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How to Tell If Your Frog Is Dead

by Julie Roorda

Different Beasts

by J.R. McConvey

One of the most beguiling attributes of the short-story genre is its malleability. Stories are shape-shifters, tugging and testing the elasticity of the form in ways that often subvert readerly expectations. The title story in Julie Roorda’s debut collection, for example, dispenses with the Munrovian template involving a psychologically astute, rigorously unsentimental narrative in favour of a style that eschews anything resembling conventional storytelling. “How to Tell If Your Frog Is Dead” has no plot, no characters to speak of, and does not proceed through a series of consequential events with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. It is constructed instead as an instruction manual providing directions in the care of an exotic type of child’s pet: the African clawed frog.

It helps that Roorda’s brief opener is eye-wateringly funny. The affective aspect of “How to Tell If Your Frog Is Dead” mitigates the challenge for readers, who find themselves forced to re-evaluate their notions of what a story is and what it can do.

Other stories in the collection cleave to this method, more or less successfully. “Bouncing Lessons” comprises the final report of a commission struck in response to a panic caused when a child’s tiara pierces a bouncy castle, resulting in a sound that resembles a gunshot. “Little Brother” is cast as the privacy policy for a smartphone that interfaces directly with its owner’s brain. And “Work-Life Balance” is presented as an all-staff memo addressing office chaos that results from an ill-conceived idea for a “bring your cat to work day.” 

Elsewhere, Roorda includes stories that unfold entirely in dialogue, an entry that involves emails to and from a claims adjustor at “Cosmic Insurance, Ltd.,” and a treatment for a television pilot. The disparate pieces are unified to some degree by a philosophical attention to the nature of consciousness and the operation of evil in the world, though at 33 separate stories, the collection winds up being a bit too much of a good thing. Some judicious pruning could have helped eliminate the more obviously repetitive entries and drawn the stronger ones in greater relief.

A polyglot approach to the short form is also on offer in J.R. McConvey’s Different Beasts, the title of which can refer as much to the technical execution in the various stories as to their wide-ranging settings and subject matter. More immediately recognizable as conventional works of narrative than some of Roorda’s experiments, McConvey’s tales nevertheless incorporate elements that push at the boundaries of style and technique and occasionally veer into the territory of horror or the supernatural.

One example of this is “Sheepasnörus Rex,” a somewhat pale Stephen King imitation about a haunted plush toy used to help a baby get to sleep. More successful is “The Last Ham,” about a small town that falls prey to the depredations of a oleaginous would-be politician during the annual Easter church auction. “Pavilion” focuses on a plan to tear down a Kingston, Ontario, residence once used by John A. Macdonald; the government scheme runs afoul of a group that wants to protect the building as a heritage site. This story is a breezy take on the clash between cultural sensitivity and the impulse to preserve historical monuments, though the Hollywood subplot beggars belief.

McConvey is adept at using his narratives to examine some pressing modern concerns: climate change is the deep subject of “Lehaki Sinking”; extreme urban income disparity appears as a theme in “The Streetcar Goes Sideways Down Cherry Street”; and the brutal effects of racism are addressed in “Inquisition (Extended Mix).” The stories in Different Beasts are at their best when these weighty subjects are fully integrated into a dramatic scenario, as in “Little Flags,” which highlights the hypocrisy of the current U.S. administration’s approach to migrants at the Mexican border.

The violence in McConvey’s collection is plentiful and the author spreads it around profligately: humans and animals alike are equally liable to fall prey to swift, unnatural death or injury. Which is not to suggest that the author is unable to exercise restraint: “Neutral Buoyancy,” about a woman recovering from lymphoma who must decide whether to complete her obsessive exercise regimen at the local pool or stop to help a fellow swimmer who may be drowning, is a quiet, thoughtful story about the demands life places on us and the ways we rise – or fail to rise – to the challenge of helping our neighbour.

It is also a rare example of a traditional story embedded in a menagerie of subjects and approaches in these two intriguing, uneven works.