Saturday, September 27, 2008

ONCE: The GLOBE Review

A very favourable review of ONCE in today's Globe. It's wonderful to see this title pick up so much early praise and momentum: a starred review in the Q&Q, a rarity for first fiction; a rave Walrus review in the current issue (which I've not yet seen, but I hear was very positive); Steven Beattie's comments, on both CBC and his blog, that ONCE was a glaring omission from the Giller list, and that this is one of the most important fiction debuts since Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades; The Women's Post selected it as a noteworthy title; and now this Globe review, which ends "It's a fascinating tease from a writer who's intent on probing the mysteries of self and other through the related mysteries of fiction. Metcalf has it right. Rosenblum's work impels us to a fresh experiencing of life." And there's more to come.

I know many Thirsty readers don't pay much attention to book reviews any longer. We have reasons to be suspect of them; we're wearily cynical, too many times burned. Even as a publisher and editor, my own distrust of them has robbed some of the joy I feel when a book I've published and loved gets such favourable attention. But that wouldn't be fair to this one: rarely does a first book of short stories get such universal and far-ranging praise (with some of it yet to come). Caroline Adderson has told me that she thinks this book would be a prize-contender (if prizes were not such a crapshoot); John Metcalf, who co-edited ONCE alongside Leon Rooke, has suggested Rebecca among the top handful of writers he has ever worked with. (Think about that: over 40 years he's worked with everyone from Adderson to Winter (both Kathleen and Michael), with some Gallants and Heightons and Munros and Smiths clogging up the centre of that list. So that alone is pretty high praise, and reason alone to part with the 19.95 this particularly under-priced collection costs.)

This is not Bertelsman-lucre market manipulation; Biblioasis has no lucre (though we're accepting donations, and if things continue the way they have been will likely be found quite soon on a street corner near you), and not much more ability to influence and manipulate. What we're seeing here is smart people responding enthusiastically to an important young writer at the start of her career. So: go read her. Go buy her book: drink three pints less this weekend if you must and give your money to a worthy bookseller near you. Borrow her book from a library or a friend. Test-drive her: she has fiction -- the brilliant Massacre Day -- in this month's Maissonneuve, there's three stories in the current New Quarterly, a story published on the CNQ website, another -- not in the collection -- on Emily Schultz's story website Joyland, another coming out in Rampike, and more I almost certainly don't know about. She's everywhere right now, because she's just that good. (She also won that little in-house thing called the Metcalf-Rooke Award. The previous two winners, Patricia Young and Kathleen Winter, were pretty fine as well, evidence that John and Leon know what they are talking about.)

Anyway: the review.

Once is enough


By Rebecca Rosenblum

Biblioasis, 210 pages, $19.95

No less a devoted book nurturer and legendary curmudgeon than John Metcalf has penned (he's known for penning, with bottled ink) the following blurb for Rebecca Rosenblum's fictional debut: "Fiercely original, her stories force us into a new experiencing of life ... her work dazzles me." To still be dazzled, after half a lifetime dispensing tough love in the nursery of Canadian fiction, is the sort of consummation devoutly wished by every lit-crit toiler.

Knowing Metcalf's taste - discerning, cerebral, wildly unpredictable - I plunged into Once with a somewhat wary eagerness. In the opening story, ContEd, Isobel escapes her incorrigible ex in Montreal for a waitressing job in Toronto. Squeezing in a nighttime tax course, she ponders the geeky charms of her instructor. Will he serve for a rebound?

Plot is the least of this intricate story. What matters, tickling the sense memory, is the prickling pleasure of Isobel's tired feet freed to the air at bedtime; the sugary baklava stuck to its crumpled carton; the florid, chewing face of the tax teacher as he negotiates a wad of honey and nuts.

Rosenblum builds and subtly rounds off a story arc, but the sustaining life humming all through this tale comes straight from the sensory input. In Isobel's word-picture ramble, Rosenblum's meanings arrive on the reader's intuitions. Her art remains veiled. The quotidian is rarely so riveting.

Chilly Girl has the same fix on external reality, the same whimsy-tinged take on its central character's inner life. A girl goes to a party at a pristine icebox of a condo, where a tanned man in linen lends her his socks before raising her temperature on the dance floor. Oddly, in only one short sentence do we enter the thoughts of a second character, and a quite minor one. It felt like a misstep, but one of the charms of this writing is the sense that each detail is a clue to larger meanings.

Solidarity/Who is Christine? is less about Christine than about the dangerous magnetic pull she exerts on young Lynn. A driver's licence offers Lynn, at 16, the first solid experience of "being singular." The familiar coming-of-age content is borne along on Rosenblum's uniquely shimmering form. For me, there are mild echoes of 2003 Booker winner DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, minus the author's intent to dazzle. Rosenblum's prose feels refreshingly apart from intent. Her characters unfold as they will, or as they chance to.

In Massacre Day, a burned-out teacher sleeps in, missing her morning class. On her kitchen TV, she watches the news of a faraway school massacre: "the death-toll, then the five-day forecast. She had no one to tell, so she didn't know how she felt." Gradually, we get inside her response. Her numbness, her immobilizing sense of inadequacy, seem a reasonable way to feel. Then we witness her acknowledgment of what's underneath - and it's chilling.

The House on Elsbeth presents two women and a man who share an intimate threesome in a rental house. A few oddities in this tale feel inadvertent, such as being told that "lightning rents the world." Lightning rends, but I don't see how it can rent, even in a farfetched poetical sense. It also hard to accept that when a lightning strike rends the air perhaps 20 feet from our trio, killing or injuring their neighbour, none exhibits any sign of physical or mental trauma in the ensuing seconds, but only respectful curiosity. And why does this lightning strike "into the corn," when there is no mention of corn anywhere else in the story?

Happily, the lapses only slightly distract from the tale's merits, one of which is the narrative voice: a first-person plural "we" that shifts smoothly into third-person reportage from the inner lives of the three players, in an eerie kind of empathetic oneness. We never know which "we" is doing the telling.

It's a fascinating tease from a writer who's intent on probing the mysteries of self and other through the related mysteries of fiction. Metcalf has it right. Rosenblum's work impels us to a fresh experiencing of life.

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