In their 2013 film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell ask, “Is storytelling essentially a way to mark temporal movement? Or is its point to make time stand still long enough to yield hidden meaning?” The three works considered here all provoke these questions. Two short story collections, although quite different in tone and subject matter, allow narrative to fall away, while a theatre work reveals the inadequacy of a single path through any story.
Not far into Patricia Robertson’s Hour of the Crab, one senses that the author is playing a long game. Her agenda reveals itself sneakily across ten stories in three carefully curated sections, each story a set-up for the destabilization and refocus that await in the next. At times, a tale will trail off as if hijacked by a teller who has lost the plot. Although there is no discernible trajectory, the reader always seems to end up in the called pocket. Exactly what this is remains unclear, and we ratchet between being sutured into the expertly told stories and popping out to try and grasp what drives the collection’s overall structure.
The first section positions us as onlookers in violent or desperate landscapes against which our first-world privilege shields us. In the title piece, a Canadian traveller literally stumbles upon the corpse of a drowned refugee on a beach in Spain. An almost preachy tone pushes to the threshold of annoyance, then fades in importance as shifts in perspective refresh our own. The simple fact, for instance, of a character reappearing in a subsequent story while their point of view does not can remind us of our flattened significance in another’s narrative. Each story contains the seed for the next until the section’s end, when a student, imprisoned for resisting state tyranny, experiences visions from an unknown past that conflates with his present.
The trope of unfinished history seems to recur—but not exactly. In fact, not exactly might serve to describe the slightly off-beam way in which Robertson writes. When a semi-retired linguist discovers indelible marks on her skin that only fade because, as her grandson’s friend observes, she “just didn’t figure them out in time” (147), it’s clear that the notion of a past is irrelevant. In Robertson, things stick around, but are often only visible to those able to see them. The narrative variously bestows such ability as challenge, as opportunity for redemption, or as generational privilege, but is always rooted in the synchronic moment.
The final three stories bring yet another tonal reset and confound any attempt at a landing. Reading like transcriptions of old myths and legends, they feel hermetic, almost resisting engagement. The section title, “Holding Patterns,” seems apt. In “The Old Speech,” a character states, “That is what our words are. They use us for protection” (240). It’s an idea both humbling and thrilling for our language-heavy species, and one that might be at the nerve centre of poetics.
With a title that scans like an alt-country lyric and stories that would be at home in the best American indie films, Marion Quednau’s Sunday Drive to Gun Club Road both keeps and tilts its promise. Quednau observes characters with an acuity that borders at times on the painful. Whether conjuring the dark side of a 1980s small town, the creepily misguided behaviour of a lonely man, or a brutal reversal of status in the publishing world, Quednau acknowledges the unique lexicon of each milieu. Her nimbleness with language hits its peak in the collection’s most hilarious piece, “Onion.” Here, she actually switches lexical modes via the central character, a doctor of linguistics, who visits the peeler bar where her husband and his workmates claim to hang out “for the food” (80). Arriving in cowboy drag, she performs an out-of-control striptease, narrating her way through it in word-perfect argot and making excruciating observations about everyone in the landscape as choreography and language become one.
The collection’s twenty pieces have an unresolved quality that leaves room for the reader. It’s what most of us want and have come to expect from fiction. But Quednau doesn’t stop here. Her stories often end with a sense of being bumped off course, the reader ushered through the wrong door into a place where the channel has been changed. This might take the form of a character exiting into another phase of their life, but without the customary development that a story usually offers. It can feel like a chord change or an architectural slippage in which random events have realigned the coordinates of the real and sent things tipping into an oblique elsewhere. Yet Quednau writes in the book’s acknowledgments that fiction “forces a writer toward endings that help us move on” (205).
All of this might suggest that there is no conclusive validity to the way we arrange events into narrative at all, and that the most promising places to search for ways to move on are in the spaces between. But even that might be too easy. There is something mysterious and compelling about those spaces in Quednau’s storytelling. They emulate the sudden disconnects usually associated with rambling but with none of the negativity or loss of agency. Perhaps they are a waiting area where our de-subjectified stories float until something else happens.
Reading a play without having seen it in performance isn’t uncommon. Students, directors, actors, and entire production teams do this often. What initially felt odd to me was reviewing a theatre work straight from the page. First published in 1981, John Krizanc’s Tamara received its premiere the same year in Toronto, and has had productions since in the Americas and Europe. This edition of the playtext was released in 2021 with an introduction by scholar and novelist Alberto Manguel.
The play’s structure sets it apart and makes navigating the text an interesting exercise in itself. At any given time, multiple scenes are taking place simultaneously in various rooms and performance spaces. Unlike other variations on this conceit, where spectators might wander in and out of playing areas at will, Tamara’s audience members are instructed to choose a character to follow and to enter and exit playing areas with them. Either way, the play’s structure makes clear the impossibility of complete knowledge: we are always missing a part of the story happening elsewhere. A reader can get a taste of this fragmentary experience and still enjoy a degree of omniscience by following several characters in succession until the entire script has been covered, but, in a nod to Mallarmé, it’s still a dice throw. To experience Tamara as live theatre would be optimal.
Set in late 1920s Italy as Mussolini’s grip was tightening, the story takes place at the villa of a poet and war hero who has commissioned the titular character, Tamara de Lempicka, to paint his portrait. Whirling around are his servants and guests, all with their own secrets and agendas. The period of totalitarianism’s rise arguably offers a more story-rich landscape than its full-blown phase, not least because it can expose the oblivion and denial that allowed such politics to flourish unchecked. At first, a Fascist policeman among the guests seems the lone embodiment of the regime’s evils but, by the final scene, nearly everyone has been implicated. Personal ambition and ridiculous vanities play out in overblown dialogue that often feels at odds with the play’s weighty themes, although resonant moments break through nonetheless. When Tamara presents the portrait to D’Annuncio, for example, it’s an empty canvas. The poet has allowed Mussolini to “pay my bills” in exchange for the complicity of silence and has thus become “nothing” (241). By playing with our limited vision in a world of simultaneity, Krizanc asks us to interrogate the points of view we choose to follow. Now would be an especially good time to bring Tamara off the page and onto the stage.
Krizanc, John. Tamara. 1981. Anansi, 2021.
Quednau, Marion. Sunday Drive to Gun Club Road. Nightwood, 2021.
Robertson, Patricia. Hour of the Crab. Goose Lane, 2021.
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Directed by Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, Must Käsi and Rouge International, 2013.
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