Extremities: Fiction from the Burning Rock. Killick
Survival Gear. Polestar Book Publishers
I have borrowed the title for this review from one of the books being reviewed because it captures something the two volumes have in common: they both come out of Canada’s eastern “extremity”—Newfoundland and Nova Scotia respectively— and in their separate ways deal with extremes, both physical and psychological. The inhabitants of the fishing village of Freeport, N.S., to whom the greater part of Rita Moir’s Survival Gear is devoted, endure in an extreme environment, wrestling their living from the sea, and the writers of the Burning Rock Collective, as noted in the introduction to Extremities, “live in a bruised landscape which cultivates extreme people with extreme stories.”
In some ways, the two books are reverse images: the ten writers whose stories are collected in Extremities are based in Newfoundland, yet their narratives for the most part—at least to the eye of one “from away”—reflect an urban, somewhat alienated, somewhat (dare I say) postmodern sensibility, while Survival Gear, by a writer from British Columbia, is more characteristic of the kinds of representations of rural, maritime hardship associated with writing from the East Coast. Such an ironic inversion, however, is misleading, as it says more about traditional assumptions about writing from Eastern Canada than about the books themselves, which both do much to dispel the tenacious stereotypes of idyllic or hardy pastoralism associated with the region.
It would be difficult to convey the variety and tenor of the stories in Extremities, but the warning on the jacket is a good starting point:
These stories may contain: trucks and leather, love in a graveyard, a lost heifer, knives that spell fuck, eleven hundred pounds of muscle, one jesus sentence, three thousand degrees, glued castanets, a muzzle of water, a wife, a wall of cellophane, embryonic snails, a smog-masked cupid, virginity in a plastic bag, nipples in an aquarium, trails of warped DNA, a celibate man in crêpe soles.
Such an inventory suggests an exotica that the stories themselves do not quite live up to, but it serves as an appropriate signal of the distance between this collection and the Newfoundland of, say, Percy Janes, Harold Horwood or Al Pittman. Most of the stories are quirky and urbane—Lisa Moore’s “Carmen Has Gonorrhea” and Lawrence Mathews’ “The Apocalypse Theme Park”—for example—and in a number of stories there’s a certain metatextual and intertextual play, such as in Claire Wilkshire’s engaging “French Lessons.” Stories like Michael Winter’s “Two Families” expand the dramatic potential of more traditional subjects—in this case, the dynamics of living in a fishing family. Third-person narrative is largely absent from the collection, and the preference for the fragmented monologue wears after a while, but on the whole there’s a richness of language and of character that makes Extremities a worthwhile read.
Rita Moir’s Survival Gear is certainly more accessible than Extremities. Moir’s account—and that’s as generically specific as I am inclined to be in describing Survival Gear—traces her voyage from B.C. to Nova Scotia and back, with most of the narrative devoted to an intended two-week stay in Freeport which stretches out to ten months. The book is travelogue, memoir, biography, history, poetry, polemic and more, as Moir, a feminist and labor activist, describes the people she meets and the imprint which the spirit of the community leaves upon her. Her narrative is roughly continuous, but it is divided into relatively independent segments ranging in length from a paragraph to several pages and in style from the lyricism of “I’d like to give you the weather network for your birthday” to the polemics of “We are not sentimental, because this is food” (which moves from a description of cleaning fish to a reflection on the implications of multinational agribusiness for the family farm in Canada). “Survival gear” is a recurrent image, literally referring to a suit for surviving in cold water, but more generally suggesting those defences, attitudes, experiences, which in one way or another enable us to continue on with our lives.
Moir’s prose is vivid and varied, and the narrative ranges freely in scope from the personal to the communal to the global, but her main focus remains the people of Freeport—their vitality, their love of stories, their communal cohesion. The view is an intimate one, as Moir is both outsider and insider: a visitor to a community hundreds of years old, yet quick to establish a personal connection with many of the people she describes. The result is a warm and complex portrait; to cop a phrase from Survival Gear, Rita Moir done Freeport good.