31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 31: “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

May 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hawthorne’s Short Stories

We started this month with one of the American progenitors of the short story form; it seems appropriate that we should end with one, also. Of Hawthorne’s influence on the development of the short fiction genre, National Book Award–winning critic Newton Arvin writes:

In any other period they might well have taken quite a different literary form – fabulous, visionary, legendary, poetic (in the limited sense), and even dramatic – and if they took the form of “short stories,” it was because, at the moment Hawthorne began to write, that mold was a natural and almost handy one. This does not meant that it was long-established; on the contrary, it was in its primitive or experimental stage, especially in English, and if it was handy, it was only in the sense in which the history play was so for the young Shakespeare. The Italian novella, the French conte, the realistic-moral English tale – these were ancient types, but they were nothing to the purpose of Hawthorne and his contemporaries: they were not “inward,” they were not meditative or musing, they were not a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. It was only latterly that short pieces of prose fiction had begun to take on qualities such as these, and Hawthorne was as much the creator as the inheritor of the form.

Hawthorne’s stories, like Poe’s, were inward and musing, and were very much a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. Unlike Poe, Hawthorne was a symbolic writer with a resolutely spiritual, not to say religious, fervour underpinning his fictions. In its suspicion of science as a replacement for the divine, in its excoriation of human hubris, in its critique of an attempt by a human to usurp the place of God, “The Birthmark” occupies the same corner of the literary landscape as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Hawthorne’s story centres on the character of Aylmer, a man who “had devoted himself … too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.” Nevertheless, he has “made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one”: he has fallen in love with Georgiana, whom he subsequently marries. Having sealed the matrimonial bond, however, Aylmer becomes increasingly obsessed by his wife’s one physical imperfection: a small crimson birthmark on her left cheek, which appears to take on the shape of a tiny human hand. Aylmer succumbs to a state of high agitation with regard to this blemish on his wife’s otherwise spotless face:

With the morning twilight Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the symbol of imperfection; and when they sat together at the evening hearth his eyes wandered stealthily to her cheek, and beheld, flickering with the blaze of the wood fire, the spectral hand that wrote mortality where he would fain have worshipped. Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze. It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief of ruby on the whitest marble.

Despite her reservations, Georgiana agrees to allow her husband to perform experimental treatments on her to remove the birthmark. As Aylmer’s obsession deepens, Georgiana herself begins to find the blemish repulsive and encourages her husband in his quest to discover a solution that will eradicate it forever.

From the outset, Hawthorne insists on a dichotomy between divine creation and human ingenuity; the quest for human perfection, we come to understand, is not only hubristic but a refutation of the divine laws of nature. Aylmer’s drive to recreate his wife in a way that will conform to his own idea of perfect beauty has an unavoidably modern resonance: it is at once a condemnation of a particularly patriarchal impulse demanding that woman adhere to a masculine standard of attractiveness and a prescient critique of our Botox and silicone addicted pursuit of physical perfection at all costs.

If there was any question as to where Hawthorne’s sympathies lie, it should be put to rest by the scene in which Georgiana makes an incursion into Aylmer’s laboratory:

The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were resorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science.

The “oppressively close” atmosphere “tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science” is bad enough, but the image of the furnace, “with the intense glow of its fire,” bears with it an unmistakably hellish connotation. It is no accident that the next thing that Georgiana’s eye alights on is her husband, “pale as death” and perched over the furnace “as if it depended upon his utmost watchfulness whether the liquid which it was distilling should be the draught of immortal happiness or misery.” The explicit connection between the scientist and the furnace, burning with its devilish fires, advances Hawthorne’s implication that the unchecked progress of science at the expense of a recognition of divine creation can only lead to catastrophe.

In Hawthorne’s story, catastrophe does indeed ensue. Aylmer achieves his goal and discovers a serum that eradicates Georgiana’s birthmark, but in the process it takes her life:

The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark – that sole token of human imperfection – faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.

By attempting to improve over nature, Hawthorne suggests, Aylmer destroyed the one thing he truly loved. There is an explicitly religious aspect to this allegory, but absent the religious undertones it nevertheless remains a potent parable about humanity’s vain pursuit of an elusive perfection, and the terrible toll that such pursuit can end up taking.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 29: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

May 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Although Dostoevsky’s story begins with a typically bleak existentialism, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is in fact one of the author’s most hopeful works. The unnamed narrator, having succumbed to the anxiety of meaninglessness that characterizes his life, decides to kill himself, but a chance encounter with a young girl gives him second thoughts. In his apartment, with his gun by his side, he falls asleep and has an extended dream that thoroughly changes his outlook on life.

A bare-bones summary of the story’s plot belies its philosophical heft and its nuanced thought; far from being a simple redemption story, it is instead a reckoning with human weakness and fallibility, and an extended meditation on the nature of suffering. This being Dostoevsky, things are not all sweetness and light.

The story’s opening section finds the narrator in a state of existential crisis. He has determined that the universe is indifferent and that nothing matters: “I was becoming terribly disheartened owing to one circumstance which was beyond my power to control, namely, the conviction which was gaining upon me that nothing in the whole world made any difference.” Worse than experiencing anger at the rampant corruption and venality of society is the narrator’s lack of any kind of feeling at all:

I suddenly ceased to be angry with people and almost stopped noticing them. This indeed disclosed itself in the smallest trifles. For instance, I would knock against people while walking in the street. And not because I was lost in thought – I had nothing to think about –  I had stopped thinking about anything at that time: it made no difference to me. Oh, I had not settled a single question, and there were thousands of them! But it made no difference to me, and all the questions disappeared.

The narrator’s indifference is so pervasive that although he has made up his mind to kill himself, he cannot work up the energy to follow through. Even the elements conspire to exaggerate the narrator’s malaise: the night he finally decides to take decisive action is “as dismal an evening as could be imagined … it had been pouring all day, and the rain too was the coldest and most dismal rain that ever was, a sort of menacing rain – I remember that – a rain with a distinct animosity towards people.” The pathetic fallacy continues as the narrator looks up a the night sky, which is “awfully dark,” with “torn wisps of cloud and between them fathomless dark patches.” In an ironic moment, what finally convinces the narrator to take action to end his life is a star that he glimpses between the clouds. The star, symbolic of light and hope, prompts the narrator to finally pick up his revolver and shoot himself.

