Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

On the Threshold: Writing Toward 2000

by The Foxglove Collective, eds.

Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium

by Heidi Harms, Joan Thomas, eds.

Now they tell me. For the last few years, visionaries have been caballing secretly and brewing recipes for the definitive millennium anthology. “Guaranteed fundable!” they all shrieked, and “Think of the market! Once in a lifetime!” The other, more mealy-mouthed goal: to celebrate the best of our nation’s literature as the century turns. So they say. Innovative game plans may sound smart, but some fumble due to execution. Or sometimes the plan itself stinks. Or both.

Too bad the editors of Turn of the Story and On the Threshold didn’t have a better plan. The Writer’s Chronicle, an American magazine, proposes a millennial endeavour called “Addressing the Literary Y2K Problem: Neglected Authors of the Passing Century.” They want to hear about writers whose books are “neglected, out of print, misunderstood, seldom taught, or seldom made the subject of critical appreciations.” These are to be significant writers of the last 40 years who “may inspire, move, entertain, and educate future readers” about us and about how we “make sense and beauty out of our shared predicaments and delights.” That’s a good idea: strong thesis, slick spin, a certain rigorous nostalgia. The two anthologies have none of these.

They trust that the concept – year, decade, century wrap-up – is enough to unify material they gathered and to (presto!) make a dull story’s surface shimmer with collective meaning. The trick doesn’t come off. And because they have chosen from solicited manuscripts – new, newer, newest – the material squeaks. All fin, no siècle.

Winnipeg’s Heidi Harms and Joan Thomas wanted the 20 previously unpublished stories they selected to reflect “an exciting national literature that hardly existed a half-century ago” (okay, define excitement). They drew from both bigshots and acclaimed neophytes. Turn of the Story is meant to be a weapon against the encroachment of more modern forms of entertainment including film, video, and cyberspace. According to the book’s introduction, their choices will be the standard others are judged by.

When soliciting stories, they prescribed no esthetic principle, but in the ones they picked, they were “struck by the artlessness of the stories, by the sense that they do not sound constructed but are nevertheless scrupulously crafted.” Faint praise, or what? Any writer or aficionado of short stories will admire the excellence here – Greg Hollingshead, Michael Winter, Lynn Coady, Margaret Atwood, Mark Jarman – and how every verb and scene break is a joyful act. Jarman’s “Burn Man on a Texas Porch,” a dark little number about a guy who is accidentally propaned into permanent scars and romantic regret, is steeped in its own beautiful language. Winter and Coady, as they torch any notion of the comfy, modern nuclear family, are likewise attuned to the sound of words, while Atwood revisits the elegiac cadences of a daughter grieving her father’s passing. Stories and novel excerpts by some mainstream writers such as Elisabeth Harvor, Steven Heighton, and Monique Proulx do not seem ready for the showcase, for the unforgiving bright lights an anthology shines. Loaded question: When is a short story not? When it’s a novel excerpt.

In reading Turn of the Story, the burden of watching and waiting for millennial allusions becomes irksome and some stories crumble under the added pressure. These are just stories – some very good, others quite weak – and they add up to only an incomplete and flawed look at exceedingly contemporary Canadian writers. According to Webster, fin de siècle refers to the “literary and artistic climate of sophistication, world-weariness, and fashionable despair” that characterized the close of the last century. Turn of the Story does not clarify what it is we’re all supposedly thinking, feeling, and doing vis-à-vis Y2K.

Kingston’s Foxglove Collective had other ideas. Sure, let’s have the turn, let’s get a grant, but let’s not even try for the best writers. We’ll use the best writers we know, right now, personally. So the five editors made On the Threshold, a compilation of poems, stories, and essays by notable and less notable writers. Predictably, quality wobbles. Poems by Meira Cook (“Rumours of Bear”) and John B. Lee (“And It Was Hard Times”) suggest the editors can spot topnotch craft. But works by established names such as Rachel Wyatt and Ann Copeland do not withstand that anthology pressure. We expect distillation – the best – and these are not.

On the Threshold, read as a package, does press a mood. The pieces reflect on the supposedly great leap we are about to make, and the editors have tried for a more diverse interpretation of modern Canadian life than Thomas and Harms did. The thesis is almost a good idea: This is how our community of writers feels at the year 2000. The appeal of this book, though, might begin and end with the contributors.

My earlier point: Without a meaningful premise, why bother? The idea of a millennial deadline stinks. It’s as if we’re running flat out toward some flimsy finish. In a few months, we will break through the tape, arms raised, limbs glistening. Then what? Why, we’ll keep running, a few laps for the crowd, a slow lope with the flag, the race, and its winner decided. Why are we still running?

Or it’s like the end of a nightmare waitressing shift. Your feet hurt and the tips are lousy, and the jerk at table six won’t leave, and you can taste the Dubonnet and Rocky Road at home. There is angst in the droop of your apron. Finally, he pays (thanks for the quarter, buddy), you’re on the bus, and then you’re home. But the next day the menu’s still the same; no one wiped the ketchup bottles last night; big-spender’s back and he wants your best booth.

I say we purge ourselves of the impulse. Let’s all write toward 2000, and we’ll be one super-anthology, and no publisher will have to use our money or theirs to fund another hype machine, and no one will have to review it. If someone asks you to write a little something about You Know What, say that you did it already, it’s been said.

Everybody – coast to coast to coast – let’s limerick: “There once was a fin de siècle…”