The Canadian Short Story: A Ballad in Minor Chords

The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories
edited by Jane Urquhart
Penguin Canada, 2007
696 pages, $35.00

In my dream, the devil is showing me around the library in hell.

“And this,” he says, grinning proudly, “is the Patricia Cornwell Wing.”

He gestures toward thousands of paperbacks.

“All of them,” he says ominously, “will have to be read.”

“But aren’t they paper . . . ?”

“Asbestos covers.”

“Oh.”

The tour continues.

“The Dean Koontz Room.”

The books extend downward, shelf after shelf.

“Round that corner is the Danielle Steel Wing. A lovely spot in which to spend eternity.”

I hear a low moaning emanating from a room down the hall. As we approach the room, the moaning intensifies until it becomes a thrumming drone, punctuated by the sort of plaintive bleatings a herd of sheep might make while being devoured by wolves who had been taught by their mothers to eat slowly and savour their meals.

In the darkness of an enormous room filled with thousands of volumes, I can discern many pairs of eyes, hollow and rheumy, peering in my direction, all hope clearly abandoned.

“What is this place?” I ask, turning to the devil in horror.

“Ahhh!” he says, favouring me with a practised leer. “This is where we keep the Canadian Short Story Anthologies.”

I wake up screaming.

My wife says, “The Canadian Short Story Anthology nightmare again?”

Alas, yes. So many Canadian stories, so much pain, loss, unrealized ambition, unrequited love, the tragic deaths of beloved pets . . . . After wallowing in The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart, I want to go upstairs to my room with a length of rope, a revolver, and a bottle of sleeping pills, hoping one of the three will do the trick. Quoting Frank O’Connor in her introduction, Urquhart suggests that a characteristic of the short story is its “‘intense awareness of human loneliness.’” To be sure, loneliness has been a staple of short fiction from Chekhov to Cheever, but, not satisfied with mere loneliness, Canadian authors prefer a good heartrending sob. Consider the conclusions of a representative sampling of Urquhart’s selections:

I stared, frightened by my child. All I could do was hug him and cry. (Joseph Boyden)

His eyelids twitched, his lips moved, he winced as if the pain had returned, and out of the corners of his eyes, a few tears came and crept slowly down his temples to disappear in his hair. (Sharon Butala)

There’s a burning sensation in his chest, it hurts simply to breathe. He buries his face in Georgie’s chest and holds onto the warmth of her body. Prays he will never wake up. (Michael Crummey)

Finally he comes again into the circle of her arms and they weep. (Caroline Adderson)

No doubt she died of illness, but, as so many people do fundamentally, of grief too, a little. (Gabrielle Roy)

So much grief, so little time. Reading this anthology, I felt that I was letting the side down if I didn’t wring out a hanky or two every 50 pages. Russell Brown and Donna Bennett, editors of Canadian Short Stories (Penguin Academics, 2005), suggest that “emotional desolation” is a common theme in our short fiction, but, they add cheerfully, “Canadian short stories are rarely grim.” Teaching at the University of Toronto for so long, Brown and Bennett have undoubtedly come to see a silvery sheen to every dark cloud, much as Toronto Maple Leaf fans view a two-game winning streak as a prelude to the Stanley Cup.

Let us accept misery as a defining characteristic of the Canadian short story, then. What’s different about Urquhart’s volume? For one thing, it’s enormous: sixty-nine stories by sixty-six writers (Munro, Ondaatje, and Ethel Wilson have 2 selections each). 696 pages, nearly 400,000 words. Very small print. Added to my usual load of assignments to be marked, the book set off the alarm in the passenger seat of my Toyota; convinced that I was transporting a small child, the car demanded that I fasten its seatbelt. A weighty tome, indeed.

As for contents, the usual suspects are here: Callaghan, Ross, Buckler, Leacock, Valgardson, Findley, Vanderhaeghe, Wiebe, Shields, Atwood, Matt Cohen. There are some welcome new faces: Annabel Lyon, Timothy Taylor, Joseph Boyden, Lynn Coady, Caroline Adderson, Michael Redhill, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, David Bezmozgis. And some odd choices: Sam Selvon and Claire Messud—two writers not usually considered part of the Canadian canon, although both lived in Canada for a while; Lucy Maud Montgomery—represented by a tearjerker about a faithful dog, which might have found its true audience in a Grade 6 reader, and Adrienne Clarkson (listed here under her maiden name of Poy)—with a story originally published in Maclean’s in 1961.The story itself has no merit; its inclusion cannot be justified on any aesthetic grounds.

