31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 29: “South Country” by John Vigna

May 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Bull Head

Bull_HeadThe eight stories in Bull Head take place in a fictionalized version of British Columbia’s Elk Valley region, and feature (predominantly) working-class men struggling and scraping to get by, trying to wrest some form of meaning out of their constrained circumstances. What most crucially marks the stories is a resolute refusal on the part of the author to comment or offer any kind of moral opprobrium. These are true “exit author” stories: Vigna presents his characters and their situations, and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions about them.

Vigna introduces the collection with an epigraph from Flannery O’Connor focusing on the capability of violence to return people to an essential state, and certainly there is violence aplenty in these stories. Bull Head is, in sum, rough, scabrous, and nasty.

The nastiest story of the bunch is “South Country,” which mercilessly dissects the consequences of cyclical violence within the context of a hyper-masculine culture. The violence in the story is made even more unpalatable for being sexual in nature. But for all its amorality and savage content, the story shares with the others in the collection a thematic insistence on paralysis; the characters in “South Country” are trapped, by their circumstances, but also by an inheritance of violence and discord they are ultimately unable to rise above.

The heart of the story is Billy, the first-person narrator. Billy drives a cab and spends his evenings drinking at the Northerner bar, often in the company of Travis. Travis is misogyny incarnate, and has a particularly odious ongoing bet with his buddy: whenever one of them succeeds in taking a woman home and having sex with her, he owes the other $100. The other man is then obliged to sleep with the same woman; if he is unable, he owes double. The two men view the women in the town as nothing more than potential conquests, with a dollar value attached, at that. “To easy prey,” is Travis’s appalling toast to Billy over beers at the Northerner.

In the bar, both men take notice of a waitress with an Australian accent. Travis adopts a typical attitude of swagger and braggadocio, but it is Billy who ends up winning the woman’s affection, not by coming on strong, but by displaying sensitivity and vulnerability. The courtship between Billy and Linda, the waitress, forms a tender counterpoint to the masculine hyperbole and arrogance the two men engage in over beer.

It also forms a counterpoint to Billy’s relationship with the Bride, a local eccentric who earns her moniker because she goes around in a filthy wedding dress. The reason for the Bride’s choice of attire is never made clear, other than Billy’s assumption that “[s]he was a certifiable loon.” Although it’s never stated outright, it seems obvious that the Bride has been injured by some unspecified incident in her past, which makes her treatment at the hands of Billy and Travis that much more reprehensible. Billy seduces the Bride after Travis claims to have slept with her; not only does Billy have sex with the Bride and summarily abandon her, he steals her money on the way out the door.

That the Bride has suffered some misfortune in her past seems undeniable; certainly there is no escaping the injury and hurt Billy is heir to as a young man. Vigna makes this more than clear in flashback scenes interspersed throughout the story. The summer Billy is thirteen, he ends up on a cattle ranch with Harley, who has promised the boy’s mother that he would look after him. The crew consists of a barbaric sociopath named Hops, who rapes Billy with a bottle, and threatens a young woman with rape while Billy looks on.

In the second instance, Billy menaces Hops with a scythe, an implement laden with all sorts of metaphoric implication. “I wanted to tell her that it’s okay,” Billy says about the victim of Hops’s assault, “it will all be okay, that it will pass, and you’ll be fine. It might take some time, but you’ll learn to slash it out of you bit by bit, leave it behind until maybe there’s nothing left. Nothing left to do but survive.” But this idea proves chimerical; Billy ends up abandoning the scene of the incipient rape, running away through the forest, “screaming at something, a past, a future, a life that seemed like no way out at all.”

Here, Vigna makes explicit the theme of paralysis: Billy is trapped in a cycle of unending violence, which he was initiated into as a young man, and which he is doomed to repeat over and over again as an adult. Vigna does not excuse Billy’s behaviour, or let him off the hook, but the violence and degradation that are visited on him as a teen go some distance in explaining his desensitized nature in the present.

The tragedy of Billy’s experience is that he does manage to find a healthy, caring relationship with Linda, but is unable to sustain it, choosing instead to break his oath of loyalty to her by degrading the Bride in order to feel superior to Travis. Although the possibility of redemption is offered him, Billy is ultimately too far gone to recognize or accept it.

“Learn anything at church this morning,” Harley asks Billy in one flashback scene. “Yeah,” Billy replies. “We’re all going to hell.”

“Amen to that,” is Harley’s only response.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 28: “The Obituary Writer” by Douglas Glover

May 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From A Guide to Animal Behaviour

A_Guide_to_Animal_Behaviour“I don’t want to make this depressing for you,” says the narrator of Douglas Glover’s story at approximately the midpoint. It is a somewhat ironic statement, given that the story, from its title onward, is about death. But, then again, the story is also about life, and existence, and the human condition – all of which is inextricably tied up with the subject of death, but all of which is also concerned with something else, a barbaric yawp in the face of human mortality.

Glover, one of the great unsung story writers this country has ever produced, tips his hand with the epigraph, from Philippe-Paul de Ségur, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon during the disastrous French invasion of Russia: “We drifted along in this empire of death like accursed phantoms.” Glover’s story locates itself in an “empire of death,” in which the inhabitants do, for the most part, drift along like accursed phantoms, not cognizant of their essential mutability and ephemerality.

“The Obituary Writer” does not take place in Moscow, but rather in Saint John, New Brunswick, where the narrator occupies the titular profession at a local newspaper, and suffers the breakdown of his relationship with Annie, a Catholic woman who is single-minded in her focus on her ailing brother, Aiden, in a coma as a result of a head injury.

The entire story, in one way or another, is about our various responses to death – or the threat of death – and the way those responses inform who we are and how we live our lives. At the age of nineteen, Aiden (reportedly, for the story is related in the first person, and therefore must be evaluated on the basis of that narrator’s vested interest in the degree to which we believe what he is saying) gets drunk at a university party and falls from a railing while attempting to perform a tightrope trick. Reduced to the status of a vegetable in the hospital, he becomes “suddenly moral” in the eyes of his Catholic relatives, who now forgive him for missing mass on Sundays, because he has a “ready-made excuse.”

