Vanishing and other stories, by Deborah Willis

willis

Copy courtesy WordFest -- click for link to Calgary's author festival

In one sense, the appearance of Vanishing and other stories on Canada’s Governor-General’s award shortlist for fiction was a surprise: A first collection from an almost-unheard-of author which has not received a lot of critical attention. On the other hand, it is a decision that is consistent with the tradition of the G-G award — not just for the reasons in the previous sentence, but also a deliberate attempt to recognize a new talent.

I had positive biases approaching Vanishing and other stories. Deborah Willis grew up in my hometown of Calgary (I don’t recall ever meeting her, so no bias there) and she sets a number of her stories in the city where I live. Having said that, not only does she acknowledge her heritage, she does it in a way that those of us who also grew up here cannot help but recognize — with all respect to my Irish friends, who can fill a couple of shelves with books set in the neighborhood, we don’t get a lot of work set in Calgary. And when we do, some of us (KfC first in line) might be inclined to adjust our critical judgment a tad. This excellent book did not require that at all. And even if you have never been to my town, it is a good book.

There are 14 stories in Vanishing and other stories and while they are in no way linked, there are a lot of common elements. Most of the stories centre on relationships and how they have disintegrated, or disappeared, or simply become part of the past. Willis often tells a story in three tenses — set in reminiscence from a point in the future, the principal focus is on a more recent past, with deeper references even further back. Overall, it is a very effective technique but when you read the stories one after the other it does become a bit of a template. Setting the book down for a day or two between stories is a very appropriate response.

Consider, for example, “Escape”, one of my favorite stories in the book. Thomas’ wife has died and one of his avenues of escape is to begin frequenting a casino that is a 60-minute drive out of town (avoiding anyone who would know him — Mrs. KfC and I know this ‘destination resort’ well, although we have never been through the front door):

These days, he goes every night. He knows the roads well, and can make it in less than an hour. He could go to the casino in town, but likes being far from home, from colleagues and well-meaning friends. And he likes the drive: the rain-darkened highway, the sudden light from passing cars.

Thomas becomes a compulsive gambler, but not for any of the usual reasons. Rather he is intrigued, even infatuated, with the whole process and, finally, focuses his obsession on a dealer at the casino:

He learns to recognize the ones who play for money and the ones who play to find God. The first play to win, and they stop once they do. They pick up their chips and they walk out. The other kind of gambler, the kind he is becoming, sinks into the game and disappears. This gambler plays because he loves the rhythm and routine. He loves the moment — a breath — between winning and losing. To be made or broken within seconds. To live or die — the choice made each minute, by luck or some other careless god. He loves the risk, and cares little for the reward. He plays to lose.

That is about as good a summary of compulsive gambling as I have ever read. It comes in the context of someone who has lost his spouse and is seeking some other kind of companionship. Thomas does get into a “rhythm and routine” and it has nothing to do with winning or losing the bet, it eventually has to do with his obsession about the dealer. The way this idea is developed speaks to a very real talent that Willis both has and expresses.

One of the intriguing aspects of this collection is that in a sense the themes move backward, rather than forward — while in the first few stories the author examines disintegrating, established adult relationships, the latter stories are much more about young people and relationships that are just beginning. It is a risky technique: the linking theme in the stories is the disruption of relationships, but the tactic is to start from the long-established and move back towards those that are still in the process of definition.

In that context, here is an example from “This Other Us”, a story that appears midway through the book:

The three of us lived together for six years, in a two-bedroom suite on the bottom floor of an old house. We had a deck, a compost bin, and a herb garden we neglected. Like most young people in that coastal town, we rode our bikes everywhere, ate tofu, and went to bed early.
We had two cats, many shared appliances, and we’d forgotten whose dishes were whose. We never kept track of who paid the biggest share of the hydro bill — it all evened out in the end, we decided — or who had cleaned the bathroom last. In fact, we hardly cleaned at all. We were used to each other’s unruliness.

