Archive for the ‘Heighton, Steven’ Category

The Dead Are More Visible, by Steven Heighton

July 12, 2012

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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