canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

16 Categories of Desire
by Douglas Glover
Goose Lane Editions, 2000

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

One of the definitions of good writing is that it demands good criticism. Easy praise is rarely earned, nor is easy dismissal usually fully justified. Douglas Glover's latest short story collection, 16 Categories of Desire, is a case in point. Against most standards it is an excellent, highly readable, complex construction of literary craftsmanship. And yet, what value do those accolades have without being attached to a critical examination of the metaphorical patterns which repeat with seismic regularity throughout Glover's 11 stories? Surely, little (or not enough).

And so, off we go in pursuit of a deeper criticism. The word "desire" in the title is a large clue, and a good place to start. A clue about what? The author's intentions? Perhaps, though we can move to a broader plane if we follow Barthes and kill the author. What patterns repeat in the stories? Patterns of desire. More specifically, patterns of desire which conjure adjectives like "dark", "Gothic", and "destructive." Mary Shelley is only one of Glover's obvious precursors. Margaret Atwood might be another, though Atwood's lovelorn tales nearly always smack of the overt subtext of contemporary sexual politics, a current less strained in Glover, though not wholly absent.

The extent of Glover capital-R Romanticism - and the vein is deep - makes 16 Categories of Desire a collection with a potentially lasting impact. It is, for example, eminently teachable. It is veritably awash with essay questions.

  1. Compare and contrast Glover's depiction of a released mental patient ("Bad News of the Heart") with the monster in Shelley's Frakenstein (or with Wordsworth's madmen, for that matter);
  2. Why do Glover's characters repeatedly say things like: "My entire life has been a struggle to liberate myself from love" ("Lunar Sensitivities")?;
  3. Compare the emotional lives of Glover's characters with the one Goethe provides for his Young Werter.
  4. Contrast the post-French Revolution politics of early-19th century England with the disillusionment of Glover's PR hack made rich by stock market fraud ("The Indonesian Client").

In short, Glover's 16 Categories of Desire is a good book because it tells compelling stories in clear, accessible language. It is an excellent book because it contains a recognizable rhythm of metaphor, imagery, and rhetorical purpose. It relates to a tradition of writing - and a tradition of thinking and feeling - which many people have absorbed and repeat without conceiving a single iota of consent or intent (often with self-destructive consequences).

It would be naive to believe that in Glover's view of the world we are all as doomed as his protagonists. We are not. We can choose to see Glover's tales as predictive, or we can see them as a warning about the dark currents of desire. Or we can just see them as stories, good stories. Stories that feed the heart, and the mind, and fill all sorts of cracks in between.







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