The world in its unease: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh and Walt by Russell Wangersky

October 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

A_Lovely_Way_to_BurnSometimes, fiction rubs up against real-world events in uncanny ways. When she began writing her latest novel, the first instalment in the Plague Times trilogy, Louise Welsh could not have known that it would be published the same year the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history would sweep across West Africa. And yet the disease, which is name-checked in A Lovely Way to Burn, bears striking resemblance to the fictional pandemic that serves as the backdrop for the book.

The atmosphere Welsh creates is grim: as a global pandemic colloquially called “the sweats” rages out of control, the citizens of London fall victim to the disease and paranoid hysteria in roughly equal measure. As people flee the city in large numbers, vermin begin to take over, a hospital is reduced to “a nightmare of darkened corridors,” and the streets take on “a blighted look.”

Against this stark background, former journalist Stevie Flint ignores advice and her best instincts, both of which tell her to leave the urban area until the sweats has somehow burnt itself out. But Stevie is driven by a need to find out the truth about her boyfriend, a celebrated doctor named Simon Sharkey, who has died, apparently of natural causes. In a city overrun by a deadly airborne disease, the term “natural causes” takes on dreadful connotations. Nevertheless, Stevie is convinced that Simon was murdered, and pursues her investigation in the face of antipathy from people who want to conceal the truth or use her – a survivor of the disease who may be immune – for their own ends.

In her acknowledgements, Welsh admits that her inspiration for the book’s mise en scène arose not from a specific outbreak but from a childhood characterized by “a mild obsession” with nuclear weapons, and from television. “The idea that the collapse of civilization is imminent has been around since ancient times,” the author writes. “Personally, I am amazed that we have survived this long, and while I don’t exactly look forward to the end of the world as we know it, the knowledge that it may be just around the corner probably enhances the way I live.”

The end of the world as we know it may be a bit rash: Welsh’s pestilent dystopia bears certain resemblances to the devastation in West Africa, but her fictional pandemic evinces a mélange of influences. The symptoms of the sweats are similar to Ebola, but the disease in the novel is airborne, making it much closer to SARS, which sowed panic around the globe in 2003.

Certainly, readers of A Lovely Way to Burn will not be able to dissociate the events of the novel from the events unfolding daily across the front pages of their newspapers. (Now that two American nurses have been infected with Ebola on U.S. soil, the West – in particular the States – has finally awoken to the urgent nature of the disease, something all too easy to ignore when it was confined to the African continent.) This lends the novel an added frisson that keeps the pages turning and the reader wondering edgily, “What if?”

Walt_Russell_WangerskyThere is unease aplenty in Russell Wangersky’s new novel, though not as a result of anything so exotic as a deadly airborne virus. The threat at the heart of Walt is staggeringly quotidian, which actually serves to make it that much creepier.

The eponymous character is a janitor at a grocery store in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Walt occupies himself by picking up the shopping lists discarded by patrons leaving the store: tossed indifferently into trash bins, or on the floor. A loner who has developed a keen insight into human psychology, Walt has perfected the art of developing remarkably accurate profiles of the people who create these lists based on the contents, the handwriting, and the type of stationery. If a patron – always female – catches Walt’s attention, he uses their abandoned grocery lists as a springboard to stalk them online, eventually escalating to voyeurism and home invasion.

Wangersky is a journalist, and his spare, reportorial style heightens the disquiet in the book, as does his technique of fracturing the narrative between Walt’s first-person narration, the diary entries of a woman he is observing, and the perspective of one of a pair of cold-case officers on the St. John’s force who think there is something suspicious about the disappearance of Walt’s wife. One of the cops, Inspector Dean Hill, has recently split with his own spouse; there are clear parallels in the way Walt stalks his victims and the time Hill spends outside his estranged wife’s home, observing her from the darkened windows of his car.

As a portrait of a disturbed mind told from the antagonist’s perspective, Walt shares elements in common with American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and The Collector by John Fowles. Like those books, Walt also features a male character who preys on women, but though Wangersky has written about a misogynist, it would be a mistake to suggest he has written a misogynistic book. He follows in the footsteps of Mailer and Dostoevsky, delving into the psychology of a deeply disturbed character as a means of attempting to understand the motivations behind some of the darkest impulses in the human psyche. That he does so in such a dispassionate way, and using such everyday circumstances as a backdrop, only serves to heighten the creeping discomfort on the part of the reader.

***

I’ll be speaking with Louise Welsh on Thursday, October 30, as part of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. I’ll also be hosting Russell Wangersky at IFOA on Sunday, October 26, as part of a panel that also features Adam Sol and Matthew Thomas.

George Elliott Clarke, Dennis Lee, and the City of Toronto honour the late poet Raymond Souster

September 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

George_Elliott_Clarke_Souster_plaque

Toronto’s poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, poses with the plaque commemorating Raymond Souster

It was cloudy on Saturday morning as a small group of people gathered in a sunken area off Bloor Street West in Toronto – an area known by its residents as Swansea. The occasion was the dedication of a plaque beside a set of concrete stairs leading to Willard Gardens Parkette. The plaque honours the late poet Raymond Souster, a longtime area resident and one of the key figures in modern Canadian poetry.

Among the gathered crowd were two of Toronto’s poets laureate: the current laureate, George Elliott Clarke, and the first laureate, Dennis Lee.

“It is true that I was the city’s first official poet laureate, from 2001 to 2004,” Lee told the small crowd in his prepared remarks, “but everybody knows that from the 1940s on, the pioneering poet laureate of Toronto was Raymond Souster. He imagined us into poetic existence in the thousand images and vignettes that make up his testament, a mosaic of life in the city that he jousted with and loved.”

A banker by trade, Souster was a resident of the Swansea neighbourhood for most of his life, spending the years between 1947 and 1964 at a house on Mayfield Avenue, out of which he composed thirteen volumes of poetry and inaugurated Contact Press, which Lee calls “the most important poetry press in English Canada” at the time.

Souster was “Mr. Toronto,” says Clarke, “very down to Earth, someone who was connected very poignantly to the everyday lives of Torontonians, to the life of the city. Someone who had a great deal of compassion, but compassion mixed with a sense of wonder.”

