Tag Archives: short stories

Modern Folklore: Jerry Levy’s Urban Legend

795908When a new work of fiction’s described as “gritty,” I’m on alert for a pseudo-streetwise collection loaded down with drugs, despair, bad sex, etc. etc. Been there, done that, says my Good Reading gene and I move on. But don’t make that mistake, dear reader, with Jerry Levy’s debut collection of stories, Urban Legend. Gritty it may be, with an assortment of aggrieved and even demented characters, but Levy’s wit and his assured, confident voice allow the reader breathing space and even a chuckle or two in the company of messed-up people.

As the book’s title might indicate, the structure of these stories owes much to the telling of folk tales, often setting up what feels like an archetypal legend spiked with a wry, contemporary twist. In “The Golem of New York,” a man who suffers the death of his fiancée begs a rabbi to bring her back to life in the form of a mythic figure made of mud and clay — a golem who, in Jewish lore, comes to assist communities in times of crisis. The rabbi obliges, but the golem’s “assistance” both backfires and heals.

The title story involves an elusive young woman who suspects she might one day become an urban legend, a bank robber with “no marketable skills” who displays, among other things, the author’s gift for snappy opening sentences. “The way I’ve always done it is to insert three Valiums into balled-up hamburger meat,” says the female narrator who, like many of Levy’s characters, is under-(or un-) employed, bookish and angry at society’s indifference. Thank God for her droll sense of humour. “There are pros and cons  to robbing banks for a living,” she says. “It’s easy money. I mean, it’s not like working nine-to-five. The hourly rate is quite good.”

Folklore takes a literary turn in “Margellons,” the story of a poverty-stricken writer (critiqued as a highly derivative one) who takes a bizarre job which not only makes him ill but pushes him over the edge, turning him into a cheesy copycat of a brilliantly realized Dostoyesvky character. And In “Stolen Words,” a man asked to claim the effects of a woman he met in group therapy uncovers a stash of first-rate unpublished fiction. Publishing the stories under his own name, he achieves easy fame — a vicarious thrill for any writer reading this tale. Read it and find out what happens.

There’s an underlying fatalism in these stories. They inform us that our world doesn’t treat its young well. Sisyphus rolls the rock up the hill, only to see it slide down again. Life hasn’t much to offer these bright kids, all of whom are endowed with a profound sense of the ridiculous. If a character must grow and change (as writing workshops tell us) then why not change for the worse?

In “The Anarchist,” a young woman from a comfortable but unhappy family background gets caught up in the G20 riots that rocked Toronto in 2010. Later she comes upon an injured animal which she can’t identify. She nurses it back to health and returns it to the wild, but when it doesn’t survive, neither does the gentle world she’s begun to experience. There’s a direct parallel to this story in “Phoenix Rising,” in which a woman about to jump off a bridge spots an injured cat on the highway below and rescues it, becoming a local celebrity. Her luck changes; her sculpting career gets a boost, she makes friends, and a carpenter offers free repairs on the ceiling beams she pulled down in a failed attempt to hang herself.  While the cat’s fate loads the ending with grim irony, the scene when the woman wrecks the ceiling in her hapless suicide attempt is a true gem of black humour.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s one shared by many first story collections that follow through on a theme (including my own Missing Persons). Jerry Levy is writing, albeit in a quirky and imaginative way, about varieties of loss and after a while, it’s almost inevitable that elements of repetition would enter the stories. In Levy’s case, almost all of the characters are middle-class, well-educated, often aspiring artists, all on society’s edges. The writing is assured and clear, and the characters are, for the most part, sympathetic, but it’s not always easy to distinguish one individual voice from the next.

Yet his material is also the stuff of legend, where it’s OK (up to a point) to generalize, to create character types and to draw conclusions about human nature. Levy is currently at work on a novel. I’m looking forward to more of his quirky voice, his uncommon hybrid of old-fashioned mythmaking and postmodern irony.

Urban Legend by Jerry Levy is published in Saskatoon, Canada by Thistledown Press (2013).

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Alice Munro: When The Gift Is Enough

 Nobel Laureate Alice Munro wasn’t to be the subject of my blog today, but her win is too wonderful to pass up. Her excellent writing has touched many hearts and has astounded me with its sense of both the wonder and the strangeness at the human predicament. I’m not going to try to summarize her work; others have done a fine job of that already. I’ll only say that a Munro story is a special treat, even when the characters drive me bats with their lack of good judgment. For years I’ve been following her work in The New Yorker, saving her stories until I finish reading the rest of the magazine. This replicates the five year-old’s cake-eating technique — they cake-y part first, the sweet lump of icing last.

