By Rebecca Rosenblum
Biblioasis, 210 pages, $19.95
No less a devoted book nurturer and legendary curmudgeon than John Metcalf has penned (he's known for penning, with bottled ink) the following blurb for Rebecca Rosenblum's fictional debut: "Fiercely original, her stories force us into a new experiencing of life ... her work dazzles me." To still be dazzled, after half a lifetime dispensing tough love in the nursery of Canadian fiction, is the sort of consummation devoutly wished by every lit-crit toiler.
Knowing Metcalf's taste - discerning, cerebral, wildly unpredictable - I plunged into Once with a somewhat wary eagerness. In the opening story, ContEd, Isobel escapes her incorrigible ex in Montreal for a waitressing job in Toronto. Squeezing in a nighttime tax course, she ponders the geeky charms of her instructor. Will he serve for a rebound?
Plot is the least of this intricate story. What matters, tickling the sense memory, is the prickling pleasure of Isobel's tired feet freed to the air at bedtime; the sugary baklava stuck to its crumpled carton; the florid, chewing face of the tax teacher as he negotiates a wad of honey and nuts.
Rosenblum builds and subtly rounds off a story arc, but the sustaining life humming all through this tale comes straight from the sensory input. In Isobel's word-picture ramble, Rosenblum's meanings arrive on the reader's intuitions. Her art remains veiled. The quotidian is rarely so riveting.
Chilly Girl has the same fix on external reality, the same whimsy-tinged take on its central character's inner life. A girl goes to a party at a pristine icebox of a condo, where a tanned man in linen lends her his socks before raising her temperature on the dance floor. Oddly, in only one short sentence do we enter the thoughts of a second character, and a quite minor one. It felt like a misstep, but one of the charms of this writing is the sense that each detail is a clue to larger meanings.
Solidarity/Who is Christine? is less about Christine than about the dangerous magnetic pull she exerts on young Lynn. A driver's licence offers Lynn, at 16, the first solid experience of "being singular." The familiar coming-of-age content is borne along on Rosenblum's uniquely shimmering form. For me, there are mild echoes of 2003 Booker winner DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, minus the author's intent to dazzle. Rosenblum's prose feels refreshingly apart from intent. Her characters unfold as they will, or as they chance to.
In Massacre Day, a burned-out teacher sleeps in, missing her morning class. On her kitchen TV, she watches the news of a faraway school massacre: "the death-toll, then the five-day forecast. She had no one to tell, so she didn't know how she felt." Gradually, we get inside her response. Her numbness, her immobilizing sense of inadequacy, seem a reasonable way to feel. Then we witness her acknowledgment of what's underneath - and it's chilling.
The House on Elsbeth presents two women and a man who share an intimate threesome in a rental house. A few oddities in this tale feel inadvertent, such as being told that "lightning rents the world." Lightning rends, but I don't see how it can rent, even in a farfetched poetical sense. It also hard to accept that when a lightning strike rends the air perhaps 20 feet from our trio, killing or injuring their neighbour, none exhibits any sign of physical or mental trauma in the ensuing seconds, but only respectful curiosity. And why does this lightning strike "into the corn," when there is no mention of corn anywhere else in the story?
Happily, the lapses only slightly distract from the tale's merits, one of which is the narrative voice: a first-person plural "we" that shifts smoothly into third-person reportage from the inner lives of the three players, in an eerie kind of empathetic oneness. We never know which "we" is doing the telling.
It's a fascinating tease from a writer who's intent on probing the mysteries of self and other through the related mysteries of fiction. Metcalf has it right. Rosenblum's work impels us to a fresh experiencing of life.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.