Unfortunately, this review is also coupled with a poor review of Clark Blaise's latest, published by the Porcupine's Quill. Though we have no stake in this one -- beyond the fact that we first published one of the stories, The Sociology of Love, in the Biblioasis chapbook series -- Blaise is one of the most important Canadian writers of the last 40 years, and one of a handful -- along with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and Norman Levine -- of the best short story writers in the country. This collects some of his best, along with a few new stories. In fact, the whole PQL Blaise project is a necessary purchase for any and all interested in short fiction, in Canada or elsewhere.
My own personal CanLit journey began with Blaise's Tribal Justice and North American education, his first two books, and still among the best collections of short fiction ever published in Canada. Understanding how one thing leads to another, I'm not at all sure that Biblioasis would exist today if I'd not read those collections.
Epiphany vs. Exploitation
Patricia Young (Author)
Clark Blaise (Author)
World Body: Selected Stories: 4. Porcupine's Quill
Reviewed by Jennifer Fraser
Airstream follows in the tradition of the Joycean epiphany, whereas World Body exploits both world and body. Patricia Young’s Airstream evokes through poetic language nuances of emotion leading to a decision; with each story one is startled by what Joyce would term the “revelation of the whatness of a thing.” Young has the command of language and the depth necessary to discover, as Joyce would put it, “the radiant soul” of “the commonest object” or person. Reminding the reader of the diverse characters of Dubliners, in Airstream, the narrators vary, and the voices in which they think and talk vary; thus, although not packed full of international reference, the fictions of Airstream are far more foreign than those of World Body. Dubliners explores paralysis; Airstream examines betrayal.
A child is abandoned by her mother: “Hanging upside down from her knees, she rolls her eyes back and the woodchip playground becomes a sky. She flutters her eyelids and chants the new unlisted number, hoping her mother can hear her wherever she is.” A 20-year-old falls in love and stops caring what people think: “every cell in my body was a small closed monastic room that had thrown its door open.” A widow explains: “Doctor Whitely suggested I write these letters. He said I needed to find a way to hold onto the love while letting go. I have no intention of letting go, but I agreed to write letters in exchange for sleeping pills.” A boy hides the toy gun he’s been given by his father: “Mick loves the gun and hates it, which is sort of how he feels toward his mother because of the divorce.” A foster-parent protects her child: “A metal plate slides down over my eyes and a horrible stink hits me like a blow to the head and something long and supple slips off a shore and into the water, and then my hands are around Butchy’s neck.” A hitchhiking teenager discovers: “The afternoon sun is a column of light pouring through the arched window at the end of the hallway, and she thinks she could tell this boy that she wishes she’d chanted at her father’s bedside, she wishes she’d chanted and sung and prayed day and night, she wishes she’d pressed her mouth to his ear and begged him not to give up, to please please hold on.” A young girl yells in defiance: “All the other girls wear leggings” and her Scottish immigrant mother answers back: “I don’t care if the Pope of Rome wears leggings.” A teenager faces her boyfriend: “Trudy accepted all of it. She looked into his eyes, the pupils like tiny imploding black holes, and she saw the truth clearly: She was as wired to Dill as he was to heroin.”
These quotes cannot capture the epiphanies which begin with the first word of the story and build with each phrase, sentence, paragraph. As suggested by her title, Young draws the surrounding oxygen in order to create each story’s combustion. The words of the stories are like air particles joining to form a high-altitude wind that blows apart characters’ beliefs and hopes. It is this wind that an agoraphobic woman blows when her husband announces he’s leaving her and the kids: “She might have been someone with somewhere to go, a woman who, having just applied nail polish, was blowing it dry.” The terrified becomes the brave.
When you finish a Patricia Young story, your bones hurt. You ache. And it’s because of the knowledge you now carry.
In contrast, the stories in World Body read like resumes, case studies or obituaries. Everyone is a stranger to everyone, even parents and children. Dr. Lander is trying to reach his son who has become an extremist Buddhist monk in Japan, but he’s attracted to his son’s girlfriend: “We were standing in a Tokyo subway, I was staring into cleavage and a warm zombie had just propositioned me.” Dr. Lander next visits a colleague who has left his wife and children to marry one of the breathtakingly beautiful women who are a dime a dozen in Blaise’s stories. Alas, Lander fails to secure her attentions for the night, so he takes next best: “And so that way they spent the night, his stiffened cock up the bitch’s cunt, her jaw clamped firmly on his wrist.” One realizes in World Bawdy that if gorgeous young women aren’t available, one always can consider their pets. Another narrator, Picard, breaks his own code of conduct in Jakarta and has sex with a 15-year-old prostitute three times, but unfortunately for him, her arm gets blown off in an uprising.
The tone and diction of World Body are often clinical and academic until an occasional twist at the story’s end. The narrators are so similar and the stories so formulaic in the pattern of sexual yearning and fulfillment or failed conquest that perhaps the collection should be thought of more as a repetitive novel. Sometimes the stories read as possibly brilliant academic essays on memory, but without the references or documentation, they seem a hodge-podge of ideas that tend to collapse when a woman “fresh from her shower” or a blushing “ex-student,” now elderly prof’s wife, enters the room.
Sometimes Blaise’s stories reach the rhythm of a meditation and resonate with striking insights as in “Kristallnacht”: “No guns, the violence is more intimate; chains swung in an arc then down on a skull.” Another powerful line is thought by a man who hears the story of a humiliated female stranger when they sit side by side on an airplane: “Leap, Saint Patty. I present myself to you like a tethered bull in a pasture. Rip my stupid throat out.” Unfortunately, these potent ideas do not receive exploration; they surface in the story only to sink again. These stories recall a tabloid where tawdry sex occurs in different cities that function as backdrop to the same shallow human gestures.