Sunday, December 14, 2008

Philip Marchand reviews Once

For the second time in as many weeks, Philip Marchand has reviewed a Biblioasis title for The National Post. Previously, I think we'd only had one National Post review in four years. Something is going on there, and not just because of the attention being paid to our own books (there was also a large excerpt in the reviews section from The Idler's Glossary a few weeks ago.) The book coverage has been expanding, and the quality of it, especially since Philip moved over, has increased dramatically. It's beginning to look like I'll have to start buying the Saturday Post regularly from now on. A bit of good book review news in what has otherwise been a very disappointing year.

ONCE: The Way People Live: close to the bone

Talk about disenchantment. In Rebecca Rosenblum's story, "Massacre Day," an 11th-grade teacher believes her students are "only a few cc's of dopamine away from mentally ill." In their capacity for self-damage and mood swings - "Blasé or hysterical, their only settings," the teacher observes - her adolescent students are not all that different from adults, however. We just rationalize better. One 11th grader, who understands this, reflects on the gunman who went on a killing spree at Virginia Tech (a real incident that occurred in 2007), and hopes the killer had a reason for what he did, however absurd. At least, she thinks, "he would've known there was such a thing as a reason. He would've lived in the world the way people live in the world."

The way people live in the world is explored by Rosenblum, a Toronto woman, in her first book, a short-story collection titled Once (Biblioasis; 210 pp.; $19.95). We recognize it is our world because of Rosenblum's grasp of detail and behaviour - "Joe was confused by the parking meter for five minutes before they could go inside," she writes of a man taking his daughter to a movie. But this world, as portrayed by Rosenblum, is also slightly skewed, an effect partly conveyed by an endless sequence of toxic smells, tastes and colours. A woman's martini tastes like "throat lozenge and paint." Perfume counters smell like "bathroom cleanser."

What really stands out in this skewed world is the physical pain Rosenblum's characters inflict on themselves, usually in connection with their low-paying jobs. These inflictions include: chronic fatigue and headache due to overwork and irregular hours; itching and throbbing feet from waitressing; cuts on the feet due to walking on shards of glass, cuts on the hand due to dicing onions, blisters on the hand due to an attempt to barbecue chicken breasts; various accidents due to skateboards, Exacto knives, staple guns and radiators; a nose bleed due to a character being hit in the face with a calculator; and a rash due to wearing a crucifix with a coating of faux silver. (That last is a new one on me.) When her characters are unhurt, they seem to long for injuries, like the teacher who "wished there were a cut on her body, a gory wound that would stun her every time she looked at it. Something she could feel she'd survived."

Worse than physical pain is a sort of linguistic mutilation shared by many of her characters, including one young woman whose verbal difficulties are actually caused by a blow to her jaw and subsequent biting of her tongue. The injury makes her sound like a drunk when she tries to speak. She's not much worse off than characters who pantomime communication because their English is faulty (in the case of a Vietnamese waitress), or because noise drowns them out, or because their speech is no longer adequate to their rage, or because, as an emotionally troubled girl muses, her mother "didn't teach me enough words." In one striking scene, a violent couple escalate their battles with incendiary, monosyllabic utterances that sound, coming through the wall of a semi-detached house, more like animal cries than words.

Things in this world aren't all bleak. Skateboarders recur in a number of stories almost as symbols of freedom and exhilaration in a world of stifling work and awful jobs. One boarder is described as "impossible to injure, like a robot or an angel." As we have seen, that's no small triumph in Rosenblum's terms. A Vietnamese restaurant also recurs in some of the stories, where food is prepared by an unlikely proprietor by the name of Koenberg. It's good food, however, and good food here possesses an almost sacramental efficacy.

These are consolations for the characters - what about rewards for the reader? Rosenblum, like any good fiction writer, has a knack for slyly establishing correspondences in her narrative that suggest an underlying coherence to the world, after all. In "Tech Support," for example, there's a parallel drawn between blood and red wine that seems unforced and that underlies the poetic justice of the story's conclusion.

But it is the language that primarily engages the reader of these stories. Rosenblum cuts as close to the bone as possible in her construction of sentences, paring away all but the most essential words. (This is a procedure, no doubt, encouraged by her apprenticeship in the English and creative writing masters program at the University of Toronto.) Often, it results in a knife-edge-thin difference between banality and a kind of poetry in plain dress. "Days are like days are like days," she writes at one point. "When you wake up at four-thirty in the morning, it's a lot like not waking up at all." That has the makings, with some small adjustments for rhythm, of a fine blues lyric. And it is just this sinewy quality of her prose that is the most promising aspect of her fiction debut.

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