Monday, October 10, 2016

"The rewards of awkward"/ "Throughout the collection, the tone stays level level level"

Sept. 10, 2016 "The rewards of awkward": I cut out this article by Steven W. Beattie in the National Post on Apr. 15, 2011:

And Also Sharks By Jessica Westhead Cormorant Books

240 pp; $21 but despite the panoramic view, Shelley can’t stop thinking about whether there might be a gift shop: “[M]aybe I can get like a belt buckle or something.” The couple’s first fight, we are told, “had been because TJ wished one of their friends happy birthday on Facebook before she did.”

The story ends with Shelley and the baby, whom she has named Davis, sitting in the Arrivals section of the city airport, watching anonymous loved ones reunite. “This is the best part,” Shelley says to the child in a moment that is simultaneously pathetic and heart-rending. What Westhead provides is not so much a resistance to closure as a recognition that the story’s ending need be no more definite or explicit: We have reached the emotional culmination of this particular episode in Shelley’s life, and anything further would be overkill.

The trajectory of “Coconut” is typical of Westhead’s approach in these stories. Time and again, the author presents us with individuals or couples who are troubled or unhappy, although in almost every case, they are unable to access the source of their unhappiness. The unnamed florist in “If We Dig Precious Things from the Land” visits an allergist to discover the reason for his persistent sneezing and itchiness, a condition we come to understand as a physical manifestation of his existential malaise. In “Community,” the set painter for a local theatre troupe takes comfort from the closeness he feels with the other actors and stagehands, none of whom feel the same way toward him. And although the couple in “Todd and Belinda Rivers of 780 Strathcona” is married and “make a point of not taking each other for granted,” the fissures in their relationship are exposed when they crash a neighbour’s party, putatively to return a purloined issue of People magazine.

Westhead is adept at providing caustically funny snapshots of lives that are twisted by loss, loneliness or boredom. When she falters, it is usually because she becomes too explicit in drawing connections that would better have been left implied. In “Ear, Nose, and Throat,” for instance, the protagonist, Jody, has a nasal polyp that “is ruining her life”; the polyp becomes a symbol of Jody’s sexual frigidity. The story ends with a surgeon giving her an anesthetic prior to removing the offending growth and telling her that the procedure won’t hurt a bit: “You are completely frozen.” The surgeon’s comment is too obvious, the play on words too self-conscious and deliberate.

This is in sharp contrast to the streak of barely contained menace that runs throughout the story, occasionally bursting to the surface in shocking ways. Standing in line at a grocery store, Jody’s husband, Teddy, suggests that the roofers working on their building could make him a tree house as a kind of “man cave”; this childish desire is immediately subverted when Jody catches the eye of a toddler in the grocery line: “‘Pow, pow, pow,’ he says. ‘You’re dead! Now I'm going to rape your dead body!’ ”

At her best, Westhead is capable of such startlingly effective reversals. This, combined with a willingness to cast an unwavering gaze on characters caught in moments of awkwardness and vulnerability, results in a suite of stories that are funny and uncomfortable, often at the same time. The occasional misstep does not diminish the lustre of a collection that proves, on points, that short stories are much more than just poor cousins of the novel.

Steven W. Beattie is Quill & Quire’s reviews editor and a regular contributor to these pages.

"Throughout the collection, the tone stays level level level": I cut out this article by Kyle Buckley in the National Post on Apr. 15, 2011:

Up Up Up By Julie Booker House of Anansi 219 pp; $22.95 Julie Booker’s Up Up Up is a collection of short, broken off bits of stories. Briefly, the book consists of 20 very short stories, several of which are the kind we’re used to from writers such as Sheila Heti. It’s these extremely short stories, such as “The Tree Man” and “Levitate,” which set the tone for the rest of collection. “The Tree Man” is a fast and direct retelling of an encounter with a tree-care expert. “Levitate” portrays a version of the childhood seance game of the same name. Each ends a page-and-a-half after it begins. Even the longer stories in Up Up Up — and nothing stretches for more than 18 pages — are divided into similarly short, fast sections: moving back and forth along the timeline of a character’s life, or to change narrative perspectives. We don’t linger or dwell on any given arc for long, and, at times, the book feels like an exercise in avoidance. What we are presented with are moments, which hint at the bigger story left untold.

Of these moments, the best in Up Up Up come in a story titled “Not Enough for Me, Sir.” In it, we are presented with four scenes from the life of a young woman named Emily. The first section describes Emily’s group therapy session at an eating disorder clinic. Next, we see her out with a friend at a concert, and small bits of what we learned about Emily at the clinic bleed through: she notes the skinniness of others at the concert, and the men (who don’t pick her up) are decidedly “not hungry enough.” In the story’s third section, Emily admits to accidentally once knitting a sweater so monstrously oversized that it could only have been for her fat self, a version of herself almost forgotten but obviously present. The last scene finds Emily at a picnic, accepting food and drink from a stranger, wondering about the scale of her problems. Taken together, these don’t really form a conventional arc, but the way parts of the first section later invade subsequent sections makes it a fulfilling story.

What prevents the collection as a whole from achieving the greatness of “Not Enough for Me, Sir” is that is fails to knock the reader off balance, to leave one with a sense of startled amazement. I remember experiencing this sense of amazement when I first read The Middle Stories: Heti seemed to only flash each story’s most exciting moments before moving on to the next, piling on more and more impossible story ideas. Instead, Up Up Up moves far too steadily, from one story to the next to the next. Not only does Booker’s narrative voice barely change between stories, but neither does the amount of personal or psychological insight offered. The kind of information divulged, or observed, remains constant, whether the story is a first person perspective of a young tourist in China or a third-Emily admits to accidentally once knitting a sweater so monstrously oversized that it could only have been for her fat self
person account of a woman’s anxiety at having let her boyfriend’s son wander off from their campsite. So not only does a kind of monotony settle over the collection, but it also causes problems in the narrative logic at work. The narrative voice reads almost exactly the same, despite Booker’s decision to move back and forth between perspectives.

Even though there is a definite purposefulness to the collection (there is a steady voice throughout the book and a consistent pace at which the narrative moves, story after story) Booker never answers the question “Why have these stories been put together?” This is problematic for a short story collection. I’m not saying I wouldn’t read these stories again, at a time when it might be possible to re-evaluate these fragments in the context of the career that is to follow. But Up Up Up, as a collection, does not make for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
❚ Kyle Buckley is the author of
The Laundromat Essay.

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