However, on his way home to do the deed, the narrator encounters a little girl in the street calling for help:

I turned around to look at her, but did not utter a word and kept on walking. But she ran after me and kept tugging at my clothes, and there was a sound in her voice which in very frightened children signifies despair. I know that sound. Though her words sounded like they were choking her, I realised that her mother must be dying somewhere very near, or that something similar was happening to her, and that she had run out to call someone, to find someone who would help her mother. But I did not go with her; on the contrary, something made me drive her away. At first I told her to go and find a policeman. But she suddenly clasped her hands and, whimpering and gasping for breath, kept running at my side and would not leave me. It was then that I stamped my foot and shouted at her.

This is the pivotal scene in the story, for it is the narrator’s encounter with the little girl that jostles him out of his existential torpor. His initial reaction to the encounter is anger, because he feels pity for the lost little girl, yet he thinks to himself, if he has decided to commit suicide, should he not be indifferent to the world’s suffering? If, by ending his life, he also severs his conscious connection with the outside world, what difference should it make to him that there is a young girl in distress? Despite these rationalizations, like the guilt-plagued Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the narrator discovers that he cannot quell his feelings of sympathy for the girl.

It is this contradiction that leads to the narrator’s dream, an extended expressionistic journey through a land that resembles Earth as an Edenic paradise, prior to the fall of mankind. The people who live in this alternate world do not suffer or succumb to anger or jealousy; although they die, their earthly unions survive death; they have no religions, but are stamped with “a certain awareness of a constant, uninterrupted, and living union with the Universe at large.” And how does the narrator’s presence influence these prelapsarian souls? In one of the story’s most savagely ironic twists, the narrator confesses: “I – corrupted them all!”

Indeed, the presence of the narrator among the innocent denizens of his dreamworld incites a recognition of human frailties and states that had previously gone unremarked upon: selfishness, jealousy, shame. They begin to eschew their communal existence, and “progress” in a specifically human fashion:

A struggle began for separation, for isolation, for personality, for mine and thine. They began talking in different languages. They came to know sorrow, and they loved sorrow. They thirsted for suffering, and they said that Truth could only be attained through suffering. It was then that science made its appearance among them. When they became wicked, they began talking about brotherhood and humanity and understood the meaning of those ideas. When they became guilty of crimes, they invented justice, and drew up whole codes of law, and to ensure the carrying out of their laws they erected a guillotine. They only vaguely remembered what they had lost, and they would not believe that they ever were happy or innocent.

Here, Dostoevsky distills human nature to its essence: the thirst for suffering, the use of science to explain away an incomprehensible existence, the conviction that justice is appropriate, but only because we have accepted the reasonableness of crime in the first place. When the narrator confronts the dream figures about what they have sacrificed to achieve this new world order, the response he receives is tantamount to a philosophical rationalization for mankind’s dissolution:

“What if we are dishonest, cruel, and unjust? We know it and we are sorry for it, and we torment ourselves for it, and inflict pain upon ourselves, and punish ourselves more perhaps than the merciful Judge who will judge us and whose name we do not know. But we have science and with its aid we shall again discover truth, though we shall accept it only when we perceive it with our reason. Knowledge is higher than feeling, and the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom. Wisdom will reveal to us the laws. And the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness.” That is what they said to me, and having uttered those words, each of them began to love himself better than anyone else, and indeed they could not do otherwise.

With these words, penned in 1877, Dostoevsky provides as good a diagnosis of modernity and its attendant crises of conscience and meaning as exists in literature. It is this understanding that prevents the story’s narrator from making good on his promise to kill himself. Instead, he awakes from his dream a changed man, and determines to spend the rest of his days preaching. He espouses a Christian philosophy of brotherly love: “The main thing is to love your neighbour as yourself – that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters. Once you do that, you will discover at once how everything can be arranged.” For his troubles, he is branded a madman. And yet, Dostoevsky’s story has a happy ending, one of the few in the author’s canon of works. The narrator does track down the tormented little girl, and his final words are not words of despair, but words of defiant hope in the face of a fallen world: “I shall go on! I shall go on!”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 28: “Fiction” by Alice Munro

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Too Much Happiness

It’s become clichéd to call Alice Munro Canada’s Chekhov, but in her later period especially, she makes a strong case for another comparison: she’s our Henry James. The emotional involutions of her story “Fiction” are arguably as subtle and carefully constructed as those of James in his final novel, The Golden Bowl. And whereas James took close to 600 pages to unfold his narrative, Munro is able to deploy similarly complex psychological shifts in the space of a scant 30 pages.

The two key characters in “Fiction” are Joyce, a music teacher in Rough River, B.C., and Christie O’Dell, one of her students. Christie, who as a young girl went by Christine, is the daughter of Edie, who works as an apprentice to Jon, Joyce’s husband. Jon restores furniture in the shed behind the couple’s house; he agrees to take on an apprentice under the auspices of a government program that provides funds for students learning a trade: “At first he hadn’t been willing, but Joyce had talked him into it. She believed they had an obligation to society.”

This is the first ironic turn of the screw in Munro’s story: it is Joyce who convinces her husband to take part in the government initiative that results in him hiring Edie, with whom he gradually falls in love. Although “falling in love” is a loaded term, one that Munro exposes for its linguistic infelicity:

Falling. That suggests some time span, a moment or second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is. No way this could be seen as probable or possible, unless you think of a blow between the eyes, a sudden calamity. The stroke of fate that leaves a man a cripple, the wicked joke that turns clear eyes into blind stones.

Indeed, it is language that first gives Joyce the idea that her husband has fallen in love with his apprentice, who is a reformed alcoholic. One day Jon suggests that Joyce should refrain from leaving wine bottles on the kitchen table:

“When does she get to examine our kitchen table?”

“She has to go through to the toilet. She can’t be expected to piss in the bush.”

“I really don’t see what business –”

“And sometimes she comes in and makes a couple of sandwiches for us –”

“So? It’s my kitchen. Ours.”

“It’s just that she feels so threatened by the booze. She’s still pretty fragile. It’s a thing that you and I can’t understand.”

Threatened. Booze. Fragile.

What words were these for Jon to use?

It is language that allows Joyce to comprehend the way the relationship between her husband and his apprentice has changed; she does not remark on the domesticity implicit in Edie making sandwiches for herself and Jon in Joyce’s kitchen.

