31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 4: “The House Made of Sugar” by Silvina Ocampo; Daniel Balderston, trans.

May 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Thus Were Their Faces

Thus_Were_Their_Faces_Silvina_OcampoThe work of Argentinian writer and poet Silvina Ocampo has largely been overshadowed by that of three other figures: her sister, Victoria, a publisher and critic; her husband, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and her friend, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. These four luminaries formed a tight circle, promoting and influencing one another. In 1931, Victoria Ocampo established Sur, a significant literary journal of the modernist movement in Latin America. The journal published the work of Casares and Borges, along with other important writers such as José Ortega Y Gasset, Ernesto Sabato, and Julio Cortázar. Victoria was also, not incidentally, the first publisher of her younger sister’s literary work.

Ocampo, whom Borges describes as “one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language,” came to writing after having studied as a visual artist with Giorgio de Chirico. “I came to know the trials of artists, and the joys,” she wrote in 1987. “I submerged myself in colors that reflected my soul or the state of my spirit.” She claimed to have grown “disillusioned” with painting, and turned to writing as a means to reconcile concepts of colour and form. “Writing is like having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die.”

The tensions involved in this assessment – between sprite and demon, happiness and a “wish to die” – are strikingly prevalent in Ocampo’s fiction, which is not in the realist mode, but operates rather in the realm of fabulism. In her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a newly released compendium of Ocampo’s selected stories (some appearing in translation for the first time), Helen Oyeyemi refers to Ocampo as “a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school.” This might make her stories appear unfamiliar to North American readers; they may appear less so to Latin American readers steeped in a tradition of magic realism.

“Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry,” Oyeyemi writes, “where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses.” If an encounter with Ocampo’s fiction on the part of a reader weaned on the subtle epiphanies of Chekhov and Joyce proves initially disjunctive, the writing is nevertheless entrancing, calling the reader back or driving her forward, notwithstanding the unfamiliarity and sense of discontinuity. In Oyeyemi’s words, “there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray.”

“The House Made of Sugar” is typical in this regard. Originally collected in Ocampo’s 1959 volume The Fury, the story is a bitter fable about a failed marriage, full of uncanny happenings and weirdness. It begins in a manner that is straightforward enough, with the unnamed male narrator meeting and marrying Cristina. The new bride is highly superstitious, and refuses to live anywhere there has been a previous tenant who might have left psychic scars on the property. When the narrator finds the titular house, he lies to his wife about its former occupant, a woman named Violeta. In short order, visitors begin arriving at the property and mistaking Cristina for Violeta; as the events of the story become stranger, Cristina’s identity blurs into that of the other woman.

Ocampo plants the seeds for what is to come from her opening sentences, which refer to the superstitions Cristina suffers from. The second sentence makes reference to a “coin with a blurry face” and “the moon seen through two panes of glass” – images of distortion and elision that will be actualized by the story’s end. These details immediately place the reader off kilter, nodding at a sense of unreality and creeping unease that becomes more apparent as the story unfolds.

The house itself contributes to this sense of disturbance. “Its whiteness gleamed with extraordinary brilliance,” Ocampo writes, hinting at notions of innocence and purity that will be systematically dismantled by the story’s close. The appearance of the house as being made of sugar lends it an otherworldly aspect, like the magical castle in a fairy tale, but this also proves chimerical. “It seemed our tranquillity would never be broken in that house of sugar,” the narrator says, “until a phone call destroyed my illusion.” In this story, as elsewhere in Ocampo’s work, domestic bliss is illusory, a condition the narrator testifies to, albeit unconsciously, by his admission that in the early days of their marriage he and Cristina were “so happy that it sometimes frightened” him. “We loved each other madly,” the narrator claims, and the attentive reader will note the thud of foreboding in the final adverb.

Of course, the marriage is doomed from the start, based as it is on a lie. The narrator is so paranoid about the possibility that Cristina might discover the truth about the house’s previous tenant that he begins to spy on her and follow her on her travels. For her part, Cristina takes in a stray dog, is visited by a mysterious man dressed as a woman who accuses her of dallying with someone named Daniel, and begins to sing spontaneously and incessantly. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life,” Cristina says, “her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes. I’m bewitched.”

The narrator’s lie becomes manifest in his wife, whose identity – and, perhaps, even her actual person – gets subsumed by Violeta. By the story’s end, the wife has fled and the pristine white house stands empty. “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar,” laments the narrator.

