Canada makes really good ice wine and produces topflight short stories from the fictional tours of European capitals conducted by Mavis Gallant to microscopic investigations into the tics and eccentricities of small-town life by Alice Munro.
Lynn Coady, usually a novelist (her novel The Antagonist was shortlisted for the Giller last year), lives in Edmonton, but hails from Cape Breton. With Hellgoing, she tries her hand at a second book of short stories. Her first attempt at brevity with a punch was Try the Monster Blind in 2000. Born and bred on the East Coast (Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) and having lived for a time on the West Coast, she seems to be a citizen of the country at large. With Hellgoing, she adds her name to the Pantheon of Canadian Short Story Writers.
Short stories are like Spanish tapas, small dishes, small bites. Ideal reading for bus stops, airports, Laundromats and bedrooms. If you don’t like the first taste, you can move on and try another. With the tapas of Hellgoing, you’ll be satisfied because of sentences like these from “Wireless:”
“Jane salutes you from an age where to be an aficionado is to find yourself foolishly situated in the world. Where to care a great deal about something, no matter how implicitly interesting it may be, is to come across as a kind of freak. It’s interest—inordinate interest—in something seemingly arbitrary, having little to do with you or the context you inhabit. Beanie Babies, say, or Glenn Gould.”
Coady had me at the first sentence. Anybody who puts Beanie Babies and Glenn Gould together in the same sentence is my kind of writer.
Some of my favourite bites in the collection include these: “Clear Skies” about the rivalries and jealousies at an unnamed writers’ retreat centre (Sage Hill, Saskatchewan methinks);“Take This and Eat It,” a story about a feisty nun and an anorexic girl; “The Natural Elements,” a tenant and landlord story; and “Body Condom,” about a couple’s relationship in which the woman comes to the growing realization that her partner has lost the gift of natural speech. His is beclouded with clichés and what he’s read in therapy manuals or heard at recovery meetings.
My favourite story is “Hellgoing.” For its humour, its irony, and its deep insight into human behaviour. “Hellgoing” is a story in which the characters don’t go to hell even though the narrator and the reader would expect them to.
The backdrop of the story is the death of the mother, the glue of the family. “The women of our mothers’ generation,” Teresa said to her friends. “That’s what they do, right? That’s their job—to give a shit so the rest of us don’t have to bother—” You can tell that Teresa is a direct and blunt, indulging in a little mischief and mirth from time to time.
In the story Teresa is telling her friends about visiting her wifeless father (who greets her with “You’re fat”) and her motherless brother who live together in the father’s house. She expects to find them dishevelled and desultory, “eating the same thing every day—cereal, cheddar, toast, bologna with ketchup—pissing in the kitchen sink because the bathroom was too far away, wiping their hands on the arms of their chairs…” Instead, the son formally calls the father to dinner, around a table, with real food. They haven’t gone to seed or ruin.
The old tensions and sibling resentments still smoulder in Teresa, but she recognizes that her brother has been vigilant. “You have to be vigilant,” her brother says. She says nothing of note in reply, but she thinks to herself that she has been vigilant about other things. “You can only be vigilant, she thought, about a few things at a time. Otherwise it’s not vigilance anymore. It starts to be more like panic.”
– By J.S. Porter