Cretacea & Other Stories from the Badlands. Anvil Press
Thirteen Shells. House of Anansi Press
I, Bartleby. Talonbooks
Martin West, bursting onto the CanLit scene with his 2016 short story collection, Cretacea & Other Stories from the Badlands, delivers a rip-roaring carnivalesque exposing the seedy underbelly of a rural Red Deer River community rife with reactionary right-wing gun nuts; mouldy pot-smoking paranoiacs; swingers, tramps, and maniacs; pharmaceutical-fuelled sex parties; a macho, alcoholic, sharpshooting, porn-reviewing, hobbyist paleontologist; a cunning blonde Amazon lady constable; kink of all kinds; and (yes, probably) dinosaurs! West is the master of prestidigitation, leading his reader through complex yet concise narrative schemes, carefully constructing one’s expectations before betraying them time and again, only to the reader’s repeated and elated defeat and frustration. He baits his audience with ridiculous but likeable characters—innocents, even in their fetishistic neuroses—driving them into compromising scenarios before either rapidly careening to deliver justice, or to avoid love—or disaster-presumed-inevitable—or eclipsing from his audience the information most desired. Was Trisha’s death, in “One on One,” a suicide motivated by the jealousy and heartbreak of a baneful love triangle, an auto-erotic asphyxiation taken to the utmost limit, or even a murderous plot driven by one domme’s drive to manipulate the narrator? And is the thing the men dredged from the River, in “My Daughter of the Dead Reeds,” the corpse of a drowned child or the fossil remains of a Pteranodon, and why is the mother so unmoved?
A warning to more sensitive readers: the recurrent hyperbolic machismo of this collection, albeit caricatured to the point of satire, risks participation in a misogyny that, despite the overt humour of the stories, some readers will not find funny. This said, the collection treats trans- and BDSM-related topics with a respectable indifference, and the female characters, however disposable, mad, and ridiculous, are no more so than any of its men. Readers, nevertheless, will find themselves taken for a wild ride through the risible horror-show that is the Albertan badlands, its arteries coursing with the same toxicity that defines the neo-Gothic relationships encountered in this almost fictional storyland. West signs his name F-U-N in oil, blood, beer piss and buckshot on the dustbowl grit, and everyone should look out for his new work, a novel, Long Ride Yellow.
Nadia Bozak’s Thirteen Shells, however, makes a study of disappointment. The some three-hundred page novel-in-stories traces the course of young Shell’s life from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. The child of European immigrant artisans living in a modest rental on the cul-de-sac of Cashel Street in the fictional town of Somerset, Ontario, Shell struggles growing up with the seemingly incessant feeling that she deserves something greater. Such disappointment is the only unifying purpose of the thirteen stories that make up the young girl’s life—whether at not receiving lace-up roller skates for Easter or being forbidden the coveted corporate cereal, whether at her friend Vicki and her family due to body-shaming and classism or at her parents’ separation, at her first sexual experience or due to her constant comparison of her own material conditions to others’.
Unfortunately, such disappointment doesn’t stop at the limits of Shell’s life, but extends to the reader’s experience of the novel—a surprise given the relative success of Bozak’s first two books, Orphan Love (2007) and El Niño (2014). The predominant emotion expected of the reader toward Shell, I suppose, is pity, and yet the stories produce neither a protagonist capable of evoking sympathy nor struggles great enough to do so; Shell’s life is plain and, though certainly not lavish, without real trial. This said, however, it is this very commonness of Shell’s life and character that defines the work as a relatable, if mundane, expression of the struggles encountered by girls in their journey toward adulthood in the west.
The greater value that arises from Thirteen Shells comes in its chronicling of the scene of Canadian culture in the 1980s: it is something of a diary of the concerns and attitudes of a lower middle-class family; a tabloid of the music and fashions that decorate their lives; a now-dated tourist map of the shops, markets, and landmarks of Toronto; and even a menu of the multicultural cuisine of Canada. Likewise, and were this text marketed as a Young Adult novel, Thirteen Shells might serve a melodramatic teenage audience relating to the petite catastrophes of Shell’s life by offering up hope and optimism: the novel’s climax and conclusion provide the promise that it gets better. After all, with university on the horizon, this sad young girl will finally be afforded the perfectly bourgeois life she has always coveted.
I, Bartleby, Meredith Quartermain’s collection of prose poems, histories, and short stories, loosely thematized around Melville’s scrivener, is nothing short of brilliance. These wandering reflections, straying like the sweet musk of an opiated daydream, carry their reader from the letters on the page to deep immersions in sensory experience of shape and colour, texture and sound—exotic escapes through city streets, over mountains and glaciers, across oceans and continents; to the Orient; to pure thought; and to the microcosmic, the microbial, and the molecular; but always returning to the very word, to the letter, to typography and calligraphy, the utterance, reminding the reader of the trick, the magic power that forgave some scratches on pulp to transport one so far from the immediate, embodied experience of reading. Resembling as much Jorge Luis Borges in subject matter and metafictionality as William Carlos Williams in its stream-of-consciousness imagistic prose, with perhaps the beautiful simplicity, playfulness, and frenetic unpredictability of a Tao Lin, I, Bartleby is an astonishingly sophisticated collection demonstrating a poetic spirit whose quality of writing is surpassed only by the breadth and depth of its reading. Quartermain, like all great poets, breaks language, cleansing the font of its impurities by burning off any threadbare cliché or tired usage, and admittedly so: “why not a manifesto of the sentence? Crossbreed every kind with every other kind—twist and turn the thought shapes—so many butterfly nets. Une manifestation of clamouring motifs. Unsentencing the sentence. Smashing the piñata of complete thought to clouds of recombining viruses.”