31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 1: “Tick Tock” by Guy Vanderhaeghe

May 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Daddy Lenin and Other Stories

Daddy_Lenin_Guy_VanderhaegheCharley Brewster has a problem with his hands. They hurt, a pain that is agonizing and incessant. Some four decades ago, the volatile young man was something of a brawler, courting fights that landed him with five fractures to the bones in his hands. The last of these scraps ended with his antagonist suffering a fractured orbital bone and Brewster being sent to jail for two years less a day.

Older and putatively wiser, Brewster, now an assistant professor of English, has not been bothered by discomfort in his hands for forty years. The onset of his recent affliction, “a dull, background ache … lodged in the bones of his hand, broken by sudden bursts of acute, electric pain,” coincides with the arrival of a new couple to the apartment next door to his.

The first encounter with this couple occurs outside the building, as the two are unloading a U-Haul truck piled with furniture. The woman is a “waif-like bit of a girl,” with “a despairing, hopeless look” on her face and “enormous brown eyes swimming with tears.” The man is a giant, possessed of “a grotesquely swollen torso and a massive column of neck that tapered into a shaved head like the nose cone of a missile.”

It becomes clear in short order that the couple, Melvyn and Dina Janacek, are engaged in an abusive relationship, with the husband using his superior strength and imposing physique to threaten and intimidate his wife, and possibly to assault her physically as well. Brewster attempts to intervene, first by involving the police – who are unsympathetic to the plight of what they perceive as a haughty and arrogant academic with his nose out of joint – then, finally and inevitably, in the only way he really knows how: by using his tormented fists.

“Tick Tock” is the best – and, not unimportantly, one of the funniest – stories in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s first collection of short fiction since 1992’s Things as They Are? The author won a 1982 Governor General’s Literary Award for his first book, Man Descending, another collection of stories, but is so well known as the author of the intervening “western trilogy” of novels – The Englishman’s Boy (also a GG winner), The Last Crossing (which won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2004), and A Good Man – that these days even Vanderhaeghe himself acknowledges precious few people remember he ever wrote short fiction.

The author of “Tick Tock” is older than the author of the stories in Man Descending, but no less pointed and pugilistic. The story examines postmodern masculinity in all its contradictions and vagaries. Descended from working-class stock, Brewster was launched into his academic career while in prison for assault, the beneficiary of a program that offers university-level classes to convicts. But he has never been able to entirely divest himself of his roots as a physical scrapper, notwithstanding the toll his advancing years have taken on his body.

Brewster’s conception of masculinity is certainly more straightforward than that of his girlfriend, Eva, chair of the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, who uses contrasting videos of Sting and Klaus Nomi to demonstrate to her students “representations of masculinities.” Eva is representative of the kind of postmodern ideologue much in vogue in academia these days; her media-saturated, pop-culture inflected classes score highly on Rate My Professor, whereas Brewster is subjected to borderline illiterate screeds by students who are appalled that he would demand their essays be punctuated properly.

Indeed, Brewster defines himself as a dinosaur (“your department’s sleepwalker” is Eva’s preferred term), and it is no surprise that the careerist Eva is the more successful of the pair. Nor that she is disdainful of Brewster’s own particular representation of masculinity, which she defines as “the bad hegemonic variety.” When in Brewster’s presence, Eva’s “homophobia and misogyny sensors” go off pretty much constantly.

The academic satire in “Tick Tock” is blisteringly funny – especially to dinosaurs like Brewster who still believe that university essays should be punctuated properly – but Vanderhaeghe is more subtle and more nuanced than a brief thumbnail sketch might lead one to believe. It is Eva, after all, who is ultimately effective in separating Dina from her abuser, while Brewster, reduced to his aging and aching fists as his only recourse proves absolutely ineffectual or, to use a more loaded term, impotent. Much of Brewster’s antipathy results from envy at Eva’s success: fifteen years his junior, she has already managed to secure a chair in a department, while he remains stalled at the level of assistant professor, biding his time until he can fade into retirement.

The final scene in the story, with its vaguely masochistic undertones, returns to the conception of masculinity as located in physical power, but inverts it, leaving Brewster subject to the depredations of a goon who, we come to realize, represents a distorted mirror’s image of the protagonist’s own younger self. This doubling motif – which persists throughout the collection – is absolutely appropriate for a story in a book titled Daddy Lenin: Janacek becomes a kind of surrogate son to Brewster, a reminder of the commingled potency and relative simplicity of youth and the diminution that accompanies getting old.

