31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 16: “Shared Room on Union” by Steven Heighton

May 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Dead Are More Visible

The_Dead_Are_More_VisibleIn the Bare It for Books 2014 calendar, a wall calendar featuring “nearly nude” photographs of prominent Canadian writers (the proceeds go to PEN Canada), Mr. June, Steven Heighton, is photographed sitting in the trunk of a car. This pose takes on a particularly cheeky resonance for anyone familiar with his story “Shared Room on Union,” which appeared in The Fiddlehead and the 2010 edition of Best Canadian Stories; it is also included in Heighton’s 2012 collection The Dead Are More Visible. A brief, mordantly humorous vignette, “Shared Room on Union” addresses a question you probably didn’t even think to ask: What happens if the guy who carjacks your Volvo can’t drive stick?

Short answer: the guy gets frustrated and locks you and your fiancée in the trunk, then abandons you there.

This being Heighton, though, the (somewhat absurd) situation is merely the springboard for an examination of the couple’s relationship – its bedrock and its fault lines. Heighton is a careful and protean stylist, highly attuned to the nuances and potentialities of language. In “Shared Room on Union,” the dialogue between the couple locked in the car trunk yields volumes about their shared intimacy and throws light on the niggling, petty annoyances that are inevitable in any long-term union.

Take, for instance, the way café manager Janna seems to blame her fiancé, Justin, for their predicament based on the fact that Justin neglected to inform their assailant, prior to being locked in the trunk, that Janna is claustrophobic. This despite the fact that Justin himself ended up in the trunk after being pistol-whipped by the would-be carjacker and momentarily losing consciousness. Their snidely bickering dialogue in the enclosed confines of the car trunk belies their perilous situation, coming across as the kind of tossed-off disagreement a couple might have while doing the after-dinner dishes together:

I’ve told you I’m claustrophobic. Why didn’t you tell him?

He probably wouldn’t have known the word. Christ, my head.

Of course he would have known it.

And I didn’t know. I mean, I thought you were just saying that before. Everyone says they’re claustrophobic.

I don’t even like when you pull the quilt over us!

To make love, he thought, in an exclusive cocoon, cut off from the world.

The ironic distance between the tone of the disagreement and its setting is heightened by the line about making love in a “cocoon, cut off from the world” – which is precisely the situation in which the two currently find themselves. The distance between the (pre)marital bed and the car trunk is at once enormous and nonexistent.

Janna and Justin’s squabbling continues unabated throughout much of their ordeal, or at least up to the point at which Janna’s nervous system finally capitulates and she passes out. Janna complains about Justin forgetting to carry his cell phone and thus being unable to call for help. Justin loses patience with Janna when she starts to panic, and snaps at her when she challenges him on the fundamentals of their situation, such as whether they have enough oxygen. “You’re supposed to be a doctor!” she says. “I’m not a doctor, you know that. Jesus.” (Justin works at the local university, doing research into babies with fetal alcohol syndrome.)

There is irony, too, in the fact that Justin and Janna’s sniping is mirrored by their assailant, whom they overhear on his cell phone, talking to someone about takeout pizza: “I don’t know why the fuck the thing hasn’t come, you call them back yourself! I know, I know, that’s why I said don’t use them anymore, didn’t I? Yeah. That’s right. And pineapple on just half this time, right? And don’t call back. I might be longer, there’s no car now.” The self-conscious normalcy in this conversation renders it that much more ironic, and that much funnier.

Indeed, the whole situation is laced in irony. When the man with the gun first approaches the car, Justin and his fiancée are parked in front of Janna’s apartment saying goodnight before parting. The couple always sleeps apart on Thursday nights, we are told, putatively so that Janna can be well-rested for her “nightmare day” shift on Friday. Privately, Justin feels that this is a last stab at independence on her part, a “vestige” of their separate lives prior to becoming a couple. Justin, by contrast, “could never take in too much of her”; when he tries to consider the ebb and flow of mutual desire, the need for reciprocity and “mutuality” in a relationship, “his mind would start to drift, unable to concentrate on the matter for so long, and he would simply want her body next to his again.”

Needless to say, when his wish is granted soon after, it is in neither the context nor the situation he was imagining. “In the deeps of the trunk, furled on their sides in mirror image, they lay with knees pressed together, faces close. Her breaths, coming fast, were hot, coppery, sour.” Here, Heighton emphasizes the proximity of the couple by way of olfactory detail, something that the critic Alex Good points out is very difficult to pull off effectively. The insistence on smell to underscore the uncomfortably constrained conditions inside the trunk recurs later, when Janna loses control of her bladder due to fear and exhaustion: “There was a smell like ammonia and he thought he felt dampness through the right knee of his jeans.” This enforced closeness is counterpointed by an image of FAS siblings together in the womb: “Entombed in their toxic primordial sea, the two had seemed to be holding each other in a consoling embrace.”

The couple does manage to escape from the confines of the car trunk, but significantly, Heighton withholds the details of how this transpires. Their release occurs offstage, in the interstice between sections in the story. The coda describes the way in which Janna and Justin regale friends with the tale of their ordeal, exaggerating and embellishing for dramatic effect, although this forced revelry is only for public display; between each other they never speak of their shared experience, which brought them close together in ways neither one of them could have anticipated.

