From Who Do You Think You Are?
When people say Alice Munro is capable of more depth, nuance, and character development in a single forty-page story than most authors can pull off in a 500-page novel, it’s stories like “The Beggar Maid” they are talking about. The centrepiece of Munro’s 1978 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning collection is so thematically dense, so emotionally resonant, so linguistically inventive it’s almost difficult to countenance. “The Beggar Maid” is the story of Rose, a young woman from a working-class family in the small Ontario town of Hanratty, who goes off to university on a scholarship and ends up in a romance with Patrick Blatchford, the wealthy scion of a family that owns a chain of British Columbia department stores. Munro’s story addresses heavy themes – class, sex, identity – but does so in a seemingly effortless manner.
After a chance meeting in the university library where Rose works, she and Patrick fall into a love affair, which proves troublesome because, although they are both loath to admit it, their differing economic and social backgrounds are a locus of conflict. The first indication of friction occurs in the story’s opening paragraph: Rose admits to being nervous about Patrick’s sophistication after he becomes agitated when one of her friends mispronounces the name Metternich. When the couple visits Patrick’s family on Vancouver Island, Rose feels utterly inadequate. She buys a “fuzzy angora sweater, peach-colored,” which she thinks is elegant enough, but concludes that it resembles “a small-town girl’s idea of dressing up.” Patrick’s mother displays “affront, disapproval, dismay” in Rose’s presence, and his sisters evince a haughty insouciance:
At an earlier meal they had questioned Rose.
“Do you ride?”
“Do you sail?”
“Play tennis? Play golf? Play badminton?”
“No. No. No.”
“Perhaps she is an intellectual genius, like Patrick.”
The Blatchford house is a sprawling Tudor mansion on a half-acre of land, a stark contrast to Rose’s own humble origins. She takes Patrick home to Hanratty to meet her stepmother, Flo, and the experience is “just as bad as she thought it would be”:
Flo had gone to great trouble, and cooked a meal of scalloped potatoes, turnips, big country sausages which were a special present from Billy Pope, from the butcher shop. Patrick detested coarse-textured food, and made no pretense of eating it. The table was spread with a plastic cloth, they ate under the tube of fluorescent light. The centerpiece was new and especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in color, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins.
The juxtaposition of the Blatchfords’ supercilious politesse with Flo’s small-town kitsch lends the story a mordantly humorous aspect, but also highlights the degree to which Rose is caught between conflicting ideas of what she should be. Rose clings to Patrick because he represents something greater than even the highest of Hanratty’s aspirations: “She could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher’s son had fallen for her, or the jeweler’s; people would say she had done well.” And yet Rose has difficulty admitting to herself that Patrick’s lack of humour and sexual reticence fail to enthrall her.
She is further troubled by her landlady, Dr. Henshawe, a university professor who feels that Rose should be devoting herself to her studies rather than setting herself up for the traditional female roles of wife and mother:
“The future will be wide open, for women. You must concentrate on languages. You must take courses in political science. And economics. Perhaps you could get a job on the paper for the summer. I have friends there.”
Rose was frightened at the idea of working on a paper, and she hated the introductory economics course; she was looking for a way of dropping it. It was dangerous to mention things to Dr. Henshawe.
What the citizens of Hanratty have in common with Patrick and Dr. Henshawe is a desire to make Rose over in their own image, to force her to conform to the role they feel she should play, rather than allow her the freedom to chart her own path. Patrick compares Rose to the Beggar Maid in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s painting, with all the chivalric romance that association entails. But this is not the conception Rose has of herself. She is a much more active agent than the other characters in the story will give her credit for being.
The American and U.K. editions of Munro’s book are called “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Rose and Flo,” which is more romantic and lyrical than the frankly acerbic Canadian title. But it is also less resonant. “The Beggar Maid” is an ironic title for this story, because Rose implicitly disavows the association with the painting when Patrick brings it up. The Canadian title, by contrast, allows for a greater field of implication as Rose is buffeted between various characters with competing interests and conflicting ideas about what is best for her. There are critics who suggest that this collection of linked stories is actually one of only two novels Munro has written (the other being Lives of Girls and Women). I prefer to think of “The Beggar Maid” as a story that is novelistic in its structure and execution, but fully able to stand on its own as a case study of a woman faced with the persistent and troubling question, Who do you think you are?
From All the Voices Cry
In his guide for fiction writers, The Art of Fiction, one of the exercises John Gardner provides reads as follows: “Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” The point, of course, is to develop the ability to convey a mood without being overly explicit or expository. Mood should arise organically out of a work of fiction, not be larded onto it in an artificial way.
The thing about mood, though, is that it is sometimes inextricably tied into setting. Locating a story in 1939 Poland, for instance, will infuse that story with a certain resonance for readers, no matter what the specifics of that story may be. But what if a story is set in a less archetypal, but nonetheless fraught, locale? How are readers expected to react, and how does a reader’s reaction change should he or she be cognizant of the setting’s import?
