canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Grey: Stories for Grown-Ups
by Judy MacDonald
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

Grey is a shade between, ambiguity...but not necessarily the absence of can be the presence of many colours, none of them predominant, blurring together and contained within a uniform shade. Judy MacDonald’s GREY is a collection of short stories full of blurred characters, half-formed individuals living ambiguous existences, either searching out the means or denying the possibilities (or both) of establishing a definite identity. In the story ‘In the Car, At the Computer’ a mother allows her son to continue breastfeeding well beyond the normal age -- "Now he will remember. It’s going to affect him" (p13) a character comments -- because neither mother or son wants him to grow up, change. In the reverse-Kafka story ‘Cockroach,’ a roach wakes up human and struggles to come to terms with her metamorphosis, of possessing fleshy appendages, of being an individual entity, "Like any one of you. Not the cluster, but the one" (p129).

The story ‘boygirlhappy’ perhaps best illustrates the themes and situations -- the difficulties of admitting difference, of being an individual, of being differently the same as everyone else -- of GREY. There are layers of identity ambiguity at work in this story, the foremost of which manifests as sexual and gender ambiguity. The main character, Elaine, has difficulty accepting both the fact that she is female and homosexual: "She loved boys. She wanted to smooth worries away from angry ones. She wanted to be a boy so bad she dreamed about it. She wanted to be unable to imagine what it is to be a girl" (p121). In the introductory scene of the story, Elaine chastises her niece for insultingly calling her brother a ‘girl’: "Number one: Alice, you are a girl, so I don’t understand why you would call someone a girl as an insult. Number two: Billy, you are obviously not a girl, so anyone calling you that is just silly. Also, it’s fine to be a girl, so I don’t understand why you are so upset" (p119). Of course, these expressed sentiments run contrary to what Elaine actually feels; she doesn’t feel fine being a girl and of course she understands how being called a girl can be insulting and of course she knows that insults don’t have to make any kind of sense to sting. She is quite aware of the absurdities of life, of attempting to positively interact with other human beings, of trying to be a rational, content, and (self-)satisfied adult.

As is no doubt apparent from above descriptions, absurdity plays a large role in these stories, particularly with those featuring younger or childish characters. There is something of a progression to GREY, in terms of age; the earlier stories tend to be about children, the middle stories about teenagers or young adults, and the later stories about seniors. I found that the earlier, childish stories were more successful, however, perhaps because MacDonald’s absurdities were more fantastic; a young girl smoking cigars and drinking whiskey in the story ‘Writer’s Block,’ because she doesn’t want to have to learn cursive writing. There is a similar sense of absurdity in ‘Retired,’ in which an elderly woman allows mice to invade her apartment for the companionship, yet somehow the absurdity doesn’t seem so far-fetched and, accordingly, isn’t quite as bizarre as MacDonald perhaps intended it to be. Generally speaking, though, the stories in GREY are intriguing and humourous, thought-provoking and sobering, making for a strong and enjoyable collection.

Aidan Baker is a musician and writer living in Toronto.






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