#756 Lonesome in the City of Glass
We All Need to Eat
by Alex Leslie
Toronto: Book*hug Press, 2018
$20.00 / 9781771664196
Reviewed by Vincent Ternida
The popular adage “all our cells are replaced every seven to ten years” led to the notion that as human beings, we become completely new people within that cycle. In the nine stories in Alex Leslie’s We All Need to Eat, Soma is presented as a different character every time. She is daughter, lover, sister, grandchild, sandwich artist, armchair chef, devout prayer leader, private childhood friend, office employee, to name a few. She cycles through such roles filled with both joy and sorrow in her thirty-odd years of life journey as a queer woman growing up in Vancouver.
I enjoy interconnected short stories because they provide enough to empathize with and an opportunity to connect with recurring characters. As with Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain and Derek Mascarenhas’s Coconut Dreams, both published in 2019, We All Need to Eat presents their protagonist’s life in bite-sized short story chunks. By themselves, the short stories are intended to stand on their own. We slipstream into Soma’s life on non-linear tangents. In the early stories, her life flows within her later years, focusing on her thirties. As we progress through the later stories, we return to see Soma’s childhood and her Jewish heritage through the point of view of her grandmother.
Each story delivers an emotional punch, but the earlier stories feel like vignettes that end unresolved. As interconnected stories, one story might end on a cliffhanger, but a following story might contain the resolution. As a confused youth, Soma might lack the answers when she didn’t have the experience to deal with a question; but as an adult, she might have gained insight into the same question. Similarly, a lesson might be forgotten along the way until it presents itself in a different form. As readers, we have the privilege of acting as an objective audience to Soma’s life. The slipstream format also provides Soma with a perspective in her later years as she reminisces through a stream of consciousness.
In a nice touch, Leslie has divided the nine stories by a prose-poetry piece. To open, “The Initials” and “Stargazing” serve as a chorus to preface the next three stories in their batch. After “The Initials,” we’re introduced abruptly and rather violently to Soma’s life. Living with a single parent, dealing with a painful breakup, and unpacking a friend’s suicide – not necessarily in that order – provide an overwhelming introduction to Soma’s lived experience. While we’re mostly introduced at the point where the feelings have settled in to become a mainstay in her life, at first glance the situations don’t feel as dramatic. Yet the trauma is there, and the deep-seated hurt and joys don’t exactly leave. They’re embedded in layers of memory. What we experience is a nuanced narrative that tackles the struggles and celebrations of Soma’s life in Vancouver. Two of the stories are written in the third person – one a stream of consciousness narrative and the other a traditional short story. I especially liked “The Sandwich Artist,” written in the first person, where we finally get Soma’s personal perspective. There is no right answer or a single feeling. The experiences are fluid and dynamic. As I mentioned above, certain narratives resolve or even escalate in much later stories, thus exhibiting the power of the interconnected nature of the narrative.
I enjoyed the second half of the collection because by that time I had gained some context of Soma’s life. The last four stories provide answers, anecdotes, and resolutions to the five introductory pieces on Soma’s life, heritage, and struggle. “Who You Start With Is Who You Finish With” is a powerful story and, for me, the best in the collection owing to its length, subject matter, and the weight of experience in its telling. It juxtaposes Soma’s current experience in contemporary Vancouver near the onset of Alt-Right influence in Trump’s neighbouring regime, with Soma’s grandmother’s experience during pre-World War II Vancouver, where bigotry against Jewish people was at its height. Leslie provides a somewhat supernatural link between her grandmother and Soma as we slipstream through their lives during these turning points in history. At this point, we come to understand who Soma is, her heritage, and her present truth.
Most of Soma’s journey occurs in Greater Vancouver. Vancouver is written as a lonely city, maybe not intentionally by Leslie, but the mood that pervades is heavy with ambivalence and solitude. The subject matter isn’t exactly light reading material, including suicide, bigotry, finding happiness amidst sorrow, depression, and isolation, to name a few. An existential notion of aloneness also serves as a microcosm of life in the City of Glass, of Leslie’s description of the West Coast weather, and in Soma’s seemingly lonesome lifestyle where she keeps her peers close to her and contact with her family as sparing as possible. Whether we live our lives as lifelong residents, new immigrants, and even visitors, there are moments where our time in pain will pass and times of celebration will return, even if they involve bittersweet memories of people who have long left us.
Vincent Ternida’s pieces have appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, The Ormsby Review, and Rabble. His story “Elevator Lady” was long-listed for the CBC Short Story Prize in 2019. His first novella, The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo, was published by Ricepaper and Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop in 2018. He has a collection of short stories in development. Vincent lives in Vancouver.
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