Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow is the latest addition to Leon Rooke’s impressive oeuvre. The 20 stories that comprise Wide World are diverse in character and setting, though unified in the outlandishness of their incidents and the darkness of their humour. Rooke is preoccupied with extremes and conversant in various milieus, writing with equal aplomb about royalty and the profoundly impoverished, the insane and the prodigiously gifted. Eccentrics abound, as do literary, biblical, and philosophical allusions.
Several of the longer stories are about 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In one, Heidegger engages in a war of wits with a Nazi phrenologist intent on measuring his brain. In another, the domestic unrest caused by the philosopher’s affair with his brilliant pupil Hannah Arendt has horrific consequences for his cat.
A sizeable chunk of the book is taken up by “Balduchi’s Who’s Who,” a novella-length story originally published as a chapbook. Elderly Egi Balduchi hauls a wheelbarrow full of ledgers through Toronto, intent on documenting the population one person at a time. Meanwhile, his well-meaning daughter offers sexual favours in Kensington Market, and the ghosts of Isaac Babel and Guy de Maupassant stroll the streets and reminisce about their writing lives. Another thread concerns Gregor, a Kafkaesque character employed in a bar named after Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Rooke’s story struggles to contain all of its characters and allusions, and ultimately fails to add up to the sum of its many parts.
The shortest works in this collection are the strongest. “Don’t Cook a Pig” offers an entertaining burst of character and situation centred on a party gone terribly wrong. “What Happens Next” is a tender reflection on a passage in a Joyce Carol Oates memoir. As with much of Rooke’s prose, the wordplay, density, and odd quirks of perception demand an exceptional level of attentiveness. Unfortunately, the rewards are only intermittent.