My review of Ryan Turner's debut short story collection. First published in Quill and Quire, January 2010. A good, slim book. Crunchy. Taut. Lots of sharp images to ponder, let linger.
What We’re Made Of
by Ryan Turner
Publisher: Oberon Press
Price: $19.95 paper
Page count: 126 pp.
Size: 5½ x 8½
Released: Nov. 2009
As its title suggests, this debut collection of linked short stories by Halifax native Ryan Turner investigates the core components of its characters’ lives. Told in stripped-down prose, the book’s overarching narrative traces the coming of age of Benjamin Wallace, a young, unpublished Halifax author. The primary themes involve Benjamin’s relationships with friends, lovers, and family.
The 12 stories in this collection could easily form chapters in a novel. They are not in chronological sequence, but flow together logically, creating a whole that is larger than its parts. Turner has sketched his characters well, highlighting key details that allow readers deep insight into Benjamin’s life.
Benjamin’s major relationship is with a young woman named Tamara, who was previously the girlfriend of one of his buddies. What Tamara sees in Benjamin isn’t clear (they don’t seem to have much fun together), but they are both writers. She goes on to publish a book and break up with him, although she keeps him hanging on emotionally. Benjamin, meanwhile, tries to avoid getting sucked into an artistically stifling professional career.
Other stories feature the tribulations of Benjamin’s stepsister, who comes out as a lesbian, the death of Benjamin’s step-grandmother, the death of Benjamin’s uncle, and an elderly lady in a health facility where Benjamin volunteers who sticks loose change (which Benjamin supplies) up her crotch.
What the book doesn’t do, however, is take Benjamin on much of a ride. True, he gains an appreciation of the depth of life’s mysteries, but nothing much happens to him in the process. Tamara, not Benjamin, gets the book’s last word. “If love was uncomplicated there would be no beauty,” she says. “Beauty reflects a distance from God.”
Notwithstanding Benjamin’s largely static nature, What We’re Made Of is ultimately a Bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young man, and a worthy portrait at that.