In its shifting ground, its satire, and its incisive probing of male psychology, “Tick Tock” finds its author firing on all cylinders. Readers familiar with Vanderhaeghe only through the western trilogy might be surprised at the author’s facility with a contemporary milieu and characters; fans of Vanderhaeghe’s earlier collections will simply be glad to have him back writing in the form after an extended absence.

31 Days of Stories 2015: Introduction

April 30, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

The_Lonely_VoiceShort stories, argued the Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor, traffic in loneliness. In his classic evaluation of the form, The Lonely Voice (1963), O’Connor distinguishes between the novel, which is capable of operating on a large social canvas and addressing teeming masses of humanity, and the story, which usually focuses on individuals who are outsiders, loners, or members of what O’Connor referred to as “submerged population groups.” Novels, O’Connor argues, require at least one figure – usually the protagonist – with whom the reader can identify. Stories, by contrast, lack this locus of identification, replacing it – on the level of both subject and form – with characters and situations that are marginal, unfamiliar, or broadly disavowed.

The novel, in O’Connor’s conception, is social, whereas stories are essentially individual:

I am suggesting strongly that we can see in [the short story] an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time – tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests. The novel can still adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community, as in Jane Austen and Trollope it obviously does; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent.

Perhaps this is one reason stories remain a matter of broad cultural indifference, especially in our current historical moment. Twenty-first century media, we are told, must be social – it must be shareable and clickable and likeable. But stories, as O’Connor recognized, contain a distinctly asocial (if not, in some cases, frankly anti-social) aspect: they privilege unique, idiosyncratic voices (on the part of both their characters and their creators) and operate outside accepted norms of practice.

Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel laureate and surely Canada’s best-known writer of short fiction, exemplifies this idea, which makes her relative acceptance by mainstream readers something of a puzzle. Munro is one of the most subversive writers around: stories that on their surface appear to be straightforward works of naturalism in the kitchen-sink mode are in fact dark, sardonic, and (at least in her later period) almost expressionistic investigations into human cruelty and disaffection. Munro, it is true, is capable of greater swaths of compassion than Mavis Gallant, to whom she is frequently compared, but woe betide any reader who wishes to identify with a character from one of Munro’s stories.

This marginal aspect – along with a rigorous concentration of language and resistance to closure – is one of the major stumbling blocks to short fiction’s acceptance, but it is, paradoxically, also one of the things that makes the form so endlessly fascinating. As far as literature is concerned, novels have long been central to our conception of culture and canon; stories continue to remain peripheral. But their very location on the edges allows them greater freedom to experiment, to refashion themselves into new and unique shapes, and to test the boundaries of style and technique.

“I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done,” said Larry Dark, director of the Story Prize and former series editor for the O. Henry Awards anthology. Poetry, of course, was once given pride of place at the centre of the English and European canon; stories have never been afforded this distinction. Nevertheless, some part of Dark’s suggestion informs the impetus behind this site’s annual month-long celebration of the short story. By shining a light on the variety and scope of short fiction – contemporary and past, in English and in translation – it is hoped that readers might gain some appreciation of the potential in what has been (and will likely remain) a neglected literary genre.

Some of the stories that follow will probably be familiar to a majority of readers; others will undoubtedly be less so. We’ll begin tomorrow with a Canadian master’s return to the form after an extended absence, following which the perspective will broaden beyond Canada’s borders and will reach back into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With all respect to Dark, this is not advocacy, so much as enthusiasm; though I argue for the continued relevance of short fiction as a form, what keeps me returning to stories in general – and this project in particular – is enjoyment. While not always immediately gratifying – one of the other things that prevents a larger uptake in short fiction among a distracted populace is the demands the form places on its readers – stories are nevertheless sources of boundless pleasure. They can be funny, scary, infuriating, and heartbreaking, often at the same time. My hope is that at least some of this enjoyment proves infectious.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 31: “The Dead” by James Joyce

May 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Dubliners

Dubliners_James_JoyceThe year 2014 marks the centenary of the publication of Dubliners, though the original manuscript was completed nine years earlier. In 1905, Joyce, only twenty-five years old, placed an early version of his story collection with an English publisher who subsequently withdrew his support for the book over fears that its frank depiction of sexuality could run afoul of obscenity laws. A few years later, an Irish publisher got as far as setting the plates for the book before pulling the plug, this time on the basis that Joyce’s use of real names for some of his characters might open the publisher up to libel suits. It was only in 1914 that the original English publisher, Grant Richards, decided to take a chance and release the book into the world. It has not been out of print since.

