canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Kind of Fiction
by P.K. Page
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2001

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

The title of P.K. Page's book of collected short stories belies the disingenousness of her enterprise; as one of Canada's greatest poets, Page is esteemed for her poetry and not for her prose. This poetry has won the Governor General's praise, garnered international acclaim, and ranked her amongst a world-class field of artists. 

The prose, however, is not the currency on which her name is traded. Instead, it has been mostly buried in out-of-print literary journals, no single story given large enough audience to catch on. So her book is an acknowledgment of a long apprenticeship, beginning in the 1940's and ending in the present day, never quite making the transition to masterwork. Nor does it in retrospect.

Eighteen stories comprising 184 pages feature hyper-eloquent characters with speech, diction, and thoughts as carefully parsed as poems should be. Narrative is delivered in well-turned sentence fragments:

Then a Sunday lunch at his house. A beautiful old colonial house behind a wall. Deep verandah vines. Thick walls. So tropical, so beautiful. What a wonderful world. A whole book of Debret. But I was uneasy. I found the other guests difficult. And I watched him attempting to juggle them. He served the drinks himself. Delicious food. Vatapa. Lombo de porco. I loved his house, disliked his party, and felt nothing about him either way. 

(from "Fever")

Paragraphs like these brook little argument with language, but they do invite criticism concerning pure story. Impossibly dramatic characters, love-intoxicated, drink down pure passionate elixirs. Prose such as the following results:

"Tea?" He says. And we have tea together in his beautiful baroque room. But it is not safe. The stillness of danger is here. I cannot keep my body still enough. Nor my mind. With all my might. 

(from "Fever")

Motivation is a mystery in this kind of fiction; great swells of loneliness and lust fail to move the reader, though they do succeed in moving characters about rather puzzlingly, causing them to fret about their singular grief and predicament. The emotions these characters feel are described in acute detail, yet the actions themselves are never compelling. 

Good fiction distinguishes itself from poetry not through narrative, but through dialogue: how characters sustain entire conversations with one another. Poetry is an exceedingly poor medium for dialogue; it usually concentrates upon a single character or voice, and amplifies this voice. It is left to fiction and its relatives (plays, screenplays, etc.) to provide the venue for two or more voices to swell into a kind of song. Page's use of dialogue is unfortunate at best; her thinking characters lapse into inarticulateness when made to converse, resulting in the following soapy exchanges:

He takes my hands. "Your hands are wet."
"The result of a wish I made as a child. And the gods were kind."
"I love you"
"This is not love."
"What is love then?"
"I don't know."
"Isn't this a part of love?"
"Perhaps yes."
"I miss you so much. I..."
"There are tears in your eyes."
"Forgive me."
There is no pleasure in this. I survey the vast desert of my life as he talks.

(from "Fever")

Awkward, hackneyed passages like this call to mind mothballed scripts from quintessential eighties series like Falcon Crest and Dynasty.

A few of the stories are fairy tales, allegories with fantastical happenings, kings and queens, strange wizards and such. If they read like bedtime tales for children, that's because they are. There is no art at work here beyond Tolkienesque hobbitry. Page's fantasies consist of two-thirds adult melodrama, replete with malapropos gasps, audience oohs and aahs, and perverse love timetable; the other one-third is all black-haired princesses and young goatherds cribbed from a generic playbook.

Page is best suited to the rarefied, experimental heights of stories like "Birthday", of which there is only one; Nabokovian in pure joy and delight in wordplay, she shows her skill as a poet and endurance as a prose stylist. Sustaining the verbal effect of what is, in essence, an extended prose poem approaches stylistic accomplishment. The lines are ephemeral, and in trying to grasp them one clutches air - they are as light as air. Sentences don't get much better (or poetic) than:

And as the fragmenter or prism in her mind reversed direction, all multiplicity without - the trail of the snail, the shooting stars, the baby, the tree, her brother, her son - was, through its unifying beam, drawn into her to become what it had always been and was still- hole, won; and this same reversal made possible the contraction of all her particles as if in preparation for rising- a spacecraft taking off. And through one supra sense she heard the rush of air, and through that same sense- upstream of the five now left behind in a fractured world- she felt the exquisite movements of its currents stirring the small down on her incredible wings. 

(from "Birthday")

As the apotheosis of this writer's career in fiction, the stories told in this book point to weaknesses: thinness, utter predictability, reliance upon formula, and absolute ineptness with dialogue. Page's output has been anemic in the long view; A Kind of Fiction features one wonderful, challenging story that enchants with otherworldly language; while the others are of substandard quality, possessing genre formula with all clichés in evidence.

Reading these stories, I can't help but think that this book is less a dedicated career's worth of work than the infrequent result of a series of energetic bursts that, other than one isolated, successful case, are high word count poems.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with TDR.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.