The Dead Are More Visible, by Steven Heighton

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Steven Heighton is one of those Canadian authors who has quietly built an extensive and varied publishing resume — six works of fiction (three novels, three story collections including this one); five volumes of poetry; two of essays and numerous appearances in short story anthologies. While he has appeared on a number of “Best of the Year” lists and has won three gold National Magazine Awards for short fiction, his showing in the major prize contests is limited to one Governor General’s short list (for poetry in 1995).

I did read his first novel, The Shadow Boxer, when it appeared in 2000 but must confess I don’t remember it well. So, given my new commitment to being more disciplined about exploring short story collections, I welcomed the opportunity to check in on someone who is now an established author and sample the 11 stories that are included in The Dead Are More Visible.

Overall, “varied” is a perfect word to describe this collection. They range in length from 10 to almost 50 pages. The stories are not only not linked, they feature a wide range of styles and formats — something that is unusual in my experience with short stories, since most writers seem to gravitate towards at least some similarities in structure, tone and approach. And the narrative point of view also switches from story to story — a number feature female narrators (one, “Swallow”, has a full cast of women characters) which is a risky approach for any male writer.

So it is not surprising that I had a varied response — a number are excellent, a couple very good and some missed the mark for me. Overall, though, I would have no problem recommending Heighton and this collection, if only because it shows how one writer can use a number of different approaches and formats to develop his ideas. I’ll offer more detailed thoughts on two that impressed me, but with the caveat that these are examples, not meant as a representative sample.

The opening story, “Those Who Would Be More”, is set in 1980s Japan where the narrator is a parttime English teacher at a pricy primary school for the offspring of Japanese who can afford it. The story makes clear from the start that Principal Eguchi is an unusual woman for Japan — she not only owns her own business, she drinks beer in public. She employs male English language tutors as much to improve her own English (and seduce them) as to teach her students; in the meeting with the narrator that opens the story she has upped the beverage of choice from beer to Suntory — because she is firing him.

“Some of the parents are compliant,” she said in a rush, finally meeting my gaze.

“Compliant? You mean — in sending us their children?”

“They say the children are so happy in the juku.”

“Oh, oh, you mean ‘compliment’. As in–“

Too happy, the children. Too much play, not enough work. These parents are…”

I sat back. “Oh. These are complaints.”

“Several complaints. More than several. How many is several, Sensei? In English?”

“Well…I guess around three or four.”

“Ah. How many is many?”

“There’ve been many complaints?”

“They say that recess is half the class, Sensei! That means, two hours or more.”

I could only nod.

“And, you refuse to assign the housework.”

“Four hours seems like a pretty long time to keep three- and four-year-olds at a desk. On a Saturday.”

Okay, that excerpt may seem a bit cute, but don’t hold that against Heighton. He offsets it with another story thread — the narrator’s own attempts to learn Japanese from a second-hand primer he has picked up at a bookstand. Some back story is necessary here: Heighton did teach in Japan and most of the stories in his first collection, Flight Paths of the Emperor, were set there. He admits in an afterword to this book that there was story he wanted to write then, but couldn’t figure out how: “my experience of learning Japanese from a bizarre primer possibly authored by a psychopath”. This is that story and excerpts from the bizarre primer slowly but surely take over. Here’s an early example — they get crazier as the story proceeds:

My aunt stayed with us here for dinner last night.
The sun was bright that day and the wind was warm.
My uncle has a rifle that he found after the battle.
A rifle is no match for a bomb.

As interesting as Principal Eguchi is (and she is), she’s no match for the primer. If you are already inclined from that short excerpt to envision when it might have been written, you are on the right track.

