Monkeys, Fools: The Uproarious Sadness of Anna Leventhal’s Sweet Affliction

February 26, 2015 by Andrew Forbes

Fiction is many things, but let’s agree that at its most basic, it’s nothing more than the frenzied pursuit of truth via the use of the made-up. Novels do this on a macro scale, and while the short story has similar aims to the novel – to access truth through fiction – it arrives there via a different route. It’s truth minus the sprawl. Think of the story as a thing with no extra parts; a novel can have extra parts, it can take excursions, but a story is a small, tight thing.

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Fiction is many things, but let’s agree that at its most basic, it’s nothing more than the frenzied pursuit of truth via the use of the made-up. Novels do this on a macro scale, and while the short story has similar aims to the novel – to access truth through fiction – it arrives there via a different route. It’s truth minus the sprawl. Think of the story as a thing with no extra parts; a novel can have extra parts, it can take excursions, but a story is a small, tight thing. It takes the same elements as does a novel and compresses them into something diamond-hard and unbreakable. You can, I believe, test a story’s integrity by asking: If I remove any one part, scene or interaction, no matter how seemingly trivial, does the story still work? Now ask the same thing of your favourite novel.

The short story, when it functions well, is something quite distinct, the combination of an offhand party trick and an exquisitely handcrafted miniature model of life, its gears and arms, wheels and motors working in perfect concert to convincingly render on page or screen the emotional complexity present in our real lives. As such, a story must understand that no emotion is pure or singular, that no feeling is an island. It must know that we are as likely to cry after sex as we are to laugh at a funeral, and within its compact, efficient structure, it must demonstrate that knowledge. It needn’t give the reader absolutely everything – every interaction, every fact, every detail. It cannot be a widescreen high-def technicolor IMAX epic. But in place of all that detail and accounting, the short story, and thus the short story writer, must provide the suggestion that he or she possesses an understanding of the rich emotional contradictions that make us human. In real life, we don’t just get happy or sad. Our emotions are a fair deal messier than that. Confusion has drinks with Certainty. Happiness keeps Crippling Depression tucked in its back pocket. Confidence exchanges frequent texts with Doubt. Short fiction, if it is to be of any use or consolation to us, must contain these contradictions.

Stories work when the above-mentioned elements are present. And the stories in Sweet Affliction, the debut collection by Montreal writer Anna Leventhal, work precisely because of the harmony achieved between all these things: humanity, heart, construction, setting, truth, emotional complexity. They work because their maker understands how to make them.

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“Time will make monkeys of us all,” opines Maitland, the problematic and manipulative title character of one of the fifteen stories. It’s an apt summary of the book, though it comes cloaked in a red herring, for “Maitland,” which depicts a banal sort of underlying menace and off-screen sexual violence, is the least humourous story on offer – or perhaps its humour is simply the driest. Elsewhere, stories about pregnancy tests, dead rats, cancer diagnoses, and raw emotional revelation are delivered with abundant humour. Point of fact, the book is at times laugh-out-loud funny, but still unremittingly honest about the prevalence of sadness in our lives. The presence of both elements is no coincidence; it’s the former which makes the latter so routinely devastating.

“I aim for accuracy more than funniness,” says Leventhal, “and sometimes am not aware that something's funny until I read it out loud to an audience and get a laugh. Sometimes things are just weird, and the more plainly you describe them, the funnier they are, because of the tension between the raw bald bizarre fact of something and the attempt to render it understandable.”

The beautiful sadness of Leventhal’s stories – the sweetness afflicting them, and all the characters drawn therein – comes from the usual sources: regret, the inexorable slippage of time, loneliness, our unavoidable deaths. But what rescues them from being insufferably maudlin is the author’s deft touch with a funny line of dialogue, or a leftfield simile. The commingling of laughter and tears is not accidental, suggests Leventhal: “I think humour and sadness go hand in hand, not just because one makes the other more poignant but because each is a condition of the other's existence. They're two sides of the same coin. Comedy isn't just a way of dealing with the world's heavy issues or whatever, making them seem not so bad... it's a byproduct. The funniest people I know are also the saddest.”

Hubristically armed with my own experience of the city, and a suggestion from no less knowledgeable a source than the Montreal Review of Books – which surmised that Leventhal “draws inspiration from the mix of earnestness and helplessness that’s the zeitgeist of a certain Montreal lifestyle” – I propose to Leventhal that this comfort with, and even resignation in the face of sadness reflected a sensibility particular to the city in which she lives and works, and where many of the stories in Sweet Affliction are explicitly set. She was quick to disabuse me of the notion.

“I actually think that if anything I have a Winnipeg sensibility (that's where I grew up) and I use it to write about Montreal,” she says. “Winnipeggers are very self-deprecating and very at home with misery, but also have a highly-developed sense of irony and an appreciation for the absurd. The term "tragicomic" is very Winnipeg to me.” She goes on to point out that the proliferation of a robust, ongoing student protest movement in Montreal suggests a civic population resistant to the sort of shrugging resignation we might typically associate with certain other cities. After all, she points out, “where else do people hold protests and sit-ins when their favourite cinema is threatened with closure? Not Toronto. In Toronto they probably blog about it.”