Clarke compares Souster to American poets Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, and to a modernist version of Robert W. Service. “But an urbanized and imagist sensibility as opposed to a more Whitmanesque ballad tradition.”

Author and journalist Joe Fiorito points to the influence of the Black Mountain poets on Souster’s work, and asserts that Souster helped bring Canadian poetry “out of the bush and into the towns and the cities.”

“He’s who we have instead of Frank O’Hara,” Fiorito says. “The identification with the city: he’s of the sidewalks, of the downtown.” Along with modernist poets such as F.R. Scott and Earle Birney, Fiorito says, Souster “helped Canadian poetry to grow up.”

Souster’s fidelity to the urban environment, and the west-end patch of Toronto he called home, served as the inspiration for yesterday’s unveiling, which was the brainchild of Clarke. When the poet laureate first approached Toronto councillor Sarah Doucette with the suggestion of erecting a commemorative plaque by the stairs that Souster traversed so often during his lifetime, Doucette says, “I knew I couldn’t say no. We had to do this.”

“Ray loved this park,” says John Robert Colombo, who was present as a representative of the League of Canadian Poets, an organization Souster helped found. “He did not love the new name of the park. I don’t think he knew who Mr. Willard was. … He didn’t mind the word ‘gardens,’ but the word ‘parkette’? No! He would never use that. I’m sure the league of poets has a list of words you don’t use and parkette is one of those.”

Souster’s importance to the city and to Canadian poetry was clear from everyone who ventured out to the unveiling ceremony, including the current owners of the Mayfield Avenue house in which the poet lived. They have agreed to have a second plaque erected on their property as part of the Toronto Legacy Project (an initiative spearheaded by Lee during his time as poet laureate).

Donna Dunlop, Souster’s literary executor who cared for the ailing poet in the final years of his life, calls him “my best friend.” Dunlop attended the unveiling bearing another piece of good news: there is a new collection of Souster poems in the offing. Come Rain, Come Shine: The Last Poems of Raymond Souster will appear from Contact Press later this year.

In his extemporaneous remarks during the ceremony, Clarke summed up the impact of Souster’s poetry on him this way: “It is very inviting, accessible at every level. He expresses a childlike love at what is simple and consternation at what is difficult, especially war and poverty and other violations of the human spirit. To me, he’s a kind of CCF poet – not necessarily of socialism, but in terms of what I like to describe as the citizenship of caring.” During the ceremony to commemorate the newly anointed “Souster Steps,” the clouds parted and the sun appeared. One likes to think that Souster would have approved.

Canada Day CanLit: some thoughts on reading lists, and a list

July 1, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Today marks Canada’s 147th birthday, and if a quick glance at my social media feeds is any indication, the appropriate way to celebrate is by making lists of great Canadian books. Though I am typically averse to list-making, I will grant that this seems like a fittingly patriotic way to display a genuine love of both the country and its literature.

What I find interesting about the vast majority of the lists I’ve stumbled across (not all, mind you, but most) is their homogeneity, which is ironic in a nation as large and as culturally diverse as Canada. Not just homogeneity in terms of the titles that keep appearing (though that does occur), but homogeneity of tone: the Canada Day book lists I’ve seen tend to be earnest, inoffensive, and almost defiantly middle-of-the-road. (It could, of course, be argued that this makes them absolutely reflective of the country that spawned them.)

One reason for this is that the lists usually confine themselves to the novel genre, though even there the same few titles keep cropping up, most of them already more than familiar to the vast majority of the reading public. Very few roundups include any collections of short fiction, despite the fact that this accounts for the best of what we produce in this country’s literature. And there’s virtually no poetry, although I’ve long since ceased marvelling at this phenomenon.

Though generic blinders may account for part of the narrowness I’ve seen, another contributing factor, it seems to me, is a resolute focus on big books from multinational publishers. Few of the lists kicking around, in my experience, pay much (if any) attention to small or regional presses, which is where the vast majority of the most interesting and exciting publishing is happening in this country. This is not to suggest that there is nothing of interest coming out of the bigger houses (see below), but iconoclastic, experimental, boundary-pushing work is confined, predominantly, to publishers not often acknowledged for the books they produce or the chances they take. Coach House Books, Anvil Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Véhicule Press, Thistledown, BookThug, Biblioasis, Nightwood Editions, Invisible Publishing, The Porcupine’s Quill: these are the houses taking risks, pushing the envelope, and – not incidentally – discovering the authors who will go on to sign six-figure deals with HarperCollins or Random House. (ECW Press could be added to that list: in terms of volume, it’s not really a small publisher, though it acts like one.)

Most (not all) of the impressive CanLit I’ve read over the past few years has come from smaller houses; most of it flies below the radar of what gets recirculated in the major media and online; and most of it is nowhere to be found on prize shortlists, year-end best-of lists, or any other traditionally accepted metric of what constitutes “essential” writing in this country.

On Canada Day, then, here is a list of the five best Canadian-authored books I’ve read so far this year.

All_Saints_KD_MillerAll Saints by K.D. Miller (Biblioasis)

A perennial critical favourite, Miller is not nearly as well known as she should be outside a small and devoted coterie of readers. (The critic Jeet Heer called her “Canada’s greatest unknown writer.”) Miller’s new linked story collection focuses on the titular Anglican church, which, in an age of galloping secularism, has fallen on hard times. All Saints is infused with humour, a surprising degree of eroticism, and an uncompromising eye for human fallibility and frailty.

Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

Imagine Jorge Luis Borges and William Burroughs collaborating on a screenplay adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four for director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and you might have some idea of what reading Bangladeshi-born Ghalib Islam’s first novel feels like. Violent, hallucinatory, and written in a style that mimics high modernism with liberal dollops of magic realism, Islam’s debut is a stark rebuke to the dominant Canadian literary tradition. But the novel, which incorporates reality television, state surveillance, and American militarism abroad, is also frighteningly relevant to our current historical moment.

