Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison

by Kate Pullinger

How to Get There from Here

by Michelle Berry

Literary trendspotting – like trainspotting – may be dismissed as a wanky pastime for idling minds, but there is some fun to be had. For every trend, I’m sure there can be unearthed a counter-trend, or evidence there is no trend. I can trot out a number of recent books as proof that the Canadian short story is getting shorter and someone else can trot out Yann Martel’s The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Eden Robinson’s Traplines, both composed of four long stories. But I won’t cry “Uncle!” Not yet. I’ll say that the brilliant Martel fictions, and the unflinching Robinson stories are exceptions and that, as far as new, youngish (under-35, or even under-40) Canadian writers are concerned, this is the age of the incredible shrinking short story (and the anorectic – oops, slender – first novel).

I’m not referring to what’s known as the short short – or flash fiction, postcard story, et cetera – which is a genre unto itself, but the regular short story. First collections used to clock in at eight to 12 stories. During the last few years we’ve seen more and more early volumes of 13 to 17, and even 20, stories, while the books themselves are not growing much fatter. In Michelle Berry’s debut collection there are 19 stories, and in ex-pat writer Kate Pullinger’s second, there are 17.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Short doesn’t have to mean slight; viz: fine recent books by Christopher McPherson (Everything But the Truth), Michael Winter (Creaking In Their Skins), and Gil Adamson (Help Me, Jacques Cousteau). I simply wonder what fuels this propensity toward compression, toward so many short stories that are a bravado 100-metre dash rather than the more tricky 400, or strategic 1,500. Some argue that it’s this modern world we live in, fragmented as it is by TV, Hollywood, the info-superBahn, micro-waved attention spans, and other shock troops of instant gratification. That could be part of the answer. I’ve taught a couple of fiction workshops and watched students mildly freak out if someone brought in a “long” story – anything over 15 manuscript pages. Also, many young writers today are image- rather than narrative-driven, and share a cultural shorthand that negates the need for the broader canvas realism demands.

Then there’s the reality of what demand has done to affect supply. Most writers know they’ll have a better chance of getting a story into a lit mag if it’s on the shorter side, especially in the more urban, edgy young magazines like Sub-Terrain in Vancouver and B&A in Toronto. Very long stories better be boffo, stop-the-presses kind of stuff, like Yann Martel’s two longest, which originally appeared in The Malahat Review. Even Eden Robinson’s “Traplines” and “Dogs in Winter” from Traplines first ran in shorter form in Prism International.

Then there are the contests. From Sub-Terrain to B&A to The Fiddlehead in New Brunswick, to the dizzying $10,000 jackpot of the CBC/Tilden Award, short story contests today usually ask for 10 double-spaced pages, or no more than 2,500 words. Under 2,500 words! Watch the writers working feverishly in front of their computers the day the entries must be postmarked. They’re not trying to finish their creations on deadline – no, nothing that crass. What they’re doing is reformatting. Tweaking all their margins, getting rid of the gutters. Seeing, if they use Courier 10-point instead of Times New Roman 12-point, whether they might get away with space-and-a-half instead of double-spacing. All to make a 4,200-word story look like a 2,500-word story. Remember Cinderella’s stepsister hacking off her big toe in order to fit into the glass slipper?

One award-winning short story writer, nominated for the Governor General’s Award for a debut collection, says the contest constraints are artificially re-defining the short story. “The sameness you see in the literary magazines comes from reading stories that are about one moment – pregnant with meaning – over and over again.”

Stories of desire, sex and obsession, of the visceral, are effective in the very short form – the intensity of feeling rendered with tight strokes in a small space. I’m thinking of Toronto writer Elise Levine’s Driving Men Mad, Newfoundlander Lisa Moore’s Degrees of Nakedness and Vancouverite Evelyn Lau’s Fresh Girls. In Levine’s 1995 book, every sentence cracks a whip. Stylistically it’s a triumph, emotionally it packs a wallop. She can do things in five pages that most writers couldn’t do in 30.

Modern fables and parables also lend themselves to the moderately short story. Vancouver Island writer M.A.C. Farrant has written a couple of books of sly absurdist fables (Raw Material, Altered Statements). Then there are Leon Rooke’s wonderfully dark-edged, off-kilter tales in Who Do You Love? and David Arnason’s witty, post-modernist fables in The Happiest Man In the World.

It’s not a surprise to find Rooke and Arnason thanked in the acknowledgments of Toronto writer Michelle Berry’s How to Get There from Here. That lineage is evident in these quirky, energetic tales darkened by the shadows of modern malaise. Malahat editor Derk Wynand, in a jacket blurb, quite accurately nails the book as a “collection of parables for the end of the millennium.” There is a fin-de-siècle jitteriness to the characters, whether they are the woman in a supermarket who does two gay men a kind turn while a sort of moral meltdown goes on around them, a cop who loses control of a situation, or a jogger who is temporarily unhinged by something she sees on a trail in the encroaching darkness.

This is clear, finely muscled prose, technically precise. Yet, after reading several stories, I began to feel restless – they seemed afflicted with a sameness. Small, beautifully wrought tales about moments, each pregnant with meaning. Individually, most of these are lovely. As a collection, for my tastes, the book suffers from lack of variety.

Kate Pullinger, although less technically polished, is a thematically more adventurous writer. Some of the better stories in My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison are of a sympathy-for-the-devil stripe – unsentimental looks at men in prison and the women who visit them, be they wives, daughters, teachers, or lovers-to-be. “The Visits Room,” in which a husband, who’s a lifer, and wife try to have sex, came close to cracking my heart a bit. And, believe me, I’m no Claire Culhane.

The British Columbia-born and bred Pullinger, who’s been based in London, England for the past 15 years, has a lanky prose style (she’s terrific at broad strokes and interesting exposition) that doesn’t suit the miniatures which make up most of this collection. Pullinger often writes of intense sexual relationships but, unlike Levine for example, she’s not a stylist. Many of the shorter pieces in the book seem unfinished and read like outlines of longer stories to come.

And, as if to prove that short licks are not her forte, the prolific Pullinger, who has also written four novels, closes this collection with a long (60-page) triptych about a Cambridge student who murders his girlfriend, and his relationship with the woman who comes to love him. Told from three points of view, “Irises” hooked me, slowly reeled me in, and left me pretty much gasping at the end. Sort of like running a decent 1,500.

But a short sprint, if you give 100%, can leave you gasping, too.


Reviewer: Zsuzsi Gartner

Publisher: Little, Brown


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 222 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-316-724-63-7

Released: May

Issue Date: 1997-5

Categories: Fiction: Short

Reviewer: Zsuzsi Gartner

Publisher: Turnstone Press


Price: $16.95

Page Count: 149 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-88801-212-8

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: May 1, 1997

Categories: Fiction: Short