Following her discovery, Joyce moves into an apartment and begins to plot her revenge. Edie’s daughter is a violinist in Joyce’s music class; if Joyce schedules a recital at the school, she thinks, her ex-husband and the girl’s mother will have to attend as a couple, and Jon would see Joyce “in command rather than moping and suicidal.” She would achieve “something she couldn’t define but couldn’t stop herself hoping for”: in short, she would remind her ex-husband of all the things he had lost by shuffling her off to the side in favour of Edie. The fact that she is using Edie’s daughter as a pawn in her scheme to get back at her erstwhile husband never once enters her mind. In the event, Jon and Edie do not attend the recital.

So ends the first part of the story, but Munro is by no means finished turning the screws of her plot. Years pass, and Joyce is remarried to Matt, who has two previous wives, including one – Sally – whose “brain was damaged in a car accident at the age of twenty-nine.” Joyce and Matt host a party during which Joyce spies a woman in “a short frilly black dress that makes you think of a piece of lingerie or a nightie, and a severe but low-necked little black jacket.” Joyce does not recognize this woman, but takes “an instant dislike to her.”

Later, Joyce passes a bookstore and notices a book in the window and a poster featuring the woman’s face. Her name is Christie O’Dell and her book is called How Are We to Live. On impulse, Joyce buys a copy and, in another instance of Munro at her most ironic and slyly witty, is dismayed to discover that it is not a novel, but a book of stories:

This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

Despite her reservations, Joyce delves into the book and is surprised to discover that one of the stories is about a young girl whose mother, an alcoholic, takes up with the husband of her music teacher. Joyce assumes that the music teacher will be cast as the villain, and is surprised to find that the protagonist of the story worships her teacher as a source of inspiration. The protagonist of Christie’s fiction allows Joyce to come to an epiphanic revelation about the nature of human interactions: “It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness – however temporary, however flimsy – of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”

There is yet another twist to Munro’s tale, which it would be criminal to spoil for those who have not yet encountered it. Suffice it to say that Munro’s story captures the shifting spectrum of human expectations and desires as if in amber; her absolute control over her story’s movement is masterful, and her ability to subtly convey the shifting perceptions of her protagonist is nothing short of astounding. After she published The View from Castle Rock in 2006, Munro intimated that she would retire. Not only were the rumours of Munro’s retirement greatly exaggerated, “Fiction” stands as testament to the fact that in her late career, the most recent winner of the International Man Booker Prize is as powerful and potent a storyteller as we have in English today.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 27: “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol

May 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

Gogol’s story – widely anthologized, analyzed, and imitated – has become a touchstone of 19th-century Russian naturalism, but the story is not entirely naturalistic, and in fact serves as a kind of pivot between a 19th-century realist aesthetic and the 20th-century modernism of Mikhail Bulgakov. On the subject of Gogol’s fiction, Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s greatest prose stylists, opined, “Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worth the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art, so that whenever he tried to write in the round hand of literary tradition and to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent. When, as in the immortal ‘The Overcoat,’ he really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.”

“The Overcoat” is the story of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a copyist who toils in an anonymous department for an anonymous chief clerk. Akaky Akakievich is happy with his lot in life, and is in no way ambitious; when his supervisor suggests that he should be given a more intellectually demanding task than simply copying out documents, Akaky Akakievich demurs: “No, better let me copy something.” The only thing that preys on his mind is his threadbare overcoat, which has been mended so many times that it can no longer withstand the brutal Russian frost. Akaky Akakievich goes to his tailor, Petrovich, asking to have the overcoat mended once more, but Petrovich insists that only a new overcoat will do. Although he balks at the cost, Akaky Akakievich skimps and saves during the warm weather, and finally has enough money to pay for a new overcoat. Once outfitted with this garment, he becomes the toast of his office – mockingly, but also with a degree of envy at the elegance of the new overcoat. Leaving a party one night, Akaky Akakievich is set upon by thieves who assault him and steal his overcoat. Left subject to the harsh elements of the Russian winter, and with no financial means to secure a new overcoat, Akaky Akakievich succumbs to a fever and dies.

This bare-bones description of the first three quarters of Gogol’s story does not in any way convey the author’s fidelity to a careful presentation of Akaky Akakievich’s straitened circumstances, nor does it sufficiently express the pathos in the depiction of his utilitarian lifestyle. The narrator’s reticence to identify the specific department that Akaky Akakievich works in, or to identify any of the state officials in the story by name, is indicative of the suspicion that Russian workers had for the bureaucracy and machinery of government that operated at the time. The heavy hand of the state is personified in the “important person” Akaky Akakievich goes to see following his assault; when he makes his report, instead of sympathy, he is rebuffed for not following the proper protocol:

“What, my dear sir?” he continued curtly. “Do you not know the order? What are you doing here? Do you not know how cases are conducted? You ought to have filed a petition about it in the chancellery; it would pass to the chief clerk, to the section chief, then be conveyed to my secretary, and my secretary would deliver it to me …”

The knee-jerk response of the high-ranking bureaucrat to the lowly copyist belies what we have been told about him: “[H]e was a kind man at heart, good to his comrades, obliging, but the rank of general had completely bewildered him.” This “bewilderment” is a mild descriptor given the man’s immediate response to anyone he considers an underling or of a lesser station: “How dare you? Do you know with whom you are speaking? Do you realize who is standing before you?” The anonymous “important person” Akaky Akakievich consults represents the apparently unbreachable divide between the Russian gentry and the regular people; Akaky Akakievich goes to the man seeking justice and is presented with indignation and barely concealed disgust.

All of this is fairly typical of Russian realist literature; the reader is unprepared for the story’s final two pages, which involve what the narrator acknowledges to be “a fantastic ending.” Briefly, Akaky Akakievich’s ghost resurfaces and begins to steal the overcoats of people in the neighbourhood where he used to live and work. Finally, the ghost accosts the “important person” to whom he had gone for help following his assault, and steals his overcoat. After this, we are told, the phantasm “vanished completely into the darkness of the night.”

This frankly supernatural ending appears to come out of nowhere, but has actually been prepared for in the language of the story’s previous sections. When Akaky Akakievich is set upon, we are told that his assailant “put a fist the size of a clerk’s head right to his mouth.” This absurd image is not in keeping with the realistic presentation elsewhere in the story, and signals a stylistic shift in approach. When Akaky Akakievich succumbs to his fever, we are told in the English translation that he “gave up the ghost”; this turn of phrase is easily glossed over, but takes on a different tenor once the story’s climax has unfolded.