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)

Like Miller, Kathy Page is an author who is not terribly well known outside a certain circle of readers, despite the fact that her novel Alphabet was nominated for a 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award. Her new collection is cast in the fabulist mode of Angela Carter, with stories about a society that has outlawed kissing due to an orally transmitted virus, a sea creature who takes the place of a lighthouse-keeper’s missing wife, and a journalism student who takes the notion of communing with nature to a bizarre and unsettling extreme.

The_Stonehenge_LettersThe Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky (Coach House Books)

Karlinsky’s second novel takes the form of an academic investigation. It begins by inquiring as to why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize, but veers off into the story of a codicil in Alfred Nobel’s will that offered a cash reward to any Nobel laureate who could solve the mystery of Stonehenge. Appropriating the apparatus of an academic treatise – including footnotes, bibliography, and appendices – allows Karlinsky to engage in a whole array of postmodern metafictional playfulness, and to ask some pressing questions about the meaning and uses of history.

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster Canada)

A clutch of Boy Scouts accompany their troop leader to a deserted island off the coast of PEI, where they fall prey to the depredations of a horrifying and ravenous “disease.” A furious, fast-paced combination of Lord of the Flies and The Ruins, Cutter’s novel is one of the best straight-ahead literary horror outings in years. Be warned: the gore is plentiful, but so is the gleeful energy and manic inventiveness.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 30: “The Albanian Virgin” by Alice Munro

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Open Secrets

Open_Secrets_Alice_Munro“What is fakery, what is authenticity? Which emotions and modes of behaviour and speech are honest and true, which pretended or pretentious? Or can they be separated?” These are questions Margaret Atwood has suggested recur throughout the work of Alice Munro, and they are questions that seem particularly applicable to “The Albanian Virgin,” one of the Nobel Prize winner’s most surprising stories.

The first thing one notices about “The Albanian Virgin” is its length. Clocking in at close to fifty pages, it is not a brief story – its length is typical of Munro’s later work. The stories following Friend of My Youth got longer and more complex; Munro began fracturing chronology more insistently and adopted techniques that almost resemble expressionism, particularly in the books from Runaway onward. Open Secrets, from 1994, is one of Munro’s most iconoclastic collections, and “The Albanian Virgin” is rare even among the stories in that book, in that much of it takes place outside of B.C. or the patch of land in southwestern Ontario that has come to be known as “Munro Country.”

Yet for all that is atypical about it, “The Albanian Virgin” nevertheless addresses Atwood’s questions in an insistent, almost defiant manner: whatever idiosyncrasies the story might possess, it is recognizably the work of Canada’s foremost practitioner of short fiction.

The story is narrated by a woman named Claire, who owns a not-too-successful bookshop in Victoria, B.C. One of Claire’s regular customers at the store is an imperious woman named Charlotte, whom another customer, a Notary Public, refers to as “the Duchess,” and who is described as “heavy, shapeless, but quick-moving,” with “a lot of glistening white hair, worn like a girl’s” and bracelets, “any number of them, heavy or slender, tarnished or bright.” The bracelets clank together “as if she wore hidden armor,” and some have “large, square stones, the color of toffee or blood.”

The details here are highly specific, and highly significant. The fact that Charlotte, who is obviously of a certain age, wears her hair “like a girl’s” indicates a desire to pass for someone younger; the bracelets are worn like “armor” and the stones have the appearance of “blood”: there is artifice here, and exoticism, but also a kind of defensiveness and more than a hint of violence.

This description of Charlotte occurs more than halfway through the narrative, and by this point we have been allowed to form an opinion of the woman based on her own story of travelling along the Dalmation Coast from Trieste in a steamer, whereupon she is taken captive by a local tribe who threaten to sell her into marriage. She is rescued by a kindly Franciscan priest who tells her that if she adopts the mantle of a Virgin she will be immune from being sold into sexual slavery: “If you become a Virgin, it will be all right,” the priest tells her. “But you must swear you will never go with a man. You must swear in front of witnesses.”

The method of narration Munro employs here is highly complex. Claire narrates the story in the first person, but Charlotte’s experience is related to her by the older woman from a hospital bed in Victoria. This does not become clear to the reader, however, until a good five pages into the story. Following a series of scenes related in the third person, detailing Charlotte’s experience as a captive in Maltsia e madhe (where the tribal members refer to her as “Lottar”), Claire reveals herself as the story’s narrator in an almost offhand aside: “I heard this story in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria from Charlotte, who was the sort of friend I had in my early days there.” Coming after a series of pages that drop us as readers into an unfamiliar setting, beginning in medias res and following the harrowing experiences of a kidnapped woman, this sudden shift seems startling, and it is entirely possible to miss the freighted implications in the description of Charlotte as “the sort of friend [Claire] had in [her] early days” in Victoria.

Claire originally moved to Victoria from London, Ontario, because it was the farthest place she could get to “without going out of the country.” In London, she lived with her husband Donald, a dermatologist. The description of Claire’s relationship with Donald is a classic example of why Cynthia Ozick famously referred to Munro as “our Chekhov”:

Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort has made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see that I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

Munro’s style is so straightforward, so deceptively simple, it is easy to miss how densely packed her writing is, and how much character information she is capable of getting into a very small space. The description of Donald as kind “in a cautious, impersonal way” is inspired, and the notion of Claire suffering “sabotage from within” resonates through the balance of the story.

Similarly, the narrative’s temporal shifts are so smoothly handled that they are almost unnoticeable: the story moves from Lottar in captivity to Claire in the narrative present (which is still, one notes, the past, i.e. Claire’s “early days” in Victoria), listening to Charlotte’s story in hospital, then to Claire in the narrative past, in London. These transitions are effected without any apparent effort, and the story never skips a beat.

A reader is liable to wonder how these disparate pieces fit together, but the structure Munro has devised in “The Albanian Virgin” is so tightly calibrated that every line, every word, every gesture and action has a place in the grand schema. The repeated image of a wooden crucifix, presented to two different characters in two radically different contexts, has enormous significance, and offers the key to unlock the story’s elliptical final scenes. And a simple declarative sentence, featuring six, monosyllabic words – “He was not shy in love” – has the effect of turning the story on a dime, altering the reader’s entire perspective in a way that is as staggering as it seems inevitable.