Oyeyemi points to an interview from 1980 in which Ocampo suggested that she had been passed over for a national literary prize because her fiction is too cruel. “The House Made of Sugar” does not read as a cruel story; in its uncanny aspects and the central doubling motif (not to mention the manse at its centre that serves as a locus for the characters’ dissolution) it resembles Poe, but the overall feeling is one not of malignancy but sadness. It is a fable about the ineffability of personality and the ultimate inability of anyone to truly know anyone else. It leaves its readers, like its characters, gutted and empty, as empty as the titular house – “the ideal place, the house of our dreams.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 3: “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” by Hilary Mantel

May 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories

The_Assassination_of_Margaret_Thatcher_Hilary_MantelIn February 1989, Elvis Costello released his twelfth studio album, Spike, which contained a track called “Tramp the Dirt Down.” A furious political lament, the song viciously lambasted Margaret Thatcher, at the time the U.K.’s sitting prime minister. “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam,” Costello sang with unbridled venom. The song imagines the politician’s eventual death and burial: “[W]hen they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

One year earlier, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate, which included the song “Margaret on the Guillotine.” Morrissey addressed the sitting politician in lyrics that are less poetic than Costello’s, but no less corrosive: “The kind people / Have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine / Cause people like you / Make me feel so tired / When will you die?” In a statement following the Iron Lady’s death in 2013, Morrissey reiterated his detestation of the woman and her politics, and decried the fact that the media had taken the opportunity of her passing to engage in a healthy dose of revisionist history: “Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to rewrite history in order to protect patriotism.”

First elected in 1979 as Britain’s first – and to date, only – woman prime minister, Thatcher remained in office until 1990, when political infighting prompted her resignation. During her time in power, she presided over a country fiercely divided about economic policies that many felt targeted society’s most vulnerable citizens (Thatcher was a proponent of the U.S. economic platform favouring low taxes, spending cuts, and tax breaks for the rich and powerful, a platform that came to be known in the 1980s as “Reganomics”). More potently, perhaps, she was also a fierce policy hawk, advocating increased spending on the military and intervention abroad, most notoriously in the Falkland Islands. In 1982, Thatcher went to war against Argentina in the tiny South Atlantic colony, a contentious move that nevertheless resulted in her election victory the following year.

To say that Thatcher was a divisive figure is anodyne, though her opposition was solidified – as Costello and Morrissey’s musical responses attest – among artists, a group largely disdained by the government of the day, and a group that can usually be counted upon to express empathy for the victims of neoconservative policies – victims who typically congregate among the ranks of the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the disaffected.

What is remarkable about artistic responses to Thatcher along the lines of Costello’s and Morrissey’s is the fact that they focus, explicitly and literally, upon the desire for their subject’s death. Costello assumes a death by natural causes, whereas Morrissey imagines a more violent retribution; in this, he is closer to Hilary Mantel in her story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” which caused a stir last year when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime” program.

Whether a story that imagines Thatcher’s assassination in 1983 at the hands of an IRA assassin could be considered gentle bedtime fare is one thing. But the furore that erupted around the broadcast took a much more political bent, with conservative commentators expressing outrage that a writer could imaginatively convey the murder of a British leader, even one year after the former politician’s death and some twenty-four years after her stepping down as prime minister. A commentary in the Mail on Sunday at the time referred to Mantel’s story as “an insignificant catchpenny squib,” and stated that her opinions of the former prime minister are “adolescent.” The editorial did grant the author a certain backhanded freedom: “She is free to offend and upset those who were maimed or bereaved in an actual IRA attempt to murder this country’s legitimate premier – just as others are rightly free to despise the author’s views.” But it went on to suggest that the BBC’s decision to broadcast the story was a result of left-wing media bias.

The attacks on the story arose, naturally, from a position of outrage and completely ignored the fact that it is a work of imagination (whose author, significantly, waited until its subject was actually dead to publish it, unlike the two musicians cited above, and unlike the American author Nicholson Baker, whose fantasia about killing George W. Bush, Checkpoint, was published while the notorious U.S. president remained in office). Nor do they note the story’s evident literary qualities. The IRA sniper’s gun, for instance, is colloquially known as a “widowmaker,” a defiantly ironic appellation when dealing with a story about Britain’s first female prime minister. The first-person voice (that of a woman whose apartment the sniper cons his way into in order to carry out his scheme) is consistent and believable, shifting imperceptibly from the kind of tea she has to offer the intruder to considerations of whether he plans to murder her, too.

And the political analysis is, all protestation to the contrary, nuanced and thoughtful. Here, for instance, is the narrator ruminating on the state of Ireland during the Troubles:

Patriotism was only an excuse to get what they called pie-eyed, while their wives had tea and gingernuts then recited the rosary in the back kitchen. The whole thing was an excuse: why we are oppressed. Why we are sat here being oppressed, while people from other tribes are hauling themselves up by their own ungodly efforts and buying three-piece suits. While we are rooted here going la-la-la auld Ireland (because at this distance in time the words escape us) our neighbours are patching their quarrels, losing their origins and moving on, to modern, non-sectarian forms of stigma, expressed in modern songs: you are a scouser, a dirty scouser. I’m not, personally. But the north is all the same to southerners. And in Berkshire and the Home Countries, all causes are the same, all ideas for which a person might care to die: they are nuisances, a breach of the peace, and likely to hold up the traffic or delay the trains.