There is a certain amount of utopian wish fulfillment in the finale of Gogol’s story; after his death, the put-upon clerk gets his revenge upon the faceless bureaucrat who exists as a symbol of all the oppression rampant in Russian society at the time. It is interesting to note that in the final scene the phantasm sports “an enormous mustache,” which explicitly links it to the “mustached people” who attacked Akaky Akakievich and stole his new overcoat. Is Gogol suggesting that Russian society is so corrupt that only criminals can achieve anything resembling justice or a comfortable existence? This is one potential reading. It could also be argued that the story’s conclusion presents a longed-for reversal of fortune in which state oppression falls at the hands of the people. In any event, Gogol’s story represents an important step forward, for both Russian literature, and the short story in general.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 26: “The Adventure of the Bather” by Italo Calvino

May 26, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Difficult Loves

Italo Calvino’s 1951 story “The Adventure of the Bather” follows a woman named Isotta Barbarino, who suffers “an unfortunate mishap” while swimming. In the opening paragraph of the story, Signora Isotta, having swum far from shore, realizes that it is time to come in from the water, but that she has somehow managed to lose the bottom half of her two-piece bathing suit: “At some twist of her hip, some buttons must have popped, and the bottom part, reduced to a shapeless rag, had slipped down her leg.” Out of this embarrassing and frankly comical situation, Calvino constructs a parable about loneliness, isolation, and existential unease.

Back on land prior to the incident, Signora Isotta dons her two piece suit for the first time and realizes that it makes her “feel a bit ill-at-ease” in the company of the other people on the beach. Once she is in the water, however, she feels free and unencumbered, “like being naked.” Alone with the “intimacy” of the water, where she is able to feel “a part of that peaceful sea,” Signora Isotta is at ease, troubled only by her continued awareness of the figures on the beach. Whereas being in the sea is like being naked, while in her bathing suit on shore, Signora Isotta feels naked and exposed to the potentially erroneous judgment of her fellow beach-goers:

It was not unreasonable: her future beach acquaintances would perhaps form an idea of her that they would have to some extent modify later: not so much an opinion about her behaviour, since at the seaside all the women dressed like this, but a belief, for example, that she was athletic, or fashionable, whereas she was really a very simple, domestic person.

The unease and distrust that Signora Isotta feels toward her fellow bathers becomes magnified by her humiliation and mortification at the prospect of having to walk out of the water in an actual state of undress. When she looks to the shore after realizing her predicament, the bathers are described in language that renders them almost inhuman: beach umbrellas cast black shadows “in which the bodies became flat,” the “teeming of the bathers spilled into the sea,” and a “horde of children was roiling” behind a line of safety ropes. Signora Isotta observes this maelstrom and thinks, “Just off that beach, she was naked.”

Several times swimmers pass her but we are told that she “distrusted these men and evaded them.” She perceives “the front of preordained male insinuations” that “extended to all men,” and even suspects, in a paranoid way, that some of the men had been fantasizing about a woman losing her bathing suit and hoping that they might be around to witness the event.

Signora Isotta’s discomfort is not specific to her current situation; it becomes clear by way of her stream-of-consciousness ruminations that her fear of physical – and by extension, psychic – exposure extends even to her husband. She thinks of the times she has been alone with him, and the way in which “she had always surrounded her being naked with and air of complicity, of irony, part embarrassed and part feline, as if she were temporarily putting on joyous but outrageous disguises.” She accepts her body with “reluctance,” and must use metaphor and irony to distance herself from the physical reality of her corporeal existence. She thinks that perhaps her life really exists only when she is clothed, and that “her nakedness hardly belong[s] to her.”

As the story progresses, the day drags on and gradually darkens; Signora Isotta takes refuge clinging to a nearby buoy and watches from afar as the other bathers exit the rapidly cooling water. She recalls “the marvelous weariness of those returns” to shore, and ponders the camaraderie of friends who call from one to another, “We’ll meet on shore!” or “Let’s see who gets there first!” These friendly shouts fill her mind “with a boundless envy.”

Although she initially assumes that there is no one who could breach the “preordained male insinuations” and allow them to rescue her from her embarrassment, she is eventually approached by a boat containing a man and a boy, who offer her a skirt and delicately avert their eyes while she climbs aboard and dresses herself. Her relief at having found her longed-for “savior” is tinged with irony, however, once she realizes what the two were doing in the water:

They started the motor, and seated at the prow in a green skirt with orange flowers, she saw on the bottom of the boat a mask for underwater fishing and she knew how the pair had learned her secret. The boy, swimming below the surface with mask and harpoon, had seen her and had alerted the man, who had also dived in to see. They had motioned her to wait for them, without being understood, and had sped to the port to procure a dress from some fisherman’s wife.

Surprisingly, Signora Isotta is not made uncomfortable by the prospect of the two having witnessed her nakedness. On the contrary, we are told, “since someone had perforce to see her, she was glad it had been these two, and also glad that they had felt curiosity and pleasure.” Her sense of calm seems to indicate a subtle shift in her existential anxiety; her discomfort has not entirely vanished, but has diminished sufficiently that she is able to observe the man bent over the motor of his boat, his “brick-red back divided by the knobs of the spine, on which the hard, salty skin rippled as if moved by a sigh.”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 25: “The Wide Net” by Eudora Welty

May 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty has written extensively about the responsibility that writers have to be mindful of and to establish connections with their readers. “At the other end of the writing is the reader,” she says. “There is sure to be somewhere the reader, who is a user himself of imagination and thought, who knows, perhaps, as much about the need of communication as the writer.” She notes that “looking at short stories as readers and writers together should be a companionable thing,” a process in which both parties participate, a friendly dialogue in which the ultimate goal is textual understanding and meaning. But, declarations of affection for readers notwithstanding, Welty’s fiction often belies her avowed closeness to readership and reveals instead an entirely different and problematic paradigm for discovery. To be sure, some of Welty’s fiction might be said to offer a kind of companionable read, but much of her fiction challenges readers in peculiar and disturbing ways and imposes on them an obligation to make sense of the implications that reside in those texts.