“Shared Room on Union”, by way of contrast, is set in a version of the author’s home city, the university town of Kingston, Ontario. Janna and Justin are talking and necking in Justin’s old Volvo 240 on a Thursday night, parked outside her apartment. They sleep together most nights but not Thursdays:

Friday was her ‘nightmare day’, a double shift at the upstyle cafe/bistro where she was now manager. Thursday nights she insisted on sleeping at her own place, alone. Sleep wasn’t really the issue, he sensed. This seemed to be a ritual of independence, and he knew she would maintain it strictly, having declared she would, until they moved in together in the new year.

This Thurday night turns into a nightmare itself when a crazed, armed intruder shows up and claps the muzzle of his gun to Justin’s window. His attempt to steal Justin’s Volvo is foiled (because he can’t drive a standard) so he settles for locking them in the trunk before stumbling off. Most of the story takes place while they are in the trunk — it’s a study of how a relationship can truly be put to an unusual test and I’ll spoil it by selectively quoting the opening and closing sentences of Heighton’s last paragraph:

A curious thing he noticed in the years after: in company, he and Janna would often discuss that night, either collaborating to broach the story on some apt conversational cue (which they would both recognize without having to exchange a glance), or readily indulging a request from guests, or hosts, to hear it for the first time, or yet again.
….
When they were alone together, in fact, they never spoke a word of it.

The two stories that I have chosen are among the shorter ones in the collection — they are complex enough and the longer ones are almost novella-like in the way that the author introduces a number of threads. The narrator of the title story, for example, is a woman whose job is flooding park skating rinks overnight (this is a Canadian book, after all) who acquires a visitor, who is convinced that this particular rink location used to be a cemetery and the dead are weighed down by the obelisk that is its dominant feature — and that is only the start. “Swallow”, the story with the female cast, features a group of six women who have signed up (for handsome pay) as human guinea pigs in the testing of an oral sedative. “Nearing the Sea, Superior” takes place in an airport departure lounge — a couple (Erik and Porter, since she goes by her mother’s maiden name) who have agreed to separate are on their way to visit his dying mother, Porter’s final concession to her ex-partner.

I hope those two extended examples and three short descriptions illustrate that notion of “variety” I talked about earlier. While not all these stories succeed, I can safely say that each one offers a reading different experience — that is tribute enough to an author who obviously knows well what the short story genre can offer.

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10 Responses to “The Dead Are More Visible, by Steven Heighton”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Do you prefer reading a collection written by a single author or multiple authors? I’m currently reading a collection from a single author and am taking it slowly.
    I think it’s normal to have some good and not so good in a collection. It’s a rare collection when you’re wowed by them ALL, but it has happened.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I prefer collections from a single author to anthologies — I like to be able to get a sense of just what the author is about and find that anthologies are rather frustrating.

    Having said that, my general preference for novels shows up in my short story collection tastes because those that impress me most tend to be ones with linked stories or a common theme.

    And I am best at collections when I can discipline myself to only read two to four stories at a sitting (less if they are longer stories) — I read this volume in four sessions, which is about right.

    And I would certainly agree that most collections leave me with a spectrum of opinions (a very good book would have individual stories ranging from “good to excellent” with a tilt to the positive end). Truly exceptional writers (I would point to Alice Munro, Sherwood Anderson and Richard Yates as examples) can hit “excellent” with virtually every story, however.

  3. sshaver Says:

    I had to smile at his image of a language-teaching book written by a psychopath.

    I’m using one of those in my furrowed-brow attempt to learn ancient Greek!

  4. Lee Monks Says:

    I must say I’ve never read a Cheever, Means, Munro, Jones or Carver story that fell below ‘excellent’. The Maile Meloy collection as well: can’t remember anything less than very good indeed.

    All this is really just an excuse to exclaim much anticipation as to your mooted 23 July post, Kevin…..

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: That is a rather select list that you cite (and I would certianly agree with the inclusion of Meloy). I do think I’d call some “very good” if only to save “excellent” for the ones that I prefer.

    And I refuse to offer any teasers on my impression of the Amis. We can exchange views in a few days.

  6. Lee Monks Says:

    All the better…I look forward to your take on Larn-ool.