Terence Brown of Dublin’s Trinity College recounts this history in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dubliners. Brown goes on to identify the qualities that set Dubliners apart from English fiction that came before it, qualities that render it more of an experimental, groundbreaking work than might at first be apparent, particularly from a 21st-century perspective:

The publication of so complex and strategic a work as Dubliners in 1914 with its ostensible realism and complicated symbolist deployment of detail and structural pattern, whatever it may have done to aid the course of civilization in the author’s own country, most certainly marked a chapter in the history of modern prose fiction. For in Dubliners Joyce seized on certain late nineteenth-century developments in English prose fiction and made of them the instrument of an art that was both experimental and markedly enabling for his own development as a writer. And in so doing he demonstrated the literary significance of the short story as an artistic form of remarkable economy and charged implication.

The description of Dubliners as a work of “ostensible realism” is inspired: these are stories that traffic in the kind of rigorous specificity of names, locales, classes, and social habits that would appear, eight years later, fully exploded in Ulysses, though the stories in Joyce’s collection do not evince the surface chaos and unconventionality of that great novel. They are, however, charged with language that is heavily laden with symbolic intent and resonance.

The first character we are introduced to in “The Dead,” for example, is named Lily. She is, on the level of story, the daughter of the caretaker in the house of Miss Kate and Miss Julia, two upper-crust women who throw an annual party around New Year’s for select members of Dublin society. In a story called “The Dead,” however – a story that is all about rites of passage, mourning, and the grief and anguish of loss – the name Lily cannot help but call to mind the flowers traditionally arrayed at a funeral.

As Brown points out in his notes to the story, lilies are also associated with the Archangel Gabriel, who in the Bible is the angel who appears before Mary to announce to her that she has been chosen to be the virgin mother to the child Jesus. Is it little wonder, then, that the protagonist of “The Dead,” also named Gabriel, should work as a professor and a journalist, both professions that transform their practitioners into messengers of a sort?

Gabriel is also charged with acting as a messenger at Miss Kate and Miss Julia’s party: he has been instructed to deliver an address during dinner, something he frets over because he worries about speaking in elevated tones or making references his audience will not be sophisticated enough to understand: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.”

Gabriel’s intellectual snobbery, which has been fostered and encouraged, we are told, by his time spent travelling in Europe, is mirrored by the other guests, who engage in a dismissive discussion of the opera, during which one participant, Mr. Browne, proclaims that the great operas are no longer performed because there is no one of sufficient ability left to sing them. (Except, the company decides, for Caruso; they ironically name the most popular tenor of the time, someone even the hoi polloi would have heard of.)

This discussion is extended in Gabriel’s speech at the table, which connects the idea of a more recondite, bygone era to the notion of death and dying:

Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.

This valediction takes on ironic overtones late in the story, when it becomes clear that Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, is pining for an old flame, “a boy in the gasworks” by the name of Michael Furey. (Unsurprisingly, Gabriel’s rival for Gretta’s affection also has the name of an Archangel, in this case the one who in Catholic theology is considered the warrior.) If Gabriel is willing to remember the “great ones” of history – the stalwarts of literature, art, and music – whose memory “the world will not willingly let die,” this prospect becomes much more difficult when the deceased is his wife’s former lover, a labourer at that. Gabriel mentions Shakespeare as a simple reference his dinner audience might understand; it is no accident that the play he conjures up in his mind at one point in the story is Romeo and Juliet – that is, the quintessential story of doomed lovers.

The famous final lines of “The Dead” find Gabriel contemplating the falling snow, which is gently covering the land, including the cemetery where Michael Furey lies buried. “It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Here we come full circle to the notions of death implied in the story’s opening, only now the subject is entirely explicit, and laden with heavy melancholy. Without the reader even realizing it, Joyce has navigated his apparently plotless story through the kind of emotional manoeuvres that anticipate Modernism’s more fully realized stream-of-consciousness approach. In so doing, by straddling the old world and the new, Joyce is in fact enacting the very themes his story addresses. It is a virtuoso performance that remains, one hundred years later, one of the greatest short stories in the English language.

