In her newest collection of short stories, Jessica Westhead returns to the office, employing the same wit and offbeat characters that recall her first novel, Pulpy & Midge.
The stories in And Also Sharks unfold in a seamless way, strikingly realistic and almost plain in their beginnings. However, if you are familiar with Westhead's writing, you know there'll always be something that catches you off-guard: "When I got home, the smell hit me right away and I thought, Oh, my poor Johnny. There is something about the smell of a cat's vomit. It breaks your heart." Until this point, you've been thinking Johnny is a person.
The collection is full of just such catches, and they set off random, jarring and awkward circumstances that get played out from one blundering character to the next. Westhead's characterization and narrative style are compelling for the sense of ease with which they are executed. Each story is told through a mixture of second- and first-person perspective, turning the tone from contemplative and self-conscious to interactive and playful.
Fraught with a slightly skewed view of reality, the prose is at times so dry you'd give anything for the characters to stop talking and exit with whatever grace they might have left. But at these points you laugh, and the tension breaks and starts all over again.
Take, for instance, And Also Sharks, the title story. Starting off with what seems to be a congratulatory speech, an exaggerated one-way stream of praise for someone named Janet, the story evolves into a comment post on Planet Janet, a personal-inspirational-recipe-sharing site. "And Janet" writes the narrator, "if we all had your guts then I am proud to say that this world would be a better place.
But we don't and basically the world is a harsh reality for those people who choose to live in it." The story is comical, easy to laugh at, and yet haunting in its allusion to choice, which is accompanied by the recognition of doom.
In Coconut, Shelley, who has just returned from an all-inclusive resort in Cuba, begins shoplifting right away, she says, because she's so accustomed to having and taking whatever she wants. The story oscillates between Shelley's relationship with TJ, more like a long-winded breakup about which Shelley seems ambivalent, and Shelley's memories of her trip, which she tries to recreate in her everyday city life.
"She mixes herself a Cuba Libre, which is basically a rum and Coke but tastes better when it's called a Cuba Libre. … Over the week, Shelley shoplifts some moisturizing coconut sunscreen, a coconut-scented air freshener, and a padded bra."
In a few easy sentences, Shelley picks up and walks away with a stranger's baby boy and plays out the rest of the story with him, so much so that you almost forget it's not her baby. Or better still, you forget that what Shelley has done is wrong. Again Westhead confronts us not with the absence of choice in a meaningless world, but rather the reasoning on which we make those choices disappear.
What's the moral of the story? Nothing, really. And that's not supercilious, complacency or even an accident on Westhead's part.
Instead, And Also Sharks is a vivid picture of characters emptied of any sense of moral force or principles - or at least what we might think we know to be moral. These characters and their decisions reflect a contemporary nihilism, as Hubert Dreyfus has recently put it, that illustrates, on the one hand, how what we know to be meaningful might be fabricated and senseless, and, on the other hand, that how we go about representing ethics might not be … well, ethical.
Proving again to be a talented storyteller, Westhead plays with these conditions with a clever and sharp sense of humour.
Brooke Ford is doing her PhD at Ryerson University and is an editor at Broken Pencil. She is the author of the novel The Summer Idyll.