Although the title for Michael Christie’s story collection is drawn from the final story, it might well have been pulled from the second story’s title, “Discard”.
It’s at the heart of this debut collection: that which has been left behind, tossed out, put in the trash, given away, or dismissed as no longer useful/valuable/functional.
(Literally “at the heart”, for the author clearly feels a strong emotional connection with the discarded.)
People or objects that have been cast aside: these are the flora and fauna of The Beggar’s Garden.
Don’t let that put you off, however: these stories are not bleak and sorrow-filled stories of the disenfranchised.
Indeed, there are plenty of humourous moments in these tales.
Sometimes the very premise of a story is the sort of idea that gets the corner of a reader’s mouth twitching in amusement, even before the events have begun to fully unfold.
This is the case with the title story, “The Beggar’s Garden”, which opens with a bunch of raccoons clanking in the recycle bin (going through all that discarded stuff).
The raccoons aren’t the funny part (though there’s comedic potential there, which readers who have regular visiting raccoons will know).
It’s the idea of Sam putting his years of work at the bank to work, instead, as Isaac’s financial advisor. It’s the idea of a privileged man giving advice about results-oriented signage, so that passers-by are encouraged to put even more coins into Isaac’s cup. It’s the laughable arrogance of Sam’s suggestions about the appropriate amount of money to leave in said cup (just enough to encourage others to give more, not so much that it appears a need has been filled).
It is funny. In a funny-sad way.
This story, and all the others, are told in a personable way, which aims for a respectful tone. For privileged-but-struggling characters like Sam, this is not uncommon in the world of short stories.
But even more remarkably, this is also true for the other characters in Michael Christie’s collection, who have been discarded from other story collections, but have been welcomed into The Beggar’s Garden in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Michael Christie isn’t just writing to Vancouver residents, however; he seems to intend that all readers re-think what they have discarded, re-consider the way that they may have judged others for having been discarded, re-evaluate the quick judgements often made about those who inhabit of the margins of society.
This is a collection that is easy to recommend for those who believe that short stories aren’t long enough to settle into (most of these give the reader ample opportunity to connect with the characters) and, because the tales themselves are interconnected, the collection is more likely to appeal to those readers who normally prefer their fiction novel-length.
There is enough figurative language to interest without it being overwhelming (readers who found Zsuzsi Gartner’s Giller-listed collection over-the-top might well find this more enjoyable).
And most of the stories maintain a careful balance between interior and exterior events. Characters are dynamic (they progress, they regress, they circle), and “stuff happens”.
But ultimately, how a reader responds to the collection will depend on the freshness experienced therein.
If many of the situations in the collection are new for the reader (e.g. people dumpster-diving for food — either out of need or out of political conviction, lonely people placing 911 calls out of desperation), the collection will have an additional impact.
Take this character (who will remain nameless because this passage is drawn from a quarter of the way into the story), who has a “disabled brain”. He’s talking about how his sense of taste is poor, and he offers an explanation to the reader.
“If you’re wondering why my brain is disabled it’s because when I was born it didn’t get enough air because there was some problem with my mom or the way I came out.”
The tone is direct and engaging, and the reader is inevitably drawn to this narrator, in spite of (arguably because of) the damage to his brain.
“Most of the time I forget it’s damaged. Maybe it’s too damaged to know it’s damaged. Or maybe it’s not damaged enough for me to notice. Either way it’s not very bad.”
But there is a slant of self-awareness here that won’t work for every reader. (This passage itself is solid, but given the later events in this story, I felt this kind of reflection would have been more appropriate if it had been delivered by the other main character.)
Characters who are mentally-ill, those who are “differently brained” (to borrow Oliver Sacks’ term), are difficult to capture on the page by those who are not-quite-so-differently brained.
(For my bookish taste, Darren Greer’s Still Life with June (2003), Jane Gardam’s 1991 prize-winning novel — which will remain nameless here because the theme is not revealed until the end, Pat Capponi’s mystery series — beginning with Last Stop Sunnyside, and Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud (2010), ring true.)**
The impact of the stories that adopt such a perspective is lessened if a reader doesn’t fully adopt the narrator’s perspective.
Executionally, these stories are fine work, but their resonance with readers may vary.
There are similarities between this collection and Vincent Lam’s 2006 Giller-winning work, but overall, short stories make shortlists but rarely take the prize. Nonetheless, presentation and marketing for this collection are top-notch.
Generally uncomplicated in stark contrast to Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection. (Of course sometimes the prose that reads the easiest is the hardest prose to write.) An element of fun with “Goodbye Pork Hat”, with its segments titled for parts of a chemisty experiment.
“…Bernice wondered if there had been some kind of miscalculation, right before a series of greater explosions erupted, triple the power of the ones that still hung webs in her ears, and the structure became liquid and began to fold in on itself, slumping like a set of clothes without a body to keep them standing.”
The Downtown Eastside.
One of the oldest neighbourhood’s in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Canada’s poorest postal code.”
Varied. But always accessible.
Some have more dialogue than others (e.g. “The Ideal Companion”).
Others address the reader directly.
You resolved to “Read more short stories” at New Year’s. (You’re the sort who wants to make things better, and usually make resolutions, even if not at New Year’s, even if it only means feeling badly later for not keeping them.) You guess at people’s stories when you’re watching from afar.
**Reading Companions: See that paragraph marked as such.