It is easy to be critical in conversation. We read a book, and if it fails to move us, we dispose of it in a dismissive sentence or two over coffee with a friend, and that is that. What of the two years or more that book took out of the life of that writer? What of the tears shed or lines in the face scored deeper with each new rejection letter? Do these things mean nothing?
For this critic, on paper if not in personal conversation, they must count for something. How, then, to make helpful this awkward fact: I disliked Gregor Robinson's stories, immediately and viscerally. I could hardly bring myself to lift up the book and read them through again in order to do this review. This, in spite of the fact that the cover is nicely designed, and graced with a reproduction of one of the most beautiful and compelling Chagall paintings I've ever seen.
Over the past several weeks, I've tried to make sense of this reaction. Is it the characters, I ask myself? No, there's a variety of protagonists represented here, and although I found myself unable-or unwilling-to identify with many of them, they are distinct enough from one another to make them feel like more than just the author's alter egos. Is it the language? No, there are more than a few images that take flight, and in general the prose runs smoothly enough-well, okay, we're talking Ford and not Rolls-Royce, but then there's dignity in a well-maintained Ford; you can't criticize a Ford for not being a Rolls-Royce. What about the action? I really, really don't like to admit this, but I actually feel that I didn't "get" most of the stories. Sometimes if there's enough poetry in a writer's style, or the characters are interesting enough, things like the point of the story don't matter that much. But here, when the protagonists are not very likeable, the secondary characters are little more than foils for the protagonists, and the language rarely sings for more than a sentence or two, the movement or development of the story is more important. By the end of many of the stories, though, I was simply baffled.
These stories flung me right up against the question of why I read stories at all. What is it I am looking for? Other people may have other reasons, but these are some of mine: so that I can look through someone else's eyes and learn something new about the world, something I could not discover on my own; so that I don't feel isolated in my thoughts and questions about everything; so that I can touch with my mind the beautiful shapes someone else makes out of this language that I love, the way my eyes and hands may caress a beautiful sculpture; to make sense out of this strange, confusing life.
Do I require happy endings or neat resolutions? Not necessarily. But I do want to be confirmed in my belief that we inhabit a moral universe; that it matters that we try to do the right thing, even if we succeed much less often than we would like to; that it makes a difference whether or not we are blind to the effects of our actions, even if we don't always understand their significance. And this, I think, is what is at the root of my strong negative reaction to Gregor Robinson's bitter tales of modern life as lived by shallow, unhappy people in the West at the end of the twentieth century.
Gregor Robinson's characters seem not to grasp the concepts of right and wrong and the human capacity to choose between good and evil. His protagonists are capable of callousness, passivity, murderous rage, or casual evil. But whatever they do, they seem to have no insight into their actions, and therefore there is no possibility that they might change their blighted lives. This is difficult to look upon. And why should we look upon it? Why should I be interested in characters who do evil and don't even know it; or who do evil and do know it and don't care? I learn nothing from reading about such characters. The most that seems possible for these emotional cripples is for them to detach their minds from their bodies and float out into the ether (this happens in two of the stories). Certainly they all, even the sympathetic ones, inhabit a loveless world in which honest, deep contact between two human beings appears to be well-nigh impossible. Over the space of two hundred pages and fourteen stories full of alienation, violence, indifference, and betrayal of various kinds, I found only one instance of unselfish, loving behaviour (in the first story, the single dad protects his kindergarten-age daughter from teachers who would like her to see some kind of therapist because in their opinion she is behaving abnormally).
To be fair, I do think that parts of these stories were supposed to be funny. Humour is a very idiosyncratic thing, and what one person finds hilarious, the next person thinks silly. But since the details that were given to introduce the characters usually made me dislike them, I wasn't in the mood for laughs. The whole tone of the book was far too cynical for my taste. Comic touches further on in the stories were neither buoyant nor consistently enough placed to dispel the heaviness of the rest of the material. In addition, I was often irritated by the writing style-a combination of run-on sentences and incomplete ones that is the result either of sloppiness or an unsuccessful attempt to emulate Hemingway's terse prose. Finally, I was annoyed to encounter mistake after mistake in punctuation, grammar, and typesetting through the book. Call me picky, but I say that a total of more than sixty such mistakes is inexcusable. ("Once, in a dessert campsite in Mexico, a scorpion bit me.") It's as if the author sent in a hasty, unchecked draft to the publisher-and the publisher simply went ahead and printed it without any editing or proofreading.
Gregor Robinson's characters may be nasty, limited, and pathetic, but they are various, well imagined, and well conjured up; and when they talk to each other, you have the sense of real conversation. Perhaps what this writer needs most of all is a good editor, and not just someone to correct weak spelling and grammar. He needs an objective eye: to tell him when he's piling up useless details that only slow the flow of the story and confuse the reader; to tell him when he's failed to make clear his attitude towards his characters or their actions; to let him know when he's gotten to the heart of the matter, and when he's missed the mark. Gregor Robinson has talent; he should write twenty-five or fifty stories, and then go looking for a publisher who'll do more for him than put a pretty cover on his book.
Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.