Monday, January 30, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 17th Review - Russian Dolls

I managed to get hold of W.P. Kinsella's final collection of short stories Russian Dolls: Stories from the Breathing Castle, which was published in late 2016, only a few months after Kinsella passed away.  So it is another last work, though in this case, however, it appears Kinsella had completed the book and no posthumous editing was necessary.*  The conceit of the novel is that the narrator, Wylie, is living in a ramshackle rooming house (called the Breathing Castle) in East Vancouver.  He mostly drives a taxi to make ends meet and writes fairly lousy science fiction stories.  Only one or two have been accepted.  He meets Christie, a somewhat troubled soul, on the day she moves into the Breathing Castle.  He makes a successful play for her, and she moves into his room that evening.  Wylie attributes his growth as a writer (and increasing commercial success) to her and her constantly pressing him to tell her stories.  She becomes his Muse.  The book itself alternates between 30 short chapters sketching out Wylie and Christie's adventures and misadventures in Vancouver at the tail end of the 1970s and into the early 80s and the stories that she inspired.  This review from the Star is informative (particularly on the fact that there are no baseball stories in this book**), but it doesn't make it clear just how short many of the stories are (nearly all under 10 pages and several are 3-4 pages).  It is at least plausible that Kinsella's head injury contributed to him working on shorter pieces, since his concentration was not what it once was after the accident, though some of the last pieces he wrote were in the 10 page length, suggesting that he could still occasionally work on longer pieces which were among the best he ever wrote.

While Wylie is a fictional creation, he seems a fairly transparent stand-in for William Kinsella, who did live in Vancouver and drove a taxi around this time.  Where the line gets really blurred in a meta-fictional way is that 6 of Kinsella's published stories (mostly reprinted in the Essential W.P. Kinsella) turn up here.  So if these Christie-inspired stories are the same as the ones that W.P. Kinsella wrote, then Wylie is W.P., right?  I'd say probably not, though there probably was at least one Muse-like female in his past.  In any case, Wylie describes himself as an unreliable narrator, but then discusses how Christie is unreliable in the extreme, with her stories about her past changing daily.  In many ways, this gets at the crux of communication.  The listener (or reader) is told something and must decide whether to believe it.  Particularly in the case of second-hand accounts and fiction, there is no meaningful way to verify the truth of the statements, although it is possible to find them to be inconsistent, which then leaves one with deciding to believe one statement (the last one made?) or none -- and then accept one is listening to a liar.  John Barth often made this point about the nature of fiction and that readers often want to know "the truth" behind a piece of literature, while this leads to an impossible quest.  Taken as a whole, this book engages with many of Barth's concerns but is a bit less heavy-handed than later Barth.  I'm also reminded more than a little of Robert Kroetsch, perhaps because one of Kroetsch's last postmodern novels (The Puppeteer) kicks off in Vancouver.

I have to admit that on the whole, the interstitial material (Wylie and Christie) is a bit more compelling than many of the stories.  It is interesting watching inspiration at work (even if somewhat fictionalized).  Having gone from a bad writer to a fairly good one, Wylie is quite shaken whenever he thinks Christie will leave him.  He has made her into a totem of sorts and believes that his writing will dry up with her gone.  I can't speak for all writers, but certainly some are so superstitious (about the source of their creativity) that this could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  (While it might be apocryphal, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas relates that Juan Rulfo wrote one masterpiece, the novel Pedro Páramo, which inspired a generation of South American novelists, particularly Gabriel García Márquez, but then went silent because his (Rulfo's) Uncle Celerino died and he no longer had access to Uncle Celerino's stock of stories.)

I know that I have read other stories and novels about male authors and their female muses, though I am struggling to think of one off the top of my head.  What's somewhat interesting is that in this case, Wylie and Christie are fairly close in age, whereas often the female Muse is younger (just think of Picasso going after younger and younger models/lovers).  The closest I can think of right now is the real life story of Earl Birney and his companion who was 45 years younger than he was.  I simply never could get over the squickiness over this age gap to enjoy the poems that she inspired.  Actually, I did come across an interesting interview with Kate Christiansen, who says that she has had a number of male muses, though her novel The Astral is about a male poet who gets in all kinds of trouble with his wife when she finds out that she is not his sole Muse.  I haven't read The Astral, but it definitely looks like something that might be up my alley.