Lise, who narrates those words, is the third person in the triangle — Karen and Lawrence are the couple who complete it. But one day a van with the words Revolution Now! on the side appears and Karen packs up, jumps in with the scruffy driver and heads off. Dumpy Lise eventually starts to experiment with tall, slim Karen’s clothes and Lawrence pays attention. Something develops between her and Lawrence. And then Karen comes back….

I grew up in the 1960s in Calgary, Alberta, Canada — as did Deborah Willis, some years (okay, decades) later. I’ll admit that when Deborah Willis does a take on Phil’s Pancake House (and she sets it close to my time, not hers) it sends me back through those decades — Phil’s is the all-night place where we went for food in the middle of the night when I went to the University of Calgary back in the 1960s (the pancakes are a speciality, but I was partial to the spaghetti with meat sauce at 2 a.m.). I can tell from the picture on the jacket that Deborah Willis is at least a generation younger than I am, but she has created a marvellous collection of stories, many set in my community, that explore what it is like to come to maturity.

If there is a criticism of Vanishing and other stories, it is that in exploring the way that relationships “decompose”, author Willis creates a pattern that tends to blend too much from one story into the next. For the reader, there is an easy way around that — restrict yourself to two or three stories at a reading. When you do, you will find yourself very much in the hands of a superb stylist who plays her plots carefully. I am not saying I hope this collection wins the Governor-General’s award for fiction, but I sure won’t be whining if it does. It is a wonderful first book and I eagerly await more from an obviously talented author (who also currently works in Munro’s bookshop in Victoria, so if you happen by there, buy as many books as your suitcase will hold).

Phil's Pancake House

Phil's Pancake House


Sorry, I can’t resist — above is a 1970 picture of Phil's Pancake House, which would have been taken only two years after I graduated. Depressing as it looks, it brings back memories.

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6 Responses to “Vanishing and other stories, by Deborah Willis”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That sounds tremendous, and the quotes are nicely written too.

    The warnings about the template are appreciated too, I have a habit with short story collections of reading them in one go, it often does the collection few favours, I’ll avoid it when I pick this one up.

  2. Shaun Hunter Says:

    Fiction set and steeped in Calgary is rare. I look forward to checking it out. Thanks for the photo of Phil’s, too. A Calgary classic.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shaun: I’ve wondered for a long time why fiction set in Calgary is so rare — and thanks for noticing the Phil’s photo. It is hard to grow up here and not know Phil’s.

    There is another book out this year that has Calgary settings, although most of it is set in the Crowsnest Pass — Michael Davie’s Fishing for Bacon. I read it quickly in the spring and liked it, but didn’t think it had broad enough appeal to do a post. Still a good read if you like books that have Calgary references.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I too have the tendency to speed right through short story collections. With some authors that is just fine, with others I am doing them no favor. I did set Vanishing aside twice, but even then read it too quickly (I wanted to get the post up well before the G-G winner is announced). Some googling I’ve done since I put up the post informs me that Willis is only 26 — I do hope she continues her writing because she shows obvious talent.

    And for those who don’t know the Canadian book business, the Munro of the bookstore in Victoria where she works is Alice Munro’s first husband. He was the person who drew Penguin’s attention to Willis and got her published (and Alice has enthused about the collection, something she does quite rarely). Alas for Willis, I can’t see the G-G jury giving this year’s award to anyone but Alice.

  5. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Kevin – neglected to tell you that based on your recommendation I read this one just before Christmas and really enjoyed it. The story of the couple that loses the little boy on the LRT stayed with me for a long while. Thanks so much for introducing me to a collection that I probably would not have know about otherwise. Whenever I see the word Calgary in fiction (indeed, rare), my heart gives a little tug for my town’s acknowledgement and recognition!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cherine: I have the same reaction — for some reason Calgary does not seem to feature in fiction very often.

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