Aiden’s sister, Annie, also “[goes] Catholic” by quitting her job and assuming a position on the night shift at “a home for retarded children,” so that she can spend her days sitting at her brother’s bedside. She only occasionally visits the narrator in the apartment they used to share together, preferring to spend her time in the company of her comatose brother, or in the hospital chapel, where “she and God are sorting all this out.”

Practically everyone in Glover’s story is dying, or has some relationship with death. Sergeant Pye, the policeman who owns the apartment building in which Annie and the narrator live, is dying of cancer. Mrs. Lawson, the narrator’s downstairs neighbour, tells him that the previous tenant in their unit died in his bed a month before the new couple took up occupancy. And there is Aiden, who the doctor suggests might be better off dead than alive in a hopelessly comatose state:

It was clear, from the doctor’s tone, his kindness and the set of his eyes, that he was telling Annie’s father: “I can let him die tonight, which would be better for everyone, or I can prolong this.” But you only had to glance once at the father’s face to know what his answer was. These people are Catholic; they have met the Pope. … They toe the party line. Whatever happens, they come down blindly on the side of life.

What it means to “come down blindly on the side of life” is precisely the theme of Glover’s story: the narrator’s idea that Aiden has a little man in his body who is keeping him alive but will one day throw up his hands and quit is countered by Annie and her family’s more religious notions of a soul and a life beyond this one.

The narrator writes obituaries, which are stories of lives told after their subjects have died. The narrator attempts to wring some emotion from the stories he tells, to pull at his readers’ heartstrings:

Let me tell you, it makes all the difference in the world if you can say so-and-so died “suddenly” and “at home.” Age can be a factor. From a human interest point of view, the younger the deceased the better. Death at an advanced age, say, past a hundred, elicits only a mild exclamation from the bored reader. But give me a little girl, who dies at three, and I can bring tears to the eye.

Of course, like most writers after Freud (and, let’s face it, many before), the narrator is unable to separate death from sex. Annie was a “technical virgin” when she got together with the narrator, having only been with a woman to that point. The narrator, “drunk and ironical and somewhat provoked by her coldness,” makes a pass at her at a party, after which he “[makes] her bleed.” The narrator’s description of their sex is telling: “‘I love you,’ she would say, and die.” The French term for orgasm is “la petite mort,” or, “the little death,” an association that Glover makes explicit in his story: “We both understand that I am titillated by her dual nature and her lesbian past,” the narrator remarks. “I am a lover of paradox, of outré juxtapositions and jokes – this is the way we talk about death.”

The narrator uses sex as a kind of shield against mortality, engaging in an affair with a local librarian after Annie begins to pull away from him in favour of her comatose brother. His orgasm leaves him “briefly, nowhere, lost, swirling in a semantic ocean,” the adjective doing double duty, implying both “relating to language” and “generative.”

The narrator is a humanist, devoted to the emotional resonance he is able to wring out of an obituary, and drawn to the human contact in the librarian’s embrace, both of which stand in contrast to Annie’s obsession over her unconscious and unresponsive brother. The fact that Annie’s confrontation with the narrator about his infidelity is conveyed in a parenthetical aside tells a reader all she needs to know about the relative importance the narrator places on this turn of events.

The final part of the story shifts from the present to the future tense, which has the effect of denuding the story’s immediacy, replacing it instead with a sense of inevitability. The final scene features the narrator and an erstwhile neighbour, who has been institutionalized for an unspecified dementia, sitting by a causeway on the other side of the city, looking across the water at the teeming humanity beyond, thinking that in their removal they have “entered some other alien, yet beautiful, universe.”

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 22: “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” by Clark Blaise

May 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Montreal Stories

Montreal_StoriesWhen we think of Montreal writers, we tend to think first of Mordecai Richler, the bard of St. Urbain Street. But Clark Blaise also mythologized the city in some of his best stories. As Peter Behrens writes in the introduction to the 2003 volume Montreal Stories, “Montreal functions like an (unreliable) heart within the body of Clark Blaise’s oeuvre: a treacherous, indispensable organ at the centre of his fiction.”

The parenthetical adjective is significant: the eye with which Blaise views the city is noticeably jaundiced. Take, for example, the bravura opening paragraph of the story “Among the Dead,” which reads, in part:

In a certain season (the late winter) and in certain areas (those fringes between the city, and the river that makes it an island) Montreal is the ugliest city in the world. Despite its reputation, its tourist bureaus, most of the island of Montreal will break your heart. … In this, Montreal is truly the Paris of North America. The same bleakness, the same bidonvilles stretching for miles beyond the city walls. Our dream has always been salvation and bonheur, even knowing that we’d ingested the worst of both worlds: the suspicions and ignorance of the petit commerçant, with the arrogant sprawl of America.

This paragraph testifies to Blaise’s often fractious relationship, in his fiction, with Quebec’s largest metropolis: himself a transplant from the United States, the author views the city from the critical perspective of an immigrant. It also testifies to his sublime, seemingly effortless technique.

Both aspects are on display in “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard,” which also blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (a quality Behrens refers to as a “deliberate and daring instability of form” that “anticipates writers like W.G. Sebald.”)

The young boy at the story’s centre is driven and purposeful (“That’s how it is with janitors’ sons,” he tells us), to the point of waiting for a bus at 4:30 a.m. to take him to his paper route after Greek immigrants overrun his own neighbourhood and shrink him out of a viable business. He is ten years old at the time. “After a few days I didn’t have to pay a fare. I’d take coffee from the driver’s thermos, his cigarettes, and we’d discuss hockey from the night before. In return I’d give him a paper when he let me off. They didn’t call me Curette for nothing.”

The nickname, given to him by the nuns at school, means “little priest,” and underscores both the resourcefulness of the boy and his essential otherness. His position as an outsider, even in a city that is teeming with new immigrants – witness, for example, the Greeks who move into the neighbourhood, encouraging their compatriots to snap up vacancies by using for-rent signs written only in Greek – is deeply felt, to the point that he wears a Boston Bruins sweatshirt to hockey games at the Forum. Unlike the hero of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, who wants a Canadiens shirt and is mortified to be given a Leafs jersey instead, Blaise’s protagonist wears the Bruins jersey almost as a coat of arms or an insignia declaring his status as an expat.