Then there are the glaring omissions: Mordecai Richler, Norman Levine, John Metcalf, Hugh Hood, Clark Blaise, Jack Hodgins. Evidently, Urquhart’s is no country for old men. A previous incarnation of this anthology, The Penguin Book of Modern Canadian Short Stories, edited by Wayne Grady (1982), found room for Hood, Hodgins, and two stories by Levine. Brown and Bennett’s Canadian Short Stories includes Richler and Hodgins. Robert Lecker’s new anthology, Open Country (Thomson, 2008), aimed at the university CanLit market, has Hood, Metcalf, and Blaise, as well as most of Urquhart’s younger writers, plus Bill Gaston, Mark Anthony Jarman, Elise Levine, Douglas Coupland, and Alissa York, all of whom will be known to dedicated readers of Canadian fiction. Urquhart’s omission of five of the best short fiction writers in the Canadian canon (I’ll reluctantly omit Richler from the group, as he was never dedicated to the short story format), while including Montgomery, Selvon, Messud, Charles Ritchie, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, and the former Governor-General, seems, to put it mildly, bizarre.

From the selection of writers we move on to a consideration of the arrangement of stories in the volume—an equally curious piece of editing, in my view. The book is divided into 5 thematically distinct sections, and each section leads off with a memoir rather than a short story. Part 1 is about immigrants to Canada, and begins with Alice Munro’s “The View from Castle Rock,” which Urquhart terms “fictional family history.” In this section are stories by Alistair MacLeod, Sam Selvon, Claire Messud, Dennis Bock, M.G. Vassanji, Madeleine Thien, Austin Clarke, W.D. Valgardson, David Bezmozgis, Vincent Lam, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Rohinton Mistry. If Urquhart could have found a Portuguese or a Colombian Canadian, she would have squeezed them in for sure. The problem with this arrangement, as any university teacher or student could testify, is that while a grouping of thematically-related stories encourages fruitful comparison/contrast discussions, the inclusion of too many pieces on the same theme leads ultimately to boredom and the lessening of each individual story’s impact. “Canada,” Urquhart claims, “is an unusual country in that almost everyone who lives here carries in their psyche a personal attachment to an actual place and the emotional tug of an altered, abandoned, or stolen terrain.” Well, it would be an unusual country indeed in which this was not the case. Everyone everywhere has “a personal attachment to an actual place” and most people have left one place to go to another. This is the norm, not the exception. In every major city in the world, not just in Toronto, writers are busy telling stories of racism, broken dreams, cultural conflict, assimilation, the struggle to “make it.” Immigration—its trials and tribulations—is not a peculiarly Canadian theme, despite what Canadian academics like to tell us. And, even if we granted the theme of displacement as of paramount importance, we ought to admit that no-one has explored it with greater insight than Mavis Gallant. Of course, her setting was Europe, not Canada, and that appears to make all the difference for an anthology of Canadian fiction.

The second section of the anthology is entitled “This All Happened,” from Michael Winter’s book of the same name. Jane Urquhart argues that what the stories in this section have in common is that readers are likely to believe them to be true, which she seems to regard as a positive attribute. Surely, however, the worth of a piece of fiction ought not to rest on whether the reader believes it to be historically true or not. Are there readers who might value, let’s say, Pride and Prejudice more highly if it could be proved that it were true, that “this all happened” in the way Jane Austen described it? I don’t know any such readers, but if I did I would not wish to join their book club. Not content to let this theory rest, Urquhart must further embellish it:

The news these writers bring is not only that, at least narratively, these events did take place, but that something else, equally arresting and believable, is more than likely going to happen very soon.

