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Dizzying mix of short stories shows us as less human

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This article was published 13/5/2011 (2290 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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This Is Where It Must Have Happened

By Hal Niedzviecki

City Lights, 171 pages, $16

IN this new collection of short stories, Toronto journalist and fiction writer Hal Niedzviecki offers a dizzying mix of tales that demonstrate how we are turning less humane in an increasingly nihilistic and media-soaked world.

Niedzviecki's 2009 non-fiction book, The Peep Diaries, cast an unflinching eye on how watching each other through the engine of the Internet has distorted our ideas of who we are as individuals, and how our interactions in society grow worse daily.

In a way these stories are often a bizarre riff on the conclusions of Niedzviecki's intense observations of contemporary culture. They are also a cry from a moralist who warns us of the growing coldness out there, and presses us in his sardonic, crazy way to hold on to our humanity, however screwed up that may be, in the face of the ugly world of ubiquitous security cameras, reality TV and Internet overload.

Take what happens to the men in two almost complementary stories, Real Estate and Undead.

In the first, a real estate agent heads from a life of suburban respectability to the edge of degradation through his increasing obsession with a webcast of teenage girls engaged in a sexual act with off-camera men.

In Undead, another ordinary guy who has some unease dealing with the death of his wife's best friend, whom, he notes, he hardly knew, discovers a funeral home's webcasts of its services. He becomes, first unwittingly, then with growing fervour, a fan, even an expert, on the rabbis orating, and the speakers, or "guest stars," as he calls them.

Meanwhile, he slowly surrenders his job, even his wife, to follow, in the rituals of a funeral, the one place, where he feels alive. The ending is a knockout, being both inevitable, and yet a surprise.

In The Colourist, the most fantastical tale in the collection, Niedzviecki imagines a world without colour that is made manifest only through the haiku-like visions of a Dalai Lama figure.

The world's economy is based on the continual ramblings from this seer about which colours to produce. He passes on his insight at death to a successor, but the young are getting impatient.

The theme of culture as a commodity is at work here, but Niedzviecki doesn't wrap it neatly. What matters is that the bizarre, maddening drive of the story stays with you.

The place of culture is also central to Useless, in which an artist is subject to the squeeze of politicians using "art" for their public image. ("Keep on painting those fabulous pictures! the mayor roared.")

Displacement is the most humane of the stories, though it too shows Niedzviecki's abrasiveness and unsentimentality.

An old man remembers his life as a child in displacement camps after the Second World War. In the present day we see him as a flavoured-cream-cheese mogul, though even he thinks some of the flavours go too far. Invited to a conference, one more of so many over the years, he finally decides to go and finds peace of a sort. Here absurdity abuts tragedy in a moving, quiet way, as it may in all lives.

That screwed-up humanity mentioned earlier shines through, as well in the other stories in this remarkable collection. Niedzviecki's characters, nice or decidedly not, remind us that our contemporary life is messy and not safe.

It could be worse, he warns. Best hang on to what we are, and turn off that computer.

Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and drama editor for the Winnipeg-based literary quarterly Prairie Fire

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