Kathy Page and C.P. Boyko, two B.C.–based authors at different stages of their careers, return this season with short-fiction collections offering radically divergent approaches to the notions of storytelling and storytellers. In Paradise & Elsewhere, Page, the veteran author of a previous collection and seven novels (one of which, The Alphabet, was shortlisted for a 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award) mines the conventions of ancient folklore while posing philosophical questions. In his third collection, Novelists, Journey Prize–winner Boyko covers similarly existential territory but in a manner that’s at once highly specific and relentlessly comical.
Boyko has a history of crafting themed collections. The stories in his debut, Blackouts, offered loose interpretations of the book’s title. This was followed by Psychology and Other Stories, an insightful dissection of the intersection between literature and mental health. Boyko’s latest collection uses the short-story form to lampoon the over-inflated attitudes of writers.
The characters in Novelists are self-absorbed social misfits; the book’s humour arises out of their eccentricities (and silly-sounding names). In the opening story, Malcolm Gawfler has managed to build a family despite the fact that he considers almost anything unrelated to his career an annoying distraction.
Random strangers also lend drama to the otherwise controlled and dryly intellectual life of the writer. In “Sympathetic,” the universe punishes author June Cottan for populating her novels with bland, overtly likeable characters when she meets the most unsympathetic person ever: the apparently indestructible Reginalda Drax. The women’s lives collide, literally, when Cottan runs over Drax with her car.
While Novelists provides ample humour, there are limits to its appeal. In-jokes about literary-prize juries, font choices, and the small print runs of independent presses may only entertain other writers. Boyko’s prose is pleasingly symmetrical, using repetition and the omniscient point of view to set characters against one another and illuminate mutual misunderstandings, but several stories meander. “The Hunting Party” tackles questions of colonialism and masculine identity in a thoughtful manner, but while this story of a hapless hunter separated from his aboriginal guides is engaging at first, the character can only remain lost in the woods for so long before the reader feels similarly astray.
Where Boyko’s characters are highly individualized and exaggerated, Page deals heavily in archetypes. Sometimes brutally cautionary, and frequently set in some unknown time or location, Page’s approach can suggest a melding of science fiction and horror. Combined with the lyrical nature of the prose, this lends her work a fabulist quality.
Often, the stories in Paradise & Elsewhere present a group or community in place of individual characters. How people respond to those unlike themselves is a recurring theme. In “of Paradise,” an isolated village in the middle of a desert debates how to respond to the arrival of a lone, defenseless stranger. She is taken in temporarily, but refuses to leave. She ingratiates herself to others through seduction, and the intimate use of hermaphroditic body parts. Initially distrusting, the villagers eventually come to openly accept the stranger.
The stories that focus on familial and sexual mores are among the best. In “Low Tide,” a sea creature mates with a human male, but a relationship that starts out as one of equals eventually becomes a metaphor for the ways in which humanity subjugates other species. In “Lambing,” a woman refuses to raise her sons to slaughter animals, a decision that eventually causes desperate problems.
Page’s efforts to evoke an otherworldly feel occasionally serve to distance the reader from the immediacy of the action. But “The Kissing Disease,” about a town that’s been quarantined due to the titular malady, counterbalances this tendency with vivid dramatic tension. Gary grows up believing that kissing is both unnecessary and unethical, but he can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Tim has seen the segregated bars where infected kissers meet, and wants to show his friend the consequences of this activity. The story’s conclusion is unexpected yet feels inevitable – and erotic.
In Paradise & Elsewhere, Page creates worlds unfamiliar yet vaguely recognizable. Boyko’s novelists are fictional characters who write about fictional characters, placed in quasi-realist realms that will resonate for readers despite his hyperbolic manipulations of voice, character, and plot. Taken together, each book in its own distinctive way serves as a healthy indicator that the imaginative field of Canadian short fiction is as fertile as ever.