A sequel then? “From the pen that brought you ‘The Dead’: ‘Meet the Conroys’”? The short story, pace Urquhart, is not a piece carved out of the reality show of a life, past or present. As readers, we are, of course, free to fantasize about fictional characters, but they won’t be moving to a neighbourhood near us any time soon. If Urquhart simply means “realism” or “verisimilitude,” or the willing suspension of disbelief, she might have mentioned that, but there’s nothing necessarily more realistic about the stories in this section than the stories by Laurence or Munro or Atwood or Shields that appear elsewhere in the volume. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this artificial division that insists on the truth of some stories and not others. That said, there are three excellent stories in this section: Lisa Moore’s “The Lonely Goatherd,” Michael Redhill’s “The Flesh Collectors,” and Caroline Adderson’s “And the Children Shall Rise.” My appreciation does not depend in any way on whether their stories actually happened. (But I rather hope they didn’t.)

The next section is titled “Lunch Conversation.” As near as I can determine, this is supposed to showcase fiction in which the writer shows how “the smallest object can resonate with significance.” Since this is pretty much the rule with all good short stories, I can’t see how these can be cordoned off from the rest and celebrated for a virtue neither particularly rare in good writers nor abundantly evident in this group. Michael Ondaatje is represented by two brief excerpts from Running in the Family, neither of which can be read as a short story. These are followed by two excerpts from Ethel Wilson’s The Innocent Traveller, which was never intended to be a short story collection. Timothy Findley’s “Real Life Writes Real Bad” is not much better than its title. But Lynn Coady’s “Jesus Christ, Murdeena” is the real thing. I don’t know that any small objects “resonate with significance” in this story, but it features a generally well-judged blend of faux-naif narration and hilarious dialogue. Murdeena is a small-town girl who comes to believe she is the second coming of the Messiah, and the story derives its humour and pathos from the conflict between Murdeena’s desire to heal and the townspeople’s wish to be left alone. There’s the odd clunky sentence in the story (Coady isn’t as skilled as, say, Leon Rooke in maintaining a consistent narrative voice) but this is a story that will make you want to read more of Coady’s work. (If you’re interested, “Jesus Christ, Murdeena” can be read online at http://www.barcelonareview.com/19/e_lc.htm.)

If there had to be a section that insisted on the historical reality of its selections, you could bet your bottom dollar there’d be another in which the opposite were true: stories that couldn’t possibly be true, stories rooted in myth and fantasy. Jane Urquhart calls this section “Paper Shadows,” after Wayson Choy’s memoir. As Urquhart puts it:

Imagination is the key word here: children float, lovers meet in dark and unusual places, time collapses, historical figures are reimagined. And almost everyone, one way or another, runs away with the gypsies.

The thought of a hundred pages of gypsy legends—worse still, Canadian gypsy legends—filled me with foreboding, but it turned out to be an allusion to Leon Rooke’s “Gypsy Art,” which is one of the better stories in the book. This and Thomas King’s “The Baby in the Airmail Box” and Annabel Lyon’s “Joe in the Afterlife” are the highlights of the section, which concludes with the final chapter of Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches. I suppose there must always be Leacock, and at least there are no floating children in Mariposa.

The anthology concludes with a section titled “My Grandfather’s House,” containing stories that “all deal in one way or another with this country’s past.” This is where all the old warhorses are stabled (those whom Urquhart chooses to call “our literary mothers and fathers”): Charles G. D. Roberts, Sinclair Ross, Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Gabrielle Roy, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Hugh Garner, Sheila Watson, Ernest Buckler. Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are thrown in for good measure, standing out like pearls in a bucket of chickpeas. Munro’s artistry is best seen in juxtaposition with Callaghan’s lack of it, as their selections are printed back to back. In “Let Me Promise You,” Callaghan wants to show us the fluctuating emotions of a pair of ill-matched lovers, the woman emotionally needy, the man embarrassed by her outbursts. But lacking the ability to subtly reveal character, Callaghan must continually inform the reader about the emotional states of his characters. Here’s a fair sampling of the story’s phrasing:

. . . her heart began to thump . . . she felt too shy. . . animated by a warm secret delight . . . he became embarrassed and almost too upset to speak . . feeling contentment . . . his embarrassment increased . . .he was so pleased now that he smiled serenely . . . He was ashamed to be going . . . almost blinded by his disappointment . . . His blue eyes were innocent with the sincerity of his full disappointment [this sounds like a sentence invented by a Callaghan parodist but I swear it isn’t] . . .such abject despair . . . they began to share a common, bitter disappointment. . his sudden tenderness for her was making him uneasy . . .Touched by happiness, she smiled . . .

