- Lien Chao (Author)
The Chinese Knot and Other Stories. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nick Faragher (Author)
The Well and Other Stories. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Shauna Singh Baldwin (Author)
We Are Not in Pakistan. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
"We men are all as bad; it is a sad truth," admits Rufus, in solidarity with his host Nathan's imputed cruelty, his not knowing what to do with his infant daughter except to wish her (albeit playfully) back to sleep until her mother returns from the kitchen. This performance of a certain stereotyped kind of masculinity, in the title story of Nick Faragher's first collection, will seem relatively innocent, even good-natured, compared with some of the really bad things that men do elsewhere in the book. Indeed, "informed and inspired," not only by the author's travels in Italy, France, and Greece, but by his experience also working in "robation and parole," these semi-autobiographical stories are full of absent and deadbeat dads, violent and macho youth, repellant homophobia and misogeny, even murder and conspiracy. Sadly, representations of loving, caring, and attentive men and fathers are absent here.
Rufus and his wife have come to this reclusive French village where Nathan and his family live to purchase a piece of land on which, it turns out, rests the old well of the title, long unused. As they make the purchase, however, they uncover a haunting secret that has lain buried in the well since the Second World War. Likewise, and with a biting twist of irony each time, Faragher's stories turn out to be uncompromising, though not for that matter simplistic, autopsies of the violent, if not even murderous, forms of masculinity available to men and boys still today. For that "sad truth," then, as well as for the quality of the writing itself-its often well-crafted rhythms and turns of phrase-I find here a welcome new voice whose next collection will remain for me the object of anticipation.
If Faragher's collection is about men and the limited and limiting roles we (are given to) play, then Lien Chao's stories tell of women and of the limitations that gender and national identity put upon them. It is a collection, she says, of "snap-shots" taken by her "mental camera" over the course of some twenty years, of women and their successful, or as yet unfinished, processes of integrating into the urban landscape of Toronto: the story of Wei Ming, for example, who integrates into, and gives back to, the relatively insular society of parents and children at the playground; of Rose, who paid dearly and unjustly for the "success story" that she has no doubt become. However, though the intermedial image of the short story as a photograph is interesting, I am afraid, in this case, it functions rather as a sign of the collection's failure, its as yet unfinished quality. There is, indeed, something of the still image, the journalistic, even the academic in these stories and in how they are rendered; as if though Chao has been "touched unforgettably" by the stories she has collected, her writing has not yet found out how to make them touch her readers in turn. The third-person, present-tense narrative form, for example, that all these stories uniformly take, do indeed reproduce the feeling of looking at someone's (someone else's) photographs-which is a good place for a story to begin. There is, however, none of what Barthes calls that punctum, that detail that tears through the distance between first and third person and so allows me to treasure, as dear to me, an experience that must otherwise remain simply foreign. The stories of failed and successful integration, then-which are in themselves so compelling-have not, I fear, managed yet to find themselves integrated into this short form of fiction. Or maybe this sense of lack that I'm left with is only the unfortunate effect of this collection's being reviewed alongside the determined and accomplished success of We Are Not in Pakistan, new fiction by Shauna Singh Baldwin.
For Baldwin's fourth book of fiction also tells about the process and labour of integrating, though in usually twice the number of pages allotted to Chao's stories, as well as in at least as many different forms. The title story, for example, is about a young woman faced with the trauma of having to integrate into a new high school, in a new city, when she and her mother are forced to move in with her grandparents. However, the teenage anger that she misdirects at her grandmother soon turns to sadness, and she forgets about "acting bored and nonchalant" as she had been, when her grandmother one day disappears. What is interesting is how, at this point, that teenage terror of being unable to control how her new classmates will see her and judge the shape of her ethnic nose and her "backpack full of wrong stuff" takes on new and horrible meanings as it intersects with, and becomes increasingly hard to distinguish from, the terror inspired in the whole family by the totalizing eyes and ears of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Indeed, the shadow of those two fallen towers, and of the rigid security apparatus erected in their stead, recurs in a number of the stories in this collection. That culture of ambient fear is present even retrospectively in the collection's opening story about a family's flight from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Or in what is perhaps my favourite story, "Rendezvous," a series of three consecutive "conversations" that Jimmy McKuen has with Enrico, who is "Mexican outside" and "gringo inside", with Tula, a second-generation Greek waitress and aspiring sculptor, and with Carlos the ‘illegal' Mexican busboy, Jimmy's "friend." Though these conversations are clearly not totally one-sided, the narrative only represents what Jimmy's interlocutors say, and not at all what he responds; as if, perhaps, to place us, her readers, in that uncomfortably panoptic (hearing, but unheard) position. One thing is certain, though: Baldwin's stories are so compelling as to make me wish they'd go on to become novels, which of course they are not, so that what remains is only to read them again and again, and then look forward to her next collection.
- Quêtes féminines by Sylvain Marois
Books reviewed: Le nombril des aveugles by François Landry, Mademoiselle J.-J. by Louise Turcot, and Zig-Zag by Laurette Lévy
- Meticulous Displacements by John Moss
Books reviewed: Standing Stones: The Best Stories of John Metcalf by John Metcalf
- The Private Voice by Michael Trussler
Books reviewed: The Last We Heard of Leonard by Rachel Wyatt, Dead Girls by Nancy Lee, The Short Story: The Reality of the Artifice by Charles E. May, Silent Cruise by Timothy Taylor, and The Man Who Beat the Man by F. B. André
- Meetings by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: The Almost Meeting and Other Stories by Henry Kreisel and Lola By Night by Norman Ravvin
- Doctors in Distress by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
MLA: Baldwin, Shauna Singh, Cassidy, Richard, Cassidy, Richard, Cassidy, Richard, Chao, Lien, and Faragher, Nick. Integrating Violence. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #201 (Summer 2009), Disappearance and Mobility. (pg. 160 - 161)
***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.