Moreover, the same controversy did not befall the author’s two Man Booker Prize–winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which similarly deal with political violence and intrigue, but are set far enough in the past that sensitive readers can refrain from having their feathers too unduly ruffled. (Though certain cynical commentators did note the timing of the BBC’s broadcast of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” and suggested that it was a PR stunt to promote the upcoming television adaptation of Wolf Hall.)

And if the story gives offence, where is the harm? It should give offence: its subject is grave, the history behind it is dire, and the issues it raises are still ongoing. As a work of imagination, it reckons with difficult material in a way that is direct and unsparing, but not without empathy for all that. It’s just that its empathy is located with the victims of the Iron Lady’s reign, not the government she presided over or its beneficiaries.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 2: “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by Edna O’Brien

May 2, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Love Object: Selected Stories

The_Love_Object_Edna_O'BrienEdna O’Brien begins her story “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by breaking the rules. Short fiction, we are told, is a form that relies on concentration: of theme, of language, and of character. Stories are most often psychological, but the psychologies they limn tend to be individual; it is uncommon for a work of short fiction to incorporate a large cast of characters or to examine a cross-section of society. As Frank O’Connor has pointed out, the novel is the great social genre in literature; stories focus closely on one or two characters.

“‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” is approximately twenty pages long; the first half is taken up with an expressionistic, bird’s eye view of an Irish town. Addressing the reader in the second person, O’Brien presents brief sketches of a number of the villagers, past and present. These include Angela, an ex-nun who leaves the convent and takes up residence with her less attractive sister. Angela becomes enamoured of her sister’s husband and eventually dies of a wasting disease. We are introduced to a “respectable lady” who has her shoes stolen by an itinerant tinker (a kind of Irish gypsy). Another abode houses a defrocked priest; yet another contains “an unfortunate woman” who spends her day as a cleaner “while her husband skulks in woods to assault girls and women.” Some of the town’s women are so wanton, we are told, that the predatory husband does not need to force himself on them: they give themselves over to him willingly.

It is far from accidental that O’Brien, in her opening paragraph, insists on the sleepiness of the town, its apparently boring and “somnolent” aspect. A traveller might find the village “picturesque,” a place where life “has a quiet hum to it.” Such a traveller, O’Brien’s omniscient narrator asserts, would hardly pause while passing through “on [the] way to somewhere livelier.”

O’Brien is operating in the manner of David Lynch in Blue Velvet: she offers the veneer of a quaint village in rural Ireland, only to yank back the curtain to display the perverse venality that lies behind it. There is a strong streak of Gothicism in all of this, along with an emphasis on religion: one of the first landmarks noted in the opening paragraph is “a stone, Roman-type church.” Yet there are early indications that the religion that infuses the town is fractured and debased: Angela has left the convent, after all, and the priest has been defrocked.

From these early intimations, O’Brien zooms in and sharpens her focus in the story’s second half, which moves from the general to the specific. Here we are introduced to Ita McNamara, a devout sacristan who turns out to be the story’s central character. (It is surely atypical for a writer of short fiction to withhold the first appearance of her protagonist until the latter part of the story.)

Ita now lives across the road from the church, secreted inside a two-storey house that huddles behind a “disgrace” of a garden. “Everything is rampant: trees, shrubs, briars all meshed together in some mad knot, not only obscuring the path, but traveling right up along the windows, so that no one can see in.” In the context of the enfeebled and degraded images of religion we have already encountered, it is impossible not to read this as describing a kind of overgrown and decaying Garden of Eden, symbolic of Adam and Eve’s ejection and fall from grace.

Ita’s story is narrated retrospectively; at the time of her “catastrophe,” we are told, she was “a paragon” in the town, “the most admired devout person there.” Her downfall is precipitated by the arrival of a parish priest named Father Bonaventure, with whom Ita becomes entranced (the parallels between Ita and Angela are persistent and deliberate). Following a thunderous sermon during which Father Bonaventure rains down hellfire and brimstone on the village congregants, Ita steals a lily from the church. When she is found in her room after a commotion that night, she claims that the flower raped her.

Ita is, of course, branded a lunatic and sent off to an asylum, “where she spent the best part of a year and took to sucking in her cheeks, refusing to speak to anyone and having to be barred from the chapel because the sight of flowers drove her into a frenzy.” Here we have the psychological explication for the horrid state of Ita’s neglected garden in the present; it is also notable that the flower she steals from the church is a lily, with all its commingled associations of innocence, spirituality, and romantic love. The lily stands in for Father Bonaventure, the object of Ita’s desire who remains untouchable to her. When her brother discovers her in her room at night, Ita demands he seek out the priest so that he can exorcise the demon she is convinced resides within the flower.

The images of religious torment and disaffection that began as glimpses and allusions in the early stages of the story become furious and orgiastic by the story’s end; the picturesque town with the stone church at its entrance masks a seething tide of perversity and frank insanity. (It is notable, too, that the one specific feature of the church that gets mentioned in the opening paragraph is the graveyard that adjoins it, an association that gets picked up at the end in a reference to Angela, her sister, and her sister’s husband being “morsels for the maggots,” all of them buried creepily close together in the cemetery.)