“Neptune’s Necklace” focuses on a seventy-three-year-old artist living in New Zealand. As the story opens, the artist, Hattie, walks along the beach with her dog. There is nothing particularly unusual about this scene, except for the focus on images of death or passage. As she walks along the beach, Hattie imagines seeing “a clutch of child-sized shades running before her,” and pictures them “gazing at a dead mollymawk where it had washed up against a piece of driftwood.” The word “shades,” although somewhat outmoded, clearly refers to ghosts, and a mollymawk is a kind of albatross, a type of bird that has obvious literary connotations. We later discover that “the shades were girls, all of them, and one of the shades was Hattie’s daughter.”
The balance of the story involves Hattie retreating home to evade the rains that occur daily, and being interrupted in her business by two young people whose car has broken down. The couple, a young man and a young woman, ask to use Hattie’s phone and Hattie offers to make them tea. In the course of their discussion, it transpires that the young woman is an art history student who has to do an essay “on someone contemporary.” She asks about Hattie’s influences, to which the older woman replies, “I don’t have any influences.”
The only significant influence Hattie has is her daughter, one of the three shades she imagines seeing at the beach. Her daughter, along with two other girls, died when a “rogue current” dragged her out to sea: this is the event that Hattie has simultaneously been running from and been unable to evade ever since. All well and good, and a perfectly crafted example of a rather melancholy domestic tale.
Hattie lives near a beach by the city of Dunedin in New Zealand, and the opening sentence of the story makes reference to a salt marsh. These details imply that the beach in question is Aramoana Beach, near Otago harbour in New Zealand. Aramoana Beach is the site of a 1990 massacre of thirteen people by a lone gunman, the most egregious instance of gun violence in New Zealand’s history. “I did not want to write about the massacre itself,” Petersen says, “so I made a parallel narrative, as my own act of memorial.”
It is coincidental that I read the interview with Petersen prior to reading her story. But how does a knowledge of Aramoana Beach’s history change the effect of the story, if at all? How would one react to the melancholy aspect of the tale if one thought it had no real world resonance? Does the knowledge of the 1990 massacre lend Hattie’s story additional gravitas? Does it tug at a reader differently? In Gardner’s terms, Petersen describes the setting of the massacre without ever mentioning the massacre. The story stands on its own. Armed with the background knowledge of what the story’s setting implies, how does that change a reader’s experience of it? Since it is impossible to erase the knowledge of what the setting implies, it is impossible for me to answer these questions. I would be interested to find out, however.
From All the Anxious Girls on Earth
Sometimes, stories take on extra resonance in retrospect. I first read “The Nature of Pure Evil” in 1999, when the now-defunct Key Porter Books released All the Anxious Girls on Earth, Zsuzsi Gartner’s debut story collection. In the wake of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize nomination for her follow-up, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Penguin Canada has re-released All the Anxious Girls, allowing me to reacquaint myself with the story of Hedy, who calls in fake bomb threats to Vancouver businesses as a kind of sublimated revenge after her partner of seven years, Stanley, abandons her in a spectacular fashion.
When the story first appeared, 9/11 had yet to occur, although terrorists had made one attempt at bombing the World Trade Center, in 1993, and in 1995 Timothy McVeigh had successfully bombed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. This latter incident, especially, brought the notion of domestic terrorism to the forefront of North American consciousness. Nevertheless, there is a different sense of unease that pervades a reading of Gartner’s story in a post-9/11 environment. The story unfolds as a kind of philosophical deconstruction of evil in modern society, and the questions it asks – What is evil? How do we identify it? Is it absolute, or is it relative? – are urgent, particularly given the explicitly religious context in which they are positioned.
The first reference to religion occurs in the story’s opening paragraph, which sees Hedy reaching for the phone to call in a bomb threat to the TD Tower across from her office. This is not the first such threat she has made: we are told that she has done something similar on at least three prior occasions. This time, she imagines standing at the window of her building and watching the occupants of the TD Tower flee. “It’s a disruption of commerce, nothing more,” she thinks, likening herself to Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple. Hedy is not devout – her knowledge of Jesus comes not from the Bible, but from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar – yet she imagines herself akin to Jesus on several occasions. After calling in a bomb threat to the Four Seasons hotel, she watches the people (including her ex, Stanley) milling about in the crowd and gets the impression they are enjoying themselves. “People had something to discuss while they waited at bus stops and SkyTrain stations,” she thinks. “They were talking to each other. By casting them out into the street, Hedy had done them all a favour. Like Jesus.”
The mentions of Jesus are counterpointed by imagery and metaphors evoking the Devil, either explicitly or less directly. After Stanley leaves her, Hedy’s work colleague, Brigit, takes her out for a meal with a group of women who spend much time bickering over the nature of evil. During the discussion, one of the women, “a practising family therapist,” tells a story about going to an open house in Ottawa and being disconcerted by one bedroom, the ceiling of which is painted black with a red pentagram on it. Mary Tan, a French immersion teacher, claims that the story makes the hair on her arms stand up, while Donna, “who was unbelievably thin despite her seven-month pregnancy” is somewhat less moved: “I find it really hard to believe they wouldn’t have painted the ceiling over before attempting to sell such a prime piece of real estate.”
The Devil rears his head again later, when one of the women refers to another as “the devil’s advocate”; prior to this Mary eyes her dessert lasciviously, saying, “It’s devilish, it’s evil, I love it.”
