Biblioasis, self-appointed purveyor of “indie-lit,” released last year two accomplished collections of short stories. They look fairly identical in format and cover art; both feature vague, moody, and abstract covers—one in sepia tones and one in grays. Is this to suggest that the world of indie lit is the world of the indistinct? Misgivings about the marketing of the books aside, the two collections differ in tone as soon as covers are opened.
Let’s start with the colder book. I notice that female and male reviewers have had differing reactions to the collection by Terence Young. He is praised by Mark Anthony Jarman and compared to Raymond Carver, in tones that suggest Young’s brand of self-detached commentary is well suited for a bleak world. Female reviewers find less to praise about his male characters. His vision is bleak, as expressed in this disheartening and unsympathetic vision of the “usual” library crowd as “a few welfare mothers; this young couple with their first kid; a history buff with his cane and his Nazi belt buckle.” And while the narrator is quick to add that he is “no better than any of them,” one smells the damp rot of human disconnection. Narrators who have different agendas sometimes, hopefully, portray the disconnection as fragile. An example of this is found at the end of “That Time of Year,” featuring an aging couple who mourn the passing of their youth. The final words are given to the wife in the story, who cannot decide on how best to calm the warning waves that ruffle their contentment: “She opened the oven door. A wave of warm air wafted out and covered her face and arms as she placed the pie on the rack. The last of the season’s blackberries. She could almost taste them.” The bleak vision is softened by being made more tenuous, but the elegy writ by blackberries is almost too pat, the potential title of a made-for-TV movie on aging marriages. Thankfully, Young’s worldview is frequently leavened with humour, as when he describes the shape of ginger root as “the kind of thing the insane would sculpt.” You should read these stories. But consider this a warning: you will find yourself nodding your head in agreement that the world is a sad and messed-up place. These stories leave a stain on the heart.
Alexander MacLeod’s collection of short stories has been busy garnering awards and accolades, and rightfully so. He, like Young, acknowledges living to be a messy affair, but there is a kind of muscular optimism afoot in these stories, running side by side with tragedy. The narrator of “The Miracle Mile” tells readers that, “We have to scrounge for meaning wherever we can find it and there’s no way to separate our faith from our desperation.” The act of scrounging is often rendered as a vividly physical act on par with Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear, running the miracle mile, or learning to swim, as it erotically and tragically unfolds in the lengthy story “Adult Beginner 1.” The narrator of “Adult Beginner 1” puts it to us another way: “There is a living tension, a line running between what can be achieved and what we cannot do.” MacLeod’s stories live at, weave around that place of physical, metaphorical, and existential tension, and reach out to pull in all the sparkling souvenirs of worlds gone wrong: the father who encounters all the bric-a-brac of family anew after they have been killed in an accident is weakened, detail by heartbreaking detail, in “The Number Three.” In another story, the father of an ill infant scrutinizes the mass-produced items that provoke such attachment in his children: “Can’t sleep without the stuffies. Essential part of the night time ritual. Sacred objects made in a Bangladesh factory. The soft places where children dump their love for the first few years.” In each case, the details speak to an almost unbearable intimacy, and intimacy is a word MacLeod uses more than once in these short stories.
MacLeod tells readers that life requires lifting, made light only if you have arms strong enough to hold the grace of intimate but heartbreaking details; Young intimates that for many of his aging narrators, the end of the ice age is near, but having moved on, it will leave very little trace, and even the recollections and the telling might well be forgotten.