OK, so that’s not what you’d call high-end literary criticism, but today’s a party day, a sweet-icing treat for writing in Canada and everywhere.

Here’s what I’d like to add: I admire Alice Munro not only for her literary achievement but for her genuine humility — her gracious acceptance of what life gives and takes; how well she walks the path between false modesty and self-aggrandizement. She attends to her calling as a writer, wins awards, expresses gratitude, goes back to writing. She doesn’t tweet and she’s not in our face on Facebook. Maybe it’s timing; just the good fortune of having established a solid reputation long before the days of social media and enforced do-it-yourself publicity.

Yet I suspect it’s more than that. No one’s excempt from the lure of consumer culture; even long-time literary icon Margaret Atwood turned up in The New Yorker this week — not in writing but in a Rolex watch ad. Simplicity of spirit? Get over it. The notion that the writing is more important than the writer’s celebrity edge, that a book is the writer’s gift to us, that its creation is something of a mystery sounds so passé. We’re told that the reader wants more, needs to “know” and “interact” with the writer, who’s already given everything they have in order to produce a beautiful novel or short story collection. The mystery has to be unpacked, deconstructed, played with, disposed of. The gift is no longer enough.

Now we’re all feeding the beast one way or another; we promote our books through social media by making ourselves as visible as possible, struggling to find the middle path between the merely pushy and the obnoxious. In fairness, this connectivity is often informative and a lot of fun. But it doesn’t bring the joy of silence, the ineffable moment of discovery that draws you to whatever wondrous light brightens the page and lets the words come. You can’t buy that.

Yet hope’s always with us. Let’s raise a glass to Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, a modest and reticent writer who declares her brilliance by her writing alone. May her refreshing example give us pause.

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Miah: Julia Lin’s Stories of Fate

ImageBack from a thought-provoking trip to China, I was more than happy to read Miah, Julia Lin’s first collection of short stories. The title means fate, and the characters are Taiwanese, who, like many Asians, suffered for years under the dominance of both China and Japan. Most of us are latecomers to the story brought to life by many of Lin’s characters. Long before Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, Taiwan had to cope with the savagery of  Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party and of imperial Japan in the Second World War. These provide the context for much of the suffering of the Taiwanese family whose members narrate much of this book. Apart from history, the power of fate grips the imaginations of Lin’s characters. Predetermined destiny is an unfamiliar concept to most westerners, but it’s the theme of this collection. Faced with crushing oppression, these people find it as a good an explanation as any. For those who leave Taiwan for Canada, fate becomes an internal demon to battle — and seldom to defeat.

Through several linked stories, the author adds unexpected dimensions to characters we thought we knew, and these shifts in vantage-point enrich the whole. In “Miah,”, Mei-Xing, an immigrant to Vancouver who speaks halting English, is about to go to Taiwan with her grown daughter Tracy (the narrator) for her mother’s funeral, one which stirs up distressing memories of her own brother (Ah-Bing) who died a horrible death. We meet Mei-Xing again in the second story (“Ah-Ging”) as a young woman, friend of her niece and witness to her anguished love affair, and we realize the terrible suffering that lies hidden behind her monosyllabic English in the first story.  Likewise, her daughter Tracy, a mature woman, shows up later as a bratty fourteen year-old in “White Skin,” in which we learn that the now-dead grandmother Ah-Hong emigrated to Canada and then returned to Taiwan, unable to adapt to cultural differences (including two generations of disrespectful children). Her experience startles us; we’ve already met Ah-Hong in an earlier story (“Departure”), as an elderly lady in Taiwan before we learn that she’d once crossed the ocean to challenge her fate.  By re-introducing various characters in this way, the author prods us to realize that human beings are far more complex than they appear.

To my mind, most of the stories set in Vancouver are less successful than those rooted in Taiwan. In part, this has to do with the contrast between a relatively benign Canadian society and the extreme gravity of the political crises in East Asia. Lin’s good people, up against cruel, unmoveable power in Taiwan, create dramatic tension and great empathy in the reader. Yet as serious as they are, the current troubles facing immigrants to Canada — racism, bullying, loneliness — arise in a context where fate does not determine their outcome, where hope is a possibility. For this reason, the reader begins to question the frequent tragic outcomes and sense of hopelessness that plague these characters. It’s disconcerting that one can often predict how these stories might end.

Nonetheless, Julia Lin has a rich vein of literary ore to mine as she gives expression to Taiwanese voices with both compassion and restraint. We stand to gain much insight from these stories and from her future work.

Miah by Julia Lin was published in Toronto in 2012 by Tsar Publications.

