||A Review of: So This Is Love: Lollipop and Other Stories
by John Oughton
So This Is Love is Gilbert Reid's first collection of short stories.
The assured quality of his prose suggests a longer track record in
publishing fiction, but evidently much of his craft has been polished
by work in other media, including film, television and radio (he
won a Gemini for writing the documentary Storming the Ridge).
In themes, and to some extent in level of interest, this is an oddly
split collection. About half of the stories-and generally the
strongest half-consider some of the horrific events that have become
almost mundane media fodder: genocide, civil war, child abuse, rape
and murder. The first story, "Pavilion 24", is set in
the Balkans. Two natural enemies, a Serb woman and Muslim man, find
themselves alone in a "surgical recovery ward" to which
no one comes. Like the legless man and his blind-but-walking friend
in the old story, they must cooperate to survive. This story has a
lot of echoes, including the classic Lee Marvin/Toshio Mifune movie
Hell in the South Pacific, but Reid keeps it fresh and fluid,
concentrating on the emotional and sensory particulars the characters
experience. The "twist" ending-without giving it away-is
also familiar, but elegantly conveyed. The story deserves its
Honourable Mention in the National Magazine Awards.
Rwanda (or perhaps the Congo) is the setting for "Hey Mister",
in which a fearless woman photographer protects and finally adopts
an orphaned boy. As in "Pavilion 24", two characters of
very different experiences learn to trust and help each other.
The final story in the collection, "The Road Out of Town",
at first seems an experimental reflection on a small-town murder,
much like the killing of Lynne Harper for which Stephen Truscott
was long (and wrongly) imprisoned. The story is full of doubt,
alternative scenarios and fates, introduced by "I wonder"
and "or". But it also develops into a self-reflective
nostalgia for the sort of village life which ambitious young people
can't wait to leave, taking the road out of town. The story ends
with a kind of mea culpa which links to the second type of story
in this collection:
"I cultivate the sort of romanticism that makes me feel at
home in that other place that has never been my place-memories of
Hemingway, Glassco, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Malraux, Sartre, Camus,
Balzac, and Proust. Of other people's stories, I make up my own
memories, my routines, my rituals, and my consolations, My nostalgia
is second-hand: it belongs to lives I have never lived."
Those lives, which inform stories like "Lollipop" and
"Irony Is", recall the bored, sensation-seeking characters
that populate Fellini's La Dolce Vita. They are sophisticated people,
well-travelled, sexually creative, and well-read, yet they are
no better at decoding the mysteries of life-particularly love-than
the rest of us. A carving of Christ in one story leads to the
epiphany: "It was the knowledge of the impossibility of love;
that's what it was." The stories in this vein are not without
their pleasures; they're well-written, studded with evocative
descriptions of landscapes and sensual pleasures. But the disconnection
of the characters from what most people recognize as real life-work,
children, bills to pay-seems to make them matter less than those
in "Pavilion 24" and its thematic peers here.
When Henry Miller, for example, wrote about Paris, you knew his
characters were scrabbling to survive, and although sex was in
plentiful supply, the next bowl of soup or week's rent were by no
means sure things. When the narrator of "Lollipop" muses,
"The white flaky paint of the ribbed upturned boat is real,
chalky and smooth. More real than anything has ever been real, more
present than anything has every been-to me," you're hearing a
character who could use a shot of realism, or at least of Raymond
Carver, to adjust his sense of, well, reality. Reid says in his
author's notes that these stories are meant in part to reveal the
failure of "the utopian aspirations-both public and private"
of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps the moral we're meant to retain is
that hedonism without work is pointless; is there a puritan under
the libertine's mask somewhere?
Reid is apparently now working on a novel. If he can bring together
the two threads that weave throughout this collection into a sustained
story, it should be well worth reading.