Book review: T.Coraghessan Boyle’s Stories II

TCBoyleStoriesIII started reading T.C. Boyle’s second huge anthology of short stories a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t stop. It’s ridiculous: I’m carrying around this 915-page, 5-pound volume with me everywhere in case I have a spare minute to read between errands.

I started to appreciate short stories when I was tutoring high school English and read many great classics with my students. And, like countless readers, I’ve loved the stories of outstanding Canadian short story writer Alice Munro for decades.

However, I always found that short stories are best read in small doses. A good short story is a jewel of condensation that can pack a life, or many lives, into ten or twenty pages.

This T.C. Boyle guy is different. I was hooked after the first story—absolutely driven to keep reading more. I’m steadily plowing through the book, staying up late at night to read, over 500 pages finished.

My clearest thought after reading a couple of stories was, “This guy is a writer. I might as well give up right now. I can never write like this.”

Undoubtedly true, but I’ve tempered my negative thoughts a little since that first reaction.

Boyle’s stories are completely unlike the more domestic, recognizably Canadian stories of some of my favourite writers (Carol Shields and Margaret Laurence among them, in addition to Munro). Every story contains at least one disaster: horrendous falls, mudslides, car crashes, apocalyptic epidemics, baby-killings, severed relationships, scalpings, and more. Yet I promise—this is not just vacuous violence! Somehow, Boyle makes disasters and improbable runs of bad luck seem believable, part of the natural order of human experience.

I briefly thought about returning the book to the library after reading 400 pages or so. I was getting a bit depressed because a high percentage of Boyle’s protagonists are alcoholics and drug-users. His stories are not inspirational ones where the addict recovers and starts a new life. Instead, many of the stories end on a sad or hopeless note because of the destruction wreaked by the protagonist’s uncontrolled behaviour. Some readers will not be able to stomach this negativity; others, like me, will remain hooked because of the virtuosity of Boyle’s writing, the constant surprises, the hope that something good will happen.

And in some of the stories, there is a shockingly unexpected good turn. Sometimes the loser turns into a hero. Two of my favourite stories thus far, “Chicxulub” and “La Conchita,” spring “feel-good” endings on the reader.

Above all, Boyle is a superb entertainer. He’s endlessly inventive. He can make the most awful situations and characters funny. He beguiles you to keep reading, because you can’t predict where a story will go, and you know the next story will be completely different (except that it might star another alcoholic). You might wonder, as I have, “Where does all this darkness come from? Why is T.C. Boyle so obsessed by these loser characters?” But the man is a writing genius. I dare you to read just one story.

P.S.

Boyle’s Preface to this book is inspirational, a must-read for any aspiring writer, and “worth the price of admission” in itself. Here are some quotes from it:

Boyle explains what he couldn’t have dreamed of when he first started writing: “…to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration.”

And the way I find his stories irresistible–well, Boyle plans that. “After all, a story is a seduction of the reader, and such a seduction can so immerse him or her that everything becomes plausible.”

More about T.C. Boyle

He’s not only a writing genius, he’s incredibly prolific! He has written fourteen novels, many of them award winners and/or bestsellers. He has also written nine short story collections.

You can find out more about his work at www.tcboyle.com

Advertisements

Nancy Huston’s Plainsong evokes my sense of Canadian identity

Cover of Nancy Huston's Plainsong

Canadian-born writer Nancy Huston has long been one of my favourite writers, and while reading Plainsong (published in 1993) I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. The novel is filled with compelling characters and history, and written with Huston’s characteristic poetic, intimate style.

Yet my main purpose in writing this post is not to cover Plainsong as a traditional book review. Instead, I’m more interested in the lines of thought this four-generation story provoked, the way it revealed my unconscious absorption of Canadian identity and history.

Make no mistake; Plainsong is a damn good story. Though it contains a cast of many characters, its protagonist is Paddon Sterling, born in 1900. This multi-generational story, though centred upon Paddon, is narrated by his granddaughter Paula. It’s an unflinching telling of the deprivation, hardship, abuse, and lost dreams that characterized the lives of many who lived in the late 1800s or through the years of the two World Wars and the Depression.

Plainsong grabbed me and kept me reading when I should have been working during the day, and sleeping at night. I read about Paddon’s father suffering through the punishing cold and poverty of the Gold Rush, and then how Paddon, trapped unwillingly into the life of a small-town Prairie schoolteacher, struggled to provide food for his family during the Depression.

