#633 Uneasy stories, imperfect lives
by Julie Paul
Victoria: Brindle & Glass, an imprint of TouchWood Editions, 2019
$22.00 / 9781927366820
Reviewed by William New
In a much quoted phrase, the Nigerian writer Ben Okri observes that the “fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell.” He might well have been talking about the fifteen stories that comprise Julie Paul’s third collection, Meteorites, for the characters in them lead compromised lives — or at least they all find themselves caught in an uneasy tangle of spectacular crises. The adjective “capricious” comes to mind, but it would mislead; these characters’ imperfections are not so much bizarre as they are the fictionalized exaggerations of a grab bag of real life dilemmas.
In two stories, the friendships of young women founder on their relations (real or imagined, now or in the past) with scarcely realized young men. In two more, two separate couples’ plans to redeem others (once through therapy, the other through pranking) are compromised by alcohol or resentment and lead to doltish behaviour and abrupt peril. Adult children’s lives are affected by the death or illness of parents; twin brothers fall apart because of an old love affair and years later cannot reconcile when one’s suspicions are (likely irrationally) raised again; a child is fostered; a brother goes missing; a woman goes mad; and social institutions (the Church, the University) are as much the site of irrationality as they are the agent of disentanglement. Such storylines do not sound unfamiliar — yet the characters do: the choices they make seem odd, irrational, pushed to extremes.
The author handles these situations determinedly, and often with searing wit, but she does not in most instances obviously judge the characters themselves, preferring instead to let observations of their actions reveal how the everyday and the idiosyncratic repeatedly overlap. “Clutter,” for instance, recreates the mindset of a woman with anxiety disorder, whose reactions to a world map on her wall — she sees the continents as a fussy clutter that ought to be neatened up — display her disquiet about random details, but (inferentially at least) they also exaggerate a reasonable desire for the “real” world to be more united and less at war. It should be “one big island,” the woman thinks. And in the brief story called “Millie’s Calling,” one of the more engaging in the book, the title character loses her right arm after an accident with a manure spreader, but within hours is back in the United Church playing the organ with her left hand and agile feet. It could be a comic story, revealing her fortitude and the fact that she and another church lady are rivals both for precedence at the organ and for attention from Reverend Short, but as with other stories in this collection, this one turns abruptly from being an apparently matter-of fact record (“Mildred MacDonald’s right limb was removed on a Saturday, right after lunch”) into an immersion in psychological trauma. Everything that Millie sees and hears may well, finally, not be happening in real time but be manifesting her covert desire and constant pain, which is no less real than a manure spreader and a tee-shirt tourniquet, though usually less concretely shared.
The idea of perfection is not, however, missing here. In “The Expansion,” the most extended of the stories in Meteorites, “perfection” is the promise that takes the two central characters — a couple named Don and Holly — from their financially successful but ethically suspect past (selling flawed products to unsuspecting buyers) to an apparently isolated island. They have been drawn to this island because the company that runs it guarantees them that “the past is over; everything is sparkly and clean,” which is what they tell themselves. As with many another utopian scheme, however, the isolation proves dangerous, the ideal goes sour, the guarantee proves flawed. For suddenly the animals on the island grow overnight into marauding giants (nature rebels against human pride?), and the couple have a baby (if the reader is to trust the text). But of course trusting the text is like trusting the island’s advertising; it may be that the author’s intention in this book is less to observe flaws and failures than it is to challenge easy resolutions to complex social disparities and the words that people use to talk about them.
For these stories, set primarily in coastal BC and small town Ontario, appear also to challenge how some people re-enact the disparities that bother them. The title story “Meteorites,” for instance, hinges on some tired biases involving “city” and “small town” — the false sophistication of one, the false camaraderie of the other, the mutual disrespect between the two. One group dismisses snobbishness; the other disparages witlessness. Condescension is rife. It’s a familiar trope in Canadian writing (though as Margaret Laurence’s stories, among others, have made clear in the past, the foibles of Canadian small towns are just rewritten in the quirks of Canadian cities). Paul is at her best in some of these passages, her talent for sharp satire surfacing repeatedly.
But not consistently. The variations in strategy here read like experiment as much as necessity. A story that ends rhetorically (“A question had been asked, and an answer had lifted itself out of the darkness”) asks urgently to be revised. Dialogue often feels wooden (“`How horrible!’ Margo cried”); and point of view sometimes wanders. Occasionally — as in “The Expansion” — deliberate shifts in perspective serve the narrative, but at other times the slippage between authorial point of view and a character’s point of view disrupts the narrative impact. An author’s note at the end of the book declares that “these stories were written over many years, out of love and compulsion.” This passage of time may well explain the author’s variations and the slippages, but it also gives ample evidence of her ongoing desire to understand why actions so often go awry.
William (W.H.) New is the author and editor of numerous critical and reference books, including Borderlands: How we Talk about Canada (UBC Press, 1998) and Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2002). His five books for children include Vanilla Gorilla (Ronsdale, 1998, illustrated by Vivian Bevis) and The Year I Was Grounded (Tradewind, 2008), and the most recent of his dozen books of poetry are titled YVR (Oolichan, 2011, winner of the City of Vancouver Prize) and Neighbours (Oolichan 2017).
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