Subverting Expectations

Pleased to Meet You

Caroline Adderson
Thomas Allen
203 pages

Reviewed in Books in Canada, May/June 2007

Caroline Adderson’s literary career wants for nothing: from her first story collection, the Vancouver writer’s work has consistently been singled out with nominations and prizes including the Writers’ Trust, Commonwealth, and GG. And yet, in this new short story collection, lack is precisely what occupies her: lack of purpose, lack of love, lack of connection, lack of control. It’s a catalogue of the ways in which existential angst manifests itself, but if you think you’ve seen this before, look again. In Pleased to Meet You, Adderson might be working with familiar thematic territory, but her execution subverts expectation almost every time.

The hulking bear of a man in “Mr Justice” is a bitter piece of work who bats his family around with his pent-up anger. He’s entirely unlikable, and even when you learn that he is so inured to his own pain that he can ignore a tack in his heel until the infection has penetrated the bone, you still can’t sympathise; he has, with his misanthropic fury, caused the decades-long suffering of his family. It’s not the fact that he can blithely tell his own son that he wishes he had never been born that is painful, but that his son has weathered so much emotional abuse that the comment doesn’t cause him distress. What bothers the son is the fact that his father had, for the first time in years, looked him in the eye when he said it. When the judge loses his leg, you might think that he will be diminished. He is, but not in the way you would expect. Adderson transfers to the amputated leg all that was rotten in the man’s life. Like an animal who bites off his own leg to escape a trap, the loss of the leg frees him. Liberation always costs, though, and his family is the casualty. He steps down from the bench, serves divorce papers to his wife, and moves away to start a new life. He’s more whole with a limb missing than he was when he was anatomically complete, but his transformation is tempered by the emotional detritus he has left behind. His son wonders whether he’ll “still feel the pain of a phantom father now that he’s gone.”

Adderson treads similar ground in “Spleenless”. It takes the surgical removal of his spleen for Manfred to emerge from the bilious existence that cost him his wife. What they removed was “the very core that made him Manfred-a purple-faced, stump-limbed manikin, his darker self. Here he lay, a husk of the man he had been, the bran of him, needy and sentimental.” The image of a freshly incised Manfred lurching towards his ex-wife’s house on New Year’s Eve, 1999, doped up on codeine and hopeful for a second chance with his now remarried wife, is darkly comedic, and the shift from poignancy is deftly executed. Manfred’s loss of bile helps him recover his humanity, as the play on the word spineless in the title makes clear.

The bustle of activity that surrounds a new pregnancy is the focus in “The Maternity Suite”, but it’s not long before Adderson begins setting down warnings that things may not be what they appear. Told from four separate points of view (a feat in the space of a short story), the tale encourages you to keep your eye on the progressing pregnancy, while also building toward the idea that there’s no baby. The delicate web of familial connections, gathered up on the pretext of a new life, tears under the stress of the revelation, and the void in young Anna’s womb becomes a mirror for the emptiness in the family. Adderson’s symbolism is clever and well planted: for example, the ‘expectant’ mother buys extra-virgin olive oil and pictures Van Eyke’s The Annunciation. It’s a delight to find them all when you go rushing backward through the story to pick up the clues.

A story that rings with emptiness in spite of a successful pregnancy, “Ring Ring”, chronicles a day in the life of a young single mother who looks for love in all the wrong places. Given temporary freedom by a middle-aged neighbour who covets her toddler son to fill her empty nest, she visits a new boyfriend, and the manner by which each woman fills her own void is telling (one gives, the other hopes to receive). Mrs G lavishes love on the toddler, who sorely needs it, replenishing her own well in the process, while the young mother yearns for love at her boyfriend’s house, but finds only unloving sex. In other hands, this story might have become maudlin, but the degree of emotional detachment in the narrative voice-the scene in which the young mother makes Mr. Noodles for her son’s dinner is particularly brutal for its lack of sentiment-is a credit to Adderson’s ability to match voice to theme.

Working with the notion that art can transform, “Falling” delivers an insurance underwriter who finds his life sweetened by the discovery of a poem on a bus. Like the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, in which an unyielding Stasi agent finds his humanity through exposure to a playwright’s life and work, the ending of “Falling” is wish fulfillment. If the story lacks the gimlet-eyed edge of the others in this collection, it’s forgivable when you consider the nature of the protagonist’s ailment. Of the parade of urban wounded that Adderson marches through the pages of this collection-a yellow-skinned cancer patient, a one-legged judge, a spleenless photographer, a grimy toddler and his unloved mother, a hysterically pregnant young woman-the man whose dreams are a casualty of his banal, workaday life, is the most universal. He’s just one more hopeless cog in the machine, when along comes poetry. Breathy with sentence fragments, it’s Adderson at her most exposed, raging against the machine and genuflecting at the altar of art.

Seven of the nine stories in this collection have already found homes in literary magazines and other collections; “Falling” won second prize in the 2005 CBC Literary Competition. “Pleased to meet you” (translated from the Swedish “Hauska Tutustua”), the third story in the collection, is a polished, accomplished account that deals with the angst of urban living. Adderson’s images are gritty and visceral: a gold star in a toilet of toddler shit, the putrid hulk of a dying man, a teaspoon of jism, a face that is “a skull in a leather bag.” She’s a dab hand at describing a whole life with a single line, but every page is also evidence of her keen ability to chronicle minute machinations of the heart and mind. Her work leaves just enough in and just enough out.

Atwood has publicly praised Adderson, and it makes sense; there’s a similar sensibility at work here. Like Atwood, she is resolute in her refusal to tell readers how to feel, instead laying out the story with an equanimity that sometimes leaves you cold. But then it dawns on you: the void you feel isn’t coming from the text, it’s coming from you. It’s only that Adderson isn’t rushing to fill in what you lack. She’s waiting for you to do it yourself.