Kilter: 55 Fictions

by John Gould
ISBN: 0888012802

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A Review of: Kilter: 55 Fictions
by Michael Greenstein

Centuries ago, John Gould's characters might have tilted against windmills; today, they lean against the form of fiction itself. While some of Kilter's 55 short stories fall flat, many of these post-Borgesian fictions succeed. "Tell it slant," advised Emily Dickinson, and Gould slants his microcosms in quirky, zany sketches. Neither plot nor character development characterize Kilter; and instead of epiphanies, we are confronted with counter-revelations that angle into consciousness.
Take "Two Things Together", the first of 55: two plus two do not necessarily add up to four in a kiltered world where asymmetry abounds. Gould's sound bites usually involve incomplete or misdirected dialogue between family members. "I liked it better back when my son was into stuff I could understand." The narrator's opening sentence points to a lack of understanding between generations, even though the father can slang "into stuff." Within these three-page formats understanding plays a key role between characters, and between character and reader. Father-son dialogue gives way to the narrator's domestic musings by the end of the story. "Why is the light from a television set always blue? This is one of the things I've been pondering. No matter what colours are up there on the screen, the light flooding your room is blue. Why? I don't get it. I don't get a lot of things, more all the time if I'm not mistaken. An infinite number of things, probably, though to tell the truth infinity is one more subject on which I'm a trifle weak." This question sets the "blue" mood of postmodern existentialism, and the blue light of (mis)understanding spreads to an infinite number. Finite gaps between characters and readers hint at infinite possibilities of success and failure. After infinity the narrator reaches another anti-climactic beyond: "Every once in a while I sip my Scotch, feel it burning its way down, down to the heart of me. That's another thing. Heart?" Between synecdoche and an abstracted infinity, Gould's fictions juxtapose "two things" that accumulate and undermine the soul and its expectations.
"Do the Math" grasps experience quantitatively and qualitatively-African atrocities brought home to a white, western Canadian city. During a slide show involving Tutsis and Hutus the narrator tries to assimilate "eight hundred thousand people." As the narrator's domestic situation is called into question by the destruction of foreign domesticity, he imagines violence expanding in a domino or off-kilter progression: "Some higher math, some arcane equation" is called for. The final "so here we go again" is typical of the flat, fatalistic, ironic endings of these fictions that undercut our expectations. Expansiveness recurs within the miniature sketch, "Prisoner". "Imprisoned for a crime you can scarcely comprehend ... you determine to educate, to expand yourself. To release yourself with language." The narrator proceeds alphabetically through the dictionary as Gould plays off the prison house of language against freedom of association until he arrives at the word "infinite."
Gould tilts kabbalistically at the infinite (and Borges) in "Raising the Sparks". On the anniversary of his father's death, the narrator curates a retrospective exhibition of his father's tiny linocuts, Postcard Prints. He intends "to dispel some of the extraneous mystery surrounding the work, but to leave the central mystery intact"-a comment applicable to Gould's own tiny fictions. Self-critical hints scattered throughout "Raising the Sparks" provide clues to Kilter. "Many critics, predictably enough, have construed my father's shift to this condensed format ... as a diminution, an attenuation. His miniatures signify a loss of vitality." Comparable to haiku, they "eschew pronouncement in favour of inkling, of implication. As visible fragments, they express an acquiescence in his own finite, fragmentary nature." His father's fragments belong to some kind of kabbalistic order: "He liked the fact that they'd make us wonder. And of course he planted them as clues to a larger pattern which none of us, until now, have even suspected." After musing at some length about the enigmas of fragments and totality, the kabbalist's son concludes and kilters in undercutting irony: "And then again, it may not."
More often than not, these fictions begin and end in medias res, leaving the reader to fill in the background. Rhetorical questions kilter. In "Leather" the female narrator wonders if her brother's life might have been saved had he not left his leather jacket behind: "Would this have been enough to knock the cosmos off kilter, nudge it onto an alternate course, a future in which the bullet would have passed right through him without puncturing his lung?" Surprises in Gould's fiction arise from imagined possibilities of alternate courses. Self-referential "Method" is about "making connections" and "seeing different images in a single shape." Gould knocks his microcosms off kilter, and it's up to the reader to put things together again.

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