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book review

Author Clark Blaise's talent for evoking time and place gives his stories a weight that philosophical explorations and thematic arcs fail to achieve on their own.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: This Time, That Place: Selected Stories
  • Author: Clark Blaise
  • Genre: Short Stories
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 416

An undergraduate course at the University of Ottawa taught me much of what I know about literature in Canada. Not about the works themselves, most of which I don’t remember reading at the time, but about the community.

Later, I’d learn about the works on my own and far more about the literary scene and its shortcomings, scandals and green shoots. But back then, within the walls of that classroom, our professor told stories about the fractious yet close-knit, exclusionary family of Canadian literary luminaries who appeared in the pages of our text, or who, according to him, should have appeared – when he wasn’t busy shouting incredulously at a room full of teenagers who didn’t know what a whirling dervish was.

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I don’t recall if Clark Blaise came up in that class where we studied so many short stories. I doubt it. He would have stood out. What a pity he didn’t, because I might have learned more about this country and the whirls and swirls of identity. This Time, That Place: Selected Stories brings together two dozens of Blaise’s short stories collected over decades.

One magazine, Quill and Quire, said that he is “probably the greatest living Canadian writer most Canadians have never heard of.” The ad copy of the book uses that quotation – who wouldn’t? Who knows if such a thing is true or whether it can be determined to be true. But that’s beside the point. More people should read Blaise. This collection is a good place to start.

The 24 stories in this collected volume takes us through decades and across continents. The stories within it are heavily shaped and enhanced by the writer’s life: a Canadian-American who moved more times than most, and whose late wife was an Indian-American and Canadian professor and writer herself.

We are taken across Canada, mostly Ontario and Quebec, with plenty of Montreal, and into the United States – mostly the Midwest and East. From there we go to India. As we travel, familiar themes and arcs come up time and time again: coming of age, sexual (mis)education and sexual longing, mortality, family drama and melodrama, linguistic and cultural tensions, co-operative and competitive identities, racism and subtle class struggle.

In At the Lake, a story vaguely reminiscent of Hemingway’s ironic and tragic twists on bucolic tales, Blaise deconstructs the myth of an idyllic cottage that comprises so much of the North American dream. One paragraph in particular fells the Canadian mythology of better living through access to a cedar deck and a lake.

“I have the diminishing satisfaction that a place is worth twice as much after three years of unimprovement and decided deterioration,” the narrator says of his cottage purchase. How timely still. He laments: “I was suckered into buying the place.” Later, as if trying to describe the soul of the country itself, he adds: “Spring is always an ugly season in the north; the snows melt slowly and with maximum inconvenience. Ours is not a landscape for unassertiveness; subtleties are easily lost.”

Throughout the book we meet familiar characters across stories in different times and settings. We see multiple perspectives of events. Freud lingers, named once or twice, often present by way of Oedipal explorations of sexual searching. In South, a child attracted to his mother talks of her “lean, graceful, grey-hair buxom figure.” Everyone is always drinking a Coca-Cola. You can hear the crack of the cap coming off the bottle top.

Blaise’s talent for evoking time and place gives his stories a weight that philosophical explorations and thematic arcs fail to achieve on their own. But you’ll want to stay for the explorations and arcs – the bits that reveal so much about this country and the one to our south that accounts, directly and indirectly, for so much of who we are.

The final story in the collection, The Kerouac Who Never Was, ties the volume together. For a series of two dozen stories curated from the work of many years, you wouldn’t expect an “aha!” moment to come at the end. It’s so cliché. Perhaps a creation of the mind of the reader that desperately wants things to make sense and fit together. But there it was. The constant focus on dualities or multiplicities in tension and the struggle to escape their orbit – or at least find a way to float peacefully within it.

Thus a kid with an early-morning paper route reflects, “When you start the day twice, once in the cold dark with scary shapes, and then go home and catch some sleep and get up again, restart the clock in full daylight, get dressed again, eat breakfast, and head off down the same streets to school, you develop a sense of duality (as Paulie would put it).” The narrator asks, “Which world is the true one? The day-lit world seemed bland and over-detailed; the night world was undefined and indistinct, and maybe for the rest of my life I never reconciled the two.”

Contemporary life is full of irreconcilable tensions. This Time, That Place captures a handful of them, simultaneously telling stories of three countries and a multitude of identities that cut across various social, culture, political and economic dimensions. It does so in a way reminiscent of the existentialism of the past century, a worldview that never quite left us but instead transformed into something sinister: a frenetic commitment to constant motion and thin digital connection in the hopes that we can busy ourselves enough to make the tensions, uncertainties and anxieties go away.

But they remain. In The Kerouac Who Never Was, a child diagnosed with a fatal disease says of his mother’s efforts to “cure” him: “She doesn’t understand. She said she’d pray it away. But it’s in all of us. We’ll never get rid of it.”