The connective tissue in “The Albanian Virgin” is the notion of women’s roles in the world, which may be Munro’s classic theme. Lottar in captivity, being prepared to be sold off as a wife against her will, is not all that far removed, we come to understand, from Claire in her relationship with Donald, who considers her “a wonderful woman, once [she] got a few problems under control.” Both Claire and Charlotte strive to find the authenticity of character Atwood alluded to, and both flee from what they perceive to be the fakery of artificially imposed strictures on their independence and freedom.

How much of what Charlotte tells Claire in the hospital is actually true, and how much is made up? In the end, this is unimportant. What is important is the symbolic connection these two women share in a story that is so carefully constructed, so utterly astounding in the apparent effortlessness of its execution that, as The Times commented of Munro’s work in general, it makes it “difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented.”

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 25: “Do No Harm” by Dorothy Speak

May 25, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Reconciliation

Reconciliation_Dorothy_SpeakDorothy Speak is the author of two well-received story collections, The Counsel of the Moon and Object of Your Love, and a novel called The Wife Tree. Her fiction has been praised by the likes of Timothy Findley, W.P. Kinsella, and Joan Thomas, and compared to Atwood, Munro, and Shields. Writing about Object of Your Love, Rosemary Sullivan said, “There’s a directness, a resistance to cant, a shrewdness and compassion in her stories that is seductive.”

Yet, despite lavish praise for her earlier work, Speak was forced to self-publish her third collection, 2012’s Reconciliation. The reason? Although publishers admired Speak’s writing, there was a general consensus that short stories don’t sell. While this is undeniably true, it is nonetheless baffling. Canada boasts a wealth of talent in the area of short fiction – writers of short stories won a Nobel Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize last year – and the brevity of the form would seem like a perfect fit for our attention-deficit culture. Yet short stories continue to make barely a hint of a noise at the cash register.

It is particularly distressing when a writer of Speak’s calibre is unable to find a publisher willing to take a chance on her stories. Granted, Speak’s work is not conciliatory – she avoids sentimentality and is unafraid to people her fiction with unsympathetic characters – but it is at least as subtle and well crafted as much of what appears on Canadian bestseller lists these days.

“Do No Harm” tells the story of Lyon, a physician of a certain age, who discovers by chance that his self-absorbed wife is having an affair. The story tracks the fallout from this revelation in forensic, often painful detail.

Lyon is a pain specialist: “for forty years people have been coming to me with their migraines and spinal injuries and botched back surgeries, their physical or emotional trauma, their pain in the face, arm, shoulder, hip.” The irony here is thick: while Lyon’s job is dealing with the pain of others, it becomes increasingly clear that he is incapable of dealing with his own emotional pain and confusion.

The turmoil Lyon undergoes is not so much a function of his wife’s affair as it is a realization that his own life has been a lie, that he has been engaging in a kind of willful deceit about his own happiness. Certainly, it is impossible to see Lyon’s wife, Vera, as anything other than a selfish, condescending harridan. “Lyon is always the same,” Vera tells her friend Ursula (whose house Lyon witnessed his wife and her lover enter earlier in the day). When she asks Lyon to refill the women’s drinks, Ursula objects that he has had a tiring day; Vera responds derisively, “He’s a drug-pusher … How tiring can that be?” And when Vera announces that she has decided that she, Lyon, and Ursula should take a trip to Italy together, her husband acquiesces immediately, prompting Vera to respond, “Good doggie.”

Despite Lyon’s evident subjugation, he has nonetheless managed to convince himself that he is content. “I do respect her,” Lyon says of his wife. “Possibly, I even fear her.” Ultimately, Vera’s domineering nature provides a solid centre for his world to revolve around: “She is the one true and reliable thing I know in life.”

When this one reliable thing is called into question, Lyon is forced to re-evaluate his entire worldview, to confront his fear that he has not “accomplished anything lasting” in his life, that he is “a grey sort of person.” Speak plays Lyon’s heightened ineffectuality against Vera’s haughty insouciance at being discovered: “You’re very dull, Lyon,” she tells him. “I’ve put up with it all my life and I think that’s a lot.”

While Vera looks for something new and exciting to lift her out of the doldrums of her married life, Lyon sees her dalliance as shabby and wanton. He visits Ursula’s house and sneaks upstairs to her bedroom, where he assumes the lovers had their tryst: “I stare at the lumpy bed, with its worn chenille cover, at the stained, crooked, fringed lampshades and the pile of books and mess of newspapers on the floor and the jars of creams on the night table. I try to picture a scene of passion here. I think: what is this hovel, compared to our bedroom?”

The relationship Speak portrays in “Do No Harm” is a patently destructive one: selfish and uncaring on one side, deluded and self-deceiving on the other. “I wasted so much time with Vera,” Lyon thinks at the story’s close. Near his office is a cemetery, which he often walks through on his way home. “Occasionally, I wander among the graves, stopping here and there to read the epitaphs of governors-general and prime ministers and business tycoons … I take comfort and amusement in the fact that, when all is said and done, these important people are no more remarkable than I.”

This is as much of an epiphany as Speak will allow her protagonist, who comes to recognize the toxic nature of his marriage, but is unable to follow through with a clear understanding of how he should live the rest of his life. Perhaps, he thinks, he should take a guided tour of Cambodia or Laos; in the meantime, the story’s conclusion finds him wandering in circles around the cemetery – a place not devoid of metaphorical import – wondering, “what exactly is one meant to do with one’s life?”

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 24: “Skin, Just” by Christine Miscione

May 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Auxiliary Skins

Auxiliary_Skins_MiscioneIf there is a towering figure in the (admittedly proscribed) subgenre of Canadian body horror, that figure would undoubtedly be David Cronenberg. In films such as Shivers, Rabid, and The Fly, Cronenberg has examined – often in gruesome detail – what transpires when our renegade bodies turn on us. In both Shivers and Rabid (and, not coincidentally, also in Cronenberg’s forthcoming novel, Consumed), disease is associated with sexuality; in The Fly, this is not absent, but the disease that strikes Seth Brundle is also explicitly linked to something else: cancer.

