Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jessica Westhead

And Also Sharks
by Jessica Westhead
Cormorant, 2011

The narrators and characters of Jessica Westhead's And Also Sharks are an irritating bunch.

They are narcissistic, alienated, unhappy, and searching in all the wrong places for solutions to what ails them.

In short, they're just like many people you know.

But these folks are characters in a book and you can laugh at them without worrying that they will call you up in the middle of the night or corner you in the elevator lobby at work next week and ask you WTF were you thinking.

WTF are they thinking, is the binding theme of this short story collection. The lost puppies presented here (who are often naïve,helpless, innocent, and drifting wildly) include
  • a couple of women with trouble in the "O" department
  • an office worker whose dog died, whose colleague has cancer, and whose co-workers live vicariously though the suffering of others
  • a young man who wants to believe that he had healing powers in his hands whose best friend takes him to a photography show, then mugs a photographer and his assistant in the parking lot
  • an office worker who lusts after a colleague's wife

The stories, in other words, are Carvereque in their minimalist approach. It's not what happens in the stories that's significant so much as what doesn't happen. The significant event that the characters are anticipating that never arrives. The withholding of expectation rather than its delivery. Which isn't saying there's no payoff.

The stories are well-written, clever, wry, funny, and disturbing. Like the Raymond Carver story, "Neighbors," where one couple house sits the others' apartment and bit by bit moves in, assuming their neighbours' lives, Westhead's stories have a complexity that belies their seemingly simple presentation.

The stories challenge the reader to delve beneath the surface of things. Where there be sharks. The stories are like anthropological studies of contemporary madness. Are these individuals making poor choices or are the pressure points of social expectations too strong to break free of?

Here's one narrator and a particularly funny/odd passage:

But then Elba had a stillborn baby, your former best friend tells you, and instead of, say, making the experience into something meaningful by making it into art, such as the woman could have bought a baby doll, one of those very lifelike ones, and spun a cocoon-like structure around the doll with her loom, as if to represent the baby being in a pupa, something far-out but ultimately meaningful like that, she just stopped going to art openings and stayed home all the time. And eventually when she started coming around again, all she wanted to talk about was her dead baby. And come on, if you're not going to translate that event into a narrative that people can understand, or even that people have trouble understanding but then they can at least refer to as an artist's statement, then where is the value in life's sad times?

(from "Brave Things That Kids Do," p69-70)

Westhead's talent for understatement is, ahem, an understatement. The stories commit to a larger weird-world vision (Tim Burton-like) and their significant success stems from their ability to see the weirdness through to meaningful, if not always logical, conclusions. As a result, reading Westhead is like reading with electrodes attached to the sides of your head.

And I mean that in a good way. Her world is our world, and it's shocking.

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