Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Canada’s largest independent publisher, House of Anansi, had at least one innovative success in 2013. While most English language publishers are deserting all but the best-known writers when it comes to short story collections, almost exactly a year ago Anansi announced its new Astoria imprint, devoted to short fiction. In addition to grouping backlist collections under the imprint (you can find the Astoria website here), they promise to deliver three new collections a year.

Anansi hit one out of the park right off the top with this initiative: Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing became only the fourth story collection to win the Giller Prize (Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro wrote two of the four, so it is good company). Coady is a well-established writer, so her inclusion on the Astoria list was somewhat predictable — as was Peter Behren’s Travelling Light (which I have not read). Théodora Armstrong wrote the third collection published in 2013, taking the honors as the first debut writer to be featured by Astoria and I was eager to see the results.

Jumping straight to the chase, I would have to conclude that they are mixed. Of the eight stories in Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility I found a couple were very good to excellent, a few more just fine and some wanting (probably more a reflection of my taste than a question of quality as I will explain later in this review). I will focus this review on my two favorites.

One is the title story. The narrator is an air traffic controller in Kamloops, British Columbia, hardly a high traffic area but one that has its own set of challenges. While Armstrong alerts the reader in the opening paragraph that a mayday call will feature in the story, she also takes some care to make sure we are aware that the mundane aspects of the job are also a factor:

On winter days when storms keep the planes grounded, we pass the time between weather updates reading, doing crosswords, arguing current events that seem worlds away. No cellphones, no laptops or electronic distractions of any kind allowed on the Floor. It’s the idleness that gets me agitated and picking at my thumb cuticles while others around here delight in the boredom, tilt their chairs back, kick their feet up and brush the potato chip crumbs off their shirts, enjoying the blur around the margins of their lives. It’s no exaggeration to say I work with some lazy slugs. John breathes through his mouth for Christ’s sake, like a sick person.

The day of the mayday call is the opposite of mid-winter — it is mid-summer, the temperature is in the thirties and the call comes from a water-bombing plane fighting one of the forest fires that constantly rage in the summer in the interior of B.C.:

“Golf Foxtrot Victor Bravo. Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

I’m aware of the pause — a mere second and a half — even as I’m responding to the mayday. The lapse is a weakness I didn’t realize I had in me. Static fills my head as my heart starts to pump faster.

“Golf Foxtrot Vitor Bravo.” I say, “Pacific Radio received mayday, state the nature of your emergency.”

John slides the binder with our emergency protocol across the desk toward me and I begin flipping through the pages. Suddenly I feel wide awake, my heart a stopwatch tick-tocking and the air rushing through my chest. Voice procedure shrinks the Floor to an airless box: language reduced until there is no room for interpretation. There are very specific things I need to say and do written in clear detail on the pages of this binder. All I need to do is follow them in a straight line, top of the page to bottom.

The pilot had spoken to the control tower earlier, reporting “a small leak in the gas tank he attributed to a possible rupture after picking up his load” (for those unfamiliar with forest-fire fighting, the bombers pick up their water by skimming the surface of nearby lakes). He said then that he planned to drop his load and then head back to the airport — now he is losing fuel fast and a crash is inevitable. When the crash comes and the radio goes silent, the air controllers can see the resulting fireball from their tower.

All of that action takes place in the first five pages of a 38-page story — most of it is devoted to the after-effects the narrator experiences following the crash. While part of that involves the inevitable detail of the investigation, most is devoted to how it unsettles everyday aspects of the narrator’s life, his relations with his partner Angie and a couple of university friends who don’t really appreciate what is involved in a job where failure or simply a misstep can lead to people losing their lives. Described that way, I confess it seems like slim pickings for a story — to author Armstrong’s credit, one of her strengths is the ability to concretely capture the little details that have enormous impact on an individual’s life. It is a talent that is well-illustrated in this story.

I’ll confess that personal experience probably was a major factor in my other favorite from the collection, “The Art of Eating”. This one features the tale of the chef of a seaside West Vancouver restaurant. West Vancouver is an upscale community of incredible beauty, looking across the inlet to Stanley Park — the Western shore features an assortment of restaurants like the one featured in this story and Mrs. KfC and I have eaten in many of them, perhaps even the one that inspired this story.