Here, evil is reduced to mere chatter, fodder for throwaway conversation over a dining table. For Donna, the pentagram on the ceiling does not represent anything more diabolical than a blot on an otherwise salable property. And it’s more than a bit ironic that the family therapist is the one to make the comment, “When you’ve come into contact with pure evil, there’s no mistaking it.” (Gartner is particularly good at piercing the pretensions of the modern grief industry by forcing them to abut more serious philosophical material.)
For her part, Brigit considers Stanley to be the embodiment of evil because of what he does to Hedy. “Whenever Hedy insisted Stanley had never been the slightest bit crazy, Brigit said, ‘Then he must be pure evil. There’s no other explanation for that kind of behaviour.’ ” Brigit rightly identifies a lack of remorse as one of the defining characteristics of psychopathy, a category she lumps Stanley into: “Hitler, Clifford Olson, David Koresh, those blond monsters in St. Catharines, all anonymous albino hitmen everywhere … and Stanley.” She may indeed be correct. The notion of “pure evil” may be a chimera, but where remorselessness is concerned, the difference between Paul Bernardo and Stanley may be one of degree, not kind.
However, Hedy frustrates Brigit by refusing to condemn Stanley, and does not give in to despair or anger. She acts out her feelings of aggression by calling in her fake bomb threats, which is difficult to accept, even if she and the women at the restaurant tend to view the act as a victimless crime. Nevertheless, Hedy is presented as being at least close to happy: as she moves through the lobby of her office building on the way to a pay phone to make her next call, she is described as feeling “positively grand.” Brigit presents Hedy with a magazine article about a psychiatrist “who thinks happiness should be classified as a mental condition – because it’s a highly abnormal state of being.” Where, we are led to ponder, does that leave Hedy, who feels completely justified and at peace with herself and her actions? “Didn’t Jesus say, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Hedy thinks. “Everyone knows that from their elementary school catechism. And Hedy, well, she is without sin. She is the lamb.”
From Once You Break a Knuckle
In his Quill & Quire review of Matt Lennox’s novel, The Carpenter, Alex Good wrote, “WorkLit is GuyLit, the other side of ChickLit. WorkLit is also ProleLit, as manual labour is understood to be undesirable: demanding, dangerous, and poorly paid.” D.W. Wilson writes WorkLit, which is also GuyLit, which is also ProleLit. Wilson’s characters work with their hands, they drink and curse and fight, but they also yearn in a way that admits a kind of vulnerability that often goes overlooked in commentary about this kind of macho, tough-guy fiction.
The central character in “Valley Echo” is called Winch. His proper name is Winston, so named by his mother “because it evoked hints of rubbled London and because she remembered her old man, a gunned-down naval aviator who she eventually discovered had raped her mother.” From the start, Winch is inextricably associated with violence. His nickname results from his father’s brainstorm as he builds a tree fort for his son: “Conner and the boy fashioned a pulley system around the tree’s branches, and as his son helped him heave on a rope to hoist the base, the nickname came to him: Winch.” Wilson’s story circles around the relationship between Winch and his father, Conner, and touches uncomfortably on themes of violence and sexual jealousy.
If Winch’s nickname refers specifically to the device used to haul wood for building the tree fort, it also refers to the Winchester rifle owned by Conner’s buddy, Sampson, a rifle that is used in an act of aggression briefly and elliptically glimpsed by Winch from a boat on the water, with his father and Sampson facing off on the shore: “Both men had changed positions: his dad had his back to the water now, shoulders rolled down and head hunched and fists at his side. Sampson had the .308 levelled at his dad’s chest. From that range it’d blow a man’s heart clear out.” Although the specific nature of the dispute between Conner and Sampson remains obscure, it is certainly not accidental that Wilson indicates the rifle fired at close range could blow a man’s heart out. It is finally the heart that these men respond most strongly to.
“Valley Echo” is all about the tensions that erupt around masculine relationships: fathers and sons, friends and rivals. The story’s central conflict involves sexual jealousy between Conner and Winch over Miss Hawk, Winch’s high school shop teacher, with whom Conner has previously had an affair. Much of the masculine code in the story involves proclaiming oneself in protection of, or in opposition to, women: Winch stands up for a girl he is seeing when she is threatened by a punk at the local hot springs, and he asserts himself in the face of his father’s antipathetic reaction to his teacher. Winch punches Conner when the latter insults Miss Hawk, an action that results in a violent response from the older man: “His dad fell upon him, limbs methodical. Winch batted an arm aside, absorbed a half blow with his ribs, snugged his elbow over it. He smelled beer and deodorant and cigarettes, and Winch had never known his dad to smoke.”
Conner knows only violence as a reaction to a situation of conflict, although Winch’s grandfather manages to defuse the situation:
His gramps appeared at the front porch, barked: put him down. Winch stared at his dad whose fist gyrated in the air and whose forearm pinned him against the tree.
–Nup, his dad said, and lowered him. The fist relaxed, unfurled. He brushed Winch’s shoulder, as if to remove dirt. –I won’t be that guy.
In many ways, Conner’s entire trajectory in the story involves an attempt not to “be that guy”; his great realization is that he was never as good a father to Winch as Winch’s gramps was. “Muh dad was yer dad,” Conner says to his son. “I didn’t do as good as him. He got it right or sompthen.”
