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

May 9, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From High-Water Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Dixon review, holiday party guests

December 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

High Water Mark, DixonMy review of Nicole Dixon’s short-story collection, High-Water Mark, is online at the National Post‘s Afterword blog. The review has already come in for criticism on Twitter as a result of my invocation of what the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney feels is a hoary CanLit cliché.

Here’s the offending paragraph:

Dixon is uninterested in the kind of lyrical historical romance that was, for some time, the default CanLit setting. Her stories are abrasive and direct, marrying a fierce intelligence with a febrile style that refuses to shy away from profanity or explicit sex. There is a toughness to these stories that testifies to a refreshing honesty, a refusal on Dixon’s part to paper over the more nettlesome aspects of her material, opting rather to face it head-on in all its painful messiness. High-Water Mark is kitchen-sink realism filtered through a storm-tossed East Coast sensibility. And it is chock full of allusiveness and implication.

Twitter controversy aside, I thought Dixon’s book was a bit of alright.

In other news, Toronto-based poet Sachiko Murakami, this month’s writer in residence at Open Book: Toronto, asked me to choose a guest list for an imaginary literary holiday party. You can see my response, along with those of poets David McGimpsey and Alessandro Porco, on the Open Book site.