It is not difficult to locate Cronenberg’s influence in Christine Miscione’s brief, harrowing tale, “Skin, Just.” Though it is possible to push this comparison too far: in Cronenberg’s work, the plagues that afflict his characters are undeniably real, however exaggerated and unlikely they may be. In Miscione’s story, by contrast, the trouble that the protagonist suffers is, quite literally, all in her head.

Clara Williamson, the story’s protagonist, is convinced that a mole on her thigh is cancerous. She is so convinced of this inevitability that she takes a household knife and gouges the mole out of her leg, then carries it to her local hospital, where she demands it be biopsied.

That the mole turns out to be benign should come as no surprise. What Clara suffers, clearly, is a crippling hypochondria that has rendered her virtually powerless in its thrall.

A quick check of the Mayo Clinic’s description of hypochondria symptoms reads like a pitch-perfect description of Clara. “Having a long-term intense fear or anxiety about having a serious disease or health condition”? Check. “Worrying that minor symptoms or bodily sensations mean you have a serious illness”? Check. “Obsessively doing health research”? Check. “Frequently checking your body for problems, such as lumps or sores”? Check.

The opening paragraph of Miscione’s story testifies to the extent of Clara’s obsession, describing as it does the cancerous moles she sees all around her, in every scenario and situation:

Gum on the sidewalk, and all she can see are moles misshaped, moles deadly. Layers of tar covering potholes are moles, too, tar on every street, melanoma in every city. And polka-dot bathing suits. And specks on shower tiles. Knots on floorboards, bruises on banana skins, rot in apples, soy sauce drips left over on tables and the arms of strangers, their tank-topped backs, their miniskirted legs where skin shines through: moleless, moleful, abnormal, normal, happy.

Clara imagines starting a band called The Happy Moles with her friend Tessa, only this would be ironic because Tessa has no moles, we are told; she is “clear as a cup of water.”

The obsession with the possibility that her calf mole is cancerous is a manifestation of Clara’s mental illness, but it is also, not unimportantly, connected with the idea of flawlessness, the ideal of physical beauty promulgated in Western society, especially concerning women. The mole on her thigh, even if benign, is a blemish, a defect, a blot or imperfection. How to deal with this? Cut it out.

Of course, Clara’s ad hoc surgery results in infection and what the hospital medical records describe as “post-traumatic stress.” The doctors’ medical assessments are interspersed with Clara’s anxious, delirious narration, providing the ironic distance that allows us to see Clara’s mental illness for what it is. The doctors offer Clara sedatives and advise her to seek counselling, but Clara remains single-minded in her determination that she is suffering a terminal illness, and that her illness is physical, not mental.

When the biopsy confirms the “tumour” is benign, Clara is disbelieving – another key indicator of hypochondria – and reacts violently: “Patient seems upset at results,” the medical record reads. “Patient bangs hand on forehead continuously.” An earlier report notes that Clara “self-describes as anxious and psychotic,” an indication that there is some awareness of the true nature of her problem, though this awareness is insufficient to cut through the terror she feels as a result of obsessively Googling melanoma in the wee hours of the morning.

Nor does the story allow Clara any kind of epiphanic moment at the close. Although she recognizes that she has “ruined” her body “for nothing” – another example of the pressure on women to attain and preserve an impossible degree of physical perfection – the final moments of the story find her fixated on the divot in her leg left over from her gouging out the mole. She begins to see crevasses and indentations everywhere she looks, and retreats to her bed in a fever of worry and upset. “And so it goes,” Miscione writes. And so it goes.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 23: “The Hunter” by Cynthia Flood

May 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Red Girl Rat Boy

Red_Girl_Rat_BoyThe stories in Cynthia Flood’s 2013 collection tilt toward expressionism or pointillism, which might put off readers accustomed to a more naturalistic approach. But Flood’s linguistic precision and inventiveness is invigorating and, for those willing to take the time with these stories, there are plenty of riches to be found.

On a surface level, “The Hunter” is relatively straightforward. It unfolds chronologically, and follows a recognizable cause-and-effect trajectory. It plays with a reader’s expectations, however, in that the character and situation introduced in the opening pages are abandoned as the story progresses; in a kind of Coen brothers bait-and-switch, the reader realizes midway that the story is about something different from what was assumed at first.

Were this a novel – that is, were the plot of “The Hunter” extended over the course of 300 pages – the modulations in its scenario would perhaps not seem quite so startling. What surprises in the story is Flood’s ability to shift perspectives and points of view so effortlessly over the course of fewer than fifteen pages.

Like A.L. Kennedy’s “Baby Blue,” “The Hunter” is roughly broken down into three parts. The first section involves a man who operates a Vancouver grow-op in his home, where he keeps a clouded leopard he calls Pretty in a cage as a pet. In the second part, the leopard effects an escape and wanders the urban jungle of the city looking for food and shelter. The third part features a female social worker with experience hunting game, who ends up stalking the wild animal. Each section modulates the language and tone, and each teases out a different aspect of the implications contained in the title.

“The Hunter” might easily refer to any of the three main characters. All are identified with hunting at one point or another in the course of the narrative. The owner or the grow-op, who is presented as being somehow mentally challenged, leaves Vancouver “for the first time ever,” we are told, “to hunt his clouded leopard and bring her home.” There is no real hunting involved: it becomes clear that the leopard has been purchased over the Internet from a Texas game ranch; all the new owner has to do is transport it back to Vancouver.

Pretty, by contrast, proves to be a talented and instinctual hunter, easily mapping out the smells and sounds of the urban landscape, locating higher ground that is more conducive to her safety and comfort, and finding easy prey in the form of local birds and, twice, domestic house cats. In the first instance, she kills a “tabby kitten” that she decapitates to avoid contact with the “revolting” thing around its neck, an inedible “circlet” that prevents her from enjoying her meal. In the second instance, she preys on an animal in the early morning hours: “Near dawn, she killed. The plump animal’s blue eyes and cappuccino fur interested her not at all, but the tender fetuses tasted delicious.” These details are distressing, yet dispassionate: Flood presents the leopard’s search for food, water, and shelter as a brute example of nature red in tooth and claw.

