Saturday, August 17, 2013

Maitland & da Costa

My review recently posted on The Winnipeg Review.


Being assigned two books to review at once, one cannot help but return to grade eleven English. The command echoes loud and clear: compare and contrast.

Paulo da Costa’s The Green and Purple Skin of the World (Freehand Books, 2013) and Collette Maitland’s Keeping the Peace (Biblioasis, 2013) are both short story collections. Even a cursory contemplation of their titles, however, would lead one to suspect that while they share a form, they are divergent in other significant aspects.

In his 1998 book Ripostes (Porcupine’s Quill), essayist Philip Marchand compares and contrasts the work of Terry Griggs with that of Barbara Gowdy and illuminates insights that are assistive to our consideration of the works under review here.

Griggs, says Marchand, is Catholic; Gowdy, Protestant. He considers their treatment of angels. In Griggs, they foretell miracles; in Gowdy, death. Marchand writes of Gowdy’s characters: “It is as if they have a genetic memory of salvation anxiety – an anxiety in striking contrast to the relatively relaxed approach to salvation characteristic of many Catholics, who know that if Jesus hasn’t entered their hearts, at least they can make a novena on nine first Fridays and feel fairly safe.”

Based on the titles, do you want to guess which of these writers I am about to suggest is the Catholic and which the Protestant: da Costa or Maitland?

Let’s get it over with. Maitland, Protestant; da Costa, Catholic.

Keeping the Peace contains nineteen stories in 238 pages. The stories are short, sharp, intense. They are often shocking. They contain domestic violence, mental illness, teenage sex. The stories often turn on moral failure. More specifically, they turn on the failure of an individual to live up to the standards of “the code,” which is often the unspoken social expectations of contemporary rural Orangetown — I mean, Ontario. You know what I mean. There is no salvation for those who don’t follow “the code,” and for those in danger of straying away from the code there is much anxiety, an emotion that swells to bursting in every story in this collection.

Compare and contrast this with the stories in The Green and Purple Skin of the World. The stories in this collection rollick in the foibles of their characters. Aren’t people strange and wonderful? Wow. Did you hear the one about the old widow with the gun who scared the crap out of her live-in caregiver? Did you hear the one about the kid with that disease and he went to the doctor, and he had an operation, and he was freaking cured? Can you believe that? A miracle!

The Green and Purple Skin of the World contains sixteen stories in 206 pages. Many of the stories are intimate family portraits. It would be a stretch to call them dramas. Some haven’t much drama at all, really, or to approach it another way, they haven’t much anxiety. Some of the stories are full of intimate moments, portrayed lovingly, lightly and suffused with fun. To use the word Marchand highlights, salvation is not at risk in these stories. The fate of the family, the fate of an individual is not at risk. These stories don’t sharpen a narrative edge; they expand with love of life and risk being boring.

Let me be clear, not all stories in The Green and Purple Skin of the World meet this description. One story about a combat pilot who watches his buddies blow up, for example, has plenty of anxiety and narrative edge. We might conclude, therefore, that da Costa’s stories showcase greater range that Maitland’s, but that would be a superficial conclusion. Maitland’s stories push harder against the edges of reality, focusing on the fraying edges of relationships. The title may be Keeping the Peace, but these stories more often articulate the point at which relationships fragment. There is much anxiety that the peace be kept, that the code be followed, but damnation is inevitable within this mythology. The centre cannot hold.

In the final story, for example, the wife of an elderly man with Alzheimer’s takes him for a walk in the park. It seems a nice day until the man pulls a kitchen knife from his pocket and attacks a concrete lion statue, scraping newly applied paint off the creature’s eyeballs. A mother with a young child passes by and then turns away. The old man’s wife watches the woman pull a cell phone from her pocket. She can only imagine that the woman is calling 911, and she notes as the story ends “she would have done the same.”

Oi vey. Really? The wife identifies with Nurse Ratched? Surely this is the point where Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters enter the picture, but, no, the book ends. It’s severe, man. Yikes.
The Green and Purple Skin of the World, on the other hand, offers frequent reconciliation. One story collects a family at Christmas for the traditional torture. The mother is desperate for a granddaughter. Is the daughter going to fulfil her mother’s wish? Why should she, since her parents kicked her out of the home many years earlier when she was a teenager and caught in bed with her boyfriend? The daughter went on to live years on the street. The boyfriend was sent off to posh schools. Years later, they married and now all is supposed to be forgiven and forgotten. The daughter swears, however, she will never have a child. Never inflict on another being the damage that was inflicted upon her. But the story doesn’t end on a note of negation; it ends with the mother sharing the daughter’s childhood bathing suit with her. Wouldn’t it look nice on a girl? Yes, the daughter agrees. It sure would.

Cue the strings. Full orchestra. Bleeding heart and tears. Oh, lovely. Yes. It is, though.

As we reach our own conclusion, let us settle on relativity. Different strokes for different folks. An engaged reading, however, demands what Leonard Cohen asked of us in 1956: Let us compare mythologies. Off you go, now. Get reading.

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