This month, I’m wholly enjoying the stories in the Short Story Advent Calendar (edited by Michael Hingston and designed by Natalie Olsen). The variety of the boxed set is fantastic, especially if you’re looking for “new” short story writers to follow, but I generally read collections of works by a single author.
So many of the situations in the stories in Clea Young’s Teardown (2016) feel familiar from the beginning, as though we have already witnessed them (if not participated in them). And because they feel so natural, it’s less as though we are invited to join as readers, and more like we have stumbled into them, as though into a memory.
But the interesting part is that the stories do not settle into the familiar. In many instances, the characters therein are swept up in change (e.g. adjusting to a new living space or a pregnancy, with new roles too).
The dialogue is credible and the stories move quickly – just like changes and adjustments – the daily kind, the momentous kind – in our lives. They are set in or near places of transition (e.g. parking lots, the ruins of a cabin).
“’Everything’s changed so fast. At the park today, leaves were coming down, honestly these yellow leaves were…I could cover my entire face with one, which he loved.’ Alannah nods at the baby, who sits in the middle of the kitchen looking up at his mother, a string of drool connecting his chin to the grimy linoleum. ‘What kind of tree would that be anyway?’”
They remind us that, in the time it takes to read a short story, one’s entire idea about something really important can shift 180 degrees.
Contents: Teardown, Split, Dock Day, Chaperone, Juvenile, Lamb, Congratulations & Regrets, New World, Desperado, Ursa Minor, Firestorm, What Are You Good At, What Do You Like to Do?
Richard Van Camp’s Godless But Loyal to Heaven, hooked me on his work, made him a MustReadEverything author for me, but his first collection, Angel Wing Splash Pattern (2001), introduces readers to a number of characters who reappear in those later stories.
Here we meet Torchy for the first time; he has experienced a great loss, and we also meet a young girl, Stephanie, who has a great need: “Mermaids” captures so many feelings. “It was such a pretty night for sin.” “They forgot about God and anytime men forget about God, He reminds them that He’s still there. That’s why he brought AIDS. Because we forgot.” “And I would rather unleash fire than have fire unleash me.” “I’ll be your sister, Torchy, if you’ll be my brother.” In many ways, this story feels like a cornerstone of his work, although it is raw and unpolished (which suits Torchy, actually).
This is not the only story which captures the roaring and weeping of a coming-of-age tale.
“Something had changed about his room. It was still a mess, with his CDs and tapes piled all over the place. He had posters up of Morrissey, The Cure and The Smiths. There were also pictures of Bat Girl all over the place with loving attention on her latex ass. His laundry basket was overflowing and my porno mags were fanned out all over his floor. What the hell? There were bullet holes in the walls!”
From bullet holes to porno mags, power and vulnerability are sometimes at the forefront of the stories and other times inhabit the dark shadows in the corners. “The fender was a splash parade of flapping dragonflies, mosquito pepper and a dislocated sparrow wing.”
There is a poetic undertone as well, and occasionally it swells to the surface of the prose without abandoning the matter-of-fact tone and plainspeak. Life for the members of the Dogrib Nation who inhabit these stories and live in and around Fort Simmer (Fort Smith in real life) is sometimes violent and hard and sometimes beautiful and sensual.
“The good thing about it being minus 45 degrees is that the sunrise is spectacular. It’s a Physics 30 orgasm. The light from the sun, which is low to the horizon, hits the ice-fog which hangs over this little northern town and you have rarefaction, refraction and some fancy light that makes you ache. Too bad you can’t enjoy it without your cheeks splitting, it’s that cold. And you would not bleed blood, either. You would bleed purple purple steam.”
Richard Van Camp’s collection also counts towards the 13 works by indigenous writers I’ve decided to read for the 10th annual Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set. The others I’ve read in recent months include Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002), Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars (2010), the comics anthology Moonshot (2015), edited by Hope Nicholson, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008) and Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie (2016).
Contents: Mermaids, Let’s Beat the Shit Out of Herman Rosko!, Why Ravens Smile to Little Old Ladies as They Walk By, the uranium leaking from port radium and rayrock mines is killing us, The Night Charles Bukowski Died, Sky Burial, Snow White Nothing for Milles, My Fifth Step, How I Saved Christmas
The title of Douglas Coupland’s Bit Rot (2016) is pulled from the world of digital archiving: the way in which digital files can spontaneously and rapidly decompose.
This aligns with the feeling that Douglas Coupland has had since Richard van Camp was writing the stories for Angel Wing Splash Pattern; since 2000, Coupland has felt aware of his capacity to “shed older and weaker neurons and connections and create and enhance new and unexpected ones”.