Wilson’s characters are constantly struggling against their situation in an attempt to get it right. The final image in the story has Winch imagining himself breaking free of the shackles that bind him to the ground and taking off “in a contraption he’d hand-built to carry him from the earth.” It is this strong desire for transcendence that elevates the characters from their circumstances and provides them their greatest strength and dignity.
From Floating Like the Dead
Yasuko Thanh’s pervading theme in Floating Like the Dead is displacement. Whether she is writing about a transplanted Parisian running a resort in Honduras, a nineteen-year-old housekeeper on a farm in 1960s Germany contemplating a flight to America with her Vietnamese lover, or – in the collection’s Journey Prize–winning title story – a group of Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century interred in a British Columbia leper colony, Thanh’s subjects are all searching for belonging, a home, or love. The sense of being outsiders or misfits, of not fitting into the accepted mainstream of whatever society they find themselves in, by design or otherwise, is a motivating factor for many of Thanh’s characters.
The woman at the centre of “Hunting in Spanish” is an idealist who arrived in Mexico with dreams of working at an orphanage, but soon found herself in the village of Zipolite, where she ekes out an existence selling opium with her sort-of boyfriend, Chinchu. The woman’s status as an outsider is established early in the story: the locals at the market have taken to calling her güera, meaning “fair-haired one.” The woman’s hair, we are told, is dark; the appellation is clearly designed to indicate her otherness. “[S]he’ll never be Mazatec,” the woman thinks at one point. “Not even Mexican. Güera. She would always be the güera, even when no one says the word.”
An immigrant herself, the woman nevertheless feels removed from the tourists for whom “Mexico is a photo opportunity, there for their viewing pleasure.” They buy picture postcards featuring images “of crumbling ruins and colonial buildings in elegant decay, mariachi bands and fire eaters, barefoot children and Zapatistas toting machine guns.” One American tourist who thinks he is being extraordinarily benevolent by purchasing a bottle of beer for a Mexican construction worker fails to recognize the way in which the object of his largesse mockingly reacts to him.
If the woman feels estranged from the other outsiders in Zipolite, however, she feels no closer to the locals, in part because she does not speak their language. “[E]ven if they weren’t living in Spanish, hating in Spanish, or yelling this way at their dogs, the way they live would still feel foreign to her.”
Part of the woman’s discomfort arises from the strength of her feelings for Chinchu, feelings she is not sure are reciprocated. They joke about marriage but have an open relationship, and he frequently consorts with other women. The protagonist’s lack of fluency in the Spanish language is at once a comfort and a hindrance to her:
She likes that Spanish sets the rules of engagement, that their arguments are curbed by her simple vocabulary. She doesn’t have the words to tell him “I love you”; they don’t exist for her in Spanish. Yet they can dance the salsa as if connected at the hip, breezing through drunken tourists, unaffected by obstacles. And so they continue on the way they always have.
Her dissatisfaction manifests itself in a desire to strike out and explore other avenues, other experiences. This leads her to embark on a deer hunting trip with Dashon, the man who grows the poppies that produce the opium she and Chinchu sell. It also leads her to pick up a stranger in a bar, who takes her back to his cabaña and assaults her. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is startling: in the former, the woman surprises herself by taking control and shooting a deer; in the latter, it is she who is subjected to a vicious act of violence. The “moment of exhilaration” that accompanies firing the hunting rifle cedes to a feeling of numbness as the realization of what she has done sets in: “[S]uddenly she wonders what the deer’s ankle might feel like in her hand – slender, dying – but she can’t do it. She can’t move. Her body is frozen against the tree’s trunk and her hands are clenched into fists. She begins shaking.”
The violence in the story’s second half is shocking, but not entirely unexpected. There are numerous references throughout the story to the waves on the ocean; in the Zapotec dialect, Zipolite means “beach of the dead,” so called because of the water’s dangerous undertow. Moreover, the neighbourhood the woman lives in with Chinchu is called Roca Blanca, “the white rock,” a reference to an offshore rock formation that bird guano has turned white. These details, coupled with the general feeling of eeriness the woman succumbs to as a result of her marginal existence in a culture she fails to entirely understand, lend the story a foreboding aspect that subtly prefigures the violence to come.
In the end, it is her own feeling of exoticism that drives the woman to explore dangerous aspects of the local life, with predictably unsettling results. She is held at a distance by the language barrier, but also by a barrier in understanding that exists between her and her “Aztec god” of a lover. “I have to get out of here,” she tells Chinchu at one point, to which he responds in typically cavalier fashion: “It’s all the same party.” This throwaway line results in the woman’s instant of heartrending epiphany:
In that moment she comprehends just how little they understand each other. What would he say if she told him she’d hoped the trip to the mountains would provide her with something to hold on to? That when she shot the deer, she had felt nothing inside at all? What would he say if she told him that her luck never did stand up to close examination? But somehow she doesn’t have the words.
From East of the West
“There was no good reason for me to be in America.” This thought, placed in the mouth of the Bulgarian expat, twentysomething first-person narrator of Miroslav Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin,” helps immediately to set up the central conflict: between the new world and the old; between a young man, who has fled his home in Eastern Europe for the promise of a new life in the United States, and the young man’s grandfather, a staunch adherent to the Communist philosophy and heritage that suffered a mortal wound when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The young man leaves home, not because he is oppressed or starving – “at least not in the corporeal sense” – but because he carries in his blood “the rabies of the West.”
