Short-fiction collection a dazzling delight


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The legacy for Canadian literature in the Best Canadian Stories series can’t be overstated. For years the collection has been the place to discover Canadian writers, and the most recent edition is no different.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/01/2021 (669 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The legacy for Canadian literature in the Best Canadian Stories series can’t be overstated. For years the collection has been the place to discover Canadian writers, and the most recent edition is no different.

As editor Paige Cooper notes in her articulate and impassioned introduction, “by virtue of timing, the stories in this anthology illuminate some of what writers in, or around, or peripherally tied to Canada, or the notion of Canada, were thinking about before this moment stumbled us.”

The “moment” is the COVID-19 pandemic, but don’t navigate this collection with that in mind. Cooper’s choices are impressive. Even if a particular story isn’t to one’s taste, you can still admire the skill. Realism abuts surrealism, comic insight sits gladly with tragedy. The comfort of one world is shattered by the disquiet of another.

Take the fantastical, sci-fi infused stories. In Alex Leslie’s brilliant and scary Phoenix, the world is hit by a sleeping pandemic. Some recover; most do not. People eventually sleep until death. As the crisis grows, society adjusts by opening “hotels” in which medical staff pretend to do things while the story’s narrator does his menial tasks as “support.” He accepts it all; this is the world now. The story’s acerbic comic feel is all to the good for this strange tale. We don’t like the narrator exactly, but perhaps we understand we could become like him in such a situation.

More disturbing is the parable-like Government Slots by Omar El Akkad. An alien metal is discovered to have a peculiar quality; the item one stores in it disappears upon one’s death. The item in the box does go somewhere — the government takes control. People buy “slots” to put in an item of importance they want to go with them upon death. But, as the narrator (a janitor) notes, few come and fill the slots beforehand. All want the option, though few use it until the last moment. The story relates one such case in shattering detail. Like Phoenix, it brings death to the foreground and lets it sit there.

The more straightforward realistic stories are just as rich. Conor Kerr’s The Last Big Dance, a splendid memory piece about his formidable Cree grandmother and his somewhat dissolute uncle, who takes on the Mounties and wins (though not without tragic loss), is beautiful in its simplicity and directness. Casey Plett’s hugely seriocomic Hazel and Christopher, about a trans woman and her re-engaging with a boyhood love, has a twist that is both surprising and inevitable. As a reader you feel you know these people in the most immediate way.

Three other stories — Drago, by Michael Melgaard, The Gas Station, by 2020 Giller winner Souvankham Thammavongsa and, most notably, Daughter of Cups by Kristyn Dunnion — offer unsparing looks at the outsiders of society, or the people one sees and either ignores or wonders about. Each, especially Daughter of Cups (which dares a flourish of the surreal, even in its unrelenting realism), concerns the underclass or those on society’s fringes, living their daily disappointments.

If You Start Breathing by Thea Lim, about best intentions gone awry, and Beneath The Ruins, by Québécois novelist Maxime Bock, another fantastical tale about how the resonance of history haunts us, show equally wide range and emotional engagement.

Why go on listing when they can be read? This is a great collection waiting to be experienced.

Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.

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