– Rebecca Chalmers

“The Wide Net” is very much a story that “challenges readers … and imposes on them an obligation to make sense” of its – admittedly rather peculiar and outlandish – events. Welty withholds explanation or implication about the meaning of the story, choosing instead to present the events unadorned and allow readers to draw what conclusions they might.

The story focuses on William Wallace Jamieson and his wife Hazel, who is three months pregnant. After staying out all night drinking, William Wallace returns home to find a note from Hazel saying that she has gone to drown herself in the local river. Being a man of action, like his Scottish namesake, William Wallace rounds up a posse, consisting in part of Virgil, one of his drinking companions from the previous night, and Doc, the town’s self-appointed philosopher (and owner of the titular implement), and sets about dragging the river in search of his wife’s body.

This sounds grim and foreboding, but Welty’s first challenge to the reader involves the disconnect between the subject of her story and the tone in which it is narrated. The dominant tone of the story is comedic, and the sprightly and humorous narration employed throughout is at odds with the rather sombre mission that the party has set out on.

One of the central sources of comedy is the stoic Virgil, who seems blithely unconcerned about Hazel’s potential suicide. When he is told that Hazel has gone to the river to drown herself, Virgil’s only response is, “Why, that ain’t like Hazel.” And when William Wallace asks Virgil to help him drag the river, Virgil says, “Right this minute?” William Wallace, in a moment of reverie, tells Virgil that Hazel is “smart, too, for a girl,” and Virgil agrees, saying that she’s much smarter than her cousin Edna Earle, who “could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in the Coca-Cola sign.” When William Wallace wonders aloud how his wife, who is deathly afraid of water, could have worked up the nerve to jump into the river and drown herself, Virgil responds reasonably: “Jumped backwards … Didn’t look.”

The motley crew that William Wallace rounds up to help drag the river includes a bevy of men from two local families – the Malones and the Doyles – and two local black boys named Sam and Robbie Bell. The group’s antics belie the seriousness of their mission, occasionally degenerating into outright farce:

They all laughed then at how clever old Doc was and clapped William Wallace on the back. But that turned into a scuffle and they fell to the ground.

“Stop it, or you can’t have the net,” said Doc. “You’re scaring my wife’s chickens.”

Once the group has set out on their expedition, Welty’s tale begins to take on the tenor of folklore: the group proceeds into the woods, symbolic of chaos, where they encounter a group of alligators, an eel that the Malones “rassle” with, and various other fish and fowl. Not for nothing is William Wallace’s companion named Virgil; the allusion to Dante’s guide through the underworld is explicit and intentional. In case there was any doubt about the folkloric aspects of her story, Welty puts it to rest when the group stops to cook some of the catfish they caught and William Wallace does a manic dance, “leaping all over the place and all, over them and the feast and the bones of the feast, trampling the sand, up and down, and doing a dance so crazy that he would die next.” William Wallace’s dance calls forth a creature from the depths, with “an old hoary head” and whiskers – a creature the Malones identify as “The King of the Snakes.” The King of the Snakes slips beneath the surface of the water, and a storm rolls in.

The entire central portion of “The Wide Net” takes the form of a tall tale, and Welty does not return to a naturalistic mode until the party has made its way back from the Pearl River and William Wallace returns home, where he finds his wife waiting for him. He puts her over his knee and spanks her, and there is the subtle implication that this kind of situation has occurred before. Earlier, with William Wallace and Virgil heading toward the Pearl River, we are told, “The path they always followed was the Old Natchez Tate,” indicating that this is the first time such a journey has been undertaken. After Hazel’s return, Welty writes: “It was just as if he had chased her and captured her again. She lay smiling in the crook of his arm. It was the same as any other chase in the end.”

“I will do it again if I get ready,” Hazel tells her husband. “Next time will be different, too.” Is this a kind of game that the husband and wife play with each other, varying only the specifics of the chase and capture? This is never made entirely clear. In the end, Welty’s tale is dependent more on mood than on the verifiable truth of the incidents in its plot. The descent into the wilderness and back again, the movement from order to chaos and back to order, is reminiscent of Dante and Shakespeare, but Welty only teases us with the potential implications of her story, refusing to draw any definitive parallels or to make explicit her story’s meaning. The end of the story finds the husband reunited with his wife, her “smiling as if she were smiling down on him,” which is a happy end to what has been in effect a mock hero story, but one that “imposes on [its readers] an obligation to make sense of the implications” within its pages.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 24: “Burn Man on a Texas Porch” by Mark Anthony Jarman

May 24, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From 19 Knives

What does it feel like to be engulfed in flames, to feel the skin of your face shift and melt into runnels and the flesh of your body char like burnt meat? Like this, perhaps:

I’m okay, okay, will be fine except I’m hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I’m burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape – am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke. … My face feels like a million hot rivets. I am yelling and writhing. One of my shoes burns happily by itself on the road.

The image of the lone shoe burning “happily” on the road is in stark contrast to the horrific violence of the unnamed narrator who has fallen victim to an exploding propane tank in his camper and now finds himself alight, running blindly without direction, “hoovering all the oxygen” in the air and unable to discern whether it is him moving or the flames that have overtaken him.

Mark Anthony Jarman wisely eschews any kind of naturalistic presentation in this story, preferring instead a more expressionistic approach to his chosen subject matter. From the story’s bravura opening sentence, which finds the unnamed narrator staggering through his campsite “with flames living on [his] calves and flames gathering and glittering on [his] shoulders,” readers are presented with a portrait of a ravaged, ruined man in short, impressionistic scenes that privilege language over plot, sense impressions over character development or setting.

Indeed, the setting for Jarman’s story is kept deliberately obscure. After undergoing a series of largely ineffective skin grafts, the protagonist, known only as Burn Man, retreats to the basement of his home, where he recruits an escort named Cindi to give him blow jobs by the murky light of the engine on his toy train. Even this is presented obliquely: “a slight woman in a parody of a nurse’s uniform does something for Burn Man, for Burn Man is not burnt everywhere, still has some desires, and the woman doesn’t have to touch anything else, doesn’t have to see me, has almost no contact, has a verbal contract, an oral contract, say.”

