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book review

In Kris Bertin’s short story collection Bad Things Happen, his characters often run away from challenges.

Bad Things Happen

By Kris Bertin

Biblioasis, 201 pages, $19.95


By Helen Simpson

Jonathan Cape, 145 pages, $31.99

Two separate stories in Kris Bertin's debut collection involve characters who imagine the ground literally shifting underneath them. In Is Alive and Can Move, an alcoholic struggling to beat his addiction falls off the wagon and has the sensation of the very earth trembling: "Everything shook – and I felt it, right in the middle of me – and the city actually moved, moved a whole block over." Later, in The Story Here, a mother hopped up on Valium to deal with anxiety and depression brought on by her extremely dysfunctional family dreams of a rockslide that collapses the foundations around the family home, sending the entire edifice tumbling downward.

The notion of instability is pervasive throughout Bad Things Happen, the title of which represents a plain and straightforward distillation of the stories' content. Bertin's characters are misfits and malcontents, battling various demons and addictions while trying to stay sane enough or straight enough to make it through one more day. The title Is Alive and Can Move refers directly to a crack one character makes about the dipsomaniac protagonist's qualifications for landing a job, but it also symbolically refers to the environment in which the protagonist finds himself, where withdrawal hallucinations and nervous tension render the world around him uncanny and changeable.

Of course, it's not just depressives and alcoholics who experience the world as something that frequently operates outside of their control. Bad things happen to everyone: It's pretty much the human condition. But Bertin's characters are typically outsiders or people striving to fit in to a society that has largely rejected them. Not that this outsider status is entirely devoid of its own rewards: In the final story, a woman's adult son returns home after an extended period away with $18,961.22 in savings, which he has earned in what we gather to be shady, even criminal, endeavours.

Bertin's characters often respond to challenges by running away, either literally (as in the title story, which opens the collection, or Everywhere Money), or via booze or antidepressants. Or, like Richard, one of the garbage collectors in The Narrow Passage, by succumbing to a kind of divided psyche: "He could feel himself split in three, between the person he was, the one he claimed to be, and the one he wanted to become." The Narrow Passage resembles its central character in that the narrative is divided between the story's early stages, which feature relatively commonplace depictions of working-class men toiling away at a thankless and dirty job, and the latter half, as Richard becomes increasingly obsessed with the garbage left by a shadowy family in a ramshackle house. One of the longest stories in the collection, The Narrow Passage is a bit too leisurely in getting to where it's going: By the time it makes its descent into David Lynch-style eeriness, it has sacrificed a certain amount of its momentum.

The same is true for stories that employ distracting stylistic devices: The conceit of Make Your Move involves offering a series of alternative paths down which the narrative could reasonably travel, and The Story Here is slowed down by sections that reproduce a white board on which the protagonist and her brother make a catalogue of their father's infidelities. Bad Things Happen is at its best when it sticks to the spirit of its title: blunt, forthright and jarring.

The title of British author Helen Simpson's sixth story collection, Cockfosters, refers to the terminal stop on the Piccadilly Line in London's Underground. This is the destination to which the story's characters, Julie and Philippa, travel to retrieve a pair of eyeglasses one of them has left behind on a train. Old friends who have reached the age at which most of their peers are "unabashedly grey-headed and bespectacled," the two women have reunited after an extended period apart, ostensibly to attend an art exhibition. As they travel the length of the Piccadilly Line, their conversation veers from the aggravations of requiring corrective eyewear to the current situations of the pair's erstwhile university friends, cumulatively providing a snapshot of the women's lives in late middle-age.

Simpson employs vision as her guiding metaphor in the brief, impressionistic piece. (Clocking in at barely more than 10 pages, the story is structured around the tube stations the women pass on their way to the end of the line.) The degradation in Julie's eyesight ("I've turned into a bumbler overnight") is emblematic of the passage of time and the accompanying decrease in strength and vitality as the years wear on. It's no accident that the film the women struggle to recall during their trip is Luis Buñuel's expressionist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou, the classic scene of which involves a straight razor bisecting a woman's eyeball.

This is also somewhat overwrought, as are many of the stylistic or structural gimmicks Simpson employs in these stories – the tube stations in Cockfosters, the ingredients for a cake the protagonist is making for her daughter's birthday in Kythera, a list of subjects the protagonist of Arizona discusses with her acupuncturist during a session. The final entry, Berlin, is structured around a week the central couple spend in Germany to take in Wagner's Ring cycle. By far the longest entry in the collection, Berlin further echoes the opera's self-indulgence by including extended internal monologues set in italics and lists of German vocabulary words the female protagonist is learning.

If the stories in Cockfosters exhibit a tendency toward stylistic excess, they are also smart and frequently very funny examinations of the pangs of age, the inequities of gender and the generational divide. In Cheapside, a lawyer attempts to explain to an uninterested youth how "duty of care" is construed in a legal context by using the story of two hitchhikers who bum a ride on a flatbed truck. The first, who has taken refuge from the rain in an empty coffin the truck's driver is transporting, pops out unannounced, frightening the second so badly that he leaps from the truck and breaks his leg. The would-be mentor asks his charge whether there was "sufficient proximity in this case for either the truck driver or Hitchhiker One to assume a duty of care to Hitchhiker Two?" The insouciant young man's inexpert – though not inaccurate – assessment is that the first hitchhiker is "a nutter" and the second is "an idiot."

This exchange highlights Simpson's facility for character: the supercilious lawyer juxtaposed with the insouciant youth who ends up being smarter than he appears. Where Bertin's characters exist on the margins, Simpson's are well within the ambit of so-called conventional society; her fiction zeroes in on everyday moments and concerns with precision and intelligence. Like Bertin's stories, however, Simpson's work best when they are freed from the constraints of unwieldy or obvious narrative devices.

Steven W. Beattie's column on new short-story collections appears monthly.

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