canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Lisa Moore
Anansi, 2002

Reviewed by Michael Bryson 

The ten stories in Lisa Moore's new short story collection, Open, play with the time structure of narrative to the point of exasperation. Or is it brilliance? This reader sometimes wasn't sure. 

Of course there is no reason why a story needs to be told as it "occurs": first A happened, then B, then C. In fact, no writer of value would bother with such a rudimentary rolling out of details. But still, stories must be more than "an invention of randomness" (a quotation borrowed from mid-way through Moore's collection, p.113). Unless the writer has swallowed a gobful of post-modernism - in which case this reader is prepared to forgive incoherence if it is replaced with rhetorical brilliance. Which it sometimes is in Open, but not often enough.

I don't mean to give the impression that Open is a bad book. On the contrary, it is a conglomeration of self-conscious technique. It is art, for sure. Just flawed art. It probably wouldn't be unfair to say it's art that just tries too damn hard.

Let's move on to some examples. 

Moore's stories are fragmented like memories. They have a coherence from beginning to end, but in the middle the reader is often jarred by the sudden, apparently random, thoughts of the characters:

It made Lyle think of when he got contact lenses. (p81)

When he comes I think, unbidden, of something that I've heard about tuna. (p92)

 He says, I've just had a strong memory of a bus ride in Cuba. (p.98)

Later, while putting clothes in the dryer, I imagined the smell of swamps. (p112-113)

That last quotation points to another problem I had with this collection. Sometimes the words are poorly chosen. Does one "imagine" the smell of swamps? Doesn't one just "smell swamps", whether one is in a swamp or not?

I also had problems with:

Everything in Cuba is at a standstill, waiting for ignition. (p27)

The rain leaves long, thin marks like sewing needles on the windows. (p113)

Your breasts are tender, a rumour, the beginning of a long story, a page-turner. (p138)

Calling breasts "a page-turner" just might be the height of objectification. It's also a highly convoluted metaphor. 

Finally, Moore also (over)uses lists to emphasize the apparent randomness of existence.

Bethany names the things that matter in life: a coddled egg, boiled wool, fresh sheets, doeskin gloves, ironed shirts, old-fashioned beans, table butter, the farmer's market. (p.113)

A housefly caught between the kitchen windowpanes. The cat on the fence flicks its ear, the mattress. The fly hyper-vivid, rubbing its forelegs together, one on top of the other, then switching, so the alternate leg is on top. The fridge kicks in. Such steadfastness, the absorbing industry. She takes a bite of the cookie. (p.114)

Which isn't to say that Moore doesn't sometimes, even often, get things right. It's just that for me most of these stories didn't add up to the sum of their parts.

Two stories, however, I thought worked just fine, even fantastic: "Craving" (about a party where I joint is passed - Moore's randomness works well here as a metaphor for stoned consciousness) and "Grace" (about a disintegrating marriage - another story where form and content blend well). In fact, "Grace" is one of the best stories I've read this year, and it wouldn't be out of place in any anthology of the best Canadian stories of recent years. It left me breathless and ripped my heart out all at once, if that isn't too convoluted a metaphor. Hey, even reviewers get to use them once and a while!

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







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