Archive for the ‘Christie, Michael’ Category

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

October 31, 2011

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.

The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie

October 30, 2011

Purchased from Indigo.ca

The city of Vancouver has one of Canada’s more active (arguably, most active) communities of writers and in 2011 the results have shown up in a number of books which feature Vancouver’s urban landscape. Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, is Giller short-listed — many of those stories are located in the wealthy neighborhoods of West Van and explore some twisted aspects of upper middle-class life there. A Vancouver novelist for whom I have much respect, Timothy Taylor, showed up earlier this year with The Blue Light Project, a futuristic, dystopian look at the city’s vibrant youth counterculture. For me, it did not measure up to his first novel, Stanley Park, which included an exploration of both Vancouver’s foodie culture and the underclass who camp out in that stunning urban park as a means of survival rather than the more recent political statement of Occupy Whatever.

Michael Christie’s Giller longlisted story collection, The Beggar’s Garden, joins the 2011 list. While Christie lives on Galiano Island (unlike the U.S. where westward migration gets halted at the coast, Canada has both the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island to serve as one last step in the push west although frequent ferry service maintains contact with the urban world), he brings to this first book some distinct Vancouver experience. He is a graduate of the highly-regarded creative writing program at the University of British Columbia, but prior to this he worked in a homeless shelter in the Downtown Eastside, perhaps the toughest, most drug-ridden neighborhood in all of Canada. The nine stories in this collection reflect that experience, with a number focusing on the distressed characters who live in and around that neighborhood. (Regular readers of this blog may recall that one of my favorites of 2010, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted, reflected a similar history of street-level social work followed by writing, that one set in Toronto’s underclass — the two books do compare.)

The characters in Christie’s stories aren’t all down-and-outers, but most of them are — and all are damaged people, which probably helps explain how they have come to land in or near the Eastside. The central character in the opening story, “Emergency Contact”, is Maya whose social life consists of phoning 911 and waiting for the emergency crew to arrive. A recent call resulted in the appearance of a paramedic with whom she immediately developed an obsession. The fire department unit usually comes first, she notes in the first-person account:

When they came before, they all had the same moustache and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t on fire or at least dead. To be honest, I prefer the paramedics.

And the paramedic who had come last week I prefer most of all. He’d spoken tenderly and stayed for nearly an hour. After he checked me out, I made him green kool-aid in the plastic jug, stirring it with my wooden spoon that’s stained green from all the times I’ve used it. He sipped, his elbow on my counter, pursing his lips until they disappeared, and said it was a slow night.

I asked him what days he worked.

Four on four off, he said, and I have tomorrow off.

Maya has counted the days carefully before placing her next emergency call and she is ready with a carefully-chosen card from the dollar store — Love is in the air! is the printed message, but she has added her own on the inside. Alas, the ambulance crew that arrives does not include her chosen one, but she knows he will inevitably show up at the hospital emergency ward so, quite literally, she goes along for the ride.

And her budding love interest does eventually make an appearance, but that is mainly window-dressing for the author as he explores the inner workings of an obsessed, lonely person for whom an emergency ward represents hope of human contact, not a way station for the injured. The premise might seem absurd but any veteran EMT working in the neighborhoods where the poor and distressed live will tell you it is only too common. Christie handles it very well.

The title story, “The Beggar’s Garden”, is the last in the book and explores how individuals arrive in this sorry neighborhood and state. Sam Prince is middle-class, works in the fraud department of a bank (“initially, his rise at the bank had been rapid”) and is married to Anna, trained as a lawyer but now a casting director for the many films and commercials shot in Vancouver. Alas, she has recently embarked on an extended visit to her wealthy parents, who live on one of the sprawling acreages outside Calgary, taking the couple’s child Cricket with her. She seems determined to stay there and wants a break, perhaps permanent, from Sam — his response has been to lock up the house and move into the backyard:

Sam Prince lay awake, listening to a squad of raccoons loot his recycling. Since moving into the slumping structure behind his house — it backed onto the alley and was either a shed or a small garage, he’d never been sure — he’d taught himself to distinguish the noise of the raccoons licking his containers clean from the more orderly clanking of the men who came on trailered bikes to rummage his blue bins for anything they could return for deposit. There, in the interminable dark hours of recent weeks, Sam had come to the fearful knowledge that the alley doubled as a nocturnal highway where all valuable things were to be carted away.

Sam runs into the beggar of the title during one of the street roamings that now fill up his free time — Spare Change? Drug/Alcohol Free, GOD BLESS is his begging sign — and he strikes up an acquaintance. Sam maintains some of his former middle-class character and drive and it is not long before he decides to take on the beggar in a form of street venture capitalism. Sam will be “director” of the enterprise, both in terms of allocating funds (he sets up a high-interest savings account for the daily surplus) and overseeing marketing and location. New to vancuvr. Spare Chanje for food and medecine? Thanks is the new sign and the begging site is re-located to the trendy Granville district where tourists just off the cruises to Alaska wander with spare Canadian currency that soon will not be of use to them.

The enterprise is succeeding but the dramatic twist comes when Sam heads to Calgary at his wife’s request to explore the slim prospects of reconciliation. He installs the beggar in his shed/garage to tend things while he is away and the beggar proves adept at restoring the Prince’s once flourishing garden. That motivates him to explore changing his life to a more conventional version — the contrast between someone finding escape from squalor with someone inexorably descending into it provides for a powerful story.

Christie’s debut is an impressive performance which struck a chord with me. Those of us who live in communities that are prospering are well aware that prosperity brings with it the subcultures of extreme poverty and damaged individuals who just can’t cope with the everyday demands that are part of it. It is that thread, more than anything else, which runs through the nine stories in The Beggar’s Garden and it is a phenomenon worth exploring. While it would not have made my personal Giller shortlist, the collection does introduce a writer who is certainly worth watching in the future.

(The Beggar’s Garden was the second choice that Dorryce Smelts made for my gift to her — her thoughts on the collection will appear in a guest post tomorrow.)


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