In his grandfather’s eyes, this disease is inextricably entangled with capitalism. And he has good reason to think this: when the narrator is practicing English prior to his move, the phrase he repeats over and over is “remember the money.” “Phrases like this, I’d heard, helped you to break your tongue.”
Penkov wrings much comedy out of the young man’s attempts to acclimatize himself to idiomatic English once he has arrived in Arkansas: “Those of us for whom English was a second language were instructed what to expect when it was fixin’ to rain. What ‘yonder’ meant, and how it was ‘a bummer’ to be there ‘yonder’ with no umbrella and it ‘fixin’ to rain.’ ” In America, the words the narrator studied back home fail to make sense in combination: “What was a hotpocket? I wondered. Why was my roommate so excited to see two girls across the hallway making out? What were they making out?”
But there is additional comedy in the distance between American culture and the narrator’s cultural touchstones. When the narrator arrives in the States, he is greeted by two men and a woman, who “were from some organization that cared a whole lot for international students.” The nature of this organization quickly becomes apparent:
“Welcome to America,” they said in one warm, friendly voice, and their honest faces beamed. In the car they gave me a Bible.
“Do you know what this is?” the girl bellowed slowly.
“No,” I said. She seemed genuinely pleased.
“These are the deeds of our Savior. The word of our Lord.”
“Oh, Lenin’s collected works,” I said. “Which volume?”
As far as the narrator’s grandfather is concerned, Lenin’s collected works are indeed the word of the Lord, or at least, the lord of his universe. He credits Communism with saving his life during the Second World War; with introducing him to his wife, at whose grave he attends each day since she died to read aloud to her from Lenin’s writing; and for providing him with a raison d’être. When the Eastern Bloc begins to fracture after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the grandfather feels bereft because he has lost the two things that gave his life meaning and purpose: his wife and the Communist Party. Indeed, he is convinced that it was the fall of Communism that killed his wife: ” ‘Her cancer was a consequence of the grave disappointments of her pure and idealistic heart,’ Grandpa would explain. ‘She could not watch her dreams being trampled on so she did the only possible thing an honest woman could do – she died.”
At university in the States, the narrator learns about Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and is amazed: “My God was there such a thing? A collective unconscious? If so, I wanted in. I longed to be a part of it; connected, to dream the dreams of other people, others to dream my dreams. I went to sleep hoping to dream vivid, transcendental symbols.” This, of course, is quite close to a definition of what Communism represents for his grandfather, although the narrator would doubtless be hard pressed to see it that way. He would be more likely to associate Communism with the crawfish he and his grandfather used to catch when the narrator was a boy:
Grandpa would give me a stick and a bag. Hundreds of twitching crawfish at our feet: poke their pincers with the stick, and they pinch as hard as they can. I learned to lift them, then shake them off into the bag. One by one you collect.
“They are easy prey,” Grandpa would say. “You catch one, but the others don’t run away. The others don’t even know you are there until you pick them up, and even then they still have no idea.”
This is the flip side of communal idealism: the notion that people who long so desperately for a community can easily be manipulated to follow the crowd. “Give us the child for eight years,” Lenin wrote, “and it will be a Bolshevik forever.”
Whatever distance may exist between the narrator’s ideals and those of his grandfather, it is nevertheless obvious that the two men love each other, and feel the physical gulf between them acutely. “Grandpa, there is so much water between us,” the narrator says on the phone at one point. To which his grandfather responds, “But blood, I hope, is thicker than the ocean.”
In the end, the narrator attempts to extend an olive branch to his grandfather by buying what someone on eBay is advertising as the body of Vladimir Lenin. “This was a scam, of course,” the narrator thinks. “But what wasn’t? I clicked Buy It Now, completed the transaction. Congratulations, Communist-Dupe_1944, the confirmation read. You bought Lenin.” The comedy here is mixed with melancholy: the year 1944 is the year the narrator’s grandfather claims he hid from the Fascists in a tiny, cramped dugout along with fifteen other people, before finally emerging to find that the Communists had been victorious. And of course there is much irony in the idea of the corpse of Lenin being purchased via one of capitalism’s most Platonic manifestations: an Internet auction site.
The final stages of the story, sentimental though they may be, represent a kind of detente between the two opposing viewpoints as embodied by the narrator and his grandfather. In the end, blood does prove thicker than the ocean, and ideologies prove malleable in the face of the enduring need for human connection and understanding.
fix v. 1 tr. mend, repair. 2 tr. put in order, adjust. … n. slang a dose of a narcotic drug to which one is addicted.
– The Canadian Oxford Dictionary
You forgot your wrench, man! the waiter calls to Harold, who is halfway out the door. The young clean-shaven guy walks over to Harold and hands him the shiny new monkey wrench and asks: So what’re you going to fix with this?
