A Heart in Port.
A heart in port is an excellent collection of stories, intelligent, witty, tender and thoroughly entertaining. The fact that its author, Emily Givner, died in 2004 at the age of thirty-eight from an allergic reaction adds poignancy to her debut, to say the least (Alice Munro, in a rare blurb, writes, "I never met her, but I ache now for her loss"), and any critic must first separate the biographical tragedy from the work itself. This is no simple task, because the nine stories (some unfinished, and all selected by Sean Virgo, who acknowledges in a sensitive preface that there are "many others") focus with melancholic intensity on the fragile nature of human relationships and, for want of a better phrase, on the thread we're all hanging by. But it would be a disservice to Emily Givner's obvious craft, not to mention her lively and engaged approach to the world, to use her early death as a way to patronize her. She wrote well and died far too young--it is the first fact of that bald sentence which requires explication.
Each story in A heart in port, whether written in the first or third person, is filtered through the sensibility of a female protagonist (young except in one case), a seeker after meaning in love, work, friendship or art. These women--and this is a notable accomplishment in contemporary fiction--are uniformly attractive, interesting and, even when confused and suffering, mature. Givner possesses a truly rare facility for expressing character through tone; indeed, she understands how crucial tone is so much more than plot, for example--in the creation of the sort of intimate urgency the short story requires. What's even more impressive here, however, is the way in which each story's protagonist becomes an open doorway through which a diverse and fascinating array of characters continually walks. Classical musicians, troubled juveniles, pretentious artists, dog lovers, coffee addicts, restaurant workers, squabbling couples: Givner's world is at once familiar, alive with contemporary references, and unusually witnessed, seen through a more timeless gauze of artistic longing. If the content sometimes seems merely "hip," it is more often simply a mask for a more considered, deeper exploration of modern alienation.
Impressively, unlike many younger writers, Givner displays genuine empathy for both sexes--she recognizes that, fundamentally, the real struggle of her characters is not with issues of gender but with mortality. Because of this empathy, she can present, in three stories, variations on an older cultured European male involved romantically with a younger woman and not depict these sad, weary-wise classical musicians as one-dimensional predators. Similarly, one of the most moving and credible characterizations in the book, from the title story, is of Murray, a young man suffering with a degenerative lung condition. He is at once funny, maddening, pathetic and poignant, and Givner reveals him expertly through the eyes of one of her many gentle and searching female protagonists, a technique she uses often to excellent effect, most notably as well in "The Graveyard."
But to return to the author's sense of balance: I cannot think of a recent work of Canadian fiction that so skillfully, and with great comic understanding, dramatizes the interplay of the sexes. When Mickey, the hilariously eager door-to-door salesman in "Freedom Holes," is confronted with his young female trainee's need to pee outside, the exchange is both funny and true-to-life, free of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge tone less honest writers would employ:
"Mickey, I have to pee. I've been holding it for a while, hoping the urge might go away." "We'll go back to the woods. You can pee there." "What about toilet paper? Do you have any toilet paper?" "No. See, I don't have that problem, I don't need toilet paper. Most times, I tell the girls to use leaves, but the leaves are wet, so ..." He pulls his cigarettes out of his pocket and lights one. The heavy rain has stopped. It's drizzling. "Alright, then the woods it is."
More than any other quality, Givner's humour, best revealed through a truly masterful control of dialogue, makes her writing shine. Here's a typically well-paced and dramatic scene, from "The Blue Lobsters," in which the protagonist, Erika, takes her new boyfriend home for a family dinner:
After drinking two glasses of red wine and outlining his manpower problems, Erika's father, flushed in the face, started to dwell on Erika's decision to study acting. "You, see," he said, "when Erika was young, she taped posters of famous actors to the wall above her bed. Not real actors like Peter O'Toole or Jayne Mansfield, but characters like the Bionic Woman, what was her name?" Erika's mother gave her husband the look , as if to say now is not the time. "Lindsey Wagner," Erika said, her voice steely. "Lindsey Wagner," her father repeated. "And John Travolta. And, what's her name? The woman hugging John Travolta?" "Olivia Newton John," Erika sighed. "Olivia Newt'n John," her father repeated in a loud voice, conjuring up in the minds around him images of a salamander with long eyelashes and bright red lipstick. "Dad, say the name Isaac Newton," Erika said. "Isaac Newton, now that was a man!" said Erika's father. "When you say Isaac Newton, you say 'Newton' properly," said Erika. "Like Fig Newtons . When you say "Olivia Newton John, you say Olivia Newt'n John. Not that I'm a big fan of Olivia Newton John." "Formulated the law of gravitation, optical observations on the nature of light, by the time he was twenty-three. Twenty three ," he said, speaking to Erika directly. In case she missed the subtext, he added, "a year younger than yourself." "I thought Olivia Newton John was a singer, not an actress," said the paunchy colleague of Erika's father. "You know how things go these days," said his wife. "They're often interchangeable." "She acted in that movie Grease ," said Erika's mother. "With John Travolta. Now I think about it, we haven't heard much of them since."