Only in retrospect does O’Brien’s careful construction become clear; the symbolic and allusive elements seeded in the first half of the story blossom forth in the second. In the final paragraph, the narrator swivels round to address the reader directly one last time: “Now I ask you, what would you do? Would you comfort Ita, would you tell her that her sins were of her own imagining … or would you drive on helter-skelter, the radio at full blast.” O’Brien insists on the reader’s complicity, but does not quite condemn the reader who, like the wayward travellers, might want nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. To remain is to be forced to contend with what lies beneath the town’s placid surface, what roils at the heart of this odd, disturbing, and audacious story.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 1: “Tick Tock” by Guy Vanderhaeghe

May 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Daddy Lenin and Other Stories

Daddy_Lenin_Guy_VanderhaegheCharley Brewster has a problem with his hands. They hurt, a pain that is agonizing and incessant. Some four decades ago, the volatile young man was something of a brawler, courting fights that landed him with five fractures to the bones in his hands. The last of these scraps ended with his antagonist suffering a fractured orbital bone and Brewster being sent to jail for two years less a day.

Older and putatively wiser, Brewster, now an assistant professor of English, has not been bothered by discomfort in his hands for forty years. The onset of his recent affliction, “a dull, background ache … lodged in the bones of his hand, broken by sudden bursts of acute, electric pain,” coincides with the arrival of a new couple to the apartment next door to his.

The first encounter with this couple occurs outside the building, as the two are unloading a U-Haul truck piled with furniture. The woman is a “waif-like bit of a girl,” with “a despairing, hopeless look” on her face and “enormous brown eyes swimming with tears.” The man is a giant, possessed of “a grotesquely swollen torso and a massive column of neck that tapered into a shaved head like the nose cone of a missile.”

It becomes clear in short order that the couple, Melvyn and Dina Janacek, are engaged in an abusive relationship, with the husband using his superior strength and imposing physique to threaten and intimidate his wife, and possibly to assault her physically as well. Brewster attempts to intervene, first by involving the police – who are unsympathetic to the plight of what they perceive as a haughty and arrogant academic with his nose out of joint – then, finally and inevitably, in the only way he really knows how: by using his tormented fists.

“Tick Tock” is the best – and, not unimportantly, one of the funniest – stories in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s first collection of short fiction since 1992’s Things as They Are? The author won a 1982 Governor General’s Literary Award for his first book, Man Descending, another collection of stories, but is so well known as the author of the intervening “western trilogy” of novels – The Englishman’s Boy (also a GG winner), The Last Crossing (which won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2004), and A Good Man – that these days even Vanderhaeghe himself acknowledges precious few people remember he ever wrote short fiction.

The author of “Tick Tock” is older than the author of the stories in Man Descending, but no less pointed and pugilistic. The story examines postmodern masculinity in all its contradictions and vagaries. Descended from working-class stock, Brewster was launched into his academic career while in prison for assault, the beneficiary of a program that offers university-level classes to convicts. But he has never been able to entirely divest himself of his roots as a physical scrapper, notwithstanding the toll his advancing years have taken on his body.

Brewster’s conception of masculinity is certainly more straightforward than that of his girlfriend, Eva, chair of the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, who uses contrasting videos of Sting and Klaus Nomi to demonstrate to her students “representations of masculinities.” Eva is representative of the kind of postmodern ideologue much in vogue in academia these days; her media-saturated, pop-culture inflected classes score highly on Rate My Professor, whereas Brewster is subjected to borderline illiterate screeds by students who are appalled that he would demand their essays be punctuated properly.

Indeed, Brewster defines himself as a dinosaur (“your department’s sleepwalker” is Eva’s preferred term), and it is no surprise that the careerist Eva is the more successful of the pair. Nor that she is disdainful of Brewster’s own particular representation of masculinity, which she defines as “the bad hegemonic variety.” When in Brewster’s presence, Eva’s “homophobia and misogyny sensors” go off pretty much constantly.

The academic satire in “Tick Tock” is blisteringly funny – especially to dinosaurs like Brewster who still believe that university essays should be punctuated properly – but Vanderhaeghe is more subtle and more nuanced than a brief thumbnail sketch might lead one to believe. It is Eva, after all, who is ultimately effective in separating Dina from her abuser, while Brewster, reduced to his aging and aching fists as his only recourse proves absolutely ineffectual or, to use a more loaded term, impotent. Much of Brewster’s antipathy results from envy at Eva’s success: fifteen years his junior, she has already managed to secure a chair in a department, while he remains stalled at the level of assistant professor, biding his time until he can fade into retirement.

The final scene in the story, with its vaguely masochistic undertones, returns to the conception of masculinity as located in physical power, but inverts it, leaving Brewster subject to the depredations of a goon who, we come to realize, represents a distorted mirror’s image of the protagonist’s own younger self. This doubling motif – which persists throughout the collection – is absolutely appropriate for a story in a book titled Daddy Lenin: Janacek becomes a kind of surrogate son to Brewster, a reminder of the commingled potency and relative simplicity of youth and the diminution that accompanies getting old.

