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Wound Ballistics

by Steven Manners

Steven Manners’ new book of short fiction has little relation to most of CanLit’s current isms, from postmodernism and historicism to transculturalism. The stories read like darker updates of vintage New Yorker fiction, offering opaque, single-scene snapshots of everyday lives and the metaphysical abysses just beneath their surfaces.

Wound Ballistics is a troubling coroner’s report on the moribund state of modern North American relationships. Each of the book’s 15 stories centre on fraying alliances between men and women. There’s often a third party wrapped up in the discord – a lover, maybe, or a distant parent. The tales are coloured by violence, usually “offscreen,” in a spectrum of guises, including physical abuse, nasty accidents, and a smorgasbord of pathologies. Manners also writes medical articles and books, and he’s clearly fascinated by disease, both metaphorical and literal.

Manners uses dialogue like Hemingway or Mavis Gallant, recording flat, seemingly quotidian bickering between bored partners that hints at vast, unspoken realms. Elsewhere, too, his prose is obscurely ominous: “The smell reminded her of her father. Pleasant enough if she didn’t let the thought go any further.” The line is from “On the Beach, a Sound Far Off,” one of the collection’s standouts. The story tells of a woman accompanying her emotionally distant partner, a professor, to a conference in the Netherlands, while her father lies in a hospital, crippled by a stroke.

Manners’ minimalist style depends on restraint and precision for its power, but he sometimes loses control. In the title story, domestic violence, merely hinted at in other stories, feels overblown and cartoonish, while lines like “Don’t talk … just fuck me” seem lifted from a Hollywood script. Thankfully, most of Wound Ballistics is subtler and smarter than this. Depending on how his writing (and Canadian literary taste) evolves, Manners could become a major voice here.