Secret Lives

  • Steven Heighton
    The Dead Are More Visible: Stories. Knopf Canada
  • Dan Vyleta
    The Quiet Twin. HarperCollins
  • rob mclennan
    Missing Persons. Mercury Press
Reviewed by Gordon Bölling

Canadian prairie literature is alive and well. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of such well-received novels as Dianne Warren’s Cool Water and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man. Warren’s first novel won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for fiction, while Vanderhaeghe’s most recent novel rounds off his highly-acclaimed frontier trilogy. rob mclennan’s Missing Persons has yet to receive the same degree of attention as the above-mentioned books. Nonetheless the poetic novel is a welcome addition to the body of Canadian prairie fiction. In comparison to both Cool Water and A Good Man, Missing Persons is a rather slim, fragmentary, and open-ended novel. This may be due to the fact that Missing Persons did not start out as a novel in its own right. In a blog post, mclennan states that he began Missing Persons as a kind of character’s background story for another novel that he intended to write but never finished. Still, Missing Persons is far more than a mere by-product. mclennan’s novel is anything but a linear and straightforward narrative. It comprises a three-page preface and a total of 55 chapters, some of which consist of a single paragraph, and some of which are merely half a page long: “The entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance.” This quotation from Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting serves mclennan as a first epigraph and alerts readers to what lies in store on the pages ahead. In one instance, an entire chapter consists of a single sentence: “Alberta was drowning in her own skin.” Alberta is Alberta Jonas, the novel’s teenage protagonist. Newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, Alberta’s parents name their first child after the Canadian province in which they intend to live: “Her parents were very old, born and married to that place before. The old country. A fiction to her, but a story told with every breath. […] Tales of Baba Yaga. Alberta, named for their destination, born en route. Her parents arriving on New World soil and giving her breath on a Montreal shore. Two weeks before they moved again.” Ironically enough, the Jonas family never makes it as far west as Alberta and settles on the Saskatchewan prairies instead. Missing Persons chronicles Alberta’s life from the age of fourteen to the age of sixteen. In the novel’s first chapter, we encounter Alberta on the day of her father’s funeral. A car accident leaves Alberta, her younger brother Paul, and her mother Emma without a father and husband. At the end of the novel a second death occurs which leads Alberta to abandon the Canadian prairie and seek her fortune elsewhere. The decision to leave ultimately provides Alberta with a larger perspective and a new sense of possibility: “Her map was larger, her geography patently new. She was no longer lost, the rest of the country flat ahead of her in all directions. She took a first step. She could begin.” Missing Persons is a nuanced portrait of a vulnerable yet courageous teenage girl. It is also a study of life on the Canadian prairie: “Wind swirling dusty snow. A horizon without end.” Images such as these are, of course, reminiscent of the writings of Sinclair Ross and other classic prairie authors. “This isn’t much of a story,” Mary, Alberta’s best friend, at one point remarks. Readers of rob mclennan’s Missing Persons will not interpret this observation as a self-reflexive comment.