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

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Open Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 29: “The Tooth” by Shirley Jackson

May 29, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Lottery and Other Stories

The_Lottery_Shirley_JacksonShirley Jackson is best known as the author of the novel The Haunting of Hill House and the short story “The Lottery,” both of which have become canonical works of American fiction. But limiting her reputation to these two titles, strong though they may be, unfairly curtails the perspective on an author who wrote more, and in a much wider range, than this circumscribed view suggests. Jackson is usually thought of as a writer of macabre fiction – Stephen King, among many others, has cited her as an influence. However, in her introduction to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of The Lottery and Other Stories, contemporary American writer A.M. Homes highlights divergent aspects of Jackson’s writing that place her in an entirely different light:

When reading Jackson, I can’t help but think of the stories of Raymond Carver, who had a similar ability to create a sort of melancholy emotional mist that floats over his stories. But Jackson also had the ability to be savagely funny: at one point in her career, Desi Arnaz reportedly inquired about her interest in writing a screenplay for Lucille Ball.

Homes goes on to compare Jackson to Angela Carter, “who was also not bound by genre, who had no interest in distinguishing or separating horror, science fiction, et cetera, from ‘literature.'”

Originally published by The Hudson Review in 1949, “The Tooth” does indeed have uncanny elements, but it is also an ambiguous tale about duty and escape, and the possible price to be paid for the latter. It starts off straightforwardly enough, but becomes eerier and more enigmatic the longer it goes on.

The basic plot of the story is simple. Clara Spencer, a housewife, boards a bus for New York, where she will see her dentist about a toothache. She bids her husband goodbye and boards the bus, in possession of a one-way ticket and a bottle of codeine for her pain. At a rest stop, she is accosted by a stranger named Jim, a tall man in a blue suit who talks to her of his travels in exotic lands that are “farther than Samarkand” and where “flutes play all night” and “the stars are as big as the moon and the moon is as big as the lake.” After leaving her codeine on a table at a second rest stop, Clara makes it to the New York dentist, who sends her to a surgeon to have the rotten tooth extracted. Without the burden of her aching tooth, Clara leaves the surgeon’s office tower and once again encounters Jim on the city sidewalk. The story’s final image involves Jim leading Clara “barefoot through hot sand.”

A précis indicates the way in which the story transforms itself as it unfolds, becoming less clear and, in its final stages, almost surreal. How to read the story is open to interpretation, but a clear indicator must have to do with the character of Jim. The tall stranger in the blue suit, who reappears on the bus and takes a seat beside Clara, is repeatedly referred to as “the strange man,” and his talk is about distant utopias where there is “[n]othing to do all day but lie under the trees.”

The first time Clara encounters Jim, at the rest stop, he rouses her out of the sleep she has succumbed to (the bus to New York travels through the night, arriving at its destination at 5:15 a.m.). When the stranger shakes her awake, she turns to him “foggily.” She remarks on his blue suit and evident height, but “could not focus her eyes to see any more.” Is this a function of her tiredness, or of the codeine? (She will take another pill at the second rest stop, where she neglects the pill bottle on the table in her haste to make it back to the bus.)

Under these circumstances, what are we to make of Jim? Is he simply what he appears to be, a helpful stranger, or is he more nefarious? Given Clara’s brain-fogged state, is it possible that Jim is not even real, but merely a hallucination of her overtired, drug-addled brain?

One possible hint is contained in the original subtitle of the collection: The Adventures of James Harris. An epilogue to the collection includes partial lyrics from a ballad called “James Harris, The Daemon Lover,” in which the eponymous character, who is understood to be the Devil, accosts a woman on a sailing ship and informs her that he will lead her to “the mountain of hell.” James Harris is name-checked in Jackson’s story “The Daemon Lover,” which is an obvious reference to the ballad. But the original subtitle seems to insist on the importance of the ballad character across the collection: are we, then, to read the mysterious “Jim” as a demonic character, leading poor Clara to hell? (The bus is a possible stand-in for the ship in the song.)

This is certainly one potential reading. But how does this reading change if we assume, as Clara does at one point in the story, that the tooth the dental surgeon extracts is symbolic of her identity as a woman? “Her tooth,” Jackson writes, “which had brought her here unerringly, seemed now the only part of her to have any identity.” Once the tooth is extracted, Clara goes to the ladies’ room in the office tower, where she fails to recognize herself in the mirror, an extension of the idea that she has lost her identity. In the washroom, she abandons all of the possessions that are associated with her specific person, including a silver barrette engraved with the name “Clara,” a lapel pin in the shape of a capital “C,” and her stockings, which have developed a hole in the toe. Having made herself up rather garishly (“she was not very expert at it”), she goes out to the elevator that will take her to the street, and to Jim. “The elevator operator said, ‘Down?’ when he saw her and she stepped in and the elevator carried her silently downstairs.”