Regardless of the association professed by his clothes, the boy is a devoted aficionado of the Canadiens, especially their unstoppable forward, Maurice “Rocket” Richard:

I loved the Canadiens fiercely. It had to do with the intimacy of old-time hockey, how close you were to the gods on the ice; you could read their lips and hear them grunt as they slammed the boards. So there I stood in my Boston Bruins shirt loving the Rocket. There was always that spot of perversity in the things I loved.

Blaise describes the quintessential Canadian (and Canadiens) passion for hockey precisely; “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” pairs well with Mark Anthony Jarman’s “A Nation Plays Chopsticks” as two stories capable of defining, for those who may not entirely share the same degree of interest, what captivates hockey fans about the sport. For the boy in the story, it is not just a pastime, but verges on something almost religious: “[T]here was nothing in any other sport to compare with the spell of hockey. Inside the Forum in the early fifties, those games against Boston … were evangelical, for truly we were dans le cénacle where everyone breathed as one.”

The chronology is important because, as the boy points out elsewhere, this was the time that poor people could still afford a ticket to a Canadiens game at the Forum. Indeed, the first thing the boy tells us in the story is that his family was poor. “It was a strange kind of poverty, streaked with gentility (the kind that chopped you down when you least expected it),” he says. Although the boy is an only child, and thus “there was more to go around,” much of the family’s money gets drunk or gambled away by the patriarch (the alcoholic father being a tried-and-true CanLit archetype).

The family’s poverty is what eventually drives them south across the border to the U.S., where the father hopes to land a job in one of his brother-in-law’s dry cleaning establishments. The job, needless to say, never materializes, and the family returns home in disgrace. The crossing of borders, Behrens notes, is another essential feature of Blaise’s fiction, but more importantly, the return to Montreal reinforces the family’s outsider status. They find the father’s brother, Réal, who had been enlisted to watch the apartment while the family was off pursuing its fortune, “very happily installed.” The ease with which Réal slips into “lifelong comfort and security” is in stark contrast to the boy’s father, whose idea of the good life  is “moving up to the ground floor where the front door buzzer kept waking you up.”

Finally, the attitude toward Montreal, like almost everything in Blaise’s stories is bifurcated. There is the authentic love of the home team and its captain, the Rocket, but this love must be indulged at one remove, from behind the screen of a Boston Bruins shirt. What resounds most clearly at the end of the story is the statement made by one of the residents in a house the family stops at on their way back to Montreal – “Man, you sure is crazy” – a statement the boy adopts for himself, wearing it “like a Bruins sweater, till it too wore out.”

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 18: “All the Suffering” by Alice Zorn

May 18, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From Ruins and Relics

Ruins_and_Relics“Images and moments run through Alice Zorn’s stories,” writes poet Neil MacRae in his review of Zorn’s 2009 story collection, Ruins and Relics, “smearing together the foreign and familiar; past and present; what we expect, what we wish for, what we get.” Structurally, “All the Suffering” straddles the divide between past and present, focusing on a woman’s sexual awakening and her dawning realization of how it affects one of her classmates, a troubled young man who has been horribly abused at home.

The woman is Delia, now a mother to two children, Zoe and Zach. Her concerns on the morning the story opens are quotidian and ordinary: locating Zoe’s hair brush so that she can get her daughter ready and send her children off to school. But the search for the hair brush triggers memories from Delia’s past, as everyday objects and events are often wont to do, frequently with little or no warning. The immediate impulse for Delia’s reverie is a voice on the radio “droning the world’s misery.” This puts her in mind of Pete, an old school friend of hers who grew up to become an activist, beginning in high school with attendance at demonstrations protesting U.S. activity in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America.

Zorn does not employ the high modernist style of Virginia Woolf or Marcel Proust to indicate a slide into memory. Rather than stream-of-consciousness, Zorn breaks her story into short sections, frequently cut off in the middle of a sentence, that slash abruptly between present and past. The technique is clunky and not entirely effective, but it does have the virtue of replicating the way an individual consciousness can jump from one seemingly unconnected moment to another almost instantly.

Much better is the interaction between Delia and Pete, who initially connect with one another as high school misfits. Both are bookish and lack the ability to play sports well, and Delia’s teacher initially pairs them up because they don’t seem to belong with anyone else. They spend their time in the library, devouring books and beginning to question the received wisdom of the world. The books in the library tell them, for instance, that “all the famous British novelists were men; Tamils were highly adept at climbing trees; Communism was misguided.” But Delia “wondered how a nation could function on a system of thought that was misguided. Why wasn’t Jane Austen a novelist as much as Charles Dickens? Did Tamils, who were human, really have arms as long as a monkey’s, the way the drawing showed?”

Delia’s inquisitive nature extends to the realm of sex, which confuses and mystifies her. Her mother shows her the box of feminine hygiene products hidden away in the bathroom and sketches the basic facts for her – “That’s how you get a baby. With sperm and an egg. And don’t think it can’t happen because it can – as soon as you get your period. Not just when you’re older and married.” But Delia’s curiosity impels her to investigate the murky world of sexual relations that her mother warns her about, particularly the nature of boys and their impulses: “Boys always try,” Delia’s mother says, “and once they start, they can’t even stop. It’s up to you not to let it start.”

Ignoring her mother’s advice, Delia takes Pete to a secluded location in the middle of a glade, in the hope that he will “try” something with her, but all he does is pull out a book and begin to read. Later, when she does get her period, Delia retreats to the glade where she discovers Pete hiding, and she confronts him about his unwillingness to initiate any activity earlier: “Some kind of boy! What’s the matter with you?”

The matter with Pete turns out to involve hideous cigarette burns around his nipples and genitals, administered by his puritanical mother. Zorn unfolds the scene in an unadorned manner, only later allowing Delia to recognize the way in which her combined horror and lack of empathy must have added to Pete’s shame.

By the time they reach university in Toronto, the two have grown apart, and argue about the relative importance of poetry over an active engagement with the problems of the world. That the distance between them has anything to do with the scene in the glade does not occur to Delia, and in fact will not occur to her until the very close of the story, set in the narrative present. The ruin of Pete’s body was more than a young girl on the cusp of womanhood could be expected to comprehend or process at the time; once the damage has been done, all that is left are the relics of her relationship with the troubled boy, and her regret at not having acted differently.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 15: “Dreyfus in Wichita” by Cary Fagan

May 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From My Life Among the Apes

My_Life_Among_the_ApesCary Fagan writes out of the same tradition of Jewish storytelling as Isaac Bashevis Singer; like Singer, subtlety is not a defining feature of Fagan’s writing. “Dreyfus in Wichita” does not rely on metaphor, recondite poetic imagery, or irony, but unfolds in a straightforward, chronological fashion that privileges story over technique and showcases the author’s signature brand of gentle humour. The result is something rare in CanLit: a story that is unashamed, unpretentious entertainment.