The carcass of the second cat is left near the social worker’s house, to be discovered when she heads out with her dog, an aged setter that, we are told, had “done his last hunt.” The social worker, by contrast, has not done her last hunt, and sets out with her deer rifle to track the “tropical animal” she assumes escaped from a preserve where venal money grubbers run canned hunts for wealthy clients.

Each section of the story is presented in an individual and identifiable voice. The first, that of the so-called “retard” pot grower, is replete with the kind of numbered lists the stunted man’s mother has instructed him to make to ensure he is organized and prepared in any situation. (Extending the metaphor of wild and domesticated animals, the people who employ him to run his household grow-op are referred to as his “masters.”)

Pretty, meanwhile, is shown as calculating and highly observant, attuned to smells and sounds and nuances of landscape and environment. Her section of the story is packed with catalogues of things, both natural and otherwise, that she encounters as she roams the city:

The cat sniffed the water. Underground water, rain coming, salt. Animal fur, droppings, spray. Humans. Plants grasses bushes. Dead leaves loose, crackling, mashed, skeletal. Fish, shellfish, algae. Stiff bull-kelp on the stony beaches. Insects, their acid odours. Powdery bird-feathers. Bird-shit. A rabbit, decomposing. Insecticides, herbicides, pesticides.

The rhythm of the prose here highlights an instinctual, yet very precise and attuned awareness of surroundings and environs.

The social worker’s section, by contrast, is more intellectual and discursive; she feels an affinity for the animal that has managed to escape from what she assumes are uncaring human captors. When she kills Pretty, she does so as an act of compassion, deciding that the wild leopard is better off dead than in the hands of animal rescue officers, who would “just lock the creature into another cage to die.”

It is significant to note that other than the pot grower’s mother, who is referred to with the diminutive appellation “Mumma,” the only character in the story given a name is Pretty. This acts as a kind of clue in the early stages as to what to pay attention to: the specificity of a name for the leopard is a subtle indication that she is the story’s central figure, not the man who is supposedly her master (that word again). Indeed, Pretty is the only character who appears in each of the triptych’s three panels – caged at first, then on the loose, and finally as predator turned prey.

But Flood’s story is not a parable about the ills that humans are capable of inflicting on animals. Or, at least, it is not only that. It is, instead, a carefully constructed experiment in narrative, presenting readers with a single story from three radically different perspectives. It interrogates the nature of predation and asks subtle questions about where we exist on the food chain, and whether we deserve to be there or not.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 19: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (Andrew Hurley, trans.); “The Region of Unlikeliness” by Rivka Galchen

May 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Fictions; American Innovations

Collected_Fictions_Jorge_Luis_BorgesThe flap copy on Rivka Galchen’s debut collection of stories indicates that the individual pieces in Galchen’s book “are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” It is unclear whether this is meant simply as marketing bumf: American Innovations contains no author’s note explaining Galchen’s intentions in this regard, and the connections between her stories and their putative inspirations are often loose and baggy (the title story, for instance, which apparently references Gogol’s “The Nose,” has at least as much resonance with Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.)

It is certainly not necessary (nor even desirable) to know that Galchen’s story “The Region of Unlikeliness” is “a smoky and playful mirror” of Borges’s classic story “The Aleph,” but since the comparison has been drawn for us, it might be worthwhile to consider the two stories in tandem.

One of Borges’s most famous stories, “The Aleph” is told in the first person by a narrator also named “Borges,” whose beloved Beatriz Viterbo dies in Buenos Aires “after an imperious confrontation with her illness.” Each year on the anniversary of her death, Borges makes it a habit – “an irreproachable, perhaps essential act of courtesy” – to call on her father and her first cousin to pay his respects.

The cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, “holds some sort of subordinate position in an illegible library in the outskirts toward the south of the city.” He is also a particularly atrocious poet. Through a series of circumstances, Daneri invites Borges to attend the home of his parents, in the basement of which there exists an Aleph – “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.”

The first thing to recognize about Borges’s story is its genre. In an afterword to the 1949 collection The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges indicates that the story belongs “to the genre of fantasy.” That is, Borges acknowledges the fantastical nature of the eponymous phenomenon, the “point at which all points converge”; his narrator even admits to “hopelessness” in trying to describe the Aleph: “the central problem – the enumeration, even partial enumeration, of infinity – is irresolvable.” The Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and has particular meaning in the Kabbalah, where, Borges points out, the letter “signifies En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead.”American_Innovations_Galchen

Galchen retains the fantastical aspect, but dispenses with Jewish mythology in favour of quantum physics. In her version of the story, the protagonist, a female graduate student in civil engineering, encounters two men, Jacob and Ilan, in a New York coffee shop, and the three strike up a conversation. When Ilan disappears, Jacob approaches the narrator with a proposition: he wants her to kill him in order to test the viability of what in science fiction is known as “the grandfather paradox”:

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible – and much physics suggests that it is – then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore you won’t murder your grandfather, so therefore you will be born, and will be able to murder him, et cetera, ad paradox.

The fantastical element in Galchen’s story involves Ilan, whom Jacob insists is his son from the future, as yet unborn. The paradox, if you will, is that quantum theory has made this science-fiction premise, if not likely, at the least theoretically possible. “The general theory of relativity is compatible with the existence of space-times in which travel to the past or remote future is possible,” Galchen writes. “[We] are told by those who would know that the logician Kurt Gödel proved this in the late 1940s.”

The invocation of the 20th-century Austrian mathematician is significant. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems suggest that pure mathematics is limited, that is, that theoretical mathematics will never solve all of the riddles of the universe. This is incompatible with what some quantum physicists posit as a theory of everything (ToE) – a theory that might explain every physical phenomenon, including tunneling, wormholes, and, presumably, time travel. The ToE is a theoretical catch-all, a place where all physical phenomenon, observed and unobserved, coexist. In other words, a Borgesian Aleph.

