Short stories 2005

I sometimes think that a short story is the best part of a larger story, as if an overzealous editor had winnowed only what was essential and distilled this matter into a moment of tiny perfect clarity. In this elemental instant, truth appears still and in focus, within reach; in the next, the breeze carries it away, leaving an impression that feels like memory.

This year, two collections bring inherited memory from developing writers: The Journey Prize Stories, McClelland and Stewart’s annual round-up of the most promising writing from the pages of Canadian literary journals, now in its seventeenth year, and Short Stuff: New English Stories from Quebec, three years’ worth of the best contemporary English fiction from Quebec via the Quebec Writers Federation competition. If the short story is an endangered species, the pages of these collections testify otherwise; the form is not only vibrant and alive but downright seductive.

Journey Prize Stories 17

Ed. James Grainger and Nancy Lee
McClelland & Stewart
190 pages, $17.99

The flashes of insight revealed in the seventeenth collection of Journey Prize Stories are as varied in texture and content as the human condition itself. Perhaps because of this fact, editors James Grainger (The Long Slide) and Nancy Lee (Dead Girls) introduce their fourteen selections from the over eighty stories submitted by Canadian literary magazines with a listing of their criteria, concluding with their hope that “Canadian fiction writers will continue to embrace the short story, challenge it, experiment with it, explore it with vivacity, ingenuity, and fearlessness, and keep opening the form to new varieties of experience.”

The voices on these pages do embrace the short story form in all of its discipline and economy, some with coy subtleties that lull and others with overt aggression, but all ending on the breathless note of secrets revealed. I was beguiled by many of the tales in this collection and disappointed by none.

Craig Davidson’s “Failure to Thrive” is a violent and harrowing account of spiraling debauchery that begins with “Some prick taped a glossy of a cirrhosis-ridden liver to my locker door.” With deadpan detachment, the narrator describes a Bukowski-esque landscape dotted with unsavoury characters, snuff videos and booze. By the final sentence, the story has folded in on itself, leaving the reader with a grasp on reality as faulty as that of the narrator’s.

Similarly bleak, but altogether different in character, Sandra Sabatini’s “The Dolphins at Sainte-Marie” arcs with the sadness of hope in a hopeless situation. Penny, who lives in poverty with a debilitated, obese mother, dutifully raises funds for a school trip, allowing herself to believe the class is bound for a popular theme park. Her longing for the shiny optimism of the American dream is visceral, as is her disappointment when she finally allows her hope to falter.

Matt Shaw picks up on the dangers of home life, where those closest are most threatening, in “Matchbook for a Mother’s Hair,” this year’s Journey Prize-winning story. Gordon is seventeen and mentally handicapped, and his mother’s sexually-frustrated euchre friends like it that way. His bewildered first-person voice, which hovers on the knife’s edge between doubt and trust, is sustained and true as he tries to piece together a chronology of the story’s raison d’etre. Withholding the identity of Gordon’s interlocutor until the story has unfurled works nicely to maintain tension.

A story infused with a different kind of longing was my favourite this year. The central image in Krista Bridge’s “A Matter of Firsts”—an aerial view of a newlywed naked, retching husband—serves also as a metaphor that binds the story. The idealized love that the young narrator feels for her father’s New York mistress is set against this image, which stands in for the disappointment one feels upon discovering a lover’s fallibility; together, they form a sly alpha and omega of infatuation. That image remained with me for the eighteen months between reading it for the first time in Descant and discovering it in the pages of this anthology, as a carefully-drawn image should.

This is the first year that the anthology of Journey Prize stories has concluded with the author’s notes on the stories—addressing, maybe, the ubiquitous ‘where did you get your idea?’ question—in the pages usually reserved for bios. I had a conflicting feelings about this section: once I knew that it was there, the attraction proved irresistible, but reading an author’s note almost always diminished the magic that the story had wrought. The space in which a short story emerges isn’t always easy to interpret or explain. Some stories seem to simply appear; should the mundane circumstances of their births be given much credit?

