It is hard to overestimate the influence that James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners has had on the development of the modern short story. Itself modelled on the stories of Chekhov, Dubliners solidified naturalism as the dominant mode for short fiction, unleashing a torrent of virtually plotless stories that are, in the derisive words of Donald Barthelme, “constructed mousetrap-like to supply, at the finish, a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated.”
A pair of promising debut collections – Pardon Our Monsters, by 24-year-old Montreal writer Andrew Hood, and The Obvious Child, by 25-year-old Matt Shaw – grapple mightily with what has become short fiction’s default setting, each taking pains to break free of the Joycean mould – one by contorting it into new and startling shapes, the other by abandoning it altogether.
Of the two, Hood’s stories are more instantly recognizable for their mousetrap-like constructions, but their surface familiarity conceals a pronounced streak of subversiveness. Carol, one of the characters in “Cocky Strides and Musky Odors,” is a typical Joyce acolyte, being “into books about nothing that go nowhere.” Her boyfriend, Joel, by contrast, has just written a high-school English paper about the novelization of the movie X-Men. Joel’s epiphany, when it comes, has to do with the nature of loneliness, as illustrated by the similarities between the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and X-Men villain Magneto.
Hood’s subjects are violence – both physical and emotional – and the inability of even well-intentioned people to forgive the transgressions of others. He possesses a sharp sense of irony and proves refreshingly unafraid to treat his characters mercilessly. The protagonist of “Thirty-Six in the Cellar” comes to a realization about his ex-wife while at a Guy Fawkes party and vocalizes it at the worst possible moment. And in “That Ghost We Had,” the notes that a wife leaves on the bathroom mirror for her indifferent husband tell her more than she bargained for about the fractured state of her marriage.
If Hood’s stories resemble the standard short story as we have come to recognize it, Journey Prize winner Matt Shaw’s collection cleaves closer to a Latin American influence, in particular the stories of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In their rhythms and construction, Shaw’s tales owe a great debt to an oral, folkloric storytelling tradition of the kind that Borges excelled at evoking.
Shaw also resembles Borges in his use of genre devices to help drive a metaphysical narrative. In the story “Dreschl & the Obvious Child,” a woman retains a private detective named Plektos Ersatz to find out what constitutes her husband’s soul. There are shades of Paul Auster here, especially in Ersatz’s assertion that “everyone understands and calculates risk and chance in their daily activities.”
“After the Doctor Died in His Novel” is a parable based on the assumption that the only difference between a fictional death and a death in real life is that the fictional death needs to have a reason. “The Anecdote of the Jar” provides a riposte to Wallace Stevens. And in “Jurisprudence,” a widow finds a barrister who can bring her dead husband back to life.
Shaw is not concerned with crafting mimetic fictions and, notwithstanding the occasional misplaced modifier and lack of rhythmic cadence, he has found a language and form that are perfectly suited to his mode of storytelling.