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  • Fiction
  • Mark Levene

A young Swedish scholar posed the perennially asked and endlessly fascinating question about the dominance of the short story form in Canadian writing, a question that has immediate and even disconcerting relevance to the body of first fiction published in 2006. In the 'Introduction' to Short Fiction: An Anthology, edited with Rosemary Sullivan, I noted, drawing in part on William Trevor, that

there are cultures in which the short story has thrived, but where the monumental novel has not (Ireland, Canada), and there are cultures (England, Russia, the United States) in which the two have developed in lock-step. William Trevor makes the marvelous point that 'when the [Victorian] novel reared its head Ireland wasn't ready for it.' Allowing for the dangers in generalizing about 'national character,' one can suggest that Canadian writers also weren't ready for the Dickensian narrative or for the modernist novel that came afterward. Ireland's ongoing love for oral tradition and Canada's attraction to the hybrid and aversion to [the] ideological and monolithic are likely factors in the strength of the short story in these two countries . . .

There is, moreover, an inherent moral and epistemological subversiveness to the short story. Where everything about our private and social experience counsels or demands completion, fullness, and (the vile) 'closure,' the short story pitches its mansion in ellipses, mysteries, and the untold. But around and emanating from the ellipses – shaped by [End Page 1] Munro and MacLeod and, before them, Chekhov and Joyce – is a power and pitch of language that is nothing short of majestic. Of course, novels are no strangers to such heights, but one remembers them in reading the extended narratives published this year – the dominant temper of which is a desperate yet flaccid domesticity – more as 'lost kingdoms' than as lived ancestries.

But if one were to embrace the unthinkable and review only one of the year's books, it would be Michael Trussler's collection of stories, Encounters, which is both a considered, genuine compliment and a source of some terror for the aesthetic absences and dysfunctions that surround this fine work. A professor of English in Regina, Trussler has had the skill and patience to transform theory (for his doctoral thesis he wrote on the stories of Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme) into practice. Knowing Trussler's academic work, one is struck by how thoroughgoing an aesthetic metamorphosis the volume reflects; even at its most literary and allusive, as in the opening story, 'People Are Much More Adventurous Now,' there is no hint of a forced migration from the discursive to the aesthetic. Yet the intelligence shaping the volume is considerable. Encounters is a hybrid to the third power: short story, short story sequence, and unsequenced short story sequence. Unlike Vincent Lam's abundantly noticed collection, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures Encounters does not alternate a small group of characters from story to story with the all-too-apparent purpose of blending the separateness and communality of experience. In the title story, superb except for the undue emphasis of the conclusion, Jenn writes emails to her Canadian friend, Fran, messages full of the messy, daily aspects of life at the orphanage in Guatemala. But her quotidian fascinations are deceptive, because what drives her is the covert belief that 'everything needed to become more private, so she burrowed and burrowed into herself, confiding little to anyone.' In the next story, 'Fran Saunders Is an Ambitious Man,' Fran contemplates Jenn's correspondence, but has only an opaque sense of her tumultuous 'burrowing,' even though he shares with her a profound instinct for solitariness. But these highly specific ties, both explicit and implicit ones, are unusual in the volume; surrounding them are alliances among characters rooted in class, profession, aesthetic sensibility, and the inevitability of the ordinary tipping toward or away from its opposite, a rhythm in which gifts become threats become gifts again.

The great short story sequences, Dubliners, In Our Time, The Progress of Love, among others, possess a texture based not so much on repetition but on silhouetting: priest shading priest, androgynous women replicating themselves in mirrors, memories colliding or coalescing with other memories. Short story sequences are...


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