Striking a Balance

  • Johanna Skibsrud
    This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories. Penguin Random House Canada
  • Rebecca Rosenblum
    The Big Dream: Stories. Biblioasis
  • Christiane Frenette and Sheila Fischman
    After the Red Night. Cormorant Books
Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren

Sometimes literary fiction is ponderous at the expense of readability. What a delight it is, then, to encounter books that are both accessible and thought-provoking. After the Red Night, a hypnotizing novel told in two alternating time frames (1955 and 2002), takes place in Rimouski, Quebec, where in 1950, a fire destroyed half the town, though it killed no one. This historical event becomes a metaphor for any pivotal incident that divides a life into “before” and “after” segments: “[F]rom the red night, a new world has been born.” Motifs of running away, returning home, starting over, and rebuilding interweave the time frames, which are also linked by felicitous images such as that of the phlox flower.

Omniscient narration in the 1955 sections creates intimacy with three characters: Thomas (a gardener), Romain (a doctor), and Marie (Romain’s wife). Particularly affected by the “red night,” Thomas has claimed responsibility for starting the fire, though “electrical lightning” is the reputed cause. After five years spent institutionalized in Quebec City, receiving shock treatments that erase parts of his memory, Thomas returns to Rimouski hoping to integrate his past with his present. Despite his skill with plants, the “scorched” Thomas has difficulty nurturing human connection, even with Romain, a childhood friend. Drawn to Thomas, Marie is an archetypal 1950s housewife: fertile, domestically accomplished, and unfulfilled to the point of clinical depression. Thomas wears the emotional brokenness that Marie shares but must conceal; she envies as freedom what Thomas experiences as isolation.

According to Lou, Marie’s daughter and the first-person narrator of the 2002 sections, “if running away means refusing one’s origins, there was something to be refused that escaped me.” Indeed, Lou—who runs away at sixteen and maintains her “fugue state” for thirty years—sees her mother only as remote, brittle, and disapproving, whereas the reader knows the depths of Marie’s suffering. While reserving a special tenderness for Thomas, Frenette skilfully employs shifting points of view to cultivate compassion for all her characters. In the end, she suggests, certain formative experiences can be neither fully remembered nor wholly forgotten, and some wounds cut so deep that to promise recovery would trivialize the injury. A dreamlike story suffused with melancholy yet teeming with life, After the Red Night dignifies both suffering and resilience.

In This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories, Johanna Skibsrud’s themes include memory, storytelling, misrepresentation, and estranged relationships. Like many women publishing fiction in Canada, Skibsrud has been compared to Alice Munro. “The Electric Man” evinces a similarity in characterization: a young American woman working at a French hotel dislikes one of the patrons but cannot refuse when he asks to paint a portrait of her; her insight—like that of so many Munro heroines—does not render her invulnerable to eccentric and pathetic older men. In “Cleats,” one of the collection’s strongest stories and one of several that juxtapose past and present time frames, Skibsrud approximates Munro’s structural prowess: the protagonist, Fay, receives a gift of gardening cleats from her husband. When wearing them, she gets stuck in the ground, and her panic reminds her of a long-ago car accident and her own scream. With satisfying narrative logic, the inset story of a teenage drinking and driving incident dovetails with events decades later, culminating in Fay’s release from a confining marriage. Skibsrud also at times uses a simpler narrative through line, as in “French Lessons” and “Clarence,” two entertaining stories that turn on tragicomic misunderstandings.

Finally, both Munro and Skibsrud frequently offer instructive generalizations on various topics through their focalized characters— but here the resemblance ends. Whereas Munro employs in such passages all of her own acumen and articulacy, rarely letting contemplation overwhelm the story, Skibsrud typically endows her characters with average intelligence and then dwells on their internal ruminations. The redundant self-reflexivity contained in the phrase “[p]erhaps, Ginny thought to herself ” (might she be thinking to someone else?) indicates the tenor of most of these meditative passages.

For example, “The Limit” emphasizes the idea of perception, culminating in the protagonist’s realization that “[i]t is possible just to see and see until it gets hazy and you can’t see anymore—and even at that point, at the point where you stop being able to see any longer, it’s not because what’s out there is covered up by anything, it’s just—that’s the limit.” This epiphany and its conceptual build-up are much less engaging than the story’s events (such as buffalo-hunting) and its characters (such as Cheryl, a meat-packer with impeccably manicured nails); in fact, how the story’s declared theme relates to the plot is unclear. Unfortunately, as happens too often in this collection, the characters’ thought processes (and Skibsrud’s own impulse to philosophize) dominate the story in a way that quells narrative interest.

While Rebecca Rosenblum does not shy away from ideas in her finely crafted second collection, The Big Dream, storytelling takes precedence. For example, in her story “Loneliness,” she explores the abstraction contained in the title but brings it to life in a tale of mutual attraction between two single executives. The assertion that “[d]esire only increases loneliness”—which Skibsrud would belabour—serves merely to crystallize a conundrum that the story dramatizes.

Most of the collection’s stories concern employees of “Dream Inc,” a fictional “family of lifestyle magazines” whose Canadian branch is located in Mississauga, within sight of the Pearson Airport. Rosenblum shows people both at work and as shaped by work. The collection is carefully organized, so that a story set in the workplace alternates with one set off-site, but chronology is deliberately flouted. For example, we meet laid-off customer service representatives early in the collection, and read about the executives preparing to lay them off near the end—a non-sequential order that effectively expresses the reigning states of shock and chaos.

As the company flounders and lay-offs become widespread—the entire call centre is outsourced to India—characters react to the stress in various ways: Grig fantasizes about his supervisor, eventually coming to believe in the delusion that she is his girlfriend; Rae, a designer and mother of two who is undergoing a trial separation from her husband, sobs in his car; a junior researcher becomes mentally unhinged, obsessively collecting unsolicited data about company employees; and the second-person protagonist of “How to Keep Your Day Job” slips on a staircase at work and breaks her leg. Although Rosenblum thus critiques the damaging effects of corporate culture, she consistently points to the redemptive value of human connection. For example, when a technical support person’s abscessed tooth bursts before he has secured health benefits, it is his co-workers who plan to take him to the “ER”: “They’ll have to treat him at least a little, right? Must’ve gone septic by now, and that’s medical not dental.” Even though most of the characters lead highly compartmentalized lives—keeping to themselves personal details such as whether or not they have a partner or children—those in crisis often find help, forgiveness, or camaraderie in each other. Rosenblum writes with exquisite attention to detail, not to mention an astute sense of comedic timing: her uniquely troubled and wholly convincing characters should appeal to readers of commercial and serious fiction alike.

This review “Striking a Balance” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 158-60.

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