Those who complain about the sclerotic and uninspiring nature of CanLit are usually directing their ire toward novels and novelists: it is rare to hear such complaints levelled at short-story collections. This is because, along with comedy, short stories are among this country’s most dependable cultural products. From Alice Munro to Rebecca Rosenblum, Mark Anthony Jarman to Pasha Malla, Canada has produced a wealth of innovative and adventurous practitioners of the short fiction form. Maybe it’s something in the water.
Anik See appears to have been drinking that water. Something has to explain a story like “Kingwell,” in which the tormented narrator suffers charged dreams about Toronto philosopher and author Mark Kingwell. See’s previous book, Saudade, was a collection of essays about our psychic connections to landscape and place, which helps to account for the pitch-perfect portrayal of the pretensions espoused by the denizens of Canada’s largest city: “We were in a neighbourhood called Seaton Village which, to our credit, was less expensive and even cooler than The Annex for a number of reasons (but only to Seaton Villagers).” But “Kingwell,” which does not offer a particularly flattering portrait of its titular character, is also a spot-on satire of a certain kind of Toronto intellectual: “[I]f you work in publishing in Toronto, you know how many parties there are, and how many of them consist entirely of conversations more laden with names than actual words.”
“Ice Out,” about a painter living in an isolated cabin along the Rideau Canal who negotiates a fraught sexual relationship with a stranger on a corporate leadership retreat, is as chilly as its title; “The Offing” is a lyrical and ultimately heartbreaking story about a couple who meet in a movie theatre after watching “one of those French films that’s so slow it leaves you gasping for air halfway through”; and the bravura title story follows two parallel narrative strands, as the narrator negotiates first her father’s abandonment and her mother’s suicide, and second her desertion in Iran by the man who got her pregnant.
The parallel story strands in “postcard” are separated on the page by a text design that has the first in regular type and the second in smaller, italic type running along the bottom half of the page. The two plotlines can be read independently, in which case they resemble a traditional story, or they can be read in tandem, creating a mosaic-like effect. This is only the most obvious way in which See plays with narrative: in “binary” she uses mathematics as a metaphoric representation of human emotions; elsewhere she is refreshingly unafraid to allow dialogue to carry the movement of a story forward.
Throughout, See evinces an admirable lack of self-consciousness in her approach. There is versatility to spare in these stories, but never at the expense of a reader’s engagement.