Which is not to suggest that it lacks substance. Indeed, Fagan’s fable about a teacher at a Hebrew Day School in Toronto who realizes his dream to write and mount a full-scale musical addresses subjects of art and inspiration, and takes as its starting point an important historical episode from the closing days of the 19th century.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer who was convicted of treason in 1894, a prosecution that was unfounded and based largely in anti-Semitism. (The so-called Dreyfus Affair was the source of Émile Zola’s famous J’accuse!) Fagan’s interest in the Dreyfus case, at least where his short story is concerned, is ancillary, and arises out of an historical footnote in the United States. According to Richard D. Mandell’s book Paris 1900, in the year 1899, the city of Wichita, Kansas, selected a young Jewish girl as Carnival Queen in a gesture of sympathy with the plight of the French officer. When Fagan’s protagonist, Michael Spearman, stumbles across this tidbit during a bout of lunchtime reading, he feels the pulse of creative inspiration and determines to write a stage musical, entitled Dreyfus in Wichita, based on the incident.

The opening moments of Fagan’s story, which quickly sketch the scene and the broad outlines of the plot, are indicative of the author’s approach. Michael, we are told, teaches music and science at Beth Shalom, a Hebrew Day School “located in a former Toronto car dealership.” The ad hoc nature of the school is underscored in subsequent details: many of the books in the library “had been donated in a carton of garage-sale leftovers” (it’s the word “leftovers” that really sells this: as though the school couldn’t even count on a donation of books that other people might actually want), and the library itself is located in the basement, which also houses “the science lab, the music room, and the furnace.” Eating his cold lunch (more leftovers) amid the “fur of mildew growing between the cinder blocks,” Fagan writes, “Michael could think and dream and feel the quiet thrumming of disappointment in himself.”

Michael’s musical ambitions had found an outlet in the garage band he plays in, doing covers of Elvis Costello and Clash songs from the 1980s, but his unspoken love has always been for musical theatre. For whatever reason, the story of Sadie Joseph, the Wichita Carnival Queen, stokes the fires of his imagination and he writes his musical in a burst of sustained creativity, using religious holidays and summer vacation as time to realize his artistic vision.

Once finished, Michael relies on his supportive wife, Frida, to provide him with the kick he needs to try to get his production in front of an audience. “[If] there was one thing Michael knew about himself,” Fagan tells us, “it was that he had no entrepreneurial push.” Frida encourages Michael to follow his dream, decrying the “old-boy system” that holds sway in professional theatre and presenting him with a book called How to Sell Your Musical to Broadway and Make It Big, for which she spent $42, one dollar for each year Michael has lived. When Frida gives him the book, Michael reacts with self-deprecation verging on inferiority, saying only, “I don’t deserve it.”

Whether he does or not is a question that Fagan leaves open: though he struggles and frets over the technical problems involved in writing his musical, we never do discover whether the finished product is any good. All we do know is that it ends up running three hours and fifteen minutes (presumably with at least one intermission). But ultimately, questions of quality are unimportant for Michael. What is important is that he follow his dream to its conclusion, regardless of the setbacks he faces along the way. Those setbacks include losing $8,000 to a fairly blatant con artist; the fact that Michael is willing to overlook what should be obvious to him is indicative of the strength of his belief, not in himself, but in the power of art.

Michael does end up mounting Dreyfus in Wichita, not on Broadway, but at Beth Shalom, thanks to the intercession of his best pupil, twelve-year-old Laura Applebaum, and a colleague named Ellen Litvak, “who’d been dying to put on a musical for years.” Ellen convinces the staff to allow Michael to proceed on the basis that the school would not need to pay him royalties. (In another slyly witty aside, Fagan notes that the only faculty who vote against the musical are “the gym, mathematics, and Halacha teachers.”) The performance takes place on a single night, and the school rabbi’s reaction when the show sells out provides another comic moment: “‘Mazel tov,’ the rabbi said to Michael. ‘You’ve given us a new roof. Now it doesn’t matter if it’s a hit or a miss.'”

Finally, it doesn’t matter to Michael, either. The very fact that he has managed to follow through on his dream is sufficient. As he stares out at the audience after the curtain falls, with the feeling that “somebody close to him had died,” readers are reminded of the teacher playing Elvis Costello tunes in a garage band in his spare time, then hiding himself away in a room on his own to secretly listen to recordings of Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, and Cabaret, and to dream.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 13: “Sanditon” by Helen Marshall

May 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hair Side, Flesh Side

Hair_Side_Flesh_SideAlmost 200 years after her death, Jane Austen continues to exert a powerful influence. Her novels are read, studied, discussed, and emulated. In publishing, she is something of a cottage industry, inspiring tributes, sequels, and books of non-fiction. Recent titles arising out of the Jane Austen canon in one form or another include The Jane Austen Book Club; Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World; The Jane Austen Marriage Manual; The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder; Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination; Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen; Dancing with Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen; and Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating. Austen, it seems, is everywhere.

And yet, there has never been a Jane Austen story quite like Helen Marshall’s “Sanditon,” which owes its title and  subject matter to the famous Regency writer, but owes an equal debt to the work of British horrormeister Clive Barker. Unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Emma and the Werewolves, “Sanditon” is not a mash-up or a parody, but rather a full-throttle horror story that happens to take Austen’s work as inspiration.

The title refers to Austen’s unfinished final novel. The story involves Hanna Greeson, an editor at the Toronto firm Belletristic, Inc., who has been sent to England to scout new authors. While she is there, two separate but interconnected events occur: she has a one-night stand with Gavin Hale, a married novelist, and she discovers a strange welt on her neck: “The skin was dried out, rough, but the space itself was numb, as if all the nerve endings had been disconnected.” As the lesion spreads, Hanna grows increasingly concerned, eventually enlisting Gavin’s assistance. When the author examines the wound he discovers what appears to be Jane Austen’s final novel, complete and entire, written on the underside of Hanna’s skin.

