READS OF THE YEAR 2017: P.W. Bridgman

Cynthia Flood –What Can You Do (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2017) 

It is no oversight that the title of Cynthia Flood’s latest collection of short stories, What Can You Do, does not end with a question mark.  It is no oversight because the title does not pose a question.  Some Canadians (and perhaps others across the world) will occasionally utter the phrase when expressing impenetrable perplexity.  No answer is sought, or even thought to exist. 

For example: a house guest—a callow goth of a nephew wishing to study capital-A Art at a Vancouver college—arrives from the UK on short notice for a several-month stay, upsetting the fragile equilibrium in the home of a welcoming aunt and a bristly and distinctly hostile uncle.  They drive into town from the airport stewing in an uncomfortable brew of monosyllables and stony silence.  Things deteriorate from there.  An aging woman is condemned and excoriated by friends she has known over the better part of her lifetime for an absurdly trivial, imagined slight to one of their number.  A couple returns after many years to a holiday resort, in search of what has become burnished and sepia-toned in nostalgic memory, only to find that a death has recently occurred nearby and that the lives of those who live on are in tragic disarray.

What Can You Do.  It is not exactly an expression of resignation; nor is it one of considered acceptance.  Rather, it seems to be a soft-spoken, gently grudging acknowledgement of the limits of human agency—an expression that is most likely to be spoken, perhaps ruefully, by those who see little to be gained by railing against the seemingly random dictates of a sometimes-cruel fate.  What Can You Do.  It is not a question and, so, there is no question mark and perforce no answer.

Cynthia Flood’s latest stories are populated by characters—some sympathetic, some not—who all find themselves confronted by life circumstances that will prompt readers’ thoughts to return, time and again, to her new book’s enigmatic title.  Flood has given us a new crop of brilliantly executed short fiction that, like so much Canadian work of that genre, recognizes the magic, the mystery and the remarkable complexity of what unfolds in the course of “ordinary” lives. The stories in What Can You Do are the work product of an insightful observer of human affairs who writes gracefully and deftly. 

Flood’s attention to detail is finely honed; there is no cluttering here. Rather, we find just the right accumulation of observations, some kindly and some pointed, necessary to make the reader understand her characters’ predicaments, their strengths and flaws, and the ways these factors help to explain (or not) each other.  

Flood understands, and respects, the leading fiction-writing dictum of our times: she does not tell, she shows.  By way of an accretion of small but significant particulars, Flood’s stories hint at plot developments and character traits that eventually (but oh-so-gradually) come into focus.  Reading each of these stories is like watching a Willy Ronis [1] photograph slowly develop in its chemical bath.  To call in aid a rather hackneyed expression, reading Flood is much less about the destination and much more about the journey.

Space limitations prevent me from commenting upon all of the stories in What You Can Do.  I have preferred, rather, to acknowledge in this brief review attributes and characteristics of Flood’s exquisite writing that distinguish the stories that comprise the collection generally.  I will, however, single out just one story for particular mention. 

In “Food”, two sisters of advancing years who live frugally together are out for a regular luncheon at a modest Vancouver deli.  It is an outing to which both look forward each month.  But this time they find themselves seated next to a family of American tourists, each of whom is coarse, loud, unmannerly and self-absorbed.  (Forgive me for saying so, but we can easily guess how the lot at the adjoining table would have voted in November 2016.) 

Like an aching tooth, the drama unfolding beside the two sisters cannot be ignored.  Flood is justly judgmental, and often darkly humorous, in her descriptions of those seated next to them.  Her portrayals of the squalling infant, of beer being drunk noisily from the bottle and of the endless parade of smoke breaks will provoke both horror and cruel inner laughter in even the most charitable of readers.  As the contrarian young mother shifts in her seat from time to time, her tee-shirt with the peace sign silkscreened onto it—a clear provocation to her elders—rides up, exposing an alarming protrusion of white belly.  Grandmother’s “fuchsia-nailed forefinger chase[es] candied pecans around her plate”.  After one of her smoke breaks the Great Aunt “toss[es] her cigarette butt on a high arc into traffic”.  So it goes.  The story “Food” gives us an unnerving glimpse of what America may look like when it becomes “great again”. 

