Russell Smith’s new collection of short stories won’t leave you feeling wonderful about the human race. His characters reveal themselves to be liars and cheats, manipulators, and careerists, all doing their best to hold things together – personally, professionally, socially – in modern-day Toronto. The protagonists, obsessed with the sex they’re not getting, often appear as beleaguered victims of circumstance.
In “Gentrification,” set in what will be recognizable to any Torontonian as Parkdale (the overwhelming focus on the changing neighbourhood impedes the plot), a young couple are at the mercy of the violent, noisy tenants who live in their basement, though the husband is too timid to oust the young black women. But whatever sympathy you’ve gained for him early on vanishes during a passage in which he stares at one tenant’s thong and fantasizes about her “enormous round butt.” Never mind the fact that he’s also pressuring his wife, who is preoccupied with her academic studies, to take sexually explicit photos for an amateur porn website as a means of securing extra income. Things only get worse from there.
The protagonist of “Crazy” is another seemingly innocent partner, this time attending to his wife, who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand the interpersonal dynamics at work: the wife’s suspicious nature – the apparent reason for her intermittent mental breakdowns – has roots in reality. While awaiting her release, the husband flirts with a waitress and visits a brothel. He may also have a drug problem. As in his previous books, Smith’s characters are one thing on the surface, and something else beneath.
Smith’s women are equally conniving. In “Fun Girls” and “Confidence,” stories with shared characters, two female friends toy with various men at a private club, shifting attention from Bay Street lawyers to a poetry student on a budget who finds himself on the receiving end of a monologue by one of the women about the problem with sensitive boys. It’s one of the book’s most searing moments, offering a flash of insight into what people are protecting when they do the harmful things they do.
The fraught monotony of long-term relationships is the focus of the nine stories, and none of the couples is having an easy time of it, including the drugged-up Ph.D. students in “Research,” who at first seem newly and freely in love. Throughout the book, men’s pasts come back to haunt them, stupid decisions have grave consequences, flirtation is more dangerous than fun, and monogamy seems an impossibility.
Best known for his provocative arts column in The Globe and Mail, Smith – who also teaches in the University of Guelph’s MFA program – is exceptionally talented at dialogue. He uses it at length, often to fill in backstory, one character telling another (and the reader) what led to his or her current conflicted place. The most impressive story, “Confidence,” is a master class in how to juggle several interconnected but separate storylines and character arcs simultaneously. The transitions are clean, the writing snappy, sassy, and smart. One-upmanship steers conversation, each character trying to be funnier and snarkier than the others.
And the focus is exceedingly au courant. In “TXTS,” a man receives text messages from a stranger while out on a date with a woman who fails to impress him, and who negatively reviews the date on her blog. In “Raccoons,” Rob Ford’s crack cocaine scandal plays out behind a domestic drama involving a parrot-like child, a mother taking out her rage at her husband through Twitter hashtags, and a sex-tape scandal involving the husband and his unhinged, pot-smoking ex.
In the world of these stories, love is a game, secrets pile up, needs go unmet, compromises and negotiations are constantly being made. “I like to control negotiations,” says the Richmond Street club owner in “Confidence,” which succinctly sums up what all of Smith’s characters are trying to get a handle on.
Smith has little to offer in the way of how to live with integrity or transcend base instincts. Yet he does provide some clear-eyed insights into human nature. In “Cupid and Psyche,” for example, the owner of a sex store thinks, “A woman, when dissatisfied, left; men were too much governed by comfort and inertia to force rupture. Men simply cheated.”
But just as the cynicism starts to rankle rather than amuse, something shifts. Relationships remain negotiations, but also appear more broken in and nuanced. Love based on something beyond the physical and convenient creeps in. Two stories at the end, featuring the collection’s oldest and most magnanimous characters, soften the book’s unflinching tone and deliver, finally, emotional resonance by hinting at vulnerable humanity and the truest, simplest desires behind the exhaustive chase of pleasure.