A Tale of Four Storytellers

March 31, 2015 by Zachariah Wells

In a recent interview Molly Peacock, talking about her collection of unconventional fictions Alphabétique, says “we’re missing out on the fable. Literature that comes out of essential needs for identity is necessarily realist. But there’s a different tradition of literature that comes out of the play of imagination. Because fantasy traditions come out of folklore, folk tale, fairy tale, mythology, and what we think of as 'old culture.' I’m wondering: is Canadian culture old enough to make a literature of fantasy?”

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In a recent interview Molly Peacock, talking about her collection of unconventional fictions Alphabétique, says “we’re missing out on the fable. Literature that comes out of essential needs for identity is necessarily realist. But there’s a different tradition of literature that comes out of the play of imagination. Because fantasy traditions come out of folklore, folk tale, fairy tale, mythology, and what we think of as 'old culture.' I’m wondering: is Canadian culture old enough to make a literature of fantasy?”

Even if one bristles at the too-oft-repeated canard about the youth of Canadian culture, it's hard not to nod along with Peacock's main point. While Canadians have made top-calibre contributions to the canon of the short story, the heavy-hitters we think of immediately—Munro, MacLeod, Gallant—are famed for crafting stories that reflect plausible, “real life” dramas. Which is not to say that such stories could ever be written without bringing to bear “the play of imagination,” nor that such stories are not, in their way, stylized artifices. Rather, the conventions of the realistic short story do not typically permit acts of magic, surreal leaps, or oneiric weirdness.

Suspicion of such unruly elements is hardly unique to Canada. English novelist Ian McEwan once said that “[i]t's enough to try and make some plausible version of what we've got, rather than have characters sprout wings and fly out the window”—which sounds an awful lot like a shot across the bow of rival writer Angela Carter's phantasmagorical novel Nights at the Circus, which does indeed feature a subversive protagonist who engages in acts of winged auto-defenestration.

English Canada has, arguably, taken WASPish skepticism of fable and myth—the “primitive” stories of “preliterate” peoples—to its nadir with suppression of First Nations myth tales, rituals, and belief systems—a campaign of cultural cleansing that counted Confederation Poet Duncan Campbell Scott among its generals. In the 1980s, in Gitxsan land claims hearings in Smithers, BC, Chief Justice Allen McEachern deemed inadmissible hundreds of hours of testimony in the form of oral history and song, telling elder Mary Johnson, “I have a tin ear … It’s not going to do any good to sing to me. … I don’t think that this is the way this part of the trial should be conducted. I just don’t think it’s necessary. I think it is not the right way to present the case.”

Molly Peacock would no doubt be glad to know that, while fabulist writing is far from mainstream, she is not alone, and that not all white Canadian writers have been so wedded to the hyper-rational, conventions of realism and naturalism as to err in the discriminatory manner of McEwan, Scott, and McEachern.

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In The Reasonable Ogre: Tales for the Sick and Well (Biblioasis), novelist, poet, essayist, and story writer Mike Barnes not only has a sick girl, Moira, sprout wings and fly out the window, she flies all the way to the moon, where she encounters a colony of moon children, who spend their days subsisting on lunar jamcake and looking through telescopes at people living their lives on Earth. It's a profoundly sad story, as are many of the dozen tales in Barnes's collection. In “The Glass Garden,” a bookish young girl, Penelope, escapes from her sensualist parents into a parallel dimension. The flights framed in both these fictions are not escapist fugues in which characters refuse to “face facts,” but actually bring their protagonists to states of heightened awareness of life's complexities and pain.

