Mark Anthony Jarman’s new collection of stories is something of a rarity in Canadian short fiction. It does not follow the tried-and-true template of the traditional Chekhovian story, which prizes naturalism and a familiar narrative arc. Rather, Jarman’s stories more closely resemble the postmodern collages of Donald Barthelme.
Jarman’s focus is not on story in the traditional sense, and although a handful of the selections in the book do end with a character reaching a kind of epiphany, the author’s core interest resides elsewhere – specifically, in the delirious and courageous use of language to create startling effects.
The 14 stories in My White Planet display an author who is positively word-drunk, delighting in twisting language into bizarre shapes, pushing and straining to test its resilience and its torque. There is a palpable giddiness to many of these stories; Jarman writes like a free jazz musician riffing on a central theme, or like a Beat poet jiving to the rhythms of his prose: “They climb up sheepish and angry because they’re not from a ghetto. By not being deprived, they’ve been deprived. O to be born in a ghetto, to get jiggy with the rats and the rasta players.”
Throughout, Jarman’s imagination is robustly catholic, incorporating references from high culture and pop culture, often in playful juxtaposition. The title of the story “Fables of the Deconstruction” is a sly, Derridaesque pun on the name of an R.E.M. album, and its epigraph is from Francis Bacon. Nods to indie rock bands Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Calexico rub shoulders with allusions to Machiavelli and Othello.
The subject matter and tone of the stories are similarly wide-ranging, from the bleak opener, “Night March in the Territory,” which follows a group of soldiers on a trek through unmapped American territory, to “Kingdoms and Knowledge,” which follows a Canadian citizen as he navigates his way through London, England, while tending to his mother who is suffering in an Alzheimer’s ward there. And “A Nation Plays Chopsticks,” about an old-timers hockey league, may be the finest explanation for Canadians’ love affair with the game that I’ve ever read.
The stories in this collection may not be to everybody’s taste. Weighing in at just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read, but not easily digested. Some of the stories are more accessible than others, but the collection as a whole exemplifies Wallace Stevens’ comment that poetry should “resist the intelligence, almost successfully.” In these stories, many of which resemble prose poems, Jarman has taken that dictum to heart, and the results are challenging and surprising.