First, there is the matter of the title. George Bowering’s story collection does indeed comprise 10 stories, each designated by a woman’s name, but only two and a half of them focus directly on the women in question. The others feature male protagonists who view the women from their own biased and highly subjective perspectives.
To reach the stories in which women appear unfiltered as narrators, a reader must wait for the final three entries. (“Dodie,” one of the earlier stories, has a first-person narrator who is not explicitly identified as male or female, but the context and syntax lead one to presume the former.) “Barbara” is presented as a telephone conversation involving Verna, who tries to explain about her father’s recent hospitalization but keeps getting interrupted by the self-absorbed and inattentive eponymous character. “Ichiko” is about a woman who uses her sizeable inheritance to fund an avant-garde artist whose project is to insert missing apostrophes into corporate logos. The final story, “Ardell,” is split into two parts, the first told from the perspective of the male protagonist, the second from the point of view of the titluar character.
That last story is instructive. The first section tells of a sexual dalliance between the narrator, Delsing, and Ardell, who is not quite fat, but what Delsing’s grandparents used to call “pleasingly plump.” Readers highly attuned to issues of body image and shaming will likely not see any humour in the obeservation that when Ardell “lifted her weight to shift where she was sitting, she was bounty and peril at the same time” (these same readers would consider the novels of Martin Amis surpassingly cruel rather than coruscatingly funny).
But the treatment of Ardell is the character’s, not the author’s, and the second part of the story – subtitled “In Fairness” – turns the tables, recounting the liaison from the woman’s point of view. Here, Ardell appears as an intelligent, experienced woman initiating an immature and timid nebbish into the realm of sexual congress: “I pretty well had to show him everything. He might have been a thirteen-year-old boy, he was so slow.” She sneers at his use of the word “pulchritudinous,” which is something she often hears “from semi-educated Lotharios” who think the word means desirable. “Well, it originally meant speckled, like a perch.”
An obsessive focus on the minutiae of syntax and grammar is typical of these stories – the artist who “fixes” the apostrophes on public signs recalls both the character in Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy who goes around removing rogue quotation marks from business signage and the Space Monkeys in Fight Club, though with Palahniuk’s anti-corporate anarchism removed and a whiff of supercilious condescension put in its place. Bowering’s artist discovers the limits of some people’s tolerance for this kind of thing when he attempts to amend the logo on a Hells Angels biker jacket.
Many of the characters in these stories are artists or writers, or move in such circles. “Maybe I should quit going to poetry readings,” thinks the narrator of “Kassandra,” surely not the first person to entertain such a notion. In “Professor Minaccia,” the title character takes one of her students as a live-in housekeeper of sorts; she becomes a kind of distaff Henry Higgins, teaching him to appreciate fine wine and Proust and to stop bringing his Wilson football to the dinner table.
The stories cover a range of stylistic approaches, with postmodern tropes and tactics dominating. There is a high degree of self-
reflexivity and intertextual allusion to remind the reader of the process of creating and consuming fiction, but much of this feels a bit stale in the shadow of David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Egan. Similarly, Bowering’s language feels a bit dated, even in stories where it is temporally appropriate: breasts are “gazongas,” a drunk person is described as being “squiffed,” and undergarments are called “skivvies.”
Bowering is a significant figure in Canadian postmodernism, and on the evidence of Ten Women, he has no interest in chasing the prevailing fashion. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does risk alienating readers who prize currency over a fidelity to past approaches.