||Between Confinement and Liberation
by Kiki Benzon
I cracked the spine of Denise Roig's new short story collection Any Day Now and thought, "Oh, no-heartbreaking prose." That is, prose which tries hard-for instance, by way of a vignette about a blind would-be Olympian who finds unexpected solace at a Cat Relocation Centre in Nepal, or the inner monologue of an adulterous economist whose life is changed when he reads the poetry of a terminally-ill child-to turn you into a tear-machine. More irksome still is the cleverness of stories, fashioned according to the tripartite structure of the sonata, a gimmick which Georges Perec and the OuLiPo crew might have appreciated thirty years ago.
Any Day Now runs the gamut of infidelity, bereavement, sexual assault, poverty, mental illness, professional disillusionment, and spiritual dehydration. Each trio of stories (six groups in all) processes one or more of these resolutely human problems by cycling themes, contexts, and perspectives through three narrative "movements", which correspond to the exposition-development-recapitulation structure of the sonata form. In the first story, "Troika", a title pregnant with threesome-ness (a Russian three-horse carriage, a dance performed in threes, the holy trinity, the nuclear family), Lesley and her one-time Russian adoption broker, Luba, swap stories over coffee in their Montreal haunt. Thinly veiled allegories of loss and (semi-) redemption, their tales centre around particular objects-a car, a stove, a coat-which figure prominently at some important juncture in each woman's life. Thus is the fragile condition of "belonging"-an item to an owner, a citizen to a nation, a child to a family-variously expressed in the changing space of each story.
What damages this first trio is its lack of subtlety, both in the way it is conceived and executed. Conspicuously recycled metaphors (the keys, for example, "spin out of Luba's hand like tiny, doomed helicopters" and, later, Lesley notes that, when the adoption fell through, Luba did not fly from her life "like a tiny, doomed helicopter") may produce the tightly-strung continuity that is of formal benefit, but it is a continuity too easily achieved. It may be that Roig's hand is here intentionally heavy, in order to establish a particular narrative rhythm and encourage an active, associative kind of reading that will bear fruit in later, more nuanced installments. But the encouragement at times feels more like coercion.
The sense of being pressured began to diminish as I read "Wasp", the first segment in the third narrative group, entitled "Stung". A woman brings a lasagna to the home of an acquaintance, Suzanne, whose husband has recently died. During a brief and awkward exchange in the foyer, the woman notices the curious new loveliness of the bereaved woman and a dying wasp flailing against a nearby window. "Suzanne had always been pretty," muses the woman, "but now she looked more complicated, beautiful even. I felt a jab of jealousy. My husband Jerome-a keen observer of women and their changes-would note how tragedy had redefined her. He would say, Now she has become interesting. The old, old feeling came whispering back." Suzanne thanks the woman-and her husband, with whom Suzanne plays in an orchestra-for the basket of chocolates, and "all the notes and e-mails." Not recalling any condolences beyond the lasagna, the woman-silently, internally-draws the same conclusion that we as readers begin to draw, and finally puts a name to the peculiar expression underlying Suzanne's serene smile: "triumph".
The wasp, then, comes to signify the sting of jealousy, of betrayal, and the death of something that is not entirely benevolent. "The wasp died as my heart petered out," reflects the woman, and as she leaves, unencumbered either by lasagna or illusions, her arms feel "light as wings." Two stories later, after the intervening "Bee" (which depicts a rare love-gone-right between a minister and a parishioner), we encounter this woman once again. This time, in "Hornet", the woman has a name, Martine, and she is one third of a marriage counseling trio; Jerome's-it turns out, extensive-extra-marital shenanigans have finally hit the fan and the couple turn to Harry, an "Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy" practitioner, for guidance. A scenario ripe with dark humour, this passage contains many of Roig's funniest lines. Harry, intellectually flaccid and unreassuringly New Age, refers to Martine's pain as "attachment injury". He invites her to "confront the dragon", and suspects that, for Martine, "control, specifically being out of control, might be an issue." Faced with Harry's textbook simplifications and Jerome's "you're-absolutely-right tone he's adopted since he came clean," the deceived woman resigns herself to a communicative impasse:
"Martine looks at the two men. What can they know of a woman's large, absorbent suffering . . . heart, she was about to say. Then she thinks of the place Jerome still frequents, the core of her, the core of all those women, where he surrenders his mad, mating-dog self. It's us and them, she thinks, and we're out-manoeuvred."
So when Harry asks her, "How did we [i.e., she] get here?" Martine doesn't even attempt to articulate her "large, absorbent" heart, but lets, instead, her embittered self snap, "How did I get here?. . .Well, I passed Go, but I didn't collect two hundred anything. And, Harry, I swear every time you refer to blamer softening I think you're talking laxatives." It's funny, but sad. It's sad because, as with the other disillusioned, brave, and sometimes hopeful figures in Any Day Now-like the woman whose lover bolts when he meets her developmentally challenged son, the HIV-positive poet who can't face his oldest friend, the woman who would provide sex on a kibbutz to avoid the uncertainties of the real world, the underemployed journalism instructor/widow who learns about bipolar disorder the hard way, or the Catholic couple who have diametrically opposed concepts of charity-relationships bring a continual, often painful, oscillation between confinement and liberation, threat and consolation, silence and expression.
Any Day Now is at its best when rich (though oft-oppressive) local colour and manifest woe give way to ambiguity, where cataclysms exist in the minutiae, the small failures accepted, relived, or otherwise cast far out into that Egyptian river, denial. I'm not sure that these stories needed such deliberate structuring to achieve their resonance and poignancy. One can't help but be suspicious of writing that foregrounds its formal influences. Roig's stories do work, but they work in spite of a formal regiment rather than because of it. At a moment when literature has become the unfortunate province of self-conscious artifice-you're not anyone unless your fiction is riddled with faux-scholarly footnotes, or is a structural analogue of DNA, or it contains fifteen embedded meta-narratives by people like Wittgenstein and Cantor-it's nice to see some crisp, incisive humanity for a change. And this is why Any Day Now warrants a read.
Kiki Benzon, a Canadian, lives in London, England.