It is thus possible to note nodes of commonality between Galchen’s story and Borges’s (the central meetings between characters – Borges and Daneri in the latter; the narrator and Jacob in the former – even share the fact that they represent the only time the characters in question call the respective narrators on the telephone). However, it is equally interesting to note what doesn’t survive Galchen’s transliteration: Borges’s tone.

Simply put, “The Aleph” is one of Borges’s funniest stories. Daneri’s abominable poetry, and the poet’s own outrageously overinflated estimation of his abilities, is fodder for much comedy: at one point, Borges says that Daneri has “written a poem that seemed to draw out to infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos” (which, in addition to being a humorous assessment on its face, also alludes to Milton, whose idea of chaos shares resonance with Borges’s Aleph). The fact that Daneri comes in second for an Argentinian national literary prize, and that this “goes without saying,” is a bit of sarcastic literary criticism worthy of Mencken. And Borges’s belated recognition of the potential peril he has opened himself up to by allowing Daneri to display the Aleph for him – “Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison” – is similarly inspired.

Galchen, by contrast, treats her material with a po-faced earnestness that renders it somehow flatter, less vibrant than Borges’s gleeful literary trickery. This is only apparent when the two stories are read together; it is probable that, on its own, the relative lack of humour in “The Region of Unlikeliness” would go entirely unremarked. One is left to wonder, then, whether it is advantageous to draw attention to the way Galchen’s story is “secretly in conversation” with Borges’s, or whether that tidbit might more profitably have remained a secret.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 18: “Girl on the Subway” by Crad Kilodney

May 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Concrete Forest: The New Fiction of Urban Canada

Concrete_Forest_New_Fiction_of_Urban_CanadaIf you lived in Toronto in the 1980s and early ’90s, you couldn’t help but be familiar with Crad Kilodney, a solitary, grumpy, rumpled figure who stood outside the Royal Ontario Museum or the University of Toronto or the Stock Exchange, wearing a hand-lettered sign on a piece of cardboard around his neck, and selling DIY chapbooks with titles like Putrid Scum and Lightning Struck My Dick. Jay MillAr, the poet and publisher of BookThug press in Toronto, refers to Kilodney as a “literary terrorist” whose books “were great because they undermined what greatness was supposed to be.” Kilodney’s friend Sturart Ross concurs, writing on his Bloggamooga blog:

Crad Kilodney, so far as I can tell, has had very little influence on literary Canada. I suspect he is a pariah in academic circles, and certainly commercial circles, and those are powers that determine lit-taste. But through his street-selling, and through the hand-selling of Crad’s books by Charlie Huisken and Dan Design at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Crad inspired a lot of young people who were disgruntled about CanLit and had no interest in Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and the other superstars. He encouraged a few other writers to self-publish and stand in the streets, including Arno Wolf Jr. (pen name for Timothy Weatherill), Lillian Necakov, Michael Boyce, Mark Laba, and me. He encouraged people involved in DIY — whether they were making books, or zines, or music cassettes.

In this sense, Kilodney was ahead of his time, predating the Internet’s purveying of broad access to the means of publishing production by almost two decades. In 1991, he ran afoul of the law, which charged him for selling his goods without a license, becoming, as Martin Levin points out in The Globe and Mail, “the first Canadian writer ever prosecuted for attempting to sell his own work.” (Levin also recounts a delightful anecdote I’d forgotten: to prove that the CanLit establishment was clueless, Kilodney sent famous stories by Hemingway, Chekhov, and others into a CBC literary contest with pseudonymous author names attached. Every one of the stories was rejected.)

Girl on the Subway was one of the few books Kilodney published with a (relatively) mainstream press; the collection appeared with Black Moss in 1990. Hal Niedzviecki included the title story in his 1998 anthology of short fiction focused on and emanating from the Canadian urban centres that have become home to the largest percentage of the country’s population, a statistic that marks a fairly recent reversal of the Canadian urban-rural divide.

“Girl on the Subway” is, as far as Kilodney’s fiction goes, relatively restrained and surprisingly tender. It tells the story of an unhappy man on the cusp of a breakup with his girlfriend, who prevents a young woman from committing suicide in the Toronto subway. Returning home on the subway from his girlfriend’s one night, the narrator spies a blonde girl in conversation with another, darker-skinned girl, “maybe East Indian or from somewhere in the Caribbean.” After the other girl exits the train, the blonde’s body language changes so dramatically that the narrator concludes she is harbouring an unrequited love for her travelling companion. When the two get off at the same station and it becomes clear that the girl is contemplating throwing herself onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train, the narrator intervenes.

The encounter between the narrator and the blonde girl is awkward and tentative, and ends on an anticlimactic note. “I think I’ll just grab this cab,” the girl says after the two have emerged on street level. “Thanks. I know you meant well.” Meaning well does not assuage the narrator’s feeling of responsibility for the girl, or inculcate in him the notion that he has had some positive effect on her life, though he tells himself that at least he kept her from topping herself.

“Maybe, maybe not,” says Ted, the narrator’s friend, to whom he relates the story about the girl on the subway. “Maybe she went and did it anyway or still plans to. You’ll never know.” This sense of hopelessness, not to say nihilism, pervades the story, which examines subjects of decay and failure in life, in love, and in work.

Ted is a writer who has caused a rift with his brother by publishing a story based on their relationship. This allows Kilodney to indulge in some of his patented, curmudgeonly literary criticism:

I considered Ted a brilliant writer, much too good to ever be commercially successful. His devotion to his writing was the thing that kept him going. He cared about it more than anything or anyone else, and he would become very angry if anyone suggested that he “write to sell.” I recall one occasion when we were introduced to an editor for a big publishing house, and this fellow said to Ted, “Why don’t you write something that’ll make you some fast money so you can sit back and write your more literary stuff?” And Ted looked this guy in the eye and said, “Why don’t you have your daughter turn a few tricks to earn money for her wedding?”