I’m good at fixin things, Harold mumbles as he staggers out onto the sidewalk. Goin to go fix things. – “Eight-Ball”
Harold, the protagonist of Samuel Thomas Martin’s dissection of drug-addicted urban hell, comes by his desire to fix things naturally. As the story opens, he is seen in flashback talking to his father, who is working on the underside of a Chevette. “Friggin Carl could’ve drained the oil before he let this piece of crap car rust in his yard,” Harold’s father complains as his son stands, defiant, on the brink of leaving his small-town Ontario home to strike out for the big city of Toronto. Harold’s father has tried to fix what’s wrong with his son by administering copious corporal punishments when Harold was a boy. A budding violinist and a “Goth” in the eyes of his prejudiced father (“even though [Harold] never wore leather, painted his nails black, or listened to heavy metal”), Harold leaves home with a grand total of $180 in his pocket and dreams of making a mark for himself. “If he could just get to Toronto he’d be able to land a bar gig – that was the only thing in his life, at that moment, that he was certain of.”
Like so many starry-eyed dreamers before him, however, Harold finds the urban environment much more inimical than he’d supposed. “You need cover tunes, okay?” the manager of one establishment tells him. “And a back-up band. Violin’s great if you’re Stravinsky or some crazy stunt like Ashley MacIsaac’s.”
The problem is that Harold is not Stravinsky, not by a long shot. He plays reels and jigs on the violin like his grandfather, who only played “when he was drunk off his ass.” Harold “played best when he was drunk too,” a testament to the cycle of alcoholism that repeats itself down through generations of a family, and makes him an easy mark for Neb, a dealer in downtown Toronto who gets the aspiring musician hooked on crack cocaine, in part by telling him about all the “big-shot users” who dabbled in the drug:
“Like that Sir Conan guy.”
“No! Not friggin Schwarzenegger! I’m talking about the guy who made up that detective Sherlock Holmes. He was a crack-head and his character was a crack-head. In those days crack-heads were the detectives and now the detectives are after the crack-heads.”
No one is going to give Neb points for historical accuracy, but in the cold of a Toronto winter, with nowhere to turn and nobody to offer him a break, Harold succumbs to his sales pitch and finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into uncontrollable addiction.
This is not blazingly original material, having been thoroughly covered already by everyone from William S. Burroughs to Hubert Selby, Jr. to Irvine Welsh. What elevates Martin’s story is its canny structure, shuttling back and forth between the present – which finds Harold being ejected from a bar where he has got stinking drunk and heading in the direction of the University of Toronto to locate a music professor who, in Harold’s mind, denied the violin virtuoso his big break – and the past – which traces the downward trajectory of Harold’s unfortunate experience on the streets of Toronto.
In the narrative past, Harold attempts a disastrous impromptu audition for the professor’s secretary, who ends up calling university security to have him thrown out. “I was trying to fix things!” he yells at the men who unceremoniously toss him and his violin to the curb. Although the idea of swallowing his pride and returning home to his father is, on one level at least, abhorrent, Harold decides to purchase a new monkey wrench as a peace offering and secure a bus ticket away from the city. He is sidetracked, however, by an offer of cheap shots at a campus bar, which leads to an unfortunate encounter with his would-be musical mentor. The wrench, a tool often employed to fix things, ends up being the instrument that lands Harold a kind of notoriety, although not precisely the kind he was hoping for.
From Nobody Goes to Earth Any More
The unspoken subject of much horror fiction is faith. The dictionary definition of faith is first, “complete trust or confidence,” and second, “firm belief, especially without logical proof.” Donald Ward’s story, which follows an unnamed Catholic priest and a native tracker named Joel Natoweyes traversing a patch of boreal forest in search of the beast that slaughtered a group of campers, is both a straight-up supernatural horror story, and an explicit examination of the second kind of faith.
Ward sets the uncanny tone right from his opening sentences: “Billy Greyeyes told me he had seen a white moose at the narrows, with antlers as big as trees, but when he got it in his sights it vanished like smoke. A week later Annie Bear gave birth to a male child with six fingers on each hand, and all that day a dark cloud hovered over the south shore of the lake.” The moose “with antlers big as trees” that disappears “like smoke” when Billy Greyeyes catches it in the sights of his rifle, coupled with Annie Bear’s child, born with an abnormal number of fingers under an ominous dark cloud, are indications that something is askew in the natural order of things; from the start, the story is infused with a strikingly illogical aspect. The priest is straightforward in his recognition of these supernatural phenomena: when Joel tells him that he has “found the tracks of a cloven-hoofed animal where the white men had been camping,” the priest accepts the news as “confirmation rather than surprise.”
The story’s two protagonists adhere to differing belief systems, but both arise out of an acceptance of the supernatural steeped in longstanding tradition (the cannibal creature at the centre of the narrative bears certain resemblances to the Wendigo of native legend). The priest and the tracker are both, on one level at least, spiritualists who exist in opposition to the kind of secular rationalism that pervades modern Western culture. In the story’s key paragraph, the priest assesses the legitimacy of scientific evidence as against religious belief:
The scientific method gives us one way of thinking, one way of knowing. This the modern world has embraced because it comforts us and requires no sacrifice. Ghosts, demons, and the myriad creatures of nightmare do not exist because they cannot be explained by observation and experimentation. One might gaze into the abyss and postulate its origin, but one is not required to leap into it. A fine and rational faith. Religious faith follows a different logic that seems no logic at all, and offers us another way of knowing. It gives us rules and reasons and it comforts the credulous with certainty. But this was faith of a different order. This was faith as old as the rocks, as old as the water and the sky. It was the faith of the living earth, and the laws it conceived were designed to kill the weak and the faithless.
