In the Middle Distance

Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

With nine novels and two short story collections to his credit over the past quarter of a century, David Bergen is a seasoned writer. While he has pushed past the framework in which some of his earlier output was considered—that of troubled allegiances to Mennonite identity in a secularized world—the question of faith has remained among his central concerns. Like Rudy Wiebe and Sandra Birdsell, Bergen has articulated both the perseverance of a close-knit community and the quandaries attendant upon splintering away from its “complicated kindness” (as Miriam Toews describes it). This double-edged theme runs through Bergen’s work, from the interconnected stories in Sitting Opposite My Brother (1993), to the novel The Age of Hope (2012), to the ninety-page novella that gives the newest book its title.

Although the novella—like the account of Manitoban homemaker Hope Koop—adopts a female perspective, what is most on display (and perhaps on trial) in this collection is a certain type of traditional, hard-baked masculinity. The recurrent character is a physically strong, practical, taciturn, middle-aged father, often divorced and miserable, not unlike Charles Boatman from Bergen’s Giller Award-winning novel The Time In Between (2005). The emotional focus of a story may be a relationship between the male protagonist and a woman, often younger, whose physical “imperfection” forms at least part of her allure. In “How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?”—one of the earliest narratives gathered here, and perhaps the strongest—it is fellow teacher Jennifer Donne, “a large woman” (20) with a “bullish neck and small fingers” (25); in “Never Too Late” it is the wheelchair-bound heiress Janice Collicutt, sex with whom, to the celibate farmer Bev, is revelatory, “like putting together an IKEA kitchen” (53).

More insistently, the women in this collection are a locus of the religious; it is on the example of Lily Gerbrandt, the novella’s hesitant dissenter from the Mennonite Brethren, that the power which the sacred holds over individuals is demonstrated. In some of the stories, the woman’s religious zeal both baffles and enthrals an awkward, drifting, profane male. The eponymous protagonist of “Leo Fell” is astounded by the precoital prayer offered by Girlie, who thanks Jesus, among other things, for “the joy of horniness” (89); in “Man Lost,” Quinn—quiet even by the standards of male reticence in this collection—benefits by proxy from the faith practiced by his ardent wife Faustina. The conflation of religious zeal and sexual desire manifests itself most disturbingly in “Saved,” which revisits Da Nang—the main setting for The Time in Between—to tell of a Vietnamese boy stalking an American missionary. If this story more than hints at an allegory of US-Vietnamese relations over the last seven decades, then it also demonstrates, in miniature, the problem with the collection as a whole.

The writing in Here the Dark may be oblique, but what results, for the most part, is not subtlety. Bergen himself invites comparisons with Hemingway when, in “Man Lost,” he begins a paragraph, straight-faced, as follows: “His name was Quinn, and when he fished, he fished alone ” (100). But whereas Hemingway’s best efforts—In Our Time or The Sun Also Rises—prove that skilful omissions can produce a sense of depth and complexity, encoding emotion in an objective correlative, this is not usually the case here. Paradoxically, the effect can be the opposite: some of Bergen’s ostensibly taut sentences do little to significantly advance plot, complicate character, or perform a figurative function. Such is the case in the drawn-out novella, where much energy is often spent in accomplishing the simplest of communications: “She leaned forward to see if the bird was lying on the ground. It was. Black against the white snow. She watched the bird struggle for breath, and then it stopped struggling. And died. Certainly a broken neck” (191). The sense in this passage, as in many others, is not that of leaving out, but of not leaving out enough. While repetition is yet another tool in a minimalist’s box, very effective in the hands of Raymond Carver or, closer to home, Michael Winter, here it generates tedium. Sequences like “She cried a little. He made her tea. She drank it. And then left him” (204) illuminate little about the characters or about language.

Peculiarly, the third-person narration—used in four of the seven stories and in the novella—is neither close enough to the protagonists to produce flashes of recognition, nor at sufficient remove to allow narratorial manipulation that could generate a different kind of knowledge. Rather, it occupies a frustrating middle distance, lending the described events a fuzziness that makes it difficult to connect with the characters. The first-person stories work much better: the intensity of “Hungry”—a chilling account of toxic masculinity compounded by teenage boredom—signals where Bergen’s strengths lie, and aligns more readily with Biblioasis’ usual fare. Over a mere fourteen pages the disgruntled teacher from “How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?” comes alive in ways that Lily from “Here the Dark” (half the book in length) never will. The novella seems to have been designed as empowering, but its sense of lived reality derives much more from the carefully rendered details of traditions and customs (food, fabrics, furniture) than from the central female character, who is described as vivid, but—for reasons already suggested—does not fulfill that promise of intensity on the page.

Of the third-person stories, the standout is perhaps “Never Too Late,” with its unlikely yet compelling union between two characters painfully aware of their narrowing vistas. Here the Dark does contain some electrifying prose reminiscent of Bergen’s best achievements, but too often, in this scripturally charged material, we see “through a glass, dimly” (31).

This review “In the Middle Distance” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 179-181.

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