canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hitting the Charts

by Leon Rooke
Biblioasis, 2006

Read the TDR interview with Leon Rooke

Reviewed by Michael Murphy

If Walter Benjamin is right, and the art of storytelling is dead, then Leon Rooke’s Hitting the Charts is surely an anomaly. While most books are meant to be read in private, this collection of short stories begs to be read aloud, in front of a live audience. From "The Deacon’s Tale" to "Biographical Notes," the theatrical quality of Rooke’s stories, combined with his merciless attention to form, presents the reader with a corrective to plot-driven, stale prose. For anyone who’s had the pleasure of hearing Rooke perform, the reading experience is only slightly less intense.

Hitting the Charts spans across almost three decades of Rooke’s career. Yet, the stories feel as fresh and inspiring as any current writing in Canadian fiction. Rooke’s sentences seem to come from the mouths of caffeinated children, unwilling to stop for breath, stretching across entire paragraphs and pages. The effect can leave a reader bewildered. But Rooke’s humorous manipulation of language never fails to invigorate, enchant, and, most importantly, entertain.

In "Sixteen-year-old Susan March Confesses to the Innocent Murder of all the Devious Strangers who would Drag Her Down" (one of many brilliantly-titled stories, second only to "Winter is Lovely, isn’t Summer Hell"), a sixteen-year-old narrator recounts a tale of frustrated, unrequited love with a fitting lack of periods and commas. "Mr Reeves," she imagines herself saying, "I know it’s crazy and absurd and out of the question even but I declare myself I yearn I ache I love you Mr Reeves for god’s sake don’t let me keep sitting here too fragile in this instance even to remove my eyes from your face O tell me what I should do how I might give myself help me Mr Reeves because this has never happened to me with those others I shall show you in our lake for I am my father’s virgin." Susan March’s verbose narrative seems to take place entirely within her teenage mind, one too frenetic for line breaks or verbal restrictions. "O! O! O! to catch my breath!" she cries, mimicking the breathlessness of her weary reader. As wearying as Susan March’s narrative might be, if the story were told any other way the young girl’s teenaged, scatterbrained urgency would be lost. Many of Rooke’s better stories demonstrate a similar reliance upon form, including the last one in the collection, "Biographical Notes." Told through brief biographical statements, "Biographical Notes" is about a controversial filmmaker and the different people he has met and influenced throughout his life. Here, as elsewhere, Rooke takes a good story and makes it better by telling it in a new and energizing way, with a definite focus on the telling.

Although I am calling Rooke’s works stories, John Metcalf insists in the foreword to Hitting the Charts that Rooke’s stories be thought of as performances. He writes that the "most fruitful way to approach Leon is to think of him as a jazz musician in full flight of improvisation … Sometimes the story takes off; sometimes, it peters out" (9). Indeed, there are few stories (or performances, improvisations) in this collection that peter out. The rare exceptions to this rule are the stories that seem to sacrifice content too readily for the sake of form. For example, "Hanging Out With the Magi" and "The Problem Shop" both begin strongly, but end without purpose. The former tells a confusing story about a family that lives with ghosts, and ends with the reception of a baby in a box, and a man in a tree. Although the reader wishes to make sense of these events, the conclusion fails to pull them together, and the story loses impact as a result. "The Problem Shop" suffers from a similar lack of cohesiveness. The ex-con protagonist seems to want a longer story than he gets, and when his problems are solved by heading out to sea on an ancient schooner, the reader cannot help but wonder if heading out to sea, into an open environment, is not simply Rooke’s way of telling us he couldn’t think up a better ending.

While some of Rooke’s less satisfactory pieces leave a little to be desired in the way of content, it helps to remember that these stories take on entirely new shapes and directions when read aloud. On the page, "Gypsy Art" is a condensed, hard-to-follow car accident of words, chronicling the misadventures of the wandering Fazzini. But if you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Rooke read the same story aloud, the story’s wandering becomes Fazzini’s wandering, and you begin to get a sense of what it means to "hit the road."

Benjamin may be right — storytelling may be a lost art form. But Rooke presents a pretty strong counter-argument. There’s a history to each word he pronounces, each sentence he constructs. At times, his stories are tender and engaging. At others, bawdy and irreverent. Mostly, though, Rooke just knows how to tell a good story well. With him, it’s the telling that matters.

Michael Murphy has contributed to filling Station, The Windsor Review, and All Rights Reserved. He teaches writing in London (the Canadian version) and is a compulsive used book shopper.






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