canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Whatever Happens
by Tim Conley
Insomniac Press, 2006

Moosecall #3: Big Game, Small Stories
Fiction from the Moosemeat Writers Group

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

See also TDR's interview with Tim Conley

Here's the first thing I wrote about Tim Conley's book of marvellously peculiar short stories:

Tim Conley's characters question the boundaries of what can be known--and challenge the reader with the implications of living in an unknowable world. His stories tell us again that the silences are often the loudest notes in the aria. A welcome new voice with a unique vision.

You can find that quotation on the back of the book.

Yes, I blurbed it, and now I'm going to review it. There's more I wanted to say about it. You might want to start, however, by reading Conley's story "The Watch," published on TDR, which begins like this:

He was a doorman and his friend was a doorman. There they were talking and he was saying yes we do have an unexamined role in society, I've put a lot of thought into that. Not like we're invisible, his friend rejoined, though the way some of them walk by you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.


Done? Okay, let's proceed.


First, even in the opening sentences of "The Watch" you can see what I was trying to get at in my blurb of Whatever Happens. Yes, some readers are going to find these stories too abstract. The "unknowable world," say what? But it's not only doormen that have unexamined roles in society. Canadian literature itself is often too much unexamined. 

Conley writes the type of short fiction we don't see a lot of in Canada. Others shaking up readers' expectations include Paul Glennon and Barry Webster, each of whom also published a new book in 2006. Webster's won the ReLit Award for short stories.

Conley's publisher notes the writer's work is "influenced by--but expand[s] upon--the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Queneau, and the European avant-garde." Yes, sure. David Foster Wallace also deserves a mention. Like Foster Wallace's fiction (or Tim Burton's movies), Conley's stories take us well beyond our common boundaries of perception. Into the minds of some terribly quirky individuals. 

In the first story, two neighbours quarrel passively over a length of rope. Which will hang him/herself first? In the second story, one thing leads to another, but it doesn't really. A string of unconnected events that actually are connected, in a tenuous manner. The sixth story is one of the funniest I've read in many years. A priest replies to a letter a young woman has written to the Pope. I dare not give anything more away. "The Watch" is the seventh story and still my favourite. In total, Whatever Happens includes 19 stories in less than 200 pages, which again suggests the influence of Borges' Ficciones

Many of these stories are stories about storytelling. Honestly, I wouldn't recommended this book to my mother. She wouldn't get it. But if you're looking for something to prove that Canlit has innovators: look no further.


About Moosecall #3: Big Game, Small Stories what can one say?

It is a 19-page chapbook. It includes 17 stories by 14 writers. On the cover is a moose in the middle of a yellow-upside-down-triangle. Like one of those highway signs that means: Drive cautiously! You don't want to hit a moose! Inside, the cover is corrugated; a sheet of rice paper covers the title page. In short, this is an attractive chapbook. 

Now on to the content. The short stories themselves are micro-fictions. There's not a lot of meat on 'dem bones, in other words. But that is just figuratively speaking, before one has even read a word. (Incidentally, this is a chapbook self-published by a writers group from Toronto: Would a racoon not have been a more appropriate figurehead?) One complaint: I would have preferred for the stories to have been laid out in a way that gave each more space. As it is, each new story begins fast upon the heels of the previous one. More white space, please. Add some blank pages.

Oh, boy. Edward Brown: killer story. Congratulations, Nikolijne Troubetzkoy and Myna Wallin. Yes, other stories were good, too, but a reviewer must separate best from good. At least, in his own subjective way.

Actually, what this chapbook left me wondering is what happens in the sessions between these writers. Do they force each other to boil down each story to its smallest essence? Is that why many of these stories verge on narrative poems? Does anyone ever say, "I really think you need to expand this story to at least ten times this length ... these characters deserve a broader life ... as readers we're well trained for the marathon ... not every race needs to be a sprint."

Personally, that's what I'd like to see each of these writers do. Kick it up a notch or three. Expand your vision. Dig deeper into your talent. Become the writers we need to get us through the 21st century. There's many years ahead of us yet. 

Keep filling those blank pages! 

Michael Bryson's fiction appeared in 05: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon Press) and other places also.







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