Keeping in Touch

  • Karen X. Tulchinsky
    Love Ruins Everything. Insomniac Press
  • Ivan E. Coyote
    Missed Her: Stories. Arsenal Pulp Press
  • Nelly Arcan and David Scott Hamilton (Translator)
    Exit. Anvil Press
Reviewed by Neta Gordon

The three works under discussion here run back and forth along the gamut of representing despair and hope, though hope generally prevails. Karen X. Tulchinsky’s Love Ruins Everything, first published in 1998, was reissued by Insomniac Press in 2011; the new edition includes comments by the author about the context for one of the novel’s plots, in which Henry, an HIV-positive queer activist, works to make known some controversial theories about the origin of the AIDS virus. In her foreword, Tulchinsky describes her introduction to the idea that AIDS was developed by the US government and purposefully introduced into gay communities. The conspiracy-plot section of the novel, however, is not nearly as well-realized as the romantic-familial adventures of Henry’s cousin Nomi, a Jewish lesbian living in San Francisco, who returns home to Toronto for her mother’s wedding. Tulchinsky’s insights into her overlapping lesbian and Jewish communities are both heartfelt and entertaining. She is not afraid to poke fun at stereotypes, as when she notes such “longstanding lesbian tradition[s], like moving in together on the second date, or becoming best friends after breaking up.” The emotional core of Love Ruins Everything, however, is the collision of Nomi’s family shenanigans and Henry’s activism: in particular, the scene in which their grandmother asks Henry point blank if he is ill undermines the idea that each generation is justly suspicious about the other. The wedding itself is entirely love-affirming and life-affirming, as Henry’s father, an ex-con who did not always accept Henry’s sexuality, dances the tango with his son. And Nomi gets the girl.

The 2011 English-language translation of Nelly Arcan’s Exit, first published in French in 2009, is a challenging read, and not only because Arcan’s own suicide—which occurred days after she delivered the manuscript—acts as a painful gloss to this speculative fiction about the protagonist’s increasingly bizarre interactions with “Paradis, clef en main,” a company specializing in custom-suicides. Antoinette’s voice is thoroughly belligerent as she mercilessly explains why she is bent on pursuing hopelessness, ugliness, all that is antithetical to life, and what it means to exist without “that strength of will to desire, to discover, to love, to believe.” Arcan further explores the would-be suicide’s “lack” by representing “life” in the problematic figure of Antoinette’s mother, a woman whose youthful appearance is preserved unnaturally by a dizzying array of unguents and pills. The text carries forward with a startling amount of energy, as Antoinette’s dealings with “Paradis, clef en main” are written as a surreal quest narrative, complete with mysterious car drives, examiners wearing Magritte bowler hats, and a ubiquitous barking poodle. Ultimately, though, Exit is a strangely hopeful novel in that it culminates in another communion of sorts between parent and child.

Ivan E. Coyote’s 2010 publication Missed Her is a collection of thirty “stories,” though that term doesn’t seem sufficient for these small narrative treasures, many of which gesture towards the memoir, the editorial, the travelogue, or the essay. What links the several pieces together is a common aim to explore, as one of Coyote’s students puts it in the story “Good Old Days”: the various ways humans can “[show] us in words that love is just love.” In her capacity as a voice for the queer community, a role she especially relishes when it comes to reaching out to young queers and helping them recognize themselves in her stories, Coyote thoughtfully questions gender categories: in “Je Suis Femme,” for example, she hilariously laments the incompatibility of her butch identity with the fact that, because she is gluten intolerant, she can’t drink beer. The collection’s title hints at an elegiac tone that haunts many of the pieces and manifests explicitly in “On Angels and Afterlife,” a memorial for two “missed hers”: Vancouver East End activist, Catherine White Holman, and Coyote’s grandmother, Florence. As much as Coyote is a fierce advocate for youth, she is equally admiring of the surprising wisdom of older generations, modelling her notions of cultural transformation on the way intergenerational communication—the sharing of stories across seeming divides—fosters acceptance. In the story “Nobody Ever,” Coyote describes, on the one hand, a young fan telling her that “the little girl in [your] story, she reminds me of me” and, on the other hand, an older woman she meets who tells her to “Keep in touch . . . you remind me of me when I was a kid.” Coyote’s thoroughly hopeful and yearning collection guides us all to “keep in touch.”

This review “Keeping in Touch” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 142-43.

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