Few contemporary Canadian writers are as difficult to pigeonhole as Craig Davidson. From the weird fiction of Sarah Court to the literary coming-of-age novel Cataract City, from the memoir Precious Cargo to the genre-inflected Saturday Night Ghost Club, the Toronto writer’s work defies easy categorization (and that’s not even taking into account his horror fiction under the pseudonyms Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka).
And then there is the short fiction.
Davidson’s career started with the powerful and raw 2005 collection Rust and Bone, two stories from which were adapted for film by the French auteur Jacques Audiard. Davidson’s new collection – his first in 15 years – demonstrates that his short-story powers are intact, while also marking a pronounced shift in his subjects and themes. While “One Pure Thing” – the story of Tommy Griffin, consigned to play in a sub-minor league basketball team following a prison sentence for killing a fan during his professional days – harkens back to the hardscrabble, doomed blood and testosterone of Rust and Bone, most of the stories in Cascade have a more domestic bent.
Which should not suggest, even for a moment, that Davidson has softened or lost his edge. In Davidson’s world, domesticity is just as fraught and bloody as a boxing ring or a dogfight. In “The Ghost Lights,” the first story in the collection, readers follow the aftermath of a car accident as a mother struggles for her own survival and that of her infant child on a winter night. Similarly, the final story, “Firebugs,” features an arson investigator – a former firefighter and, deeper in his past, a former firebug himself – investigating a series of deliberate fires that have brought Cataract City (Davidson’s reimagined version of Niagara Falls) to its knees. The protagonist gradually comes to the conclusion that there might be a connection between the fires and his hospitalized sister.
Reading Davidson is a visceral experience: the language fractures and insinuates, sentences fragmenting and distorting as they reflect the movements of both the narratives and their characters. In “Firebugs,” for example, Davidson writes, “Fire will grunt and growl and come at you with the soft slithering of a snake. It’ll howl around blind corners like a pack of wolves, and gibber up from flame-eaten floorboards and reverberate in a million other strange ways besides. Sometimes it sounds like buzzard talons clawing across pebbled glass. Other times, it’ll come for you silent as a ghost: a soft whisper of smoke curling back under a doorway, beckoning you to open it. That’s when it’s most dangerous – when it’s hiding its true face.”
If one is looking for a metaphor for Davidson’s writing, one could do worse than that: a doorway into worlds of danger, beckoning both reader and author alike.
That sense of ineffability, of difficulty in categorization, also applies to The Lightning of Possible Storms, the debut collection of short fiction from Winnipeg poet and professor Jonathan Ball. One should note that description carefully, however: “debut” seems an odd label for work from a writer who describes his speciality as “stranger fictions,” and there is some question as to whether the book is a collection or not. To wit: the book begins, naturally enough, with a dedication: “For Aleya, who will learn why.”
The first story then introduces us to Aleya, the owner of a tea shop, and one of the shop’s customers, a writer who largely ignores her in pursuit of his craft. Until one day, when the writer leaves her a copy of one of his books, a volume titled The Lightning of Possible Storms. The writer? Jonathan Ball, naturally. And, of course, the book is dedicated to her.
From the start, we’re firmly in postmodern, metafictional territory (Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler gets a deserved reference partway through): Aleya reads the same collection the reader does, her increasingly fantastical experiences threading through and connecting the disparate narratives.
The self-referential framing forms an interesting through line, but the stories themselves are, in the main, more than able to stand on their own. The stories in The Lightning of Possible Storms are multi-faceted puzzle boxes, far more complex than they may initially appear. The fact that they need to be read in isolation and simultaneously as part of a whole adds to their strange power.
The first few stories, focused on the (imagined?) exploits of the Ball character, may read as self-serving, even twee, especially in comparison with the sheer force of the later stories in the book. This should not, however, dissuade one from reading through them. The Lightning of Possible Storms is an impressive clockwork construction of narrative cogs and gears that never loses sight of either its humanity or its nature as a manufactured work of art.