Saturday, March 17, 2012

Russell Wangersky & the Pros/Cons of Realism

Mark Anthony Jarman has a review of Russell Wangersky's new short story collection, Whirl Away (Thomas Allen, 2012), in today's Globe & Mail.

It's a fine review and an excellent summary of the book, which I have just finished reading.

Like Cheever or Munro, Russell Wangersky delves stealthily into disquieting corners of the domestic sphere, his stories dissecting lives when they are fracturing, lives at stress points, lives much like the roller coaster at the centre of McNally's Fair, an exciting and popular ride gleaming with fresh paint, but about to collapse from hidden rust and broken bolts. Such parallels are his m├ętier and meat as a stylist. Water stains on a wall mirror flaws in the soul (daub on some paint and get rid of the place), and a meal at a diner resembles a relationship, “resolute about not living up to its promise.”

Whirl Away is a fine example of the kind of literary realism that is often mistaken as a Canadian canonical model. Munro is the prime influence here (in Canada, I mean); Jarman is right to also cite Cheever as an international icon of this approach to short fiction.

Interestingly, Jarman's own work is product of a tradition that deviates from soft-focus realism, following a path into wilder literary terrain, territory often said to have been mapped initially (or most prominently recently) by Barry Hannah. See, for example, Airships (1978).

For an idea of how contentious the dispute between these short story "camps" can be, see 2008's Salon des Refuses.

My intention here is not to fling Whirl Away into one camp or the other, or to prioritize one approach to short fiction over the other (there are a large multiple of approaches, and they are all legitimate). All that I intend here is to use this introduction to jump at a tangent to a question that animates me from time to time.

Wither realism?

We are well past McLuhan, and well along into a world of "socially mediated" lives. We are also well past the post-modern moment and deep into a world where we not only live our lives, but also simultaneously and self-consciously reflect, tweet, post, talk about, ironize and re-contextualize them, ad nauseum. If there was ever, there is now not ... any there, there.

As a reader, I felt anxiety reading Whirl Away, a feeling I also had when I read Alex McLeod's Light Lifting and Sarah Selecky's This Cake is for the Party. Both, by the way, excellent.

As a reader, I distrust realism. I want to crack its surfaces and break it up, interrogate its assumptions, like a Cindy Sherman photograph.

Which doesn't mean I dislike realism. But, if I'm honest, it kind of pisses me off.

And I'm not sure why.

Though it's connected to the pleasure I take in stuff like Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Gartner's break with realism couldn't be clearer.

Food for thought.

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