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Fine Writing and Human Rights

If anyone even hints to me that I ought to “take up arms against a sea of troubles,” I’m likely to tune out. Too busy, too tired, too depressed about the state of the world. Not knowing what to do about this state of affairs, I often look to literature to help me understand the more shadowy corners of the human condition. If you’re of like mind, you may want to click on Novel Rights (http://novelrights.com/). The website offers high-quality literary work for purchase (at very reasonable rates), using the fees to benefit specific human rights efforts.

lullaby-coverI began by reading Ava Homa’s powerful story “Lullaby,” based on the true story of Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish schoolteacher and poet executed in Iran three years ago after a five-minute “trial.” Homa, a Kurdish writer-in-exile, based her story on the man’s letters, published after his death (her first story collection, Echoes from the Other Land was reviewed here). Powerful and heartfelt, “Lullaby” transported me into a nightmarish world, offering a resolute example of bravery and defiance. In reading a story like this, one is stung by the realization that people like Kamangar went to their deaths never knowing if their sacrifice was worth the effort.  For that reason, it’s worth attending to the petitions that follow the story and which urge us to help save the lives of other innocent individuals trapped in Iran’s prison system. The site also has links to Amnesty International.

It’s been said that literature can’t change the world. Yet it can change us, touching us with the humanity we share with Farzad Kamangar and others like him. In pondering their stories, it becomes harder to turn away from suffering, not because of guilt but because of compassion. A writer’s artistic honesty allows us to face the world as it is. I hope you’ll visit Novel Rights and delve into some of their fine literary work.

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A Satisfying Clarity: Lydia Davis

On my shelf sits a fat volume of short stories that I have yet to finish, but which I love to revisit from time to time. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is a wonder. Most of its stories range in length from one line to three pages, with one or two approaching conventional story length. Because of the brevity of many of these works, it’s easy to think of them as flash fiction. Yet that snappy catch-phrase is inadequate. It doesn’t capture the brilliance and the depth of her stark and epigrammatic writing.

Davis is the author of one novel and seven short story collections as well as a translator of French-language texts. She’s a spare and eloquent writer who often reminds me of Samuel Beckett. Like him, she seldom hints at the particulars of time or place or physical description, paring down the clutter of words so that we might hear the soul speak. As with Beckett, that voice is often an isolated one, its desperation tinged with flashes of mordant wit.  Her one-sentence “Idea for a Short Documentary Film” leaps out of the blank page; it’s wry and very funny. “Happy Memories” is not. It’s a four-page story in which a woman wonders if she has accumulated enough happy memories to sustain her in her old age. Its tension lies in the narrator’s assumption that she will grow old alone. “The people in your happy memories have to be the same people who want to have you in their own happy memories…I should check now and then to make sure I am not alone too much, or unhappy with other people too often.” Like much of Davis’ work, its ruminative power builds in a way that is mesmerizing.

Even more so is “How Shall I Mourn Them?” written in the style of a litany, beginning with “Shall I keep a tidy house, like L.?” and repeating variations on this question, each crammed with mundane detail, in a stunning evocation of the everyday. It’s as if she’s saying that the best way to mourn and to live with grief is to enter into life itself. Yet there are moments when we cannot do this, and for those times, there is “Head, Heart” to speak the truth for us:

Heart weeps

Head tries to help heart.

Head tells heart how it is, again:

You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth         

              will go, someday.

Heart feels better then.

But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.

Heart is so new to this.

I want them back, says heart.

Head is all heart has.

Help, head. Help heart.

There’s much that’s poignant but also inspiring in this volume. Davis’ 18-page evocation of the scientist Marie Curie divides her extraordinary life into a series of compressed episodes that gain power through exact yet spare detail. Even in their brevity, they sketch for us a character of great depth. That same depth sneaks up on you throughout this collection. If you read enough of Davis. you’ll find that her writing has a cumulative, almost hypnotic power, along with a satisfying clarity.

The Collected Works of Lydia Davis (733pp) was published in 2009 in New York by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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Claire Keegan’s Walk The Blue Fields

Now and again when life gets too busy, I like to revisit the calm of a good short story or two, beautifully crafted and plotted. It’s a form I admire greatly, one that at its best honours small moments in life that we might otherwise overlook. The Irish writer Claire Keegan is one of the finest short story writers, and having read her second collection once before, I can say that it’s worth a return visit. Walk The Blue Fields is stunning; every story earns its keep and makes for writing that bonds the reader to her characters for the short time they’re with us.

