Collections tackle ‘alternate reality,’ novelists’ faults
What can be gleaned from the following characters picked more or less at random from 22 stories: a domesticated mermaid, an exceptionally vain genius, a student literally consumed by tree roots, a fatuous British Columbian dandy on a hunt circa 1905, a civilization built by a race of blind people, a neurotic international jury for the “best novel of all time?”
If nothing else, the evidence points to a pair of restless authors — Kathy Page in Paradise & Elsewhere and C.P. Boyko in Novelists — drawn to experimentation with content, form, and tone, and who are (a reader could surmise) rebelling against a literary orthodoxy that holds up stalwart realism as the true writer’s best and only friend. Bah humbug, they might be saying.
At the tail-end of the marvellous Paradise & Elsewhere transplanted Englander and current Salt Spring Island resident Page writes that she aimed to “create an alternate reality in which readers can both lose and find themselves.” She easily meets her goal. Across 14 stories Page, touching on science fiction, fable, and the fantastic (via the Twilight Zone), creates memorably skewed stories.
While it’s possible to discern the atmospherics of Poe and Lovecraft (along with smidgens of John Wyndham, Doris Lessing during her Canopus in Argos: Archives phase and Shirley Jackson’s creepy final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle), Page is neither imitative nor derivative. She’s obviously comfortable with exotic tales that don’t fall into preordained categories and which unfold in ways equally unpredictable and strange. Set in remote habitats in unnamed countries or in historical eras removed from our own, moreover, they’re simultaneously exotic and, in glimmers, recognizable.
In Lak-ha and Of Paradise, and The Ancient Siddannese, for example, Page builds immersive and mystery-laden tales around lost or wholly imaginary civilizations, exploring what may or may not be their true nature as well as what possibly led to their downfall.
She’s also got a sweet-tooth for the macabre. We, the Trees, an eerie environmental parable, echoes Lambing, a dark fable about an impoverished mother solving dire circumstances in a remote Scottish village with ample bloodshed. I Like to Look anatomizes the long-standing antipathy between two sisters with grisly results. And in Saving Grace, a jaded TV crew visits a clairvoyant in a dystopian English village. Things don’t end well.
Within the oddball logic of the stories, though, the macabre endings seem perfectly reasonable.
And, thanks to Page’s willingness to stretch her own boundaries, the grim setting doesn’t always involve hair-raising chills.
A contagious disease spread through oral contact results in Mutating Identity Syndrome in The Kissing Disease, but two lads discover a homoerotic solution to the problem; and in Low Tide a mermaid escapes captivity and marriage to a deceitful lighthouse keep in order to seek out true love.
Comparatively, the exaggerated, often grotesque portraiture of Novelists is funnier and meaner. Mirthful, sly and intermittently caustic, it’s also a story collection that cannot help but appeal to a specific demographic since all eight stories dwell on assorted authors whose overabundant flaws (narcissism, hubris and a general blindness to their own shortcomings) are compounded by an overall lack of redeeming features. And Vancouver-based Boyko doesn’t neglect himself in the mix, composing his own lengthy blurb on the book’s jacket that’s anything but modest: “fiercely intelligent, vastly unique … a shrewd observer of the psyche and astute physician of the soul operating at the very pinnacle of his powers.”
Spread over geographic locations and historical eras, the stories nonetheless find a commonality with their (easy) targets. In The Prize Jury there’s Professor Brownhoffer, a legend in his own mind whose only novel is so obscure he has never seen a copy in print. He’s almost outdone by hilarious and infantile Victorian narcissist Malcolm Gawfler in The Word Genius and self-absorbed Paddy Gercheszky (in a story that, of course, features his name alone), an author who wanders from one party to the next so that he can hear himself regale audience with fascinating stories.
(Gercheszky’s ex-wife didn’t see through the facade until too late: “It was as if she’d married a carnival, or fallen in love with a movie — something thrilling and larger than life that could not, by its very nature, take notice of her.”) Both characters make Oscar Wilde comes across as the soul of self-effacement.
The same is true of The Hunting Party, wherein Lance Chitdin, raised by his Romantic mother to be a literary artiste (despite no evidence whatsoever that he could write), agrees to go on a trip to B.C.’s wild Cariboo to “put some sap in his britches.” He insists on 17 trunks for luggage.
Masculine vanity finds its match with female writers hamstrung by their note-taking dedication to their craft.
June Cotton in Sympathetic and Katherine Sutledge in The Language Barrier wind up in undesirable circumstances because a devotion to documentary research and an acute sense of their own exceptional artistry fail to help them discern a foolishness that’s plain to everyone else.
Markedly less riotous, The Door in the Wall follows the intersecting paths of Laurel Peggery and Lionel Pugg, authors with greater familiar with rejection slips than publications. Boyko handles them as comic figures, it’s true, but in stripping away some of risible traits visible in Gercheszky and co., we warm to them in ways that’s impossible for the other figures in the collection.
C.P. Boyko and Kathy Page will launch their latest collections at a free event in the Founder’s Lounge, at The Cultch, 1895 Venables St. on April 29 at 7 p.m.