canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Pull Gently, Tear Here 
by Alexandra Leggat
Insomniac Press, 2000

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Though it still lingers in the stale halls of academe and in the pointy heads of arts agency bureaucrats, nationalism is dead in Canadian literature. Margaret Atwood’s "survival" thesis was never accurate anyway, though its popularity rode the wave of post-Expo ’67 exuberance and continues to kill brain cells in oppressed college students across the nation. If ever there was a time for Canada’s literary artists to express the communal anxiety about our common future, it is now – as post-NAFTA the knives of globalism shred our collective ability to create a distinct society across the top of North America based on George Grant’s, Pierre Trudeau’s, or even Brian Mulroney’s ideas of the common good.

Fortunately, however, a new generation of writers has emerged, whose politics is distinctly personal – and whose aesthetics is part of an artistic, not a nationalist, project. One member of this new generation of writers is Alexandra Leggat, whose first short story collection, Pull Gently, Tear Here, was recently released by Insomniac Press.

Many of the 34 pieces which fill this work’s 193 pages fall into the genre commonly known as "Postcard Fiction," which is sometimes called a contemporary trend, though it has been around at least as long as the early books of the Old Testament (or Torah). The form was also used brilliantly by Ernest Hemingway in his first story collection, In Our Time (1921).

Alice Munro this collection is not. It is not lush, not lyrical, not dull in the "poetic prose" tradition associated with big name bores like Michael Ondattje or Anne Michaels. Leggat’s work instead follows the work of relative newbies Hal Niedzviecki, Derek McCormack, and Natalee Caple (see also Matt Firth, Stan Rogal, Sheila Heti, and Ken Sparling) whose dark humour and clipped prose style owes more to Kafka than the Canlit canon.

Leggat’s stories share many characteristics of this new and growing crowd: intense contracted prose, narratives that explore situations on the margins of the cultural mainstream, a reporter’s eye for telling detail and the sparse use of metaphor or imagery. This approach is not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, often when the stories work they make their meaning more like poems than conventional short stories. As narrative poems, they use intense language to pull the reader into the situations they describe. Leggat’s best stories leave an emotional residue which is lasting and real. The weaker stories, however, slide by, unmemorable, as some poems do. Some of the stories become preachy. "This is my life," one of them ends, a statement redundant to all but the dullest reader. "Men dream about girls like her," is another final line that sounds more manifesto-like than literary. (It is too literal than a literary summation ought to be.)

That said – there are numerous great lines in this collection. Here are some of them:

  • "I was too old for the suburbs but too young for the city" (p22);
  • "You wandered into the beginning of time when men were apes and women weren’t invented yet" (p43);
  • "She’s waiting for someone and knows it’s not him. It was never him and that’s what hurts" (p51);
  • "I look . . . and carry on because carrying on is easier at this point" (p74);
  • "That waitress is here because she got tired of stripping" (p80);
  • "She had so many people depending on her – for such a young dog" (p102);
  • "If I could be anything I’d be invisible" (p106).

My two favorite stories were "Fixed" and "Who Die", both of which I’d rate as highly as anything else I’ve read this year. Pull Gently, Tear Here is a compelling, often brilliant collection, which is occasionally frustrating. It would be a better book at 25% less the length. (I would begin cutting by dropping the first three stories, and perhaps everything between "Little Devils in Blue Jeans" and "The New Dead".) At close to 200 pages, the books patterns, particularly the alienated stance of most (all?) narrators, becomes relentless, and it becomes difficult to distinguish the voice of each new story from the ones which went before.

Leggat has more than proven that she’s a voice to watch. A more integrated effort next time would give us greater reason to cheer.







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