Even when things go well for the characters in Jessica Westhead’s new short story collection, they nevertheless feel certain something will go wrong soon. With her penchant for supremely neurotic protagonists and thematic complexity, and her rich sense of the absurd, Westhead may have a claim to being CanLit’s Woody Allen.
Following her surreal take on sex and office politics in her debut novel, Pulpy and Midge, Westhead returns to the water cooler multiple times over the course of And Also Sharks. Her main characters are frequently disliked by their co-workers, and their skewed self-perceptions make them satisfyingly unreliable narrators. Beyond the corporate realm, she explores long-term romantic relationships, which are shown as awkward combinations of comfort and unspoken tension, and satirizes the pretensions of small-press publishing and the arts community.
Westhead’s use of language is skilful and comic, and this collection features many well-crafted sentences timed to perfect effect. There is also darkly clever wordplay: in “Brave Things that Kids Do,” a woman who becomes emotionally incapacitated after delivering a stillborn baby is named Elba, a reversal of “able.”
One particular pleasure is the cumulative effect of recurring motifs, from the visual to the metaphorical. Across various stories, insecure characters see their own distorted reflections in mundane objects like doorknobs and the buttons sewn into other people’s clothing. In one instance, male sexual ambivalence is sublimated by perfecting an ability to fix leaky faucets.
Some of these stories rely upon traditional devices, such as ironic plot twists in the final paragraphs. Others take greater risks, as in “Unique and Life-Changing Items,” in which a couple’s conflicting tastes in furniture convey volumes about the unrest that pervades their relationship.
The book’s characters struggle mightily to relate to those around them; despite their apparent extremes, they resonate because of the ways they achieve gradual, uncomfortable realizations about their surroundings and themselves.