by Rai Berzins,
191 pages,
ISBN: 0864921667

Bad Imaginings

by Caroline Adderson,
160 pages,
ISBN: 0889841721

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Senses Of An Ending
by Daniel Jones

IN HIS RECENT book Talents andTechnicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction, John W.Aldridge argues that "a surprising number" of young American writershave established prominent reputations based on fiction that is technicallyconservative, stylistically bland, and often extremely modest in intention,with little about it that could possibly be offensive or provocative orstimulating to anyone. It is the critic`s first responsibility,Aldridge contends, and I agree with him, "to function as a monitor of taste,to challenge fashionable opinion ... simply on the ground that it isfashionable and therefore suspect." Caroline Adderson`s stories have beenpublished, some more than once, in numerous magazines and anthologies. TwiceAdderson has finished third in the CBC Literary Competition, and she has beennominated for a National Magazine Award. Bad Imaginings, Adderson`s first book,was nominated for last year`s Governor General`s Award. Bad Imaginings is aremarkable book. Employing language poetically, but with a sure and subtlecommand, Adderson constructs sentences that linger in the mind. Occasionally,her use of alliteration, assonance, and imagery is excessive, as in thispassage from the beginning of the first story, "Shiners": Sun-warmed shallows show minnows.Like the blades of small new knives, they are painfully silver, alluring. Acluster hovers over grey-green pebbles. Such lapses are rare, however. Addersonis particularly good at Capturingthe cruelty Of Children, especially a child`s inability to fully comprehend hisor her actions. In "The Hanging Gardens of Babylon," Lillian and herbrother, Rudy, are forced from the house, where their mother lies ill. Comingupon a boy who has filled a bucket with Coupling frogs, they watch as heextracts one pair. He shrugged, then Wound hack his arm.Even airborne the frogs did not uncouple. They sailed straight for a tree,struck it -- a terrible jellied splash on the bark. In "Shiners," Laurence, who has"a plastic thing in his heart," and his older brother, Thad, nearlykill their grandfather when they put too many mints in his mouth at once. In"Gold Mountain (A Tale of Fortune-Seeking in British NorthAmerica)," Adderson treats historical subject matter with great humour.The narrator, Henry Merritt, a cobblerturnedprospector, joins up with BernardCoop: Where on his right hand his middle fingers should have been, were twounsightly stumps. "At least the good one`s left, Mr Merritt," hesaid, wagging the finger at me, then, with it, reaming out his ear. Indeed, Adderson is able to render a widearray Of Subjects with considerable skill. As I read Bad Imginings, however,I felt I was moving through familiar and comfortable terrain. The techniquesthat Adderson employs so cleverly are common to the modem short story in mostof its incarnations from Joyce to Carver. Adderson chooses not to challengeconvention but merely to work safely within it. That her work has garnered Suchhigh acclaim has much to say about the critical and institutional values thatinform Canadian literature in general. While the writing gave me pleasure, I wasneither moved nor engaged by Adderson`s characters. This is further compoundedby her frequent use of ambiguous endings. The short story that ends abruptlyand whose ending is conveyed through metaphor or symbolic gesture, leaving thereader to grope about for a meaning that ultimately cannot be known, is astaple of modem fiction`s continued exploration of alienation -- somuch so that it risks becoming a cliche. Adderson`s endings arc abrupt,inconsequential, and, in some cases, simply confusing. Adderson seems reluctantto dig deeper into her characters and their situations, to wrench Out a moreprofound and, ultimately, less aesthetically appealing "truth."Confusion and ambiguity play important roles in Rai Berzins`s first collectionof Stories, Cerberus, buthere they invoke a sense of horror and despair. Berzins`s characters aresecurity guards, cab drivers, janitors, and aides on psychiatric wards; othersdo not work at all, and some are simply very stupid. They try to understandtheir lives, or to overcome them, but this is all but impossible. In "TheSituation What It Does to Him Personally," Larry is hospitalized forpsychiatric evaluation. The story Unfolds in a series of fragmented episodes asLarry struggles to think through his madness: Larry does not deny his mentalstate. But what he did he knows was wrong,and a thing a normal person Could have done, someone with a temper or a chip onthe shoulder or a whole bag of stresses, to do what he did. You do not have tobe mad is his point. To do what he did. He could have been normal. What Larry did was to strangle someonewith the cord of an electric toaster. Near the end of the story, he almostkills a patient on the ward, but is no closer to understanding his affliction.Death and violence are the focus of several stories, but Berzins evokes them ina way that is believable and human and not merely gratuitous. In "Roy`sGhost," two unemployed men remember a friend who died in the street ofexposure. Then, the narrator himself dies, but he is revived. Being dead is beige -- a kindof bright beige you don`t witness often, but beige, with a sort of airconditioner hum. I`m still not good with your basic pain, but death, with death it`s another story. I can think ofworse ways to spend Your time. Berzins renders beautifully the banalityof death, as well as the nihilism of life on the economic periphery. Berzins relies heavily on sentencefragments, colloquial language, and awkward sentence structures. At the sametime, these are slice-of-life sketches, with very little expositionon the part of the author-narrator. Much is left out. In"Omens," we know only that the narrator, Nicky, works at home and hasa boyfriend named Lloyd: is Nicky a woman or a gay man? There is another type of artistry at workin Cerberus. Berzins takes the formof the modem story and commits violence upon it. It takes an effort to readBerzins`s stories, and that effort drags us deeper into the hell that he hascreated, and we return changed, even if merely horrified.

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