioning her relationship with a man-a recurring narrative line in all the stories. It is simultaneously too specific in its descriptions of sex-sex that seems to have no purpose except to exhibit Moore's metaphorical and poetic dexterity, and is filled with head-scratching clinkers such as "Sometimes the import of our actions catches up with us. Import settles on one thing or another, the rim of a coffee cup, for instance, like a butterfly."
Nipple Of Paradise tells the story of Donna Sheppard's experience of giving birth and her discovery of her husband's infidelity. The story has a striking opening line, "I expected some kind of epiphany during the birth." But it soon becomes obvious that this expectation of hers is almost beside the point, that the line is more an display of authorial cleverness than intrinsic to her character or the storyline. The chronological jump-cut structure, and Donna's coy posturing about whether she should relate an incident or not, seem more like literary acrobatics than devices to reveal character and further the story. Though this is a story about the effects of giving birth and of discovering infidelity, you don't feel a thing and you don't see much evidence of the emotional impact on Donna. The narrative voice doesn't characterize her, and that is a problem with all the stories. All the first person narrators speak in the same flat, uninflected voice.
Moore has a tendency to overuse the device of an attention-grabbing opening, like the wish by the narrator of Carmen Has Gonorrhea that Carmen get hit by a Mack truck. The title story begins with a woman sleeping soundly while the top floor of her house burns down. Glandular opens with a long description of oral sex with a cucumber. Undeniably these openings are flashy, but theyare flashy in the manner of someone who enters a party and feels compelled to say something outrageous just for the heck of it.
Many of the stylistic techniques get in the way of the story. And on occasion, the prose can get as deliberately cumbersome as a pair of oversized Doc Martens, as in the following passage from the story Wisdom Teeth: "This was the first time I left my mother. Now I'm in Toronto. I'm here with Mike, my husband, a graduate student. I followed him here."
I put down this collection of coolly narcissistic, over-calibrated stories with little acquaintance and knowledge of the characters, with few illuminations and insights into male and female relationships, and with no encounters with stories told with such intimacy and power that they became part of me. But I was left with a craving for the mass market fiction racks.