Generational Tides

Reviewed by Tina Trigg

As glimpses into the Canadian short story market, these three collections span a formidable range. Viewed alongside David Arnason’s “best-of” work, the debut collections by Greg Bechtel and Shawn Syms provide evidence of strong talent in the next generation with differing emphases.

There Can Never Be Enough is an apt title for David Arnason’s newest compilation which opens with three new stories followed by selections dating to 1982. The volume is well-crafted in sequencing; themes or images often resonate from one story to the next, creating a fluid yet varied reading experience. As the first Selected Stories of a prolific, well-established prairie writer, however, it seems bereft of accompanying materials; a brief preface, forward, or introduction would particularly benefit readers first wading into Arnason’s waters.

Containing thirty-three stories (or eighty-three if itemizing “Fifty Stories and a Piece of Advice”), the collection packs a staggering range and demonstrates Arnason’s trademark style. Over half of the titles create an illusion of anonymity, undercutting flat labels by developing well-defined characters who remain nameless: “The Figure Skater,” “The Girl of Milk and Blood,” “The Cowboy: A Tale of the Old West.” With rare exception, the diverse stories are beautifully crafted with skilful conclusions. Arnason blends history, fantasy, fable, Canadiana, culture, and geography in admirably compressed space. In lively metafictive or textual interplay, readers are directly addressed, Dostoevsky’s characters emerge in “The Circus Performers’ Bar,” and contemporary retellings of folk or fairy tales boldly question cultural values and obsessions. Dipping into small towns, global travels, friendships, and (male dominated) gender politics, this is a volume equally amenable to leafing through or perusing cover-to-cover.

While speculative fiction pops up in Arnason’s collection—“In the Garden of the Medicis” is the best of this mode—it firmly occupies Greg Bechtel’s Boundary Problems. The volume includes six stories previously published (at least in part) and four new entries. Narrated from a male perspective, Bechtel’s stories offer a broad demographic representation—unemployed former-jocks, relocated cabbies, occult-dabbling computer programmers, troubled youth, and well-meaning camp counsellors—and an intriguing sense of the unexpected. One disturbing feature of the collection is the predominance of incest or past sexual violation in female characters, a recurring trauma that forestalls developing relationships. At any moment, the narratives bend just outside normative boundaries, unveiling worlds of parallel existence and questioning perceptions of reality.

Creating some dislocation and emphasizing uncertainty, Bechtel’s stories play with form, often employing tailored subtitles: tarot cards in “Blackbird Shuffle,” postsecondary chronology in “The Concept of a Photon,” parts of a letter in “Junk Mail.” Perhaps designed to offset the experimental content, the visible structural markers can be intrusive. This is largely the case in “The Smut Story” with its contradictory versions, extensive “scholarly” footnotes, and three-part presentation. Although conclusions can be unsatisfying, Bechtel’s talent as a writer is clear; these are stories with an original voice and promising experimentation.

As is announced by its cover image of underpants and as Syms affirms in a recent interview, Nothing Looks Familiar focusses on sexuality and identity. The eleven stories (eight previously published) have an impressive range of urban characters and sociodemographics—from meat packing line workers to meth-addicted mothers, and from bullied elementary kids to lonely widows. Driven explicitly by fantasy and sex(uality), the stories assume an oddly homogenizing tendency; gritty in language and content, they can be didactic—“Charla didn’t really see gays or bisexuals as especially different from straight men. She figured that they all had the capacity to be goofy or decent”—yet flippant—“I don’t care about AIDS anymore, you know? I just don’t care. I could get hit by a truck tomorrow anyway.” To an extent, the volume’s diversity is compromised by its overwhelmingly Freudian premise.

Nonetheless, Syms’ skill is evident in deftly-drawn descriptions and ambiguous titles, including “On the Line,” “Family Circus,” and “The Exchange.” Although protagonists are usually powerless, a variety of friendships counter strained or superficial sexual relationships. Syms’ willingness to include figures with physical, developmental, and psychological disabilities is also notable. The insertion of tech-talk acronyms, Twitter feeds, and Craigslist ads will date some stories, but also allows for some textual experimentation and aligns with the volume’s overall contemporary urban focus.

If Arnason’s compilation exudes quiet confidence, the debut collections of Bechtel and Syms take willing risks; together, these stories will appeal to a wide array of readers and affirm a well-established genre in Canada.

This review “Generational Tides” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 106-07.

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