The anxieties and disillusionments of modern life seem to be at the core of most contemporary short-fiction collections. So it is little surprise that the similarly titled Things Not to Do, by Toronto writer Jessica Westhead, and Don’t Tell Me What to Do, by Vancouver poet and editor Dina Del Bucchia, both take up these concerns. Westhead focuses on the interior lives of her characters, and locates contemporary malaise in both the connections and disconnections people have, or want to have, to the people and situations around them. Del Bucchia largely avoids this earnestness, and follows through instead on the ironies and absurdities of the world around us, to humorous, often devastating effect.
Things Not to Do hinges largely on the double-edged nature of empathy. The title story elaborates a small, callous act of pedestrian rage, which occurs when a woman walking through an airport cannot abide someone stopping suddenly in front of her to hug a loved one: a lack of empathy blown up to entertainingly pathological proportions.
In the wonderful piece “Empathize or Die,” Westhead shows the ways in which empathy also has its dangers, in the person of Dennis, an odd man who stumbles into an open-mic night at a café and relates too much to everyone and everything around him, losing himself in successive deliriums that verge on the surreal. Though “Empathize or Die” represents Westhead’s furthest extension of the theme, over and over this book presents characters who temper their own actions, personal needs, or dreams in gestures of unfortunate compromise.
While these stories announce a key to the book, this central concern also informs the final four pieces, which read like a mini story-cycle about children. The last of these, “Escape to the Island,” follows a couple overwhelmed by the job of parenting who gradually cede much of the responsibility for their child, Joshua-John, to a nanny with a traumatic past. As Joshua-John’s increasingly detached mother narrates the sensible decision to hire a caregiver, and recounts how much good the nanny does for the child and the household in general, Westhead generates a pervasive tone of deep regret. Here and throughout, the book shows people acting evenly, almost reasonably on the outside, and contrasts the banality of these actions with the angst and the persistent dissatisfactions that dominate their interior lives.
Things Not to Do is a quiet collection, which mostly sketches dissonances rather than painting grand eruptions. A notable exception is the story “Gazebo Times,” in which food-court worker Conrad spends his lunch familiarizing himself with the mall’s new employee break area, while unbeknownst to him a gunman menaces the food-court patrons, Conrad’s pregnant wife among them. In this book of subtle, often unspoken conflicts, the dramatic action of “Gazebo Times” provides a welcome textural variety.
If Westhead maps the murky, strained silences of modern life, Del Bucchia takes on the ways in which it can be silly, hilarious, and devastating. Del Bucchia’s title story, like Westhead’s, is emblematic of her collection as a whole. But while “Things Not to Do” was a tense miniature, Del Bucchia’s “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” is a rich, funny, and pointed romp involving an intergenerational love triangle, the theft of thousands of dollars in toonies, and a covert shopping spree at the West Edmonton Mall. In this piece and throughout her book, Del Bucchia is less interested in the price of keeping it together, and instead shows us characters who break down, boil over, or explode.
A large part of the success of Don’t Tell Me What to Do comes from Del Bucchia’s willingness to realize the full potential – however outlandish – of her often-quirky premises. “A Beautiful Feeling” is one such story, about Pamela, an office worker whose reaction to an overly stern boss is to compulsively generate more and more cheer among her colleagues. As the story veers toward slapstick, it becomes increasingly desperate. This is only one of several stories in which Del Bucchia holds real situations and emotions up to a funhouse mirror, and the world is shown to be both sillier and sadder than we expected.
The most haunting piece of Don’t Tell Me What to Do is the closing story, “The Gospel of Kittany,” in which a young, beautiful social-media darling has become the leader of a cult, to the dismay of her parents. Del Bucchia provides juicy writing about internet celebrity, teen sex, and parental estrangement. The longest piece in the collection, “The Gospel of Kittany” is also complex and fruitfully ambiguous, layering intrigue and mystery on top of questions about the agency of young women and the meaning of happiness.