  7. David Says:

    I’ve been reading this for the past week, Kevin and read the final story this morning. I’d agree with you that it is a varied collection yet not so varied as to lack cohesion which is a good thing I think. I just found it all a bit… ordinary. Certainly well-written and I particularly liked the two stories you’ve talked about in your review, though some aren’t as good: ‘Fireman’s Carry’ was predictable and felt like filler, while ‘Swallow’ and ‘Heart Like an Arrow’ seemed to take a long while to say not very much. But I can’t see any of these stories lingering in my mind for long the way some I’ve read this year have. It probably didn’t help that I read this after two really excellent collections – Julie Orringer’s ‘How to Breathe Underwater’ features the kind of stories that have as much weight to them as whole novels and leave you pondering on them for the rest of the day, and Buffy Cram’s ‘Radio Belly’ was bold and surprising and felt very fresh compared to Heighton’s book. I would however be interested in trying one of his novels at some point. Anyway, I’m going to give Rebecca Lee’s ‘Bobcat & Other Stories’ a go next – I seem to be reading a lot of Canadian short fiction this year!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: It has only been six weeks since I finished the collection and I admit many of the stories have already slipped from mind — although I do remember the two featured in the review quite well. Certainly it was a pleasant reading experience but some stories were definitely better than others.

    Canada does produce a lot of story collections for some reason (I’d say Alice Munro and having a lot of small independent publishing houses are two of the factors, but that’s only a start). I’m currently reading Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away (four stories in, I’d say it has some comparisons to Heighton) but fully expect I will be buying another collection or two when the Giller longlist is announced Sept. 4 — they always seem to find a couple that I haven’t discovered.

    • David Says:

      I’d agree that there are comparisons between the Heighton and ‘Whirl Away’, Kevin. I read the Wangersky back in early May and whilst I liked it at the time and can recall a few of the stories only one has left any lasting impression (‘Sharp Corner’) though flicking through I remember ‘Echo’ being very good too. I do remember it as being another quite varied collection but one that held together around a loose theme of car crashes – some literal, some figurative.

      In terms of the Giller, of the 8 eligible collections I’ve read so far Daniel Griffin’s wonderful ‘Stopping for Strangers’ is the one I’d really love to see on the longlist. I’ve also very much enjoyed Buffy Cram’s ‘Radio Belly’, Heather Birrell’s ‘Mad Hope’ and Alix Ohlin’s ‘Signs and Wonders’. I must get around to reading Carrie Snyder’s novel/collection ‘The Juliet Stories’ too as that seems to have had some fantastic reviews.

      Canada does indeed produce a lot of story collections, you’re right. As does the US. I wonder if part of that is due to the fact that in both countries collections are eligible for major prizes alongside novels? I imagine that would give them a higher profile and a readership. I’m always surprised when the Frank O’Connor longlist comes out each year how many UK collections there are, but they’re largely published by such tiny independents and with no reviews in the press (as there are in Canada for instance) that they pass completely under the radar.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        David: We’ll see how the jury compares with your suggestions — of those you mention, I have the Ohlin and Snyder but am not likely to get to either before the longlist is out (and the Shadow Giller means whatever collections show up there will become the priority). I’ll mark the Griffin down for reading sometime if it doesn’t make the list.

        Personally, I’m cheering for Dave Margoshes’ A Book of Great Worth — it is one of those books that has grown in memory since I read it.

        I do think prize eligibility is a factor in more collections getting produced here. And the impact is probably even greater for the small publisher rather than the author — when a collection hits a prize list, the whole back catalogue (say of a house like Biblioasis) attracts attention.

        I think a bigger factor in both Canada and the U.S. is that there are more creative writing programs. It is understandable that those programs tend to involve more short story writing than full-scale novels — and many now have their own journals so that work starts to get published. Whatever you might think of creative writing programs, they do attract some people of talent. Talent, effort and early publication sets the stage for a publishable collection.

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