Archive for the ‘Fagan, Cary (2)’ Category

A Bird’s Eye, by Cary Fagan

December 4, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

Cary Fagan is one of Canada’s mid-list authors, best known for his children’s books, who made a step forward in the adult literary world in 2012 when his short story collection, My Life Among The Apes, made it to the Giller Prize shortlist. I had not read any of his books before and was not overly impressed with the collection, except in one important sense. In a couple of stories, Fagan brought eyes and ears that showed he really understands a couple of the characteristics that make Toronto a distinctive city, not just in Canada but the world. One is its multi-culturalism, often expressed in distinct ethnic neighborhoods (Toronto has more “Little Whatevers” than any city I know). The other was his ability to describe what happens in the “neighborhoods” where those cultures interact — best illustrated in the collection by the story “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese”, set in Toronto’s below-street-level PATH system, a 17-mile retail/walkway network connecting virtually all of the city’s downtown.

Kensington Market, which I know relatively well, is another one of those interactive neighborhoods, so when I read that A Bird’s Eye was partially set there it sparked my interest. And that interest was heightened by the fact that the teenage narrator’s mother is an Italian immigrant; his father, an Eastern European Jew. Both seemed to play to the strengths that I had found in the story collection.

We first meet the mother, Bella, born in a village a day’s walk from Naples — with a hand-shaped birthmark on her face that will define her as an outcast for life. Her family emigrates to Toronto (she says they were headed for America but “her ignorant father thought that Toronto was in New York State”) and settles in Little Italy there where her father opens a greengrocer’s shop.

Destined she is sure for unhappy spinsterhood, on August 23, 1924 at the age of 23 Bella decides to kill herself. After a day at the movies, she heads down to the south end of Yonge Street and catches the ferry to Toronto Island, determined to throw herself off. Her courage deserts her on the rainy outbound trip, but on the way back it is restored and she climbs the rail — but her skirt catches on a screw and she cries out:

The man who heard her cry was named Jacob Kleeman. His own clothes were drenched and, being gaunt-faced and bony-limbed, with little flesh on him to keep in the heat even in August, he shivered while his crooked teeth chattered. Yet he was determined to test his new mechanical toy. A fish, nine inches long and made of several articulated tin sections plus the head and hinged fins. Wound up with a key and attached to a rod and short line, it was supposed to act like a real fish that had been hooked.

He has thrown the mechanical fish into the water and it has already failed, when he hears the cry. He races to the rail, grabs Bella and she collapses into his arms:

Between gasps, he spoke to her in Yiddish, one moment soothingly and the next barking with anger. She responded in the dialect of her village. They did not let go of each other until the ferry clanged against the wharf, when they moved down the gangway, his arm supporting her waist.

Each assumed the other to be a greener, just off the boat and without English. They made their way past the dark warehouses and railway sidings until they came to a small lot where a leaking feather mattress lay on a mound of corrugated iron. They fell together with a hunger that neither of them had ever felt so intensely, although neither was a virgin.

Their fumbled love-making complete, Jacob walks Bella home, thinking “she is my only chance at happiness“. She thinks exactly the same but “they were both as wrong as they could be”.

That backstory and forewarning in place, Fagan advances the story 15 years. Their son, the narrator Benjamin, is then 14. It is the height of the Depression — Bella is keeping the family (barely) afloat operating a vegetable stand in Kensington Market, Jacob is unemployed and still designing mechanical toys, and Benjamin is looking for diversions to help him escape from both.

All three will have adventures as the book progresses, but the main ones belong to Benjamin. He runs into Corrine Foster, the daughter of a black who works for Mr. Pullman on the trains, and immediately falls into adolescent infatuation. And when he takes her to a vaudeville house and sees a conjuring act, he falls in love with magic almost as quickly — it is that last love that becomes the major narrative thread of the book:

The thing about magic is that it must be taken very, very seriously. If you don’t, it can become a joke. This is why so many performing conjurors have an attitude of pompous gravity on the stage. They are, at heart, deathly afraid of being laughed at. They need to be believed in, like Tinker Bell in the famous play, or they will fade away. Even more, what a conjuror needs is for himself to believe. To believe that what he does has a deeper meaning.

That brief summary indicates that A Bird’s Eye does not have much plot to it — yes, there are three story lines (Benjamin’s, Bella’s and Jacob’s) but outside of the fact the three live in the same house they rarely cross. Instead, the author uses each for a succession of set pieces, connected mainly by the diverse city in which they take place.

Fagan did make one prize list this fall with A Bird’s Eye (the Writers’ Trust Award) and I am again somewhat surprised. The book is more novella than novel (it is 178 pages but they are small, the type is large and there are page breaks in the 40 chapters) and it is much more an entertaining diversion than the kind of challenging story one expects to see on prize lists.

Having said that, the author is a talented wordsmith and the set pieces succeed more often than fail. And the sensitivity he showed to Toronto’s many cultures and neighborhoods is again well displayed here. If you are looking for a three-hour distraction that both engages and entertains (which pretty much sums up my mood when I opened the book), you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of A Bird’s Eye.


My Life Among The Apes, by Cary Fagan

October 26, 2012

Purchased at

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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