It made me reflect that we modern people don’t know what work and suffering are compared to what these people went through. Now, we think about “achieving our potential” and “finding fulfilling work”, but people of Paddon’s generation grimly did whatever they could to survive. Most of their work was backbreaking, soul-destroying and boring. They were forced to give up their dreams at a very young age (at university, Paddon thinks he’ll become a great philosopher).

Plainsong depicts (realistically, I think), the way even passionate love and lust could be destroyed by privation and suffering. Some people turned to alcohol as their only comfort, and this often led to the abuse of women and children, victims of previously decent men’s frustration and despair.

Many people died of hunger or disease, or chose suicide as the only possible exit from an unbearable life. There wasn’t much social assistance. Families took care of their own—or didn’t. (In Plainsong, Paddon’s uncle, whom Paddon has been close to since childhood, loses his farm and asks Paddon if he can live with his family. Paddon has to refuse his uncle’s desperate request when his wife pleads with him to save their limited food for their children.)

But some couples’ commitment and loyalty to each other were unshakeable. Today, it’s hard to imagine having the stoicism and sheer capacity for hard work—manual, repetitive work—that my grandparents’ generation had to endure. Men worked like horses and women gave up everything for their children.

Much of the reason I liked Plainsong was because I felt connected to its events. On the surface, this seems absurd—I’m a modern, urban person—how could I possibly relate to the historical events of the settling of the Prairies, the Gold Rush, the World Wars, and the Depression?

Well, my own grandparents lived through most of these events. As a child, I knew three of my grandparents well. One of my grandfathers grew up on a farm; my mother spent her childhood summers at the family farm when it still lacked electricity and running water. I visited the modernized farm and met my second cousins when I was a teenager.

Another way I started learning about “the pioneers” at a very young age was by visiting Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village with my family and on school field trips. (This “living museum” town opened to the public in 1960 and is still thriving now.) The “village” includes many original/restored buildings dating from 1816 to the 1860s. They are filled with furniture and artifacts from the 1800s, and costumed guides explain what daily life and work were like in a small Ontario village in the 1800s. I remember being amazed at how much the pioneers did “from scratch”—for example, not only sewing clothes, but shearing their own sheep for wool, carding the wool, spinning it, weaving it to make cloth, then dyeing it using juices from local berries.

People were similarly self-sufficient with respect to food. They grew everything, using their scarce cash for only a few precious staples. Food was simple—and in the winter, when almost everything was pickled or heavily salted, not very plentiful or appetizing.

Through the shared experience of my parents and grandparents, my personal “family memory” goes back over a hundred years now. Yet I think I’ve absorbed Canadian history and a sense of the roots of Canadian identity more from literature than from personal knowledge.

The first books I read that taught me something about the spirit and daily life of the pioneers who opened up the American (and Canadian) West were Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Wilder’s books tell the story of her childhood as she moves West with her family in a series of covered wagon trips. Reading the sixth book in the series, The Long Winter, I learned that even in a rich country like the United States, whose Eastern states were cultured and sophisticated by the 1880s, people could still starve in the American West when a harsh winter stopped the trains from getting through. (By then, the buffalo were being decimated, an issue that Wilder’s books largely ignore. In contrast, Huston’s Plainsong addresses the issue of how Native Americans were treated; in fact the love of Paddon’s life is a half-breed woman.)

As I got older, I read other Canadian and American classics that taught me more about harsh times in those young nations’ histories: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, and short stories (whose names I don’t remember) set on the bleak and empty prairies. What must it have been like for people to see no one other than their own family members for months at a time? To be completely self-reliant even in times of drought, childbirth, and medical emergencies? I don’t think we, now, can even imagine the loneliness and brutal conditions faced by the early prairie settlers.

Plainsong shares, with the classics I’ve mentioned above, the emotional appeal of complicated characters who are trapped by their historical and geographical settings. The reminded me how much reading has shaped my knowledge of my world, and more specifically, how it contributed to my understanding of what a “Canadian identity” is.

More than that, Plainsong reminded me of the pure pleasure of reading, of being drawn into a world of fictional characters that seems real. Isn’t this the easiest way to learn? I wonder how many young people still read books that take them into the lives of previous generations. And even though I love all the possibilities that the online world has opened up for communication, entertainment, and learning, I feel some regret that my time spent online has caused me to almost abandon my long hours of reading.