Back to the stories in Russian Dolls: quite a few are set in Vancouver.  Generally, they take place in the Downtown East Side where winos and drug users were and still are common (and while there are people with money in this Vancouver, the city is at least a decade away from being totally transformed by the influx of money from Hong Kong and then mainland China).  Maybe a third are about other lodgers in Wylie's rooming house, often with a magic realist twist to them.  Given that many of the stories are quite short, the magic realism can overwhelm the story, particularly with "Shorts Story" (which I didn't care for and wish had been replaced by "Elvis Bound") and "Parrots".  Of this batch, the most successful were "Truth and History" and "Zachariah Durdle."  As has been said many times before, writers are quite notorious for taking all aspects of their own lives, and those of their friends and acquaintances, and using it all as grist for the mill.  Wylie is certainly no exception to this.

There were a few stories about immigrant forebears, almost obligatory in Canadian literature.  I'd say "The Ridgepole" was the best of the group, though it still seemed a bit predictable.  A couple of stories referenced Canada's shameful treatment of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII, namely "The Bluebird Cafe" and "The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society."  Both are good.  "The Last Surviving Member ..." is very moving -- one of my favourites in the whole book -- and happens to also be reprinted from The Essential W.P. Kinsella.

There were also a number of stories inspired by various couples that Wylie and Christie would see in restaurants, and she would ask him to write a story about them.  Some of them are upbeat, but they get a bit darker as Wylie begins to feel his hold over Christie is loosening.  This includes "Murderous Ways," "Mama's Little Visa Loves Shortenin' Bread," "The Knife in the Door" and "Do Not Abandon Me."  The last two in particular are quite transparent in how Wylie is working through his feelings towards Christie in his fiction and pleading with her not to go.  "Do Not Abandon Me" is a strong story (with an ambiguous ending) and is also included in The Essential W.P. Kinsella.

The collection ends with an amusing two page story (with some echoes of sadness) called "Asian Girl" that reminded me of the short fable-like stories of Donald Barthelme.  Perhaps it was wise not to end on a completely sad note, even though Wylie fears his Muse is lost forever.  ("Asian Girl" also features a cameo by Stephen King -- perhaps just a wry flashback to the trouble Kinsella got into for putting J.D. Salinger in Shoeless Joe.)

I'd say this is essential reading for fans of Kinsella (along with The Essential W.P. Kinsella).  It doesn't always work, but there are a wide variety of stories, many quirky, some sad and/or challenging.   Loss and/or the fear of loss hangs over the collection, though it is certainly not a dark or dreary read.  The issue of creativity may be of particular interest to writers looking for their own inspiration.

* Not to be too grim about it, but Kinsella was suffering from apparently severe complications from diabetes and chose assisted suicide.  To some degree, this gave him more control over not having too many loose ends in terms of his last fictional works.

** The review also doesn't make it clear that there are no stories with First Nations characters, such as Silas Ermineskin from the Fencepost Chronicles.  I don't think that Kinsella was backing away from these characters due to the controversy over appropriation of voice.  He basically felt this concept was a construct of Eastern academic types, though perhaps more recently he would have acidly noted that a few disgruntled, unsuccessful Native authors should be added to the list of people who were criticizing him.  It's at least somewhat interesting that Tomson Highway is firmly in the camp of writers being able to write whatever they want (and directors to cast whomever they want) without being held back by cries of cultural appropriation.  Not that all of his fellow Native writers agree with him, of course.  My own view is that writers should be able to write what they want, and that includes "punching down," but they also have to be willing to take the heat for it, especially in these times when even looking at someone slightly cross-eyed or throwing a bit of shade ends up with people of more than average sensitivity trying to stir up a shitstorm on Twitter.

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