canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Uncomfortably Numb
by Sharon English
Porcupine's Quill, 2002

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

I'll admit first off to being biased against this book before I even cracked the cover. And if you think it's because of the allusion to a Pink Floyd song in the title that is part, but not the whole, of it. My aversion stemmed from the fact that Uncomfortably Numb is something of a follow up to Mary-Lou Zeitoun's 13, which regular readers of these pages may recall I reviewed a few months ago (fall 2002). 

And I was expecting more of the same: annoying teenaged girl coming of age in small-town Ontario via the medium of popular culture; music, to be precise, although with Uncomfortably Numb its rock not punk (if that's not obvious from the title). 13 and Uncomfortably Numb even look similar; same layout and design, right down to a teenaged girl on the cover in front of a schoolyard.

Porcupine's Quill has no qualms about touting Uncomfortably Numb as 13's follow up. Their fall 2002 catalogue said as much. (They seem to be on a bit of pop culture kick in general these days: see also Back Flip). Which perhaps does a disservice to Sharon English as Uncomfortably Numb is superior, both a more entertaining and a more insightful book.

Uncomfortably Numb is a series of interconnected short stories about Germaine (aka. Germ) Stevens growing up in suburban south-western Ontario and attempting to carve an identity for herself among the zombified grown-ups. If any of those above phrases immediately makes you think Uncomfortably Numb is an updating of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls And Women, you wouldn't necessarily be far off. Admittedly, I didn't make this comparison till partway through the book, with the story 'Heirlooms' about Germaine's grandmother, in particular. Some of the later stories, as Germaine nears the end of high school, attempt bigger themes and seem less original, less successful, than the earlier stories.

My two favourites in this collection are 'Clear Blue' and 'A Short Chronicle of Tenth-Grade Love.' 'Clear Blue' is about the empty summer months after Germaine's brother departs for university in which she wanders around her neighbourhood looking for something of interest, something real:

Everything was so far away: the street wide and empty, the harassed lawns vast and useless, and then the houses. Like nothing wants to touch or be touched. How did we end up this way? (pp90-1) 

When she spots what she thinks are UFOs in the sky, she fastens on the idea of them as some sort of salvation, something true, and camps out in the backyard waiting for them to return. Much to the annoyance of her friends:

Regina wished me sweet dreams of slimy Martian sex and told me to call in the morning so she'd know I hadn't been vaporized...I knew she was joking, but couldn't help feeling pissed off. Killing and sex: is that all she could talk about? She was so casual about the sighting too, as if it hadn't changed anything. (p94)

'A Short Chronicle of Tenth-Grade Love' is one of the more intense and sophisticated stories. It is a series of fragmented scenarios about, well, tenth-grade love. Section headers such as 'First almost boyfriend, somewhat drunk,' 'Detention Room Girl,' and 'Too drunk, guy from another school' no doubt give some idea what these fragments are about:

All I remember is a peach-fuzz moustache. I have this close-up, photographic image of it looming unsteadily above me. I can only see the moustache and the lips it's attached, which are wet, open, and have pieces of dead skin scaling off them...When I woke up the next day, after I'd puked my brains out, I thought I'd dreamt this. (p46)

But mixed with such sordid encounters as above are authentically detailed descriptions of high school social strata. And some of the more poetic, imagistic passages in the book, usually detailing the intensity of an impossible, tenth-grade crush: "He peers at me, an animal behind the soft black bars of his bangs...His scent makes my throat hurt." (p44)

Despite the allusion, Uncomfortably Numb ends up being an apt title. Germaine at first affects numbness as a way of dealing with the emptiness of her surroundings. But numbness will only lead her to become part of the emptiness; her discomfort marks her as someone who will escape that life and go on to better things. And despite the company it keeps, Uncomfortably Numb is an interesting book and marks a promising debut for Sharon English.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto writer and musician.







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