What Is It That Happened?
- Lisa Moore (Editor)
The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women's Short Stories. Penguin Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Héliane Ventura
In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari provide a definition for the short story which seems destined to put an end to our endless attempts at pinpointing the specificity of the genre: “The essence of the short story as a literary genre is not very difficult to determine: in a short story everything is organized around the question: ‘What is it that happened? What is is that could possibly have happened?’” This deceptively simple definition is more complex than it may first appear: it entails a vision of the “event” as a pervasive concept infiltrating the plot in all its ramifications rather than an easily identifiable occurrence in a single place at a single time. In other words, there is a sense of secrecy secreted by the short story. This is exactly the sense of irreducible mystery brilliantly highlighted in Lisa Moore’s collection of the Canadian production of short stories by women writers in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.
Lisa Moore has adopted an alphabetical ordering starting with Margaret Atwood’s story “Spring Song of the Frogs” and finishing with Alissa York’s “The Back of the Bear’s Mouth.” The framing of the collection is revelatory of its overall design: the famed practioners rub shoulders with the most promising writers, and the production of all provinces has been represented through the choice of twenty-two stories which unfold a mari usque ad mare, with the slightest emphasis, apparently, on Vancouver stories (from Madeleine Thien, Eden Robinson, Nancy Lee, Annabel Lyon, Zsuzsi Gartner) and perhaps also on stories by writers either born in the Atlantic Provinces or residing there (from Lynn Coady, Libby Creelman, Ramona Dearing, Elizabeth Harvor, Jessica Grant). But the geographical location has little to do with the strength of the story: a short story opens up tracts of emotional landscape, which are obviously dependent on a specific milieu and resonant with its social and cultural mores, but it transforms reality into art, and this process of transmutation creates the story. As Lisa Moore says in her introduction, after she read the stories: “Nothing was recognizable, nothing was simply itself. Everything felt foreign, altered and new.”
Moore’s choice has the glaring evidence of appositeness: she has brought into focus Atwood’s astringency, Munro’s humiliating transgressions in a still uncollected story of formidable subversiveness, Shields’ miraculous moments of being, Gallant’s searing sense of caricature, Urquhart’s gift at recording moments of undiluted pain; and she has pulled seventeen emergent or already confirmed women writers around these foremothers to create a resonant system of “irritations beautified” as Tchekhov’s art was defined. What all the stories have in common is the sense of an intrusion in the everyday legality, of a momentous alteration that shatters our vision of the world; something has happened which has far-reaching consequences and could be envisaged as a web of cross references not only between reality and fiction, but also within the world of stories inside and outside the collection. We hear about Proust and Housman at the same time as Clayton and Mr. Smythe and even the names of some of the characters conjure up the ghosts of past stories. When reading about Shields’ Mr. Mooney I could not help thinking of another Mr. Mooney, his predecessor from Dublin. Moore’s selection of stories is haunted, it is intense, and it is beautiful. This Penguin collection confirms, if need be, that the Canadian short story is an outstanding production, which unfortunately happens to be unjustly marginalized and insufficiently taught and read outside Canada.
- Four Cassandras by Emily Wall
Books reviewed: What Stirs by Margaret Christakos, Watermarks by Joanne Page, The Essential P.K. Page by Théa Gray, Arlene Lampert, and P. K. Page, and Gravity Loves the Body by Monika Lee
- Crime & Canadian Women by Heta Pyrhönen
Books reviewed: Investigating Women: Female Detectives by Canadian Writers. An Eclectic Sampler by David Skene-Melvin and The Anastasia Connection by Veronica Ross
- Varied Stories by Rita Wong
Books reviewed: A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, With Voices by Ronald Takaki and Choose Me by Evelyn Lau
- Disenfranchised Grief by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: The Darren Effect by Libby Creelman and Happiness and other Disorders by Ahmad Saidullah
- Private Lives of Girls and Women by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996 by Kathryn Carter
MLA: Ventura, Héliane. What Is It That Happened?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 150 - 151)
***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.