Bliss in Never Knowing
- Patricia Nolan (Author)
Broken Windows. Polestar Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Elise Levine (Author)
Driving Me Mad. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Isabel Huggan (Author)
You Never Know. Vintage (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrew Lesk
Before reading Isabel Huggan’s second collection of stories, You Never Know, I searched bookstores for her first collection, The Elizabeth Stories (1984). "Searched" is no understatement—and this is a sad comment on the poor visibility accorded this author not only in academia but in public. The Elizabeth Stories, structurally and thematically similar to Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women—and in many respects a bolder, more fascinating take on a young
girl’s coming of age in southern Ontario— enjoyed a brief, well-deserved popularity; perhaps the nine-year hiatus between the two books has contributed, though, to the author’s present near-invisibility.
Although Huggan’s second book does not quite meet the standard she set for herself with her first, You Never Know is nonetheless a distinct pleasure that, I hope, will keep her firmly in the public eye. Huggan mines the cliché that is the collection’s title to demonstrate that the certainties we often hold tight to ourselves—mostly about other people—are fragile, and that our accumu- lation of knowledge about anything is at best capricious and forever incomplete. The stories are, thus, about the "process of life," how we have selectively remembered and forgotten in order to reach a level of comfort, however misguided and tenuous and thin.
Surprisingly, the collection begins with the weakest of the stories, "End of Empire," in which the narrator rehashes her youthful fascination with King George the Sixth. The metaphors of King George (father figure), his passing away (end of the real empire and the ignorance of children), and the narrator’s ongoing mourning for him (sen- timental recall of childhood) are capped at story’s end by an embarrassing expression of facile melancholia. Fortunately, the following story, "Violation," is Huggan at her very best.
"Violation" explores how the narrator’s "cultural conditioning" leads her to imagine that her visitor, Garnet, an older, neighbouring farmer who clears driveways of winter snows, is a clear sexual threat. He is a man "whose feet planted themselves as if each step meant business," and upon whose features the narrator (whose husband is absent) etches a tableau of anxiety. The psychological and implied violence that the narrator reads into her contact with Garnet recalls that of the narrator of Sinclair Ross’s "Spike," a man who constructs a fantasy out of his anxiety of not knowing the hitchhiker who seems to have picked him up. Huggan’s protagonist, though, is more honest with herself than Ross’s, since she, physically weaker than Garnet, has the courage to admit that her wild construction of what Garnet may or may not be is, first and foremost, her own creation.
Ironically, the true violation comes at the end of the story, not from Garnet, the man, but from the story he tells the pregnant narrator about the vicious and arbitrary nature of life, a process which left him and his wife unable to have children. Garnet unsettles his hostess, simply saying that he takes his cues from the capricious realm of nature, from the seasons which arbitrarily nurture and destroy. It is this possible violation by nature—a thing she, the urbanite, knows little of and can do nothing about—that is the true assault.
Huggan’s following story, "On Fire," an apparently simple story about two young families at a cottage, contains a snap ending, a mere eight word phrase, that recasts the entire narrative and proves the collection’s titular maxim, especially as it reveals and dispels the reader’s own ignorance. "Throwing and Catching" and "In Training" signal a stylistic return to The Elizabeth Stories, especially as Huggan writes what I have termed "spiral stories." In such stories, the author introduces a person or an event and subsequently abandons the established storyline in apparent favour—we think—of what must be the story’s natural progression; it is almost a surprise, then, when Huggan effortlessly reintroduces the character or event in the narrative, forcing the reader to revisit the beginning and to continually re-evaluate what then transpires.
The most masterful of these is the collection’s finale, the powerful (and ironically titled) "Knowing People." Throughout the story Huggan introduces or reveals bits of crucial information, all culminating in a dizzying spiral of fragments that the reader tries to piece together as the story progresses. Huggan’s narrative here—the story itself—can only be emblematic of how we, as people caught in the process that is life, ultimately come to know anything and how that constitution is necessarily incomplete. The youthful Clare leaves her Canadian home to travel with friends to England and later by herself to Scotland and her "roots." On the boat over, she meets Angus McNay, an officer with whom she has her first affair (and a man whose parents she resides with, sans Angus, that summer in Scotland). Clare finds that she could not, much to her astonishment, share this new experience with her curious friends: "They didn’t believe me, but then they probably would- n’t have believed the truth either. . .." Huggan demonstrates that even "fact" has no objective standing. Even with the "facts" at hand, Clare cannot reveal what she knows, and so her friends will, invariably, construct their own version of what Clare "is." This everyday knowing is contrasted with historical knowledge, particularly as Clare explores her family’s roots in Scotland. Chrissie McNay "could tell I had Highland blood by the set of my head," affirming for Clare the truth of her aunt Jean’s earlier vacation on Skye. (Jean had met "a very old man at a ceilidh to whom she’d talked in great detail about her quest. ’He knew exactly who I was,’ she said, relating this event to us on her return. ’He knew me") Yet Clare comes to understand that blood does not reveal anything beyond the social construction that is kinship and belonging. The young man who had also resided at the McNay’s that summer, Jeremy Kerr, is the enigma Clare cannot penetrate because, she finally realizes, what she ever knew of him was so minute. So, years later, in wondering what may have happened to him, Clare finds that "what saddens me is that knowing people is such a delicate affair, and people so seldom get it right."
The same might be said of writing, that it is a delicate affair that is seldom rewarding for author or reader. Elise Levine’s Driving Men Mad and Patricia Nolan’s Broken Windows are collections without common links, containing stories which have appeared in a variety of publications. That much can be said about them. Levine’s stories would seem to provide perfect fodder for critics of contemporary "postmodern" literature which eschews convention. Exemplary are Levine’s (much-anthologized) "Boy" and the title story, which contains what seems, to me, an unintentional yet self-evident truism: "I say, I’m making this up as I go along." Really. Levine is much more successful with the risky "Angel" and the more conventional, sepia-tinged "Retiring."
Nolan’s narratives (complete with an admirable array of promotional blurbs) left me wondering if the noun "workshop" has been turned into a verb, along the lines of "networked." "To Kingdom Come," presumably a story about an abusive father who is somewhat crazy as well, might be a comedy or a tragedy, or both; but Nolan apparently mistakes style for substance, and there is no laughter, no horror here. Other stories, such as "Mary With the Cool Shades," are merely silly. If Nolan is trying to demonstrate like Arendt that evil or shock, as the case may be, is, in the end, banal she has succeeded all too well. Imagine reading Joyce Carol Oates—but without any accompanying intrigue, mystery and unsettling, provoking discomfort. Sometimes not knowing (or not reading) is bliss.
- Asian American/Canadian by Jennifer Jay
Books reviewed: Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora by Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa and Writing the Hyphen: The Articulation of Interculturalism in Contemporary Chinese-Canadian Literature by Susanne Hilf
- Omnia vanitas by Nathalie Warren
Books reviewed: Les gens fidèles ne font pas les nouvelles by Nadine Bismuth, Scrapbook by Nadine Bismuth, Histoires de s'entendre by Suzanne Jacob, and L'espèce fabulatrice by Nancy Huston
- What Is It That Happened? by Héliane Ventura
Books reviewed: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women's Short Stories by Lisa Moore
- Recueil de nouvelles en traduction by Patricia Godbout
Books reviewed: Nouvelle noirceur by Len Gasparini and Daniel Poliquin
- Surfaces and Secrets by Coral Ann Howell
Books reviewed: Runaway by Alice Munro and The Collected Stories by Carol Shields
MLA: Lesk, Andrew. Bliss in Never Knowing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 147 - 149)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.