Saturday, May 19, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 22nd review - Things As They Are?

Things As They Are? is Guy Vanderhaeghe's 3rd collection of short stories.*  I read Man Descending many moons ago (and indeed, I really ought to reread it and My Present Age, the novel that followed, and review them here, but that might be a project for next year).  While I definitely wouldn't have wanted Ed, the main character of several of the stories and the novel, to be in my life, the writing was very strong.  I only hope that I still would like this work; as I noted in my review of Daddy Lenin, it seems that I have gotten more impatient with literature that doesn't align with my current frame of mind, and I just don't want to spend any time with characters that offend me.**  This is probably an unfortunate consequence of the echo chamber effect of the internet; since there is so much out there that really bothers me (and some of the "bad stuff" is so toxic), I just avoid more and more things that are only going to upset me.  Of course, this can be taken to absurd limits.  Where people today (particularly Millennials) go over the line is trying to stop other people from espousing (or even listening to) these views (in the name of "safe spaces").  I have no truck with censorship, no matter what the motivation. 

I would say that Things As They Are? is largely about men trying to find their way in the world, though it hasn't quite hit the same level of toxic masculinity on display in Daddy Lenin.  This collection is kind of at the midway point, and consequently I did enjoy it more than Daddy Lenin.

That said, there are several portraits of men who are far too stubborn for their own good.  There will be minor to moderate SPOILERS from this point onwards.


The title character in "King Walsh" has always been a bit of a rabble-rouser (sounding like a slightly tamer version of Rooster Byron from Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem) but in his old age he is taunted into getting into a dance competition during which he promptly breaks his hip bone.  His life starts spiraling down after this.  But this is nothing compared to the Lear-like events of "Home Place" where an older man insists on fixing the fence on the farm he gifted to his son, since the son is far too soft or simply too preoccupied and generally disinterested in maintaining the farm properly.

"Ray" is a painful story where Ray can never measure up in his father's eyes to his dead brother.  "New Houses" is a particularly dark story where a boy commits arson, essentially to curry favour with his mother who is particularly envious of the newcomers to town who have money, while she married a man who will never amount to anything.

Quite a few of the stories are morally ambiguous.  How should we feel about a young boy, who hates his teacher, who is picking on him simply because he was the star pupil of the other teachers?  She seems to want to teach him a lesson about not being overproud (the tall poppy syndrome so prevalent in Canada, as well as Australia).  When she is injured (very indirectly due his actions), his true feelings come out, and this seems to bother her more than almost anything about the incident.  Vanderhaege's message, if there is one, seems to be that unreasonable emotions are not limited to childhood, but carry over into adulthood as well.

"The Master of Disaster" was a weird sort of caper story, where one boy leans everything about life from the movies.  He puts together a gang, loosely inspired by The Italian Job, to do various things.  He manages to convince one boy he has the potential to become a boxer and sets up a fight with a notorious juvenile delinquent.  I suppose it is a bit of a twist that things actually do go according to plan, but the final denouement is that the "boxer" drops out of the gang and starts spending time with Vietnam War deserters.  Vanderhaege's unstated thesis is that this boy has more true moral character than the narrator, who still is still partly in the gang and mostly just goes with the flow.

One of the more ambitious stories is "Things As They Are?" which is about a washed-up writer, who cannot live up to his potential.  He wants to write a story as compelling as something Chekhov would have written, but naturally is having difficulty.  He goes into a monastery that now accepts paying guests, but quickly becomes wrapped up in the problems of Roland, a young man who survived a terrible fire and now wants to become a monk.  There is just a bit of a Rashomon effect here, since the writer only receives his information from the young man, but then later finds out from the abbot that the situation is very different than Roland perceives it.  At the end of the story, the writer abandons his earlier writing efforts and starts writing something more directly inspired by Chekhov's The Black Monk, where "reality" is impinged upon when one character has a vision of a black monk, which then impacts his life negatively.  (I have to admit the summary doesn't make much sense even in Vanderhaege's retelling, and I have shortened that to the point of incomprehensibility.  The full story, translated by Constance Garnett, is in The Lady with a Dog, available here.)

The last story I will discuss is by far the most disturbing one: "Loneliness Has Its Claims."  It starts off with a 12-year old boy sent off to his grandmother's for the summer.  Unlike most stories of this sort, she is not a soft touch nor is she later won over by the boy's charms, though she isn't a wicked, abusive grandmother either.  Instead, she is a very tough cookie, who is trying to marry a former principal, Mr Cecil Foster, who has retired nearby.  She sees him almost entirely as a means of escaping her dire financial conditions, stuck on a failing farm in the middle of nowhere.  She immediately tells the boy there will be severe consequences if he mouths off to "Uncle Cecil."  The plan backfires when "Uncle Cecil" starts spends almost all his leisure time driving the boy around, wanting to recreate the friendship between David and Alan Breck in Stevenson's Kidnapped.  As the penny slowly drops, this becomes one of the most unsettling stories I've read, even a bit more difficult to read than Lolita, though things don't go quite as far as all that.  The boy mostly puts up with this unwanted affection so he can get a rifle, though his grandmother insists he give it back (telling him that in the future he will see that she was right, though I am sure he has his doubts about that).  The story ends before the final reckoning, but it is certainly coming.  (I will give Vanderhaege minor props in that he introduces a gun (a la Chekhov) and it is certainly used against birds and small mammals, but no humans get shot with it.)

I would say that these are interesting but by no means easy stories.  I rarely felt any connection with the characters, particularly the too-stubborn men, where I mostly was glad that I have an easier lot in life than they did.  The last two stories "Loneliness ..." and "Things as They Are" seemed to be the strongest to me, though I am not sure I am in any rush to reread either of them.

* Apparently, his second collection is a super short (70 pages!) collection called The Trouble with Heroes that followed on immediately from Man Descending.  Given how short it is, I ought to just buzz through it this summer.

** An excellent example of this is Burning City by Ariel and Joaquin Dorfman.  They spend all this time glamourizing this bicycle messenger, who is clearly a dangerous fool (actually riding his bike through office lobbies and intentionally forcing pedestrians out of his way).  I don't really care about his inner motivations and the fact he is just putting on a show to mask his vulnerabilities.  In real life, my bicycle commute to work is made harder because d-bags like this messenger piss off motorists, who then take it out on regular cyclists.  So it is a hard thing to stomach anything that reinforces bad behaviour.  I'm seriously considering dropping the novel for this reason, and I certainly am not going to let my son read it.

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