In its shifting ground, its satire, and its incisive probing of male psychology, “Tick Tock” finds its author firing on all cylinders. Readers familiar with Vanderhaeghe only through the western trilogy might be surprised at the author’s facility with a contemporary milieu and characters; fans of Vanderhaeghe’s earlier collections will simply be glad to have him back writing in the form after an extended absence.

31 Days of Stories 2015: Introduction

April 30, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

The_Lonely_VoiceShort stories, argued the Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor, traffic in loneliness. In his classic evaluation of the form, The Lonely Voice (1963), O’Connor distinguishes between the novel, which is capable of operating on a large social canvas and addressing teeming masses of humanity, and the story, which usually focuses on individuals who are outsiders, loners, or members of what O’Connor referred to as “submerged population groups.” Novels, O’Connor argues, require at least one figure – usually the protagonist – with whom the reader can identify. Stories, by contrast, lack this locus of identification, replacing it – on the level of both subject and form – with characters and situations that are marginal, unfamiliar, or broadly disavowed.

The novel, in O’Connor’s conception, is social, whereas stories are essentially individual:

I am suggesting strongly that we can see in [the short story] an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time – tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests. The novel can still adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community, as in Jane Austen and Trollope it obviously does; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent.

Perhaps this is one reason stories remain a matter of broad cultural indifference, especially in our current historical moment. Twenty-first century media, we are told, must be social – it must be shareable and clickable and likeable. But stories, as O’Connor recognized, contain a distinctly asocial (if not, in some cases, frankly anti-social) aspect: they privilege unique, idiosyncratic voices (on the part of both their characters and their creators) and operate outside accepted norms of practice.

Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel laureate and surely Canada’s best-known writer of short fiction, exemplifies this idea, which makes her relative acceptance by mainstream readers something of a puzzle. Munro is one of the most subversive writers around: stories that on their surface appear to be straightforward works of naturalism in the kitchen-sink mode are in fact dark, sardonic, and (at least in her later period) almost expressionistic investigations into human cruelty and disaffection. Munro, it is true, is capable of greater swaths of compassion than Mavis Gallant, to whom she is frequently compared, but woe betide any reader who wishes to identify with a character from one of Munro’s stories.

This marginal aspect – along with a rigorous concentration of language and resistance to closure – is one of the major stumbling blocks to short fiction’s acceptance, but it is, paradoxically, also one of the things that makes the form so endlessly fascinating. As far as literature is concerned, novels have long been central to our conception of culture and canon; stories continue to remain peripheral. But their very location on the edges allows them greater freedom to experiment, to refashion themselves into new and unique shapes, and to test the boundaries of style and technique.

“I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done,” said Larry Dark, director of the Story Prize and former series editor for the O. Henry Awards anthology. Poetry, of course, was once given pride of place at the centre of the English and European canon; stories have never been afforded this distinction. Nevertheless, some part of Dark’s suggestion informs the impetus behind this site’s annual month-long celebration of the short story. By shining a light on the variety and scope of short fiction – contemporary and past, in English and in translation – it is hoped that readers might gain some appreciation of the potential in what has been (and will likely remain) a neglected literary genre.

Some of the stories that follow will probably be familiar to a majority of readers; others will undoubtedly be less so. We’ll begin tomorrow with a Canadian master’s return to the form after an extended absence, following which the perspective will broaden beyond Canada’s borders and will reach back into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With all respect to Dark, this is not advocacy, so much as enthusiasm; though I argue for the continued relevance of short fiction as a form, what keeps me returning to stories in general – and this project in particular – is enjoyment. While not always immediately gratifying – one of the other things that prevents a larger uptake in short fiction among a distracted populace is the demands the form places on its readers – stories are nevertheless sources of boundless pleasure. They can be funny, scary, infuriating, and heartbreaking, often at the same time. My hope is that at least some of this enjoyment proves infectious.

Quill & Quire celebrates eighty years, bpNichol, bill bissett, the Kootenay School of Writing, and more

April 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

This year, Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing industry, marks its 80th anniversary. To celebrate, the staff has put together a compendium of people, events, moments, and memories from the past eight decades of CanLit. This being poetry month, I thought I’d share two of my own contributions – one about the sound poets bpNichol and bill bissett, the other about the Kootenay School of Writing – which help spotlight the extent to which poetry is among the most innovative and boundary-pushing forms of writing in this country.