Barnes can also be very wry, however, and reserves some of his best jokes for the art of storytelling itself. In “Sloth's Minions,” the spinning of yarns is a decidedly lazy man's art and in “The Jailed Wizards,” a wizard who has been beaten and imprisoned by a rival reflects on his past defeat of “a very minor wizard. The defeated wizard had been a storyteller, which is one of the lowest and most common grades of magic.” Now that he himself has been captured and rendered powerless, however, “the jailed wizard struggled to remember what he had once known of this lesser magic. A story was at least a way of reaching other ears. This, after freedom, was what he longed for most.” By luring ants into his ear with breadcrumbs, he transmits the stories to them from his brain, then releases the ants into the world. One ant finds its way to “an old, sick storyteller” who “no longer had the strength to make up stories on his own,” but “hope[d] that one would come to him by itself.” Attracted to the old storyteller's scattered sugar crumbs, the ant walks through his spilled ink and starts writing the jailed wizard's tale. Working within the tradition of the fairy tale, Barnes shows the reader that his art form has as much to do with being well-positioned to receive a story as it does with having the skill to transmit it. A big part of the storytelling in this book, it should be mentioned, is accomplished graphically, as Barnes's prose is accompanied by seventy arresting ink-wash illustrations by part-Ojibwa artist Segbingway.

Saskatchewan-based multi-genre writer Seán Virgo shows a similar predilection for meta-fiction in his collection Dibidalen (Thistledown Press). The subtitle of the book is “Ten Stories,” but this is a deceptively small tally. One of the liberating elements of the folk tradition is its multiplication of narrators. Whereas a realist story typically has one omniscient or first-person speaker controlling the narrative, a folktale can explode into a polyphonic riot of voices, each with its own tale to tell and its own manner of telling. A prose story might just break into verse or song, as happens in a few of Virgo's fables; one story might be interrupted by another; expectations of linear progress can be delightfully frustrated.

Dibidalen is a book full of framed narratives—stories nested within and bouncing off of other stories—but the book itself is the most fascinating frame of them all. A reader will blast through the first seven stories in under fifty pages, encountering for the most part fairly conventional fairy-tale themes, tropes, and motifs. These stories feature openings that reject the realist predilection for in media res immersions, in favour of once-upon-a-time gambits like “There was a man,” “There was a boy,” “There was a woman.” Protagonists are typically left unnamed, which makes them more archetypes than characters. The settings involve non-specific locales (a village, a valley, a forest) and times which tend to have an olden feel; we encounter no cars or computers, no cell phones or microwaves. The first sign of modernity the reader comes across is a bus in “The Castaway,” the book's sixth story. These stories are beautifully written, concise and compelling. While they don't feel derivative of well-known fairy tales, neither has Virgo done much in them to render his narratives modern.

As with so many stories in the folk tradition, metamorphosis plays a key role in some of Virgo's plots. A boy becomes a cat; a shark becomes a woman; time itself stretches and warps in a manner incommensurable with the classical unities that define realist storytelling. But the most significant transformation occurs within the chrysalis of the book itself. The last three stories are thirty-to-sixty pages long and are notably more contemporary as well as more self-consciously meta-fictional. In “Gramarye,” reference is made to Andrew Lang's series of fairy books, and the book's title story is, in part, about anthropological recording of traditional oral tales in a remote Norwegian valley. Virgo's masterful book is, in essence, an account of the story of stories: their origins, their survival, their mutation through time and space.

Kathy Page, originally from England, is best known for her realist fiction. Her recently republished prison novel, Alphabet, has been praised for its gritty fidelity to the prisoner's experience in the English penal system. Page's editor, John Metcalf, admitted to her that he has a McEwanesque “prejudice against non-realistic writing,” and was therefore reluctant even to read the manuscript of Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis), which Page had submitted at the same time as a collection of more conventional stories. When she prevailed upon him to give the fabulist book a chance, it turned out that he liked it a great deal.

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As have many readers and awards jurors, perhaps because of the very archetypal nature of the collection's tales. Tolstoy, who looked to the art of the peasantry for models, famously said that “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The latter plot is crucial to Page's dark fables. The place where the stranger arrives is not usually a town, per se, but the settings of Page's stories tend to be hostile, isolated, inhospitable zones. If these are not always “the places where things begin,” as the book's cover copy proclaims, they are certainly the sort of place, like the Galapagos, where things, be they species or languages or stories, mutate into unique, heterogeneous forms—the sort of place where a stranger's arrival means trouble.

