Welcome to the second guest post from Dorryce Smelts, the Winnipeg librarian who has been complementing my reviews of a couple Giller longlisted short story collections with her own thoughts. Her review of The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise can be found here — here are her thoughts on The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie:
Michael Christie’s debut collection, The Beggar’s Garden, takes as its constituency the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, the lonely and isolated. For Christie, this includes the residents of Vancouver’s downtown east side and he portrays them, for the most part, in a style that is straightforward and unadorned.
The predominant tone among Christie’s characters is one of world-weariness and a comic resignation to their collective fate. In the first story, “Emergency Contact”, this tone works quite well in conveying the loneliness of a woman who uses and abuses the city’s 911 emergency service. Christie uses Vancouver’s neighbourhoods to good effect too, where his characters spend much of their time travelling within their limited orbits. In “An Ideal Companion”, the glass and steel condo towers of the West End successfully convey the sense of isolation experienced by single young professionals who tentatively seek connection with others.
Christie favours a kind of muted sensibility in his characters’ interactions — this works to heighten their sense of separateness and evokes, again, the unique nature of his chosen character ensemble, some of whom are homeless or mentally ill. In “The Extra”, Christie employs a first-person narrative that engages the reader with the character, who suffers from a ‘disabled brain’. At first, the narrative demonstrates the extremely narrow scope of the character’s experience and understanding, as he is routinely exploited by his opportunistic roommate, Rick. As the story progresses, however, the flat tone (due to the character’s disability) of first-person narrative becomes monotonous, repetitive and unfortunately predictable. By the end of the story, I found that while it was initially entertaining to follow the protagonist around — and Christie does arouse some sympathy for his rather callous treatment at Rick’s hands — by the story’s end, it did not feel as though Christie had delivered on the promise of the story.
Here is where I diverge from published reviews of The Beggar’s Garden, most of which have bestowed high praise. While Christie is on the whole a competent writer, and some of the pieces in this collection demonstrate writing of excellent quality, the basic elements of the short story form are not altogether balanced and most of his stories achieve only a haphazard sense of completion. “The Quiet”, for example, nicely conveys the experience of the young man Finch who boosts a Mercedes-Benz and takes it on a tour of the city, against his brother’s wishes. Woven into the fabric of this story is Finch’s own conflict at the strictures and controls his brother places on him. In a split second he decides to throw it all off. Just as the reader is getting to the point where Finch might come to a realization of his condition, or discover what his hopes and dreams might be, Christie introduces a further plot element that, in my opinion, weakens the strength of Finch’s actions up to that point and the story rolls to an unsatisfying and hasty conclusion after that.
As a counterpoint to “The Extra” and “The Quiet”, the story “Emergency Contact” does in fact achieve a more satisfying ending for this reader — Christie establishes Maya’s desire to transcend her condition, despite its debilitating nature, and successfully delivers on that promise. Christie shows Maya’s epiphany to beautiful effect:
‘…and it was then I felt the sound penetrate to the very doorstep of the dead part of me, the part that had been strangled long ago by someone or something I could not name, and there the sound wavered, diminished, and was turned away.’
“King Me” also shows a much more developed sense of the character’s yearnings and aspirations, and Christie allows much fuller play here. As Saul falls further and further into paranoid delusion, Christie demonstrates his pathetic decline with a deft combination of sympathy and comedy. The ending of this story is a bit of a punchline, and I think Christie could have done a better job here, but “King Me” is more of a complete story in this collection.
I am aware, for those readers who find more to like in The Beggar’s Garden than I do, that the short story form in the post-modern sense does not necessarily require that the traditional elements be present or even adhered to. In Christie’s collection, the particular issue I have is with the notion that by the story’s end the character must somehow come to terms — or not — with his or her problem. In a story such as “The Extra”, the open-ended nature of the story’s conclusion is unsatisfying, and I think Christie could have raised the stakes a little higher for a character who, unable to shake off his disability and with limited intellectual means to come to grips with it, is forced to come back to ground zero because it seems as though the writer decided not to push the story further.