My Life Among The Apes, by Cary Fagan

Purchased at Indigo.ca

When the 2012 Giller Prize longlist was announced, perhaps the greatest source of puzzlement was the inclusion of Cary Fagan’s short story collection, My Life Among The Apes. Fagan is best known for his award-winning children’s books — the five adult novels and three story collections that he had previously published attracted little attention. I have to say after reading the ten story collection, I am still scratching my head at what the jury was thinking. This has been a very good year for short fiction in Canada (nine of the 78 titles longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award were Canadian — this was not one of them). Finding this to be one of the two best (Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away was the other collection on the longlist and it moved on to the shortlist) still seems odd. Perhaps it is an indication that with precious few exceptions (come on down, Alice Munro — a review of her new collection Dear Love will be up here soon) evaluating short stories is even more idiosyncratic than most literary rankings.

That judgment aside, there is nothing “bad” about Fagan’s ten stories — “ordinary” would be my tempered description. Given his extensive list of publications, Fagan knows how to write and all of the stories are quite readable. Most, however, reminded me of the days of yore when more magazines published short fiction: you’d read the piece, think “that was okay” and then move on to the next article (maybe that’s why the New Yorker makes the weekly fiction contribution the last of its long articles?).

Two of the ten did rise above that description — ‘Lost At Sea’ (22 pages) and ‘The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese’ (35 pages) happen to be the longest in the book, which suggests Fagan should perhaps consider adding a novella to his already wide range of publications. For short story aficionados (yes, they do exist although it is hardly a mass movement) they alone might be reason enough to buy the book.

Toronto’s PATH network

Some background is necessary before we get into a discussion of ‘Edison Wiese’. Every large city in a northern climate needs to find a way to create a downtown retail sector that can function during the brutal weather of winter. In my home of Calgary, it is the “Plus 15″, an extended string of stores and interior walkways one story above ground with enclosed pedestrian “bridges” across streets — ground level stores are in the “basement” from November to April. Toronto (with a subway for public transit) went the opposite direction: PATH is a 17-mile underground network (that is not a typo) that includes 1,200 retail and service outlets, employing more than 5,000 people. If your Toronto condo building is hooked into PATH, you can survive the entire winter without going outdoors, although I can testify from experience that without any landmarks it is only too easy to get hopelessly lost and find the need to head up to ground level to get a bearing on where you are. Consider it the antithesis of Regent Street or Fifth Avenue — lots of opportunities to spend money, but aboslutely no distinguishing architecture.

Edison is one of those 5,000 underground workers, a barista, server, busboy, dishwasher and sweeper, sole employee in one of the little coffee shops that can be found throughout the PATH network. He is somewhat slow and shy — the “underworld” of the story title is not just where he works but also reflects that much of his life takes place in his mind even while he is active in the real world (if 17 miles of underground retail can be considered “real”):

How terrible is the morning rush, so many desperate faces, such weighty grief. And always we fail in our modest but honourable responsibilites.

Take it as evidence of Edison’s delusions, this fragment of the unrolling inner monologue. Edison fills a line of Styrofoam cups with boiled coffee, lids and then nestles them into paper bags beside muffins, croissants, bagels with slabs masquerading as cream cheese. He takes in bills, he gives change. It is the usual morning crush, if perhaps a bit more frantic owing to this being the last day of the year, and Edison’s thoughts would have to be considered exaggerated by any balanced person. Perhaps it is a good thing that he cannot get these thoughts out easily, for Edison stutters, an impediment since early childhood. Already he is on his third carafe of the morning and has to turn from the counter to fill a new filter with grounds. As the morning customers all want American coffee, the espresso machine sits forlorn (Edison’s word) on the adjacent counter, its brass dome reflecting the gaunt visages (Edison again) as they swarm and recede. Many of those customers are already pullling back the plastic tabs to take scalding swallows before they are even out of the cafe.

Every day is the same in this underground mall cafe beneath a sixty-three-storey building, down to the customers themselves and when they appear. The office workers storm the place until nine (e.g. The Wasp, Edison’s name for the woman who always wears a tightly fitted belt, is just one example). The crush lessens then and the next, slower wave of customers tend to be male: “senior executive types who can afford to drift into their offices at leisure”. After that, business is very slow but there are regulars: The Hand Woman (homeless, living in PATH, named by Edison because her shawl is stitched from dozens of abandoned gloves and mittens), Mr. Lapidarus (for whom the cafe is a second home, who always asks for Irish Breakfast and a scone and then graciously accepts the discount orange pekoe which is all that is on offer).

Fagan establishes this mini-cast of characters well (I haven’t mentioned the owner, Edison’s own parents or several others). The story gets more intriguing as closing time arrives — Edison finds excuses to avoid locking up because he has no desire at all to go to the New Year’s Eve party his parents are hosting. Mr. Lapidarus arrives, a convenient reason to keep the cafe open longer. A string trio, booked for an office party they can’t find, drops in and unpacks their instruments. Eventually, all the regular oddballs (and Edison’s parents) are on hand and a New Year’s Eve party evolves. In the soulless (if warm) world of the 17-mile underground mall, the tiny cafe is as close to a centre of “community” as you can get. Perhaps personal experience colors my impression of ‘The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese’ — I am quite certain that the model for Fagan’s cafe was located in the baswement of the building next to the one where I worked for two years in Toronto.

I am going to give much shorter shrift to ‘Lost At Sea’, but it too shows Fagan’s ability to establish a sense of place — this time, Cape Cod. Two recent 23-year-old graduates from the University of Toronto, Jeffrey and Nadia, both contemplating what the next step is in their life, head from Toronto to Cape Cod. While Nadia has applied to chiropractic college in Ottawa, she is indulging herself with a seven-day “apprenticeship” with Bernard Aronson of Wellfleet who is known for his hand-made chairs: “She had read an article in The New York Times about how he used only traditional hand tools to make reproductions of early Americana. It was physical work, too, another kind of usefulness, and she had long had a fantasy of working as an artisan of some kind.”

‘Lost At Sea’ has three strong threads to it, a significant achievement for a 20-page story. Fagan gives us a good picture of non-tourist season Cape Cod (the only time that Mrs. KfC and I have been there), its quaint towns, its “wilderness” and its beaches. He offers more than a sketch of artisan carpentry. Most central to the story, however, is his focus on the dissolving of a love affair, something only too familiar to those who remember their twenties.

I wish that I could report that the other eight stories (or at least some of them) had the impact that these two did. If I can borrow some critical phrasing from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor (who reads more short story writers than I do), too many of them read like “exercises” — an okay exploration of an aspect of the genre, but lacking the completeness that marks the success of a good short story. Much in the way that Toronto’s PATH system doesn’t have the life or soul of Regent Street or Fifth Avenue.

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One Response to “My Life Among The Apes, by Cary Fagan”

  1. buriedinprint Says:

    I enjoyed the collection overall; others that stood out for me were “Wolf”, “he Brooklyn Revenge” and “I Find I Am Not Alone on the Island”. And I excel at getting lost on the PATH system.

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