Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Talented Observer of Lives In Between

Yet another rave review for Rebecca Rosenblum's debut story collection Once, this one from the Toronto Star. If you haven't gone out and picked up a copy yet, what are you waiting for?

Rebecca Rosenblum's head-turningly good debut, Once, is a story collection about people who tend not to see the narrative of their own lives.

They're preoccupied by the more mundane distractions of the immediate. They want to know why they suddenly don't love somebody any more (or if they ever did), why their wife has never noticed the bald spot on the back of their head, who the woman is that keeps leaving messages for a guy who hasn't shown up for work for a week, and why that stupid 99 TTC bus hasn't stopped to pick up passengers for a year.

Here's our introduction to a guy named Joe, from a story called "The Words": "People used the words holy fool if you were still thirty-two and still messing around with your guitar. If you wore stretched-out T-shirts with brand names on them and played for free at parties while the only perk at your real job was a headset phone. If you couldn't afford cable or brand-name cheese, but you thought you were a musician. Joe accepted that, mainly."

Once trades in the kinds of hangnail distractions that tend to obliterate all thoughts of larger patterns and greater significance. When you're waiting for a bus on a killingly cold Toronto day, your thoughts tend to dig in to the here and now. But such observations also make for a great story.

Rosenblum, who was born in Hamilton and educated in Montreal and Toronto, is an expert observer of lives lived in between. Her subjects are mostly people in their twenties who can't find the traction necessary to gear up for adulthood. There's a grad student who works in a bookstore; a waitress taking a night school course in tax accounting; a man living in a dissipating marriage with two kids and a blind baby; a tech support employee who, tagged on the nose by an airborne calculator, nearly bleeds to death in the men's room.

There's a squeegee kid who visits his grandparents weekly to trim their lawn (and accept their thoughtful but useless gifts of mix cassettes), and a Vietnamese immigrant who becomes enraptured with skateboarding while working in a Vietnamese restaurant owned by a man with the conspicuously non-Vietnamese-sounding name of Koenberg.

Koenberg's establishment is called the Pho-Mi 99, and it sits at the intersection of both a number of apparently phantom TTC bus routes and the lives of Rosenblum's characters. It's a typical grace note of the collection that most of the characters that pass through or by the Pho-Mi 99 pay no attention to the other characters who do also, a device that enhances the stories' pervading sense of existential randomness.

In "Cal is Helpful," Cal finds himself sitting next to an explanation-hungry former flame. He's bone-tired, itchy and wishes he were anywhere else.

"He didn't even wait until she turned before scratching through his pants, but the fabric was too thick and slippery for it to be satisfying. He knew he couldn't escape until he told Mira what she wanted to know, but he didn't know what that was. She seemed to want to be told why she'd broken up with him. And he didn't know."

Rosenblum has that good short story writer's gift of making complex events out of stalled lives, for riveting reader interest to the most outwardly non-dramatic of circumstances. There's precious little by way of revelation, even less by way of personal breakthrough, and practically nothing by way of emotional reckoning.

Remarkably, Rosenblum's characters are made vividly dimensional not by their transcendence but their surrender to low horizons. The insight is left entirely to the reader. That's the real story here, and – especially for a writer so fresh to the game – it's as good as telling gets.

Author and broadcaster Geoff Pevere is The Star's books columnist. He appears weekly.

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