Saturday, July 11, 2009

Alexandra Leggat

Alexandra Leggat's Animal (Anvil Press, 2009) contains 14 stories in its 169 pages. I'm tempted to say it's a slim, distilled masterpiece.

Other early reviews are good, too.

In today's Globe and Mail, Ibi Kaslik compared Leggat to Amy Hempel and Joy Williams:

Consider the marked narrative fragmentation of Amy Hempel's work, in which the only clean message is that love is owed to dogs and art is redemptive. Consider also Joy Williams's languid and rootless female characters, who do not make a move without their canine bodyguards who double as soulmates. It is no coincidence that Hempel and Williams, two of the best and most innovative U.S. writers, both women, write nearly obsessively about animals, specifically dogs.

Writing about dogs is a brave and defiant choice in this era of post-postfeminism, where women are simultaneously mocked and celebrated for their choice of nurturing animals over infants. Leggat's characters, like Hempel's and Williams's females, find solace in dogs, and all three writers seem always to return to canine as symbol, as saviour, as truth.

Defiant of whom or what, I wonder.

Interesting, too, that the back cover blurb compares the "style" of the stories to Raymond Carver, though I found this comparison weak. The blurb continues: "The stories contained in Animal depict people on the brink of major life change." Then: "Life acts for them."

Kaslik's analysis is much more interesting.

This isn't a book about life change; it isn't a book about animals as symbols, either. It is, however, a book heavily infused with a female perspective. It is a book about women, mostly childless, mostly disappointed with men. Animals are a recurring motif. So is alcohol.

I don't find the style reminiscent of Carver. Some of the situations described are mildly Carveresque. Characters seem mildly adrift, confused, uncertain, passive in the face of life's absurdities, but many writers have stuff like that. Not just Carver. And Leggat has much else going on besides.

The comparison to Hempel also surprised me. Hempel is a more abstract writer than Leggat, in my memory at least. She is more stylistically awkward and illogical, leaving wild gaps in stories that readers need to be lively to fill in. Leggat isn't like this either. She is more human, if that's fair to say. More humane, maybe.

A post-feminist writer? I wouldn't say so.

One character notes if you are a woman, you are always being observed. Leggat's characters don't nurture grievances about their femininity, but they do often remark on the fact of being female. One narrator begins her story noting her "long blonde hair," then goes on to tell how she has dreams about playing for the Indianapolis Colts, taking passes from Peyton Manning (probably the only male in the book who posseses no weakness, fault or anxiety).

The recurring scenario in this book is about being female and being let down by men and getting on with life anyway, without children (doesn't make you any less of a woman) and probably without a dog either. I don't think that's a post-feminist thing.

Honesty, in my view, is what makes these stories strong. And, yes, brave and defiant.

Defiant of all the pressures in contemporary life to stifle the truth. Be a team-player. Don't rock the boat. Put others before yourself: your man, your children, your job.

Like Rawi Hage, Leggat harkens back to an earlier generation of existentialists.

Leggat's characters state the honest realities of their lives. They aren't self-pitying. They aren't narcissistic. They don't ask for anything special, except Sunday afternoon's free to watch football and a chance, once and a while, to catch a dream.

Ending with an aside: In his Eye Weekly review, Brian Joseph Davis indicated he generally liked the book, but not the opening story:

“Wide,” Leggat’s first story, has a terse first-person narrative in which the writer delays, perhaps too long, letting the reader know what is really going on. Jess is affected in some way: he can’t talk; he bangs his fists against the ground; he bruises easily; he points; he falls asleep to the sound of static on TV. His wife narrates the five pages, following him out into a cornfield and back. Another man pulls up and, for reasons unknown, trims branches from their fir tree. It’s all a little too vague for an opening salvo.

Myself, I liked the opening story. It is stark, and it is not easy to read, but it alerted me to quickly to how sharp this book would turn out to be. The collection's closer, on the other hand, is much more accessible (and would be the hit single, if this were an album). Maybe it would have been a easier way to begin the book. But easy isn't what Leggat is going for here. Neither did I find the story vague. In fact, I'd made a mental note to write here that it seemed a great way to begin the book. As it is, it's a great way to end this review.

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