Alice Munro offers a similar debriefing in her preface to Selected Stories (Penguin, 1996), but in her hands, the notes enhance rather than diminish the story. The secret, it seems, lies in what to give and what to hold back. Like the horror film that reveals the monster instead of hiding it off-screen, a full view interferes with the role of a reader’s imagination and withers the effect of the story.

Aside from that, Journey Prize Stories 17 easily lived up to its reputation as purveyor of Canadian fiction up-and-comers. This collection amuses, astonishes, and enlightens; it is a delicious cacophony of distinct voices and engaging stories that anticipated the editors’ desire for ingenuity and fearlessness. I’m already looking forward to next year’s collection

Short stuff: New English Stories from Quebec

Ed. Claude Lalumière
Véhicule Press
177 pages, $16.95

In the forward to this collection of Quebec Writers Foundation competition winners and honourable mentions, former winner Neale McDevitt gives heartfelt thanks for the kind of encouragement that publication represents to a young writer: “You can’t downplay that huge moment, in which, however humbly, one finally feels like a writer…It wasn’t the winning that made me feel like a writer (although that worked wonders for my ego, to be sure), it was having people take my work seriously. What more can a writer ask than to have good readers?”

What indeed? In the pages of this collection, edited by Claude Lalumière, are thirty-eight stories from three years of competitions (2002-05), thirty-eight chances for validation and thirty-eight wishes for the tenacity it takes to become, and remain, a writer. Held to a strict 1200- word limit, the QWF competition stories are brief glimmers that tease and cajole, whispering their truths in urgent voices. Often I was torn between wanting more and admiring the skill of writers who can conjure a complete world in so few words.

Journey Prize winner (1999) John Brooke opens the collection with an unfolding of the moment of mortality in “The Death of PJ Barfard.” Similar in sensibility to Graham Swift’s Last Orders, the friends that PJ Barfard left behind occupy centre stage as they attempt to situate their friend’s death inside of their own living and dying, tallying up gains and losses in the final assimilation of his absence from their foursome.

Joni Dufour’s “First Light” also occupies itself with mortality, but putting a child in the cold ground is altogether different than burying a golf chum, and so is the tone of this story. Dufour expertly sketches her rural landscape with texture and character, making palpable the quiet grief of the young family. This honourable mention is an impressive debut for Dufour, and I hope to read more from her.

In “Precipice,” vertiginous geography stands in for the looming ruin of another farming family, as the ocean encroaches to take back her own. J.R. Carpenter makes daring use of two voices in the short space of that story, and it works. The alternating voices of husband and wife, each grappling with the creeping disaster, is a finely-crafted anatomy of worry.

The first paragraph alone of Alexandria Haber’s “Loved” might have won the prize for her, but Haber goes on to unwind a spool of grief that is all the more disturbing because she has set it against the mundane details of a mother’s life. There’s no comfort in ordinary tasks here, because tragedy doesn’t require unusual circumstances, and it’s this truth that makes Haber’s tale all the more discomfiting.

“Malke’s Baby” also resonates with maternal loss, but setting it in a besieged town, where soldiers lurk around every corner and the basic necessities of life are denied, allows Elise Moser to peel away every layer of comfort to arrive at motherhood’s raw nucleus. Blood tastes of iron, blankets are only as clean as rusty water can get them, and all that remains of the furniture is a wardrobe, because it’s too big to chop for firewood. Malke thinks only of liberating her child, but fate denies even this.

Fate deals a similarly harsh hand to the young aboriginal narrator of “Dance of the Moondogs,” but J.D. McDonald’s real accomplishment is the deft portrait of life on a native reserve. The story’s narrator doesn’t hope, rage, or despair; he is passive because it’s the only option he sees. Falsely blithe, he parks his dreams and watches the slow burn of his life.

It’s impossible, with thirty-eight distinct voices, to represent each one fairly. But this is a collection of writers on their way, some of whom, like McDevitt —Liam Durcan, Ibi Kaslik, and John Brooke— have already parlayed their wins into book deals . In the meantime, the competition’s goal of nurturing young talent leaves us with a record of their journey, and thirty-eight toothsome tales .