When examining two new collections of short fiction as disparate and distinct as Elise Levine’s This Wicked Tongue and Kris Bertin’s Use Your Imagination!, it might seem appropriate, if not natural, to set the books against one another in some way, to have the books serve as proxies for extra-textual conversations concerning modernism versus postmodernism or traditional versus experimental fiction. Such an approach, however tempting, would do a grave disservice to both books, sacrificing their individuality and power in pursuit of another instalment of a never-ending false dichotomy. Better to approach each book on its own terms, according to its own merits.
The stories in This Wicked Tongue, by Baltimore-based Levine, unfold through a recurrent narrative fracturing that extends to the level of the language itself. While the stories are character-focused, chronologies and timelines shift and overlap, fragmenting into shards that rely on the reader’s intuition for reassembly into sense, if not outright meaning. In the brief “All We Did,” for example, an act of adolescent daring is juxtaposed with the later life of the character. The story is told in the first-person plural – a narrative approach that resembles a disembodied chorus: “Still we do what we can, we keep the faith, and every spring irises return, dwarf reticulate among the vestigial snow. We keep it coming, remember her in summer, a white dress shawled with rain, a celluloid flicker. Amaranth, belladonna. We dream a place she left, forever notwithstanding.”
The effect of this focus on (and blurring of) language is, perhaps surprisingly, deepened immersion and startling immediacy. By requiring the reader’s undivided attention (there are no half-measures in Levine’s fiction: you either commit to it wholeheartedly, or you will remain lost), the stories insinuate themselves at a subrational level, where the words on the page function as signposts to clarity, rather than vehicles of understanding in and of themselves. In “Made Right Here,” readers are presented with the story of a marriage and its decline, but they must find the path through the darkness, much as the protagonist, Bryce, must navigate through the shadows of the caves in which he has lost his wife.
Levine’s stories succeed not because they are presented as objects for abstract study, but because her experimentations with form and language exist in the service of deepened understanding. Each story in This Wicked Tongue is powerful and vivid and packed with an emotional punch to the heart.
That emotional force is common to Use Your Imagination!, the new collection from Halifax-based Bertin. As with his debut collection, 2016’s Bad Things Happen, this new book concerns itself largely with points of crisis and darkness and with the options available at these junctures: to commit or to change direction. Most of the time, Bertin’s characters choose poorly.
In the title story, for example, Bertin presents a nested narrative – the framing narrative includes within it the text of a creative non-fiction piece from a prison workshop intended as an exhibit to prove the writer’s rehabilitation and suitability for release. The story within the story is impressive in its own right and captures the prisoner’s daily existence with an uneasy verisimilitude, but the surrounding material – in particular comments from the prison warden – turns the narrative on its head. Similarly, “The Grand Self” chronicles a self-help guru’s downfall as a result of several questionable choices made during a nature hike, as observed by the man’s capable but ultimately helpless assistant.
The act of witnessing is key to the stories in Use Your Imagination! Rather than following the main lines of a narrative from start to finish, the stories step back, filtering events through the perceptions of (not quite) innocent (not quite) bystanders. In “Missy’s Story,” a naked, disturbed young woman is discovered near a remote house in the late 19th century and taken in by the family that lives there. The story is recounted in fragments and overlapping versions by a contemporary descendant of that family, who has been influenced by the tale in ways she doesn’t really understand. Maggie, in “The Calls,” serves as witness to her younger brother’s story (including his early sexual experiences and his work as an escort, which got him expelled from university), retold through a series of post-church Sunday telephone conversations, the tenor of which changes with her increasing knowledge and understanding. These narratives draw readers in, making them emotionally complicit in the events and their responses to them. It’s a unique and often devastating approach.
While there is nothing to be gained from pitting these collections against one another, both demonstrate that the contemporary short story is in solid, skilled hands.