The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts

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.

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7 Responses to “The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts”

  1. Deborah Serravalle Says:

    Another insightful review, Dorryce. Thanks!

  2. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    “the short story form in the post-modern sense does not necessarily require that the traditional elements be present or even adhered to” – Quite!

    I have read various short story collections where the stories hardly qualify as “stories” at all – they are just isolated episodes or “snapshots ” which leave you feeling “what was that all about?”.

    From what you said about this one, perhaps it won’t be the winner! An excellent review however.

  3. Dorryce Smelts Says:

    Deborah and Tom,

    Thanks for your comments. I had remarked to Kevin earlier that I felt quite the curmudgeon for not jumping on the bandwagon for this collection, but I have to qualify that by saying, Christie is a talented writer indeed and there is a lot of potential there. The Beggar’s Garden just didn’t make it for me, despite the praise Christie got for evoking sympathy and empathy for his down and out characters – to my mind, that is a requirement a writer must have for even beginning to write a story, and not something the writer should be congratulated for after the stories are published. Perhaps I’m making too fine a point but…

    Cheers,
    Dorryce

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Dorryce: I don’t think you and I are that far apart in our opinion of this book. For me, some of the stories (the first and last, which I chose to emphasize in my review) worked quite well — and I think they would meet with your approval as well. Others were not nearly as successful, as you point out in your review.

    So I would agree that Christie is an author with a lot of potential. This collection is a very good start, but it is not without its problems — which was a good enough reason for the jury to leave it off the shortlist.

  5. Deborah Says:

    Hi Kevin I subscribe to your blog and so much enjoy it! I just listened to your chat with someone on CBC about your actual last name and where you live. You mentioned that you appreciated comments, so I’ll be here more often to comment. As a Vancouverite, I very much enjoyed The Beggar’s Garden. The stories that stood out for me where different from the ones that you mention. My copy is not at hand.

    I so enjoyed your interesting rationale as to how the Giller jury whittled down from the long list to the ShortList. Personally , I loved Touch by Alexi Zentner – what a wonderful story teller, and so Canadian! That said . it is my fondest hope that Patrick deWitt might win the Giller. I’ve never read a western , but Sisters Brothers blew me right out of the water

    I so enjoy your blog. Like you, I am not a great fan of Michael Ondaatje, nor Margaret Atwood.

    Anyway, just a hi from Deborah in Vancouver

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Deborah: As I noted in my review of this collection, it has been a very good year for versions of Vancouver in fiction. I know the city reasonably well and thought that Christie, Gartner and Timothy Taylor all offered interesting perspectives on it.

    One thing the Giller list shows this year is that there is a new generation of younger Canadian authors coming into full stride, with much to promise readers in the future. The jury will have an interesting decision come Tuesday.

  7. Buried In Print Says:

    I actually found the technical aspects of this collection quite strong, but the stories didn’t have the emotional resonance that I was hoping for. Nonetheless, it’s been some weeks since I read the collection and I do still recall many of the characters therein, whereas often elements of short stories are soon lost in a muddle in my reader’s memory. Although I didn’t love the collection as many readers have, I can appreciate the qualities that drew them to it more strongly than I felt myself.

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