There is plenty of other content available online at the Q&Q site, including classic CanLit covers re-imagined by Canadian book designers (David A. Gee’s revisioning of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is pure genius); Little Sister’s Books & Art and Glad Day Bookshop’s battle with Canada Customs for the right to import material deemed “obscene” by government enforcers; Gillian O’Reilly on the early days of Canadian kidlit; Linda Leith on the fertile ground of English writing in Montreal; and that time Stoddart Publishing brought an elephant to a book fair (third from top).

bpNichol and bill bissett sound off

One arguably incongruous fact about Canadian sound poet bpNichol is that in the 1980s he wrote for Fraggle Rock, the Jim Henson–produced children’s television program. Nichol is more famous for his contribution to Canadian postmodernism, employing a freewheeling style of concrete, visual poetry complemented by his contemporary, bill bissett. “i break letters for you like bread,” wrote Nichol as a kind of artistic manifesto, one matched by bissett ibpNicholn the lines, “what we can know writing pomes / is also th voice uv ths things speaking thru us.”

Of Nichol, bissett, and their ilk, scholar Gregory Betts wrote, “Postmodernism in Canada begins with this kind of revolutionary fervour.” The work was not without controversy: in the 1970s, a group of politicians banded together to protest awarding grants to certain poets – bissett in particular – whose work was deemed immoral. And the more traditional camp of Canadian versifiers frequently castigates the experimentalists for their loose style and their disregard of established formal approaches.

What often gets missed is the playfulness of the more determined postmodernists, their desire to sing in ways that may appear anti-melodic, but are nevertheless infused with a brand of unconstrained joy. “What I love about their innovations,” says poet Paul Vermeersch, “is that they come from a very puckish desire to upset the apple cart of traditional poetry, not in a destructive way, not to subvert the art form wholesale, but to extend it, to add to the sum total of what is possible.” There is a kind of gleeful naïveté at work in these writers; they are, in Vermeersch’s eyes “essentially uncynical about what poetry can be and do.”

Perhaps Nichol’s Fraggle Rock connection isn’t surprising after all.

Kootenay sounds a clarion call

“Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing has been a vital nexus of poetry in western Canada since its inception in 1984,” says poet and KSW alumna Nikki Reimer, “organized by and for writers who prefer to engage with vigourous and critical discourse around writing and writing practice.”

The collective, which quickly established itself in opposition to the nation’s dominant, hegemonic cultural establishment, was born “on the run” in response to the closure of the David Thompson University Centre, writes Clint Burnham in his book The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing. The DTUC had be(image: courtesy Kootenay School of Writing)en a victim of neoliberal cutbacks by the B.C. Social Credit government of the early 1980s; that conservative ethos was ripe for opposition in Vancouver, a city that Burnham notes had a strong anarchist tradition and was one of the seedbeds for the Canadian punk movement in the late 1970s.

The importance of the KSW, says Burnham, is the way in which it functions as a place for poets “to talk about innovation in writing.”

“This was always the thing,” Burnham adds. “That writing was not just about having a career, or getting books out, but writing as an ‘expanded practice,’ as Michael Turner calls it, writing in the context of feminism (Lisa Robertson), or urban politics (Jeff Derksen), or film and art (Nancy Shaw). Writing that is unsettled (always looking for new forms) and unsettling (that resists canons, the academy, the market).”

“The collective, as the writer-run centre has commonly been known, has undergone too many iterations and divergent philosophical positions to sum up in brief,” says Reimer. “But its structure is unique among Canadian cultural organizations, and its commitment to labour politics and practice stands in refreshing opposition to the mainstream modes of cultural production in this country.”

The utopia of good cover design

April 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

To say that great cover design is an art is anodyne, but it’s also much easier to pay lip service to than to pull off. Lack of attention to good design is one reason so many digital and self-published works are so immediately off-putting, but that’s an argument for another day. Great cover design is not only aesthetically pleasing, it can actually make a person buy a book he or she would otherwise have no interest in.

Case in point: the chances of my picking up a book on the banalities and contradictory attractions and repulsions of bureaucracy are slim at best. Unless the publisher is Melville House, and they are clever enough to package it like this:


That this jacket – by designer Christopher King – is conceptually clever is obvious (especially the box in the bottom right corner, with the heading “THIS SECTION FOR OFFICE USE ONLY” preceding biblio metadata). But it also elegantly solves numerous nagging issues that keep designers awake at night. The subtitle is unwieldy, there is a mandated reminder of the author’s previous book (see below), and a blurb that needs room.

The fake bureaucratic form is a perfect – and perfectly appropriate – solution to these challenges. Only the pinkish shade is questionable, but even that gives the book a kind of faux-officious note, like some throwback to the days of carbon paper documents that were filled out in triplicate, each copy a different colour depending upon what entity was retaining it.

This cover takes a book about what might be considered a boring subject and entices a reader to pick it up and investigate. And that, more often than not, is what helps turn browsers into buyers.

Then again, maybe Graeber’s books simply lend themselves to this kind of treatment. One of my favourite covers of the last five years was for the author’s previous book, on the history of debt (once again, not a subject that easily lends itself to the phrase “runaway bestseller”).

The earlier book, designed by Carol Hayes, employs many of the same principles as the design for The Utopia of Rules, and pulls off quite a feat in an elegant, simple, and ingenious manner:

Debt mechanical 2.indd

Two other thoughts about these covers. It helps that both of them display, in addition to their other evident qualities, a cheeky sense of humour. And it appears that Rebecca Solnit is a big fan of Graeber’s work.

