canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Habits and Love
by Rod Schumacher
Insomniac Press, 2002

The Roseate Spoonbill of Happiness
by Marilyn Gear Pilling
Boheme Press, 2002

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

It seems that there's less talk than there used to be about the differences between the ways men and women approach creative writing. On the other hand, maybe I've just stopped hanging around with undergraduates (true). In any case, I'm glad it's been some time since I've heard anyone claim that men don't know how to write about women (or vice versa - though there always seemed to be fewer people staking that claim - besides the Atwood-bashers, of whom there are never enough).

I risk reviving the old debate because I've just read two new short story collections, and I was struck just how male-oriented the book written by the man was, and how gynecentric the book written by the woman was.

Well, so what? Aren't we only concerned about the quality of the writing?

Well, yes. We want to look not just at the book, but also at the tradition the book has inherited. And Rod Schumacher is walking along the path well trod by precursors like Richard Ford, Ray Carver, and sure, Poppa to them all, Hemingway. While the work of Marilyn Gear Pilling can't seem to help echoing Alice Munroe, Bonnie Burnard, and Canada's own eternal grandmother, Margaret Lawrence.

Which leads us to Criticism #1: the work of both authors is derivative. There's not much new here that we haven't seen done better elsewhere.

Which leads us to Praise #1: these collections mine a deep vein of the 20th century canonical short story. They know their craft, and they execute it well.

In Habits and Love, Rod Schumacher focuses on working-class Westerners. The book has a predominant focus on relationships and a strong, lyrical prose style - the same one that dominates just about every literary journal in this country. One typical story centres on a young couple who bring an ex-convict into their house to live with them. The ex-con is the estranged brother of the wife, who has been separated from him for years. She believes all he needs is a second chance. It turns out he needs far more than care, love, and support. Once the experience turns sour (as the reader knows it will from the beginning), everyone picks up their lives and carries on. I found the sentiment here simply clichéd. You try to live up to your ideals, but your ideals fail you. You are left with a lingering sadness, but it is better to have tried than never to have tried at all. Well, okay. This sentiment is well-executed, but as a reader I want more. (Something like Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", perhaps. Now there's a writer who defies her gender!)

Marilyn Gear Pilling fills The Roseate Spoonbill of Happiness with stories focused on contemporary middle-aged, middle-class women. Overall, I found Pilling's writing not as competent as Schumacher's. That is, her prose isn't as polished, her ear for internal rhythm isn't as strong. On the other hand, I found her stories on the whole more interesting, despite occasional lapses of sentimentality. Pilling's dramas are largely domestic. They are also largely internal or psychological. Like in Bonnie Burnard's bestseller, Pilling's characters live in A Good House. Her family's are not tearing themselves apart with their dysfunctions. Pilling's quest is to dramatize the ordinary; to give meaning to the lower level pressures which we all experience every day of the week. In this she succeeds. Hers are ordinary stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things. One exception is "The Change", which mixes menopause and Kafka; it deserves special attention and a gold star.

Michael Bryson is the editor/publisher of The Danforth Review.







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