Short Fiction Rides Again

Reviewed by David Eso

Short fictions find their stride midway between truncated novellas and overdrawn vignettes. The form makes contradictory demands of swiftness and patience, daunting for writers and risky for publishers. However, recent recognitions of Canadian short fiction—e.g., Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Governor General’s Award and Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize—should encourage literary academies and industries to place greater value on practitioners of the art. What I Want to Tell Goes Like This and And To Say Hello, respectively, demonstrate the merits and pitfalls of short fiction.

And To Say Hello takes an irregular tour through central Canada and stages of life. The stories occupy urban retirement homes, high schools, funeral homes, and nurseries (in Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario). Randall—who teaches English at Algonquin College—explores fitness and illness, family connections and misconnections. His characters build private fantasy worlds, particularly the male figures. One father imagines lives for his estranged daughter. An elderly bachelor invents absentee children while courting a neighbour. And To Say Hello is Randall’s third collection of stories, following Last Chance to Renew (2005) and Character Actor (2008) from Signature Editions. Individual voices sometimes arise from Randall’s spare realism, although his implacable narrators frequently generalize or over-narrate, thereby robbing some stories of their energies.

Rader—who teaches in the Department of Creative Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan—is well served by his poetic apprenticeship. After three collections of verse from House of Anansi (2011) and Nightwood Editions (2005, 2008), fiction allows this writer a longer view—especially in the story sequence that traces the murder, by police, of Union leader Albert “Ginger” Goodwin. The book depicts violence, accident (one father unwittingly kills his son), and labour injustice (e.g., in “The Children of the Great Strike”). A good number of Rader’s stories—“Wejack,” for example, or “Grandforks, 1917”—create novel-sized worlds within their short lifespans. The richness of the collection stems in part from its multiplicity of sources. Rader sets contemporary situations against fictions populated by historical figures, such as the Doukhobor leader Peter Vasilevich Verigin and the outlaw Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan. Stories based on archival research depict extremes of cruelty and poverty; those themes haunt the comparatively tepid scenarios relayed in the contemporary pieces. What I Want to Tell Goes Like This is a dark, imaginative collection that explores the economics of survival in British Columbia (“a squatter’s republic in the boundary country”).

And To Say Hello studies the means by which joy and connection elude Randall’s modern characters. The collection pursues these qualities in romantic relationships, lapsed friendships, professional work, and on “,” but comes up short. It shares the sombre temper of Rader’s collection but lacks its unique flavour. Although Randall’s narrative perspectives shift between male and female, young and old, these voices do not vary in sufficient measure to make those shifts believable or important. Randall does write of male adolescence with particular enthusiasm, and develops tender portraits of aged persons. When eccentric language surfaces, Randall demonstrates an ear for irony and paradox: the “non-denominational atheist,” for example, or the man who suffers nostalgia for shopping malls in the era of Big Box Stores. Moments like these, however, are checked by narrators’ frequent over-explanations and indulgences of cliché (“truth is,” “truth be told,” “though I hate to admit it”). Randall’s narrators too frequently universalize—e.g., “like every parent before him,” “such is human nature.” When sex emerges, it comes disguised in chaste euphemisms such as “gentleman callers,” “special lady friends,” and “life-giving delicates.” “Comorbidities” focuses on bodily integrity as it bears witness to a family’s care for an ailing mother over decades. This final entry aptly tops a collection that explores difficulties of parenting, ageing, and growing up. However, amalgamating five siblings into an indistinct mass identified only as “we” impairs the potency and potential of this story. Despite these criticisms, the collection creates a curious admixture of bleakness and sweetness—although that combination may not convince all readers.

Rader’s title introduces his narrators’ struggles with their “want to tell.” Telling proves complicated in the tales. In place of speech, one character “sucks the words back through his teeth.” Listeners stare “like he might go on, like there was more for him to say.” Concern for the ineffable inoculates What I Want to Tell Goes Like This against over-narration; here, important speeches go unspoken. Rader’s plots devolve from misdirection, from confusion of recurrence. The stories often speak out defiantly against their narration: protesting repetitions of description, for example (“enough with the light”). Frequently, speech and silence interpenetrate. “The wisteria. The hosta. The apple trees”: “Wejack” demonstrates how one might “grow dumb with plant names.” Randall’s characters possess an equivalent inability to relate themselves (in that they do not fully trust their readers to make necessary connections) but in comparison lack the diverting self-consciousness of Rader’s speakers.

Within unromantic depictions of violent working environments, Rader uncovers unexpected humour. In “Children of the Strike,” Union members take exception when accused of attempting to dynamite local infrastructure—specifically, the railway bringing strike breakers to Cumberland. They take offence not at the charge of criminality but at the idea that explosive experts among them would have failed, had they attempted the task. Humorous moments like these provide useful digestive aids for a collection that deals in grief, regret, murder, and rape. If Rader makes a misstep, it comes with the final story about James Joyce. The quality of the story is high and “All This Was a Long Time Ago” won the Malahat Review’s 2014 Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award. However, its inclusion clashes with the rest of the gathering. This partial history of Joyce marks the only overtly literary contribution to the offering and turns away from the strongest elements within the stories that precede it. Rader proves himself a competent craftsman with this collection, drawing on both writerly experience and the challenge of a new form. The result: a satisfying blend of confidence and freshness.

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