Future of the Family
- John Lent (Author)
So It Won't Go Away. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marci Denesiuk (Author)
The Far Away Home. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Aaron Bushkowsky (Author)
The Vanishing Man. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Denham
Three books of stories by western Canadian writers indicate the range and energy of the short story in Canada. A lot of movement exists in these stories—though people occasionally move south, north, or even east, most of the time Eastern Canadians move west and Western Canadians move farther west. But west is an ambiguous direction for Canadians, leading sometimes to freedom and hope, sometimes (particularly in Aaron Bushkowsky’s book) to darkness and death. Families figure largely in all three books, and ambiguity characterizes the family.
John Lent’s is the most difficult of the three collections, both to categorize and to respond to. The front cover calls it “connected fictions” and the back cover calls it “short fiction.” So it appears to be in the Canadian tradition of “linked stories” such as Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women and Laurence’s A Bird in the House. Well, it is and it isn’t. Of the 12 stories (or chapters), only one, the title story, feels as if it could comfortably stand alone. And in the Acknowledgements, Lent twice refers to the book as “this piece,” a phrase which implies a unity of conception.
Like Laurence and Munro, Lent brings his book close to autobiography. His character and sometime narrator Rick, middle-aged writer, jazz fan, teacher, and resident of Vernon, BC, seems to represent Lent. But there are also passages in which Lent speaks in the authorial first person about his character Rick, or narrates stories of Rick’s siblings Neil and Jane in the third person. He is playing with notions of the relation between the author and his material.
Nevertheless, puzzling over the appropriate label for Lent’s book distracts from its real emotional power of a story (or series of stories, if you prefer) about the joy and pain of being a family. The parents of Rick, Neil, and Jane moved the family from New Brunswick to Edmonton in the 1950s, a wrenching experience intended to secure a more promising future for the children. Their intention succeeded, but at a cost. The father, now dead, became an alcoholic for reasons the children clearly do not understand—we may guess it has something to do with the distance from his original home—but the emotional absence created by his alcoholism continues to affect his children in the present and to mark them with addictive personalities: they either drink too much, smoke too much, work too hard, or have brief, meaningless affairs. They also quit drinking, quit smoking, and gratify one another’s successes when they do. When the three siblings holiday together in France in the final chapter, the experience appears to be one of the most pleasurable and fulfilling of their lives.
Bushkowsky’s stories are also linked, though much more loosely, and like Lent’s are connected by the subject of family. They follow (though not chronologically) an unnamed narrator from childhood in a strict Baptist family in either Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta (the stories are not consistent about this) in the 1960s to middle age as a writer and teacher in present-day Vancouver. In some ways the stories of the narrator’s childhood are the least satisfactory; his parents and grandparents—or at least the grandmothers—are too relentlessly caricatured to be of much interest.
More fully realized are the depictions of the narrator as an adult, his disastrous marriages, and his relationships with other members of his family, particularly his Uncle Morey and his younger brother Derek. Each of the latter two gets a story, told mostly from the perspective of the adult narrator. Neither fits the Baptist parental model; Morey, the “vanishing man” of the title story, turns out to be gay as well as schizophrenic. Derek, who wanted to play hockey but couldn’t skate, has fled to California, partly, we assume, because of paternal disapproval: “Dad’s getting older,” the narrator tells Derek over beer in an outdoor café in Sacramento, “and I think he’s sorry about all the things he did and said…I really think he’s sorry.” We are left to imagine what things he might have done and said, and it’s far from clear that he really is sorry. Bushokowsky hints that Derek, though initially presented as a comic character (skating like “a wounded giraffe”) and a jolly extrovert, is deeply hurt, probably an alcoholic, and in need of reassurance from the older brother who once idolized him for his strength and confidence.
Bushkowsky is a keenly comic writer, but is also aware that comedy has its limitations, as a remembered exchange between the narrator and his mother indicates:
Everything is a joke to you, she always said.
What’s wrong with that? I laughed.
I’m not laughing now.
In spite of the laughter, then, the effect of the book as a whole is dark and tragic. The significantly titled opening story, “The Dead Man’s Float,” makes a swimming lesson a metaphor for the life of the persona, suspended just under the surface of his life: “I suppose I’ve been under long enough.” The last story takes place in a cemetery. In between are divorces, the alienation of family, madness, suicide, and various forms of vanishing. A brief meeting on a ferry between the narrator and a beautiful but self-centred woman in “The Ferry Girl” leads to the following conclusion: “When they find me, I will be floating belly up, my eyes turned to the stars and I’ll be all bloated and white like the bottom of a halibut and they will say, There, that’s what happens when you fall for somebody like that all right.” In this book, that’s what happens when you do just about anything.
