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The Globe and Mail

Down the Road to Eternity: New and Selected Fiction, by M.A.C. Farrant

Ever get a vagina in the mail? Have you considered freezing your brain? How about disfiguring yourself in the name of art? Well consider this: "The charred locks of hair from Michael Jackson's disastrous Pepsi commercial shoot are being turned into diamonds. A Chicago-based jeweller, which specializes in creating high-quality diamonds from individual hair samples, has announced plans to release a limited collection made from the King of Pop's hair."

No I'm not making this up. It's from an actual news story that appeared in these pages and elsewhere recently.

B.C. author M.A.C. Farrant, self-declared "anthropologist of the absurd," could have fabricated such a story; it's the territory her writing explores. Farrant's work bristles with moral fury, a love of and a close look at language, the absurdities of our accelerated age and a great dose of laugh-out-loud humour. It's as if in her stories the headless guy found in the topless bar of tabloid fame gets to tell his tale.

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In A Little Something, Farrant writes: "Fifty thousand vaginas were sent through the mail. Free samples. Part of an ad campaign for a revived play. We couldn't get ours open. It was shut tighter than a bivalve." The story acts as a parallel universe to the Michael Jackson story. Or as Farrant puts it in an introduction to her previous short-story collection Darwin Alone in the Universe: "concomitant alternative realities presented as existent."

Down the Road to Eternity collects work from eight previous collections of fiction, from 1991 to 2007. The stories range in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages and offer interior worlds of a diverse set of characters making their way through an extreme exterior condition known as modern life.

The collection is offered chronologically, and the prose becomes more minimalist over time, with less focus on character and more on situation and scenario - a playing out of ideas. Consider this shorty (in its entirety) dubbed Author Interview: Thank You.


"Five of us, actually. Though everyone's left. Except us.

"School. Work. One to a nursing home.

"That's right. Two of us in this big house.

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"Not bad. I write. He cycles. We visit the others.

"Oh every few weeks."

Such a spare method of storytelling might seem to have little to offer to the uninitiated. But when I scrolled through an online bookstore and the section asking "What else do readers of M.A.C. Farrant read?" I could imagine her playfully supplying her own suggestions.

Farrant's interest in language and the ways it can be reconstructed is reflected in a couple of her "found" stories. In Pulse , she writes a short piece compiled from newspaper headlines. "The timeline is shrinking. We are entering the risk zone. Consumers are in the dumps, victims of financial advisers, psychopaths, corrupt CEOs, their own greed."

Farrant, it appears, will offer satire, surrealism and silliness to guide us through the rogue waves of reality toward a shore called Meaning

In Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You, she writes a story (well, a list) compiled from country-and-western songs. My favourite line, "I don't know whether to kill myself or go bowling."

What this selection makes clear is that aesthetic risk has been a constant in Farrant's work. Much of her writing appears in so-called alternative magazines, and although she is now in her sixties and has been writing consistently challenging and rewarding work for decades, she remains an outsider to the CanLit establishment. I doubt she is losing any sleep over this fact, as she has bravely carved out the territory of a true iconoclast. Farrant is our Alice Munro of an alternative universe.

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The collection has a foreword and afterword by Farrant, both excerpted from Navigation in her Word of Mouth collection published in 1996. Raised beside the ocean by an aunt, the daughter of an absent seafaring father and a wandering mother, Farrant writes: "One by one the crew gets sick, fleeing below decks to lie down groaning, useless. But not us. Unaffected by the sea's rough course, we remain on the bridge, true sailors riding out the storm."

Farrant, it appears, will offer satire, surrealism and silliness to guide us through the rogue waves of reality toward a shore called Meaning. The stories are full of changing ideas and scenarios, and contain worlds. The reader might want to pick at these stories slowly, however, as they are extremely rich.

In the afterword to Down the Road to Eternity, Farrant writes: "Standing on deck at night, just by the roll of the ship, I could tell you how high, how fast they were running. All these things went into my navigation. It was more than numbers. It was my life. But it wasn't what I lived for."

Like many moralists, Farrant (or her narrator) seems somehow disappointed, which is juxtaposed against her prose - a life's work, which gives the reader so much joy. We are lucky to have her.

Grant Shilling is the author of The Cedar Surf: An Informal History of Surfing in British Columbia. He is at work on Surfing with the Devil.

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