Amazon and HarperCollins strike deal to avoid “doomsday scenario”

April 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Amazon_logoAmazon, the world’s largest online book retailer, and HarperCollins, the second-largest of the so-called “big five” publishers in the U.S., have entered into a multiyear contract, avoiding a protracted battle over discounts and pricing. Bloomberg Business quotes Erin Crum, a spokesperson for HarperCollins, as saying, “HarperCollins has reached an agreement with Amazon and our books will continue to be available on the Amazon print and digital platforms.”

According to Engadget, the deal with HarperCollins is similar to deals struck last year with Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette, in that it allows HarperCollins to set prices on e-books – long rumoured to be a point of contention with Amazon, which likes to keep prices artificially low. This is ironic, since it basically represents a capitulation to the agency pricing model that the retailer rejected several years ago, leading to a publisher revolt and accusations of collusion from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Earlier this year, Business Insider indicated that Amazon had reached an impasse in contract negotiations with HarperCollins, potentially paving the way for a protracted battle resembling the one the retailer engaged in with Hachette last year. That contretemps saw Amazon delay shipments of Hachette titles and remove buy buttons from the publisher’s books (something Amazon had previously done to Macmillan). The battle turned exceedingly ugly, with more than 900 authors eventually signing an open letter criticizing Amazon for its bullying tactics.

Following the Business Insider piece, a blog on the Melville House website asked whether Amazon might be preparing to engage in a “doomsday scenario” with HarperCollins, something the blog post suggested would be tantamount to an “apocalyptic development.”

HarperCollins_logoOverheated rhetoric aside, this never seemed like a very plausible scenario. HarperCollins is not Hachette: it has much more leverage over Amazon when negotiating terms. Its stable of authors – including Neil Gaiman, Dennis Lehane, and J.R.R. Tolkien – features big names that Amazon would not want to risk losing access to. Among the big names in HarperCollins’s stable, one looms larger than all the others this season. Harper Lee’s much ballyhooed second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is being published on July 14; there is no way Amazon would risk being the only online retailer in the U.S. not to feature that title.

But more that that, HarperCollins has been aggressively pursuing alternate avenues for distributing its wares online. It signed with the subscription services Oyster and Scribd, and last year revamped its website to include the ability to sell direct to consumers.

When Macmillan signed its contract with Amazon last year, CEO John Sargent stated that the retailer accounts for as much as sixty-four percent of the publisher’s revenue from e-books. HarperCollins has obviously taken measures to mitigate this market dominance, and – combined with its size and market clout – these seem to be working. Though with agreements already in place with three other big five publishers (Penguin Random House is now the lone holdout), Amazon had no real incentive not to agree to similar terms with HarperCollins.

Which in a way is disappointing. It would probably have been ugly, but a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred battle between Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch would surely have been entertaining.

Down in the depths: (super)natural dread in new novels by Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter

March 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It might come as a surprise to hear that Andrew Pyper, one of this country’s most successful writers of literary thrillers, cites Alice Munro as an influence. Though, to think about it, the comparison should not be entirely unexpected. There is, of course, the strong and frequently acknowledged streak of so-called “Ontario gothic” in Munro’s writing, and there is no doubt that the Nobel laureate’s stories frequently engage with some pretty dark subjects and themes. But more than that, Munro is well aware of what any good writer of horror knows: to elicit emotion, it is essential to invest your reader in your characters and their situation. You have to give your readers a reason to care.

The_Damned_Andrew_PyperThis is true of all writing, of course, but it is particularly salient in the horror genre, since writers of scary or supernatural stories require suspension of disbelief on the part of readers in order to pull off their effects. “There are certain prosaic tactics a writer can use to scare a reader,” writes Nick Cutter. “Perhaps most importantly, make readers care about the characters. A truism of all horror is: if you don’t care about the characters, it is unlikely you will care what happens to them.” Again, true enough across the board, but absolutely essential to the genre at hand.

Which is one reason why new novels by Pyper and Cutter are so deeply rooted in characters and their stories. Not the otherworldly terrors they fall prey to – although there are plenty of those to go around – but the dreadfully normal business of life: family, love, death, and loss.

On one level, the two writers could not be more different. Pyper has acknowledged an affinity for a quieter, more British strain of fiction that works on a reader’s psyche by increments, without resorting too effusively to overt violence or gore. Cutter, on the other hand, is something of an attack dog: his two novels (so far: there’s another one coming later this spring) assault their reader with snapping, slashing teeth and snarling aplomb. Yet there are undeniable similarities connecting the writers’ most recent offerings.

Pyper’s seventh novel, The Damned, appears two years after his previous work, The Demonologist. In addition to being the author’s most popular hit to date, The Demonologist marked a definite move into full-fledged genre territory. Pyper dipped his toe in the supernatural in his 2011 novel The Guardians, prior to which the terrors in his books were largely of this world. But with The Demonologist he dove in head first, and he continues to swim these waters in The Damned.

