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review: fiction

Clark Blaisehandout

"E.M. Forster, you ruined everything," laments the narrator of a story from Clark Blaise's first collection of short fiction, published almost 40 years ago. "Why must every visitor to India, every well-read tourist, expect a sudden transformation?"

It was that book, A North American Education, that launched Blaise's remarkable literary career. It was also where he began to sketch the unique constellation of obsessions that would occupy him for the next few decades: the liquidity of personal and cultural identity, the vicissitudes of desire, and, at least somewhat as a result of his marriage to novelist Bharati Mukherjee, his knowledge of India and perspective on the Indian immigrant experience.

In The Meagre Tarmac, his 10th book of short fiction, Blaise addresses himself to the last of these, to India and the stories of Indian immigrants in North America. This is a collection of linked short stories, each of which gives us the history and perspective of a specific character. There is Vivek Waldeker, "of the Stanford generation that built the Internet out of their garages," and who yearns, nostalgically, for a return to the certainties of the India in which he grew up; there is Alok Nilingappa (a.k.a. Al Neeling), an actor who finds himself in Montreal, too late for his brother's funeral; there is Connie da Cunha, a celebrated editor who finds herself tasked with the problem of finding her own voice and of telling her own story; and there is Cyrus Chutneywala, a banker in Pittsburgh who finds himself in the unlikely (and yet utterly traditional) position of needing to travel to Toronto for an arranged marriage with a gorgeous Parsi movie star.

Like all collections of linked stories, The Meagre Tarmac to some extent reads like a novel; a consistent cast of characters moves through an interconnected fictional world. What's missing from such collections, however, is the explication that goes with a novel. Instead, there is Chekhovian incompleteness, the almost episodic impulsiveness that the short story allows.

What makes this particular collection so resonant is Blaise's ingenious use of this hybrid form (in which the reader knows characters through other stories in a way the characters themselves do not) to mirror the experience of the people he writes about: the Indian immigrants who are often entangled in several stories - several histories - simultaneously.

In the story Brewing Tea in the Dark, for instance, a character finds himself in Tuscany, speaking Bangla to a young man selling curios outside the leaning tower of Pisa: "The buried collective memory forever astonishes," he tells us. "Nothing in the old country could have brought our families together, yet here we were in the shadow of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, remembering the lakes and rivers, the banana plantation, my great-grandfather's throwing open his house on every Hindu and Muslim feast day." In Blaise's hands, the linked collection becomes a way to give the reader some insight into how such collective memory operates, of how it might feel.

To be sure, The Meagre Tarmac is a risky book; in it, Blaise tries on a series of identities - appropriates a series of voices - that are manifestly not his own. But, of course, this too has been a theme - perhaps the theme - in his work for the past four decades. Both American and Canadian, both inside and outside the Indian experience, Blaise has been intent on exploring the interconnections (and disconnections) of cultural and geographical spaces (and people) usually held apart.

And indeed, some of the most resonant moments in The Meagre Tarmac are those in which he uses perspective to underscore a telling incongruity in the landscape. Such a moment occurs when Blaise's Parsi banker arrives in Toronto and is taken aback by the cultural mosaic with which he is greeted: "From what he'd seen inside the airport, including the customs official who stamped his passport and welcomed him to Canada, Toronto was a very large city devoid of white people."

Ultimately, what holds the collection together is Blaise's mastery of the short story, his ability to give us a whole personality and the sensuous particularity of lived experience in a handful of pages. In The Quality of Life, for instance, a famed actor arrives back in Montreal after a long absence and finds that, to his dismay, the two giant Concordia buildings he remembered from his college days are gone.

"The biggest educational building in the Commonwealth, n'est plus," he thinks. "I know the area, I know I'm in the right place, but the forces of transformation have taken it away, and if I don't know where Concordia is, what in the world do I know at all?"

This sense of dislocation and disorientation is a global phenomenon, of course, but the impulse, the ability, to connect such an epiphany to the lost magnificence of Concordia and the vanished ghost of the Commonwealth, this is distinctively Clark Blaise and also, perhaps, uniquely Canadian.

Born and raised in Toronto, Steven Hayward teaches in the English department at Colorado College. His most recent novel is Don't Be Afraid.