One from the vaults: Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat
Some of you may recall my feeling of déjà vu upon hearing the lineup for this year’s edition of Canada Reads. It seems I’m not the only one who found the list this year a tad uninspiring. Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This was so disappointed at the lack of unexpected choices on this year’s roster that she set up her own “shadow” program, which she’s calling Canada Reads 2010: Independently. She recruited five literary folks – including yr. humble correspondent – to offer competing suggestions for “book recommendations out of nowhere, books I’d never pick up otherwise, that challenge my sensibilities, and that I might just fall in love with.”
The first book she read was Ray Smith’s Century, which was recommended by Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells. Since Kerry has set up her program as a competition, and given that I chose another book entirely for her to read, it’s probably not wise for me to admit this (although regular readers of this site will already be well aware of it), but I greatly admire Smith’s novel.
The second book Kerry tackled, selected for her by one Patricia Storms, is a collection of linked short stories by Carrie Snyder called Hair Hat. In my checkered past, when I was reviewing for the now-defunct Books in Canada, one of the books that fell into my lap was Hair Hat. My BiC review is reprinted below. I’d be interested to return to Snyder’s text and find out whether my reaction has changed at all; Kerry’s review gives me the opportunity to dig out my copy and do just that. In the meantime, here is my response circa 2004. (Hair Hat is not currently available in stores, but if either Kerry’s or my own review piques your interest, the author has copies of the book for sale through her website.)
Carrie Snyder’s volume of 11 stories is linked by the presence of a mysterious figure whose hair is sculpted into the shape of a hat. This nameless figure keeps cropping up – on a beach, in a donut shop, returning a lost wallet – but remains a peripheral figure, as though inhabiting the blurred edges of a photograph. Until, that is, the penultimate story in the collection, when the Hair Hat Man is brought front and centre.
Before becoming the focus of attention, he wanders aimlessly into and out of the lives of a seemingly disparate group of characters: a young girl consumed with guilt over her complicity in the drowning death of her best friend; a mother taking her two children on a day trip to the beach; a female graduate student who flirts openly at a bar in the presence of her boyfriend.
The connections between the characters are occasionally self-evident: the young girl with the drowned friend in the opening story, “Yellow Cherries,” reappears in “Comfort,” which tells the same story from the point of view of the girl’s Aunt Lucy. When the Hair Hat Man shows up at Lucy’s farm, he recognizes the girl as his daughter’s best friend in school; the two girls appear together in the collection’s final story, “Chosen.”
But there are less readily apparent connections running throughout Hair Hat. Absence dominates these stories: the characters in Snyder’s collection are all, in one way or another, missing something. The young girl in “Yellow Cherries” is haunted by the absence of her dead friend. The mother in “Tumbleweed” suspects her husband of being unfaithful, but engages in a program of avoidance and denial, and the husband himself remains absent throughout, never actually appearing in the story. The daughter in “The Apartment” loses her wallet, and in “Third Dog,” the titular canine, symbolic of a kind of malevolent destiny, hovers over the entire story, but never appears in it. The central absence in the collection afflicts the Hair Hat Man himself – it is no accident that the story in which he finally appears in the foreground is titled “Missing.” The way these characters deal with loss – both physical and spiritual – provides the thread that weaves these stories together, lending them a subtle thematic cohesion.
Hair Hat is not, however, simply a collection of short fiction thematically unified by a concern with absence and loss or an examination of the specific responses and repercussions these states have on a particular group of characters. The book is avowedly a collection of linked stories, and it is the very linking device – the presence of the Hair Hat Man himself – that ultimately sinks the collection.
Unlike Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, or Michael Winter’s One Last Good Look – linked story collections which are actually variations on the traditional Bildungsroman – Snyder’s stories are yoked together in a way that is highly artificial and intrusive. Snyder’s preferred mode of storytelling is mimetic naturalism of the “kitchen sink” variety, but the eccentrically coiffed interloper who keeps reappearing seems for most of the book’s duration like a cartoonish figure; he feels out of place and is distracting for the reader. Even when we are finally made privy to the Hair Hat Man’s story, his essential ludicrousness is inescapable. The longing and loss that his story insists on is overwhelmed by the reader’s curiosity about how he sleeps and what kind of styling mousse he uses.
It is clear that the author intends the Hair Hat Man’s unorthodox appearance to act as a catalyst of sorts for the other characters in the book, a means of dragging them out of the ordinariness of their lives and forcing their situations into sharper relief. Here is Lucy’s reaction to the Hair Hat Man in “Comfort”: “His presence, his hair hat, were uncalled for, an accident, a misfortune, a blemish on an otherwise clean, calculated day that should have held nothing but the ordinary reminders and warnings.” But even this feels forced and heavy handed, and is insufficient to make the character seem like anything other than an artificial authorial imposition binding together stories that would have been better left discrete.