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Red Plaid Shirt: Stories New & Selected

by Diane Schoemperlen

Diane Schoemperlen is something of an acquired taste in the smorgasbord of Canadian fiction, but there’s no doubt that more and more readers are acquiring that taste. After labouring in the obscurity of the literary magazines from the mid-1970s on, she began collecting her playful postmodern short fictions into books, none of which brought her a mainstream breakthrough. Her first novel, In the Language of Love (1994), caused a stir, partly because it contained 100 chapters based on the words in a 1910 word-association test, and partly because it so effortlessly cleared the hurdle of such a difficult structure. Nonetheless, it was overlooked by the country’s major prize juries.

Her next book, a quirky illustrated collection of stories and essays called Forms of Devotion (1998), won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, although many of her admirers thought the prize should have gone to her previous book. Schoemperlen’s second novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found, continued to indulge in a number of her trademark tricks – lists and definitions and a hide-and-seek relationship between author, narrator, and reader – but moved into new, more authentic spiritual territory than her earlier works. The novel, which deals quite unironically with the thousands of sightings of the Virgin Mary worldwide throughout Christian history, was somewhat coolly received by critics, but has found its popular market.

Now comes Red Plaid Shirt, a collection of 21 stories, 16 of which were previously published in her other four collections and only five of which are “new” in the sense that they haven’t appeared until now in book form. An author runs a bit of a risk bringing out such a heavily recycled collection in mid-career: if it looks too familiar and doesn’t sell, booksellers may start to feel that Schoemperlen as a whole doesn’t sell. So there have to be good reasons for running that risk.

I can think of three.

Calvin Trillin has said that the shelf life of a new book is somewhere between that of milk and yogurt, and Schoemperlen and her publishers may have felt that all those early fiction collections of hers came and went far too quickly and will likely find a new market now that her profile is higher. That was the strategy Alistair MacLeod’s publisher employed in repackaging all his early short stories after the huge success of No Great Mischief.

Or this collection could simply be a case of keeping Schoemperlen’s name in the marketplace while she writes her next major work: that was what Mordecai Richler did, with essays, political musings, and travel memoirs interspersed between the big novels. Finally, most Canadian writers’ incomes being what they regrettably continue to be, there’s always the chance that raw financial need came into it as well.

From the reader’s point of view, a lengthy chronological collection like this (the dates of the stories run from 1976 to 1996) helps you appreciate the evolution of an author’s style and thematic concerns. In Schoemperlen’s case, the stylistic and structural hijinks begin with the second story – “This Town” (1979) – and never let up. She is a natural classifier, or taxonomist, who charts a woman’s personality, for example, through the successive departments the woman works in at Eaton’s – Cosmetics, Lingerie, Swimwear, and Ladies’ Dresses. In the title story Schoemperlen uses items of clothing – Blue Cotton Sweatshirt, Yellow Evening Gown, Black Leather Jacket – to tell a heart-wrenching story of spousal abuse and cover-up and the eventual uncovering that can lead to health.

Schoemperlen is also a sexy writer, repeatedly portraying good-looking young women who are attracted to bad, dangerous men. “In a Dark Season” lays out the typical Schoemperlen male landscape: Nice-and-Boring, who takes her to poetry readings, and Dark-and-Brooding, who takes her to Return of the Living Dead. Her female protagonists are often selfish, inconsistent, and disloyal, but always with a persistent bass-note of sadness and longing for authenticity that reminds one – deliberately on Schoemperlen’s part, I think – of J. Alfred Prufrock and his plangent lovesong.

Including “Forms of Devotion” (1994) in this collection was key, because it represents the beginning of an extraordinary shift in Schoemperlen’s concerns away from playing ironic games and toward searching for genuine belief. More personal essay than story, it is a meditation on “the faithful,” that vast swath of humanity that trusts “if not in God exactly, then in the steadfast notion of everyday life.” In almost every sentence of this amazing work, the narrator/author shifts from sly digs at the gullibility of the faithful (“What they don’t know won’t hurt them”) to sincere admiration (“They are immune to those fits of despair that can cripple and dumbfound”). The advance from this story to Our Lady of the Lost and Found was just a short step over an abyss of faith; Schoemperlen is in new territory now. This story collection helps chart the journey of a challenging and consistently interesting writer.


Reviewer: Bronwyn Drainie

Publisher: HarperFlamingo Canada


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-200518-2

Released: May

Issue Date: 2002-6

Categories: Fiction: Short