Twisting Mean

Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

That Caroline Adderson made delight the measure for her Best Canadian Stories 2019 is, in itself, nothing short of delightful. Constructing this diverse volume—with snippets of Cree, Ktunaxa, Jamaican patois, and Yiddish here and there—doubtless involved exhaustive reading, yet the “strict criterion” of delight, intriguingly understood as “not a respite from our troubled world but a direct and more mysterious engagement with it,” appears to have been essential. The editor’s intuition, based on principles for fictional language once set down by Carol Shields, is admirable, and confirms what we may have known all along: that the short story in Canada is thrillingly alive and well.

Adderson’s volume is part of a well-established series, spanning half a century, moved of late from Oberon to Biblioasis, and edited previously by such luminaries as John Metcalf and Douglas Glover. In the 2019 edition some themes are more prevalent than others: many stories centre on fractured family dynamics, with motherhood thrown into focus (e.g., Lisa Moore’s “The Curse,” Mireille Silcoff’s “Upholstery,” Cathy Stonehouse’s “A Room at the Marlborough,” and Elise Levine’s “The Association”). However, according to Adderson—herself an accomplished author—often “the delight is in the telling.” Indeed, quite a few pieces here challenge the reader, whether through a fragmented structure (e.g., Christy Ann Conlin’s “Late and Soon”), a humorously jarring perspective (Zsuzsi Gartner’s “The Second Coming of the Plants”), or a startling extended metaphor (Adam Dickinson’s “Commensalism”). Perhaps the clearest highlight, however, is a story unsettling in both form and subject, as if it originated in another world: Camilla Grudova’s dystopian “Alice & Charles,” kin to her refreshing and bizarre Doll’s Alphabet. In the year which saw the publication of a vastly underwhelming sequel to Canada’s most celebrated dystopian narrative, it is bracing to see younger women writers put elements of that tired genre to such terrific use.

The eerie diction of “Alice & Charles” makes other stories gathered here seem, by contrast, more similar in terms of tone and range. Even Moore’s voice, one of the most striking in Canadian short fiction, appears to occupy a more comfortably Munrovian territory than that staked out in her Burning Rock-era volumes. Nonetheless, “The Curse”—attentive to minute sensory detail as well as to the mechanics of recollection—is certainly one of the mainstays of this anthology.

As expected, the quality of writing in Best Canadian Stories 2019 is almost uniformly high. Other standouts include Kai Conradi’s “Every True Artist,” astounding especially for a first published story, not least in its metatextual problematizing of craft and circumstance; Shashi Bhat’s “The Most Precious Substance on Earth,” a pitch-perfect take on music, trauma, and exclusion; and Frankie Barnet’s “Again, the Sad Woman’s Soliloquy,” which probes the underlying melancholies of our age. One might quibble about certain inclusions on formal grounds—for instance, whether Alex Pugsley’s otherwise remarkable “Wheelers” is, in any meaningful way, a short story rather than a tantalizing excerpt from a novel.

Unsurprisingly, one of the brightest lights of Best Canadian Stories 2019 is Levine, who debuted in 1995 with the collection Driving Men Mad, and has since also proved herself a skilled novelist (with Blue Field and Requests & Dedications). This Wicked Tongue, while uneven, is one of the most original volumes of short stories to be published in Canada this decade.

Metcalf was certainly right in arguing that Levine “plays her prose as a musical instrument” and that, not unlike a magician, she “makes language perform.” At their best, the stories in This Wicked Tongue attain a neo-imagist intensity, a concreteness rarely found in narrative fiction. Metcalf’s comparison of her writing to Mark Anthony Jarman’s is instructive, since both Levine and the author of 19 Knives are capable of that rare writerly feat: making every word count. One of her narrators may complain about how words “twist mean and not much to do with the truth,” but it is precisely such twisting that propels the narratives. The hauntingly medievalist title story—stretched between “wicked tongues” and their striving for divine language—and the contemporary road-tale opener, “Money’s Honey,” are accomplishments of that sort. With their resonant sentences, just this side of enigmatic, conjuring odd yet palpable realities, they also manage to construct a strong sense of self. Upon rereading, they reveal ever newer layers, but still resist closure; they seem pared down to their pulsating essence, cut just so.

Yet what elevates such pieces is also what weighs down certain others, where the rhythms of dense, alliterative prose push on to frustrating effect, withholding enlightenment: “Princess Gates” or “All We Did” may just leave out too much for their own good. Possibly that is the price of a daring experiment; possibly what is reclaimed here is the original, long-lost meaning of that term, where failure is an option and, in fact, part and parcel of valuable procedure. Levine’s “failures” are worth any number of low-risk, forgettable fictions that may have been written in their stead.

Remarkably, Levine shows herself just as capable within a more usual mode of storytelling, as evidenced in “Made Right Here,” which casts a husband’s disorientation in spatial terms, or even “Death and the Maidens,” which puts a fresh spin on the Old World/New World origin tale. In that light, Adderson’s decision to select for her anthology a more straightforward and relatable piece—“The Association,” one of two interconnected stories about a certain Martin, perhaps the most complete self evoked in This Wicked Tongue—is noteworthy. Choosing a more exploratory piece would have placed Levine’s work closer to Grudova’s “Alice & Charles,” or to Dickinson’s disorienting “Commensalism,” itself aligned less with customary fictive strategies than with the bio-optics of his poetry collections Anatomic and The Polymers. Instead, to include “The Association” in Best Canadian Stories 2019 is to showcase the more accessible side of Levine’s writing and afford the reader the surprise of the now-delightful, now-vexing complexities of This Wicked Tongue. Both books are required reading for anyone who wishes to keep abreast of cutting-edge Canadian short fiction.

This review “Twisting Mean” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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