Playful Experiments with Perspective

Reviewed by Stephanie L. Lu

Collapsible and Echolocation are both collections of short stories with whimsical views of the world. As the titles suggest, both subvert normal ways of seeing and understanding and invite us to listen like a bat, following echoes of voices through dizzying spirals. Short, fun, and surprisingly incisive, Conley’s and Hofmann’s stories are ideal for reading on the go or relaxing at the end of the day. Think Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, or Franz Kafka, except in a contemporary Canadian setting and with—if you can believe it—even weirder narrative twists.

The first story in Collapsible opens on a delightfully matter-of-fact tone: “[t]he world’s foremost authority on werewolves is buying a new suit.” It soon turns out, of course, that the character’s expertise is not actually taken seriously by most other people. The third-person limited point of view initially follows him—“he can imagine himself . . . addressing the assembled experts”—but soon dips into another character’s consciousness: “the tailor moving softly about him knows better than to remark on his customer’s misunderstandings of his gentle questions.” Within the span of eleven pages, the narration takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour through the minds of an entire neighbourhood of characters: the man who believes himself an expert on werewolves; the tailor trying to make ends meet; the tailor’s adult daughter, Deja, who suffers from depression and can cook an amazing chili; the two look-alike women who run the bakery that Deja passes by; the quiet man with the crooked nose who silently admires the women in the bakery; the children who playfully imitate the manners of the quiet man; the naughtiest of these children, Esteban, who also does imitations of the doctor with the limp, a couple of cross-eyed priests, and the stepmother of one of his friends; and Esteban’s grandmother, who has “survived as many marriages as wars.” A later story takes the opposite of this whirlwind approach, focusing on one character’s experience of a bad date, but its loyal reportage of every detail of her experience is equally hilarious: “[j]ust before the salads came she noticed that he had something up his nose. The left nostril (his left), something solid.” While I found myself chuckling through most of these stories, I was also left with the impression that every person, no matter how sane or important they might seem to themselves, can still appear strange to others.

Echolocation opens with a seemingly conventional love story, following the perspective of a seemingly normal woman: “[s]he had never heard a man talk about his dreams before. It was like hearing him say frightened or pussy.” The woman goes through all the stages of a relationship that one might expect: fascination—“she did not always understand what he was talking about”; forgetting of time—“she fell into his life activities, his energy, as into a vortex”;  pride—“he is her husband”; and sullen reproach—“he had said, Don’t ever do that. I’m the boss here, okay? . . . Okay, she had said. Her chin had trembled.” Gradually, very gradually, the story takes a dive for the weird, so that by the end, when—SPOILER ALERT—both young people have turned into werewolves—END SPOILER—it sounds completely natural for the narrator to say that

she knows what to do, now. Her brain tells her in a series of clear images . . . She sees in a kind of vision of herself . . . that she is made of sinew and thick red muscle and living, glistening bone.

Hofmann’s adjustment of narrative perspective is so masterfully subtle that I had to go back to see when and how exactly this ordinary love story became a weird horror story.

Through playful experiments with perspective, Conley and Hofmann challenge us to see people from different angles. Whether giving us insight into a supposedly crazy person’s mind, or making a supposedly normal person seem suddenly strange, Collapsible and Echolocation remind us of the limits of our knowledge and overturn our assumptions, again and again.

This review “Playful Experiments with Perspective” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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