Faust, Gallant, Hawley, Madsen and Ross

Short Stories in October, November and December

“It was a long time – a long time watching him the way you watch a finger tightening slowly in the trigger of a gun – and then suddenly wrenching himself to action he hurled the checkers with such vicious fury that they struck the wall and clattered back across the room.” Sinclair Ross’ “One’s a Heifer”

This season I’ve been reading Mavis Gallant’s From the Fifteenth District (1979), some standalone stories, the linked stories in Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes (2017) and two classics in Canadian literature: Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) and Sinclair Ross’ The Lamp at Noon (1968).

Here I’d like to chat a little more about the night-shift at McDonalds, a candy factory, pre-history museum politics, and Sinclair Ross’ stories, which might be on my list of favourites for this reading year.

First, Alix Hawley’s “My Pleasure” (The Walrus, May 2017)

“Jasper’s memory of certain ads from his childhood would remain slick as wet paint in his mind until he died.” It begins with a striking sentence which heralds the news that we are entering the land of memory, unreliability and changeability, and we are not to get too comfortable because Jasper’s death is a known factor.

But we can’t help but relate to the strangeness of the details which have lodged in his mind. And many of us will understand that spending any length of time in the service industry, let alone the fast-food arm of it, can lodge the unexpected in the recesses of any worker’s mind. “He had started out well enough: a fast runner, a quick reader, a member of the Student Justice Team throughout elementary school. But so much was lost. He’d been on the wrong path. Wrong, wrong, wrong all his life.”

Nonetheless, here we are, with Jasper, working the night-shift at McDonalds, when a car approaches to make an order and, then, everything gets weird.

“Time wasn’t a line and it wasn’t elastic , stretching out infinitely ahead of you. It was a curled-up thing.”

The story is not about a night-shift, it’s about the ways in which each of us works through the darkness, the sources in which we locate our lights and the decisions we make to move towards or away from it.

Next, Minister Faust’s “Sweet Dreams on the Prairies at the Dawn of War” (Eighteen Bridges, Fall 2017)

Darwin and Nadene are visiting the candy factory, where Miss Jill shows them how they make the sweets, stirring in a thin line of red or green. Their step-father, Jack Dahl, ostensibly runs the factory, but it seems clear that the women on staff are keeping it going (although wartime sugaring rationing is in the wings).

Jack Dahl is an unpleasant character; readers meet him as “unlit cigarette squirmed between his clenched teeth”. Their mother is a “strong woman who looked like she could hold up the sky, but who couldn’t stop their father from dying”; the children “almost disappeared into her like she was a stack of quilts. Her big hands, big enough to ring a chicken’s neck in a single-twist, held them gently, warmed them”.

The story circles around a moment of delight and a moment of darkness and ultimately marvels at the largeness and smallness of moments in our lives. At how the slant of something can seem to change everything, while it is the world around us which actually changes:  “Dene still had a wildness to her, not the wildness of a coyote that would kill your cattle, but that of a prancing wild hare with alert ears and vaulting legs.”

Third, Kirsten Madsen’s “Artifacts” (The Walrus, April 2018)

Geoffrey has lived in the Yukon for his entire life; his past inhabits the same space as his present on a daily basis. But he also shares his days with a broader Past, working amidst the historical tableaux in the museum, getting the dust bunnies out of the recurring corners. (I remember the first time I saw a dust bunny in a museum, how supremely ironic that felt: history getting dusty. Kirsten Madsen didn’t just think about writing the story.)

It’s easy to relate to Geoffrey and he is likeable from the start.

“The Beringia room was Geoffrey’s favourite. It held replicas of massive furred animals both familiar and strange; giant sloth, giant short-faced bear, and mammoth (the name itself was large), a hairy, elephant-like creature. “It looks kinda like Snuffleupagus with tusk,” he’d told Ida on their first date.”

As he faces uncertainty and conflict, however, he makes some decisions that not all readers will find sympathetic. Fuelled largely by these two observations, of two different women: “Geoffrey kept feeling like she should be glad to have him; she clearly wasn’t” and “Geoffrey met her eyes and she smiled down at him. Could she be attracted to him? It was hard to countenance. And yet.”

But the uncertainty is just as dramatic on the museum scene. When an incident hits the headlines, staffing and responsibilities shift, complete with all the irony. “The exhibition would be called Tools, Past and Present; it was being sponsored by an oil-and-gas exploration company. Geoffrey pictured a room filled with arrowheads and drill bits.”

And, finally, Sinclair Ross’ The Lamp at Noon. Here, characters wear doubled up suits of home-knitted stockings in the winter and search for cattle lost in the snow, they ponder the future of colts born of careful breeding and their potential usefulness on the farm in the summer, and they supper on pork and eggs and potatoes year round. The “beard and sweat of the dust depressed sometimes” because farmers and their families are completely dependent upon the weather and the nature of a growing season.

If the wheat grows well until it can be harvested, men ask women to marry, a baby on the way is something to celebrate not fear, and a little girl can go to her first circus. There can be a “still, heat-hushed mile” of wheat, “undulating into a shimmer of summer-colts and crushed horizon blue”. But if hail falls or there is no rain, the weight of the responsibility – to the land and to the family who depends upon the land’s returns – the story is a sad one.

Beyond the descriptions of dry or sodden or snow-covered landscape, Ross observes the psychological effects of facing uncertainty on his characters, displaying equal sensitivity towards his male farming characters and their sons, who are often studied in the in-between years, when they are thrilling to the possibility of having more responsibility and afraid of the consequences should their choices be flawed, as well as the wives and mothers in the stories.

The work that women shoulder, and their own particular way of experiencing the stress of this life (somehow on the periphery of the situation as they manage their children and households without ever escaping the reality of it) is depicted realistically and sympathetically. So although the characters’ lives are often bleak, there are quiet moments of hopefulness and yearning scattered throughout.

Contents: The Lamp at Noon, The Outlaw, Cornet at Night, Not by Rain Alone Part I Summer Thunder Part II September Snow, Circus in Town, A Field of Wheat, The Runaway, The Painted Door, One’s a Heifer

Beginning in 2017, I have been gradually reading through 56 of Mavis Gallant’s published short stories.

Schedule

One of my favourite story collections from 2018, which was longlisted for the Giller Prize: where do you find short stories to read?.

Review here

Did you miss the Autumn 2018 Quarterly Stories?

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And you? Any short stories lately?