Stephen King once said that if he tells someone the premise of a story and that person laughs, he knows he’s on to something. And indeed, a brief summary of “Sanditon” makes it sound like a kind of morbid shaggy dog story. But in Marshall’s hands, the admittedly bizarre premise becomes a springboard for an examination of illness, fidelity, and literary celebrity.

When Hanna first discovers the spot on her neck, her initial assumption is cancer. She recalls hearing stories about women discovering lumps in their breasts, and feels a pang of guilt about an erstwhile university acquaintance who had to take a year off to undergo chemotherapy: “There had been a list of people who had signed up to go with him, visit the hospital and keep him company. Hanna hadn’t been one of those people. She had liked him well enough, but the whole thing was a bit grotesque.” Her confusion and fear about the unknown nature of her disease is acute, and she reacts viscerally, initially wishing it had been Gavin who had fallen victim, not her:

Screw Gavin and his books and his beautiful voice and his cat’s smile and his wife, damn them all to hell and chemo and let him be the one. He has a family, and that’s why you have families, so you don’t need anyone to sign up to sit with you while you die.

Marshall’s writing, like the films of David Cronenberg, is heavily occupied with matters of flesh and blood; Hanna’s anger and confusion about what is happening to her is couched in sanguinary metaphors: “This was the first bit of raw meat that had been dangled in front of her … and she couldn’t help but take a swipe at it. She just wanted to see something bleeding.” Hanna’s initial exploration of the affected area is described in minute, almost loving, detail:

She could feel the roughness, a slight sponginess as she put pressure against it, that same feeling of simultaneous tingling and numbness. A hard scarab shell, scab-like. She forced her nail into it. The tingling intensified, but it didn’t feel bad – just very, very strange. Slowly, she dug the nail in until she could feel the edge of the thing against her finger. She dug a little bit more, scratching, getting the other fingernails involved. Then something peeled away, flaking off between her forefinger and thumb.

On numerous occasions, Hanna’s skin is likened to paper, which underscores the association between writing and writer, between creation and creator.

This association takes on an ironic tone, not just because the reason a complete version of a 19th-century novelist’s final, unfinished work should appear under the skin of a present-day editor from Toronto is left unexplained. Once Gavin comprehends the provenance of Hanna’s illness, he contacts his agent and secures a lucrative publishing contract, then begins making the rounds of the talk-show circuit to discuss “his” discovery. Gavin not only effectively takes credit for the manuscript, he quite literally appropriates Hanna’s very body for his own purposes.

Marshall signals Gavin’s predatory aspect early in the story, when Hanna refers to his “charming smile,” which she compares to the Cheshire cat’s smile, during his initial seduction. She notes the smile again later, lying in bed with him in her hotel room, the two of them watching Gavin give a television interview about the newly discovered Jane Austen novel: “Television-Gavin was saying something witty to the camera, and, muted, Hanna just caught the close-up on his face, smiling. She thought about that smile – the cat’s smile – slipping on and off again, the warmth of him beside her. Felt a little sad.”

Compare the cat’s smile that Gavin has perfected to Hanna’s own reaction to her disease, the image of her “pacing … back and forth like some kind of large predatory cat locked in a cage,” wanting to take a swipe at a piece of raw meat just so that she can see something bleed.

In case there is any doubt about Gavin’s motivations, Marshall erases them with a scene in which Hanna calls the writer for assistance, only to have him brush her off: “Really, Hanna, it was very lovely to meet you at the conference, but – you know how these things go, when the cat’s away … There’s really nothing I can help you with.” Note, once again, the feline metaphor applied to Gavin, as well as his unwillingness to come to Hanna’s aid in the absence of any kind of personal reward. Gavin only agrees to meet Hanna after she threatens to reveal their tryst to his wife; when the two get together at a local restaurant, he takes her into the washroom and fucks her.

Gavin’s appropriation of Hanna’s person, of the phenomenon contained beneath her skin, is turned on its head in the final scene of the story, which features Hanna inserting a manuscript of her own underneath the lining of her flesh, literally internalizing the words that she has created. This image is given extra resonance in the aftermath of a conversation between Hanna and Gavin’s wife, the only time the two characters meet. Gavin’s wife – who, significantly, is never given a name of her own, but is only ever referred to as “Mrs. Hale” or “the wife” – admits to Hanna that she has known about her husband’s serial infidelities for a long time, but has decided to put up with them.

And the truth is – the real truth, between us women – is that I’d rather have Sanditon. Even if Gavin never wrote another word, the world would keep turning, there are plenty of Gavin Hales in the world and no one would really mourn. … But then there’s you, my dear, and then there’s Jane. And maybe the world can’t live without her. Maybe that’s what it all means.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 10: “Toronto” by Cassie Beecham

May 10, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From The Modern World

The_Modern_WorldThe eponymous city in Cassie Beecham’s harsh, acidic story is a character unto itself, a seething, hypocritical metropolis in the eyes of Annie, the twenty-eight-year-old B.C. transplant who serves as narraror. Annie, who has vague notions of wanting to be an actress, but currently finds herself “between careers,” has fled to the big city from her stultifying home in Castlegar, B.C. Her upbringing, she claims, “had been as small-town-nondescript as is humanly possible,” complete with loving parents and a boyfriend who held down a steady job, played in a bluegrass band, treated her well, and cooked her meals. “In Castlegar I played soccer on the weekends and everyone wanted me to have a baby,” Annie remarks caustically. “It was a John Mellencamp song with heli-skiing.”

Annie flees east, “like so many others who knew deep down that they were destined for failure but wanted to fail big.” Her initial desire is to go to New York City, but without the necessary documentation she has to settle for Toronto. Once she arrives, she finds that the city lives up – or, perhaps more precisely, lives down – to her expectations:

The city was exactly the way I’d imagined it. Outside the downtown core it was filled with low-rise brick buildings in various states of disrepair. Most were sleazy bars accessible only by a back entrance. Everybody under the age of 45 dressed like they were teenage rock stars. In the winter Toronto feels like a Polish slum and people seem happy with it that way.

Toronto, as seen from Annie’s jaundiced perspective, has a seedy, decrepit aspect to it; its denizens recognize the degraded quality of their surroundings but don’t seem to mind. This, for Annie, is part of the city’s essential hypocrisy. “Toronto was filled with fakes like me,” Annie says, “girls with suburban or rural upbringings who had come to Toronto in order to wear thrift-store jeans and find heartbreak.”

