Realistic to bizarre: from photography to a high-school massacre, a range of settings and emotions.
Bang Crunch Neil Smith Knopf 244 pages, hardcover ISBN 9780676978360
A short-story collection may be unified to a greater or lesser extent. At one end of the spectrum is the story cycle, in which the stories are tightly connected through a common theme, character or setting; at the other is the collection in which a motif provides symbolic links in otherwise disparate stories.
Structurally and stylistically, Optique by Clayton Bailey and Bang Crunch by Neil Smith are dramatic contrasts. Bailey's stories are all connected through a motif--photography and photographs--while only two of Smith's tales are related, the link being made through character. The collections also present striking differences in the handling of language and narrative.
The 16 stories in Optique are set in various periods, and all involve photographs in some way. Most protagonists are affected somehow by a family member's or friend's photograph; some are themselves photographers or their assistants. Bailey's stories offer a remarkable range of approaches to the photograph as symbol. On the other hand, the photograph is an oft-used symbol and narrative device in Canadian--and, more generally, contemporary--literature. (Indeed, in 1988 Lorraine York published The Other Side of Dailiness, a book-length study of the role of photography in the works of Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Laurence.) It may be overly harsh to describe the symbol as a cliche, and Bailey's stories are too interesting to be dismissed on those grounds; still, the motif does get repetitious. The problem is less with the individual stories, which generally work well on their own, as with their being brought together this way.
The stories are also unified by the point of view, which is consistently first person, and the narratives are addressed to other characters, often those appearing in the photographs. This second-person technique, like the photographic motif, becomes repetitive over the course of so many stories, losing its impact if the stories are read all at once. On the other hand, Bailey offers great variety in character and geographic and temporal setting. Most stories are set in the past, as far back as the 19th century, and the best ones evoke the days when phones were made of varnished wood ("Talisman") and cameras used glass plates ("Yang").
The stories often involve mysteries evoked by photographs that characters then endeavour to solve. The narrator of "A House in the Clouds" is a girl seeking answers to her questions about a closely guarded family secret involving a recently deceased uncle. The truth is somewhat predictable, although the narrator's own response is less so. In "Delivery," the narrator is the wife of a man who loves to tell stories, especially about his childhood. He describes his encounter with life's darker side when he was a paperboy and required to deliver papers to his town's poorer residents. That often seamy side is represented by a pornographic picture that comes to haunt the narrator herself. In "Androids," a carpenter engaged in the demolition of houses in a small town becomes intrigued by the mystery surrounding a turn-of-the-century circus act. His research leads him to meet and fall in love with the town librarian. In the title story, a son finally returns to his home town to attend his abusive father's funeral. A photo allows him to copy his father's appearance--but only so that he can finally reject his family ties. In "Yang," a resourceful daguerreotypist comes up with a way to reassure the narrator's mother that he and his twin brother--a casualty of war--are all right. Most of the stories are quite grim, and, perhaps because of the historical settings, the language is sometimes stilted. The price of Bailey's attempt to recreate earlier speech patterns in some stories is a loss of immediacy, a distancing sometimes symbolized but not relieved by the role of photographer.
Neil Smith's collection features more contemporary settings and a far more straightforward style. His stories are less enigmatic than Bailey's, as his characters express their feelings more openly to the reader and each other. Bang Crunch, unlike Optique, achieves its effects not through heightened style but by sharp images and emotionally charged situations. The first story, "Isolettes," is a moving account of a single mother dealing with the trials of her premature baby, whom she somewhat accidentally named B, and her own reactions to the experience. The woman, An, desperately wants to love B, but finds it difficult to feel deeply about anyone. She and her friend Jacob--the gay father of her child--jokingly say, "I don't love you" to each other, and it is literally true. But behind the humour are disturbing implications about An's emotional abilities. "Scrapbook" concerns the aftermath of a high-school massacre reminiscent of the shootings at the Polytechnique in Montreal, as the murderer selects only girls for his victims. Those who escaped endure waves of rage, shame and survivor's guilt. The main character, Amy, cannot help wondering why the boys were spared and did not do more to stop Bud MacDonald from continuing his killing spree. But no one emotion dominates her response to the trauma; instead, she experiences a variety of often contradictory feelings. The narrator of "The Butterfly Box" is the son and favourite model of a well-known artist. Like Amy, Jack must wrestle with mixed emotions as his love for and pride in his father conflict with the sense of being little more than artistic material for him. The longest piece in the collection is "Jaybird," about a group of actors whose emotional ties are so thoroughly superficial it appears that some of them--especially the protagonist, Benoit--never stop acting.
The connected stories in the collection are "Green Fluorescent Protein" and "Funny Weird or Funny Ha-Ha." The narrator of the first is Max, a teenager experiencing a crisis of sexual identity. His best friend is a gifted boy whose interest in genetics and metamorphosis takes on symbolic meaning at the end of the story. Max's mother, Peggy, is an alcoholic who has had her late husband cremated and his ashes placed in a hollowed-out curling stone. She narrates the second story, and shows that she cannot let go of Carl and continues to converse with him.
Two stories are fantastic. The dominant symbol in "Bang Crunch" is the Big Bang and the theory that gravity might cause the universe's matter to converge once more in the "Big Crunch." The main character is Eepie Carpetrod, a girl with a syndrome that causes her to age and regress within a few short years. The story is about her rapid growth, her love affair with Roy, who has Tourette's syndrome, and her return to infancy. "Extremities," an imaginative tour de force, is undoubtedly the best story I have ever read, narrated by a severed foot and portraying the life of a pair of gloves.
These are excellent collections, although Optique is perhaps more admirable than truly likeable. Bang Crunch, meanwhile, is vibrant, witty and engaging. While largely realistic, both collections succeed in taking their readers into fascinating other worlds, and offering vivid portraits, both photographic and otherwise, of the characters who inhabit them.
Allan Weiss is a short-story writer living in Toronto. He is a professor of English and humanities at York University, specializing in fantastic literature. His story cycle Living Room appeared in 2001 (Boheme Press). His website is <www.allanweiss.com>.
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|Title Annotation:||Optique; Bang Crunch|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2007|
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