Keegan isn’t well known on this side of the pond, but she’s an award-winning writer in Ireland, a worthy heir to the great William Trevor. She writes with the same loving attention to detail as she creates a character or evokes a place, and she shares with Trevor a depth of compassion and clear-eyed insight into the human condition.

Almost all of these stories are set in the rural Ireland of modern times, in a country that’s undergone rapid change. Some gain power through Keegan’s use of point of view. “The Parting Gift” is told in the second person, the narrator communing with herself. It’s a perfect container for the claustrophobia felt by a young woman about to leave her rural home for New York. She’s desperate to escape parents whose sexual disturbance manages, in our shock-proof age, to shock us with the quiet detachment of Keegan’s description. The title story, “Walk the Blue Fields,” is told from the point of view of a priest about to perform a marriage ceremony. There’s great unease in the details he observes: the bride’s hand shaking as she lifts the pen to sign the marriage certificate, the bouquet trembling in her hand. One telling detail after another reveals the story of the priest’s affair, his decision not to marry this woman, and his overwhelming moment of regret.  And I’d be amiss not to mention the opening story, “The Long and Painful Death.” This one offers a choice glimpse into the mind of a fiction writer awarded a stay at a seaside working residence — along with an annoying visitor who becomes fodder for her next work of fiction (The story’s title provides a nice clue).

This is a wonderful, beautifully crafted book. If you’re looking for a few quiet moments of insight, read one story a day, draw close to its characters and share Keegan’s wealth of insight into the human heart.

Walk The Blue Fields by Claire Keegan is published in Britain by Faber and Faber (2007) and in the U.S. by Black Cat (2008).

 

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A Gem: Dawn Promislow’s Jewels

More often than not, I’m put off by plain, bare-bones, minimalist writing, and here’s why: simplicity of language should point to clarity of thought, but too often it signifies nothing but the desire to be — well, bare-bones and minimalist. Flip through literary journals, and you find a bland sameness to much of the prose, tepid language that  avoids passion and serves no literary end.  So imagine my surprise when I encountered the pared-down prose of Dawn Promislow’s first short story collection, Jewels.  It’s the text equivalent of seeing straight to the bottom of a very deep lake.  Its writing is spare in the service of clarity, each sentence shaped by the effort to see truth and bring it to light.

Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa; she’s lived in England and now resides in Toronto, but her subject-matter is the disfiguring quality of life as it was lived under apartheid in her homeland. While bringing the particulars of her characters’ situations to life, she also illuminates universal themes: the human awakening from innocence to knowledge, the awareness that much of life is beyond our control, the truth that everything passes and nothing abides. There are fourteen brief and understated stories in this slender book, many of them told from the point of view of genteel, middle-class white women who slowly become aware of apartheid’s corroding horror as it leaches into their gardens and homes.

In the opening story, “Pool,” the author skillfully overlaps the points of view of a young girl and her family’s house-servant (Ficksen) who cleans their pool. Ficksen is the centre of the story (the only one named), and he’s never been in the water. The ending is no less powerful for it being expected. Likewise, in “Secret,” the white first-person narrator describes life in a placid rural town where she’s employed in a shop; a black man, Philemon, comes looking for work. When the police chase him down, the woman awakens to the fact that her world is awash with cruel secrets that no one has ever revealed to her.

Equally poignant are stories told from the point of view of black South Africans. In “Bottle,” a nanny, Bella, brings joy to her husband as she shares with him some ocean water collected from her first visit to the sea with her white employers.  The first-person voice of a servant, Ester, is beautifully rendered in “Just a Job,” when she finds a position with a kindly couple, only to witness the breakup of their marriage.

Yet for a glimpse at moral catastrophe, nothing matches “Wan,” a story that packs a lifetime of guilt, remorse and devastating secrecy into six short pages.  It’s told by an artist preoccupied with painting a canvas of pure space (a bit obvious, perhaps, that it’s white); she’s haunted by the fact that her husband’s given shelter to a colleague on the run for political reasons. Distressed by his presence and unable to work, she embarks on a desperate course of action, bringing herself face-to-face with the reality of the police-state that was the guarantor of her lovely home and the peace of her artist’s studio. “But my canvas,” she says at the end. “…It’s perfect, as I envisioned it… I did it, I did it, and you can see it, you can see it, you can see it…” In her agitated words, we hear the voice of madness trying to crush the voice of a guilty conscience, and it’s Promislow’s gift that allows us to hear both.

Jewels is a work of beauty, hard-won honesty, and the quiet unfolding of insight.  It’s also, as the title suggests, a gem.

(Jewels by Dawn Promislow was published in Toronto in 2010 by Tsar Publications).

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