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Review: New short-story collections from John Metcalf and Leon Rooke

The Museum at the End of the World

By John Metcalf

Biblioasis, 372 pages, $19.95

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Swinging Through Dixie

By Leon Rooke

Biblioasis, 278 pages, $19.95

When people think of the Canadian short story, two names spring immediately to mind: Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. In terms of influence and importance, Munro and Gallant are insurmountable, their differences notwithstanding (one a lifelong resident of Canada, the other an expat who lived most of her adult life in Paris; one a precise interrogator of interior lives via a carefully calibrated combination of light and dark; the other a frequently cold, ironic vivisector of displacement and history). To those, one might also add the name of Norman Levine, who is often forgotten in discussions about Canadian short fiction, but whose stylistic mastery and eye for human frailty was the equal of Munro and Gallant.

Two other figures fly under the radar in these discussions, which is simultaneously curious and understandable. John Metcalf and Leon Rooke are each influential writers and mentors, extending their writing practices across decades while also serving as editors and teachers for generations of writers who have followed them. Metcalf, in particular, has discovered and/or edited some of the best prose stylists to appear in the past 30 years, including (but certainly not limited to) K.D. Miller, Annabel Lyon, Caroline Adderson, Steven Heighton, Keath Fraser, Alexander MacLeod and Kevin Hardcastle. Rooke has been a significant mentor to writers such as Rebecca Rosenblum (whose debut collection won the award named after Metcalf and Rooke) and, along with his late wife, Constance Rooke, was responsible for creating Ontario's Eden Mills Writers' Festival.

In terms of their own output, the two men are about as different as they come. Metcalf is a staunch traditionalist, following in the footsteps of his heroes, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis – dyed-in-the-wool satirists of the old school whose curmudgeonly fingerprints are all over Metcalf's own writing. Rooke, by contrast, is a rebellious postmodernist, his musical (and sometimes deliberately antimusical) prose rebounding wildly from one moment to the next, echoing everyone from Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner to Sherwood Anderson, the last most particularly in the titular novella that takes up more than one half of the author's new volume of fiction. (These echoes are perhaps unsurprising when one considers the respective birthplaces of the two authors: Metcalf hails from Carlisle in England, while Rooke was born in North Carolina.)

Metcalf's The Museum at the End of the World and Rooke's Swinging Through Dixie are late-career examples of each writer's distinctive voice and concerns, and testify to their different approaches, while also retaining certain surface similarities. Both are mixtures of novellas and stories, though Metcalf's book more closely resembles a traditional collection of linked stories: The opening novella in The Museum at the End of the World is itself broken down into four more or less discrete pieces. Clocking in at more than 100 pages, Lives of the Poets also breezes past the long-story category and verges into that of the novella, though the pieces in the book share a common protagonist and common themes.

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The stories in The Museum at the End of the World focus on Robert Forde, a kind of Metcalf-manqué, who emigrates to Canada from England and gets caught up in the travails of literary life, very much in the manner of his creator. Both Metcalf and Forde are acerbic sticklers for their perceived set of literary values, which include a strict fidelity to language and unsparing disparagement of those who, in their eyes, misuse or abuse it.

It remains, of course, dead easy to get hoist on one's own petard: In Ceazer Salad, which sees Forde catalogue a series of everyday assaults on the Queen's English – from misused apostrophes and quotation marks (or, in traditional Metcalfian argot, "inverted commas") on advertisements to a poster that employs a singular verb with the plural noun "bacteria" – Metcalf himself slips up by employing the curious and frustrating redundancy "PIN number." And of course, the author can't help but take swipes at the Confederation poets and other, consistent bêtes noires he has been wrangling with for most of his public life.

Still, Metcalf's facility with, and clear enjoyment of, the English language is readily apparent throughout The Museum at the End of the World, which is bouncy and cheeky and quite often very, very funny. As a representative work of fiction, it acts simultaneously as the culmination of Metcalf's concerns and an example of the way his careful and diligent editorial eye operates on the level of practice in his own writing. There is style to spare, for those who take unbridled pleasure in the indulgence of pure language.

Pure language is also what one may expect to find in Rooke's latest, which is far less accessible than Metcalf's book, though equally representative of Rooke's idiosyncratic approach to fiction, which has always relied more on symbolist free-association than traditional notions of plot, character and setting. The title novella in Swinging Through Dixie is a polyphonic symphony, bouncing freely among the perspectives of various citizens of a 1940s town in the American South. How much of this material is autobiographical is an open question, and ultimately unimportant. What is key is the language, which thrums with the down-home rhythms of American speech and dialect.

Robert Forde in Metcalf's book is an aficionado of jazz, which provides another point of connection with Rooke's work, at least on a metaphorical level. Like the best improvisational jazz musicians, Rooke works outside conventional patterns of rhythm or melody – punctuating his writing with unexpected words and sounds, expanding and contracting time frames, and slipping in and out of points of view and methods of approach, often over the course of several sentences, and occasionally within the same sentence. Realism elides seamlessly into symbolism to such a degree that it is difficult at times to follow the trajectory of the stories. It is preferable just to give yourself over to the music of the prose, and allow the aural sense of the material to wash over and envelop you.

Taken together, The Museum at the End of the World and Swinging Through Dixie offer readers a crash course in the work of two wildly divergent, though also strangely similar prose stylists. They represent points on a compass, rather than poles, and challenge conventional wisdom about what constitutes the Canadian short story.

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Steven W. Beattie's column on short stories appears monthly.

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