In Pauls, the first short-fiction collection by National Magazine Award–winning Toronto writer Jess Taylor, a lot of bad things happen to people named Paul. And friends of people named Paul. Each story contains, sometimes rather incidentally, a character with this first name. The device aside, Pauls is comprised of moody, readable stories about friendship, relationships, and grace – or the lack thereof – in the face of emotional trauma. Despite occasional stumbles, it’s a confident, provocative debut.
These linked stories are mostly concise and contemporary, focused on themes relating to the permeability of the body and the self. Pauls reflects society at large, and acknowledges that domesticity is not always bliss. In the context of personal relationships, the book’s characters experience both comfort and significant dangers.
Throughout, Taylor conveys a mood of intense disquiet. Trying to pinpoint the source of their anxieties, characters resort to lists. For Paul (a.k.a. Paulina) in “We Want Impossible Things,” the list includes “what my scars were from, the problem with The Cousin.” For Paul in “Breakfast Curry”: “My Dad. How my older brothers locked me in rooms and closets. When my oldest brother’s first girlfriend decided to teach me how to stroke a girl.”
Taylor metes out horrific details clinically, in measured doses. The aforementioned father has pushed Paul’s mother down the stairs: “Her head smashed against the tile floor, blood spreading toward the bottom step. I put my hand to her face, her open mouth, and my hand came back wet.” Paul faces a chronic illness – idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura – which results in bruising and bleeding; he tries to keep his feelings contained, but his body betrays him.
On occasion, Taylor’s use of dialogue is unnatural or a story is hampered by overt symbolism. In “Multicoloured Lights,” an otherwise affecting story about the impact of date rape, Paul gives a speech about tensions she feels teaching art to privileged children; these points could have been made more subtly. Wynn, daughter of Paul’s friend Stef, senses unrest and makes her toy dinosaurs tear one another’s bodies apart.
At over 50 pages, “Degenerates” features many of the same characters as the shorter pieces. But its ostentatious style sticks out, and the plot hinges on highly implausible developments. The story centres on an impending ice storm. To underscore this, the narrative features references to the weather that feel bolted on; the reader finishes each section knowing to expect a gratuitous reference to wind, rain, snow, or sun.
Taylor includes several fantastic sentences that would have opened a given story perfectly, were they not buried below a weaker opening paragraph. This is especially notable in “Wishweeds.” But despite the slow start, the story’s exploration of youth sexuality and consent is powerful. In a sodden forest clearing, Brad pulls down Jill’s pants, and she considers
resisting. “‘Stop,’ I started to say, but then I remember that Brad’s my boyfriend.” Taylor describes a moment familiar to many, but chilling nonetheless.