canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Close to Spider Man
by Ivan E. Coyote 
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000

Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock 

There are times when reviewing books makes me feel like a boorish lout, making all the kids at a birthday party cry by criticizing the hired clown's timing. If someone writes turgid schmaltz, with heavy vaseline on the lens then, fine, time to carve the roast beast. It's when confronted with a book like Close to Spider Man, which seems to have its heart in the right place (i.e. not in the title, with other wax fruit like Desire and Grace), that I feel like a heel for not joining the party. 

Close to Spider Man is Vancouver-writer Ivan E. Coyote's first book of short stories. It is a series of 13 first-person narratives which, together, provide the history of the narrator's coming-of-age in the Yukon in the late seventies and eighties; first as an awkward, adolescent tomboy, then as a cocky, but no less awkward, lesbian. The stories are clearly autobiographical, and written with disarming directness. 

Coyote strives to make her experiences feel universal , and the difficulties she faces growing up seem to be pretty much the default set faced by any sensitive youth - a family, a neighbourhood, a town, a society that simply doesn't understand. That she is gay in a conservative environment alters the specific make-up of her difficulties, but the breeziness of her voice makes it so that the her emerging dykeness appears no more painful than, say, acne.  

My hand was touching her hand, ever so casually and accidental-like, and I think maybe I wanted to touch her but I really didn¹t know it yet, so luckily she interrupted my latent tendencies to read part of an article aloud to me: "Says here that one of women's top sexual fantasies is to make love with une autre femme. Uughh. Speak for yourself, huh?" I immediately moved my hand away from hers to sip my French latté and changed the subject. "So . . . you wanna go swimming tomorrow?" - from the title story 

Each story gives a brief glimpse into a pivotal stage of her development, then sums up with a wry, rhetorical punchline ("Girls, we can be so complicated."). After six or seven of these bite-sized vignettes, a question began to form itself somewhere in the more cynical regions of my subconscious. At about the book's three-quarter mark, I was beginning to have difficulty shrugging this question away - it would even insert itself as a ghostly, italicized conclusion to each story. Finally, the book finished, I gave in, nearly saying aloud what had been bothering me all along: Is that it? 

I have no problem with books that can be read in an hour (Close to Spider Man clocks in at just under one hundred pages), nor do I feel reflexive contempt for any new work of fiction that does not make an implicit attempt to overthrow the Western literary canon, the bourgeoisie, society, etc. - Nicholson Bake's The Mezzanine (1988) is as slim and gentle as a Q-tip, yet it is firmly entrenched near the front of my own mental canon. I tried very hard to be let myself be charmed by Coyote's tales of BMX races, sexual confusion, swimming lessons, sexual confusion, babysitting, sexual confusion, road trips and the like. 

It was one of those little girl bikinis, a two-piece, I guess you would call it. The top part fit like a tight cut-off t-shirt, red with blue squares on it, the bottoms were longer than panties but shorter than shorts , blue with red squares. I had tried it on the night before when my mom got home from work and found that if I raised both my arms completely above my head too quickly, the top would slide over my flat chest and people could see my . . . you-know-whats. - from "No Bikini"  

The problem is not so much the brevity of the stories, but their delivery. With the odd exception (the recipe woven into a story about her parents' divorce; or this throwaway intro: "The fabric of this memory is faded, its edges frayed by time."), Coyote smartly avoids lining her prose with the frills of CanLit "pretty talk". The chatty, unpretentious tone with which she delivers each story is central to her book's charm, but it also highlights its greatest weakness. These are anecdotes, and anecdotes rarely contain the sort of beneath-the-surface complexity that animates great short fiction - even fiction posing as mere anecdote. Anecdotes smooth over complexity and provide only as much meaning as the teller is willing to impart.

Subsequent readings do not reveal previously-concealed depths. I ended up feeling like Coyote's pal ‹ familiar enough to be trusted with some awkward memories, but never given a peek at anything truly unsettling; no real high or lows. It's all harmless flirtation. Again, this is not to say that Coyote needs to start lacing her stories with deep-sounding references to TIME, and MEMORY, and LOSS - she has an excellent sense of timing and pace, and needs no false props. 

She does, however, need to figure out how to animate her stories, give them a life of their own, without sacrificing the charm of her voice. A story should exist as something discreet form its teller - a living, breathing organism with its own values and intentions. Each of these stories gets cut off at exactly the moment when the characters and situations begin to breathe, so that the book ultimately feels like a collection of excerpts from a novel. Despite being thoroughly readable, focused - downright friendly - Close to Spider Man does not satisfy. And I feel like a prick about that. 

Nathan Whitlock's short fiction won the TWUC 2000 Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers and was short-listed in THIS Magazine's "Great Canadian Literary Hunt" 2000. He lives in Toronto. (







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