The elevator operator’s question is fairly obviously symbolic of a descent into a kind of hell, which chimes with the ballad at the end of Jackson’s collection. However, is this new woman who emerges from the building on a descent into madness and devilry, or is it a different kind of escape, a conscious break from the stultifying aspects of housewifery and marriage to a man who is incapable of tending to even basic matters of daily survival? “I called Mrs. Lang,” Clara assures her husband before boarding the bus for New York. “I left the grocery order on the kitchen table, you can have the cold tongue for lunch and in case I don’t get back Mrs. Lang will give you dinner. The cleaner ought to come about four o’clock, I won’t be back so give him your brown suit and it doesn’t matter if you forget but be sure to empty the pockets.”

How one reads the ending of the story likely depends upon how much one identifies Clara as a downtrodden woman eager for escape to a land that is more free and exciting that the one she has left. Whether her break from her quotidian life is the first step toward heaven or hell is largely left for the reader to determine.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 28: “Chronopolis” by J.G. Ballard

May 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

Best_Stories_of_JG_BallardIf the job of science fiction writers is to take the measure of our present and gaze into the future with an eye to providing an imaginative assessment of where we might be headed, it is hard to cavil with the prescience of the late English author J.G. Ballard. Hard, and quite terrifying, since what Ballard wrote, by and large, was at the time considered dystopian fiction. Today, it might well be considered simple naturalism.

Take, for example, this passage from his story “Chronopolis,” describing the burnt-out husk of a dessicated urban downtown:

On either side buildings overtopped the motorway, the congestion mounting so that some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades.

In a few minutes they passed between the first of the apartment batteries, the thousands of identical living units with their slanting balconies shearing up into the sky, the glass in-falls of the aluminum curtain walling speckling in the sunlight. The smaller houses and shops of the outer suburbs had vanished. There was no room on the ground level. In the narrow intervals between the blocks were small concrete gardens, shopping complexes, ramps banking down into huge underground car parks.

Ballard’s story was published in 1960, but his vision of congested apartment complexes lining the side of the highway so tightly that “some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades” is a pitch-perfect description of the sight from the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto today. The vision of the city as “an enormous ring, five miles in width, encircling a vast dead center forty or fifty miles in diameter” is a fairly accurate description of post-white-flight Detroit. And the description of “plate-glass shopfronts” that have “slipped and smashed into the roadway, old neon signs, window frames and overhead wires [hanging] down from every cornice, trailing a ragged webwork of disintegrating metal across the pavements” could be a snapshot of an inner-city neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Los Angeles. (Or, for that matter, Hamilton or London in Ontario.)

If these portraits seem eerily familiar from a 2014 perspective, we would do well also to pay attention to Ballard’s more exaggerated conceit in this story, since it, too, offers a highly ironic comment on aspects of our post-industrial, 21st-century milieu.

“Chronopolis” focuses on a society that has outlawed any kind of timepiece – clocks and watches are banned, and anyone caught in possession of one of these contraband objects by the secretive and ubiquitous Time Police is subject to arrest and prosecution. The crackdown followed a revolt against the highly regimented technological and bureaucratic makeup of what has come to be known as Chronopolis, or the Time City. All the clocks in Chronopolis “were driven by a master clock,” and the clocks dictated every moment of people’s lives. The city’s population had ballooned out of all proportion, such that the infrastructure in place was unable to handle the pressure on it. Therefore, each segment of society – executives, secretaries, manual labourers, and so on – were provided schedules detailing the daily blocks of time during which they were allowed to eat, use the telephone, watch television.

“Think of the problems,” one of Ballard’s characters says:

Transporting fifteen million office workers to and from the center every day; routing in an endless stream of cars, buses, trains, helicopters; linking every office, almost every desk, with a videophone, every apartment with a television, radio, power, water; feeding and entertaining this enormous number of people; guarding them with ancillary services, police, fire squads, medical units – it all hinged on one factor … Time!

Once again, if this sounds uncannily like urban existence in 2014, we should take no comfort or pleasure in the recognition. “Don’t you think there’s a point beyond which human dignity is surrendered?” Ballard’s character, Stacey, asks regarding the concessions demanded of the citizens of Chronopolis.

