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?”

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