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Current Issue: #221 Science & Canadian Literature (Summer 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 221 (Summer 2014) is now available. This special issue focuses on science and Canadian literature and features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Prologues in Final Acts

  • Neil Smith (Author)
    Bang Crunch. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Duffy Roberts

Neil Smith’s Bang Crunch convincingly demonstrates the capacity of the short story to be, as Clark Blaise has suggested, a more expansive form than longer fiction. The demand for economy requires packing more stuff in with fewer words. Bang Crunch is a smart collection: the characters are interesting and engaging, the plots carefully crafted, and each of the author’s strategies meticulously thought through, the thinking amplifying rather than limiting meaning. As Lisa Moore has done in Open, Smith’s crafting of metaphors and similes is masterful, engagingly and enigmatically wonderful. Some examples: a preemie baby’s organs are visible under skin “the way shrimp is visible under the rice paper of a spring roll”; a “stripper wag[s] his genitals like a clown twisting a dachshund out of party of balloons”; “auburn dreadlocks [are] tied atop [a] head like a bonsai tree”; “ten fingerprint swirls [on the inside of cashmere-lined gloves] li[ght] up like the elements of a stove”; and a young woman’s orgasm is similar to “a hundred glimmering goldfish expelled thorough the hole in an aquarium.” These metaphors should convince you to read Smith’s collection, much as the wind convinces “willow trees to swa[y] in the breeze like giant hula dancers.”

Smith’s craft also shines like a freshly minted nickel in his control of patterns and symmetry. In the opening story, “Isolettes,” An is a translator, and names her child B, but didn’t finish her major in English literature because “the professors were so fiercely intelligent that their IQs,” more letters, “left scratch marks on her ego,” but she can translate a “thumbs-up” as “Finally!” even though it has little to do with her education as a translator. An is not married, a condition to which a bystander responds, “That doesn’t sound natural,” to which her friend Shiela responds, “Show me one thing in [the ICU] that’s natural,” which precedes a description of “Natural air,” which is “twenty-one-percent oxygen.” But An is not married because the father of her child, Jacob, is unreliable: “on an errand to pick up his dry cleaning, he’ll fall in love twice.” In “Jaybird,” the last story, Benoit is a “natural” actor, an actor who is convinced to perform a play in the nude and who convinces himself that he might be in love with his scene partner, but that love, in the end, might just be a Jacob kind of love, a moment imagined, and not necessarily natural. These repetitions are not simple repetitions; each is a rearticulation, a making new, and entirely wonderful in its ability to hold the reader and the collection together.

Peggy, the narrator in “Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha?”—who is also the Mother of Carl, the young voice of “Green Florescent Protein,” another example of complex weaving—notes that Lucille Ball’s comedienne-icity was a product of her being able to “play funny but she was not naturally funny.” Lucille’s self-critique, or self-knowing, functions as segue into my critique regarding the overt structuring of Bang Crunch’s stories. The strategizing, the comprehensive planning, the structuring of each story, at times, reads like it is what it is: a literary vehicle that structures the story. I wonder if the structure needs to disappear a little more into the showing. Not that the structures do not make sense: “Scrapbook” reads like a scrapbook, the title story’s lack of paragraph breaks is intelligently chosen—the temporal logic of the story dictates that the reader reads without pausing, reads as fast as Eepie Carpetrod ages, reads as fast, that is, as Eepie ages both forward and backward. But naming a support group of malignant tumor owners and the story itself “The B9ers,” is too, well, cute and contrived. And, while I’m all for magic, and like to imagine that gloves do tell their own stories (“Extremities”) because it is less interesting to think that they can’t or don’t, if you’re going to introduce a story told in the voice of gloves (or is it “the voice of glove”?), it has to be okay to end a sentence with a preposition: the “pale pink calfskin of which the gloves were made” just doesn’t sound like any glove I’ve heard before.

The last story of Bang Crunch, “Jaybird,” is the best, allowing the collection to end smashingly with its title onomatopoeia, rather than a fizzle splat. As a student of Somerset Maugham short stories and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s argument that if you don’t engage your reader in the first paragraph of your story don’t bother writing it at all, I find “Jaybird”s Benoit Doré wearing of a “shirt that lied that he didn’t spend time thinking about shirts,” and the phrase’s assertive negation, to be paradoxically unique and enticingly cerebral. And I assume that Benoit’s late understanding that his play script contains a prologue in the final act is less about closure than about expansion, and a signal for, among other things, more stories. Look forward to them.

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MLA: Roberts, Duffy. Prologues in Final Acts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 178 - 179)

***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.

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