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Beautiful and strange

Anxiety, matters of the heart feature in surreal short-fiction debut

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2018 (846 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Montreal writer Paige Cooper’s debut collection of short stories, Zolitude, is a timely exploration of love and humanity.

The characters in these 14 stories are beset by myriad contemporary anxieties about how to live in the world and how to connect with others.

In Slave Craton, Erin attempts to explain her many self-inflicted scars to her lover. She hangs herself on hooks, an act she calls "a practice... better than an internet-poker practice."

Regardless, it’s not, she insists, suffering: "‘Do you know how many Lakota teenagers tried to kill themselves last winter? A hundred and three. Nine actually did it.’ In South Dakota... The word love is weather between them. He thinks it constantly. She does too, because she clings to him in the night, smiles as she opens her eyes to him. ‘That’s suffering. This is not suffering.’"

Adam Michiels</p><p>Author Paige Cooper’s stories are skilfully executed and show tremendous promise.</p>

Adam Michiels

Author Paige Cooper’s stories are skilfully executed and show tremendous promise.

The juxtaposition of love and suffering is repeated throughout. In the opening story, the main character struggles to find her place in a burgeoning long-distance romance, even as she acts as a go-between for Simona and Lars, the man she’s just left.

The narrative oscillates between these experiences — the narrator’s desire and Simona’s fear of Lars — building the tension until the narrator seems paralyzed: "If she doesn’t come, I will go home. I will cope. If she comes — no. I cannot even think it. I cannot even think of what might happen if she comes." This resistance to the conclusion, devastatingly effective here in Zolitude, is characteristic of Cooper’s technique.

As with a number of other recent collections of short stories — Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, among others — Cooper incorporates elements of surrealism and fantasy into her literary fiction. Sometimes, this technique is effective, as it is in Moriah, which, because of its reference both to a real place, Moriah, N.Y., and to the infamous mines in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, occupies a provocatively ambiguous territory between realism and the fantastic. Sometimes, however, especially when they are peripheral to the story, the surreal elements are jarring.

In their most effective use, surreal and fantastic elements dramatize the emotional disorientation of the characters.

In Ryan and Irene, Irene and Ryan, the narrator characterizes her experience in the world: "The dream runs in tandem harness with reality, but it is separate and unique. It’s hard to twist out of... Time fogs like it’s long gone already. Last night in the dream I came to work, then went home and worked. I came to work, then went home and worked. You see why I have trouble telling everything apart."

This sense of never quite being sure if the characters in the story are living a dream, a nightmare or a life carries through the story, and the overlaying of reality with dream adds emotional resonance to the narrator’s experience when she opens a mail bomb sent by a client’s ex-lover.

The stories in Zolitude are skilfully executed and show great promise, and the collection as a whole builds almost novelistically in effectiveness and strength.

While her style and technique are sometimes repetitive, Cooper’s characters are never clichéd, and her examinations of love are urgent and energetic.

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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