Forms of Devotion:
Stories & Pictures

by Diane Schoemperlen,
223 pages,
ISBN: 0670876968

Post Your Opinion
Engraving Stories
by Nikki Abraham

You know how a really great jazz musician can take an old tune and play with it-twist it, bend it, loop it back on itself, turn it upside down, appear to abandon it completely and then, with a sly flourish, return it to you fresh, new, still itself but transformed now into a thing with possibilities instead of something to be listened to with the mind on hold? That's what Diane Schoemperlen does for the short story.

She picks it up as you would pick up an atlas globe; she turns it around and looks at it from every angle. "There is the town where I was born," she might say; then, spinning to the opposite side, "Here is where I went on a cruise once," and, peering closely at some obscure location, "Here's where I'm heading next, as soon as I have enough money saved."

As a contrapuntal element to the text, she uses old engravings drawn from books with titles like Images of Medicine: A Definitive Volume of More than 4,800 Copyright-Free Engravings or Old-Fashioned Nautical Illustrations (the list is an entire page long). Some of the images are used as they originally appeared; others are collages put together by the author. The reader's eye is continually drawn from the text to these complex, detailed images, where it lingers to ponder the relationship between word and picture, before returning to the flow of language.

One of the challenges in writing this review was to try to put into words what exactly it is that Diane Schoemperlen does that is so original. It's hard to find categories that contain all or even most of the stories when each story is a different experiment in storytelling. But there are some elements that recur. First and perhaps most strikingly, the author seems somehow to stand apart from the material; or, more accurately, at one and the same time to be both outside and inside it. We have the heady, vertiginous sense of rapidly and continuously changing focus, like looking at an M. C. Escher drawing for a long time.

Then, of course, there are the ever-present pictures, which weave themselves in and out of the stories-or is it that the stories weave themselves in and out of the pictures? You see, that's the thing about Diane Schoemperlen-there's always more than one element at work.

One is always aware of the presence of the author. Sometimes she is in the foreground, sometimes in the background; sometimes she is vulnerable, at other times detached, distant, ironic, and almost mocking. One is also always aware of the pictures. Sometimes they seem to have prompted the writing, sometimes to have been chosen to illustrate it. In any case, text and image seem to be so fully integrated that it is difficult to imagine the one not being diminished without the other (although, to be truthful, it is clearly the writing that is strongest; it would be brilliant even without the illustrations). The stories themselves are sometimes front and centre, but in many cases must almost be gleaned from the writing. The first reading will yield other harvests; it is on second reading that the story becomes clear. And so it is that it becomes difficult to state what this book is "about", or what the stories are "about". They are "about" many things at once. Unfortunately, the word "postmodern" has become loaded. To use that term about this book might turn away some readers because for them it is almost synonymous with "incomprehensible". Nevertheless, use it I must, because only in our time could stories have been written in this fashion. But far from being hard to understand, they are simply complex; many-faceted, and layered, but clear when viewed from any angle.

Diane Schoemperlen has an eye (and ear) for fact and detail; she is a keen analyst; and she has a wicked sense of humour. When these traits come together-as they do in many of the stories-the results leave you not only humble with admiration, but chuckling with recognition. How many times has anyone who writes at all fancied that she might someday write fiction? By the time you reach the end of "How to Write a Serious Novel About Love", however, you not only know why you don't actually write fiction, you're also glad to have Diane Schoemperlen writing it instead of you.

It's not merely that she is so incredibly intelligent and observant and funny and original, though, that makes this book outstanding. It's that elusive thing about language, the ability some people have to write in a fashion that is a pleasure to read out loud, words that spill off the tongue out of the mouth with never a stumble or missed syllable. It is the ability to make a phrase so beautiful that the reader returns to it, enchanted, and sees the words on the page again, strung like so many sweet pearls to be looked at and fingered on a delicate chain around the neck. This magical gift has been given to Diane Schoemperlen. Here is the opening of "Five Small Rooms (A Murder Mystery)": "I have learned not to underestimate the power of rooms, especially a small room with unequivocal corners, exemplary walls, and well-mannered windows divided into many rectangular panes. I like a small room without curtains, carpets, misgivings or ghosts."

Diane Schoemperlen's fiction doesn't just move us on an intellectual or aesthetic level, though. One story in particular, "Body Language", is a poignant delineation, told from the male point of view, of a marriage in trouble: a man in love with his wife, yet powerless to stop her erratic drift away from him. Nothing is too baldly stated, yet the situation is unbearably clear. This is a masterpiece of effective storytelling: compelling language, original approach, clear story line, and inevitable emotional response from the reader. This story has it all.

If praise for the book is to be tempered at all, it is by the observation that at times Diane Schoemperlen skates perilously close to flippancy. I hope she holds that impulse in check. But if Forms of Devotion is any indication of direction, Diane Schoemperlen is still courageously pointing towards difficult places within herself and in society. As an admiring reader, I look forward with pleasure to her next effort. 

Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us