Provocative commentary decrying the death of certain literary forms has become so common that it practically constitutes its own genre. Poetry dies several times a year, and short fiction often seems to be on life support. While the short story has never been a dominant form, it is hardly going away. In fact, judging by All the Beloved Ghosts, the fifth book and second collection by Canadian-born, U.K.-based Alison MacLeod, short fiction has nothing to worry about until someone invents a more effective technology for transcending time and individual consciousness.
In “There are precious things,” the omniscient third-person narration alights one by one on the thoughts and feelings of each passenger in a subway car. A man heading to the hospital’s fertility unit avoids the gaze of a nun across the aisle – who has just had her hearing aids replaced and is delighting in ambient noise – because he has a vial of semen in his pocket. The story is an especially acute example of MacLeod’s rich characterization, wherein every detail, from a person’s vernacular to the contents of their purse, has been marshaled to conjure a coherent, complex individual who exists beyond the glance afforded by the text. MacLeod’s prose is evocative, densely packed with sensory description, and versatile, as apt to proceed via an extended metaphor as to culminate in a striking aphorism. Recalling people gleefully looting toiletries during the 2011 England riots, the protagonist of “Solo, A Capella” concludes, “Hope is cheaper than you think.”
The most common theme in All the Beloved Ghosts is reconstruction. On his deathbed, the protagonist of “Oscillate Wildly” is preoccupied with a paperweight bestowed to him by his uncle, a cemetery guardian, because he had always meant to restore the object to its rightful place as the penis of the angel above Oscar Wilde’s grave. MacLeod’s narrators reconstruct in vivid detail the last days of icons like Princess Diana and Sylvia Plath, or recount the story of a man’s old heart while surgeons implant a new one.
The only glaring flaw is the tendency of the characters to experience vague, climactic epiphanies. Soon after he comes to “a primitive, unspeakable understanding” while making eye contact with a catfish, the protagonist of “Radical Fish” abandons his terrorist plot. A cynical reporter stalking the famous Russian writer in “Chekhov’s Telescope” is so amused by one of the man’s lewd puns that he grins for the first time in four years and feels “a buzzing lightness at his core.”
Epiphanies work differently in The Dark and Other Love Stories, the second book by Deborah Willis. The Calgary-based author’s characters are often wilfully blind, like the protagonist of “The Hole,” who keeps shrugging off the growing, overt manifestation of the void in her marriage (spoiler alert: it’s a hole) overtaking her living room. Fittingly, people in The Dark do not learn something new so much as they are made to confront what they have known all along.
Like MacLeod, Willis distorts chronological time, but her stories build to paradoxes instead of climaxes; everyone seems to be caught in a loop. In “Girlfriend on Mars,” a pot dealer’s perennially unfulfilled (and unfaithful) girlfriend uses her knowledge of hydroponics to apply for the first manned mission to Mars. Even as his girlfriend seems fated to populate the red planet with a wholesome doctor named Adam, the protagonist waits for her at home because he thinks she might have changed. Because she has never been able to commit, changing would mean coming back home, whereas settling Mars is her way of not settling.
These paradoxes are always startling because Willis’s subtle machinations are masked by her urgent and propulsive prose. The stories use linear plot devices to brace readers for narrative resolution or reckoning, but then diverge toward multiple endings or ambiguity, or virtually recreate an earlier scene with one crucial difference.
Tinkering with narrative structure affects the stories’ other elements: occasionally a character’s peculiar qualities seem amped up to accommodate the plot. The delusion of the couple in “The Hole,” for instance, is over the top, and the Auden-quoting falconer in “The Passage Bird” is not believably rendered. Nevertheless, Willis’s use of repetition effectively demonstrates that the past is situated: not subject to change, but approachable like any destination, so that one’s understanding of it may be illuminated.