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Deborah Willis's The Dark and Lori McNulty's Life on Mars, reviewed: New directions

Lori McNulty questions the notion of what constitutes a well-made story, on the level of both subject and technique, in her debut collection, Life on Mars.

Adam and Kev Photography

The Dark and Other Love Stories

By Deborah Willis

Hamish Hamilton, 254 pages, $29.95

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Life on Mars

By Lori McNulty

Goose Lane Editions, 296 pages, $22.95

If there is a singular avatar for the CanLit short story, it's Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize winner's work is the best-known, most recognizable example of what Canadian short fiction is capable of, for better and for worse. Munro is a master storyteller with an incomparably subtle technical approach; the danger lies in the popular assumption that successful stories must occupy the same mode of naturalism or Southern Ontario gothic that the country's most famous practitioner traffics in. It is easy to overlook the degree to which Munro herself subverts the conventions of the genre she dominates: The frequent comparison to Chekhov is a pernicious myth that seems destined to persist despite plentiful evidence of the way the two writers differ from each other.

While it is perhaps equally incorrect to conflate Munro and Calgary writer Deborah Willis, the two share aspects in common. Indeed, Willis's fiction comes complete with a seal of approval from Munro herself. The similarities are certainly evident: Both writers are concerned with matters of the heart, and more specifically those moments in which the heart betrays its owner. The title story in Willis's sophomore collection feels particularly Munrovian: Two young girls at summer camp bond by sneaking out of their bunks to visit the horses that roam an adjacent field at night. While skinny dipping, the two are accosted by a pair of men in a boat – one of whom is sporting an errant fish hook embedded in his hand – and what began as a harmless adventure takes on the veneer of incipient threat.

Willis's adeptness at modulating the tone and mood of her story owes much to Munro, as does the irony in her collection's title: The Dark is explicitly identified as a love story, although like the 10 pieces that accompany it, the version of love on offer is perilous and liable to shatter at any moment. Nor is it confined to the arena of romance, although a number of stories do address that aspect of the subject. In Girlfriend on Mars, the narrator's partner applies (without informing him) to be a contestant on a reality TV series to determine who will be allowed to participate in the first human deployment to the Red Planet; the narrator and his girlfriend are both aware the technology does not exist to bring the astronauts back home. Last One to Leave – the collection's most heartbreaking story – is about the marriage between a Holocaust survivor and a small-town newspaper reporter, who undertakes a profile of her husband.

In other stories, eros takes a back seat to love that is filial (as in The Dark and Welcome to Paradise) or familial. I Am Optimus Prime (which also addresses the persistent CanLit theme of class resentment) focuses on the relationship between a father and son on Halloween, and a distraught father's love for his absent daughter is the driving force behind Todd. That story – another standout – sees reformed addict Eddie displace his longing and loneliness by concentrating on a burgeoning sort-of friendship with a crow that takes up residence in his hovel of an apartment. Eddie reappears as a secondary character in the following story, in which he meets a 16-year-old runaway he ends up taking home with him; Willis handles this potentially explosive material with sensitivity, ultimately pushing it in an unexpected direction.

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Both aspects of the collection's title – love and darkness – are on full display here: an ironic juxtaposition also reflective of Munro. What is not so emblematic is the incursion of surrealism in the final triptych, the first part of which features a couple who discover a growing hole in their living room. In addition to being (like the stopped watch in the second part) an instrument of heavy-handed symbolic import, the hole injects an element of the uncanny into Willis's work, something more typical of Lori McNulty's approach in her debut collection, Life on Mars.

Although McNulty's fiction can appear recognizable enough when she wants it to, her preferred approach is to trouble the notion of what constitutes a well-made story, on the level of both subject and technique. Prey is about a man who rescues a beached squid in California, then embarks on an ad hoc road trip to release the creature back into the sea. He sets out for Newfoundland because the squid (which he has named "Dan") uses its ink to inform him in writing that's where it wants to go. If on a Winter's Night a Badger is a riff on Italo Calvino's postmodern classic; McNulty's version never quite rises above the playful aural echo between "badger" and "traveller" in the title.

But even at its most relatively straightforward, McNulty's collection is unafraid to take chances. Monsoon Season focuses on a mother who can't come to terms with her son's decision to undergo gender-reassignment surgery in Thailand ("My son is prettier than me," she laments at one point). WOOF features an intervention by friends and family of a middle-aged woman who responds to a breast-cancer diagnosis by walking away from her job and adopting a kind of feral existence in the woods. And Ticker centres on a heart-transplant recipient attempting to come to grips with his second chance at life.

McNulty is less technically accomplished than Willis: On a line-by-line basis, her prose falls victim to awkward constructions, unintentional rhyme and repetitive phrasing ("Tu leans back and easily drops the boy on his back"). But she shares with Willis an affinity for CanLit nature tropes viewed through a skewed and protracted lens, as well as a desire to push traditional or shopworn material in new and unexpected directions. If Munro created the template for the Canadian short story, Willis and McNulty seem determined to test its boundaries and elasticity. The last line of Ticker, the final story in Life on Mars, sums up this impulse well: "So, where do we go from here?"

Steven W. Beattie is review editor at Quill & Quire and writes a monthly column on short stories for The Globe and Mail.

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