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Boundary Problems

by Greg Bechtel

A vanishingly thin – and therefore easily crossed – line exists between dream and reality, magic and science, insanity and sanity in Greg Bechtel’s debut story collection. Situations are rarely what they seem, and often change over the course of a story. At the centre of each entry is a confused or oblivious protagonist, often in a dance with another, less innocent character.

The 10 stories crackle with intelligence and energetic dialogue. They’re also cleverly crafted – sometimes a little too cleverly. Take “Blackbird Shuffle,” the disorienting yarn that opens the collection. A bewildered man finds himself in a car heading west, somewhere past the Northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay, holding a gun to a female driver’s head. Trying desperately to get him to lower the weapon, the woman is apparently a victim of her passenger’s aggression.

Or is she? We soon learn that the man doesn’t know what’s going on. Whose car is it? Whose gun? Over a series of subsections named after cards in a Tarot deck – The Wheel of Fortune, The Hanged Man, The Hierophant – the point of view jumps between the two, and the timeline shifts all over the place. Things come to a relatively satisfying close but leave the reader uncertain about whether to continue reading.

Definitely continue. The rest of the collection isn’t nearly so taxing, though the Edmonton-based author, whose Ph.D. examined the intersections among contemporary genre theory, cognitive science, and syncretism, isn’t shy about putting his knowledge to use. The excellent Raymond Carver aspect of the characters balances some of the headiness, and a couple of pieces – “Junk Mail,” “The Everett-Wheeler Hypothesis” – take surprising, effective turns toward horror.

The promising title story changes focus near the end and fizzles out disappointingly, while the three-part “Smut Story,” spread throughout the book, is dizzyingly conceptual and ambitious. Not a relaxing beach read, but certainly worth the effort.