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Whether the author’s sensibilities derive from Montreal or Winnipeg, several of the stories in the book could be set nowhere but in the largest Francophone city in North America. “Moving Day,” for example, is a Short Cuts-like wide pan across several Montreal neighbourhoods on July 1st, the date when leases in the city traditionally expire, making for a hectic day of relocation for thousands of residents. The mixture of hope, anxiety, friction, and dislocation present during this unique upheaval produces fertile dramatic ground. Elsewhere, Leventhal decorates her stories with the sorts of details – bilingual protests, a boy band called Gare Garcon, the smell of bagels wafting across city streets, and vegan eateries offering a “spicy lentil sludge” – that could only spring from the soil of Quebec’s distinct society. Throughout, what draws the author to the city’s inhabitants is what she calls the “combination of energy and fatigue, of appetite for the fight and weariness of the fight.” Montreal – its neighbourhoods and its vacant lots, the sheer diversity of lives lived within the city – is something of a sandbox in which Leventhal is free to play, shaping, building, levelling, dropping characters at different spots on the island to chronicle how their interactions play out.

Leventhal counts among her influences Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh, and Grace Paley, and she’s taken to using Montreal the way Isherwood did Berlin, Waugh London, and Paley New York. For each, the use of a steady or frequent backdrop has allowed the foreground to pop more vibrantly. Location is, in each case, the stage upon which the dramatic scenes are enacted, but also unique enough to exert influence on the action. In short, Montreal is not New York or Berlin (or Winnipeg). It is solely and emphatically Montreal. Leventhal knows that, and so do her full and believable characters.

Leventhal’s other influences – both avowed and apparent – include Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, and Amy Hempel, saints of the short story all. Munro’s influence feels most acute in the aforementioned “Maitland,” a deft study of relationships in the wake of a horrible act, buried deep in the past, but far from dormant. Like a Munro story, “Maitland” allows actions which have occurred beyond its pages to serve as the source of tension or torque on the lives of its characters, and goes about tracing their subsequent reactions. Present in the story, and indeed in several of Sweet Affliction’s other offerings, is an underlying sexual menace which follows its female characters throughout their lives, a constant underlying threat which affects them in myriad ways (“I could be a rapist,” says an old man in a tweed coat, “How do you know?”). It is an unfortunate mark of these characters’ realism and maturity, as well as of the maturity of these stories, that recognizing and accommodating that threat is a natural and necessary condition of life.

From Denis Johnson, whose sole book of short fiction, Jesus’ Son, represents one of the Stations of the Cross for contemporary short story writers, Leventhal has learned the trick of convincingly portraying characters in states of diminished capacity, be they people in the thrall of intoxicants or, in the case of “Frenching the Eagle,” some manner of delusion or mania, without ever sacrificing clarity on behalf of the reader. Also from Johnson, Leventhal has absorbed an understanding of the care and absurd attention to detail required to make a story appear tossed-off or thrown together. Both of these lessons come together in the short, taut “Last Man Standing,” the setting of which – a bar at closing time – could easily be dropped into the Iowa City of Johnson’s stories. Its opening line (“I had lived in the apartment for about a month when there was a knock on the door.”) pays what may be passing homage to the beginning of Johnson’s “Work” (“I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d even known, for three days under a phony name…”).

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And Leventhal has learned from the venerable Amy Hempel, too, specifically how a writer ought to get out of the way of the story. Leventhal’s voices never feel forced or showy, but rather, at each turn, wholly appropriate to the story being told. Sweet Affliction’s stories are fairly evenly split between first and third person, but in either case never fail to display an understanding of and empathy for the Other. And as with Hempel, the laughs come at the right times, though not necessarily the expected ones.

It would be unfair to the point of malice to suggest that Sweet Affliction is nothing more than a summation of the influences shaping Leventhal’s writerly sensibilities, when the truth is that what the reader detects in these stories is a writer who has shrugged off the oftentimes restricting burden of influence and attained a place of her own. They may bear stylistic flourishes reminiscent of her heroes, but these lovely little machines work as they should because their maker knows how to put them together.

Another thing about the short story: I’m of the belief that its ending is in some way more crucial than the ending of a novel, or a piece of expository writing. It must carry more weight because of the lower overall word count. A good ending, even a surprise ending, if it is earned, or maybe deserved is a better word, is embedded in the rest of the text. It’s there all along. It's exactly like writing an essay: the writer shouldn’t introduce new facts or arguments in their conclusion. Similarly, the ending of a short story, even if it’s not one the reader necessarily sees coming, is like a trap which has been carefully set, as opposed to a piano dropping from a window.

Leventhal’s endings routinely devastate. In her last lines plot construction and humour step out of the way to give us some unfussy, unalloyed truth, like a shot on the chin, or a boot to the heart. They are jarring and starkly beautiful. They favour truth and poignancy over the temptation to tie up all loose ends. They leave characters holding the bag, or on the precipice of a life choice, or offhandedly, involuntarily revealing some dire truth about themselves.

If all this paints too dark a portrait of Sweet Affliction, then I’ve failed its stories and its author. Yes, it is sad but so, often, is your life, and so is mine. Regardless, an unremittingly sad book wouldn’t be worth the effort required to read it. What makes Leventhal's first collection so engaging, story after story, is the fact that the author always keeps laughs within reach. It’s a form of congenial commisery, an acknowledgment that we’re all fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth. Pain is often funny, she’s suggesting, knowing full well that while she’s entertaining you, she’s also softening you up for the next uppercut of truth.

Leventhal’s stories insist that we arm ourselves with humour because, though it will not spare us, it might make our own afflictions a little bit more bearable. They demand that, though we know it will do us no ultimate good, we look directly at the sadness, and laugh in its face. They're also quick to remind us that it’s when we’re most certain we have a handle on things that we are, in fact, the most prone to less than desirable fates, including failure and humiliation.

“Fools, cheri,” Maitland’s wife corrects him. “Time will make fools of us all.”

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Andrew Forbes's stories have appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, The Journey Prize Stories 25, This Magazine, Hobart, and The Puritan. His debut story collection, What You Need (Invisible Publishing) will be available in April. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario. For more information visit andrewgforbes.com.


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