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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