Making Light of Tragedy

by Jessica Grant
ISBN: 0889842531

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A Review of: Making Light of Tragedy
by Barbara Julian

I have a fancy that characters in short stories really want to be in novels. After all, the novel is a larger canvas and everyone wants a big life, fictional people as well as real. I suppose this is another way of saying that if characters and their stories are engaging the reader wants to read on to the next chapter and the next-wants a whole novel. If they are not engaging the story was a failure; either way it is hard for a short story to be enough in itself, and it takes a real master to give it a conclusive, satisfying totality.
It is not enough to peep through a window on characters engaged in a random series of actions, before they happen to shut the curtain or wander out of view. A short story is not a fragment or a snapshot. "Short" means told economically, not cut off, and "story" suggests an unfolding, a process, requiring the time-honoured structure of conflict, climax and denouement. The short story, like its ancestors the fable and the parable, uses the same devices as a long story-a novel-but without the luxury of discursively sprawling into all sorts of beckoning highways and byways. Choosing to write the short rather than long form of fiction means choosing precision over expansiveness.
There is quite a bit of humour (as the title suggests) in Jessica Grant's Making Light of Tragedy. The twenty-three stories in Grant's collection are short and feel fragmentary, taking awkward shapes. No gem-like miniatures, they nevertheless flash and sparkle here and there. Reading them I wanted Grant to have written fewer, made them longer and done more with them. In the title story, for instance, at a costume party a woman (the narrator) who is dressed as small Napoleon Bonaparte meets a man dressed as tall Virginia Woolf. "I've killed so many and he's killed himself," she says about the lives they have borrowed for the evening. Cross-dressing and gender-switching as they are, their talk focuses on a time when, according to Greek myth, there was but one gender containing all the attributes distributed between the two, and possessing two of each limb like conjoined twins have. The narrator thinks of the (real) grown Iranian twins who died recently while doctors tried to separate them, and she remembers twinhood herself as we might all "remember" an impossible wholeness. Then, after so many promising elements have been assembled, the story stops.
In another too-sudden ending, a couple arrives at the airport for a flight to Hawaii. A crisis delays them just before they board, and the man is overcome with relief, realizing he never wanted this holiday. But no: his wife intends to carry on. Deflated, he thinks up a new crisis instead, and that plan would have been the real start of a story. But the author drops the ball just when the game is starting.
Lacking plot, Grant's stories tend to flippancy, throwaway lines and a certain amount of grotesquerie. She is not constrained by realism. The atmosphere in her stories isn't dream-like, but she describes a real world unburdened by rationality or physics. Thus a ski jumper launches himself into the air and the story is about his never coming down; a woman gets on a plane and joins the puzzled but non-reacting crew, and helps an elderly lady play solitaire with a deck containing a new face card: the princess. Running through most of the stories is the theme of slipping in where one shouldn't be, where one feels wrong but gets away with it-sort of, with great anxiety.
There are some genuinely funny moments such as a job application routine at Holt Renfrew, and a discussion of people's unaccountable need to cry on television ("preferably as a result of some terrifically moving experience-a blessing from the Pope, a gold medal in women's figure skating. But I'd settle for witnessing somebody else's tragedy.") But the funny stories are sketches that would suit telling as standup comedy. They amuse momentarily but don't enlighten. They involve riddles and muddles and then the narrator leaping free of it all as if saying "oh well."
This collection uses tragedy as material while denying tragedy its time-honoured literary place-making light of it instead. It is fashionable today to judge a short story by its language rather than its shape. Thus we ask for less from the form than readers once did. A short story need no longer be a small perfect gem, merely to contain gem-like phrases within a whole which may in fact be a fragment rather than a narrative unit. By this contemporary standard this collection succeeds. It rewards the reader trolling for zesty phrases or wanting to watch an author throw darts at irritating types and trends, and scoring an easy bull's eye. The stories in this collection display verve and skill, but the author has not yet harnessed these qualities to any substantial literary purpose.

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