It’s disorienting, this idea that “we are now always going to be living in the future”. But writing can provide a kind of anchor. “The novel made us individuals. The Internet makes us units. Write as fast as you can. Blog like crazy. Vlog your brains out. Be unique. Be the best you can be.”
He does discuss technology and media, floating an idea for an app like Grindr and Tinder but for politics, which he calls Wonkr, and musing on corporate services. “Good Wi-Fi is good business. High-speed internet keeps your country from being second-rate. Overcharging for speed – or crippling speed under the aegis of pseudo-capitalism – is simply stupid.” (“iF-iW eerF?”)
He also considers older tech, like the propensity towards of ads for mood-altering drugs on television (“New Moods”) and takes a store sign as inspiration in “Bulk Memory”.
Because it’s not always about technology. “Unclassy” considers his experience of talking about class in a suburban Shanghai Internet router factory, which leads him to create the term “blank-collar workers”. And “McWage” looks back briefly to his novels Generation X and The Gum Thief; it considers the inequity of minimum wage policies today.
Often longer titles are assigned to works of fiction, like “The End of the Golden Age of Payphones”, “Superman and the Kryptonite Martinis”, “The Short, Brutal Life of the Channel Three News Team” and “Bartholomew Is Right There at the Dawn of Language”. (But not always: consider, “Temp” and “361”.)
In a pilot script, “George Washington’s Extreme Makeover”, we have Instagram-sized snippets in a Grexit Blog-post styled IQ. Then, toss in some images too. And the promotional material for an app called “Yoo”.
Not all of the pieces appear to be polished. Some seem like stories written over an afternoon, reread the next day and submitted to their intended readers. This brings to mind “Nine Readers” which questions why so many individuals are clamouring to be heard, online in particular, when what they have to say isn’t unique (which also introduces the question of whether being unique matters or is even possible).
Sometimes the tone seems a little glib, other times it seems to be simple but profound. Consider this from “The Ones That Got Away”: “There’s always that pallel universe out there, featuring a much richer version of yourself taunting the you in this universe for goofing up. But then that parallel universe version of you probably missed out of somethin else and is probably lonely and miserable and wishes they were you. The universe seems to be very good at equalling things out that way.”
Contents: 65 pieces, beginning with “Vietnam” and ending with “An App Called Yoo”
The stories in Joan Lane’s You Call This Home (2016) were written in the early fifties but the manuscripts were not discovered until 2008.
Many times, while reading, I was reminded of Willa Cather’s short stories (and her novel, Song of the Lark).
I do wonder what was on Joan Lane’s bookshelves (maybe some Edith Wharton or some Elizabeth Taylor?) but certainly not short stories which focussed on the lives of women who lived on the farm-side of town on the Canadian Prairies. Those, she had to write.
The external setting, however, is less important than the emotional landscape the characters inhabit.
“All her life she had been saying goodbye, to friends going away to school, to university, to jobs, to marriage and new homes, until it seemed that only she remained. Now it was her turn.”
Many of her characters are young women, but she also captures a young girl’s view of a too-quickly-changing world (in the wake of her sister’s illness): astute and sensitive-without-being-overly-sentimental.
“I adored her [her mother’s] playing. Maybe someday I’d play like that too – she said I had a ‘good ear’ because I could already pick out melodies. But only in the key of C; maybe it was in the other, not-so-good ear which would some day unlock the mystery of the black keys.”
And she does venture into the male psyche as well, exploring the idea of threatened/unrealised artistic potential, which some other characters grapple with as well. “Patrick threw down his brush. He couldn’t paint today. It had been the same yesterday and the day before.”
Sometimes the external setting gets a nod, too: “The street was silent. In the wintry dark the old houses rested dark and formless. The shadows joined hands, washing the snow blue, softening the tall, ungainly woman who walked with jerky movements, her head thrust forward and tilted to one side.”
And there are some lovely turns of phrase. “Her head pecked, birdlike, to consult her watch.” A woman is described as a “faded brown leaf”. “She fixed her gaze on the jewel-toned wine.” An olive in a cocktail “rolled and winked derisively”. (There are more musical instruments than alcoholic beverages in this collection, despite what this selection of quotes might lead you to believe.)
Contents: The Winter I Composed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, A Sheltered Life, The Echoing Night, An Old-Fashioned Custom, Everything Is Music, Journey Into Solitude, The Snows of Yesteryear, You Call This Home
What short works have been in your stack of late? Do you have a regular favourite source of them beyond collections?
If you haven’t read any of these, which of these do you think you would enjoy the most?