All the Men Are Sleeping

by D. R. MacDonald
349 pages,
ISBN: 0385658893


by Genni Gunn
235 pages,
ISBN: 1551925664

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Opposite Coasts and Perspectives
by Lawrence Mathews

It's hard to imagine two more markedly different books of contemporary short fiction than these-different on such anachronistic, indefensible grounds as depth, richness, subtlety, sense of the complexity of the human condition, and so forth.
If I've lost you already, you may well like Genni Gunn's Hungers. "If I could find something positive to think about, I would," says one of her characters, an utterance that could have served as the book's epigraph. Hungers starts off with a series of stories that read like old-fashioned feminist cautionary tales of the all-men-are-beasts school. One of my favourites is "The French Woman", in which twice-divorced Paula, 48, is about to get together with Ted, the man of her dreams with whom, after a brief encounter the previous year, she has shared an intense correspondence. Only it turns out that Ted has died, and his "nondescript" asthmatic friend Jason has decided to take his place, having carried on the epistolary relationship on behalf of the deceased. Jason, who "hasn't slept with a woman in years. But he's sure, if she'll just bear with him, it'll be different this time."
There's more, much more. For example, take Gavin (please!), estranged father of Magda in "Public Relations", with his unreasonable bitterness about his daughter's career as a musician, who, after she has saved him from drowning, inexplicably cuts off all contact with her. Or check out Gordie Fluxhall in "Sailing"¨"a handsome man . . . used to getting his way," who entices women to spend time on his boat by pretending to look for someone to sail around the world with him. Or, most spectacularly, there's "the wolfman" of "Couplets", who shows up at Amy's Vancouver party, complete with wolf, which promptly "sinks its teeth into the wolfman's arm" before the two "stalk out," leaving Amy "thinking everything and everyone is slipping away."
Her reaction is congruent with those of the sad, confused women of the other stories, such as Paula, who "turns and flees the room, the hotel, the man" and Alice of "Los Desesperados", who, as her relationship with the worthless Morris crumbles, asks, helplessly, "What do I have to do? . . . Tell me what to do."
Is there no end to male perfidy?
Probably not, but don't sweat it, guys: women can be just as rotten. Witness the novella which gives the book its title, featuring the sociopathic Marcia, a genius at damaging the lives of everyone who comes into significant contact with her. Narrated by Marcia's younger sister Claire, the story showcases such Springeresque phenomena as suicide attempts, inadvertent but conscienceless involvement in a boyfriend's drowning, a bad marriage, unfaithfulness, more suicide attempts, endless lies, and constant manipulation of family members. Claire is no paragon of psychological health herself, and she has the cigarette burns on her arms to prove it. But what upsets her most is her certainty that her rape by Marcia's husband while she was asleep has been "set up" by her sister to trump up an excuse to divorce him. Five years later, when she confronts Marcia, the latter reacts by pretending to attempt to drown herself in a conveniently proximate river.
Nowhere in this farrago of dysfunctionality is there a hint that such characters will ever be capable of allowing themselves to be healed. Life in this and the other stories in Hungers is fated to be lived without ordinary decency, let alone compassion or generosity of spirit. Gunn has packaged one grim set of human possibilities¨the bent, shrivelled, warped ones¨and dishonestly presented it as the whole story. Only a writer of Swiftian wit could have made something artistically powerful out of such material. And Genni Gunn is no Jonathan Swift.
Neither is D. R. MacDonald, but he doesn't have to be. Unlike the stick-figures who populate the world of Hungers, his characters tend to have souls, as opposed to bundles of neuroses. All the Men Are Sleeping collects fifteen strong, distinctive stories, all of them rooted in the culture of Cape Breton and almost all of them in its geography as well. (The exceptions are set in the American diaspora.) MacDonald's prose moves slowly, confidently, ceremoniously. What it both celebrates and eulogizes, clear-sightedly and unsentimentally, is not really, as the clichT would have it, "a way of life," with its concomitant easily arrived at dismissive analyses and imagery of picturesque communal decline. It's something else, not so readily definable. The men and women of these stories, even when their decisions and actions are foolish, remain somehow invested with a dignity that transcends the realm of the sociological bromide. An individual life is a unique and serious thing, this book says, more important than any rhetorical use that may be made of it.
One comes away from All the Men Are Sleeping with a memory not so much of individual stories as of a world whose qualities are perhaps best suggested in a review by means of haiku-like excerpts: A small boy kneels on the beach, plowing a wooden boat through the sand. MacCuaig envies the grave absorption of his play.

The snow seemed alive, restless, whorled around fenceposts, the long aching curls of drifts, dark blue, from which the wind spun crystals, a sharp, soft spray on her face. A low, black ridge behind the barns was edged with the cold silver of a set moon.
The cliffs leaned back, pushed by the sheer weight of what they'd been through. The ocean bore upon them. Their steepness plunged to pinnacled rock, to strewn and fractured boulders the water was slowly covering and revealing.

Against such backdrops, human endeavour is described with similar astringency. There's religion: "A hard man in a rigid denomination: it made Knox Presbyterians sound like libertines. The Gospel Hall wouldn't let you pee if they thought it would make you feel good." There's work, shoveling snow for example: "Like the world was an hourglass and you digging there at the bottom of it." There's sex: "He turned calmly and hugged her to him, his delight flowing through her, out of his own unself-pitying solitude." And there's death¨a father gives his young son a photograph of nine corpses in a morgue, victims of a shipwreck from which the father escaped: "What my father wanted me to learn from this stark picture I do not know. If he wanted me only to remember it, I have." And perhaps this is what MacDonald is up to: making us remember, letting us decide for ourselves what is to be learned. In the last paragraph of the title story, a country doctor and his visiting ex-girlfriend are crossing a frozen lake on a horse-drawn sleigh when the ice begins to crack: "Isobel turned and saw water, the awful color of it seeping into snow like blood in a cut, into the thin grooves playing out behind them, but she said nothing. She wanted to seize Blair's arm, infuse its tense, solid life with her own, but she didn't. She held onto the seat."
A parabolic image of the precarious balance between life and death? Is Isobel's internal conflict between desire and the need to restrain it a way of epitomizing a culture? MacDonald doesn't stoop to such generalizations. He gives us the picture, trusting it to work in its own way, leaving us immersed in its immediacy: "She was here, and she would be here as long as this horse kept moving, kept churning snow into the bright morning air." There's not a badly written sentence in the book. There's not a paragraph that doesn't do its job, usually unobtrusively. These stories are built to last. And they will. ˛

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