Beecham’s story takes place over a twenty-four-hour period during which Annie locks her boyfriend, Hank, in the living room of the apartment they share. The argument that precipitates Annie’s action is about money, something she acknowledges as a constant source of friction. “The two of us, we had money issues,” she says. In this instance, the sum – twelve dollars – is relatively piddling, but the fight escalates to the point of physical violence, with the two hurling a can of chili at one another. Annie admits this kind of aggression – the kind that leaves bruises – is a regular occurrence: “We were that type of couple,” she says. “The really in love kind. The kind where every time you opened your mouth you caused the other person hurt or misery of some kind.”

Annie’s assessment of love as authentic only when the lovers are constantly doing harm to one another points to the irony in Beecham’s story, which is couched in Annie’s self-delusion. Annie leaves a caring, attentive boyfriend in Castlegar for an intemperate, disdainful man in Toronto, and thinks the latter represents genuine love, something that is in keeping with her notion of small-town B.C. as sleepy and boring compared to the romanticized ideal of city life she carries with her about Toronto. “I … wanted more violence in my life,” Annie says about her dissatisfaction with Castlegar, “or upheaval maybe.”

Hank’s own upbringing is marked by upheaval: his little brother, Francis, died in a house fire when Hank was a teen, his father and another brother, Andrew, both committed suicide (though Hank believes the latter to have died of a drug overdose), and his mother suffers from bipolar disorder. As with her faulty notions about love, Annie romanticizes the anguish that Hank has suffered, assuming that his past has turned him into a kind of brooding, Byronic figure. “His childhood easily trumped my typical one, and I suppose to an extent, it consumed me; in the span of a week Hank came into my life and was completely able to erase my narcissism.”

On the couple’s first date, Hank takes Annie to the College Street dive bar Sneaky Dee’s, where they share nachos and beer. Then they return to Hank’s apartment, where he rapes her.

Beecham’s handling of the date rape is subtle and precise, with careful attention paid to the narrative register. Unlike the pitched argument that opens the story, the scene in Hank’s bedroom is almost devoid of intensity: the rhythm of the narration remains languid and dispassionate, replicating the mental state of someone who is trying to deny or repress the psychological significance of a traumatic event. Annie’s deferrals (“Let’s not”; “Don’t”) are presented coldly, as is her assessment of Hank’s reaction: “But he did, anyway.” This is immediately followed by Annie’s rationalizations about Hank’s motives: “Maybe the music was too loud and he didn’t hear me, because he didn’t stop.” After the fact, Annie continues to try to explain away Hank’s behaviour, downplaying the importance of the event and offering excuses for his refusal to accede to her protestations: “Things even out in the end,” Annie says. “If your brother is burned alive in front of you when you’re thirteen, you’re forgiven if you rape a girl, who really likes you a lot anyway, when you get older.”

The scene in Hank’s bedroom extends the violence that characterizes the couple’s relationship. The irony in Annie’s locking Hank in the living room is that she knows she can get away with it, because Hank, a carpenter, cares too much about the apartment’s French doors to risk ruining them trying to break out. Hank will withhold violence on the inanimate doors in his apartment, but has no qualms about meting it out on Annie.

This, too, is a form of hypocrisy. It is not incidental that Hank’s apartment is located above Honest Ed’s discount warehouse. To access the unit, the couple must bypass a group of department-store mannequins, another manifestation of the inauthentic nature of the city and its inhabitants. Not for nothing does Annie point out that when she first met Hank, he was dressed in Converse sneakers and “an ugly knitted sweater”: “He was attempting to look ironic, but not quite pulling it off, which seemed to be the style of the moment. At the time I thought he completely personified Toronto.”

Beecham leaves her story open-ended, although she does provide Annie with an Ibsen-inspired doll’s house moment of independence and assertion. The implication is that Annie has at least begun to divest herself of her fanciful notions about trauma and misery. But her stark assessment of Toronto still resounds with a painful, poignant strain of truth: “The folks there seemed to understand that most humans need some form of sadness in order to feel complete.”

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 9: “Saudade” by Nicole Dixon

May 9, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From High-Water Mark

High_Water_MarkIn an interview with her publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, around the time her debut story collection appeared last fall, Nicole Dixon was asked to identify which aspect of writing she finds most challenging. “Coming up with new ideas and avoiding cliché,” Dixon responded. “Keeping motivated, especially knowing so many agents, publishers … and grant juries would rather I was writing a novel set in some war-torn and/or rural past or [with] some quirky gimmick.” The ten stories in High-Water Mark are all contemporary, although some do feature rural settings, and focus for the most part on strong female protagonists trying to navigate the choppy emotional waters of romantic relationships, careers, and family.

In contrast to the stories set in rural Nova Scotia, “Saudade” is almost defiantly urban, located in a present-day Toronto that is highly specific and recognizable. The CN Tower gets name-checked, naturally, but so does College Street resto/indie-music venue Ranch Relaxo, the university radio station CIUT, and former Yonge Street landmark Sam the Record Man. What these last three have in common is music, which is no accident: “Saudade” focuses on the fissures that develop when two female musicians invite a volatile third member into their band.

The nettlesome figure is Jette, short for Jacosta (her parents “are Greek and tragic”), the lead singer for a rock band called Martian Barn. Everything about Jette is powerful and just slightly off-kilter: her body is “tough,” her hair “asymmetrically layered,” and her voice “slightly distorted.” “[M]any lead female singers’ voices get drowned out by the instruments in their mostly male bands,” Dixon writes, “but Jette’s voice is an engine.” Notwithstanding her very name (if pronounced with a hard “J” sound), this is the second time in as many paragraphs that Jette is likened to a machine: when she gets up from a barroom table to go to the washroom, she leaves her companions “staring after [her] vapour trail.”

Jette is also a lesbian, which causes friction when she comes between the the two founding members of the indie-rock band The Tender Buttons. Ingrid, the guitarist and vocalist, is introverted and introspective, “most comfortable with a guitar strapped to her body or a mike in her face.” Keyboardist Sabine, by contrast, is more outgoing, prone to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ice cream cones and the phrase “Lick Me.” Sabine is also bisexual. “[If] I didn’t want to fuck half the women I meet,” she says, “I wouldn’t even bother with them.”

