October 21, 2020

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Surreal stories

Alexis' short-fiction collection offers playful philosophical parables

Chris Young / The Canadian Press files</p><p>Author André Alexis’s short stories are intellectually stimulating, although they lack some of the emotion and social acuteness of his recent novels Fifteen Dogs and Days By Moonlight.</p>

Chris Young / The Canadian Press files

Author André Alexis’s short stories are intellectually stimulating, although they lack some of the emotion and social acuteness of his recent novels Fifteen Dogs and Days By Moonlight.

For André Alexis, stories often function as intellectual games. Winner of last year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for the bitingly satiric Days by Moonlight, and winner of both the Rogers and the Giller prizes in 2017 for Fifteen Dogs, a masterpiece that is as emotionally rending as it is intellectually stimulating, the Toronto-based Alexis has decided to throw his older short fiction into the pot, with a few newer stories, while it’s still warm.

The Night Piece collects works from the early 1990s to the present. The stories are often intellectually stimulating, though they lack the emotion and social acuteness of his recent work.

You’ll find some of the hallucinatory qualities of Days By Moonlight in Horse, where the narrator allows the scientist Dr. Pascal to rent a room, and finds that his soul is separating from his body as the result of Dr. Pascal’s experiments. When the narrator begins to despise his body and grows less able to wrap his tongue around words, the philosophical allegory turns into a play on "joual," the Québécois slang that arose from the "mispronunciation" of "cheval:" "Tu parle comme un cheval" ("You speak like a horse").

Alexis has always been attracted to Oulipo, the French group that reveled in self-imposed writing constraints. One wonders whether the story My Anabasis began as a challenge from Alexis to himself — write a story in which all the characters are all named André or Andrée, and all the cities are called Ottawa. It might explain a lot if other stories began in equally unusual ways: "rewrite a Maupassant story," or "write a story about a cannibal who can predict the future," or "write a story in which erotic movies are made that focus almost completely on hands."

The stories become surreal parables or mini allegories with no straightforward point. Some parables are engaging, such as Transport Canada, which explores social conformity and the insidious power of writing, as all the workers in the Transport office, having read the same book, begin to let their tongues protrude slightly, and consistently replace the word "I" with "Ooh." The clerk who tells the story begins to wonder where, in a book, the mind is located.

Other stories are less engaging, playing more arbitrarily with ideas and near-gothic plots. Alexis has a soucouyant story, and another in which a plant, invented to solve the problem of hunger, begins to grow, deleteriously, in the human body. Still, it is funny to see how politicians can still make political hay out of a tragedy.

The best of the stories inject emotion into the ideas. In Kuala Lumpur, a young man at his father’s wake not only hears about his father’s disappointment in him, but also hears of a culture that supposedly kills sons who look too much like their dead fathers.

In Cocteau, Marin Herbert, the caretaker of a deserted tower, begins to write poetry after he meets an attractive ghost named "Marin’s Death" and they fall in love. He finds it painful to be apart from her, even though another ghost discourages the affair, saying, "Life’s the thing for lads like you." Marin’s Death claims that poetry is something that only the dead can understand, "the dead being the only ones with sufficient distance." Parental warning: Cocteau also contains a pub called "From Bard to Verse."

If you are nevertheless pining for Fifteen Dogs, you’ll find a foreshadow in an early story: dogs of a lost generation come to intellectual awareness and attempt suicide. They blame society.

Reinhold Kramer is a Brandon University professor. His most recent book is Are We Postmodern Yet? And Were We Ever?


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