Flood punctuates her remarkable narrative in “Food” very cleverly with brief passages and vignettes that pencil in some of the grievances and resentments that exist between the aging maiden sisters who are cast mainly as observers.  Adding depth and dimension to the story, those grievances and resentments bring us slowly to an understanding of how, and for what very different reasons, the two sisters have found themselves together but very much alone, living in their deceased parents’ house, biting their respective tongues as time slips inexorably by. 

Commenting on the scene at the next table after they leave the deli, the more troubled of the sisters says, ever cheerful, to the other: “That was as good as TV!”.  The narrator continues:

“We giggled.  Yes we love our costume dramas.  A Civil War series just finished and there’s a British mini on the Tudors.  Terrifying, the Armada scenes.”

What Can You Do.  Indeed.

Bernard MacLaverty – Midwinter Break (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017)

Though long transplanted from Belfast to Glasgow, Bernard MacLaverty retains in his writing the flinty voice that was formed in the crucible of his native Northern Ireland during the Troubles.  That voice is now alloyed, here and there, with gentle Scotticisms (to coin a word), but the unmistakable atmosphere of the good craic that is native to the Belfast bars [2] lives on in MacLaverty’s fiction, particularly in the dialogue.  Of course, age and the insight that comes with it have added further breadth to his narratives.  Everything, now matured, has combined through the mysterious workings of a writerly alchemy in Midwinter Break to form the best novel MacLaverty has given us yet.

The central characters in the novel are Gerry and Stella Gilmore.  Like MacLaverty, they are ex-pats from Belfast now living in Glasgow.  He is a retired architect and she is a retired school-teacher.  Their marriage has truly, and unnecessarily, reached a “midwinter” stage, with all of the uninterrupted sameness and blanketing whiteness that that term connotes.  It has lost its spark and spontaneity.  It has become progressively impoverished of warmth.  Both spouses are trapped in ruts.  The difference between them is that Stella recognizes what is happening and Gerry either doesn’t or won’t allow himself to. 

Stella clings steadfastly to her deep Catholic faith to get herself through, all the while bitterly enduring Gerry’s demeaning and dismissive insults about her faith.  Gerry, for his part, has his own preoccupation with spirits, but they are liquid ones found in bottles—bottles which he frequently purchases on the sly and insinuates into their common household by stealth.  Stella, though burdened with worry and concern about Gerry’s drinking, knows how unyielding the shield that separates him from acknowledgement of his tawdry addiction has become.  Thus, she has given up cajoling; neither does she press or nag (or insult or demean).  Rather, Stella generally holds it all in.  Only during unguarded moments do we see the occasional flash of resentment escape from her.

Gerry is pitiably self-deluding.  He seems truly to believe that by carefully unscrewing the tops on whiskey bottles and pouring their contents into glasses held at an angle, his self-destructive excesses will go unnoticed by Stella.  Night after night, year after year, she lies wide awake in their bed in the next room while he lingers in the parlour, savouring the blunt trauma of his multiple nightcaps.

To quote the well-known Christmas carol, it is a “bleak midwinter” indeed for this sad couple, but it is bleaker by far for Stella.  That said, Stella, perhaps unfairly, seems long ago to have given up on Gerry.  She takes refuge in a sometimes smug and judgmental piety.  But even her faith can take her only so far and, unlike Gerry, she does not have alcohol to soften the ennui and the oppressive and unrelenting sadness that comes with the realization that her spouse is bent on taking himself to pieces, bit by bit, right before her eyes.

As can be seen, neither Gerry nor Stella is anywhere near perfect.  They are, in different ways, flawed but nevertheless sympathetic characters who, together, have allowed themselves to make a fine mess of things.  As readers we want them to find a way out of it.

Thus it comes to pass that Gerry and Stella plan a midwinter getaway from their home in Scotland that takes them to Amsterdam.  The idea is presented as that and nothing more by Stella but she has an ulterior motive.  She has come, in the twilight phase of their suffocating marriage, to the realization that there is an honourable, and doctrinally sound, way out of it for her, even at her advanced age.  It involves Amsterdam and as they get further into their midwinter break in that city she summons up the mettle to tell Gerry that she is planning to leave him. 

