The Best Thing for You

by Annabel Lyon
ISBN: 0771053975

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A Review of: The Best Thing for You
by Cathy Stonehouse

"It ticks like a bomb," says Ulrike, describing an elegant antique metronome. Ulrike, a minor character in one of Annabel Lyon's new novellas, collected under the title The Best Thing For You, could just as easily be describing Lyon's prose. Already known for her punchy, acidic short stories, Lyon has followed up her first acclaimed collection (Oxygen, Porcupine's Quill, 2000) not with the inevitable novel, but with a collection of three thematically linked novellas. And while Oxygen was merely provocative, The Best Thing For You is positively dangerous. Open the collection almost anywhere and you risk consuming an explosive image or incendiary fragment of dialogue that continues detonating inside you for minutes. Unlike the metronome, this elegant book really is booby-trapped.
"The Goldberg Metronome", perhaps the most technically accomplished of the three novellas, is a brilliant tour de force of intricately nested stories cataloguing the mysterious provenance of the aforementioned metronome. Its discovery, wrapped in brown paper and taped to the pipes underneath the bathroom sink of a West End Vancouver apartment, triggers the unwrapping of a series of powerful, interconnected vignettes, each dropping deeper into a moral quagmire. Was this ticking moral bombshell purchased on the cheap from a Jewish family fleeing persecution in 1940s Berlin? Was the designer of this elegant device a Scottish architect persecuted during World War One for his treacherous affinity to all things German? And who, in contemporary Canada, is its rightful owner?
A skillfully-wielded symbol of both linear and cyclical time, the metronome eventually comes to stand not so much for remembering but for forgetting, the dropping away of all concerns except the to-and-fro, repel-and-attract motion of the human heart. For Anika, the young renter who first finds the metronome, it's like this: "She saw that her feelings for [her partner David] would swing from patience to impatience, liking to loathing, closeness to distance, and there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing but wait, and wait, and wait for the needle to swing back." Even with its unsettling trick ending, the novella neatly encapsulates two of The Best Thing for You's core themes: upwardly-mobile middle-class urbanites' ability to distance themselves, albeit temporarily, from troubling issues, and the vast intergenerational reverberations a single, isolated decision can have.
"No Fun" and "The Best Thing For You", the two novellas which bookend "The Goldberg Metronome", chart the farthest reaches of that swinging needle. Both take the reader deep into troubled families, and into the consciousnesses of characters who alternately, and often simultaneously, attract and repulse-comfortable, objective distance not, of course, being an option in Lyon's universe. Both novellas are pivotally populated by women-who attempt to navigate the complexities of marriage, to keep themselves and the families they are responsible for afloat-and by their alter egos: male adolescents, half men, half children, teetering on the dangerous brink of adulthood, vulnerable, corruptible, apparently sweet yet potentially vicious.
"No Fun" introduces us to Kate and Liam, a yuppie couple whose most pressing concern is the re-landscaping of their back yard. Like the toned and tanned hero and heroine of a made-for-TV movie, their lives seem picture perfect, "our house is the prettiest on the block, Nantucket blue, climbing yellow roses, lawn like jade, basketball hoop nailed to the garage," but all that is (of course) about to change. Kate, who narrates the story, is an ER doctor who finds herself one evening treating Paul Malone, a man with Down's syndrome. Paul has been severely beaten outside Kate and Liam's local video store. Who is responsible? Teenagers, no doubt, judging by the size and make (Nike) of the shoe that caused the footprint still gracing the back of the victim's coat.
Kate and Liam's teenage son, Ty, we suddenly remember, has just acquired a brand new pair of Nike Shox. Next we learn that he was out all night with his friend Jason the night of the assault. The pieces fall chillingly into place when, a few days afterwards, Jason's parents, the lower-class Parmenters, summon Kate and Liam over for a meeting. "Our boys beat up a retarded man," announces Mr. Parmenter. According to Ty, however, it was Jason alone who committed the crime.
We never learn whether Ty is innocent or guilty; what we do witness is the family's struggle to regain the privileged security it has momentarily lost. And while the monstrousness of the assault is to some extent mirrored by the less than savoury attitudes displayed by Kate and Liam-relentless selfishness, occasional bullying and snobbery-it remains impossible not to identify with them, or with Kate at least, as she works hard to rescue her son from this nightmare, while being pregnant with another child.
Nevertheless, there are times when the degree of irony inflecting Lyon's lines is hard to gauge. We remain so airlessly close to Kate that even, in the final scene, when the family revisits the video store, it's hard to judge either the character's or the author's tone when Kate says to Ty that she hopes Liam has picked out "something violent."
There are also rare moments when Lyon slips into an uncomfortable heavy-handedness, as for example when the husband of Kate's friend, a lawyer, holds forth on the subject of criminal responsibility: "There's no such thing as an evil act evil lies in the person who's doing the act, and our perception of that person." For the greater part, however, the novella succeeds in merely hinting at the moral chasm that lies beneath us, should we care, even for a second, to look down.
Set in World War Two Vancouver, "The Best Thing For You" chronicles a young woman's attempts to stave off suffocation by marriage by means of escaping, with increasing frequency, into a parallel universe of iniquity. Beginning with the "little silver crime" of adultery, a flirtation with the butcher's boy, a sixteen-year-old merely two years her junior, Anna finds herself moving on to practice increasingly bold deceptions, until, on the day that Victory is declared, she takes her final leap into serious crime.
Cold-hearted psychopath or victim of patriarchal oppression? Uncomfortable as this may make the reader feel, Anna is portrayed as neither. When we first meet her, our heroine is a young, malleable woman, trying on, like hand-me-down outfits, a range of ill-fitting female roles, "trying to juggle," as she tells her husband, "the best thing for you and the best thing for her," meaning her mother-in-law, unable to admit meanwhile her increasing desperation to discover what's best for herself.
All too soon, Anna's playacting takes a sinister turn. One fatal event leads to another until, as happens in the early days of their marriage, by accidentally filing a photograph of his wife, instead of one of a known female criminal, her journalist-husband unwittingly seals Anna's fate. In the hours after committing cold-blooded murder "the soles of her feet beg[in] to prickle," yet instead of waking up to the true horror of her actions, Anna simply "force[s] herself to stay in the character she ha[s] worn all day"-that of the innocent wife.
In this, the most complete of Lyon's novellas, moments of truth often occur just as characters enter the elevator, a moral pressure-chamber consisting of "red velvet, brazen gilt, black wrought iron bars." The elevator may take them where they want to go but beneath it, all too obviously, is the abyss.
An artful hollowness also runs through The Best Thing for You, a hollowness that strengthens the surrounding structure. By refusing either to judge her characters or to let them off the hook, Lyon leaves a vacuum, a space for the reader's own conscience to fill. Easy to enter, but certainly not an easy read, The Best Thing for You is a stunning work.

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