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Standing on Richards

By George Bowering

Viking Canada, 209 pages, $34

Roughly halfway through George Bowering's new collection of stories, Standing on Richards, we're told that "art is not something you do, it is something that chooses every fault and virtue, after you volunteer to pass through its gate." There are many virtuous choices here in this collection of 15 of our poet laureate's short stories, chief among them Bowering's skill -- or maybe it's a generosity, or a renunciation -- with voice, and not just one. Bowering successfully transfers the poet's obsession with searing language into the private tic and talk of multiple, varied narrators without trafficking in any of the precious, dewy observations about light or time or liminality which too often cloud the (Canadian?) poet's turn to fiction. Bowering's numerous, engaging narrators offer stories, not etymologies and pensées, although one recurrent technique may offer more telling than tale.

The 15 stories in Standing on Richards have been written over the past 30 years, and several of Bowering's worthwhile fascinations recur. Counterfeit local history is bent a little further with a small dose of glittering magical realism. Shaggy professors leave academia for the sex trade (or practise it while still there). Okanagan Valley orchardists accumulate sunburns and family scandals. The collection is at its best in its nuanced and innovative inquiries into gender and class dynamics.

In At the Store, narrative attention alternates between the various participants in two crimes at a colonial settlement still in its embryonic stages. An officer in the Royal Engineers, a man whose job it is to make the first road into a fort settlement and then leave on it before much civilization arrives, sees little of his wife and son or the challenges isolation forces upon them: "When sons come home with blood on their faces, mothers wash them and sterilize the cuts with antiseptic fluid they bought at the company store. Then they ask what happened, and sons, being like fathers, do not tell any women such things. The clerk of the store did not tell anyone, either. When the thief is the son of an officer, you manage to take care of the situation on the spot."

The admirably spontaneous and observant Two Glasses of Remy similarly collapses and inverts class, age and gender positions as two strangers are mutually surprised to wind up on a late-night drive: "If you are sitting in the only automobile at a lookout around midnight, you are eventually going to pay attention to the woman sitting on the leather seat beside you, it doesn't matter what kind of woman."

These two stories of unexpected meetings find Standing on Richards at its most successful and its most challenging. Every story here purrs with a captivating, palpable voice that offers the unfolding of a perspective or a character, not just (or sometimes not even) a story. A sensitive boy "refuses to enter into the shithouse talk" about a classmate. Poems recited at the funeral of a sculptor lost to AIDS "bared [their author]completely, her anger, her disgust, her patience and her god-awful love." These confident, knowing voices are not, however, always reconciled to the book's metafictional obsessions.

Metafiction -- writing that, at least partially, takes writing as its subject -- is the writer's cilantro: striking, unmistakable and loved or hated, no middle ground. Half of these stories directly address their own narration, sometimes in overt questions such as, "In what way is this a short story I am telling you?" When a book can so accurately catch love or loss, can so routinely capture us with a wry, surprising voice, do we really need direct addresses and attacks on storytelling and story form? Bowering was the first writer in English to win a Governor-General's Award in both fiction and poetry. With a book so boldly accurate in heart and voice, I know I won't be alone in wishing that an alternative edition free of these postmodern bells and whistles was available. You choose: the joke or the joke explained? The kiss or kiss plus commentary?

In one of its many speeches in its own defence, Standing on Richards claims it can't just deliver a straight story because that would be "a well-rehearsed narrative and therefore something you cannot trust." True. But we don't entirely trust fragmented or self-referential or self-consciously fallible narratives, either. The story about the dying sculptor is achingly beautiful. Emotionally, socially and intellectually, it's tough, honest and incisive, and its funereal touches include music composed by minor characters. What do the bars of transcribed music that interrupt every fifth paragraph really add? How are they integral? When content and diction repeatedly have me close to tears, the glissandi are already transcribed.

Darryl Whetter teaches creative writing at the University of Windsor. He is the author of the book of stories, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, and is currently at work on a novel.

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