||Lapping up Amason's Bowl Full of Tall Tales
by Steven M. Berzensky
David Arnason knows how to tell a gripping tale whose twists and
turns defy all predictability. His latest short story collection
was a finalist (April 26, 2003) for the 2002 Manitoba Writing and
Publishing Awards, including nominations for Book of the Year and
Fiction. Many gems of different colours fill Arnason's enchanting
bowl of seventeen stories.
But first, a few quibbles. I would have chosen another title for
the collection, because "The Demon Lover" is not the most
representative nor memorable story here. It inspired the howling
death head's skeleton key for the book's garish cover; and that
same key is the design motif (sans skull) repeated on the opening
page of each story. The contents of this warm-hearted volume are
ill served by its misleading cover packaging. This is not a
collection of horror stories but of stories laced with humour and
satire-and some realistic narratives.
The title story's main virtue: it's an adroit contemporary take on
the Bluebeard legend. It lives up to the narrator's statement:
"Everyone is so brand-conscious these days that it is difficult
to know what is in and what is out." This self-critical
narrator's profession is editing, but his pastime is
"debauching". A modern Bluebeard, he does not murder his
deflowered maidens after they enter his secret locked room with the
special death's head key; what he does to them in response to their
natural act of curiosity and disobedience is more politically correct
than the archetypal merciless response. Here, as in most of Arnason's
fables, the characters depicted tend not to be three-dimensional
(any more than fairy tale characters are). His clever and witty
narratives belong to the English tradition of social satire of which
Saki was a master.
Reading this volume, we begin to recognize the characteristics of
an Arnason tall tale, as differentiated from one of Mark Twain's,
or Stephen Leacock's stories, for that matter. Arnason throws in
some postmodern tricks: details drawn from a contemporary slough
of commercial brand names (in the title story, there are references
to Armani, Remy Martin, and Zeiss); narrators who occasionally chat
with their audience; the self-conscious presentation of alternate
takes to a story's plotline; the reworkings of traditional Icelandic
fables and updatings of other ancient legends, sometimes with
references to modern news events and contemporary political issues.
For example, "Drowned Lovers" starts off with this toss-away
sentence: "Let's say, a story about drowned lovers." The
omniscient narrator tells us his options as we read the story.
"In a very few minutes they will both be dead. If I let them.
If I tip that canoe and drown them in a Manitoba lake just north
of Flin Flon. They are at my mercy..." He lets the story
continue, then changes his mind. A few paragraphs later: "They
were saved." And almost half a page after that: "So, not
a story about drowned lovers at all." That's a lot of shifting
of narrative gears, but Arnason does it with a light hand and a
grin and a wink. While he's here to entertain us, he's not glib;
fiction isn't always a lark for him. Some of his stories go much
deeper into social commentary, a not-so-veiled criticism of our
current mores. In other words, this isn't a collection simply
tossed off for our titillation.
The back cover photo of the author reveals a benign smile, hair and
beard all white, cut short, an Icelandic-Canadian Santa Claus. When
you read some emerging authors, it's as if their stories could
happen anywhere: the settings aren't specific enough. Every established
author has chosen his or her fictional domain. Arnason's Domain is
Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba, as well as mythic Iceland;
it consists not only of modern-day Canadian wizards and trolls, but
also of troubled ordinary souls who do their shopping at Wal-Mart,
listen to MuchMusic, read Cosmopolitan, drink in taverns, and die
in nursing homes or in the American desert.
"The Wizard of Selkirk Avenue" is one of my favourites
in this collection and could have been the title story. How can you
resist a tale whose opening paragraph is set "right on Selkirk
Avenue" where Brenda, our heroine, is looking for (as advertised):
"Harry's Second Hand Emporium". Then she meets the wizard,
who introduces himself as "Harry Vishinski, merchant of used
and refurbished dreams, everything in good condition, thirty-day
warranty." As in a classical fairy tale, Harry the wizard
points to three closed doors: "Things", "Dreams",
and "Attainable Goals", and he tells his latest customer,
Brenda, to choose one. As long as we have a child's need for (and
an adult's openness to) fairy tales, we'll save a place at the
family dinner table for storytellers like Arnason.
"The Mayor" is another zany story with a fairy tale
structure. The mayor of a metropolitan prairie city is a stickler
for rules and regulations. So when he comes across a homeless troll
living beneath a city bridge he personally reads her the riot act:
"Bylaw 672, subsection 4a clearly says, No one shall erect a
domicile, place of business, factory or other structure under a
City of Winnipeg bridge.' You'll have to go." The game played
between these two antagonists is that she does "go"-but
it's from one bridge to another. And the mayor gets progressively
angrier. Since this is an urban fairy tale, it necessitates some
plot complications: "Things did not go well for the mayor after
that. A funny taste got into the water supply. The police and
firemen went on strike. The mayor had to raise taxes to get enough
money so they would go back to work..."
What I liked about "Pandora" is the original prairie twist
Arnason puts on the story of Pandora's Box and the biblical prophecy
of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, linking them both to a
Winnipeg historic event: a great flood. Pandora is a cat and we
experience the story from her point of view. The Four Horsemen are
"furry creatures" locked up in a gift box, and Pandora
accidentally frees two of them. Her owners aren't as intelligent
as this cat is; she's trying to warn them about what has been
released from the box. But they don't understand her; they just
think she's a recalcitrant cat and they patronize her. How does
Pandora save the world?
"The Table" is a riveting realistic narrative. Imagine a
group who gather at a local watering hole, meeting regularly over
the years: "Another night at the bar. Nobody could remember
quite how it had started, how they had all met... They were all
slipping into alcoholism, though none of them knew it at the time.
They thought they were having fun." What we observe is the
slow unravelling of one informal drinking caucus. Before we reach
the closing sentences, we care enough to feel pity for all these
characters: "But when she got there, she didn't recognize a
single face. Not one."
"Trader Joe's" is the strongest short story in the
collection, and you read it in a different way than all the others.
It lifts the rest of the book onto a higher plane, goes far beyond
any attempt to be funny, charming, or whimsical. It opens with a
man dying on the sidewalk in front of a Trader Joe's franchise in
the American southwest resort town of Palm Desert; and it closes
with another man who may be dying in the same location. The narrative
follows the inner and outer life of one character with incisive
thoughts and dialogue about the strange customs of those Americans
and Canadians who are trying to delay the inevitable "with
exercise and nutrition and expensive medical care and face lifts
and tummy tucks. This is the good life. If you're very lucky and
very rich, this is how you get to die. Surrounded by sunlight and
hummingbirds and Alfa Romeos." Does this story belong to a
primarily fanciful collection? Since it's superior to what precedes
and follows, I would have separated it from all the others, placed
it at the very end of the present volume. In only eight pages,
"Trader Joe's" demonstrates how a well-crafted short story
can be more gratifying than a protracted contemporary novel set in
a similar milieu of smoothed-over malaise.
David Arnason is a master storyteller with a classical sensibility.
His sardonic but compassionate pen joins various tributaries into
one Red River that overflows with telltale ink. In Arnason we meet
the ancient oral tradition coupled with some progressive experiments
in contemporary literature.