While disavowing the scientific method as inadequate to accommodate events that transcend rational explanation, the priest is equally unprepared to accept a kind of psychologically comfortable retreat into religious certainty that brooks no questions, or that does not allow for the presence of doubt. “I have said that faith gives us certainty,” the priest says elsewhere, “but at the end of the day the only certainty is doubt. Were I asked to define humankind, I would say not that we are toolmakers, monument builders, jesters, or chroniclers, but that we are the doubting animal.”
The priest remains steadfast in his adherence to his Catholic vows throughout the story, even when tempted by the beast in its latter stages. However, he retains a measure of doubt as to the legitimacy of the suffering that his god allows to exist in the world. He never questions the reality of the monster that savages the campers, but he does question the reason for their suffering. At the story’s close, he ponders on the fate of the people who must eke out their existence in the harshness of the boreal forest:
I thought, for a moment, of a strange tribe damned for the remainder of natural life to that vast and trackless land, killing, eating raw flesh, dying violently at the hands of nature or others like themselves. How many legends might spring from such a hapless fate – tales of evil spirits, of cries in the night, of faces on the edge of the fire, of creatures almost human in their ferocity and greed?
The notion of evil creatures “almost human” in their rapaciousness is a somewhat unflattering assessment of the nature of our species. The priest’s unwavering belief in the existence of supernatural evil, it would appear, is a direct consequence of his understanding of human nature. In this context, the story’s final image is startling and potent in its implications: “I went back into the church. I glanced up at the tortured man hanging eternally on his cross. Had that really been necessary to redeem miserable mankind? I wondered.”
Sanity was a central preoccupation of Patricia Highsmith, who, in certain solid ways, knew herself very well indeed. She worked hard at sanity and was mostly successful at it. Her icy, invigilator’s eye scanned her own behavior and monitored her own thoughts regularly and often, the way a searchlight sweeps a prison yard for escaping convicts. “I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched,” she wrote grimly. And then again, “I fear the madness in me, quite near the surface.”
– Joan Schenkar, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith could hardly be called an autobiographical writer, although a casual awareness of her life story – the misanthropy, the serial love affairs, the recurring bouts of depression, the alcoholism – testifies to the prevalence of a persistent dark side that almost inevitably worked itself into her fiction. It is no accident that Highsmith chose murder, mayhem, and manipulation as her subjects.
The late-period story “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving” is in fact something of an anomaly in the Highsmith canon (along with the author’s second novel, The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story originally published pseudonymously), having nothing to do with crime or criminals. Which should not be taken to mean that it is not a dark story, or that it represents an abandonment of the author’s fascination with fractured or abnormal psychology. Highsmith’s use of the word “schizoid” in the letter Joan Schenkar quotes in the excerpt above is telling: the same word appears in a similar context in “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” although there it appears to refer more to multiple personality disorder than to schizophrenia.
The story focuses on a successful and settled middle-class woman named Diane Clarke. Diane, an ad copywriter, and her lawyer husband, Reg, live in Manhattan but have a cottage in Massachusetts. While walking along the beach one day, Diane discovers a basket shaped like a cradle, with a hole in its bottom. She takes the basket home and, using twigs she has on hand, mends the hole with a skill and efficiency she had no idea she possessed. Rather than being pleased with the outcome of her handiwork, however, she grows increasingly ill-at-ease as to the provenance of her ability, and the basket becomes a kind of menacing talisman, a primitive object that seems to implicate her in the whole history of humanity. This prospect elicits in her a stark terror.
Throughout Highsmith’s story, the idea of modernity is opposed by images and recollections of a more primeval ontological state. Diane’s current work assignment involves writing copy for a mechanical device that sucks the air out of refrigerator bags, allowing food to be stored longer and to take up less room. The device is modern and expensive, but Diane finds it difficult to pen copy because her mind keeps drifting back to the basket she has rescued from the beach:
It was odd to be sitting in a cottage built in a simple style more than a hundred years ago, to have just repaired a basket in the manner that people would have made or repaired a basket thousands of years ago, and to be trying to compose a sentence about a gadget whose existence depended upon modern plumbing, sealed packaging, transport by machinery of fruit or vegetables grown hundreds of miles (possibly thousands) from the places where they would be consumed. If this weren’t so, people could simply carry fruit and vegetables home in a sack from the fields, or in baskets such as the one she had just mended.
Diane recognizes that the technology involved in creating and repairing the basket – a technology that is so common and easily replicable that she is capable of participating in it – is better and more useful than the technology that created the vacuum sealing device she is charged with promoting (a device that is, her ruminations imply, finally pretty inessential). Diane understands the vacuum gadget, having seen a demonstration of it at her office, but is not able to comprehend how it is put together, nor the specific mechanics that make it work, a recognition that leaves her feeling “odd and disoriented.”