The reader never quite knows where the dialogue is going, and that sense of being on the edge lends A heart in port its palpable quality of lived experience, of characters negotiating their way through a rich and unpredictable world. Even when, as in the title story, Givner steps out of the story for the sake of a joke, she's so funny that the technical clumsiness can be forgiven. Murray, the dying young man, wants desperately to go out to a bar, even if he has to take his portable oxygen. For several pages, his ex-girlfriend and his sister argue against the idea. The situation grows heated. Then, at the highest point of tension, comes a knock on the door:
Murray jumped up to answer it. Leda followed him into the foyer. A girl in a blue tunic smiled brightly. She had brown eyes shaped like almonds and red wavy hair. She held a box full of chocolate bars. "So cute," Leda gushed. She thought of Karel, what a daughter of his might look like. "Wanna buy a bar?" the girl asked. "No, I wanna go to the bar," said Murray and shut the door. "That wasn't very nice," said Leda. "You could have at least said, 'No, thank you.'"
Story after story contains so much wit and insight that it's almost easy to overlook the author's equally significant talent for evoking a painfully-tender melancholy. Her characters are vulnerable and they break, but Givner does not blame the world for this; instead, she seems, with her characters, to be seeking constantly a port for the nobler affections. In "The Graveyard," the last story in the collection, and an obviously unfinished one, the elderly narrator explains:
In my younger days, I possessed an eagerness to learn, to travel around the world, to spend evenings in the company of people discussing politics, literature, music and painting. Some of these things I accomplished--enough for me to believe that now, sitting in my apartment with a good book, I am for the most part satiated. My removal from the world in which younger people buzz around amidst the flowers of opportunity, dreaming of honeys not yet tasted, seems to me a natural state of affairs for someone my age. The point I am trying to make is that Gwen, at the age of twenty-five, lived a life almost parallell to mine. It was as if she had parachuted across forty-odd years, wanting nothing more than the simplest pleasures--peace and quiet, fresh air and solitude, wanting nothing more than what she had, which I now think was less than I required myself, for she neither read nor listened to music. In the evenings, after taking Yettie for a long walk, she would place a log in the fireplace and just sit there, the only music in the room provided by the sound of Yettie chewing on a bone.
Most of Givner's protagonists are in the process of this parachuting. Either they fall in love with musicians and artists, as in "In-Sook," "Polonaise," "The Blue Lobster," and "A heart in port," or, more spectacularly, as in the wonderful and perhaps most fully realized piece of fiction in the book, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Cockroach," they encounter death as a form of release from life's constraints and prejudices. Clarissa, the asthmatic protagonist of the latter story, an inventive gloss on Kafka's The Metamorphosis, constructs a Hallowe'en costume of a giant cockroach in order to escape the unwanted attentions of others foisted on her as a result of her remarkable beauty and fragile condition. The costume is more than a metaphor; it becomes the vehicle of Clarissa's ultimate tragedy and the cause of a last sentence as moving as it is technically inspired.
Much could be made of Givner's interest in surrealistic effects, in her daring explorations of form. When, in "In-Sook," for example, the glass eyeball of a character suddenly begins speaking to another character, the reader knows he is in the presence of an author alive to fictive possibilities. And if, as in this story, the curious plot development and comic irony are a little too derivative of Flannery O'Connor, one can only respond with "Well, how much better to emulate Flannery O'Connor than Charles Bukowski, which is what so many young writers set out to do."
But Giver is not entirely free of the tendency to borrow from stereotypical situations that plagues modern fiction. "Canadian Mint," for example, is a rather routine depiction of juvenile street life (and, not surprisingly, this story was a winner in the Toronto Star's summer fiction competition--newspapers always like fiction that reads as if it came from a newspaper story about street life). Similarly, "Private Eye," in which a young runaway becomes involved with an actor who's researching to play a runaway, lacks the depth of most of the stories. At times, too, Givner awkwardly tacks on something "meaningful," as in "Freedom Holes," which introduces George Bush and American Imperialism in a way that feels inorganic to the story's development.
These are quibbles, however, and I mention them only to suggest that Emily Givner was still experimenting, still seeking a technical expertise to match her warm, witty and deeply human vision. (In fairness, too, it should be stressed that she did not prepare these stories herself for book publication). Indeed, as a letter quoted in the introduction makes clear, Givner possessed a genuine fascination with formal daring: "I am not particularly comfortable with the pared down, classic short story form, as I don't see life that way." As for the surrealistic effects, she remarks, tellingly, "I think in all strong writing there is something very weird."
Weird, yes, and A heart in port contains many unexpected moments. But the real accomplishment of Givner's fiction is how the comic and surprising, the witty pop culture references and tough girl school-of-hard-knocks wisdom, repeatedly give way to something deeper and more powerful. Perhaps this is because the author lived her abbreviated life under a heavier shadow of mortality than most of us have to bear, or perhaps she was simply born with a sensibility ripe for the rare maturations of art. Whatever the case, it's obvious Canadian Literature has lost a significant creative talent, one that would undoubtedly have blossomed into genius. A heart in port is as delightful a work of fiction as I've read in years and it is a profound tragedy that Emily Givner is not here to push her talent into ever-richer and more daring forms of expression.
Happily, we have these nine stories, and Sean Virgo, Thistledown Press, and the author's mother, Joan Givner, deserve our thanks for this much. Thistledown, however, must be upbraided for its abysmal job of proofreading the text, which is rife with typos--resemblance is spelled wrong in the bold title of one story, and the name of hockey star, Wayne Gretzky, is misspelled "Gretsky" four times in just over a paragraph. Such carelessness is inexcusable in any book, but especially disconcerting in a collection that is a labour of love, pride and grief for a young writer who could not be present to prepare her stories for final publication. I sincerely hope that when a second collection of Emily Givner's short fiction appears, as it should, it receives the attention to detail worthy of the carefully-evoked stories the author cared so deeply about.