Stacey is a teacher, who accompanies his student, Conrad, on a tour of the abandoned city center as a means of educating the young man in the ills of a technologically overdetermined society. Stacey has caught Conrad with a watch, and instead of turning him in to authorities, determines to embrace what would today be called a “teachable moment.”

Ballard employs a framing structure in his story, beginning and ending with Conrad, now known by his surname – Newman – in jail on a murder charge. The central portion of the story follows Conrad’s discovery of the phenomenon of clocks, watches, and regimented time, and his experience in the degraded downtown of Chronopolis. In prison, Newman has fashioned a rudimentary sundial for himself, which makes him invaluable to his warden, who becomes the most efficient member of the prison staff thanks to his prisoner keeping him on time for everything.

This is only the first of the several cascading ironies that flow throughout Ballard’s story. What is immediately noticeable is that while Ballard focuses on the community that has banished clocks and timepieces, he continues to return to the language of time and schedules. The English class that Stacey teaches runs exactly forty-five minutes; the teacher ensures he keeps to this by employing a rudimentary timer. Conrad appropriates the watch from a man who has a heart attack in a movie theatre; while movies in 1960 ran continuously, such that a viewer could come in at any time and stay for the next showing to catch what he or she had missed, as a medium, movies nevertheless unspool over a set running time. As the teacher and his student drive through the suburbs toward the heart of Chronopolis, they pass “a small factory still running although work was supposed to end at noon.” And later we are told that the pair drove on “[f]or half an hour.” The irony is sharp: even a society that has forsworn time and devoted itself to a kind of back-to-basics primitivism is unable to jettison its temporal existence altogether.

The ironies come to a head in the story’s final section, after Newman finds himself convicted for a crime he did not, in fact, commit. He is at first delighted to discover a working clock in the cell where he is to spend the next twenty years, but the final lines of the story tilt in the direction of the madness that can result from the presence of a clock when all one has in one’s life is time.

It is also interesting to note the changing way in which Ballard refers to his protagonist. In the central part of the story, told in the narrative past, the character is referred to as Conrad, conjuring notions of the writer who sent his own most famous protagonist on a journey into the heart of darkness: Conrad’s trip to Chronopolis, we can infer, is symbolically doomed from the outset. In the framing sections, he is called Newman, inviting commingled readings of a reborn “new man,” and a man of (or from) the future. But does the future represent a disavowal of industrial, technological society, or is this very disavowal, as we see at the story’s close, simply another road to ruin?

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 27: “Man of All Work” by Richard Wright

May 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Eight Men

Eight_Men_Richard_WrightRichard Wright wrote from a staunchly masculine perspective, but a perspective informed by his background as a black man in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. As Paul Gilroy asserts in the introduction to the Harper Perennial edition of Eight Men, Wright’s later work was not met with positive critical reception, in large part because numerous critics felt that he had sold out the purity of his writing by picking up stakes and moving to Paris. In the view of many commentators of the time, Wright’s “immersion in Parisian intellectual and political life [was] regrettable because it led the world’s preeminent Negro writer far away from the vital roots of his creativity in the Southern Black Belt.”

However, as Gilroy points out, the stories in Eight Men all extend Wright’s examination of masculinity – in particular, black American masculinity – that is “marked by its author’s sensitivity to the interplay of distinctive psychological factors with economic, cultural, and historical forces.”

The story “Man of All Work” was actually written as a radio play, which accounts for the way it is presented – that is, entirely in dialogue. In this, it is not as successful as, say, William Gaddis’s National Book Award–winning novel JR, which is fearless in its presentation of unattributed dialogue. By contrast, “Man of All Work” strains against its constraints, constantly providing signposts to remind its reader who is speaking at any given point:

– Mama, does Lucy know about Little Red Riding Hood?

– Miss Lily, I know all about her.

– O.K., Lucy. Now, do you think you can rustle up some breakfast for us?

– I’ll try, ma’am. What would you-all want?

– What do you specialize in for breakfast, Lucy?

– Reckon you all would love some pancakes? I cook ’em light as a feather. You can digest ’em in your sleep.

– Just a moment, Lucy. Dave!

– Yeah, Anne.

– Lucy wants to try her hand at some pancakes. She says she’s good at ’em.

– Well, tell her to rustle some up. I haven’t had any good pancakes since Heck was a pup.

– You’ve got your orders, Lucy.

The constant repetition of names would be unnecessary in the context of a radio play, where different voices would designate the characters, but comes off as equally artificial in a written context, where the seams holding the story together begin to show a bit too clearly.