She is equally disoriented during a dinner party the following week, when she considers the highest achievements of humanity – achievements she feels fundamentally estranged from – in light of her almost preternatural ability to repair a wooden basket:
While they were drinking coffee, Diane lit three candles and the oil lamp, and they listened to a record of Mozart divertimenti. They didn’t listen, but it served as background music for their conversation. Diane listened to the music. It sounded skillful, even modern, and extremely civilized. Diane enjoyed her brandy. The brandy too seemed the epitome of human skill, care, knowledge. Not like a basket any child could put together. Perhaps a child in years couldn’t, but a child as to progress in the evolution of the human race could weave a basket.
This is the central passage in Highsmith’s story, the one that most explicitly identifies the nature of Diane’s terror: the notion that all the skills and technologies in the modern world are unnecessary on an evolutionary level. The ability to weave a basket is more useful to the survival of the human race than the ability to appreciate a fine brandy or a Mozart composition. Diane considers various explanations for her unease, including the aforementioned mental illness, most of which she dismisses out of hand (“Diane did not believe in a soul, and found the idea of a collective unconscious too vague to be of importance”). What really seems to be bothering her, however, is the notion that civilization itself may be a chimera; that all the things she prizes in her sophisticated middle-class life are simply illusions; that all the wonders of human ingenuity ultimately pale in comparison to the ability to repair a simple woven basket.
From Valery the Great
Competitiveness is at the heart of Elaine McCluskey’s story “The Houdini,” about a small-town swim team that travels from Myrtle, Nova Scotia (“a minor town with modest expectations”), to Ontario to participate in an ill-fated out-of-province meet.
The Myrtle Otters Swim Team – whose acronym is fodder for much comedy – is composed of a rag-tag group of misfit young people suffering every complaint imaginable, from low self-esteem to debilitating physical ailments: “We had forty swimmers, including twelve asthmatics, four kids with peanut allergies, and two boys who claimed, thought they may have been lying, that they were legally blind.” The one bona fide star on the team, the fifteen-year-old hunk improbably named Nathan Spearwater, is desired by all the girls on account of his “dreamy eyes and abs.” Nathan has hair “hardened like points of meringue” from the chlorine in the local pool, “which, in our minds, gave him a dangerous, yet vulnerable, air.” Nathan eventually decamps the swim team to play rugby, a sport at which he also excels, much to the consternation of his erstwhile swimmers: “When Nathan didn’t come back, but did become a rugby star, we comforted ourselves with cheap insults. ‘Anyone can play rugby,’ we decided. ‘It’s a goon sport.’ ”
The “cheap insults” are a clear cover for inadequacy on the part of the remaining swim team members, who hold no illusions about their own relative abilities. Some of the team members even revel in their vulnerabilities, flaunting and mythologizing them. Drew, a large young man who can’t dive off the blocks because his swimsuit will come off (“They don’t put drawstrings in Speedos that large”), boasts to Rita, the story’s narrator, about the inaccuracy of rumours that he has had surgery to correct a hernia: “It was a hydrocele, which is an abnormal swelling of the scrotum.”
The impulse to aggrandize everything is a function of living in Myrtle, a town that has no import to speak of. The town’s persistent ordinariness requires an almost wilful act of revisionism on the part of its citizens, who are desperate to rise above a pervasive sense of underachievement:
[T]he weekly newspaper covered our every undertaking: meets, bottle drives, Swim-A-Thons. One week earlier, a reporter had interviewed Drew, who boasted, without a hint of self-consciousness, “I like to play mind games in distance races,” and the reporter, without a whiff of irony, printed it. When the story appeared, Drew’s mother looked so proud of her son that I thought she might cry. Swim team was my mother’s idea. There was no reason, declared Ethna, with a tenacious optimism that bordered on madness, that I could not become the best in the province or maybe the world.
Ethna’s optimism bordering on madness is simply one manifestation of the almost pathological need for recognition that infects the denizens of Myrtle. Roger, the husband of Ethna’s sister, Irene, is a denturist who boasts wildly about the need to hire an additional assistant for his practice: “I need someone to handle the overflow,” he brags, with a smile that is “threatening and ugly as a stump fence.” Pammy, the Otters’ swim coach, is convinced the team will not improve unless they attend “big meets” in Ontario and Quebec, “something she had earlier dismissed as a waste of money.” She enrolls her kids in a skills class with a big-city trainer named Beluga, whose “pool was located in a neighbourhood of neck tattoos and knives.” Georgina Vogel, a teenager from a troubled family, has “a lascivious side” and “often posed with her mouth half-open, tongue suggestively exposed like in a porno movie.”
All of these characters are engaged in a vain attempt to rise above their circumstances; the sense of competition they succumb to becomes a kind of grinding torture for the people who feel the weight of the town’s expectations bearing down upon them but are unable to acquit themselves satisfactorily. The townspeople manage to puff themselves up with empty rhetoric about how grand they all are, but there is an equally virulent sense of satisfaction at witnessing others fail. “It wasn’t just relief,” Rita thinks of the feelings in the air after the disastrous Ontario swim meet. “It was the same schadenfreude we had felt when Drew dove off the blocks and his suit fell down; the same joy I had seen on Irene’s face, when she realized, long before Ethna, that I was hopeless.”
The word “schadenfreude” literally means “pleasure derived from another’s misfortune”: the citizens of Myrtle take pleasure in the shortcomings of their neighbours because it is easier, and much less painful, than focusing on their own.