Friday, December 14, 2018

12th Canadian Challenge - 10th Review - Late Breaking

I was intrigued by the fact that the stories in K.D. Miller's Late Breaking are all inspired by Alex Colville paintings.  After I borrowed the book, I realized that I actually had not seen any of these in person, as none of them were in the retrospective that was at the AGO (all the way back in 2014).  Curiously, Miller's interest was sparked by that exhibit.  However, she decided to delve much deeper into Colville's work.  I do wonder how often she was fascinated by a painting and generated the back story afterwards and how often she had an idea in mind and searched until she found an appropriate painting.  (In my own small way, I did this for a short poetic sequence called The Palace at 4 AM, which I may get around to publishing on the blog one of these days.)

In a couple of cases, the paintings are pretty generic and there is no particularly strong tie to the stories ("Late Breaking" and "Octopus Heart"), whereas in the case of "Olly Olly Oxen Free," Miller seems to really strain to arrange the story so the man and woman end up in front of the refrigerator, as in Colville's Refrigerator (incidentally also on the cover of the book).

Alex Colville, Refrigerator, 1977

What becomes quickly apparent is that the stories are linked.  One character's son, who is essentially an off-screen presence in "Witness" has a more substantial role in "Flesh."  By the end, essentially every character turns up or is at least discussed in two or three of the ten stories.  As an aside, Raymond Carver did not link his stories this way, but in Altman's Short Cuts, Altman did link them all in a similar fashion.  For some reason, it worked for me a bit better in Short Cuts than it did here.

I'm not entirely sure why I didn't care for most of these stories.  It could be that, while the majority of them are realistic stories, there is a subcurrent of the eerie or even surreal in a few, such as "Lost Lake" and arguably "Olly Olly Oxen Free."  It could be that I found some of the characters' actions to be unconvincing.  It could be that I felt she was trying too hard to link up all the stories.  It could just be that I found too many of the stories to be open-ended and thus not that satisfying.  Or finally it could be that I read this while I was in a totally lousy mood.  No question other reviewers have liked the collection more (here and here).

For me the most successful stories were those that centred on authors and their work.  The title story, "Late Breaking," tracks four authors on a seemingly endless publicity tour as they vie to win a major literary award (the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction).  The closing story ("In the Crow's Keeping") also examines a writer, essentially retired, who decides to tackle one last project.  In keeping with the open-ended nature of many of the stories, the subject of this last book isn't spelled out, but presumably it has something to do with death in the animal kingdom and perhaps how differently humans approach death.  In this case, I think Miller could have been just a touch more direct and revealed what the writer was planning.  It wouldn't have spoiled the effect.

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