224 pages,
ISBN: 0676970265

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Trapping Teenagers
by Margaret Calverley

Holden Caulfield opens The Catcher in the Rye by saying: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like." With these lines, J. D. Salinger inaugurated a genre of adolescent fiction that has kept publishers and high school teachers busy and happy since the 1940s. Traplines, Eden Robinson's first book, a collection of four stories now in paperback, belongs to this genre, with its "this-is-the-horrible-but-true-story-of-my-life" plots. Yet it is presented as adult fiction, and has been accorded a lot of attention in British Columbia.
In "Traplines", the opening piece, a teenage boy struggles with impoverished alcoholic parents, an abusive, drug-addict brother, and delinquent friends. Anyone familiar with narratives of this kind can fill in the plot. Does Will, the main character, struggle to get away from his situation? Of course. Where does he go? To his friends. Do they help? Not really, they're too busy taking drugs to escape their own traps. So, does he try drugs too? Well.no. And this is a mistake. Will is somehow a "good" kid. He doesn't get involved in his buddies' habits and little wars, he tries to do well at school, and, when given crack on a dark, cold night, he trades the stuff "for some quarters for the video games". If this is an attempt to gain our sympathy for Will, it doesn't work. There is no such kid as Will. We stop believing the voices, the conversations, and the predicaments.
But even before the crack incident, Robinson begins to lose her readers by creating formulaic characters and scenes. As in many other books, it is the English teacher (with "a fluffy pink sweater") who attempts to redeem the boy. Not only is the cliché tiresome, but Robinson's prose lacks spontaneous psychological truth or fictional expertise. The writing does not directly reveal the workings of the characters' mind; rather, she plants in her characters words that are appropriate, but depend too much on studied correctness of teenage idiom. In one scene the people sound as if they were reading from scripts:
"I was going downstairs to Tony and Craig when Mrs. Smythe came up to me, carrying a hot dog. I never noticed her smile until then. Her blue sundress swayed as she walked.
" `You weren't in class yesterday,' she said.
" `Stomachache.'
" `I was going to tell you how much I liked your essay. You must have done a lot of work on it."
" `Yeah.' I tried to remember what I had written.
" `Which part was the hardest?' she said.
"I cleared my throat. `Starting it.'
" `I walked right into that one,' she said laughing. I smiled.
"A tall man came up and hugged her. She kissed him. `Sam,' she said. `This is the student I was telling you about.'
" `Well, hello,' Mr. Smythe said. `Great paper."
" `Thanks,' I said.
" `Is it William or Will?' Mr. Smythe said.
" `Will,' I said. He held out his hand and shook mine."
As the story progresses, the Smythes bring Will into their home. He awakes in the morning to bacon and pancakes, spends afternoons fishing, and evenings trying to beat Sam at billiards. Perhaps the most realistic part of this is Will's decision at the end whether or not to live with the couple.
"Contact Sports" is the longest story in the collection and the most like "Traplines" in character and action. Tom lives in a fatherless home with an alcoholic, whorish mother. While attending high school, he worries about the rent, the hydro, the telephone bill, and his mother. To add to his problems, Robinson makes him an epileptic, although he's not had a seizure for four years, and this condition contributes little to the events. Trouble begins when Jeremy, a rich and crazy cousin, enters the scene to live with Tom and his mother. A seemingly endless series of bizarre and implausible incidents follows. Jeremy torments Tom by tickling him "until Tom began to cry", forcing him into designer clothes and a new haircut, beating him with a baseball bat, running him down with his expensive car, and stubbing out two cigarettes on Tom's shoulders, while the "third.he slowly inserted up Tom's nostril." Tom's attempts to escape the situation are spineless, and his glib recoveries and continuing acceptance of Jeremy are not credible. Without any influence, traditions, or moral standards from home (and in this story not even a caring teacher), he still tries to do his homework, often while being harassed. As for Jeremy himself, Robinson gives him no motive for paying his aunt's bills, living in a dingy apartment, and torturing his apparently helpless cousin. Labelling him as psychotic is not enough to ground his cruelty, or to create a believable matrix of character and action. These two stories have weak, one-dimensional characters and mundane prose, lacking in lively, inventive syntax and images. There is a disturbing disparity between the flatness of the prose and the intention to invoke moral, psychological, and ethical interest. But without anything particularly profound or original to say, how could the prose be vivifying?
On the other hand, Eden Robinson's inventiveness, at times approaching that of a more seasoned writer, is evident in her other two stories, particularly "Dogs in Winter". Here the mix between the flat and the macabre often works as quite good satire. Lisa is an adopted teenager (daughter of a homicidal mother) who swings between self-indulged melodrama and an uncanny ability to recognize her narcissism-this is a common adolescent syndrome.
Here, both character and author recognize and comment on the cliché of the situation: "Paul and Janet are the parents I've always wanted. Sometimes I feel like I've stepped into a storybook or into a TV set."