Burn Man discovered Cindi in an ad for escorts at the back of a local tabloid; he avoided the ad that read, “FIRE & DESIRE, Sensuous Centrefold Girls, HOT Fall Specials.” He rationalizes this by saying, “I don’t live in the metro area,” but the real cause of his avoidance is plain. Burn Man’s experience has become the central fact of his life, to the extent that everything is now associated with his disfigurement. To make money, Burn Man takes a series of part-time jobs that require him to dress up in head-to-toe costumes: a clown hocking flowers on the street outside the Bed of Roses flower shop, an ape delivering singing telegrams door to door, the Easter Bunny. He “can’t do Santa,” however. “I could definitely use the do-re-mi but the beard isn’t enough cover for my droopy right eye and melted cheek, the beard isn’t enough to save face, and also I confess to trouble with the constant Ho Ho Ho.”

The bad pun about saving face is indicative of Jarman’s willingness to engage in levels of dark humour in his story. One of Burn Man’s jobs is playing the Mighty Moose mascot for the local hockey team; he thinks it would make sense to get into a brawl with Raving Raven, the opposing team’s mascot:

All the skaters were scrapping, Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part One” booming on the sound system, and then both goalies started throwing haymakers. I thought the mascots should also duke it out – a sense of symmetry and loyalty. I banged at the Old World armour of that raven’s narrow, serious face, snapped his head back. Hoofs were my advantage.

At the bar afterward, Raven and Moose engage in “shop talk,” comparing abrasions and laughing about their fight. Jarman immediately shifts gears, however, returning to the more serious existential question of the universe’s apparent indifference, and the resultant lack of agency that human beings can ultimately exert over their fate:

Don’t fuck with me, rummy beard-jammers and balls-up bean-counters snarl at every bar on the island, as if they alone decide when they get fucked over. I could advise them on that. I didn’t decide to have the camper blow to shrapnel with me curled inside like a ball-turret gunner.

Jarman’s insistence on language as the driving force in his story allows him to negotiate such breakneck turns in tone and focus without once losing control; his brief, elliptical character study dances and flickers, like the flames that lick at Burn Man’s flesh. Burn Man rails against the injustice of his situation, and succumbs to his righteous anger by picturing himself attacking the doctor who advises him to imagine his ruined face as “a convenience, not an ornament”: “Thanks for that, Doc. Maybe I could take a razor to him, see if he still debates function versus ornament after I’ve cut him a new face.” And yet Burn Man is able to find a kind of solace in the memory of an unexpected kiss on a Texas porch years before; “I am a product of light, of hope,” he thinks, and longs for “the right fire” that will reverse his disfiguring scars and return him to wholeness. “Perhaps God will have mercy on me in my new exile,” Burn Man thinks. And after exploring the depths of anger, fear, and loneliness, his final epiphany is an optimistic one: “Ours really is an amazing world.”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 23: “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov

May 23, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

From Stories

Anton Chekhov is best known through his plays and brief, impressionistic stories such as “The Huntsman” or “Lady with a Little Dog.” But Chekhov’s short fiction was more varied in tone and approach than most people credit it for; his early naturalism gave way to a more symbolic style in his middle period, a style that was characterized by dark irony and cutting social commentary that incisively dissected the Russian society of the day, often despairing at what it found.

Running to 50 pages, “Ward No. 6” is one of Chekhov’s longest stories; it is also one of his most philosophically dense. Ostensibly the story of two men – one the inmate of a mental institution, the other his doctor – the story is actually an extended meditation on human suffering, and what constitutes insanity in a society that has lost its values and anything resembling a moral compass.

The asylum inmate, Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, and the doctor, Andrei Yefimych Ragin, are doubles of one another. Both are intellectuals who were born into nobility; both end up losing everything and finding themselves incarcerated in the mental ward of the town hospital. But the trajectories by which they succumb to incarceration are very different. Gromov is a paranoiac, who imagines that everybody in town, from tradesmen who come to replace his landlady’s stove to policemen in the streets, is spying on him or watching for him to make a wrong move in order to scoop him up and imprison him. Gromov’s paranoia has reduced him to a kind of paralysis:

He did not sleep for whole nights, expecting to be arrested, but he snored loudly and sighed like a sleeping man, so that his landlady would think he was asleep; because if he did not sleep, it meant he was suffering from remorse – what evidence! Facts and logical sense insisted that all these fears were absurd and psychopathic, that, once one took a broader view, there was nothing especially terrible in arrest and prison – as long as his conscience was at ease; but the more sensible and logical his reasoning was, the more intense and painful his inner anxiety became. It resembled the story of the recluse who wanted to clear a little spot for himself in a virgin forest; the more zealously he worked with the axe, the deeper and thicker the forest grew. Seeing in the end that it was useless, Ivan Dmitrich abandoned reasoning altogether and gave himself up entirely to fear and despair.

For his part, Ragin is troubled by the lack of proper care available to the patients in his hospital, and succumbs to a sense of futility at the prospect of trying to adequately care for their needs:

Today you receive thirty patients, and tomorrow, lo and behold, thirty-five come pouring in, and the next day forty, and so it goes, day after day, year after year, and the town mortality rate does not go down, and the patients do not stop coming. To give serious aid to forty outpatients between morning and dinnertime was physically impossible, which meant, willy-nilly, that it was all a deceit. During the fiscal year twelve thousand outpatients were received, which meant, simply speaking, that twelve thousand people were deceived. To put the seriously ill in the hospital and care for them according to the rules of science was also impossible, because while there were rules, there was no science; and to abandon philosophy and follow the rules pedantically, as other doctors did, you first of all needed cleanliness and ventilation, not filth, and wholesome food, not soup made from stinking pickled cabbage, and good assistants, not thieves.

The world of the hospital that Chekhov portrays is irredeemably filthy, ruled over by the guard Nikita, who resides on top of the mounds of hospital garbage that are piled in the building’s front hall: “Mattresses, old torn dressing gowns, trousers, blue-striped shirts, worthless, worn-out shoes – all these rags are piled in heaps, crumpled, tangled, rotting and giving off a suffocating smell.” Indeed, Ragin believes that the hospital, in its grime and primitive conditions, is an “immoral institution” that should be closed down. However, Ragin lacks the political will to advocate for this and convinces himself that the mere fact of the hospital’s existence proves its necessity:

Besides, if people had opened the hospital and put up with it in their town, it meant they needed it; prejudice and all this everyday filth and muck are necessary, because in time they turn into something useful, as dung turns into black earth. There is nothing good in the world that does not have some filth in its origin.

