This Ain't No Healing Town:
Toronto Stories

274 pages,
ISBN: 1550960393

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Would-Be Sin City
by David Eddie

"Toronto was once a mean, narrow town, wryly praised as a city of churches, dourly dismissed as a grungy little Belfast, and sneered at as Hoggtown [sic]. But since the Second World War, the city has been turned inside-out and upside-down," the jacket copy of this book says. That may be true; but if these stories are any indication, it's still got a long way to go before shedding its provincial roots.
Actually, one of the striking things about this collection is how little Toronto figures in it at all. I have on my shelves a similar volume about Montreal entitled Montreal, Mon Amour, and as the title suggests it's an outpouring of feelings by Montrealers and former Montrealers for their beloved ville. But there's no such Gallic effusion here. All the stories are by Toronto writers, but many are set elsewhere, in the country ("Pig Baby" takes place on a farm; "The Lake" on a lake, etc.), or in other countries ("The Salem Letters" is set in Massachusetts, "The Madness of History" in Yugoslavia). And, like Hollywood film-makers, the writers who do set their stories in Toronto tend to use the city as deep background, a generic Everycity. Only rarely does a character walk down an identifiable street, or in front of a recognizable landmark.
And some are set nowhere at all. The first story, "Marrying the Hangman", by Margaret Atwood, mentions neither time nor place (though since it's about a woman who marries a hangman to escape death, we can assume the time-setting is "the past"), and the characters have no names, just "he" and "she". Like many of the stories in this collection, Atwood's is empty formalistic stuff. Here, for example, is how it ends:
"He said: foot, boot, order, city, fist, roads, time, knife.
"She said: water, night, willow, rope hair, earth belly, cave, meat, shroud, open, blood.
"They both kept their promises."
I don't know-perhaps this says something to you. To me it's pure mumbo-jumbo, words seemingly selected almost at random. (Perhaps Ms. Atwood is experimenting with a neo-Burroughsian "cut-up technique"?) For such a short story, it's a veritable compendium of stylistic tricks: one-sentence paragraphs, the second person singular. (About which I have a pet peeve. I hate to be told, as a reader, what I'm thinking: "You wonder about her crime," the narrator says at one point; uh, no, actually just then I was wondering what I was going to have for lunch.) But this doesn't do anything to disguise the fact the story seems to have little of any urgency to say.
Likewise the meta-fiction of the last story, "The Key", by Robert Zend. It begins with the two words "The End". From there the story is told in footnotes, the last of which is a footnote on footnotes. The end is "Once upon a time there was a man who." The text is adorned with squiggly lines and diagrams, la Kurt Vonnegut. Surely this sort of thing has gone out of fashion by now? The millennium is drawing to a close, the world's a mess; couldn't our writers' talents be applied to something better than creating these types of literary Jumble puzzles?
A couple of the stories were clearly included to show that Toronto is no longer the provincial burg it once was, the place that used to post police in the wings of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, ready to stop the show if the characters embraced for more than twenty seconds-that it's now a world-weary, world-class capital, Sin City. "Bad Words", by Marlene Nourbese Philip, is basically a meditation on the word "cunt". "Eugenia", by Sarah Sheard, is a blunt and richly detailed description of a lesbian encounter. Barbara Gowdy's "We So Seldom Look on Love" is a tender paean to the love that flowers between a young woman and a series of cadavers. I made the mistake of reading this one over a breakfast of bagels with cream cheese and strawberry jam, and I have to admit the descriptions of a corpse with cold, congealed blood dribbling down its cheeks performing cunnilingus on the narrator made me a trifle queasy, and I don't quease easily. (Incidentally, Gowdy's a little hazy on the mechanics, and while I can imagine other necrophilic acts, how do you force a corpse to perform cunnilingus?)
But this sort of shock-for-shock's sake tends only to reinforce the sense of uptight provincialism. Gowdy's story reminded me a bit of My Idea of Fun, by the British writer Will Self. His narrator's idea of fun, as he explains in the first chapter, is to cut off a tramp's head and urinate in the bloody stump. Why should I care?
Some of the stories in this collection give pleasure: "The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery", by Katherine Govier, is excellent, funny even, and firmly set in the city, on St. Clair Avenue West. But in general these stories leave the impression of a city that skipped its Renaissance and went straight to its Mannerist phase, its Salon Period.

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