Possible Moves

  • Barbara Sibbald
    The Museum of Possibilities. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Paul Carlucci
    A Plea for Constant Motion. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

The short story form suggests suspicion towards totalizing gestures, a preference for the fragment over the whole: an ambition to focus on “a single grain of sand,” as Steven Millhauser would have it[1]. The two collections under review engage interestingly with totality and fragmentation. The structure in both is tripartite, where smaller wholes are assembled to suggest interconnectedness. While Carlucci’s volume offers a theatrical division into Acts I and II, separated by a 30-page Intermission, Sibbald splits her book of “shadow-box narratives” into three titled parts—the middle composed of flash fictions, mostly light in tone, and the last united through the character-narrator, familiar from Sibbald’s Regarding Wanda. Although Carlucci’s strategy implies the development of a single action over time, the two Acts, made up of naturalistic accounts of lives pushed to the limit, are marked by their localities (in the first chiefly Canadian, and mostly African in the third), while the Intermission shifts into a somewhat satirical take on the post-apocalyptic.

Generic boundaries are more porous in Sibbald’s Museum of Possibilities, where a sense of otherworldly menace at times strains the realist mode; this is true especially of the remarkable title story—addressing the uncanny nature of art—and a few others (“Lucid Dreaming,” “Burden of Anxiety”). Elsewhere, Sibbald shows herself a capable metafictionist (“Things We Hold Dear”), while her outwardly gentle ironic take on the male/female divide proves insidious (“Bitter Butter,” “Funeral Hats”). And yet this is an uneven book, where the shadow-box metaphor—suggested on the back cover and promising “condensed, concentrated scenes”—applies much better to some pieces than to others. For instance, parts of the Wanda Stewart section seem less focused, with the prominent exception of “The Normal Blur of Myopia,” where a few of the volume’s preoccupations are concentrated in a poignant optical metaphor.

Unevenness also mars A Plea for Constant Motion. Carlucci’s talents are indisputable, as is his writing’s energy and drive—perhaps one of the title’s many meanings. If Sibbald’s stories shimmer with an aura of possibility and alternative, Carlucci’s world—here as in his other two collections—is one of blind, narrowing alleys, of shattered illusions and rude awakenings, where manipulation and abuse are the norm. All this is delivered in a language shot through with dark, infectious humour and an almost palpable nastiness. It is enjoyable to watch Plea’s attuned, rich narratives unfold, building on a seemingly minor detail, storing up a thick layer of semantic density. Almost equal to the pleasure, however, is the discomfort of seeing some of them devolve, over the final paragraphs, into sensationalism, relying on poorly motivated, violent shifts—unexpected at first, increasingly predictable with time. When Carlucci’s stories hit the mark, they do so admirably, as in the chilly opener, “My New Best Friend in Exile,” which demystifies back-to-basics male bonding, or “Rag,” full of well-paced intra-crew scheming. Another example is the marvellously tense “Even Still,” where “the classic British Columbian divide” is deconstructed much more effectively than in the meandering Intermission, whose overly parodic buildup fails to support an intense payoff. If Act II, portraying such localities as Accra or Lusaka, veers dangerously close to stereotype in its emphasis on corruption and duplicity, it is often the colonial mindset that is on trial, as with the gender and racial power struggles played out against the Hemingwayan backdrop of natural selection in “Hippos”. If Gordon, that story’s protagonist, happens to know Africa well, for some of the other dumbfounded whites it “jumbles nonsensically past.”

In Steven Millhauser’s Blakean pronouncement, behind the short story’s “fraudulent modesty” lies its “terrible ambition”: the single grain of sand contains not just the beach, but the entire world. Similarly, Mrs. Petali’s shadow-boxes in the title story of Sibbald’s collection eerily enclose the past, the present, and many futures. The exhibits in The Museum of Possibilities add up to an enthralling spectrum of feminine experience, from early inculcation of gender stereotypes, sexual explorations, the highs and lows of youthful female friendship, to the malaise of marriage, and the roads to autonomy and creativity in middle age. Carlucci’s stories—well-oiled machines set in perpetual motion—offer glimpses of very different territory: a coherently bleak, stifling and oppressively male world, in which a Zambian preacher may prove as reprehensible as an Ontarian from a cleaning crew. While flawed, both collections certainly contain stimulating examples of new Canadian fiction, demonstrating once again that Sibbald and Carlucci are writers to watch.

[1] Steven Millhauser, “The Ambition of the Short Story”. New York Times, Sunday Book Review, Oct 3, 2008.  https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/books/review/Millhauser-t.html

This review “Possible Moves” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Jun. 2019. Web.

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