The Witty and the Weird

Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

Costa and McMillan both arrived at fiction via poetry. Having debuted with a volume titled The Long Train of Chaos (2019), Costa is currently the Poet Laureate for the City of Mississauga; the Fredericton-based McMillan’s first book was also a volume of poems, We Can’t Ever Do This Again (2015). Unsurprisingly, what connects The Running Trees and God Damned Avalon are principles of brevity and compression, albeit deployed very differently. While McMillan usually condenses her narratives to a sense of voice and its quirks, Costa is more interested in the essence—or perhaps, by now, the debris—of genre fiction. The tenor, too, is strikingly different. Even at their darkest, McMillan’s pieces are propulsive and often witty, the humor deriving as much from the unusual plots as from the characters’ struggle to verbalize their awkward confusion. Costa’s gloomy, unsettling stories, on the other hand, deliberately tend towards stasis: they are exercises in prolongation, in which even the supposedly comical is weighed down with philosophical conjecture and baroque description. While McMillan’s work effectively generates an illusion of fullness—of a fictional world existing safely behind the verbal facade, and barely squeezed into the exacting form of a very short story—Costa’s agonizingly self-conscious, anti-mimetic flash fictions explore void after void, in repeated gestures of emptying out.


In The Running Trees, McMillan uses her terrific ear for dialogue to lovingly exploit the idiosyncrasies of human communication, the slight shifts that alter its dynamic. Although her pieces are all described as “conversations”—with apparently random numbers, suggesting a much larger ‘dossier’—this aspect is variously represented on the page. Many texts are reduced to dialogue, either drama-fashion (e.g. “Missing Feathers”), sometimes with what appears to be stage directions (“The Arsonist”), or with unnamed speakers, differentiated only by font style (“Pick Up”); bookending the collection are two straightforward narratives (“The Dinner Party,” “Daniel and Julia and Me”).


Many of McMillan’s fictions offer an anxious backward glance at failed relationships; a recurrent theme is a clash of differing perspectives on the same event. In one of the most affecting of these, “Pluto of Happiness,” a pair of ex-lovers—a professor and his once admiring student—end up dissecting a pivotal moment in their affair, now years in the past. Intriguingly, the disparities in their accounts of a passionate evening concern not so much statements or gestures, but the emotions behind these, entirely misconstrued by the other person. The motif resurfaces in tonally and thematically similar stories (e.g. “Coffee Date”), but also in narratives of a very different kind, such as the titular “Running Trees.” In this story, McMillan not only imagines a cat’s perspective, defamiliarizing ordinary events (landscape seen from a moving car on the way to a vet), but allows for conflicting philosophical positions to emerge in a dialogue between the feline protagonists.


Incompatible perspectives are also at the heart of “The Book Club,” a mini-play, the three acts of which are spaced out through the volume. Here, the matter of contention is a memoir titled The Many Faces of Withanu Lake—by one Sarah Hilderman, an “unhappy stranger” (184)—which many inhabitants find inaccurate and offensive. “I know I just moved here and who am I to say,” ventures one of them, “but this stuff doesn’t seem respectful to me” (180). In this viciously funny piece, touching on artistic license and the prickliness of tight-knit communities, one finds McMillan lampooning the local reception of her own 2016 memoir The Woods: A Year on Protection Island, gleefully complicating even further the porous boundary between fact and fiction.


If many of McMillan’s stories offer insight and consolation, Costa actively works towards the opposite goal. Mining genre literature for mood and imagery, he strips it of some of its most comforting features, such as a coherent self and linearity, constructing instead defiantly convoluted tales. Bringing to mind Robert Coover’s or Steven Millhauser’s metafictional experiments with fable and fantasy, Costa’s plots wind in on themselves, incongruous elements shatter the illusion of logic, while syntactical repetitions reinforce the sense of stillness, countering the narrative pull. There is a Borgesian fascination here with labyrinths, gardens, and ruins. Despite frequent religious allusions (ascension, angelic figures, prophecies), evident also in the imaginative title, no eschatological perspective unifies the bleak, shattered, irretrievably postmodern world. Generically, the volume is also unstable: marketed as “flash fiction” on its cover and spine, even though Costa himself identifies some of the pieces as “short stories” (84-85), it is referred to on the back as a “debut novel”—a label which this reviewer finds dubious.


Inevitably, given its generic leanings, numerous stories here channel H. P. Lovecraft’s brand of “weird fiction.” At times both the tone and the plot resemble those of Providence’s infamous misanthrope, as in “The Widening Maw,” a first-person account of a man who lingers long enough after confession to confirm his worst fears about the old priest—a “humanoid figure” who “crouched on the floor,” while “a thick tail flickered through the dimness” (57). Familiar evocations of hazy origins crop up in other pieces, even when inflected by more contemporary diction: “I don’t know my beginning” (1); “I don’t remember the day I travelled to the island” (23). Nods to Arthur Machen, perhaps again via Lovecraft, are evident in stylized, late Victorian Gothic descriptions of landscapes with “ever present dusk above the forest of colossal pine trees” where “spores of black fungi spewed green mist above the treeline” (28).


All this would have sounded woefully out of place in a forward-looking set of flash fictions published a hundred years after “The Outsider” if not for the highly autotelic quality. Even so, there is an uncomfortable heaviness and unyielding homogeneity to Costa’s writing. Although Gothic tropes soon stack up as in Neil Gaiman’s parodic, tellingly titled story “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire,” no (successful) irony penetrates Costa’s dark pages. Even if intended, any irony is muffled by the consistently murky tone. Despite shifts in perspective and focalization (sometimes within the same text), experiments with first-person subjective, third-person omniscient, or even second-person narration, and the implied variety of style (an apocalyptic chronicle; a committee hearing; a sermon; a transcript of a spiritualist séance), one encounters, again and again, sentences with the same rhythm, elevated diction, and brooding air. The inability to transcend the tedium of a heavily marked voice is a serious flaw in God Damned Avalon. As a result, ingenious ideas (a clock with deadly designs upon its owner; a reverend’s gospel of dust; an evolved civilization encroached on by a desert amassed from its own sand mandalas) are marred by stylistic predictability. Perhaps the most successful story in this volume—albeit not free of the same heavy manner—is “Rainbows and Black Tumours,” with just enough of a balance between Biblical plague accounts, Kafka’s hauntingly incomplete allegories, and Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space.”


From an intellectual point of view, there is much to admire in God Damned Avalon, a work of a highly literate poet, acknowledging his debt to the likes of Beckett and Pynchon, with ambitions to expand the possibilities of literature. One naturally wonders if what is missing here is the author’s impassioned performance during his spoken word events. Nevertheless, offered in printed form, these pieces live or die on the page.

This review “The Witty and the Weird” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 15 Jun. 2022. Web.

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