Seriously Taken

  • M.A.C. Farrant
    Down the Road to Eternity. Talonbooks
  • Cynthia Flood (Author)
    The English Stories. Biblioasis
  • D.C. Troicuk
    Loose Pearls. Cape Breton University Press
  • David Carpenter (Author)
    Welcome to Canada. Porcupine's Quill
Reviewed by Kathryn Carter

To quickly catch the flavour of these highly accomplished but quite different collections, imagine if they were arranged on a menu. D. C. Troicuk’s stories are appealing and meatily satisfying appetizers, teasing the palate but delivering as much substance as any entrée. The twist here is that the appetizers should consist of Kam lunchmeat or Maple Leaf cookies and should ideally be consumed in a Cape Breton kitchen or out of a miner’s lunchbox. David Carpenter and Cynthia Flood offer heavy main course selections: Carpenter delivers a gamy mixture of venison, sardines, cocoa, and backwoods pine in stories that stretch out into novellas. A meal of pancakes and bacon eaten in Carpenter’s work is chewed slowly by a father, “each mouthful . . . a separate incident in the morning’s events, which he was putting into proper sequence,” while a bulldog is fed quietly under the table. This is the kind of manly breakfast needed before heading outdoors to get in the truck and hunt something as many of his characters do. At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is a scene from the same story, “Luce,” in a setting north of Yellowknife: “silver pitchers of water and bowls of ice, silver siphons of soda water, regiments of bottled stout, ale, Canadian Pilsner, and a large tray of gin and whisky bottles” followed by a complete recipe for roasting pike with marjoram, butter, savoury, and oysters. Flood’s stories, which unravel into a novel-length set of interconnections, present a sodden English concoction of rum, puddings, and the smell of wet wool. Oh wait. One of Flood’s characters describes it for us already: “grey potatoes, fish drowned in scorched white sauce, and stodge with caramel.” The dessert course then belongs to the lemony absurdist filigrees of M.A.C. Farrant. Her dessert contribution might even be a “Kristmas Kraft” made of luncheon meat, olives, cocktail wieners, and Velveeta Cheese. Each collection showcases a mature writer with a very sure sense of his or her own voice.
Loose Pearls is D. C. Troicuk’s first book of stories (released of course from Cape Breton University Press) although many have been previously published in highly regarded journals. She has been praised for illuminating the culture of Cape Breton, and stories like “The H Factor,” featuring the abortive pipe dreams of disenfranchised Cape Breton worker Neil, do not disappoint. Similarly, “Overburden” features miner Roddie McSween in a moving evocation of a Cape Breton life sunk by the lack of choices. Point of view is used effectively. For example, the reader encounters Devon in “What Happened . . . Again” only in approximations. We are not immediately told of his limitations, and understanding grows as slowly as empathy as the story unveils itself. Troicuk employs stylistic innovations to convey multiple points of view in “Thirteen,” a brooding and regretful meditation not on lost chances, but on those shadows of human connection that are so fragile and nascent they hardly even amount to a chance. In this case, a woman notices that her teenage crush, who did not notice her as a teenager, has returned to town with a daughter and no wife. The possibility of new beginnings and adult redemption from teenage ignominy hovers over the story, but instead, it ends tentatively, “ . . . once—she couldn’t be certain because of the shadows—but just once she thought she caught him looking her way.” Her stories unfold gently and cover a great deal of human territory; they are dark and fully imagined.
David Carpenter’s award-winning work (which recently garnered new awards) is prefaced with an introduction from Warren Cariou, who pronounces the writer to be a “master of voice and character.” The characters ring true, and they are characters not always evident in fiction: blue-collar heroes of the backwoods populate the novella “The Ketzer,” for example. His milieu is unapologetically, un-ironically Canadian and appropriately titled Welcome to Canada. The book should, by rights, reek of wood smoke. His characters use words like “hoser” and quote from Robert Service, and they appear in stories that are honest, hungry, and muscular, stories that bear-hug the reader with firmness of purpose rather than aggression.
The celebrated and anthologized Cynthia Flood offers a completely realized world in The English Stories. Engagement with the world of words is what stays with you after these stories end, that and the impossibility of acceptance for the displaced main character, Amanda. She is a Canadian girl who finds herself at a school in England for two years, pulled along like flotsam in the eddy of her parents’ lives. Flood prefaces the work with a quote from Thomas Flanagan, “It is rather the rule than the exception in human affairs that the principal actors in great events lack all knowledge of the true causes by which they are propelled.” This insight or philosophy gives an underlying logical coherence to the varying points of view conveyed in each of the stories. Tilly and Milly Talbot, the sheltered sisters, lead lives of quiet desperation in “The Usual Accomplishments,” as does Mr. Greene, history teacher, and closeted Scotsman in “A Civil Plantation.” Flood shows us that none of us ever get a complete and true perspective on events, even those—especially those?—that happen in our own lives. Our fate is identical to that of Amanda’s.
M.A.C. Farrant teams up again with Talonbooks to deliver a new selection of stylistically inventive and energetic stories. Many are brief reflections asking probing questions about—for instance—laugh tracks, as in “The Bright Gymnasium of Fun.” Commas take on a life of their own with consequences for storytelling in “The Comma Threat.” In another story, porcelain figures come to life and run away for “fragile sex” during a vacation. Farrant’s penchant for the aphoristic is shown to best advantage in the story “Point Ten,” which offers five connected lists that derive much energy through centripetal force: they are bound together in structure and theme but shoot off, delightfully, in all directions. For example, one item in the first list reads: “When love is lost do not be ashamed. Turn the memory of love on its side and push and pull and stroke it. Soon you will have a colourless, odourless shape like a glass dome, practical enough to encase your heart in.” This, among other items on the lists, blends her trademark humour with a poet’s visceral turn of metaphor to very good effect. Farrant has a lightness of touch, and her writing is not too charmed by its own cleverness; she achieves something quite tricky there. With an eye to the world that is somewhat aslant, her stories cannot nestle neatly into the forms usually associated with realism, and the formats she chooses are refreshing: at her best, it feels as if she is getting at the heart of something that takes other writers much longer to lead us to. “Life is too important to be taken seriously,” Oscar Wilde famously said, and this is a dictum that seems to guide these stories. Without giggling and without mocking judgment, she reveals for readers the joyful incoherence of human history so that she can say with a kind of infallible logic, “All men named Bob are secret pillars of the universe, as are all women named Janice. ”By the time you reach this story near the end of her collection, your only answer as a reader is “why yes, of course.”

This review “Seriously Taken” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 141-143.

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