Sarah Selecky’s This Cake is for the Party
Thomas Allen, 2010

A lot of readers think of short stories like the crumbs on the cover image of Sarah Selecky’s stories: short stories are what’s left behind when a writer couldn’t make something whole out of an idea, couldn’t serve it properly on a plate. For these readers, short stories are failed novels, forever in a wanna-be state. And these readers will be disappointed in Sarah Selecky’s stories. (But it’s unlikely they would have picked up the collection anyhow, despite its Giller-nomination.)

Readers who recognize the short story form on its own terms? Readers who seek out stories by Alice Munro, Colm Tóibín, and Lorrie Moore? Readers who identify a storytelling arc even when the action is primarily internal? These readers will appreciate the ten stories in this debut collection.

Will they enjoy them? Well, that’s something else entirely. Many of the characters in this collection are damaged. Some of them are actually broken, like the shattered plate on the collection’s cover. And several inhabit the margins of chaos that somebody close to them is experiencing.

The stories’ structures are uncomplicated (with the occasional “here we are now, but here’s what you’ve missed” framework, and with one epistolary story). And the prose is straightforward. But the the emotional territory that the collection covers is fraught, pervasive and extreme.

Sometimes the characters face this head-on. Sometimes they are aware of grappling with it (as Keane is, in “One Thousand Wax Buddhas”). Other times it sneaks up on them (as with Meredith in “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale”). Sometimes they experience a combination of these states (which is what Franny discovered in “This is How We Grow as Humans”).

But for many characters the alternative is to be consumed by emotion. (As was the case for Carolyn in “How Healthy Are You?”) Sometimes they feel compelled to set aside intense anger or sorrow temporarily because circumstances demand it (which is true for the letter-writer in “Prognosis” and the dinner hostess in “Standing Up for Janey”).

But many times the characters herein are working their way around something, poking at a problem; they are unsure how to approach and hesitant to engage. Sometimes they are overwhelmingly numb, and that’s how I, too, felt after reading many of these stories, whether the characters directly engaged with their struggle or not.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. In the first story, Anne says “I’m still in my bare feet. I know I should be cold, but I can’t feel it (“Throwing Cotton”). Anne’s feet are actually, physically numb. Part of her emotionally, too, also seem detached and unfeeling. Even in the story’s most emotive scene, the reader is left feeling strangely untouched.

But the four year-old-boy in “Watching Atlas” trades in his pain for another emotion. Greg, observing, notes: “See, that kid is calculating. He knows exactly how to get to her. I saw him scrape his knees on purpose once. He was rubbing his knee over the edge of the concrete step in front of our door, trying to make it bleed.”

Ironically, Greg expresses his emotions more freely than many of the characters in this collection (although often only in private narration). And perhaps that’s why he relishes moments in which he can disconnect. For characters like Greg, disengagement isn’t necessarily experienced in negative terms. Greg, for example, considers the pleasure he feels when he’s driving a particular stretch of road: “I stop feeling or thinking anything at all. It’s my own private enlightenment.”

Similarly, one of the collection’s numb-est characters, Lilian, opts to stay in a space which is intentionally colourless and unremarkable, in “Go-Manchura”. The time-share cottage she uses for her weekend away is “meant to be used by a number of families throughout one season…[and]  discourages any sign of character or human life.” She can lose herself there even if, ironically, she is consciously searching at the time.

And Franny, too, looks for the spots in which there is no feeling. “You can pinch the skin there. It’s so tough, there aren’t many nerves. You can squeeze someone’s elbow skin as hard as you can and they might not even feel it at all.” There are things about her life, about her future, that Franny, understandably, would rather feel nothing about, too.

The interplay between the absence of physical sensation and the absence of emotion in this story, and in many of the others, is fascinating. But there’s a risk to un-feeling.

This may take a tangible form, as it does for Becky, an artist, who opts to be in a body cast, built from the top down rather than the bottom-up, “so not only was my face encased in plaster for five hours while they covered my legs, but the weight of the plaster as I stood there — it dried on my body, it took hours — well, I think the weight of it did something to my back”. Or the characters may experience other kinds of devastation, destruction and loss (which is tragically the case in two stories in particular). It can be brutal.

This Cake is For the Party is an accomplished and impressive collection. Sarah Selecky’s prose is finely-tuned, exact and exacting. If the reader chooses to engage with the characters, there are painful encounters to be had, but the author coaches the reader in techniques to avoid these extremes; at times, I opted for numbness in my reader’s extremities, but the author’s success in the short story form is clear. I would ask for another helping of these “crumbs” and find them as satisfying as many a meal.

Companion Reads: Ramona Dearing’s So Beautiful (2004); Elaine McCluskey’s The Watermelon Social (2006)