The latest fashion in Canadian publishing appears to be for books of short stories or slim novels from recent graduates of creative writing programs, as publishers hedge their bets by trying to find writers with credentials. Creative writing workshops, while undoubtedly useful, have their dangers. For instance, writers who take them can become self-referential: they can become each other’s audience, establish a group mandate for what is or is not good writing and carry this mandate into the wider world of literature. The new publishing fashion has produced an uneven crop at best. Three of the better books of short stories to come out in 2001 are all by recent graduates of the University of British Columbia creative writing master’s program.
Kingdom of Monkeys by Adam Lewis Schroeder (Raincoast) is an odd collection of stories whose only link is that they are set in foreign countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. Highly imaginative and vividly realized, these stories never sound patronizing or touristy. Schroeder knows his territory well and works hard at inserting his writing into exotic settings—often a risky venture for a writer. The most successful story, “Beautiful Feet,” is about bewildered white missionaries trying to come to terms with their new life in the Philippines. Schroeder successfully embeds a sly subtext about Apocalypse Now and the Asian heart of darkness in this clever and twisted story, which is satirical without being mean. In stories with non-white protagonists, Schroeder maintains more distance from his characters: these stories are interesting too, if less successful. And in “Pak Arafim, the Pharmacist,” set in Indonesia in an unspecified era, Schroeder achieves a tone of timeless magic realism.
The stories in Simple Recipes, by Madeleine Thien (McClelland and Stewart), are closer to home, made with familiar ingredients and spiced with subtle insights. My favourite was the title story, in which a father’s care in cooking for his family is contrasted with his violence toward his son. Thien has a lovely, somewhat rambling yet carefully controlled style. At times it is too controlled: this reader would have been glad for a little more passion. The remove gives the collection a nostalgic sepia feel, like that of old memories, but Thien writes remarkable paragraphs that are like small jewels, and wonderfully short, simple sentences that grab your attention and keep it.
Sputnik Diner by Rick Maddocks (Knopf) is an in-depth exploration of a group of people who move through a small-town diner in the tobacco belt of southern Ontario. Maddocks shows just enough of his characters’ lives for us to understand, identify and sympathize with them, and the stories are subtly linked so that they read almost like a novel. Characters’ paths cross by circumstance, coincidence and geography, creating a mural, a pageant effect, a diversely textured landscape. Maddocks’ gift is to show both the bright and the terrible intricacies in the lives of these people: drifters, waitresses, a hockey player, the occasional artist, broken-hearted lovers, immigrants. Their lives are sent swirling through circumstance, they reach chaotic emotional epiphanies, they reel and react in helpless fury before accidental miseries—disease, lost parents, lost children, love, death, heartbreak. Maddocks’ tone is utterly consistent: not a note of condescension or arrogance sifts through. He steps back and lets his characters have their full and difficult lives. While Kingdom of Monkeys and Simple Recipes feel careful and controlled, this narrative reels along at an invigorating pace. It’s a lovely, rich read that pulled me in and kept me reading.