JOURNEY PRIZE STORIES 19
Edited by Caroline Adderson,
and Dionne Brand
McClelland & Stewart,
171 pages, $17.99
There is a pleasing symmetry between the fact that the Journey Prize stories are regarded as a rite of passage for CanLit's future stars and the thematic basis of many of this year's 11 stories. Busy with the moment of becoming, the characters in the stories hover on the knife's edge between innocence and experience. It's a credit to the writers that the stories are not tricked out in pyrotechnic language or made maudlin by swaths of lyricism, but are told in language plain enough to reflect the gravity of the situation. Experience illuminates, but it also costs.
Case in point: Craig Boyko's subtle, wise OZY, the set piece of this year's collection (surely, it's Boyko's year to win). We meet the main character labouring over his screen name for Ballistic Obliteration, the naming exercise an apt metaphor for his imminent coming of age. A brilliant and authentic evocation of the way adolescent boys negotiate social territory on the game screen, the story rolls on toward the moment at which the eponymous OZY alights upon the concept of forever. When he does, there's no turning back. "ROG, TOM, FT, and OZY were no more. Gone. Just like that. In the blink of an eye. Forever."
While there's a sense of inexorable movement toward maturity in OZY, Alice Peterson's After Summer is equally compelling in its assertion that innocence-shattering moments can be as accidental as a mischievous peek into a window. "It hadn't occurred to us that dad might be unhappy," says the narrator, who ever after mourns the loss of her father's wildness and her own state of blissful ignorance. If she had not failed to appreciate her father's humanity, she wonders, might she and her father have been spared both a painful revelation and its fallout?
Loss of innocence is neither confined to childhood nor limited to a single event, as Pasha Malla's Respite ably demonstrates. As the sheltered Womack fusses over his novel and worries over the disintegration of his relationship, a severely disabled boy dwindles toward death. With his girlfriend's passive-aggressive nudging, Womack decides to volunteer as a care- giver, forcing his path to intersect with the dying boy's.
Malla's juxtapositioning of the banal landscape of privileged twentysomething coupledom against the bald facts of palliative care works well to underline his theme. It's fitting that the experience releases Womack from his relationship-killing immaturity, but not in time to save the relationship. The only question remaining is the one suggested by the title: Who gets greater respite, the careworn mother from the sad labour of caring for her dying boy, or the writer from his self-absorption?
Unlike Womack, the narrator in Alexander Borkowski's Twelve Versions of Lech is well aware of his areas of lack; the presence of his friend, the enigmatic artist Lech, is a frequent reminder. In a story told in 12 polished fragments, the object of Aleksei's admiration is a shimmering on the pond of his desire, always just out of reach, and indeed, Lech seems more signifier than flesh and blood. In the end, Aleksei finds himself unable to transcend the bounds of his innocence, but in that realization he achieves growth.
It's unclear whether the main character of Rebecca Rosenblum's postmodern Cinderella aspires to escape her chilly existence, but until a party in an air-conditioned condo, Emmy holds herself so far apart from others that she is physically as well as figuratively cold. Rosenblum employs the language and rhythm of fairy tales to lend the Chilly Girl its gravity, and the choice is apt; the exchange of innocence for experience is one of the oldest stories. But unlike the other stories in this collection, Emmy's gain isn't wisdom tinged with loss, but wisdom rife with possibility. This is only one of the ways that Rosenblum subverts expectation in this diamond-sharp story. Besides making the cut for the anthology, Chilly Girl is also her first published story. Wow!
Art is subjective, so it's no surprise that the character of the stories that make up the Journey Prize anthology shifts from year to year along with the editors (this year, Caroline Adderson, David Bezmozgis and Dionne Brand). But there is a constancy to the editors' assertions, year after year, that deciding which stories make the cut is difficult. There's no shortage of literary talent in Canada. To pick up a volume of Journey Prize Stories is to have the pleasure of watching young writers take wing.
Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto writer whose most recent short story was published in Descant 136. She has another forthcoming in Descant in the spring.
Andrew J. Borkowski is the author of Twelve Versions of Lech, a story in Journey Prize Stories 19. An incorrect first name appeared in Saturday's paper.