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by Mark Macdonald

Vancouver author Mark Macdonald’s first novel, Flat, transformed the architecture of the apartment building into an effective and subtle symbol for, amongst other things, the essential strangeness of urban life. Desire, compartmentalized and isolated inside rows of almost identical apartment blocks, took on eerie, hothouse contortions, calling for often desperate measures to find intimacy and relief. Macdonald employs this strategy – minimalist, surreal prose supporting a central metaphor – throughout his first short-story collection, Home, to explore similar themes of estrangement, with mixed results.
Take “Walls,” for instance. A modern riff on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the first-person narrative tells the story of a man’s visit to a dying friend obsessively renovating his family’s ancestral mansion. Macdonald gets the mood right, and the narrator’s emotional ambivalence provides a nice counterpoint to the manic renovator. But Macdonald relies too much on the narrator’s interpretation of events, and with little actual interaction between the principal characters, the story becomes monotonous, like the text of dramatic monologue without the benefit of an actor’s performance. He then resorts to furthering the story’s symbolic intentions by having the narrator spell out the connections between his friend’s illness and the decaying mansion: “He had become a kind of immune system for the whole house, attacking each indication of entropy as he came across it.”
More successful is “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” A man rents a room in a house owned by a doting Christian Science convert and soon immerses himself in her other abiding passion: collecting orchids. One day the two make a trip to see a floral exhibit called “Colonel Gorse’s Garden of Earthly Delights.” There, inside what appears to be an old circus tent, they are led to an exhibit that reveals the terrifying procreative forces behind the delicate flowers they hoard in their quiet home. Another ambivalent narrator is employed here, but Macdonald crafts a few revealing scenes between the housemates before springing his horrific denoument on the reader, giving the final scenes a heavy impact.
There is much to enjoy in these creepy stories. Even the outright failures in Home – and there are only a couple – have the power to slip in and engrave lingering afterimages in the mind.