It is difficult not to read Ted as a stand-in for Kilodney here. The author gave up writing and peddling his fiction in the mid-1990s after receiving an inheritance; he packed it all in and became a day trader. There was something in Kilodney’s makeup that would not allow him to continue trying to toil in a business he believed was corrupt and degraded.

Kilodney died from cancer last month at the age of 66. His death was largely eclipsed in the media and the public mind by the deaths, around the same time, of Alistair MacLeod and Farley Mowat; Kilodney himself would likely have found this typical. His refusal to play the CanLit game by the establishment’s rules probably ensured that, as Ross suggests, his impact on Canadian literature will be minimal. However, he did manage to inspire an entire generation of DIY publishers and rogue writers who still believe that, as Ray Robertson says, competence is the enemy of excellence. And we still have stories like “Girl on the Subway” to testify that, although his prose could be somewhat pedestrian, at his best, Kilodney had a writer’s sensitivity for character and emotion, and the spark of what we so cavalierly call greatness.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 16: “Shared Room on Union” by Steven Heighton

May 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Dead Are More Visible

The_Dead_Are_More_VisibleIn the Bare It for Books 2014 calendar, a wall calendar featuring “nearly nude” photographs of prominent Canadian writers (the proceeds go to PEN Canada), Mr. June, Steven Heighton, is photographed sitting in the trunk of a car. This pose takes on a particularly cheeky resonance for anyone familiar with his story “Shared Room on Union,” which appeared in The Fiddlehead and the 2010 edition of Best Canadian Stories; it is also included in Heighton’s 2012 collection The Dead Are More Visible. A brief, mordantly humorous vignette, “Shared Room on Union” addresses a question you probably didn’t even think to ask: What happens if the guy who carjacks your Volvo can’t drive stick?

Short answer: the guy gets frustrated and locks you and your fiancée in the trunk, then abandons you there.

This being Heighton, though, the (somewhat absurd) situation is merely the springboard for an examination of the couple’s relationship – its bedrock and its fault lines. Heighton is a careful and protean stylist, highly attuned to the nuances and potentialities of language. In “Shared Room on Union,” the dialogue between the couple locked in the car trunk yields volumes about their shared intimacy and throws light on the niggling, petty annoyances that are inevitable in any long-term union.

Take, for instance, the way café manager Janna seems to blame her fiancé, Justin, for their predicament based on the fact that Justin neglected to inform their assailant, prior to being locked in the trunk, that Janna is claustrophobic. This despite the fact that Justin himself ended up in the trunk after being pistol-whipped by the would-be carjacker and momentarily losing consciousness. Their snidely bickering dialogue in the enclosed confines of the car trunk belies their perilous situation, coming across as the kind of tossed-off disagreement a couple might have while doing the after-dinner dishes together:

I’ve told you I’m claustrophobic. Why didn’t you tell him?

He probably wouldn’t have known the word. Christ, my head.

Of course he would have known it.

And I didn’t know. I mean, I thought you were just saying that before. Everyone says they’re claustrophobic.

I don’t even like when you pull the quilt over us!

To make love, he thought, in an exclusive cocoon, cut off from the world.

The ironic distance between the tone of the disagreement and its setting is heightened by the line about making love in a “cocoon, cut off from the world” – which is precisely the situation in which the two currently find themselves. The distance between the (pre)marital bed and the car trunk is at once enormous and nonexistent.

Janna and Justin’s squabbling continues unabated throughout much of their ordeal, or at least up to the point at which Janna’s nervous system finally capitulates and she passes out. Janna complains about Justin forgetting to carry his cell phone and thus being unable to call for help. Justin loses patience with Janna when she starts to panic, and snaps at her when she challenges him on the fundamentals of their situation, such as whether they have enough oxygen. “You’re supposed to be a doctor!” she says. “I’m not a doctor, you know that. Jesus.” (Justin works at the local university, doing research into babies with fetal alcohol syndrome.)

There is irony, too, in the fact that Justin and Janna’s sniping is mirrored by their assailant, whom they overhear on his cell phone, talking to someone about takeout pizza: “I don’t know why the fuck the thing hasn’t come, you call them back yourself! I know, I know, that’s why I said don’t use them anymore, didn’t I? Yeah. That’s right. And pineapple on just half this time, right? And don’t call back. I might be longer, there’s no car now.” The self-conscious normalcy in this conversation renders it that much more ironic, and that much funnier.

Indeed, the whole situation is laced in irony. When the man with the gun first approaches the car, Justin and his fiancée are parked in front of Janna’s apartment saying goodnight before parting. The couple always sleeps apart on Thursday nights, we are told, putatively so that Janna can be well-rested for her “nightmare day” shift on Friday. Privately, Justin feels that this is a last stab at independence on her part, a “vestige” of their separate lives prior to becoming a couple. Justin, by contrast, “could never take in too much of her”; when he tries to consider the ebb and flow of mutual desire, the need for reciprocity and “mutuality” in a relationship, “his mind would start to drift, unable to concentrate on the matter for so long, and he would simply want her body next to his again.”

Needless to say, when his wish is granted soon after, it is in neither the context nor the situation he was imagining. “In the deeps of the trunk, furled on their sides in mirror image, they lay with knees pressed together, faces close. Her breaths, coming fast, were hot, coppery, sour.” Here, Heighton emphasizes the proximity of the couple by way of olfactory detail, something that the critic Alex Good points out is very difficult to pull off effectively. The insistence on smell to underscore the uncomfortably constrained conditions inside the trunk recurs later, when Janna loses control of her bladder due to fear and exhaustion: “There was a smell like ammonia and he thought he felt dampness through the right knee of his jeans.” This enforced closeness is counterpointed by an image of FAS siblings together in the womb: “Entombed in their toxic primordial sea, the two had seemed to be holding each other in a consoling embrace.”

The couple does manage to escape from the confines of the car trunk, but significantly, Heighton withholds the details of how this transpires. Their release occurs offstage, in the interstice between sections in the story. The coda describes the way in which Janna and Justin regale friends with the tale of their ordeal, exaggerating and embellishing for dramatic effect, although this forced revelry is only for public display; between each other they never speak of their shared experience, which brought them close together in ways neither one of them could have anticipated.

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