Sabine’s disdain for a certain kind of female finds an echo in Ingrid’s initial reaction to her when the two first encounter one another at a party. Ingrid is delighted to be able to engage in a detailed and knowledgeable dialogue about music, a subject usually dominated by dudes, and expresses surprise that “this woman-to-woman conversation never defaulted to talk of shopping or TV or complaints about men.” All of Dixon’s writing contains a strong feminist streak, and here she has built into her story its very own version of the Bechdel Test. “Sabine didn’t act like women acted at parties,” Dixon writes, “didn’t hate Ingrid just because Ingrid had expressed an opinion which was outside of the things women were supposed to talk about.”

The tenderness Ingrid feels for Sabine is manifested first in her surprise at Sabine’s revelation that she is bi, then in her disappointment when Sabine denies being attracted to her. “You’re not my type,” Sabine tells Ingrid. “Too cowgirl. … And if this conversation’s going where I think it’s going, well, I have a policy. Never sleep with your drummer. And I can drum.”

Sabine’s “policy” gets tested when she finds herself becoming physically interested in Jette, and finally explodes when she discovers that Jette and Ingrid have had sex.

Dixon handles the sexual jealously among the three members of the trio well, deftly shifting registers between hurtful insinuation and outright accusation. Music is the means by which the women express themselves creatively; it also becomes the means by which they can wound one another. “You want it to sound more like a good girly-girl Ingrid song?” Sabine asks when Jette makes a suggestion about tweaking a particular piece. Elsewhere, Sabine snipes, “I’m tired of your tear-in-a-beer songs.”

Jette exacerbates creative pressures that already exist between Ingrid and Sabine, and adds an element of sexual tension to the mix. Sabine’s sense of betrayal when she discovers that Ingrid – who had never slept with a woman before – has hooked up with Jette is palpable, and drives a wedge between the two that arguments about the band’s musical direction were incapable of creating. Dixon dissects the unequal power dynamics in the duo, then the trio, highlighting the nexus where personal and creative forces collide. “I knew this would happen,” Sabine says late in the story. “Three women. It’s an unholy trinity.”

The story’s title comes from an untranslatable Portuguese word referring to a kind of melancholic longing for something lost, a past that can never be entirely reclaimed. Although the conclusion offers Ingrid and Sabine a kind of détente, their bond will never be as strong as it was. Ingrid has eschewed the band and struck out on her own, and the story’s final image is of the two women embracing, with Ingrid’s guitar acting as a kind of impermeable barrier between them.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 8: “The Body Swap” by Emma Donoghue

May 8, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From Astray

AstrayA stranger comes to town. That’s one of the most reliable of plot motifs, and for a very practical reason: it’s hard to describe a town if it’s already banal to its inhabitants.” So writes Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue in the Afterword to her 2012 collection of historical fictions. “The writer,” Donoghue continues, “needs the stranger not just to set change in motion, but to reveal the town in all its peculiarity in the first place. Of course, put another way, what the town does is reveal all the strangeness in the stranger.” The strangers in Donoghue’s stories find themselves on the margins – of society, of convention, of accepted morality. The stories in the collection focus on issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation; the material is often fraught with the weight of history and humanity’s collective sins.

In this respect, “The Body Swap” is something of an outlier. It is a more or less straightforward caper story, which also showcases the author’s frequently overlooked facility for humour.

The story follows a group of counterfeiters in 19th-century Chicago who are suffering because their most skilled engraver of phony bills, Ben Boyd, has wound up in Joliet State prison, serving a ten-year sentence. The counterfeiters come up with a wild scheme to spring him: they will steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom in exchange for Boyd’s release.

The stranger in this story is Jim Morrissey, first seen in a Madison Street bar known as the Hub, where he has been regaling the owner and regulars about his recent prison stint. The group of conspirators adopt Morrissey as a member of their gang, albeit reluctantly at first. The dialogue-driven exchange in the Hub’s back office highlights Donoghue’s skills at ventriloquism, and her playfulness:

“I’m hoping you gentlemen have a mind to bring me in on some business,” Morrissey volunteers.

“What kind of business?” asks the older man.

“Oh, come on, Mr. Hughes. The coney trade, the bogus; shoving the queer.”

“Knowing the lingo doesn’t mean knowing the business,” observes Hughes.

“I never claimed to. The proverbial blank slate, that’s me. You need a shover, is that it? I could pass bad bills with a straight face.”

Hughes releases a sigh like air from a tire. “The business is all done in.”

Morrissey looks taken aback. “You say?”

“Time was, there was more queer than good floating round Illinois,” Hughes laments. “With all those newfangled notes and greenbacks the Government printed during the War between the States, who could tell bogus at a glance? But since they formed this Secret Service to crack down on us, trade’s turned tight as blazes.”

“It used to be you could bribe them to turn a blind eye,” Mullen contributes, “but these days …”

“And now they’ve banged up our Michelangelo.”

The group accepts Morrissey into its fold, not realizing that he is actually an undercover Secret Service agent who has been charged with breaking up the gang.

This whole story – the counterfeiters, the undercover agent, the audacious grave robbery – may seem far-fetched in the extreme, but for one small detail: it actually happened. In a note following the story, Donoghue sketches the historical incident that serves as the basis for her tale, and acknowledges a debt to two books on the subject, The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack and Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

What clearly fascinates Donoghue is the nebulous line between the cop and the criminals in this story. According to the author, Lewis Cass Swegles, the Secret Service agent upon whom Morrissey is based, himself ended up in Joliet on a burglary charge. (This after the jury in the counterfeiting trial attempted to get him brought up on charges of entrapment.) In her Afterword, Donoghue writes that Swegles/Morrissey “is clearly more akin to the counterfeiters he lives among (if undercover) than to the detectives for whom he works.” Indeed, the very business of working undercover is itself a kind of counterfeiting: passing oneself off as something other than what one really is.

