canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Annabel Lyon
Porcupine's Quill Press, 2000

Reviewed by Ted Harms

Middles are usually the best part – just think of how many Oreo’s have met their fate being devoured from the inside out. But too much middle can be problematic - set-up and resolution are important not only for food, but for prose as well.

The problem of the traditional beginning / middle / conclusion is that the shorter the work, be it play, movie, or prose, the more economy must be exercised by the author – any description or character must serve the point of the story or else it will become a distraction.

Annabel Lyon approach is like this: rather than breezing through a fully-developed story with half-baked characters (or vice-versa), she packs as much as she can into the middle and leaves the reader pondering what happened before and after the given situation. Not that the reader is left frustrated with unresolved circumstances; rather doors and windows of opportunity are thrown wide open to a huge expanse of possibility.

In Oxygen, she gives us 14 situations, all of which began and end suddenly: the dilemma faced when variety-store owners comprise their lofty ideals when they decide to stock adult movies, to strange apartment dwellers, to the murder of an old lady told by each of the three involved parties, to an anorexic medical student, to how an irresponsible family abandons their children on the people next door.

Occasionally the quick-entry into a story can be a little disorienting but her prose is riveting, often using ingenious turns of phrase that manage to capture the essence of an event. Sometimes the story suffers when the turns of phrase fall flat. It's personal how you'll respond to her phrases - my wife and I were reading the book at the same time and we'd disagree over which phrases clicked and which didn't.

After the 14 middles - most of which barely exceed a handful of pages, Lyon offers up a novella. My fear was that the longer work would be just a short work stretched out to fill out the pages. The story involves the relationship between two couples and, rather than relying on turns of phrase to propel the story, Lyon has the story shifting between past, present, and future events. The story develops at a very even and relaxed pace and Lyon demonstrates she can maintain the same pace over the longer haul as she can for her shorter works.

The only knock, and it's a minor one, against Lyon's collection is that it can be hard to keep the stories separate if read one after the other without a pause between them - I found myself flipping back to the beginning of the story to keep the characters straight. Just like too many Oreo's can make your stomach sick, these stories should be enjoyed one at a time.

Ted Harms is a philosopher who lives in Waterloo, Ontario.







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