To the extent that Chekhov’s hospital is meant as a microcosm for Russian society, the picture he paints is not a terribly flattering one. Russian society, Chekhov suggests, is mired in filth and muck, but will correct itself given time. Ragin’s assessment is counterpointed by Gromov’s notion of what time is capable of doing:

Those who take an official, business-like attitude towards other people’s suffering, like judges, policemen, doctors, from force of habit, as time goes by, become callous to such a degree that they would be unable to treat their clients otherwise than formally even if they wanted to; in this respect they are no different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in his backyard without noticing the blood. With this formal, heartless attitude towards the person, a judge needs only one thing to deprive an innocent man of all his property rights and sentence him to hard labor: time.

In Gromov’s conception, time is connected with both the Russian bureaucracy, which in his paranoid mind is irredeemably malevolent, and with suffering. The ultimate result of allowing time to pass is that a judge will discover enough evidence against an individual to deprive that person of liberty and incarcerate him in a forced labour camp.

The association is not accidental: throughout Chekhov’s story, the hospital is explicitly compared to a prison. Not only are the two institutions contiguous to one another in the town, but from the very opening of the story, we are presented with the image of the hospital fence, “topped with nails” that point upwards, giving the building “that special despondent and accursed look that only our hospitals and prisons have.” Gromov constantly refers to the hospital’s mental ward as his prison, an association that Ragin will echo when he finds himself incarcerated in Ward No. 6 at the story’s end.

Throughout the story, Chekhov engages in an extended meditation on the nature and function of human suffering, which Ragin feels, invoking Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, can be “disregarded” and ignored. Gromov, from his particular vantage point as an inmate of a prison-like hospital ward, maintains no such illusions:

“God created me out of warm blood and nerves, yes, sir! And organic tissue, if it’s viable, must react to any irritation. And I do react! I respond to pain with cries and tears, to meanness with indignation, to vileness with disgust. In my opinion, this fact is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is and the more weakly it responds to irritation, and the higher, the more susceptible it is and the more energetically it reacts to reality. How can you not know that? You’re a doctor and you don’t know such trifles! To scorn suffering, to be always content and surprised at nothing, you must reach that condition” – and Ivan Dmitrich pointed to the obese, fat-swollen peasant – “or else harden yourself with suffering to such a degree that you lose all sensitivity to it, that is, in other words, stop living.”

If suffering is living, which of the two men, Chekhov implicitly asks, is more alive? When the doctor is incarcerated in the mental ward at the story’s end, it is left to the reader to decide whether this represents his comeuppance or his redemption. For in a society where intelligent, thoughtful men like Gromov are incarcerated as insane, while “dozens, hundreds of madmen are walking about in freedom because in your ignorance you are unable to tell them from the sane,” where, the inmate asks, is the logic? Ragin has only one answer to give: “That I am a doctor and you are a mental patient has no morality or logic in it – it’s a matter of pure chance.”

31 Days of Short Stories 2010, Day 22: “How to Write a Successful Short Story” by Leon Rooke

May 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Last Shot

In his spirited defence of Leon Rooke’s 2009 story collection for The Afterword’s Canada Also Reads project, poet Jacob McArthur Mooney crafted what could be considered a manifesto for those of us who want to see our literary culture break out of its moribund stasis and embrace in a concerted way those artists who work on the fringes:

What I’d like is a reading (and reviewing) culture that values the wildchilds, the impossibility merchants and the avant-garde as partners in a community of bibliophiles that sees a vibrant and replenishing fringe as necessary to a vibrant and replenishing middle. Our imaginative country is well-represented by artists we export from other literary genres (including speculative fiction, with folks like John Clute and William Gibson, who shares Rooke’s status as an American-born Canadian-by-choice) and in other art forms, from our spacey rock ’n’ roll to our visceral cinematic imaginers at the fringe (David Cronenberg) and centre (James Cameron) of international film. Maybe we already have an imaginative country, and we just need one that’s willing to own that imagination.

The author of more than 300 short stories, Leon Rooke has spent his career toiling as one of Canada’s “impossibility merchants.” Unlike Ray Smith, whose writing in late-career novels like The Man Who Loved Jane Austen strayed into more conventional territory, Rooke has remained almost defiantly on the postmodern outskirts, playing and testing and experimenting, determined to chart the outer limits of the short story form.

As is apparent from its title, “How to Write a Successful Short Story” is an exercise in postmodern playfulness. Its central figure is a 23-year-old aspiring writer who has consulted a how-to book by a man named Fink, a creative writing guru who the narrator thinks will teach him how to write a good short story “before the sun goes down.”

Books purporting to teach aspirants how to write fiction are so plentiful that they have become a genre unto themselves, and Rooke has a great deal of fun sending up the clichés and conventional wisdom contained in the vast majority of them. Fink’s book is replete with useless platitudes, all presented in assertive boldface: “Start Your Fiction with a Bang“; “Write What You Know“; “Make Your Characters Attractive“; “Be Unique Without Being Eccentric.” The opening of a story should “hit you in the gut” and should grab the reader “like a hand at the throat.” Fink advises writers to “Zap those metaphors” and “holds no truck” with minimalist writers such as Mary Robison, Frederick Barthelme, or Raymond Carver, whose stories do not come to a definitive end, instead giving the impression that “the author just quits the story when he’s tired of it or his brain has gone dead.” Rooke, who is closer in spirit to the three writers Fink professes to hate than to the kind of writer Fink advocates his readers they should become, is having a bit of a laugh here; there is a not-so-subtle skewering of complacent, formula fiction taking place throughout this story. It is telling that Fink (note the name) “has toiled countless thousands of hours making his very popular stories”: the measure of a story’s success, for Fink, is popularity, not literary achievement.

Rooke plays with Fink’s methods and advice to great comic effect:

Keep your paragraphs short, Fisk says [sic].


Or elsewhere:

A successful narrative, Fink asserts, must be seamless, must be fluid. A tactic a pro frequently finds useful is to plop a star (*) onto the page. This indicates a line break. The line break serves to inform the reader that a passage of time has occurred, to expect an alteration in point of view, or angle, another plot loop, etc. Usually what it indicates to me is that the writer is stymied, his wife is making him walk the dog, or the schmuck has got up to refresh his drink.

This paragraph is, of course, followed by an editorial space (complete with star) and a shift in scene.

