Saturday, October 29, 2011

Greg Kearney, Matthew J. Trafford, Tim Conley, Brian Joseph Davis

Short story madness.

by Greg Kearney
Exile, 2011

The Divinity Gene
by Matthew J. Trafford
Douglas & McIntyre, 2011

Nothing Could be Further
by Tim Conley
Emmerson Street Press, 2011

Ronald Reagan, My Father
by Brian Joseph Davis
ECW, 2010

It used to be said (I mean, like, 10 or 15 years ago) that the Canadian short story was stuck in the lyrical pastoral mode. Barbara Gowdy may have been our Aimee Bender, and Lee Henderson and Zsuzsi Gartner pushed the envelope, but real innovation in the genre was elsewhere.

In 2003, Christian Bök edited an anthology of avante-garde Canlit, arguing that the experimenters have been here all along. And, of course, he was right, but the anthologies often excluded them, and the cultural arguments all but ignore them. (Though Margaret Atwood, always our guide, apparently, is a radical exception.)

In any case, rushing ahead, my point here is simple. In the dying days of print (and the YOSS) we are blessed with abundant richness of weirdness. Jeet Heer, in a perceptive comment, has called Gartner the "anti-Munro":

Pure nature does not exist in Gartner’s fiction. Her characters are immersed in a completely technological environment. Surrounded all their lives by a digital sensorium, when Gartner’s people encounter nature, they see it through the prism of the man-made world.

Each of the authors under review here could compete for the title of "anti-Munro," but the point here isn't to degrade one form of fiction making or to promote another; it is to celebrate some nifty risk taking and encourage more.

As fiction editor of The Danforth Review, there's a little thing I look for. Call it originality or whatever. I've never been able to define it, except all these writers have it in abundant richness. Kearney has appeared in TDR twice ("Bad Readings", "The Man Who Ate Babies") as has Conley ("The Watch", "Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism").

Onward. Book by book.

Pretty is Kearney's second collection, following Mommy Daddy Baby (McGilligan, 2004). I don't know how to say this, except to say it directly: Kearney must be the most family values alternative writer on the planet. There is tremendous tenderness, compassion, dependency and the related dysfunction between his characters, and also at times the starkest honesty and revelation of notorious truths. If we were to begin to define the "Kearneyesque," this is where I would begin. Kearney's stories combine an acknowledgement of other people as flawed, yet loveable, while at the same time harbouring an awareness of the alienation of individuals and the horrible burdens individuals bear that cannot be, ultimately, shared.

If Hemingway was all about grace under pressure, then Kearney does Papa one better.

An awesome achievement. (I'm not describing any details, because they're better left for readers to discover on their own.)

"The Divinity Gene" is the title story of the collection by the same name. It's a story about Jesus being cloned. It's a challenging read, but a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed. The collection overall, however, is more diverse than this summary of a speculative fiction might seem. While there is also a story about a mermaid, overall the collection is grounded in a contemporary reality that is refreshingly transparent. One story, for example, is about a gay young man who goes on a canoeing trip with straight buddies who shrug off his "otherness." Of course, also along on the trip is a dead man whom one of the friends has brought along because they needed an extra paddler. But stretching the reality boundary is very 21st century, n'est pas?

Tim Conley, a professor of modernist literature, might possibly remind us that boundary challenging fiction has been as basic as language formation since, well, forever. Conley's latest, Nothing Could be Further, is at times Kafkaesque, forcing the reader to consider the competency of the narrator's reality receptors. At the same time, language itself is scrutinized, as Conley's often complex phrasing challenges the meaning, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "of what is is."Conley also challenges what a short story is, as some of these pieces are as short as a paragraph and many are as short as a page. Others are longer, however, and it isn't the length that determines their consistency. The Conleyesque is as specific as the Kearneyesque, but (at least to me) it defies more precise definition.

