The Giller Prize has always been kind to short story collections, often featuring them on the shortlist and three times in 16 years awarding a collection the prize (twice to Alice Munro for Runaway and The Love of a Good Woman and to Vincent Lam for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures). That does lead to a bit of a chicken-and-egg literary question: Is the short story genre so strong in Canada that collections win an inordinate number of prizes or does the prize-winning history serve to strengthen the practice of the genre here? Obviously, the answer is a bit of both and 2010 is going to continue that tradition with two debut collections on the Giller Prize longlist: Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod and This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky.
The Shadow Jury assigned MacLeod’s book to Alison Gzowski and here is her summary report:
I finished Light Lifting last night. I was very impressed. This is a debut collection of short stories (some have been published earlier in literary journals) and it’s everything you don’t expect from debut collections: assured, traditional, consistently well-written and varied. The author is Alexander MacLeod, one of Alastair Macleod’s children (Alastair is an accomplished short story writer himself, has written one novel and was a Giller judge last year).
The pr bumpf is a little odd. It says that this is the long-awaited collection, but as it’s a debut, I had to wonder who was waiting. And somewhere I read that he writes like Alice Munro at her best. That sets the bar unfairly too high.
The book has seven stories. They are traditional or old-fashioned in that they are plot driven and many start off in a situation and then dip from time to time into the back story. The first one (“Miracle Mile”) is about a pair of middle distance runners and starts off by talking about the time Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear. Those two facts alone would leave me cold, yet the story was great. Macleod immerses the reader into that world and I found myself both enlightened and entertained. He’s really good at developing a world in each story. And while he seems interested in action and plot, he deftly gives a sense of character.
When I say that they are varied, I mean so many debut collections seem autobiographical in that they deal with a certain type of person or similar age range. These stories deal with everything from teens in a kind of swimming challenge (“Adult Beginner I”) to a family checking for lice and recalling their past (“Wonder About Parents”) to a man who lost his wife and son in a car accident (“The Number Three”). Most are set in and around Windsor (and so of course Detroit figures in). I like that they are about real working lives. There’s a lot of wisdom and compassion in the stories too. A couple of them had odd endings to me, maybe slightly abrupt or unclear, but at least three of them still haunt me. You can tell he revised and polished and made each sentence count. He’s definitely a talent.
My copy of Light Lifting arrived in the front door mailbox about 30 minutes after Alison’s message arrived in the electronic one. I thought I would try one or two of the stories to confirm her judgment — the highest praise that I can offer this book is that early the next morning I closed the book after finishing the last story. I did force myself to set it aside roughly half way through, so I could extend the reading experience over two days.
I agree with all of what Alison says and would like to expand on it by offering some quotes from another of the stories, “The Loop”, the recollections of a first-person narrator who was a drug store delivery boy (on bicycle) in Windsor in his sub-teen years. Here is MacLeod on his opening page, describing lessons learned about bicycle delivery in snowy and slushy conditions:
When you fall, you want to try and go down on the right hand side. As soon as you feel your tire slipping and the whole back end of the Supercycle moving away on its own, that’s when you grab the bars tight and swing everything way over to the right, towards the hard line of parked cars. It has to be to the right because if you go down on the left you end up splayed out in the middle of the road, right at the peak of drive-home traffic, and all you can do then is hope those nervous Southern Ontario drivers — the ones who never buy winter tires — still remember how to pump their brakes in just the right way and swerve around you, carving a smooth S curve in the snow just a couple of inches from your head.
After introducing us to Musgreave, the druggist who sends the boy out on bicycle onto busy streets deep in snow and slush, MacLeod digresses into describing his first type of customers, “the guys on disability…who had been wreaked by those steady, grinding jobs they used to have at the [auto] plants before everything got ergonomic and automated”:
Those kinds of injuries came from working on the line. They showed up in people who’d been holding the same pneumatic gun for too long, tightening the same eight nuts on a million half-built minivans as they floated by, one every 44 seconds, like a string of hollowed-out metal skeletons, maybe. If you’ve ever been in there you know what it looks like. Other guys got hurt in those nasty burn accidents down in the Ford Foundry where they used to stand on those little platforms while they poured the molten steel directly into the casings for the engine blocks. And there were some men and women who got permanently bent over from working at the trim plant, feeding those thick vinyl seat covers into a heavy-duty sewing machine.
Like all the rest of rust-belt, industrial North America now in its second half-century of decline, Windsor has its share of widows, the second set of clientele the narrator describes:
The old ladies on my route were completely different and you couldn’t say no them. I might be the only person they’d talk to or meet face-to-face for an entire week and when I came to drop off their stuff they always wanted to have a real conversation and invite me in for a little visit.
“I have the tea all set up,” they’d say as they came to the door.
The snacks were all the same. There’d be a cool cup of tea with too much sugar in it and usually some kind of baked thing, a heavy piece of homemade pound cake, maybe, or a cold, rock-solid square with raisins in it that had just been pulled from a Tupperware container in the freezer. Probably a piece of cheese, too. I always tried to drink at least half the tea and eat half the square before getting up. I thought that was my part of the deal, like Santa Claus.
I apologize for the number and length of the quotes but it is the only way to illlustrate one of MacLeod’s great strengths, which shows up in every story: there is a precision and compassion to his observations that places the mundane tellingly in a much larger picture. As Alison noted in her comments, the seven stories are about very different things but one trait that they have in common is the author’s ability to paint both the detail and the broader picture of his subject in each story. I agree completely with her assessment that he is a talent not just to be appreciated with this collection, but to be watched in the future.This Cake Is for the Party, unfortunately, is a debut collection that illustrates another of my fellow juror’s observations: “autobiographical in that they deal with a certain type of person or similar age range.” I first read this collection in the spring, but didn’t review it then. While each of the 10 stories is fine in itself, as you progress through the book there is a sameness that starts to wear. The characters are all twenty-somethings making the transition into the real-world — youthful relationships are coming under stress, first jobs (if they can even be found) are boring, difficult decisions which inevitably will restrict freedom of action need to be made.
Here is the opening to the first story (“Throwing Cotton”):
This past New Year’s Eve, sitting on the loveseat in front of our little tabletop Christmas tree, I poured us both a glass of sparkling wine and told Sanderson: I think I’m ready to do it.
He kissed the top of my head and asked, Are your sure?
This is my last drink, I told him. I am officially preparing the womb.
Tensions develop at a cottage holiday a few months later, a location that the two have shared with another couple and a third woman for almost a decade, starting in their university years. All five are facing “first-pregnancy-type” decisions, all are questioning past allegiances. The execution is just fine but when you reach the end of the story, the urge is to move on to the next one rather than contemplate what you have just read (I find that to be a distinction that marks the difference between an excellent short story and simply an okay one). Too often, in this book, that next story (entertaining as it might be and most of the 10 are) produces the same response.
Please don’t take that as a rejection of Selecky’s book — remember that this reviewer went through that phase of life some 40 years ago. For those readers whose experience of those kinds of situations and decisions is more recent, I suspect the stories have more to offer. I’d still have to conclude that MacLeod takes his characters and incidents to an entirely different plane than Selecky does.
What the two volumes do show, however, is that the short story genre in Canada is producing a new generation of authors and there is every reason to believe that they will uphold its international reputation for excellence (in MacLeod’s case, that “generational” pass on of the writing baton is a literal one). This year’s Real Giller Jury has rightly drawn attention to two debut authors who deserve it.