However, although Rooke pokes fun at the conventions of writing manuals, his narrative also tugs against Fink’s rules in more subtle ways. Despite the advice to keep paragraphs short, Rooke includes several lengthy paragraphs, one of which runs to almost a page and a half. When Fink advises that conflict is essential in any narrative, the narrator launches into a description of his difficult relationship with his father, who referred to his son as “Asshole” and abandoned him when he was 13:

Leaving me at home to rot, which was reason enough, I thought, to hot-wire his cars and break into the pantry where he hid away his hooch. Not to mention the little fire we had around then, thee acres gone up in flames, the addition over the garage where he had put in his weight room, the games room, all that gone. Nor to dwell on my dope days, my B&E period, how I got hold of his bank PIN to raid his private treasury, them down there in Wahoo living he goldenrod life. Me, too, zipping about in his red Porsche until I wrapped it around a tree, all but deliberately, I would say, and owing to the presence of some heavy dust.

Rooke allows the character of the narrator to reveal itself in the way he attempts to put Fink’s advice into practice; the irony, of course, is that Rooke’s narrative schema is diametrically opposed to the writing instructor’s populist approach.

Nevertheless, there is a human heart to this story, and scenes that are genuinely affecting. Rooke is not so focused on his postmodern technical games that he forgets his characters; as Mooney asserts, “Rooke’s circuitous and mesmerizing structures aren’t means to avoid the human imperative at the heart of good stories but rather means to find new routes for exploring that humanity. Leon Rooke and Alice Munro, in the end, have the same aspirations.” In pursuit of those aspirations, Rooke has remained the literary wildchild, one of Canada’s unrepentant impossibility merchants. And for that, we can all be grateful.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 21: “Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada” by Ray Smith

May 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada

The title story of Ray Smith’s 1969 collection is a postmodern collage that neatly puts the boots to the kind of earnest Canadian nationalism running rampant in this country at the time. Subtitled “A Centennial Project,” the story traverses the nation from Cape Breton to British Columbia, with detours to Poland along the way, in the process touching on subjects as diverse as American hegemony, Expo ’67, and the literary technique of The Bible. Clearly, Smith’s story is not a typical piece of Canadian naturalism.

Commenting on the story in his introduction to the Biblioasis Renditions edition of the book, Smith says, “Large political enthusiasms (and there were lots about in the late sixties) seem to me to suffer loss of clarity, complexity, subtlety. ‘Cape Breton …’ was my attempt to retrieve and fix some nuances in a valid balance.” Readers unsympathetic to what Smith calls “soi-disant originality” may find little apparent balance in his story, which appears on its surface to be a series of unconnected, technically discrete scenes. But “Cape Breton …” evinces a deep structure, not on the level of plot (there is no plot to speak of) but on a thematic level. The balance in Smith’s story results from the involutions of his sustained examination of power dynamics on several fronts: personal, national, and international.

This being a work of postmodernism, it is incumbent upon Smith to comment on his process in the story, and to draw his reader’s attention to its essential fictiveness. He does this in a snippet explaining how a friend “conned” him into a discussion of his interest in “compiled fiction” (this section, narrated in the first person, is associated with the author, although there is no specific indication that the narrator here is Ray Smith). In this section of the story, the narrator addresses the reader directly and then goes on to point out that the technical form is not new, but dates back at least as far as Ezra Pound. “Other precedents might be Francis Bacon’s essays, the Book of Proverbs … the whole Bible …” “Hey, that’s great,” the friend says. “But I hope you aren’t expecting to sell any of these compilations.”

This is at once a sly acknowledgment of a reticence on the part of Canadian publishers (and readers) to embrace technically challenging material, and an example of Smith’s humour, which is one of his most potent attributes. It is deployed throughout the story by way of biting irony (the reference to “Anti-American slogans like; ‘Give me liberty or give me death!'”) and absurd juxtapositions (“For Centennial Year, send President Johnson a gift: an American tourist’s ear in a matchbox”). There is also savage political commentary disguised as frat-boy badinage:

See, the way I look at it, your problem is that Joe Yank is the biggest kid on the block. Now I know you’re pretty friendly with him – him being your cousin and all – but someday he’s going to say, “Johnny Canuck, my boot is dirty. Lick it.”

Now then, are you going to get down on your hands and knees and lick or are you going to say, “Suck ice, Joe Yank”? Because if you do say, “Suck ice,” he’s going to kick you in the nuts. And either way, you’re going to lick those boots. It just depends on how you want to take it.

Those words, written in 1967, seem to have an uncomfortable resonance from the vantage point of 2010.

Indeed, much of “Cape Breton …” involves an examination of the power imbalance between Canada and the U.S. “Americans,” we are told, “are loath to fight without a divine cause,” which is becoming more apparent with each passing day. “With their divine cause,” Smith goes on, “the Americans would destroy our Armed Forces in one week.” And should we decide to fight back, what are the options open to us? Blowing up the Peace Bridge or mailing an American tourist’s ear to the U.S. president. Smith suggests that in the face of American hegemony, Canadian nationalism is a patent absurdity. Like the anonymous couple who decide that it’s better to declare their love for one another “even if it’s a technical lie,” Canadians are forced by circumstance of geography and economic and military might into a Hobson’s Choice: “Would you rather be smothered under a pillow of American greenbacks or cut open on a U.S. Marine’s bayonet?”

The Canadian geopolitical situation is juxtaposed with that of Poland, which has “survived despite the attentions paid them by their neighbours, the Russians and the Germans.” The Polish patriot Count Z. dies in battle, while Baron Otto and Prince Igor take up residence in his old office to partition the country over a snack of liverwurst and vodka. In Smith’s allegorical conception, patriotic self-actualization ends in death. (In this regard, note the absurd futility of the scene between Bill and George, who represent a comic debasement of the self-defeating antagonistic relationship between putatively friendly nations.)

In the end, Smith seems to imply that blind Canadian nationalism is like the virgin Judy, who goes to a party with the explicit intention of losing her virginity. Unable to find a willing suitor, she heads out into the street, where she is violently raped. Fortunately, her virginity is later restored “in a Venus-wide bath,” allowing her to repeat the process over again. Through it all, Judy is convinced that “she leads a sane, healthy, and well-balanced life.” And that, my friends, is one of the most damning indictments of the Canadian condition in our literature.

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