The scenes are witty, original, and shocking. It is the commonplace that works best. "Dogs in Winter" opens with a casual description of the family dog:
"Aunt Genna's poodle, Picnic, greeted people by humping their legs. He had an incredible grip. A new postman once dragged Picnic six blocks. Picnic bumped and ground as they went; the postman swore and whacked at the poodle with his mailbag.
"Picnic humped the wrong leg, however, when he burst out of our lilac bushes and attached himself to one of Officer Wilkenson's calves. I was lounging on the porch swing, watching hummingbirds buzz around the feeder. On that quiet, lazy summer afternoon, traffic on the nearby highway was pleasantly muted."
Attempts at suicide are described as if they were instructions for baking a cake, turning the unnerving into the satiric:
"The second time I tried to commit suicide was when I was fifteen, a year after my attempt with the aspirin. This time I had done my homework. I knew exactly what I was going to do.
"I bought a straight-edged razor.
"Janet and Paul were off to the theatre. I waved them good-bye cheerfully as they raced through the rain to the car.
"I closed the front door and listened to the house. Then I marched upstairs and put on my bikini. I ran a bath, putting in Sea Foam bubble bath and mango bath oil. I stepped into the tub, then lay back slowly, letting the water envelop me as I watched the bathroom fill with steam.
"The razor was cold in my hands, cold as a doctor's stethoscope. I held it underwater to warm it up. Flexed my arms a few times. Inhaled several deep breaths. Shut the water off. It dripped. There was no way I could die with the tap dripping, so I fiddled with that for a few minutes.
"Got out of the tub. Took a painkiller. Got back in the tub..
"Paul and Janet came home and found me in front of the TV watching Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. It always makes me cry."
The influence of Sylvia Plath is strikingly apparent in the three suicide accounts, and although the story lacks Plath's gripping psychological terror, Robinson injects "Dogs in Winter" with enough dark irony and black humour to make it enjoyable. A few segments may offend some readers (though more for the ideas than for any visceral verbal punch). At one point Lisa describes a literally dog-eat-dog scenario from a movie:
"I stayed very still, not really paying attention to the end, my mind stuck on the scene where this old dog collapsed and the rest of the pack circled, sniffing its body. A skinny brown mutt nipped at the old dog's leg. The dog growled deep in its throat and staggered to its feet. I knew what was coming. I knew and I couldn't stop watching. The mutt ripped into its stomach. The scene went on and on until the dog stopped yelping and jerking on the ground, its eyes flat as the mutt dragged its intestines away from the feeding frenzy. The boy kicked the pack aside and stood over the body. He picked up a cigarette butt and stuck it in the dead dog's mouth."
"Dogs in Winter" progresses in a series of flashbacks from Lisa's life with Janet and Paul, to her past with her mother, a serial killer who finds particular pleasure in chopping off the fingers and digging out the hearts of her victims. Most of the scenes are related with a faint humour which detracts from the morbid, but at other times Robinson's description comes too close to the grotesque, leaving the reader somewhat confused about any direction or point in the story. Her love of playing with the macabre appears to be a way of compensating for the absence in her characters of subtler, more powerful purpose.
"Queen of the North" is, in part, more believable than the other three stories, but some characters are weakly drawn, and Robinson yields again to her inclination to approach the grisly. Adelaine is sexually abused by her Uncle Josh, and vents her anger through fighting, drinking, and running away. As in "Traplines" and "Contact Sports", Robinson has difficulties creating unique, multi-dimensional male characters. Adelaine's description of her boyfriend verges on Harlequin Romance:
"Jimmy was leaning against the railing, his back toward me, his hands into his pockets. I watched him. His hair was dark and shiny, brushing his shoulders. I liked the way he moved, easily, like he was in no hurry to get anywhere. His eyes were light brown with gold flecks. I knew that in a moment he would turn and smile at me and it would be like stepping into sunlight."
Robinson compensates for the implausible Jimmy with the tenacious Adelaine. Adelaine is gutsy, bright, rebellious, vengeful, impassive-and vulnerable: a credible and dynamic character. Impregnated by Uncle Josh, she has an abortion and retaliates:
"My period is vicious this month. I've got clots the size and texture of liver. I put one of them in a Ziploc bag. I put the picture [of herself and Uncle Josh] and the bag in a hatbox. I tie it up with a bright red ribbon.. The note inside the box reads, `It was yours so I killed it.' "
Again, Sylvia Plath comes to mind.
At the Vancouver International Writers' festival in October 1996, Robinson read selections from Traplines-the same passages that struck me as the most compelling and competent. The rest of the book falls considerably short of those few sections. Her next book may be better. And although her subject-matter will not appeal to all, Eden Robinson could become a more interesting writer. 

Margaret Calverley is a freelance editor and teaches writing at Collingwood School in West Vancouver. Her doctoral dissertation is on the poetry of Margaret Avison.


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