canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Paris Connection: Stories
by Peter Darbyshire, Alexandra Leggat, Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, and Kate Sutherland
Thirteenth Tiger Press, 2000

21 Hotels
by Michael Holmes
above/ground press, 1998

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

In the literary economy, chapbooks have the emotional texture of contraband. Toronto's Coach House Books has ventured into electronic publishing, and has taken to calling its printed product "that fetish item formerly known as the book". This phrase is full of the bloated exaggeration of the 19th century carnival master - and at least as much self-parody. Books are still very much viable, and in no danger of losing their cultural cache. There is no denying, however, that there is something fetishistic about chapbooks. Intense labours of love, they bring us literature at its organic best.

Neither of the two chapbooks reviewed here (if we can extend the metaphor) have been the least genetically modified. These books come, almost, coated with their authors' fingerprints.

The first, The Paris Connection, is an anthology of four short story writers, each of whom has supplied a tale in which Paris, France, plays a central role. Three of the four writers (according to their biographies) have been to the French capital. All encounter Paris on the metaphorical, largely stereotypical level. That is, Paris is presented in lush Romantic overtones - in both the aesthetic and sexual senses of the term. Hemingway is quoted inside the back cover, providing again his memorable quotation that the city is "a moveable feast."

Indeed, it is, but the adjective "moveable" is a curious one. The French collapse in front of the Nazis and the shamefully long time it took France to confront is Fascist past also need to be attached to Paris's boulevards. The shadow side of France is not confronted here. What we have instead is Paris as a foreign utopia for four bright young Canadian imaginations. In fact, it is hard not to hear echoes of Hemingway and his chums, their bravado and excitement. There is a kind of literary archeology at work here. This chapbook invites us back to the Jazz Age - to a simpler time - an act which seems at least in part to involve forgetting how far we've come.

In any case, let's not review the book for what it isn't, and look instead at what it is.

Kate Sutherland's story, "The Necklace", introduces the collection. Set in Saskatchewan, the story's protagonist is a university age woman, Alice, whose passive response to life causes her to be alone on Christmas Eve. As she reflects on a relatively recent trip to Paris with her parents (where she bought a necklace), she understands new things about her mother. Self-knowledge, however, eludes her. For example, she watches the movie "Funny Face," and:

For a while she's caught up in bohemian Paris. But by the end she feels inexplicably sad. It seems dreadful that Audrey Hepburn should settle for Fred Astaire and America in the end. Fred Astaire is too old for her, too staid. Then she realizes it's her mom she's thinking about. ...

Later, in the bistro sipping coffee, Alice drifts in and out of the conversation Dan [her boyfriend] and his friends are having.

As this passage, and the ending of the story suggest, Alice should perhaps spend more time thinking about herself. Sutherland reveals the subtleties of her protagonist's situation in controlled language and a well-paced narrative. She is the author of Summer Reading, which won a Saskatchewan book award in 1995.

Alexandra Legget's "The New Dead" and Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg's "By the River Seine I Sat Down & Wept" follow Sutherland with variations on the theme. Legget's piece consists of five paragraphs and probably not more than 300 words. It is more a vignette than a story, a collection of memories and images about the narrator's visit to a famous Paris graveyard with her parents - and her conventional response to the corpses around her:

I looked around at the dead surrounding me. The history. I felt inconsequential and that they were so much more alive than me.

Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg dedicates her story "in memory of unrequited love". She has also chosen a title which makes strong reference to Elizabeth Smart's "poetic novel" By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Fully warned by these signposts the reader enters the story, and soon meets the narrator (in Paris) - who says of her men:

I knew they rarely measured up to my fantasies, but I didn't mind and grew to like them for themselves.

This being the sort of woman men are happy to meet, the narrator soon meets one, David, a musician. They bond quickly, make rapturous love, frequently - it then ends sadly, the standard narrative arc of many such relationships.

The writing here is lively and intelligent, the story buoyed with the kind of spirit one expects of Paris - and wishes Toronto, for example, could find some way to clone. And yet, the story left this reader wondering about the dedication and the title. This is not a story about love unrequited - and it shares only the vaguest echoes of Smart. It is a story of love lost, which is a different thing altogether. It is almost as if the writer felt a need to rely on established tropes. If this is so, it is unfortunate, because the writing can stand on its own without abutments.

Peter Darbyshire's contribution, "Paris Isn't a Love Story," injects both a masculine presence and a skeptical voice (as the title suggests) into the collection. Set in Canada, the story centres on a couple who are moving to Paris. Unable to take his gun with him, the husband gives it to friends who have dropped in to say goodbye. Paris is more distant in this story than in the others, both as a symbol and as an aesthetic influence. This story is distinctly American - somehow able to join Carver and Tarrantino.

While the other stories in this collection very near bleed Romantic transendence - i.e., Paris is a place where alienation is overcome - Darbyshire's characters do not overcome their silences. Springsteen sang, "There's a darkness on the edge of town." Darbyshire's characters live in that darkness, infected by the absurdities of the contemporary sit-com. On the way home the friends get stuck in traffic:

"Jesus Christ," I said. "Paris." I couldn't stop laughing. I reached into the box and took out the gun. Cait didn't say anything else, just kept on watching me.

Paris is a moveable feast. Its value lies in its flexibility, this collection shows. Three of the four writers here still find vigor in Paris's well worn metaphors. In Darbyshire's story, Paris is an unexamined "other". It is tempting to say if Paris didn't exist, writers would have to invent it. Then again, perhaps they already have.

Michael Holmes' 21 Hotels (above/ground press, 1998) pushes skepticism to an entirely new level. The literary precursor here is Wallace Stevens, who is quoted in the epigraph:

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind.

Stevens contrasts "hymns" and "hotel" with the hotel signifying "the real". In his chapbook, Holmes gives us twenty-one vignettes, each given the title of a different hotel: "The Chestnut," "Holiday Inn Pembroke," "Waverly Hotel," "Hotel Tourismo." In Stevens' poem, hymns fall upon the hotel "out of the wind." In Holmes' chapbook, these hymns are dark, convoluted, difficult and largely cynical.

He needs to be quoted at length ("Hotel Tourismo"):

Between married and divorced you have separated the rat you've been from the rat you are, irreconcilable and mutual, incompatible and negative and perfectly capable. Sometimes cruelty is silent devotion, not willful execution. You were also young enough to kill, merciful and senseless, being loving and heedless. I am this shallow: I have measured the past into diminishing minutae, a tapered fix, tranquil deliquescence, essential addiction; I have drowned in bathtubs, and puddles and tears. I have been afraid of tomorrow and travel, crossing Ts and datelines and myself. I have been moved by fear.

Martin Amis has written of William S. Burroughs that Burroughs' prose consists of "good bits." There are good bits in Burroughs, and much that does not rise above the standard fare. Much the same could be said of Holmes. The prose in 21 Hotels reads like speech therapy. Despite Holmes' fondness for multiple syllable words and abstract constructions ("tranquil deliquescence"), the prose here is verbal (hymnal?).

Its meaning comes from the build up of images, which come at almost torrential speed. This seeming spontenaeity has both strengths and weaknesses.

Its strength is its kenesis. Holmes attacks the mind of the reader with prose as deft as can be written. Holmes can write a paragraph as dense and as mobile as Joyce. Unfortunately, these same paragraphs are often just as convoluted and senseless as the babbling insane who wander our urban streets. Which means, frankly put, that 21 Hotels is not for the weak of heart.

There are good bits, and also much which fails to rise above verbal gymnastics. The movement towards the end is as rewarding as it is surprising. The final vignette approaches the quality of the Psalms.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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