The theme of authenticity pervades the story, and it is often difficult to determine which side is more “honest.” Hughes, who is something of a philosopher, muses about the fundamental nature of money in American society: “Money’s not real gold anymore … It’s only a kind of paper that the government calls precious; it’s a trick in itself. Well, I say Boyd’s bad notes are just as good. Who am I robbing, tell me, if I buy a horse with a queer bill?” Hughes posits that by switching from gold to paper – that is, from an object of actual wealth to a mere signifier of wealth – the U.S. government is acting as a kind of counterfeiter (“it’s a trick in itself”), pawning off something with no intrinsic value and claiming it is worth something. This, in Hughes’s eyes, is at least as duplicitous as what the counterfeiters get up to in their business. (The character of Hughes reminds the reader of Bob Dylan’s famous admonition, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”)

The theme of honesty versus duplicity is extended in the story’s backdrop, the disputed presidential election of 1876. Although Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, the election was called in favour of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, notwithstanding controversial recounts in several states, including Florida. It is said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. If all this has depressing echoes of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, those echoes are probably intentional on the part of the author. Of the 1876 election, Michael F. Holt writes:

With control of Congress split between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, disagreement about exactly who could count the votes produced a constitutional crisis that evoked threats of armed violence from some Democratic quarters. To resolve it, Congress created an unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated Federal Electoral Commission consisting of fifteen members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court. There was no bargain, usually described as the Compromise of 1877, to end Reconstruction; the Commission’s Republican majority, voting on a party line of 8-7, awarded all twenty disputed votes to Hayes. The resulting 185–184 victory proved the narrowest margin in American history. Bitter Democrats declared the election “the Fraud of the Century.”

In some quarters, the results of this election remain in dispute today. For Donoghue, this adds yet another level of resonance to her comic tale of counterfeiters and would-be grave robbers, another level of implication, and heightens the irony in the story’s closing line: “Now that’s the truth.”

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 5: “6:19’’ by Miranda Hill

May 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Sleeping Funny

Sleeping_FunnyThe soullessness of modern urban life comes under scrutiny in the gentle satire of Miranda Hill’s “6:19.” The story focuses on Nathan Faulk, a mid-level civil servant (“number eight on an approvals list of eleven”) in the employ of a Provincial Government minister. Faulk is a PR flack whose responsibility is to vet speeches and communiqués issuing from the minister’s office. His job exists at the confluence of politics and advertising, and Faulk spends his working hours crafting spin. Like most office drones, he is also concerned with covering his ass: when one of his colleagues gets fired after the minister embarrasses the government in a speech to an autoworkers’ union by forwarding a message contradictory to their own, Faulk worries that he will find himself in the line of fire, since it was he, at the behest of his direct superior, who delivered the speech to the minister early.

Everything about Faulk renders him a stereotype of the 21st-century office worker: he drinks overpriced lattes, eats trendy takeout paninis, wears Italian leather shoes, and is permanently welded to his Smartphone.

But the most important thing about Faulk, at least for Hill’s purposes in this story, is that he commutes to work from the suburbs. Along with countless other anonymous passengers, Faulk packs himself into commuter trains twice daily, abandoning his car at the suburban kiss-and-ride in the morning and retrieving it in the evening.

The move to a house near the second-last westbound station on the commuter line was one of the “high-stakes bets” placed by Faulk’s wife, Belinda, a woman with a yen for interior design and “an eye for potential”:

She had a feel for the “good bones” of houses, for neighbourhoods, opportunities, for things on the cusp of becoming something better. And Belinda’s ability to make selections – confident, profitable selections – had given Nathan some of his greatest moments of satisfaction and surety. Properties, cars, vacation spots – Belinda knew how to recognize the value of something not-quite discovered and to land the two of them in the midst of it, like second-wave pioneers, better equipped than the previous immigrants and ready to reap the benefits of settlement just before the boom.

But the price that Faulk pays for adopting a commuter lifestyle is that he ceases to take notice of his environment – everything is reduced to a blur of sameness and repetition. When a station announcement for a stop called Long Branch is read out during one trip, a fellow passenger sniffs, “This used to be Long Branch,” leaving Faulk, who has never before registered the name of the stop, wondering “what had happened to the Long Branch the woman thought she knew. But the question of Long Branch – its origins, its present – left Nathan as soon as the train departed the station.”

What shakes Nathan out of his torpor is a series of strange events on the evening train that departs the city at 6:02 p.m. Due to a scheduling oddity, the 6:02 train must pull over onto a side track to allow the 6:13 express – travelling in the same direction – to pass. This too, is something that Nathan has never noticed prior to the Monday on which the story opens; when he does realize he has been taking a less direct train, he becomes incensed at the wasted minutes he has sacrificed. For a not-quite-Master of the Universe like Nathan, there can be no such thing as downtime, and the greatest sin is a sin against efficiency.

Having realized that the train must pull off onto a side track, however, Nathan has also realized (by consulting his Smartphone, naturally) that this occurs at precisely 6:19 each night. More strangely, when he looks out the train window, regardless of what car he finds himself in, he notices the same backyard, in which a woman is planting bulbs. The woman becomes the avatar for a series of increasingly dreamlike events over the course of the five-day work week during which the story unfolds, and Nathan finds himself first intrigued with her, then increasingly fascinated.

Hill plays with notions of volition: each day, Nathan attempts to revise his schedule so that he can catch the 6:13 express train, and each day he is stymied by forces beyond his control. How much of our lives is predetermined, Hill asks, and how much is subject to our own will? The irony is that Nathan’s inability to follow through on his desire to catch the more efficient express train is the very thing that sets in motion events that might – potentially – push his life in an entirely different direction.

It is also no accident that the woman in her yard is planting bulbs. The juxtaposition of the natural world with Nathan’s manufactured world of trains and Smartphones is not coincidental, nor is the connotation of a bulb that must be planted in the fall in order for it to bloom in the spring. At one point, Nathan stares out the train window and imagines planting a bulb with the woman: “Nathan stares down into the shallow hole and thinks of the things he is suddenly aware that the bulb requires: a depth of three inches, a cold bed, a dormant period, spring.” At another point, Nathan’s Smartphone shatters, the screen breaking into pieces “like hundreds of shiny seeds.”

The story concludes in an open-ended fashion, leaving Nathan on the verge of a decision that could change his life. Choice and coincidence have brought him to this point, but his ultimate path will be up to him. There is irony here, too, involving Belinda, whom Nathan imagines waiting at the kiss-and-ride, furious because he is late for a meeting with a decorator. Belinda, we recall, has a facility for discovering “things on the cusp of becoming something better.” The final irony is that this might just include Nathan himself.

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