The Complete Stories
By Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson, New Directions, 645 pages, $33
By Greg Hollingshead, Anansi, 226 pages, $19.95
Most modern readers – at least in North America – tend to shy away from the uncanny. When Freud, in his 1919 essay, examined that term in a literary context, he extrapolated from contemporary understandings of the word as "the opposite of what is familiar," a definition he found to be incomplete. Freud suggested that the uncanny proceeds from a point of psychological complexes that have been repressed from childhood experiences or thoughts that have been surmounted from earlier, discarded belief systems. Turning his attention to literature, he posits that in the latter case, the uncanny "retains this quality … so long as the setting is one of physical reality; but as soon as it is given an arbitrary and unrealistic setting in fiction, it is apt to lose its quality of the uncanny."
There are writers who embed the uncanny at the level of their prose: Their very sentences appear strange and unfamiliar, the trajectories of the stories they tell do not follow a recognizable three-act structure, and their characters do not behave in ways that immediately label them as "normal," whatever that might mean in reality. Kafka springs to mind as an obvious example, as does the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. This is perhaps no surprise: Benjamin Moser, the author of Why This World, a biography of Lispector, insists that she is the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka. Moser is also the editor of a new volume that gathers together the 86 short stories Lispector wrote throughout her career, the earliest when she was 19, the latest composed close to her death in 1977.
Born on a Ukrainian shtetl in 1920, Lispector's family emigrated to Brazil when she was a child; since her death, she has achieved something resembling iconic status in her adopted country, where her books are sold in kiosks in the public transit system. Elizabeth Bishop considered her of a higher calibre than Borges among Latin American writers, and the translator Gregory Rabassa famously commented that she "looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf."
Rabassa's focus on Lispector's physical beauty is not uncommon, and may hint at something more than the usual male tendency to fixate on a woman's appearance before commenting on her achievements. Lispector's writing – dense, often engaging in aspects of surrealism or disjunction, and steeped in a tradition of Jewish mysticism – is not easy, or particularly comfortable. Indeed, the English writer Nicholas Shakespeare has accused Lispector of being a "morbidly insensitive" author who "avoided the conventional demands of narrative."
Reading New Directions' magisterial collection will certainly do little to dissuade people like Shakespeare, though stories such as The Crime of the Mathematics Teacher, about a man who buries a stray dog he comes across as a means of assuaging his guilt over the dog he himself abandoned, does contain an emotional through-line that should be sufficient to provide satisfaction even to recalcitrant readers. Those same readers may also laugh out loud while reading The Solution, about an overweight typist who is spurned by her glamorous "best friend" and takes surprising action as a result.
These stories indicate that Lispector could be straightforward enough when she wanted to be. Perhaps more typical, however, are stories such as The Egg and the Chicken, which features a cascading series of free-associative images flowing out of the quotidian moment of noticing an egg on a kitchen table: "The egg is an exteriorization. To have a shell is to surrender. – The egg denudes the kitchen. It turns the table into a slanted plane."
Also typical here is a focus on the domestic, though this is seen through a lens that aggressively defamiliarizes everyday objects and experiences. As a writer, Lispector resembles her character in Evolution of a Myopia, who, at moments of confusion and uncertainty, would "take off his glasses under the pretext of wiping them and, without his glasses, fix his interlocutor with the reverberating stare of a blind man."
Greg Hollingshead also troubles elements of the familiar and the ordinary in his new collection, Act Normal (which sports one of the year's most ironic titles). Like Lispector, Hollingshead's tactic is to invoke situations that are comprehensible in themselves, then inject uncanny elements, often at the level of individual sentences. These stories eschew traditional notions of plot, relying instead on eccentric shifts and juxtapositions that force the reader to approach the narratives obliquely, at an unfamiliar angle. One story, for instance, features a clerk in a big-box store who speaks only in comic book sound effects. Another features the protégé of an automotive design expert who steals a woman's severed hand from the scene of an automobile accident. The hand has a mouth in its palm and speaks to its new possessor in runic messages: "Derek, there are no accidents. There is only everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will or can happen, and it's all right here, all the time."
Freud's conception of the uncanny was inextricably tied to fear, and reading the incident with the severed hand does produce an undeniable frisson born of surreality or abject strangeness. But Hollingshead's preferred tone is not one of dread, but of laughter. These are comic stories, and much of the weirdness is in the service of tossing a spotlight on the absurdity of modern life. In The Retreat, a man agrees to spend 10 days doing guided meditation in Northern Ontario; far from a relaxing experience, he becomes more and more agitated and angry as the days progress. A satire of the North American fixation on quick fixes and instant gratification, the story is both pointed and funny. The man decides he must leave the retreat early, but finds his car is embedded in a "nightmare
autogrid" that would require dozens upon dozens of other cars to move in order for him to leave; when he finally convinces one of the staff members to help him, "[t]he kid moved four cars, then his."
Hollingshead's stories are admirable in their refusal to offer their reader a conventional experience, but this also renders them highly unfashionable in the midst of a cultural zeitgeist that prizes precisely the kind of instant gratification and ease of experience the protagonist of The Retreat is denied. Clement Greenberg's notion of kitsch – cultural artifacts that instruct their recipients on how to feel and respond at all times – is nowhere to be found in the work of Hollingshead or Lispector. Both writers demand to be read slowly and carefully, and they each refuse to provide pat morals or simple answers to the questions their stories raise.
"It doesn't take much to leave the rails," Hollingshead writes, "… but once you do, it's all uncharted territory." These two writers understand this principle, and embed it into their stories on a granular level. Elsewhere in the same story, Hollingshead sums up what might stand as a manifesto for both books: "Life was strange, but it must have always been. It wasn't just the novelty, it was how things were."
Steven W. Beattie writes a monthly column about short stories for The Globe and Mail.