October 21, 2020

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Experimental stories feel stylistically familiar

AmericaN film director Jim Jarmusch once said, "Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination."

In fact, the six experimental short stories in Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s short prose collection are a case in point. He appropriates storytelling techniques derived from the past and turns them on their head to create idiosyncratic tales about flawed, often unsavoury characters.

Ah-Sen is a Toronto-based writer who is well-known as a member of the Canadian literary underground. His debut novel, Grand Menteur, was included in the Globe and Mail’s annual list of 100 best books of 2015. In Grand Menteur the plot involves a street-gang leader and his daughter in Mauritius, an island on the southeast African coast. The narrative includes a smattering of kreol morisyen, one of the languages spoken by the author’s emigré parents.

Curiously, Ah-Sen’s short fiction includes storytelling modes that predate the modern novel. The use of such formats is vaguely reminiscent of Pugg’s Portmanteau, a 2019 novel-in-stories about 18th-century London by Alberta author D.M. Bryan, whose inspiration for her fiction was the art prints of William Hogarth.

Several of Ah-Sen’s stories involve male/female entanglements. One example is Sentiments and Directions From an Unappreciated Contrarian Writer’s Widow. Written in six parts, this aphoristic narrative consists exclusively of short, pithy statements from the widow’s point of view. For example: "There is no greater impertinence than to be kept waiting... There are no new ideas, only unusual ways of forgetting." By reading between the lines, readers can draw their own conclusions about the woman, her husband and the state of their marriage.

Another story, Swidden World, is a vulgar epistolary tale about a business deal gone awry between an art dealer’s female representative in Toronto and a male collector; the title serves as a metaphor for the devolution of their erotic relationship. (Incidentally, the male character, Serge, is also the protagonist in Grand Menteur.)

In Underside of Love, Ah-Sen revisits another male character from Grand Menteur, relating a tale about his doomed romantic history. The story is told from the point of view of his ex-lover in succinct, elastic prose. "He was practically a Swiss watch when I kicked him out of my apartment compared to the pig’s breakfast of a man he’d become."

Written in the picaresque style, As in Birdlime recounts the wanderings and sad romantic history of a francophone scoundrel in Upper Canada. The Slouch, meanwhile, tells of a jaded male creative writing professor and an intellectual challenge given to him by a pert female student.

Throughout the collection, Ah-Sen excels stylistically by altering the rhythm and diction of each piece to suit the tone of the narrative. At the same time, the narratives demonstrate his keen linguistic acuity. As a result, readers may need to check their dictionaries often; otherwise, the density of the prose might prove somewhat daunting.

That said, this collection is likely to appeal to English-literature aficionados with an interest in pre-novel formats and experimental fiction.

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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