Archaic Torso of Gumby. Gordon Hill Press and
Boy with a Problem. Pottersfield Press
In the interest of transparency, I want to mention that I am on friendly terms with two of the three authors discussed here: Chris Benjamin and Geoffrey Morrison.
Taken together, these two very different books show the wide spectrum of possibility available in the short prose form. Chris Benjamin’s Boy with a Problem is vintage Canadian short fiction with its own unique twists, angles, and gifts. Geoffrey Morrison and Matthew Tomkinson’s Archaic Torso of Gumby is a less familiar creature, full of narrative plasticity, exuberant genre-play, infectious academish wanderings, and mole tunnels of thematic interconnection. Unlike Morrison and Tomkinson, Benjamin is not so much interested in experimentation as he is invested in using the established short story form to achieve his effects of vivid scene-setting, dramatic development, and emotional revelation.
Archaic Torso of Gumby is a strange, experimental, generically hybrid collection that is by turns powerfully imaginative, wickedly surprising, and totally hilarious. It is no coincidence that Gumby—the star of this book and of the eponymous cartoon media franchise (1953-present)—is a clay animation character. Both thematically and formally, this book is fascinated by shape-shifting and plasticity, asking readers to rethink narrative norms and to tunnel the thin walls between story and external reality. Recurring themes include energy, animal life, materiality, psychedelic experience, and digital technology. The book integrates a wide range of archives, from YouTube comments and Amazon reviews to informed, playful, and erudite readings and remixings of early modern texts like Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1628). Morrison and Tomkinson’s sources are capacious, including references to Adonis, Sigmund Freud, H. G. Wells, Voltaire, the Grateful Dead, Thomson Highway, John Milton, and many more. With four pages of endnotes, the book’s scholarly scope is unusual in a collection of short prose.
There is not much atmospheric detail in the book’s fictional stories, and though there are sustained and lengthy scenes they are more absurdist set pieces than attempts at empathy building or crisis and resolution patterns. Terms like “character development” become clunky and ham-fisted when grappling with this book. Archaic Torso of Gumby revels in bathos; the closest thing to a climax is when Gumby—who hops in and out of chapters throughout—appears at the end of “Red Rocks IV,” reveals that he has been travelling from book to book, offers the protagonist a pearl, and then descends “feet-first through the desert floor” (154).
The collection does contain some significant, and welcome, narrative protein. One of the most cohesive units is the “Red Rocks” sequence, a story in four parts about a Denver student and ice-cream slinger who goes on an anti-odyssey to see the Grateful Dead in 1978. There are many memorable narratives and scenes here, including moments when a hypochondriac attends a party and winds up with “two bottles of Country Club 40oz. duct taped to my hands” (79), when a group of cephalophores recall “the sad absence of air” (32), or when a child performer aptly named “The Great Clay” becomes a Gumby avatar and “starts to morph like an unstable chemical” (160).
Some of Archaic Torso’s most illuminating moments come in essay-riffs spinning out of stories, such as the moment when “The Spineless Ones” moves from massage therapy autofiction to a consideration of Egyptian zoology or when “Holes in My Memory (1994-2018)” begins to theorize haptic cinema. One of the collection’s most memorable essays, “Tropic of Almanacs” opens a fascinating window into an early modern text, The Owles Almanacke (1618), illustrating a rare moment of early modern trans-species empathy. The Almanacke itself may have been authored by Thomas Middleton or Thomas Dekker (the kind of aporia in which our authors clearly delight). Analyzing this text, the authors provide a moment of ostensible ars poetica, describing how “the Almanacke’s figurations achieve a particular wonky elegance” (74). Clearly, the way they describe the Almanacke’s prose—“imagistically dense and delirious in its quick cuts”—is precisely what the authors are aiming for; they certainly achieve this goal.
The title of Boy with a Problem spins out of Benjamin’s own ars poetica moment. In the title story, a ninth grader named Dan enters NaNoWriMo to try to bond with his aloof novelist father. Uninterested in connection, the dad tersely explains how to start a good story: “‘Boy with a problem’” (10). One of Benjamin’s obvious gifts is for dialogue. His ear is excellent, and he combines authentic vernacular with surprising verbal idiosyncrasies. For instance, Dan’s aunt Chelsea delightfully reinvents herself when she asks a small-minded radio host why she should “give a tiny shit” about anything he has to say about a community he’s never been to (9). Chelsea’s question frames the book’s larger concern with authenticity as the author endeavours to tell cross-cultural stories in respectful and meaningful ways. One of his most powerful stories, “Home,” is about a woman, Bayarmaa, from Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, acclimatizing to life in Halifax. She takes on a job as a caregiver for the child of a wealthy woman, which ends with the mother, Chloe, exposing her own cultural insensitivities. Afterwards, Bayarmaa listens to the “inconsolable wails” of a baby crying next door to her apartment, and in a shattering moment she “puts her hand on the door. Feeling for what, she does not know” (75).
Benjamin often takes risks with subject matter. One of the most striking stories, “Arsonists,” tells the story of a settler nun who worked in a residential school. The story is carefully narrated from the perspective of the nun’s grandson, who must end her life, and does so while both confronting her complicity in cultural genocide and tenderly recalling her acts of love towards him. The narrative is unflinching, not quite sympathetic to the nun, but nonetheless providing her with a genuine perspective and an emotional life that allows this story to unfold in its ugly truth.
Benjamin gravitates to downtrodden characters and unusual, often colourful premises. “Mulch Glue” tells the story of a teen eco-activist who pulls a half-baked act of ecotage by glueing himself to the doors of the local mill. “Operation Niblet” is about a couple who farcically attempt to free the test subjects from a Dalhousie animal experimentation lab. His characters are never bland, always a little bit off balance. Benjamin’s is a “wonky elegance” that works less against formal norms than within them.
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