Today he will sit down with Susan [the manager] to negotiate a salary increase, because Charlie feels he deserves more. He knows food and he loves food and he’s a big man because of it — not morbidly obese or anything, but a bit of a fatso. When Charlie came to the restaurant three years ago, the menu was all over the place — eggrolls alongside pierogi, an Indonesian stir-fry next to a pasta Bolognese. The previous chef had been fired after he went across the street for a midnight dip in the ocean with some of the underage staff members and then left his underpants to dry in the back hall. Charlie’s fairly sure he’s looking pretty good by comparison.

Okay, Charlie’s problems (and the restaurant’s) are hardly earth-shattering, but once again Armstrong takes the ordinary and makes it interesting. As in the title story, most of “The Art of Eating” (which weighs in at 56 pages) is devoted to the web of issues that Charlie faces (not the least being the imminent arrival of his first child) — Armstrong’s strength is again the way she develops the detail around them.

I suspect that strength is also present in the stories that did not land with me — the central characters in those stories are children or teenagers and I will admit that their problems simply did not engage me the way that the two that I have cited did. Suffice to say that I was impressed enough with this collection that I will be keeping an eye out for Armstrong’s next book.

A final note for those who like short stories: British Columbia has a couple of excellent creative writing programs at the University of Victoria and UBC — every year, we see the publication of worthwhile volumes from writers trained at or affiliated with the programs. Check out reviews of Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives for a couple previously reviewed here. With Anansi’s commitment to shorter fiction with its Astoria imprint, readers have every reason to expect to see more new writers from British Columbia showing up in the future.

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9 Responses to “Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve picked up some great short story recommendations from you in recent years Kevin, but not sure this one is for me. Although I do like the opening of the eponymous story that you quote.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would characterize Armstrong as a talent to watch rather than one to start collecting immediately. This collection definitely has its moments but they did not occur often enough for me to be avidly encouraging people to pick it up.

  2. David Says:

    I had to get my copy of this down off the shelf to refresh my memory of some of the stories, but the title story, the almost novella-length ‘Mosquito Creek’ and ‘Thanks to Carin’ have stayed with me since I read them last September. Flicking through I remembered how much I enjoyed ‘Fishtail’ and ‘The Art of Eating’ too. I’ll confess the other three stories in the collection would need a reread, but this was still one of my favourite collections of last year.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I had high hopes for “Mosquito Creek” but I’m afraid the teenage protagonists ended up annoying more than interesting me — as I said in my review, that may be more a reflection of me than it is of the worth of the story.

      I was impressed with the way that Armstrong was able to sustain her voice in the longer stories (there are two, maybe even three, that are as much novella as short story) — that offers promise if she decides to attempt a novel as her next project.

  3. Buried In Print Says:

    I found “The Art of Eating” enjoyable too; I quite like “kitchen stories” to begin with. And the description of the character’s fatigue feeling like deep-fryer oil in his arteries was a nice touch. As for others: I liked “Rabbit” and “Whales Stories” too. While “Mosquito Creek” wasn’t my favourite, I really liked the photos I saw posted online (I think on the author’s site) of the teenagers jumping, and found they brought a different appreciation to the story for me.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’ll admit that the title story and “The Art of Eating” caught my fancy because they reflected my personal experience. So I would speculate that if I was younger (and had spent more of my youth in B.C., perhaps even jumping off cliffs) I might have had a more positive response to “Mosquito Creek”, “Whale Stories” and “Rabbit”.

      • Buried In Print Says:

        This reminds me of an interview I read with Lisa Moore (by Mike Landry, I think) in which she discusses having been inspired by the audacity of the main character in her Caught, wanting a little more of that herself. The closest I’ll get to cliff-jumping is in this story for sure. Funny what we look for in the fiction we read (and write), how far from our own experiences it can take us.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The title story sounds very good, though I note your (admittedly qualified) reservations about the full book. I’ll wait to see if she writes and you review more, but the title story sounds very promising.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did have the impression that Armstrong is still exploring where to best apply her talents. The “childhood” stories were quite well done but the subject matter did not really speak to my tastes. The two I did like, however, offered interesting perspectives that did spark my curiosity. Okay, I am a bit of a foodie fiction fan (that’s why The Dinner made my 2013 top 10 list). And the title story certainly had its moments.

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