Repeating Stories

Reviewed by Sam Knowles

These books illustrate the extent to which accolades won and works published are not necessarily automatic indicators of superior writing. Paul Yee has been publishing since the 1980s, winning the Governor General’s Award in 1996; The Secret Keepers is the latest of two dozen books—fact, fiction, novels, poems, and writing for children— listed on his website. R. W. Gray has come to publication more recently: although his biography describes him as an author, poet, and screenwriter, it concludes with “Crisp is his first book.” Yet it is the debutant whose narratives are a resounding success, shimmering and muscular by turns, while Yee’s work is often clunky and stilted.

The Secret Keepers starts promisingly: a date stamp fixes the narrative at the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the addition of “Wednesday, Early Morning” injects urgency as the fourteen-year-old narrator is thrown from his bed, plunging readers into the narrative with a force that echoes Jackson Leong’s physical upheaval. This impetus is not maintained throughout, however, as the narrative relies on cliché and synonym, and the dialogue lacks urgency: Jack is “disturbed [from] his sweet dream” to find that “every church bell in town [is] ringing: bonging, pealing, tolling and dinging,” and his elders have conversations that lack veracity, carefully explaining to each other that in this time of trouble they “need to pray. Offerings at the temple go straight to the gods.” Statements like these—and numerous later descriptions of Chinese beliefs about the afterlife, which structure the narrative—read more as explanations to the reader than credible snippets of conversation.

This is a feature of Yee’s writing, as he does not wear his undoubtedly extensive knowledge of Chinese San Franciscan history and culture lightly. Too often, an interesting point—like the assertion that young Chinese Americans avoid crossing “Chinatown’s . . . border streets: [Broadway,] Powell, Kearny and California” for fear that “white boys would hurl rocks” at them—is followed by a clumsy introduction of historical description into the narrative, such as the exchange between Jack and his uncle about nineteenth-century Chinese American immigration: “‘Some of these
old men have lived here for fifty years, ever since the gold rush. They haven’t seen their wives or children who still live in China.’ ‘Why don’t their families come here?’ ‘The US laws say they cannot.’”

In spite of these shortcomings, and some inaccuracy in dates of birth given towards the end, Yee’s novel grows into an engaging detective story. Gray’s text possesses even more of such narrative drive, an impressive achievement in a collection of short stories like Crisp. The author balances perfectly the opposing pressures of writing a short story collection, neither presenting a group of scattered, disconnected stories nor enforcing a too-weighty overarching narrative. Recurring, slightly altered images give an ethereal sense of déjà vu without overpowering readers with an excess of coincidence: seaside locations, rain, parents fighting, broken relationships, trailer park lives, and young brothers comforting each other all return at various points. These images are spared the contempt of familiarity by their careful presentation; Gray’s background in poetry is in evidence here, as one littoral story begins with the poised line, “[t]he sky gasps open and the rain falls askew.”

The way in which lives are presented in— moulded through—language is important to Gray. The title story, before its spiral into magical realism, opens with the mundane yet shocking event of a seven-year-old’s father being struck by lightning and, in the words of the boy’s younger brother, “burnt to a crisp.” The narrator runs towards his father’s corpse, yet does so not only to witness his father’s death, but also “partly to get away from the word ‘crisp’” (emphasis added). This connection between the actuality of language and the physical world runs throughout these tales, finding a resolution in the final story, as the narrator muses on the physical attributes of his lover, a circus contortionist: “Contortionists are well written, Ben thinks. Each muscle succinct. A body written not as a question, but as an answer.”

This echoes Gray’s earlier musing on the nature of the form itself, which speaks to the work of both authors: “Stories repeat themselves, a riddle looking for an answer.” Paul Yee’s story is told from a position of frustrating omniscience, rather than inquisitiveness; R. W. Gray’s tales, in their combination of poetic and well-balanced repetitions and startlingly new imagery, are still looking for answers.

This review “Repeating Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 171-72.

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