December 8, 2019

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A stunning struggle

Troubled characters compelling in debut collection of stories

Difficult People is Toronto writer Catriona Wright’s bombastic fictional debut. The social realist’s short stories are reminiscent of the mordant, yet satiric fictions of Lynn Coady (Hell Going), Cordelia Strube (Lemon) and Zsuzsi Gartner (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives). Short-story lovers will also recognize the indelible influence of Alice Munro’s fatalistic neo-gothic prose.

Wright was born in the 1980s, yet her work reflects the soul of a disaffected Generation Xer. Each story in this brilliant collection reverberates with raw disappointment and longing as the broken characters angrily confront, or slickly deny, their thwarted ambitions and obvious personal limitations.

Emma Dolan photo</p><p>Catriona Wright’s stories feature a modern cast and few happy endings.</p>

Emma Dolan photo

Catriona Wright’s stories feature a modern cast and few happy endings.

To earn her daily bread, Wright is employed as a teacher and editor. The poetry editor for the Puritan and co-founder of Desert Pets Press, Wright published Table Manners (Vehicule Press), a "gastronomical" poetry collection, in 2017.

Difficult People is a tour de force — there isn’t a single flaw in this airtight collection populated by a modern cast of misfit characters. The collection serves up well-wrought set pieces such as Lean into the Mic, where Amanda is a struggling standup comic with the wry sensibility of a philosopher. Although she prizes autonomy, Amanda is "underwritten" by her beleaguered white-collar partner, Ben.

In a brave bid to restore her sanity, Amanda shutters her Twitter account. "Why would I care about what other people thought of me anyway? I could be strong, an independent woman fearlessly spewing humour and truth into the world, bringing people together in a common emotional experience, freeing them from the compromises, privations and degradations of daily life."

The protagonist in Them confronts an indifferent roommate who has found a progressive yet insular new social circle. The friendship is strained as the women struggle to maintain their historic high school connection. It’s an honest rendering of what happens when people outgrow each other.

The story is also a searing account of the compromises and difficulties faced by modern university graduates.

Will the narrator continue to binge-drink and remain underemployed at the local lingerie store or accept a foreign teaching assignment?

It’s these all-too familiar "compromises, privations and degradations" that Wright details with such dexterity. Every character in this collection has negotiated an unpalatable compromise, deprived themselves of basic needs and faced daily humiliations as they continue to battle the Sisyphean trajectory of modern life. It’s the characters’ persistence when confronted with unrelenting adversity that humanizes their universal struggles.

The earnest reader will find no happy endings in Difficult People, no success against all odds stories, nor clean and tidy relationships. The young female characters either fret about an unwanted pregnancy or long for a baby. No one seems to be fulfilled. The challenge is to humbly accept what is offered to them by the capricious Fates.

Content Moderator, the opening story, is a crackling portrayal of a desperate woman who can’t erase the lingering and vivid imagery of "an ornate swastika tattooed on a flabby back" or "a pool of blood, maroon and shining" posted by the anonymous users of an app.

The protagonist is a disaffected academic fuelled by self-disgust and Merlot who imagines "plucking out my eyeballs and soaking them in a vat of antiseptic." Her elusive dream of a tenure-track position in Canadian literature has been supplanted by a nightmarishly exhausting day job censoring content for her corporate client:

"I reassured myself that the job had important benefits. The pay was good, three times better than the contract teaching job I had before, good enough for me to buy a new car and to move into a bigger and much less roach-infested place, and I liked being able to tell people, particularly my parents and former classmates, that I worked in tech now."

While these characters are certainly Difficult People, in Wright’s capable hands they shift imperceptibly from snarky underachievers to unsung heroes.

This ambitious collection reinforces the dynamic state of the short story. Well done, Catriona Wright — you have won this difficult reader’s admiration.

Independent journalist Patricia Dawn Robertson lives and writes in a Saskatchewan small town populated by other "local characters."

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