The title of Marci Denesiuk’s collection The Far Away Home also suggests alienation and exile, and in many of the stories, sex is the alienating force. In the opening story, “Pieces,” Jody, a resident of Victoria for a decade, has “only Sal,” who is described as a “fuck buddy” rather than a lover. She receives a phone call from the mother of her old friend William, a schizophrenic, in her home town of Calgary, to tell her that William has tried to castrate himself. “How empty her home [in Victoria] is,” she thinks as she dreams of returning to Calgary not so that she can comfort William but so that he can comfort her. In “Cold Sleep,” a woman from Edmonton transplanted to the Canadian Arctic after marrying a Mountie finds herself slipping into a possibly fatal depression as the sun disappears for the winter. In “Insomnia,” we’re back in southern Canada, but some of the imagery is the same as in the north (“the nights begin early and last a long time”) and the mood of depression is similar: Katherine’s various sexual escapades lead her nowhere: “She closes her eyes. She opens her eyes. It makes no difference.”
In the longest story, “Close to Home,” a story which looks as if it might be partly autobiographical and whose title seems to offer a counterweight to the title of the book, Karen returns to Edmonton from Montreal after several years away to visit her parents, her sister, and some of her old friends. The family seems to be a fairly happy one; her parents are warm and loving, her relationship with her sister is good , and she’s glad to be back. Yet the story is haunted by mortality; Karen herself is convalescing from an operation for cervical cancer, an operation she does not reveal to her parents, and during her visit she discovers that her father has recently had a “minor” heart attack. Her old boyfriend Joe jokingly proposes marriage: “If we don’t meet anyone by the time we’re sixty, will you marry me?” Jokingly, she accepts. A friend of her sister’s talks about “the clock running down” on her chances to have a baby. Karen’s job in Montreal is picking up road-kill on the highways. At the end of the story, she recalls her mother telling her that, in giving birth to her, she momentarily died. Death is necessary for life, but the images of death in this story are not balanced by images of renewed life. Marriage and family are for the aged, while the youth clean up road-kill in distant cities.
Denesiuk also offers us moments of triumph and hope. In “Two Feet in Texas,” another story with strong sexual undercurrents, fat, unattractive Pina finds herself challenged to a poker game by three cocky young male students, during which one of the men proposes that they play for each other’s souls. They assume they will humiliate her, but they don’t (she has learned her liberating poker skills from her father), and the Faustian bargain for souls, which she wins, makes her into neither Mephistopheles nor Helen of Troy, but a newly confident woman who walks away and “raised her head to the sky.” In “The Corner of Star Star,” thirty-year-old Tory, immobilized for years by domineering parents, secretly acquires a car, learns how to drive, and one morning simply takes off west from Toronto. When her car breaks down near a small town on the prairies, the process of getting a tow-truck opens up new possibilities—possibilities which include driving “straight into the sky” and grasping “great handfuls of air.” How much of this new sense of freedom results from sharing the cab of the tow truck with a charming young male mechanic is left uncertain, but as they drive into town, Tory notices “the town’s one billboard that exclaims, Testicle festival, have a ball!” It seems clear enough where that truck is going.
- Short Fictions by Kathryn Ready
Books reviewed: The Oxford Anthology of Raj Stories by Saros Cowasjee and Reading in Alice Munro's Archives by Joann McCaig
- For Young Readers by Elizabeth Hodgson
Books reviewed: Girls' Own: An Anthology of Canadian Fiction for Young Readers by Sarah Ellis and Boys' Own: An Anthology of Canadian Fiction for Young Readers by Tim Wynne-Jones
- Body & Soul by Wilhelm Emilsson
Books reviewed: Herbarium of Souls by Vladimir Tasic and The Sensualist by Barbara Hodgson
- Saint-Denis: Two Views by Roseanna L. Dufault
Books reviewed: Rue St-Denis: Fantastic Tales by André Carpentier and Leonard W. Sugden and The Heart Laid Bare by Sheila Fischman and Michel Trenblay
- Mysteries of the Quotidian by Shannon MacRae
Books reviewed: Night Watch by Susan Zettell and The Maleness of God by Brenda Baker
MLA: Denham, Paul. Future of the Family. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 124 - 126)
***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.