canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Rust and Bone
by Craig Davidson
Penguin, 2005

Yesterday's People
by Goran Simic
Biblioasis, 2005

17 Tomatoes
by Jaspreet Singh
Vehicule, 2004

Coming Attractions 04
edited by Mark Anthony Jarman
featuring Neil Smith, Marureen Bilerman and Jaspreet Singh
Oberon, 2004

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

As I sit down to write this (Dec. 3, 2005), the Toronto Maple Leafs have just lost to the San Jose Sharks 5-4. The game featured Joe Thorton in his second game in San Jose, after being traded away from Boston. The Leafs lifted themselves to a 3-1 lead by the first intermission, but their on-again off-again commitment to team defence was off-again in the second period, and the Sharks pulled ahead, never to surrender the lead.

I would also note that today's Globe and Mail included an article by Michael Posner titled "The great fiction crash of 2005." Posner quoted from an article in this month's Quill & Quire by Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowski titled "Why your novel isn't selling." Bukowski wrote: 

What do we do about a popular culture where the market for SUVs (until recently, anyway) and computers and $100 running shoes and all kinds of fancy electronics and entertainment and communication gizmos seems to be unlimited, but the book market is stagnating?

Posner confirms there is pressure in the fiction market: "international publishers are giving every new novel greater scrutiny." Though his article also provides sales figures for both Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness (200,000) and Mary Lawson's Crow Lake (150,000).

I have a simple (and just-kidding) answer to why the book market is stagnating: hockey's back.

I also have a simple answer to why your novel isn't selling: who cares?

This here is a review of four short story collections, all of which will be lucky to sell even 1,000 copies.

Craig Davidson's Rust and Bone is put out by a large house (Penguin) and definitely has the best chance to make headway in the marketplace. That said, right here I'm going to stop considering the financial angle and turn my attention to the only thing that should really concern us: the words on the page.

Here's the beginning of Davidson's title story:

Twenty-seven bones make up the human hand. Lunate and capitate and navicular, scaphoid and triquetrum, the tiny horn-shaped pisiforms of the outer wrist. Though differing in shape and density each is smoothly aligned and flush-fitted, lashed by a meshwork of ligatures running under the skin. All vertebrates share a similar set of bones, and all bones grow out of the same tissues: a bird's wing, a whale's dorsal fin, a gecko's pad, your own hand. Some primates got more -- gorilla's got thirty-two bones, five in each thumb. Humans, twenty-seven.

Now that you've read that, look again at the cover of the book posted above. That's about all I think I should need to tell you about this book. The writing is precise, sharp with detail; the narratives of these eight short stories are laced with violence. This is surely one of the most dynamic and forceful debut collections to ever appear in Canada. I don't think I've read another Canlit book like it. 

Over thirty years ago, Margaret Atwood argued in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature that narratives about victims dominated the Canadian literary imagination. Davidson turns that argument completely on its head. The stories in Rust and Bone rotate without exception around what it means to have power, not what it means to be without it (the possible exception is the collection's final story, "An Apprentice's Guide to Modern Magic" in which the children of a magician who used the ruse of a magic trick to abandon them in childhood seek out their aged father. However, while this story is told from the point of view of the victims, it maintains faith with the other stories in the collection, because the father -- the powerful character -- remains unapologetic).

None of the characters in this book ever says, "Might is right" (or mentions Nietzsche), but many clearly believe it -- and others struggle with similar concepts or codes. One character, who breeds fighting dogs, narrates this:

I remember what the dogman from whom I'd purchased my first pit bull told me: These dogs are bred for a mean utility. They are bred to fight and live only for the fight. It's all they know. I wonder at a life so singular of purpose, a utilitarian existence no different than that of  a hammer or shovel.

("A Mean Utility")

In Yesterday's People, Goran Simic presents stories more familiar in tone to Canadian readers. Perhaps it would be accurate to say, more familiar in tone to short story readers generally. These are stories about the civil war that brutalized the former Yugoslavia in the early-1990s. These are stories about citizen-soldiers and other victims of absurd violence. 

In prose showing the ongoing influence of Chekhov, Simic paints portraits of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. If Davidson's stories show an interest in the struggles of the powerful, Simic illustrates his tremendous sensitivities to the victims of the world's grand schemes. Simic has produced stories that can be read beside Hemingway's tales of World War I ... as well as the work of Kakfa and the post-communists: Orwell, Kundera, et al. That is, the canon of war literature is already thick; Simic continues to show there is room yet for more additions.

This is a strong debut collection that deserves a readership. Simic is the poet of Immigrant Blues and From Sarajevo With Sorrow. He is as big-hearted and serious a writer as we have in Canada today. His autobiography is interesting, yes; the output of his imagination, however, is what ought to interest us -- and find an audience many times its current size.

Jaspreet Singh's 17 Tomatoes, like Simic's collection, is another example of how conflict abroad has enriched Canadian literature. Subtitled "Tales from Kashmir," Singh's book (to quote the back cover) "is a series of linked stories that revolve around two Sikh boys coming of age in an Indian army camp." The result is something more than an exploration of character; it is an exploration of a community -- similar to the effect achieved in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

This quick critical assessment of this collection would be incomplete, however, if I didn't add that there was something about this book that failed to satisfy. The writing is certainly excellent. The characters are clearly drawn, and the narratives clever and often insightful. Perhaps it was the persistent child's-eye view? The forced simplicity of certain accounts? I'm not sure. 

The Jaspreet Singh encountered in Coming Attractions 04 is certainly not simple, and I appreciated the three stories he has in this collection much more. Singh has a PhD in chemical engineering, and in his stories in Coming Attractions 04 that education is on full display. He is clearly a writer of many gifts. 17 Tomatoes showcased tenderness. Singh's three stories in Coming Attractions 04 play on the intersection between science and art:

The scientist was so good-looking we all found it impossible to work in the lab. Therefore, we started working in the evenings and over weekends. Many times we had to skip Sunday church. We stopped entertaining kids and spouses and business clients. We sacrificed Super Bowl games. There was no other option.

We were almost offended by his beauty. He could bring the entire lab to a halt with his hazy lamellar smile.


Singh's prose doesn't have the gymnastic deftness of Davidson's. His stories also commonly dwell in realms more abstract than boxing, dog fighting, sex addiction or abandoned children. Neil Smith's stories in Coming Attractions 04 likewise tend toward high concept, though they remain rooted in heart-wrenching human emotion.

"The Butterfly Box" shows how the roles fathers and sons play for each other can become inverse over time. "Isolettes" takes us into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. "Green Florescent Protein" pretends to be a story about two teenage boys sorting out their relationship to each other; in fact, it is something else entirely ... it's a clipped 21st-century version of Frankenstein.

Neil Smith's stories were among the best I've read in the past number of years. They tread familiar territory, but they do it in a way strongly original. If Simic's stories troll the extraordinary for the ordinary, Smith's stories do the opposite -- they take the quotidian and extract the unusual.

Maureen Bilerman is the past winner of the New Brunswick Literary Competition, and her contributions to Coming Attractions 04 show that the vein of gritty down-East realism -- a la Lynn Coady et al -- is far from fully mined. They are excellent examples of the genre.

Michael Bryson is the publisher and editor of The Danforth Review. His story "Six Million Million Miles" appeared in 05: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon Press).







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