The conceit behind Lorna Jackson’s slim new volume of fiction is a series of phony encounters between an unnamed middle-aged female interviewer and eight celebrities culled mainly from the worlds of hockey and literature, including Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Markus Näslund, and Bobby Orr.
Jackson has patched her pieces together from a variety of sources, including real interviews, so that most of the broad strokes of the interviewees’ lives are factually accurate. The interviewer, as the title declares, flirts with her subjects, disarming them with a Brian Linehanesque barrage of statements about themselves, many of them detailed, arcane, or intimate. The intention being, one supposes, to open them up.
Instead, however, the interviewer takes each opportunity to air grievances about her own emotionally scarred past, which includes a dead teenaged sister, alcoholism, affairs with married men, a divorce, and several attempted suicides. The interviewees are left to play therapist – or mother, as in the case of Janet Jones-Gretzky, who suggests ways to stay positive while giving the interviewer a massage in her and Wayne’s baroque sauna.
Jackson’s clever idea has some flaws in its execution, the most obvious being the use of em-dashes instead of names to indicate changes of speaker in the interviews – something that makes it far too easy to lose track of who’s who and forces the reader to count the exchanges.
A bigger problem is that Jackson seems to forget that her characters are supposed to be talking. The interviewer often lapses into an improbable writerly voice, sometimes in an unnatural-sounding present tense, which calls into question Jackson’s choice of format: “He has stopped in to show off the new kits. Wine kits. I hear the words and see the tidy boxes stacked in the back of his truck, my heart thumps and terror or desire rushes into my hands.” People, even self-absorbed ones, just don’t speak this way.
The best of Jackson’s capable writing is informed by a gritty, shoot-from-the-hip sensibility, but Flirt frequently loses momentum, making its proffered rewards feel a bit too much like work for the reader.