shining the spotlight on short story collections
Flambard Press, 2011
“What will we do without chocolate?”
“We gotta start havin’ sex instead.”
After Jennifer Egan’s A Visit To The Goon Squad came out, I must confess I sort of gave up on the linked collection – short stories that are linked usually by having a certain set of characters meander through the collection even though each story works as a stand-alone – until Rowena Macdonald’s Smoked Meat. There is no gimmickry here, nor stories linked by the barest wafer of connection, but straight-up story-telling in prose that goes down (as Sean in Learning Butterfly would say), as ‘smooth as a pint of Guinness’. The characters do not come with fancy bells and whistles, and yet as their individual stories unfold; the reader is sucked in, ‘whirlpooled’ (as Macdonald artfully converts this noun into verb) into their lives and emerges later as if from some plumbed depths, seduced by the simplicity of details (like the man eating an ice-cream with a crate of pears perched on one shoulder in DoubleTake) and the strong narrative undertow of lives that seem full of private humiliations, sexual denouement and a need to be exposed.
The collection starts off with a lot of nudity, not all of it sublime and some downright tawdry, as Leila, the protagonist in Boys an’ Men, finds out when she goes to a fixer named Bob Zeller with bladder control issues, who wants to put her in touch with artists seeking models to pose nude. As Leila questions whether the connections he promises are ‘legit’, she chances upon a nude snap of Bob’s daughter on his desk. This daughter used to be a stripper and dancer, but now has a degree in psychology and is married with three kids. Bob is ‘very proud of’ her. And just so Leila doesn’t feel that the trip has been a waste of time, he offers her bags of rice and free food that has been given to him by do-gooders who feel sorry for a man in a wheelchair. Bob does indeed hook Leila up to a ‘legit’ assignment with Martin, who is ‘making an illustrated history of the world from prehistoric times’ but somehow needs nude women only to do this. On the second assignment – an all-expenses paid trip to New York City – Leila is accompanied by her girlfriend Zoe, as protection, in case not everything is ‘legit’. Zoe also turns out to be a good-time girl. The pair of them bite off a bit more than they can chew with Lionel and Clarence. There is a perfect moment that showcases Macdonald’s dark satiric humour in this story, when Leila and Zoe ditch their partners in Manhattan and end up in a dank bar that’s supposed to be hip and cool and is anything but. They meet two boys from the Upper East Side who ask them what they do.
“We’re failed porn models”.
And one of the boys respond “You failed your law modules? Are you law students?”
Art and life wrestle in the first story of this collection, Brian, McMurphy & Sally Too. McMurphy is ‘handsome with brutal Germanic features’, Brian is ugly in a cartoonish way and Sally is just physically perfect. Macdonald describes her in a way that makes her ‘eminently fuckable’ – until we see what Sally’s made of, the callous and blasé way she uses situations and people. Her nudity is a hall-of-mirrors, creating distortions of reality and chaotic undercurrents that lead to Brian’s comfortable friendship with McMurphy being wrecked, and although Brian himself is not all that likable, witnessing the disintegration of his friendship, his life and his work is wretchedly painful.
What I appreciated greatly was the way Macdonald webbed these characters’ relationships in overlapping concentric circles. Brian, McMurphy and Sally are friends with Zoe and Leila. Zoe and Leila work in Chez Nanigans, an Irish pub (or, more accurately, a Canadian bar posing as an Irish bar, with a chef-poseur from Ireland, a.k.a. Sean, who has a deformity in the sexual arena that makes for a neat twist at the end of The New Chef). Sean meets Natalie in Learning Butterfly, and learns that her father is Crazy Davy, the resident lunatic in Chez Nanigans.
Overwhelmingly, the stories focus on narrative voices that want sex (Freya losing her virginity to her employer in Secrets of Voodoo), are scheming to get some (Josh in Welcome is fiercely sexually competitive as he tries to get Corinna’s attention), or have some, whether randomly when it’s offered (Corinna in DoubleTake), or surreptitiously when it’s not (Henry, secretly gay, cruising Down to Rue Beaudry). The sex-for-barter is a treacherous playing field, as Macdonald adroitly explores gender and race and economic dynamics, layered with the interplay of nudity that often acts as carte-blanche invitation for the purveyors of the naked body as object. But as Magdi, a man with a limp from polio, finds out, sex is not the Taste of Love. But if sex is not the taste of love, what is? Is it, as Corinna discovers, the remembered detail, the DoubleTake? Or is it just a feeling, when you’re no longer lonely, or when you expose your shameful self unreservedly, as Sean does with his past to Natalie and Henry does with Alexei, and find out that you can still be accepted. Is that where love resides?
The terrain of Montreal, with its faint trace of Parisian old-town glamour coupled with red-light seediness, is beautifully evocative of the weary cynicism of romance, as the characters in this collection experience it. I like the fact that the pubs featured here are Irish or pseudo-Irish (instead of glamour and romance, it seems to call for stoicism and solidity), that the women all waitress but you know or hope that they were meant for better times and better futures. When the burdens of sexuality (in Freya’s case, virginity) placed upon women and their bodies as sexual objects are lifted it feels like the liberating lancing of a gigantic bubble.
So much happens in the interstices of Macdonald’s masterful dialogue that crackles and pops. Mainly, I wanted to know what happened to Corinna, the referent epigram from a poem from August Kleinzahler aptly titled “Montreal” with which Macdonald introduces this world. Everyone of the characters in this collection feels like someone I’ve met or known or observed — they feel so real and unscripted, as if they’d just walked in off the street. Joyce would have approved. We meet liars, itinerants, strippers for art, waitresses, rapscallions, those who betray for love, those who are betrayed, but first and foremost we are meeting ourselves.
Read a story by Rowena Macdonald here
About the reviewer: Elaine Chiew lives in London. Her fiction has won awards (including the Bridport), and been shortlisted (Fish Short Story Award, Top 25 Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writer Award). She has written a short story collection and a novel, both of which are out in submission. Many of her stories can be found online at journals such as Metazen, Per Contra, Pedestal, African Writing Online, among others.