So This Is Love

by Gilbert Reid
ISBN: 1552636364

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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.

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