Despite this, “Man of All Work” is a worthy fiction, both for its rhythms of spoken prose, and for its thematic resonance.

As Gilroy states in his introduction, the story exemplifies the intersection of gender and race in Wright’s work: the two subjects are never far apart, but “Man of All Work” highlights the ways in which black men and white women both suffer oppression and subjugation under the rigidly segregationist and patriarchal society in place in America at the time.

“Man of All Work” is about a black man named Carl who is unemployed and in danger of losing his house. He has a wife and two young children to whom he is fiercely devoted: the story is insistent upon the harmonious family life that Carl enjoys, and careful to portray him as a diligent husband, who accepts responsibility for feeding the newborn baby in the middle of the night, and is torn up by the possibility that he might be shirking his duty as provider.

Carl is a chef who is unskilled at any trade; when he scours the want ads for work, the only jobs available to men are machinists and masons and bookkeepers. However, when he spies an ad for a cook and a housekeeper for a white family, an idea sparks in his mind: he will don his wife’s dress, assume her name, Lucy, and pass himself off as a woman in order to get the job (he has already grown his hair long in the fashion of the time).

This premise is, of course, inherently comic, recapitulated in such cinematic fare as Some Like It Hot, La Cage au Folles, Victor/VictoriaTootsie, and (especially) Mrs. Doubtfire. However, Wright adds the level of racial politics to his scenario, which provides an extra frisson to the situation. “Who looks close at us colored people anyhow?” Carl says to his wife when she objects to his scheme on the basis that he will be caught out as a fraud. “We all look alike to white people.”

Carl’s assessment proves to be true, at least where the adults are concerned. The couple who placed the ad, Dave and Anne Fairchild, are readily duped by the ruse; the only person who is not taken in is the young child, Lily. The girl remarks on the new maid’s big, hairy arms and deep voice, to which the housekeeper in drag can do little but respond, “You notice everything, don’t you, Lily?”

The child is not blinded by the same prejudices as her parents, but neither is she experienced enough to understand the implications behind her father wanting to “wrestle” with the new maid in the same way he did with the former maid, Bertha, who “left” her position abruptly, because, Lily explains, “Mama said it was not nice for a lady to wrestle with a man.”

When Dave comes home for lunch, gets tipsy on whiskey, and tries to “wrestle” with the new maid, things don’t work out as expected, first because the maid is stronger and less malleable than the patriarch expected, and then because the two are discovered mid-grapple by Anne, who shoots the housekeeper in a fit of pique over her husband’s persistent infidelity.

There are a number of things going on here. There are the obvious racist overtones in the way the couple treat “Lucy.” The maid “[k]nows her place,” Dave says of her after their first meeting. But more than this, there is the gender and power disparity between a black housekeeper and her white master, who forces himself on her (him) in a way that we are given to understand is habitual, Dave having ceased paying sexual attention to his wife. “Mrs. Fairchild is still in the bath and will eat later,” he tells his new servant at the breakfast table. “She’s on a strict diet and will only want a slice of toast and black coffee.” Dave has become dissatisfied with his wife’s appearance, something she has come to feel guilty about. “I’ve just got to watch my figure,” Anne tells the maid at one particularly vulnerable moment.

Anne shoots Carl/Lucy in a fit of jealousy, hating the fact that her husband is constantly chasing after the black help while ignoring her. The racial and gender politics in this scene are undeniably fraught, and become even more so when Dave discovers the truth about his housekeeper’s duplicity: “That’s our answer!” he exclaims, suggesting he will take the blame for the shooting. “I was protecting white womanhood from a nigger rapist impersonating a woman!” The white man’s persistent fear of the black male as a sexual predator stalking his vulnerable white mate is here made explicit, and is given a heightened irony by Dave’s attraction to ethnic women, the most recent of whom turns out to be not at all what she seems. (The homoerotic overtones here, especially in the notion of “wrestling,” are perhaps not unintentional, although it is probably possible to push this line of inquiry too far.)

The conceit of Wright’s story may be comic, but its substance and implications are deeply serious, and retain a piercing and troubling resonance today. In Gilroy’s words, the story “mainfest[s] the violence that is always latent within contact between blacks and whites,” and “enumerates some of the gender-specific forms that racism can assume.”

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 26: “On the Strip” by Rachel Trezise

May 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth

Noise_Sonic_YouthHold tight and fear a little bit.