That’s pretty much the whole story: you can fill in the action and dialogue with ease, but they don’t really matter. What is painfully apparent is the constant emotional sandbagging of the reader, the author always telling, never showing.

In contrast, Alice Munro allows her characters to act without authorial commentary (that is, without the direct intervention into the narrative of “Alice Munro”). By careful selection of detail, incident, and symbolic action, Munro creates, in “Meneseteung,” a devastatingly incisive portrayal of emotional repression in nineteenth-century small-town Ontario. What the story establishes is both the placid surface of small-town respectability and the violent undercurrent of passion and violation that wells up naturally in the “underclass” but is kept appropriately repressed by the genteel Almeda Roth and her potential suitor Jarvis Poulter. Only when Almeda loses control can Jarvis feel any sort of sexual attraction to her:

What Jarvis Poulter feels for Almeda Roth at this moment is just what he has not felt during all those circumspect walks and all his own solitary calculations of her probable worth, undoubted respectability, adequate comeliness. He has not been able to imagine her as a wife. Now that is possible. He is sufficiently stirred by her loosened hair—prematurely grey but thick and soft—her flushed face, her light clothing, which nobody but a husband should see. And by her indiscretion, her agitation, her foolishness, her need? “I will call on you later,” he says to her. “I will walk with you to church.”

What the choice of words conveys, of course, is that men are likely to be attracted only to vulnerable women—those who are capable of weakness and silliness and therefore able to make their husbands feel manly and powerful. When Almeda goes back in her house and locks the door, leaving Jarvis a note that says she is too unwell to see him, she, as it turns out, negates forever the possibility of their union. This can be interpreted—and no doubt has been—as a devastating portrait of the life-denying force of Victorian respectability. But the story gives us another view of Almeda after she locks herself in her house. Our attention is drawn to the inside of her house, its patterned decorations “charged with life, ready to move and flow and alter. Or possibly to explode.” Images of swelling and flowing predominate: the juice that Almeda intends to make into grape jelly overflows onto the floor, she feels her period coming on and her body is bloated, and of course, as a poet she is bursting with themes and images that she wishes to record:

Almeda is a long way now from human sympathies or fears or  cozy household considerations. She doesn’t think about what could be done for that woman or about keeping Jarvis Poulter’s dinner warm and hanging his long underwear on the line. The basin of grape juice has overflowed and is running over her kitchen floor, staining the boards of the floor, and the stain will never come out.

She has to think of so many things at once—Champlain and the naked Indians and the salt deep in the earth, but as well as the salt the money, the money-making intent brewing forever in heads like Jarvis Poulter’s. Also the brutal storms of winter and the clumsy and benighted deeds on Pearl Street. The changes of climate are often violent, and if you think about it there is no peace even in the stars. All this can be borne only if it is channelled into a poem, and the word “channelled” is appropriate, because the name of the poem will be—it is—“The Meneseteung.”

The Meneseteung River “with its deep holes and rapids and blissful pools” is the subject of the poem she will write, but it’s analogous also to Munro’s story of the same title, with its own deep psychological holes and rapids, which in focusing so intently on this burst of creativity in Almeda actually subverts the theme of repression and life-denial that the external events of her life have illustrated. Subtle readers might well be suspicious of this almost-too-obvious celebration of art and life; Munro is seldom so profligate with her symbols. And it must be remembered that the story is framed by the self-confessedly awkward attempts of its narrator to understand Almeda’s life and art; we are not obliged to identify that narrator with Alice Munro. The ambiguity of the ending (“I may have got it wrong”) underlines the difficulty of knowing precisely what Munro’s own attitude is towards Almeda. However, we can say with certainty that this is a story that, in the sophistication of its technical accomplishment and structural complexity, casts so much else in Urquhart’s anthology into the shadows.

In “The Problem with Alice Munro” (CNQ 72), Philip Marchand has likened her fiction to “a ballad with minor chords.” That’s a phrase that I can see applicable to a good deal of the work on display in The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories: grim and formulaic. But I would expect Munro herself from the charge; whether composed in major or minor chords, her fiction suggests not so much a ballad as a symphony.

One Response to The Canadian Short Story: A Ballad in Minor Chords

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