The Demon Lover

by David Arnason
ISBN: 0888012780

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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.

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