The year 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. On March 12th 1938, German troops marched unopposed into Austria and three days later Hitler addressed the masses that had assembled on Vienna’s Heldenplatz. To this day, Austria, like Germany, struggles with the sins of its past. It is this darkest chapter of Austrian history that Dan Vyleta turns to in his second novel, The Quiet Twin. Vyleta holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Cambridge and is the author of Crime, Jews and News: Vienna 1895-1914 (Berghahn Books, 2007), a historical monograph that investigates the complex relationship between crime reporting and anti-Semitism in fin-de-siècle Vienna. In many ways, The Quiet Twin builds on Vyleta’s work as a historian. For example, the novel is interspersed with a number of italicised sections, some of which provide brief portraits of historical serial killers. Other sections deal with the 1936 Nazi propaganda film Erbkrank or follow the careers of medical officers who orchestrated the killing of the mentally handicapped. These short pieces serve as points of entry to the novel’s main narrative, which is set in Vienna in October and early November 1939. Throughout the novel, Vyleta skilfully captures the stifling and paralyzing atmosphere of life under Nazi rule: “The doorbell rang, startled him. He was right there, not a foot from door and bell, and it stung him like a slap: that shrill, angry ringing. He jumped and feared arrest, irrationally, implausibly expected a uniform, the waving of a truncheon, neighbours staring through the cracks of their doors.” Four seemingly unconnected murders and the brutal slaughter of a dog trigger the novel’s action. In the wake of these events, the police authorities seek out the expert advice of Doctor Anton Beer who is the author of several in-depth studies of notorious murder cases. Although he fears for his own safety and the safety of one of his patients, Beer makes only half-hearted attempts to assist the corrupt Nazi police inspector Teuben. A psychiatrist by training, Beer recently resigned from his work at the local hospital for political reasons. In the narrative present, he works as an ordinary family practioner. This self-imposed obscurity also serves Beer as a cover for his secret private life. In the course of the narrative, Beer (and with him the reader of The Quiet Twin) is drawn into the lives of the various inhabitants of the Viennese apartment complex in which most of the novel is set. There is Professor Speckstein, who, now that he has fallen from grace, serves the Nazis as a simple Zellenwart. There is also Speckstein’s enigmatic niece, Zuzka, who writes letters to her late twin sister. And there are Otto, the mime, and his paralyzed twin sister, Eva. Little is as it seems under totalitarian rule and all of these characters harbour their own secrets: “‘Too many suspects in any case.’ He caught her looking at him confused and consented to explain. ‘If this was a detective yarn, I mean. A reader cannot remember more than two or three.’” Readers of The Quiet Twin, however, are not likely to forget any of the novel’s cast of characters. Throughout the novel, Vyleta’s writing is precise as well as profound. This is the case even when he devotes an entire chapter to the history of the trumpet: “It is a versatile instrument. The trumpet can ring of the whorehouse, or of God on high; can hail the King, or stand weeping at his infant’s grave.” What is more, The Quiet Twin is a morally complex novel. It raises a series of ethical questions that transcend the boundaries of the novel’s immediate setting: How would we act under totalitarian rule? What is the responsibility of the individual? How to account for the great number of opportunists? With The Quiet Twin, Dan Vyleta has lived up to the promise of his first novel Pavel & I.

A versatile writer, Steven Heighton has published poetry, novels, essays, literary criticism, and short fiction. The Dead Are More Visible is his third collection of short stories, and the eleven stories gathered here display the exceptional range of Heighton’s skills as a writer of short fiction. Several stories in The Dead Are More Visible make extensive use of humour. Entitled “Those Who Would Be More,” the volume’s opening story is a prime example of this vein in Heighton’s writing. The story chronicles the attempts of a Canadian to learn Japanese while working in Tokyo as an English teacher. In his efforts to improve his language skills, Curtis relies on a paperback primer with the somewhat curious title Japanese for the Beginners and Those Who Would Be More. In its main focus on violent conflict and destruction, the book proves to be of little help: “I was now sure that the authors, consciously or not, were trying to discourage their students from pursuing further study. Perhaps they hoped we would leave the country altogether.” It is only on his flight back home to Canada that the protagonist establishes a meaningful connection between the richness of the Japanese language and his own life: “I put my head back, closed my eyes and wondered—what else?—how I and billions of other non-Japanese speakers had ever gotten by without the word.” A similar though different use of humour is evident in what is probably one of the best stories in the collection, “Shared Room on Union.” In this story, the attempt to steal a Volvo goes disastrously wrong when the would-be car thief has to admit that he cannot drive a standard. Justin and Janna are locked into the trunk of their vehicle as the thief disappears into the Toronto night on foot. The tone gets notably darker as the lovers realize that they might be trapped in the trunk for quite some time. In later years, although they tend to dismiss the incident lightly whenever it crops up in their conversations with friends, Justin and Janna are unable to come to terms with their experience: “But when the story was done and they left to drive home, or their guests did, a silence would settle between them—not a cold or embarrassed silence, but a pensive, accepting one—and they would say nothing more of that night or its latest rendition.” From a technical point of view, “Noughts & Crosses” is a story that clearly deserves special mentioning. The story opens with the reprint of a short e-mail, in which Janet-Marie tells her lover Arnella that she is breaking up with her for good. In what follows, the rejected lover tears apart, reinterprets, and annotates each single feature and phrase of this e-mail: “a temporary severing / Whew! For a minute there I thought it was permanent! As if it was in the very nature of severings to be that way. . . . But a moment’s reflection allows us to generate any number of counter-examples. In the fatal crash the victim’s spinal cord was temporarily severed.” Here as elsewhere in this collection, Heighton’s short fiction explores the ways in which language is at once familiar and strange. The Dead Are More Visible is an impressive volume of short stories.

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