Stellar stories haunted by death
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2022 (225 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alberta writer Leslie Greentree won an award for her first collection of short stories. Considering the excellence of this second collection, that’s no surprise.
It is fair to conclude, with a few exceptions, that Greentree’s view of her generation is dark — certainly there is little empathy except for the rare old person. It is a world haunted by death, and the resonances from the dead gripping the living.
Most people in the middle-class society she depicts are now in the grip of social media, the cellphone as master of their lives — their reality mediated by being seen on a screen, indeed created for the screen. Take the powerful title story, Not the apocalypse I was hoping for. Its protagonist charts, via social media, his activity as he goes through a fire engulfing a city. He wants to be seen as a hero, but his arrogance matches his recklessness. His main concern is how he is viewed by those watching in real time, and he doesn’t come off well in the end to his equally unlikable “subscribers.” He does free a dog, who promptly deserts him, leaving him alone to wander back to the relentless fire and his angry, disappointed self.
Even stronger in showing social media’s creepy dominance is Mystery barista. Told expertly in the second person, which is often tried with less success by many writers, the story tells of a barista who notices she has become the obsession of a patron. He tweets his version of her life at work, this mystery barista, as followers grow online. Rather than being upset by such obvious creepy behaviour, she quietly embraces it, and starts to control it through changes of behaviour. Who controls whom? Does it matter? What counts is the following on social media. If the story is not about death, it at least postulates a death of personality.
The dead haunting the living is rivetingly seen in the collection’s best story, The room of pickled foods. At the funeral of a family patriarch, relatives affectionately recall the old man’s wicked sense of humour as an adolescent grandson pulls a joke. While everyone is at the reception eating pickled foods, he replaces grandad’s glasses with Groucho Marx glasses. When alive, the old man had done this every year as a joke.
When the grown-ups reassemble for the service, one woman notices the change. Anger and confusion ensue, but what is important is that the joke reveals that the old man’s humour was in fact cruel and unrelenting. Death, through the old man’s remembered “joke,” spews the ugly truth for the mourners just as the funeral’s pickled sandwiches repel the boy’s taste.
Being repelled also haunts the odd but profoundly moving Coprophagy and other party tricks , in which a woman realizes she loves her aging dog more than her infant son. Her evident dislike for the child, which initially disturbs her, is considered by her husband and friends as a temporary condition and becomes party conversation. Finally stating to her dog “you are the love of my life,” she sinks into a life unwanted but without escape.
There are a few near-misses. The stories about artists or characters involved with artists are a little strained since, as with much fiction about artists, the reader must take the author’s word on their talent. Also sentimentality, which Greentree avoids elsewhere, rears its head somewhat in a few stories.
No matter. This collection reveals an already major writer in command of her craft.
Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.
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