canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millenium
Edited by Joan Thomas and Heidi Harms
House of Anansi Press, 1999

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

This would be an easy book to dismiss with a smug glance as an opportunistic marketing ploy if it weren't so packed with great writing and a selection of writers so bravely chosen. The short story form in Canada is usually represented by the usual handful of writers: Margaret Atwood, Alice Monroe, Carol Shields. What a treat, then, to read an anthology which brings together a new assortment of voices, including young writers like Lynn Coady and those poised on the brink of much deserved wider recognition, like Mark Anthony Jarman and Stephen Heighton. It's these new voices, after all, who will be the "turners" of the story form, if the metaphor of the title has any meaning at all.

Of course, as with every anthology, there are arguments to be made about the writers who were not included. The brilliance of writers like Hal Niedzviecki, Lynn Crosbie and Michael Turner, for example, is missed. The short story form in Canada is too often associated with soppy lyrical realism, and more could have been done to introduce the reading public to other more lively currents of the Canadian literary stream.

Another weakness (and hint about the editors' conservatism) is the decision to open the book (predictably!) with a story by Margaret Atwood ("The Labrador Fiasco"). Atwood has done a great deal for Canadian letters, but she is as entrenched in the literary establishment as any writer can hope to be. Atwood is not one to look to for clues about any "turn of the story". Rather, her selection here (a competent Atwood story, no doubt) reads like the perfect Atwood parody: narrative voice of ironic detachment, historical tales resurrected, inserted commentary to make sure the reader "gets the point". For example:

In stories like this, there is always -- there is supposed to be -- an old Indian who appears to the white men as they are planning to set out. He comes to warn them, because he is kind at heart and they are ignorant. "Do not go there," he says. "That is a place we never go." Indians in these tales have a formal manner of speaking.

And so on. Exactly as we expect to be, which is either comforting or dull, depending on your interests as a reader. For writing neither comforting nor dull, the editors have included a dazzling story by Mark Anthony Jarman, author of the wild novel Salvage King, Ya!: A Herky Jerky Picaresque. Jarman's story is called "Burn Man on a Texas Porch". It begins like this:

Propane slept in the tank and propane leaked while I slept, blew the camper door off and split the tin walls where they met like shy strangers kissing, blew the camper door like a safe and I sprang from sleep into my new life on my feet in front of a befuddled crowd, my new life on fire, waking to whoosh and tourists' dull teenagers staring at my bent form trotting noisily in the campground with flames living on my calves and flames gathering and glittering on my shoulders (Cool, the teens think secretly), smoke like nausea in my stomach and me brimming with Catholic guilt, thinking, Now I've done it, and then thinking, Done what? What have I done?

Readers looking for a quick glimpse of the range of Canadian writing at the turn of the millennium could do much worse than to scan this rich collection. The editors have raised the bar high for future anthologists, who seek quality as their only criteria. What we have in this book is quality distilled in a rainbow of colours, basking in the glory of its diversity.







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