It would be churlish for me to give more of the story away than that.  Let me just say that some rather pedestrian events and circumstances conspire to block Stella’s chosen escape route, dashing forever the source of sustaining hope that had been nurturing her for a period of years.  Faced with that door swinging shut with an authoritative click of its lock, Stella concludes that there is nothing for it but to try to break through the carapace that Gerry has built up so assiduously.  She sets about trying, with new determination, to get him to imagine how they might fashion a different way of living—a way of living that is more honest, healthy and loving—to see them through the remainder of the years they have together. 

We cannot know what ultimately becomes of Gerry and Stella in the wake of the firm but loving ultimatums that she delivers to him and the revelations they bring.  We cannot know with certainty whether the glimmers of insight and self-knowledge that seem to take hold in Gerry, (and Stella’s responses to some fair criticisms he has to offer her), will carry the day.  Still, Midwinter Break, though a bleak book, is in the end a hopeful one.  It acknowledges the complexity and redemptive power of spousal love, even when beset by challenges as seemingly insurmountable as those posed by chronic alcoholism and the harsh and self-deceptive packaging that can so often be wrapped around it.

Midwinter Break is, in many ways, MacLaverty’s crowning achievement.  There are no easy answers or trite truisms in this penetrating examination of a relationship starved of light and warmth.  There is nothing, in other words, photoshopped in by the author, deus ex machina, to take Gerry or Stella off the hook and relieve them of the predicament that, however asymmetrically, they both have allowed to overtake them. 

It is in lovely, lyrical prose that MacLaverty sketches in the fault lines in his characters’ once loving relationship.  Equally, by adroit wordsmithing and the creation of an intricate and plausible plot structure, he leads his characters (and his readers with them) out to the margin of the cold wilderness into which they have stumbled together.  From that margin, light and warmth can at least be perceived again.  Whither shall they go?  It is up to them.  MacLaverty has brought Gerry and Stella to the brink and that, surely, is all we can reasonably ask or expect an author of a book like Midwinter Break to do.  As is the case with so many good novels, this one is a masterpiece as much for what is left unsaid as for what is said.

Umberto Saba – Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

I close this “reads of the year” for 2017 as I did the one I penned for 2016—by recounting pleasures gained by returning over the past year to poetry, written long ago, that continues to move and inspire.  Having already overstayed my welcome in a review of three books that was meant to be much more brief, I shall say little now other than that Saba deserves be pulled down from the shelf and re-read often.  The effort will unquestionably be rewarded. 

Saba’s timbre is always pleasingly, though romantically, melancholy.  To the North American ear, it is also deliciously and satisfyingly European.  The wistfulness of his short poem, “Ulysses”—one of my favourites collected in Songbook—clearly bears his unique imprint:

O you so joyless and with forebodings

of horror—Ulysses in decline—does no

Desire

muster tenderness in your soul

for a

pale dreamer of shipwrecks

who loves you?

Quintessentially a “pale dreamer of shipwrecks”, Saba in his poetry charted a zig-zag course through many shoals of love and loss.  Though his heart was perpetually wounded, his insights were always sound and his diction, even in translation, remained ever sure-footed and eerily musical in a minor key. 

Near the end of his life, Saba imagined that his epitaph might read, in part, “Dead, I refuse laurel and ask oblivion”.  In this one respect, we must steadfastly deny him his wish.  Those who buried him did not shrink from doing so.  They ensured, fittingly, that his tombstone was, instead, inscribed, “He wept and understood for all of us”.

________________

[1] Willy Ronis’ extraordinary, black and white photographs of Paris are lyrically celebrated in a chapter entitled “The Church of the Holy Redeemer” in Ciaran Carson’s artful Belfast memoir, The Star Factory (London: Granta Books, 1997).

[2] The kinds of bars where you’re likely to find, as short story writer Angela Mairead Coid once told me, someone short on funds “nursing a pint of Guinness like it’s in palliative care”.

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