Stubborn Bones

by Karen Smythe
177 pages,
ISBN: 1551923645

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Stubborn Bones Without Linguistic Muscle
by Nikki Abraham

Let's start with the good things about this collection of stories. Each main character is nimbly drawn, solid and true. Though most of the characters and all of the narrators are female, each one has her own distinct identity. They do not appear to be aspects of the author's own psyche, but rather distillations of observed and imagined others¨which makes them interesting. That the author's imagination sometimes fails, and the characters think or say things that don't tally with the reader's sense of the character, is testament more to their reality than judgement on the author. After all, with characters this real, there must be more than one interpretation of how they might act or what they might say, as with real human beings, whose reactions are impossible to predict in any given situation (notwithstanding our urge to say, "I knew she would say that!" when we find out what someone in fact did say). Wisely, the author uses a third-person narrator when a main character does not share the same education level or class outlook with the author, and only speaks in the first person when the character's voice is consistent with her own.

Comfortingly, the male characters here are neither evil nor impossibly weak. Though not as fully realized as the female characters, they too appear to be rendered from observation rather than chopped unthinkingly from the same hunk of mental meat. There are some of the by-now-standard low-down male jerks in these stories¨how could we women feel superior without them?¨but some of the male interventions are actually out-and-out benign, a welcome relief in modern fiction written by women. Only one story out of a dozen mentions a father in his child's bedroom doing inappropriate things¨a very small proportion by today's standards.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center destruction, we may come to look at everything in a different light. The stories in Stubborn Bones share a common background of peaceful prosperity that is taken for granted. The foreground is individually-felt life, the small pains of indecision or larger ones brought on by loss through divorce or betrayal, sometimes mitigated by acts of human grace or kindness. The story arcs are subtle, too, and mostly open-ended, which makes for greater resonance.

And so we arrive at the limitations of this book. As I was reading it and allowing it to filter through my mind, I was also reading Art Objects, a book of essays written in 1995 by Jeanette Winterson that speaks passionately of art and art-making¨why artists make art, why the world needs art, thoughts on the role of the reader/viewer/audience, and what makes some works of art endure, while others, capturing a particular feeling or point of view and often popular in their own time for that very reason, become part of the forgotten past.

Jeanette Winterson gives better voice than I am able, to the exact reason Stubborn Bones, while it has wings and may occasionally lift off the ground, never really launches into flight. "I know that it should be the most obvious thing in the world to say that what a writer can offer, uniquely, is language. What should distinguish a writer who chooses the printed page rather than the moving screen, is language. What distinguishes one printed page from another, is language. I do not mean meaning," she writes. "When we look backwards into literature and look at the texts themselves, not adaptations of texts nor our memory of them, what we notice is that those writers who still compel us and who cross time as if it were a room, are those writers marked out by their compact with words."

To be fair, I do not know what Stubborn Bones aspires to; perhaps it wishes simply to reflect back our lives to us, rather than perform a visionary function. If this is the case, it may be judged successful. But language, the English language, is an organic instrument of flexible delicacy whose highest purpose is elliptical, illogical precision: poetry. For a fiction writer, especially a writer of short fiction, anything less intense than the utmost effort to find exactly the fewest and best words to express the intent, is not effort enough. A writer who can let the following sentence get past her editorial eye¨"A few petals lay scattered on the dusty sill, but it was still blooming, and a big red flower the colour of Besta's lipstick at the end of a firm stalk was reaching for the sun."¨is using pliers when the job calls for tweezers. Most of the measures used today to judge art are utilitarian, and if they are not then they are aridly aesthetic. The best art is a magic seamless welding of form and content. Karen Smythe gets the job done¨she conveys her meanings¨but anyone hoping for an intoxicating draught of language will have to wait for the next book to see if she's found those tweezers. ˛

Nikki Abraham is a Toronto artist and freelance writer.


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