canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Universal Recipients
by Dana Bath
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

A universal recipient is someone with an AB blood type who is able to receive blood from anyone but only able to give to another person with AB blood because AB type blood has no immunity to other blood types. Dana Bath's stories in Universal Recipients are peopled with fragile characters in tenuous relationship, their bonds with others, the world, and themselves fraught with impermanence and uncertainty. There are brief moments of connection, brief instances in which the characters achieve some sense of (self-)understanding moments in which the blood is no longer rejected, moments when it is possible to receive what has been given.

There is a sense that the characters in these stories are striving for an impossible ideal. And even if they might come close to achieving that ideal, their self-doubt or timidity sabotages that possible achievement. In 'Begin and End Frequently' a woman traveling in Japan thinks, " I'm so happy to be here that I'm confused." In the opening lines of the story 'Just Ahead of Us in Line' the narrator says, 

That summer I was so thin that everything fit perfectly. When I think about throwing up my food, I'm usually thinking of that summer. It seemed I was so beautiful that nothing I could do was wrong.

There is likewise a similar juxtaposition of the negative-as-positive in perhaps the strongest story of the collection, 'A Kettle':

Things are always clearest for Eliza when love is leaving. She's noticed this in the past. Love makes her muddled and unreliable; lack of love makes her blind and too eager to please. It's that whiff when she opens the door to let love go that brings her to her senses.

On a whole, the collection is well-written, in something of a fluid, wispy style that seems both unique and appropriate for the subject matter. It is perhaps the characterization that tempered my enjoyment of this collection. Seldom did I find myself caught up in the characters' concerns or interested in their dilemmas. Too often these dilemmas (if not the characters themselves) seemed trivial or vapid. Authentic portrayals, perhaps, of the lives and characteristics of bulimic Le Chateau cashiers in Montreal (as in afore-quoted 'Just Ahead of Us in Line') but such authenticity does not necessarily make an appealing read.

Of course it shouldn't be necessary for an author to people his/her books with likable characters. But it is necessary to make the reader care about those characters whether they are likable or not. Bath is capable of doing so, as in such stories as 'Mordecai,' 'Bottle Episode,' and the afore-mentioned story 'A Kettle.' These stories still deal with the same themes of tenuous relationships and lost possibilities, missed connections, but Bath does so with stronger and perhaps more mature (or more maturely realized) characters. If Universal Recipients is about give-and-take, then there is a give-and-take between reader and text in these stories that is unfortunately absent in the rest of the collection.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto area musician and writer.







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