Dealing With It
- Sean Johnston (Author)
A Day Does Not Go By. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Andrew Gray (Author)
Small Accidents. Rainforest Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sheryl Halpern
Since 9/11, there seems to be a lot more disaster fiction around. Two first short story collections by promising new writers fit this genre, or rather the sub-genre of minor-disaster fiction, looking backward at events that split pasts into ordinary Befores and bleak Afters. But the emphasis is on the aftermath, on the coping or collapsing.
In the dozen stories of Andrew Gray’s Small Accidents (set in urban Canada, Fiji, and Australia), mishaps unravel the fabric of normalcy. A car crash could crush a marriage; a pickup line misconstrued as a drug deal could lead to a little girl’s poisoning. A spider bite and some wanderlust could lead to dreamy death in the Outback.
Gray, a 2000 Journey Prize finalist, lets his plots develop from great opening lines. (The first story, “Outside,” begins, “For more than a week now my wife has been sleeping in a tent in the backyard.”) His characters are unconventional, guilt-ridden, somehow sympathetic survivors and escapees–like the surgeon who makes a dying, comatose patient into his earth goddess, the bored bureaucrat who flings herself into risky drug trials, the tourist who stays in Fiji until his inheritance and his timid male lover run out, the journalist who crafts happy endings for wartime massacres.
Fates and some too-obvious ironies teeter, but nothing really dreadful happens. People manage; there is (tentative) hope. Even in futuristic “Safe,” set in a Toronto blighted by a nuclear-plant leak (think cannibalism and radiation sickness), a wife can take a short trip to the seemingly idyllic “dead zone” and return, unharmed, unseduced, wiser.
Sean Johnston’s A Day Does Not Go By, is less hopeful and more confusing–but then, it’s meant to be. The epigraph by John Newlove (“We’ve never been sure of ourselves”) could be the motto of all the characters in his 28 stories, a slightly uneven mix of microfiction and longer pieces. There’s disaster here–joined to uncertainty and a watch-melting surrealism. (A few stories, like “Some Words, She Said”, seem overloaded with dream logic.)
Johnston’s manuscript, which won the 2001 David Adams Richards Award for fiction, is set in the vague urban everywhere, and plays with perception and the reader’s assumptions. The first stories are deliberately ambiguous: in “This House,” there’s a funeral, but it’s unclear till the end whether the narrator-son or his mother has died, and in “Nothing Like This,” a couple agree that their quiet, ordinary eight-year-old son may not exist.
Nothing is quite what it seems, even death. A newlywed mourns a wife who may be dying or recovering in her hospital room (a Kafkaesque touch: he isn’t permitted to see her); a dead man found on the prairie revives. And vital relationships and roles show cracks.
Still, these are not loss lieder, not just glimpses of millennial fears. The focus in both collections is on understanding what’s left behind in the rubble. Or, as the protagonist of “Safe” puts it, “They would never really be safe . . . but maybe that wasn’t the only thing that mattered.”
- Muddy Histories by Ajay Heble
Books reviewed: The Projectionist by Michael Helm and Laterna Magika by Ven Begamudré
- Neither an Empty Blank by Richard Cassidy
Books reviewed: Blackouts by Craig Boyko and Buying Cigarettes for the Dog by Stuart Ross
- Mysteries of the Quotidian by Shannon MacRae
Books reviewed: Night Watch by Susan Zettell and The Maleness of God by Brenda Baker
- Plus que des récits by Maryse Duggan
Books reviewed: Les Inutilités comparatives by Nicholas Daigneault, Les plus Belles Années by Yvon Pare, and Amours et autres Détours by Luc LaRochelle
- Not After All! by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: After All! The Collected Stories: V. by Hugh Hood
MLA: Halpern, Sheryl. Dealing With It. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 141 - 142)
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