THE SHORT STORY
Close to poetry in its love of language
Reading Caroline Adderson's prose after wading through the leaden, child-pleasing stories of our prize-winners (not mentioning any [Vincent Lam] names) is like being let through the door from the grey Ikea-furnished nursery into a sunlit garden full of adults. One lets out a happy sigh, loosens one's tie and accepts an intriguing and unusual drink. I could stay in her world all weekend. In fact, I just did.
Adderson, a novelist and storyist from Vancouver, has just published a collection of stories called Pleased to Meet You, and it is my favourite book of the year so far; my favourite Canadian book of the past five.
Her language is so textured it's almost - almost, but not quite - difficult; reading a paragraph of hers is a pleasure not unlike playing with some flashing video game. It's absorbing and delightful. I laughed out loud on several occasions and cried once. (The crying one was weird: not at the sad single-mom story, nor at the sad bullied-guy story, nor at the mean dad story, but at the title story, the one story with the hint, just the future possibility, of a happy ending.) Each of these stories begins as a puzzle, a mystery. ("First the pentagram. It preoccupies Inge all day," begins one.)
There are strange characters in the middle of some complicated situation and it takes you a few pages to deduce exactly what and where. Writing manuals often teach the idea of change as the guiding arc in any narrative: A character must have a change of fortune, a change of heart, learn something; that's how you end. But not all of these conclude with a change or an epiphany. Their payoffs are really the reader's realization of what is going on and has been going on; they don't have plots so much as a falling-into-place. In this sense, they fall into the minimalist tradition of so much recent fiction:
They are short, unexplained slices of interesting people's complicated lives. In content, perhaps, yes, but in style, they are hardly minimalist. "On the ceiling the smoke detector pants, open-mouthed. Black wire tongue, red wire tongue." This is a fiction of startling images made by metaphors and insights, as dense as poetry: "... the condominium across the alley entirely swathed in blue plastic. Three years ago our own building wore this same costume. Entire Vancouver neighbourhoods have. Ours is a city dreamed by Christo."
Who but a genius would see a cat litter box and describe it brimming with "abstract figurines of desiccated shit"? Abstract figurines! It's not surprising that our most talented writers are still working in this famously Canadian-dominated genre. What is surprising is that their publishers and agents, and possibly their families, try as hard as they can to dissuade them from it. Well, it's not that surprising: Short-story collections don't sell very well. People want novels. Actually, they don't even want novels, they want biography and self-help.
Actually, they don't want books at all, they want reality TV shows about losing weight - but okay, of those who do want to read books, and of that small number those who want to read fiction, most want novels. This year, a couple of large publishers have been brave and put some marketing vim behind hardcover story collections - Craig Boyko's Blackouts, from McClelland & Stewart, and Anthony De Sa's Barnacle Love, from Doubleday, for example. This may be, in part, due to Vincent Lam's having won the big shebang with a story collection two years ago; so there may be some good effects from the Giller Prize after all. Why do people find stories more difficult? Adderson answered this question herself, to some public consternation, at a couple of appearances at the Luminato Festival currently going on in Toronto.
At a panel discussion in a public library, she said she thought that the pleasure of the short story did not lie so much in its story as in its language. This caused some raised voices in the question-and-answer period. In a second discussion, she expanded on this: The short story, she said, was closer to the poem; the novel was closer to drama (plays and films). Certainly this is true of the contemporary literary story, which at its best is more of a polished and prismatic gem than a parable. It's natural that this stymies some readers reared on O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe who expect stories to have a surprising yet satisfying twist as their dénouement. It's hard to come to a narrative form, so used as we are to the climactic scenes of long narratives, without much expectation of a resolution, much less a moral lesson.
Adderson even admitted that when she creates her narratives she is more guided by the explosions of language in her brain than by any preconceived story: The language that comes to her will actually lead the story. This might explain more than anything why short stories seem more difficult than novels, and also why they are, like poetry, where the unexpected and unformulaic tend to happen.
Russell Smith, Globe & Mail
Adderson is a master of the short story form...These are stories that you can read in the length of a subway ride, but they will stay with you long afterwards.
Women's Post Toronto
...compact, lively prose and realistic dialogue move the stories along smartly... deftly combines seriousness and levity.
Adderson's stories are filled with flawed souls that are up against conflict...She doesn't always present them in a sympathetic manner, but whether or not you like a particular character, the stories cozy up to you, and you have no choice but to go on to the next.
Quill & Quire
...sharp, witty, painful and touching... Nine stories, nine acts of desperate hope for the reader that are well worth taking.
...a sardonic, bulletproof literary achievement...
...insightful, gritty, stark, elegant and poised. Like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood before her, she owns this genre.
The Hamilton Spectator
Adderson is a superb stylist, and these are classic examples of the storyteller's art.
Both troubling and reassuring at once... It was almost a guilty pleasure to recognize, but not be personally experiencing, the churning thoughts I was reading.
The Vancouver Review
In Adderson's well-wrought tales, the unexpected is the one thing on which we can rely.
The National Post
Caroline Adderson has a talent-- or is it a trick?-- for making you think there's nothing much wrong in the small worlds of her short stories. You drift along in that drugged state of literary contentment, grateful for her precise economy with the language, her eye for everyday detail, her patient recording of the average Vancouverite's life-- and then something shakes you out of artistic slumber and you realize how much trouble is concealed beneath all these placid surfaces.
The Globe and Mail
Adderson's stories are haunting. Her straight-forward prose is deceptively simple, cutting through to the point in a subtle way, leaving the reader surprised to be thinking about her characters long after they've closed the book.
Every story delivers just enough to disturb, delight and fascinate.
The stories begin with the common ground of the ordinary, build rapport as we imagine their experiences, move us somewhere unexpected with the emotion, and then inspire us to fumble for hope and insight, for empowerment.
Prairie Fire Magazine
...with Pleased to Meet You, the short story becomes an art form. We meet the most interesting people throughout every story, with visual descriptions that take you into the heart of the tale.
Atwood has publicly praised Adderson, and it makes sense; there's a similar sensibility at work here. Like Atwood, she is resolute in her refusal to tell readers how to feel, instead laying out the story with an equanimity that sometimes leaves you cold. But then it dawns on you: the void you feel isn't coming from the text, it's coming from you. It's only that Adderson isn't rushing in to fill in what you lack. She's waiting for you to do it yourself.
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