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Smell It

by Hal Niedzviecki

I looked forward to Smell It, to a collection of short, short stories by the editor of the Toronto ’zine Broken Pencil, because Niedzviecki’s nonfiction is usually contemporary and trenchant in equal measures. I prepared myself, sternly, for the rigours that tales-in-miniature (the shortest runs only one sentence, the longest weighs in at 10 pages) can demand of a reader. Having worked up this head of steam, I encountered nothing to slow me down. I sailed through, unencumbered by fleshed-out characters, credible motivation, or engaging arcs of narrative development. I found myself out the other end, wondering, “Smell what?”

The stories are told, by and large, in medium shot. From a distance of emotional non-
involvement, usually through a filter of despair or disconnection, we are presented with scores of characters, often coyly named so as to obscure whether they are men or women. This gender bending, like so much else, reads empty. We spend paragraphs (which in many stories is more than we have) figuring out basic identities, relationships, and points of view, only to reach ends without resolution or closure or a sense of distance travelled.

In “Dad in the Dark Country,” we meet two characters whose interaction typifies much of the book’s stultifying rhythm: “I have to go to the bathroom,” Dad said. “Me too,” Dave said. Dad stood there. Dave unzipped. “No,” Dad said. Dad pulled the folds of his soaking trenchcoat around him….”I can’t make it,” he yelled. The rain was very dark. “What?” Dave said.

The unyielding, repetitive, staccato flatness of Smell It suggests a postmodern self-mockery. Gone are the hoary formalities of author, plot, and momentum; instead, his stories feature a numbing succession of disaffected sociopaths, enlivened by infrequent scenes of sex and masturbation. It’s a kind of dispiriting literary pornography that kills human contact even as it claims to advocate a shocking baring of the soul.