Fictions of Absence

  • R. W. Gray (Author)
    Entropic. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Bruce McDougall (Author)
    Every Minute is Suicide: Stories. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

The nineteen stories comprising Every Minute is a Suicide by Bruce McDougall offer a cohesive and lush narrative of individuation and masculinity. Many of the stories are written from the first person point of view of “Bruce,” the youngest son of Mary Tobias and Gord McDougall, shaping empathy for the male experience.

McDougall’s skill with changes in tense and perspective allows for a sprawling and intricate experience akin to that of reading novels. The opening story “Mom Takes a Husband” circumscribes the insular world of The Tobias family: Mary, her brother Fulton, and the austere matriarch who lived through the Great Depression, the protagonist’s grandmother. Fulton introduces Gord, a congenial autodidact, to his sister. “She wanted someone who would take a risk, who believed in himself enough to defy the accepted norms . . . ” and so he does, by blowing cigarette smoke in the grandmother’s face, breaking the guarded resolve of their household. Marriage ensues, followed by domestic abuse fuelled by the trap of expectations about fulfilling normative roles. When Bruce is only eight, his father commits suicide, a fact he learns much later in life.
The father’s absence is the ghost in the mouth of these interlinked stories. Each successive story parallels a framework of relations set up in the first. Stories in the middle focus on Bruce’s teenage years and life at Harvard in the sixties. Many characters remain connected to each other as patterns of experience and images recur and develop. This dynamic of connection and reconnection creates an internal logic of association and reference, inviting engagement by mimicking the structure of memory, necessitating reminders of absence and loss. With hints of the autobiographical, and a generous imagining that enlivens staid lives through acrobatic time shifts, effectively placed dialogue, and poetic attention to the sentence, McDougall’s collection recalls a story cycle by another Ontarian: The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.

Though a couple of the stories in the second half felt purposefully written to tie ends together and the final return story was predictable, Every Minute is a Suicide is emotionally resonant, carving a meritorious space for McDougall in Can Lit.
Entropic by R. W. Gray is rigged with absence, too. In the opening story “Blink” a couple fabricates each other’s perceptions of their relationship to meet perfection; a “graphic kind of love.” Self-deception and denial become concrete when the male protagonist confronts the absence of his lover. The absence becomes a literal “hole in the wall” in their bedroom, which houses an editing suite where they splice and delete their flaws. The writing feels jagged and deliberate, conveying the filmic jump cut in fiction. Reminiscent of story lines from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, “Blink” reads like a familiar story of regret and held my interest because of its risk and brevity.

The title story “Entropic.” also makes absence concrete, but is more compelling than “Blink” A man of “unmanageable beauty,” simply called “M.,” is tired of being seen for nothing but his beauty. He asks his ex-lover, the male narrator of the story, to put him in a coma-like state for a weekend. The narrator’s task is to protect and wash him after every forty-minute session, during which anyone can touch and spend time with his naked body. Early in the story, we are told that M took a liking to the narrator because the narrator craved intimacy and didn’t express sexual desire fervently. Though the performative setup may seem like clear-cut objectification at first, Gray reveals M to be a foil for a possessive strain of intimacy that the narrator longs for, and which intensifies in proportion to the amount of time spent sleeping beside him. Gray is at his best here; scenes broken into time slots in accordance with the visits to M’s body offer control and sustained pacing, while psychoanalytic complexity invites complicity through voyeurism. Though it is a trope to choose an obsessive-compulsive character to heighten conflict in fiction, “Entropic” is executed with Cronenbergian deviance, raising tingly questions about the ways lack and absence manifest. Overall, Entropic is enjoyable for the sense of play and risk taken by Gray. The lack of stylistic unity among the stories in the collection is an advantage that displays Gray’s potential as a shape-shifting writer, full of surprises.

 



This review “Fictions of Absence” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 142-143.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.