Steven Heighton’s memos on writing and reading

December 13, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing. Steven Heighton; $18.95 paper 978-1-55022-937-0, 80 pp., ECW Press

“We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” So said W.B. Yeats, whose tidy observation provides the springboard for Steven Heighton’s little book of musings, or “memos,” as he prefers to call this collection of thoughts on writing, reading, and criticism. The epigrammatic structure of Heighton’s book, reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, results from the author’s sense that fully formed essays are inevitably incomplete; the Hegelian cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will necessarily only lead to the discovery of a second thesis that will begin the process over again, and again, and again ad infinitum. “I grow impatient with the enterprise,” Heighton writes in his foreword, “and yet the alternative would seem to be mendacity through omission, which is akin to propaganda.”

Heighton is not a propagandist; he is a careful and thoughtful writer who uses the short, sharp shots in this book to sketch out an artistic manifesto of sorts, a fractured and meditative riff on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (the young poet, in this case, being a youthful version of Heighton himself). His numbered lists of memos address subjects – insecurity, jealousy, fear, failure – that occupy all writers’ thoughts, whether or not they admit to them. Thus, number eight under the heading “On Criticism”: “The writing life’s cruellest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won’t make you happy.” In “A Devil’s Dictionary for Writers,” failure is defined as a “phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends,” and a “writer’s writer” is “one who lives at or below the poverty line.”

These observations are refreshing in their honesty, directness, and humour. Also refreshing is Heighton’s refusal to compromise on the discipline required to write and read well, at one point excoriating lazy readers who are “unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.”

Throughout, Heighton is concerned with emphasizing the importance of complexity and nuance, whether he is addressing writers, readers, or critics. Of the last, he quite accurately recognizes that the “bad reviewer’s art involves universalizing, in authoritative, pseudo-objective language, a totally subjective response to a book,” and notes that “you can always criticize at a higher level than you can compose; you can always spot flaws in a classic novel that you could never hope to write yourself.”

Heighton is especially hard on writers who abandon fidelity to an artistic vision in favour of mainstream acceptance and recognition: “Careerist writers don’t confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles, which they naturally resent and fear.” He rejects the careerist writer’s definition of success, which is inevitably caught up more in the pursuit of awards and accolades than a focus on artistic purity. He urges readers who are interested in truly significant art to bypass recent award winners and buzz books and turn their attention to those volumes that have stood the test of time, although he also recognizes the “small masterpieces, initially neglected” that “still languish unread.”

If there is a contradiction here, it is one that Heighton would likely embrace. Despite his book’s formal affinity with Kierkegaard’s epigrams, Heighton is not a fan of either/or propositions. He is aware of complexity, and confident enough to allow it free rein.

Esprit de l’escalier, the Steven Heighton edition

November 26, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

Earlier this year, I published an essay in Canadian Notes and Queries with the somewhat adversarial title “Fuck Books.” In it, I expended about 3,000 words gassing on about the prevalence of a certain kind of pseudo-poetic, lyrical fiction that seems to dominate the literary discourse in this country. Two writers in particular – Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje – took it on the chin in that piece. (Of course, that essay was written before I read The Winter Vault, Michaels’ follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Fugitive Pieces; although my feelings about the latter novel remain unchanged, regular readers of this site may recall my surprise at how much I liked The Winter Vault.)

In the wake of the CNQ essay’s appearance, critics (myself and others) pointed out that not all poetic fiction is created equal. This is something that came to mind last night as I was dipping into the poet Robyn Sarah’s essay collection Little Eurekas. I came across a dialogue that Sarah had with Steven Heighton in the pages of another journal, The New Quarterly. The subject of the “paired talks” was “The Poet’s Hand in the Short Story,” and had I read it prior to writing my own essay, I might have reconsidered, since Heighton says almost everything I wanted to say, but in a much more concise and cogent manner:

To put things another way: while a literary novelist strives to get every sentence right, and a short story writer struggles with every word, a poet is actually attentive at the level of the syllable – attentive to every syllable’s length, stress, latent or overt music, onomatopoeic potential and so on. Over the course of a text, the meanings developed and/or stories conveyed are not separable from this interplay of syllables any more than the externals of a galaxy are independent of the microscopic dance of its atoms. Which is simply to say that poets strive to build texts from the micro-level upwards.

When it works, this molecular construction, this radical aptness of diction, leads to writing that feels layered, textured, mysterious, complex, and symphonic; where it fails, the results feel fussy, showy, effortful, pretentious, or, worst of all, static – a bevy of pretty phrases standing around preening and admiring themselves.

One way for the poet-writing-fiction to avoid this kind of vain stasis is to spin a compelling story – as does Cormac McCarthy – because poetic writing that leads narratively nowhere feels (at least to me) self-indulgent and idle, while similar writing that relates, or embodies, a good story simply adds to the text’s resonance and force. So lucky readers of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth get to savour both a compelling yarn and a bravura verbal performance.

The idea of a “compelling yarn” married to “a bravura verbal performance” is what John Barth was referring to in talking about the desirable combination of algebra and fire in fiction:

Let “algebra” stand for formal ingenuity and “fire” for what touches our emotions. … Formal virtuosity itself can of course be breathtaking, but much algebra and little or no fire makes for mere gee-whizzery, like Queneau’s Exercises in Style and A Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets. Much fire and little or no algebra, on the other hand, makes for heartfelt muddles – no examples needed. What most of us want from literature most of the time is what has been called passionate virtuosity …

Perhaps the fact that passionate virtuosity, the satisfying combination of a “radical aptness of diction” and a compelling story, is so rare is actually a blessing, for it makes the experience of encountering them that much more potent.