This year I have read some stand-out collections, but for the most part I neglected to take notes from them:
Joy Williams’ Honored Guests, Kathleen Winter’s The Freedom in American Songs, Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy, Shawn Syms’ Nothing Looks Familiar, Elaine McCluskey’s Hello, Sweetheart, Julia Leggett’s Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, Rhonda Douglas’ Welcome to the Circus, and some Alice Munro rereading (The View from Castle Rock and Too Much Happiness).
My notebook was at hand for Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Water Museum, however, and many passages caught my attention, but this one sums up the collection perfectly:
“Why, hell – he was deep into some kind of strange Italian western. There were patterns moving across the sky, high, where small scallops of cloud shimmered like mother-of-pearl. He felt a part of the great becoming, the revelation of the West.”
This is from “Taped to the Sky”, but this sense of a “great becoming”, this pattern of revelations, this strange depth of feeling – this sense infuses the collection as a whole. Some themes resurface throughout the collection and add to the cohesion.
Sometimes this sense of expanse is a positive force, filled with promise, aloft. As in “The National City Reparation Society”: “I hven’t talked to you [Chango] in ten years,” Junior said. He sat on the tabletop and lay back and watched the undersides of gulls as they hung up there like kites.”
Other times, it is more an expanse of emptiness, as in “Mountains Without Number”: “Is a town dead when the old men die, or when the children leave?”
And, then, it can be something in between, as in “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush”:
“The river seemed, at times, to be on a mad shopping spree, taking from the land anything it fancied. Mundane things such as trees, chckens, cows shot past regularly. But marvelous things floated there too: a DeSoto with its lights on, a wshing machine with a religious statue in it as though the saint were piloting a circular boat, a blond wig that looked like a giant squid, a mysterious star-shaped object barely visible under the surface.”
Which leads to another of the collection’s preoccupations, for here a flooded river can have a cow or a saint’s statue floating in it.
This is true in terms of story, at times, but discussing those instances would reveal spoilers. Suffice it to say that Luis Albeto Urrea also expresses this preoccupation in his desciptions of his characters’ world. (Only the first part actually reveals the sense of extremes in his prose, but I just love this buttons image from “Taped to the Sky”.)
“Barbed wire twinkled like spiderwebs and dew. The sky went all the way up and over and down. He’d never seen so much sky. It looked like the little sage bushes on the horizon were buttons holding it to the ground.”
And, in contrast, in “Mountains Without Number”, not barbed wire, but the softest thing: “Cool fog blanketed the face of the butte – the softest thing the valley had ever known.”
A similar sense of contrasting sensory details in evident in this passage from “Taped to the Sky”: “It was a good day. Ten miles ahead, on the port side of the highway, there was a buffalo herd Horses liked to look at. And beyond that, to the starboard, a llama ranch amused him when he passed it. And ostriches. It was like a free zoo all of a sudden. And he knew the Rockies would appear out of the blue haze to his right. Bright and vivid on the horizon, looming as he veered nearer, Growing taller.”
And sometimes it exists even in the details of characterization, as in this snippet from “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush”: “To be macho, you must already know everything, know it so well that you’re already bored by the knowledge.”
But that is best discovered on its own terms. (You’ve caught a glimpse of it in the quotes above, I’m sure.)
Contents: Mountains Without Number; The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery; The National City Reparation Society; Carnations; Taped to the Sky; Amapola,; Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush; The White Girl; Young Man Blues; Chametla; The Sous Chefs of Iogüa; Welcome to the Water Museum; Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses
For the past several months,I have been reading Gabrielle Roy‘s fiction. Her Street of Riches (1957) is a linked collection of stories too, with a tone similar to The Road Past Altamont. (Henry Binsse translated Street of Riches in 1967.)
This summer I have also enjoyed Gabrielle Roy’s Enchanted Summer, which is also soaked with her own memories. Its pieces are perfectly satisfying for an end-of-day read or an over-coffee-musing. Some of them are only a few pages long, others between six and twelve pages, and the collection begins and ends with the author and her sister travelling to a particular pond, where they have visited during many summers (some more enchanting than others).
Street of Riches has the same feel of familiarity, nostalgia dotted with wisdom discovered later in life. “’Without the past, what are we, Edouard?’ she asked. ‘Severed plants, half alive!'” Another quote from “The Gadabouts” also reveals this preoccupation: “Upon her face her memories were like birds in full flight.”
And as with so much of Canadian fiction, memory is intertwined with talk of time: “Was all this lost time? Then why is it that the time of futile questions, of minute problems probed to no effect, is the time that recurs and recurs to the soul as the time it has used the best?” (This quote is from “My Whooping Cough”.)
Another theme which is also at the heart of the author’s first novel, The Tin Flute, is the mother-daughter relationship. Maman in that novel is ambivalent about her role just as is the mother in “Petite Misère”: “Oh! Why did I ever have any children!”
Similiarly, in both novels, there is sympathy accorded to the mother’s character, even though being her daughter is not always easy. “I was about to answer when I realized that Maman’s anger, assuredly like many people’s, was no more than wearisome regret, the accumulation of many hurts in her heart.” (This is from “L’Italienne”.)
Just as in one of my favourite tales in Road Past Altamont, a journey is at the heart of one of these stories too (“To Prevent a Marriage”) and the experience gained while travelling is invaluable for the narrator too.
“’Are we in Saskatchewan?’ I asked Maman, and was about to feel pleased, because passing from one province to another seemed to me so great an adventure that it would certainly and completely transform Maman and me, perhaps make us happy.’
The simple matter of distance is often at lurking behind the characters’ experiences in Gabrielle Roy’s novels, even when an actual journey is not involved (consider the isolation of the family in Where Nests the Water Hen).
“A far journey to have come merely to behave, in the end, like everyone else – earn your living, try to make friends, learn our language, and then, in Wilhem’s case, love someone who was not for him. Do adventures often turn out so tritely? Obviously enough, though, in those days I did not think so.” (This quote is from “Wilhelm”.)
And, finally, here is one particularly bookish quote, which is my favourite in the collection:
“All around me were the books of my childhood, which here I had read and reread, in a dancing beam of dusty light, pouring down like a ray of sun from the gable window. And the happiness the books had given me I wished to repay. I had been the child who reads hidden from everyone, and now I wanted myself to be this beloved book, these living pages held in the hands of some nameless being, woman, child, companion, whom I would keep for myself a few hours. Is there any possession equal to this one? Is there a friendlier silence, a more perfect understanding?” (This is from “The Voice of the Pools”.)
Contents: The Two Negroes; Petite Misère; My Pink Hat; To Prevent a Marriage; A Bit of Yellow Ribbon; My Whooping Cough; The Titanic; The Gadabouts; The Well of Dunrea; Alicia; My Aunt Thérésina Veilleux; L’Italienne; Wilhelm; The Jewels; The Voice of the Pools; The Storm; By Day and by Night; To Earn My Living
Do you have some short stories in your stacks these days?