– “On the Strip,” Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth’s music has been called many things: abrasive, nihilistic, confrontational, aggressive, anti-melodic. People magazine referred to 1986’s classic album EVOL as “the sonic equivalent of a toxic waste dump.” These various characterizations emphasize the energy in the music, but downplay its originality and complexity, something that Emily Maguire hints at in the brief introduction to her story in the Peter Wild–edited anthology Noise. “When I was fourteen I was in love with chaos,” Maguire writes, “and that’s what I thought I heard in Sonic Youth’s music. Manic, panicked and seemingly deliberately senseless, it was like the inside of my brain amplified. … Repeated listening, however, revealed structure and intention beneath the sound and fury.” Or, as Catherine O’Flynn puts it, rather more succinctly: “I think it’s good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot of a car.”

Rachel Trezise’s story takes its title and inspiration from a song on the band’s 1992 album Dirty. That record was produced by Bruce Vig and mixed by Andy Wallace, a duo who, the year previously, had collaborated on an album called Nevermind by the then little-known group Nirvana. Sonic Youth’s influence is all over Nevermind; likewise, the bristling guitars and song structures that Vig and Wallace played with on Nirvana’s breakout release are apparent on Dirty. In particular, “On the Strip” resembles a Nirvana song in its modulation of quiet, almost plaintive readings of the verse lyrics (by vocalist Kim Gordon) and a startling, intrusive, in-your-face mid-song fuzzy guitar break.

Trezise refers  to the track’s “two faces,” which she finds “indicative of something dirty and unknown, hiding beneath the palpable.” It is difficult to capture the spark of inspiration in a few words, but Trezise’s explanation maps cogently with the tale that follows, about a young woman adrift on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, working as a prostitute and jacking the car of an unsuspecting john to score money to support her drug habit. Trezise adopts the central conceit of the song – a young runaway trying to survive in a harsh, degraded Hollywood that is nothing like the movies, but the story reverses the song’s polarities. The “raw and grubby guitar breakdown” becomes the tonal focus, and the plaintive aspects involve flashing back to a younger version of the main character, newly arrived on the Strip. Predominantly, however, Trezise’s story is violent, graphic, and angry, painting a picture of Hollywood that is as grimy and debauched as anything out of a James Ellroy novel.

Those who come to Los Angeles with visions of being movie stars based on the glamour and glitz of celebrity fashion magazines and television quickly come to understand the illusion that the city is based on. Trezise’s protagonist, Melissa, is the epitome of a tough, street-smart survivor, who steals leopard-print nylons from a Pasedena thrift shop and convinces clerks at the local liquor store to sell her Grey Goose vodka even though she is underage and has no ID. (Or, at least, she has a fake ID, but is just too lazy to fish it out.)

Not, we are led to understand, that she has always been so savvy. By Melissa’s own admission, when she first hit the Strip at age fourteen, she “was about as sharp as a fucken coconut, still blinded by the sunshine and the fucken palm trees” and clinging to romantic notions that a wealthy john might fall for her and sweep her off her feet into some better life. In other words, Trezise writes, “she was fucken whack.”

But she learns the ropes quickly, such that she is able to dupe a gullible john into handing over his cash before stabbing him in the leg and making off with his car. She assaults him while he is searching for a condom: “Protection. Ironic, actually.” Trezise plays with the notions of protection and its antithesis; the ill-fated john asks Melissa what the damage is – meaning “How much?” – which prompts her to muse, “Damage. He got that right.” Damage is pervasive in Trezise’s story – and for her protagonist, who ran away from home to escape a sexually abusive uncle only to find herself beaten almost to death by a violent john.

Trizise’s portrait of Tinseltown’s seedy underbelly is potent and ugly, a stinging corrective to the myth perpetrated by the motion picture machine:

That’s all Hollywood is about: death. Charlie Manson drawing cartoon pigs on the wall with the blood of a movie director’s wife; Marilyn Monroe lying naked and self-pitying, a bottle of sedatives the only sympathy she ever got; Fitzgerald’s heart packing in while he bought a packet of cigarettes in Schwab’s; Peg Entwhistle throwing herself from the top of the big H; an AIDS epidemic in Porno Valley. River fucken Phoenix. Phil fucken Spector. It ain’t about bright lights, this. It’s about bright lights burning out.

In her description, and her scenario that cuts straight to the bone, Trizise has managed to tap into the vein of anger and brute physicality that makes Sonic Youth’s music such a gut-wrenching listening experience. There’s bravado here, but also, underneath it, a baleful pain that gnaws.

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

May 25, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Reconciliation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Auxiliary Skins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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