Indeed, one of the book's most trenchant themes is the troubled interpenetration of the modern and the pre-historical. In “G'Ming,” the book's first story, the narrator is Aeui, a teenager on an impoverished island who bilks tourists of money in exchange for “authentic” exposure to village life. While Aeui disdains the gullibility of his marks, he is also contemptuous of his shaman uncle who “sits by the river all day. It seems to me he has no obligations.” The next story, “Lak-ha” is the very brief origin myth for a community that clings to life on an exposed, stony peninsula, supported by the Hetlas tree, the fibrous wood of which, it turns out, is very good for making rope. A chance visit from a foreign ship brings commercial exchange to Lak-ha. The rope trade affords a measure of prosperity to the people, who now “have television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.”

As in Barnes' and Virgo's books, the nature of storytelling, its origins and its future, the imperatives of “objective” journalism or science in conflict with myth, feature prominently. In “Clients,” a fable set in an unspecified future time in which the rage for expertise has infiltrated all aspects of society, a couple hires a professional conversationalist who “doubt[s] that [they] would enjoy a home-grown conversation.” They decide to give it a go regardless and the story ends with them as an Edenic couple, speaking to each other haltingly, making the first hesitant, unmediated forays into language, “a new country, vast, intricate, ours.”

If the fabulist story is defined in large measure by its non-conformance to the classical unities of action, time and place proposed by Aristotle, then the twenty-three zany tales of Stuart Ross's Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books), defined in opposition to normal Canuck fare by its publisher as “anything but a collection of linked stories in a homogeneous voice,” take the genre's subversive spirit to the next level. Ross is less attached to Old World models than Barnes, Virgo, and Page; drawing on the absurdism and surrealism of such writers as Ionesco, Beckett, Breton, Gogol, Kafka et al., his stories—which run anywhere from two pages to forty-plus—are places where anything can happen.

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In the title story, the speaker claims to be 3,012 years old, which makes slightly more credible his claim that “after several years [I] remembered I was running an errand.” Once he does remember, his “journey home [is] filled with fairy-tale marvels.” Naturally. In another story, the Pope comes to crash on the narrator's couch in Toronto. Of course. In the “post-gothic novella” “Guided Missiles,” the protagonist contemplates crafting “[a] transcription of Don Quixote composed entirely of dead flies”—and by this point, the reader shrugs and thinks, “Sure, why not? It's no odder than anything else I've encountered here.”

As in the folk and fairy tale, the errant logic of dreams holds sway as much in a Stuart Ross story as the solid logic of “reality.” A defining characteristic of shamanistic culture is that the facts of life are not privileged over the facts of dreams, an ethos encapsulated, matter-of-factly, by the narrator of Ross's “The Interview”:

My feet have touched more pavement than dirt. When I say pavement, I refer to everything that is not dirt. When I say dirt, I refer to the everything that is not pavement. ... When I say pavement, I include the floor of my father's car, the monkey bars in the park, the hardwood surface of my bedroom floor, the carpet in my aunt's living room and den. I also have to throw in escalators, linoleum, and the endless metal fields of my dreams.

Ross employs an almost overwhelming variety of styles, voices, and narrative tricks in fashioning his stories, but what makes them tick, ultimately, are elements common to any successful piece of writing: crisp, clear prose, excellent timing, and a fine balance of pathos and humour. His stories may take off in every which direction, but they rarely spin out of control.

It's probably no coincidence that three of these four authors are not fiction specialists, but also poets, since leaps and non-linearity are normal features of poetry. Page is the only one who has not published a collection of poems, but her book ends with “My Fees,” a particularly poetic story in which the narrator says, “I understand that we all speak poetry,” and goes on to catalogue an inventory of dreams. It is perhaps also not a coincidence that three of the four, like dual American-Canadian citizen Molly Peacock, were born outside of Canada. Barnes, like Peacock, is from the US; Page, as mentioned, hails from England; Virgo was “born in Malta and grew up in South Africa, Ireland and the UK.” Only Ross was born and raised in Canada, but his immigrant Jewish heritage has given him an inheritance distinct from the WASP culture out of which the canon of Canadian Literature emerged. None of this makes any of these writers less “Canadian”; it just proves that a Canadian, like a short story, can be anything.

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Zachariah Wells lives in Halifax. His most recent book is the poetry collection Sum.


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