The new novel tells the story of twins – Danny and Ashleigh Orchard – both of whom die in a fire when they are sixteen years old. Except only one of them stays dead. Danny is revived and becomes a renowned exponent of near-death experience, writing about his encounter with heaven in a book he calls After. As a result of the book’s popularity, Danny meets other “Afterlifers” – people who have similarly died and been brought back to the mortal plane. One of these is Willa, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy named Eddie. When Danny falls in love with Willa, the restless spirit of Ash (who hates her full name and always goes by the diminutive – get it?) becomes jealous and determines to destroy the nascent relationship so as to keep her brother all to herself.

Though there is more to it than that – there are indications that Ash was murdered, and that she wants her corporal brother to investigate the crime and expose the culprit – the story is essentially a love triangle between Danny, his new flame (sorry) and his needy sister’s ghost.

Pyper’s tactic is to place Danny at the centre of the story, allowing him to carry the emotional weight. Danny acts as the novel’s first-person narrator, so everything is filtered through his eyes and his sensibility. In this way, Pyper grounds the novel’s more outré elements in a central consciousness readers can relate to: with one foot in this world and one in the next, Danny can act as a kind of tour guide to the other side, while never losing his essential connectedness to our messy physical realm.

The_Deep_Nick_CutterThis connectedness is essential in getting readers to accept the supernatural aspects of the story, which is something that Cutter exploits in The Deep, about a global pandemic called the ’Gets, the symptoms of which mimic a kind of jacked-up Alzheimer’s. The cure for the ’Gets may lie deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, though the team in charge of discovering it has lost contact with the undersea lab, the Trieste, and its chief scientist, the brilliant but egotistical Clayton Nelson. One of Nelson’s colleagues – Dr. Cooper Westlake – has resurfaced, but what has happened to him is not pretty (to say the least), leading the team of above-ground researchers to suspect something is amiss on the Trieste. They recruit Clayton’s brother, a veterinarian named Luke – to descend to the bottom of the ocean and investigate.

What Luke finds eight miles below the surface of the Pacific beggars description, but the scenes of gory mayhem Cutter allows himself will be familiar to readers of his debut, The Troop. But whereas that story featured an ensemble cast of Boy Scouts trapped on an island alongside a particularly nasty biological antagonist, The Deep shares an affinity with The Damned in filtering its story through the perspective of a single male protagonist.

Cutter also ups the psychological aspect in this novel by supplying Luke with a backstory about a young son who disappeared in a public park one fall day during a game of hide-and-seek with his father. The incident costs Luke his marriage – his wife blames him for allowing their son to vanish – and the commingled guilt and post-traumatic stress are what simultaneously drive Luke and haunt him.

It is significant that both these novels have father figures at their hearts: fatherhood has clearly had an impact on both authors, and their fiction reflects the heightened emotions inherent in finding oneself in charge of a young person’s safety. Danny and Eddie forge a bond as father and stepson, in part because the young boy can also see Ash and knows that Danny is not crazy. Luke’s despair at the loss of his son is a manifestation of every parent’s terror that something dreadful and inexplicable might befall their child at any time, for any reason, and there is little or nothing they can do to prevent it. By comparison, the imagined horrors of spectral twins and unnameable creatures from the depths seem almost mild.


Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter will be appearing in Toronto tonight – Friday the 13th – as part of the Dark Side II: Highway of Horror Tour. Tonight’s event, sponsored by ELLE Man, takes place at the Spoke Club, 600 King Street West, Toronto. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets $35.

Blurb this! McClelland & Stewart edition

March 9, 2015 by · 5 Comments 

Persona_Non_Grata_Tom_Flanagan“Flanagan raises some provocative questions about the limits of free speech to engage in theoretical speculation that tests the boundaries of conventional wisdom or morality. There is also a persuasive argument to be made against the judgmental impulse of an Internet lynch mob capable of destroying lives without recourse to due process or considered thought. Unfortunately, these salient points are drowned in a sea of self-serving, pugilistic rhetoric.”

Steven W. Beattie on Tom Flanagan’s Persona Non Grata, Quill & Quire, April 2014


“‘Flanagan raises provocative questions about the limits of free speech to engage in theoretical speculation that tests the boundaries of conventional wisdom or morality. A persuasive argument against the judgmental impulse of an Internet lynch mob capable of destroying lives without recourse to due process of considered thought.’ Quill & Quire

– Paperback edition of Tom Flanagan’s Persona Non Grata, March 2015

This one is particularly egregious, for a number of reasons. First, there is the blatant manipulation of the second sentence to make it sound as though the quote says precisely the opposite of what it does say in context. Second, this blurb appears on a page with the header, “Praise for Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age.”

But perhaps most galling is the blinding irony in appending a bastardized quote to a book focused in large part on the dangers of taking someone’s words out of context.

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