Greetings from the Vodka Sea

by Chris Gudgeon
ISBN: 086492383X

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A Review of: Greetings from the Vodka Sea
by Harold Heft

"If it bends," begins the famously pompous lecture by the character of Lester (Alan Alda) in Woody Allen's 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, "it's funny. If it breaks, it's not funny." Comparing two new books of short stories by Canadian writers Chris Gudgeon and Gary Barwin suggests a similar judgment about the extent to which authors can experiment with the nature of reality-if it bends, it can be poignant; if it breaks, it's probably meaningless.
Chris Gudgeon, who made his name as a non-fiction writer best known for his biography of Stan Rogers, has emerged as a major new talent in Canadian fiction. His book Greetings from the Vodka Sea provides a sequence of stories-some loosely interconnected, some unconnected-that represent the world through a lens where the centre is sharp and hyper-realistic, and the edges are blurred with uncanny, warped details. Uncomfortable sexual dynamics between characters in his stories seem to dismantle and rearrange the world into something familiar yet unhinged. Jacuzzis, in at least three of his stories, are instantly recognized by characters as an invitation to ejaculate into a pool of warm and public water, an act that eventually and inevitably returns to haunt them. (Reading Gudgeon, I was reminded of Jacqueline Susann's line about Philip Roth, soon after the publication of Portnoy's Complaint: "He's a fine writer, but I wouldn't want to shake hands with him." Gudgeon is a fine writer, but don't ever set foot in a Jacuzzi with him.)
At the opening of his story, "The Shulman Manoeuvre", Gudgeon describes his character, Sarah, as being "interested in the things inside the things we see," an utterance that seems like a credo for the author's own aesthetic. Although the closest analogue to Gudgeon's writing tone is the gritty, documentary, urban style of Raymond Carver (one detects an authorial wink in the title of Gudgeon's story "The Death of Carver"), the best of his stories contain strikingly odd elements that seem like projections of the dark and nervous energy at the heart of human relationships. Many of the stories are populated by bizarre animal creatures-miniature whales in the title story, semi-tame giant rats in the story "Sunshine Sketches of a Rat-Infested Shitbox", a gargantuan and ever-growing bichon frise in the story "Mitzou"-all of which appear as objective correlatives for relationships at pivotal moments in their evolutions. The bichon frise, for example, begins growing in response to an aging couple's recently emptied nest, and assumes the role of an expanding awareness of absence and emptiness that cannot be articulated.
The miniature whales, which are truly among the most sinister of literary creations (they are a semi-playful, semi-vicious tourist attraction in the mythic, exotic destination of the Vodka Sea, on which guests feast with alarming passion), provide the backdrop to the uneasy sexual development of a newlywed upper-middle class British couple who are both seduced by their honeymoon destination and terrified by their sudden awakening: "Two or three of the creatures begun [sic] ramming the side of the tour boat, hungry for more, [sic] It was all quite comical, like a small child play-fighting a giant dog. Ping. Ping. Their little heads echoed off the aluminum hull. Bruce looked in the water and watched the curious whales, immersed in his own tiny sea as sure as Monica (leg slightly raised, fingers discreetly but vigorously working) was immersed in hers." In the parlance of Woody Allen's Lester, the whales bend. They bend like hell.
It is always an irresistible joy when a new voice in Canadian writing takes on one of our sacred icons, and Gudgeon's story, "Sunshine Sketches of a Rat-Infested Shitbox", which holds up a photographic negative of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (it is even a photographic negative of the dark side of Leacock) is no exception. The story follows a minor writer with an inflated sense of entitlement named Wannacott, who made his reputation years earlier with a sardonic memoir of his brief stay in Leacock's own town of Orillia. Wannacott is invited back to give a lecture on Leacock at an academic conference. (In our culture, is there an easier, more deserving target for satire than the academic conference?) Irked by every detail of the conference, he finds himself becoming increasingly lost in the memory of a youthful, sexually-charged affair that he had enjoyed during his earlier life in Orillia. Recalling Thrse's pronouncement that "youth is a trap that only catches you when it's not there," which Wannacott initially considers "the stupidest thing she'd ever said," he finds himself neglecting his professional duties to pursue his psychosexual ghosts of the past. Eventually, he chooses to raise the stakes so high on his reclamation of a past that no longer exists that ultimately he can only be destroyed by his inability to go back.
The tour-de-force of Gudgeon's Greetings from the Vodka Sea is a series of stories at the opening and closing of the volume that revolve around the October Crisis, an historic event that remains underused as a metaphor in Canadian writing. In Gudgeon's work, the Crisis itself is less important than its usefulness as a backdrop to the sexual machinations of a collection of characters intent on satisfying their own interests (Wannacott and Thrse appear as minor characters in these stories). In the story "Liberation", the FLQ's actions, removed by Gudgeon from their historical significance, become a projection of a female character's attempts to liberate herself and pursue her sexual fantasies. In "The Medusa Project", a kidnapping of a journalist during the Crisis, far from being a publicly political act, becomes only an attempt to sustain the upper-middle class equilibrium enjoyed by otherwise tormented characters. The brilliance of Gudgeon's work resides in his consistently effective portrayals of a warped world that is a projection of the warped impulses of the individuals he creates.
In contrast to the effectiveness of Gudgeon's bendings and warpings of reality, Gary Barwin's new book, Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth, as suggested in the title, is a collection of short pieces written in stream of unconsciousness style. A random sampling from the book (in this case, the opening of a "story" called "Transgressor"), reads: "I open my briefcase. Three men in suits pop out and unfold themselves in a jiffy. To each of my teeth they attach a silver string bound to a tooth-white horse. Each horse wears a golden bridle and feather plume. The sun is doing that thing where it disappears at the end of the day, making light the colour of tanned skin. The tallest man lifts his arm and starts whistling." The entire book, divided into vignettes (these divisions must makes sense to Barwin alone), goes on in pretty much the same vein: lighthearted, catalogued randomness that sometimes almost achieves a glimmer of poignancy but mostly wallows in meaninglessness. It breaks.
It does not take an Olympian act of literary interpretation to understand Barwin's project: he is dismantling reality and phenomena and reassembling them into something new. He seems to be asking us, in the process, to question what we think we know as reality and the arbitrary relationship between things. What Barwin sets out to accomplish in Doctor Weep and other strange teeth he does accomplish, but the question remains: Is it worth reading? Well, it might be worth tripping through one or two of his vignettes, just to get a sense of his undertaking, but eventually the lack of meaning beyond the cute experiment in meaning is simply numbing.

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