BJD is an icon and an acronym. Ronald Reagan, My Father is out there on the edge of viable comprehension. Some of it, frankly, was too much for me, and I struggle (when writing this) to remember a single concrete image. The cover (front, Ron; back, Nancy) dominates. There was a story about a self-publishing maven that was clever and astonishing. There was much wild cynicism, but also not enough tender consideration of otherness. Not enough of the Kearneyesque. At least, for my tastes (at this moment in time). But I still recommend the book. It is not, most certainly, not in the least, stuck in the lyrical mode.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Brian Fawcett, Shane Neilson

Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir
by Shane Neilson
Palimpest Press, 2011

Human Happiness
by Brian Fawcett
Thomas Allen, 2011

"I can't go on; I'll go on." - Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

Derek Weiler (1968-2009) had the above quotation tattooed on his forearm. As he explained on his blog, now only available on the Wayback archive:

I don’t really know why most people get tattoos – novelty? lark? body as canvas? message to the world? But anyway I know I got mine mainly as an act of defiance. I wanted to engage this treacherous renegade in some way, to remind it that it has to deal with me. And also to remind myself that this flawed, frayed skin I wear is mine for good. That this is what I have to work with, for better or for worse.

Weiler passed away in 2009 at age 40. He'd lived bravely for many years with a heart condition.

I was thinking about Weiler today, partly in relation to these two books, and partly in relation to my own life. This past week my wife heard medical news that affects us all. Last year, she had breast cancer and the associated treatments. Six months ago, we were told it was effectively gone, but now it has returned, this time in her liver. Doctors are hopeful, but we've entered an arena we don't want to be in.

We can't go on, but we must go on.

Gunmetal Blue and Human Happiness are both memoirs, both essay collections, both written by reflective, analytical, skeptical and humanistic literary men. In many ways, these are books written to address the stark conundrums of existence, the Beckettean quandaries.

Brian Fawcett's book is, at base, a memoir of his parents, Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surrey, who were, he maintains, "happier than most of their generation" (240). Shane Neilson's book is structured as a collection of non-fiction pieces, some of which are memoirs of his life as a general practitioner, some are essays on poetry, and some reflect on his time in a hospital psychiatric ward, where he was a patient for many months following a suicide attempt.

By way of critical summary, let me say that both books are incomplete and flawed, but they both also contain lovely moments, deep feeling and thought. They have bitten off massive subjects, and they are worthy of the authors' efforts.

There are a couple of images from Gunmetal Blue that keep returning to me. One is of a middle-aged man on a stationary bicycle, continuously peddling. He has prostate cancer. He's going to die, but he can't stop cycling. The other image is of the author attempting to throw himself out of the window of the psyche ward and being blocked by an orderly. Later, the author realized that the window is a metaphor. Does he want to continue his life or not? Only he can ultimately decide. (He is, in this respect, very different from the peddling man.)

The main images from Human Happiness concern the author's parents, whom he portrays in significant psychological and sociological detail. Each lived nine decades or more. They lived primarily in Northern British Columbia. His father was a self-made business man, his mother a home-maker who had breast cancer in her late-40s.

On the opening page of the book, Fawcett notes what happened the last time he spoke to his mother: "She announced that she hated my father." At this point, they'd been married 64 years. Within weeks, she'd be dead. Hartley, then in his 90s, would go on to remarry, starting his flirting at his late-wife's wake: "I have to arrange a housekeeper. I don't suppose any of you are going to look after me."

I was compelled by the portrait of Hartley and Rita. I liked them. I thought they were interesting. In full confession mode, however, there were portions about inter-generational conflict that left me baffled. Too simple. Brian's self-portrait comes across as a cliched baby-boomer. Too general. Uncompelling.

Shane Neilson, on the other hand, may well provide too much information for some readers. And too much variety for others. This is a book about overcoming a mental illness crisis, but it's also a book about the trials and tribulations of a young doctor, and also a book about the author's love of language and the potentially healing powers of poetry.

It's all interesting, but it doesn't always hold together.

The portraits of Neilson's patient congregants are classic character studies. Life is what happens, John Lennon sang, when you're busy making other plans.

I would like to write more about these two books; there is much within them to reflect upon; however, my life, these days, is elsewhere.

Onward we go.