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January 9, 2011

The Vicious Circle reads Making Light of Tragedy by Jessica Grant

Though not essential to our discussion of Jessica Grant’s novel Making Light of Tragedy, you should probably know that it was my turn to host a meeting of the Vicious Circle, and that we had to make it a brunch affair because my apartment is too small to accommodate both such a noisy group of women and the sleeping baby that an evening would require . So the baby was banished to the museum for the morning, along with her father, even though there was an actual blizzard and he had to push the stroller through snow that came up to his knees. And even though there was an actual blizzard, the entire cast of the Vicious Circle made it through, even two mothers of newborn babies, and one of the said newborns too. My kitchen was drowning in a sea of snowy boots.

I’d chosen the short story collection Making Light of Tragedy, because I’d read Grant’s novel Come Thou Tortoise, and I’d heard her first book was even better. And because, while I’d liked Come Thou Tortoise, I’d suspected there was an even better writer struggling to get out there, and perhaps the story collection could shed some light upon her. That Grant’s talent might have been pushed further than the novel itself had permitted her to go.

We all agreed that the collection was an excellent book club book, which was a fine point to start from, but then it all fell apart from there. Incredible, the range of reactions, from a group of people who seemed to like the book all around. But one of us could scarcely get past the first story, for it was so wowing (her Journey Prize award winning “My Husband’s Jump”). And then a few others said if they hadn’t been reading this for book club, they would have abandoned it altogether after the first few stories, which would have been regretful for they so liked the stories that came later. All of us pronounced the book uneven, a bit too long. Unanimously, we decided that the book could well have shed “George the Third Wasn’t Mad Forever”. Some of us loved “My Husband’s Jump” for its rather incongruous grounding, but others determined it far too twee. One of us found “Della Renfrew” particularly tedious, but another defended it with line after, admittedly, hilarious line.

If you like your prose unadorned, this is not the book for you. But there were moments and metaphors that worked, that forced you to look twice but never took you right out of the story. There were experiments that were interesting but never quite worked– “Bellicrostic” (and, tellingly, only one of us bothered to find out if the word was real [and it wasn’t], though each of us meant to), “There I Am”. “The Anxiety Exhibit” also seemed like one of these, until you got to the very end.

The biggest problem with “Plow Man” was that this bereft middle aged man had the exact same voice as all of Grant’s slightly unhinged twenty-something female characters. The similarity in voice a problem throughout the book– the four narrators of “The Loss of Thalia” all sounded identical, for example. Yes, admitted the story’s one defender, but each one added a surprising layer of meaning. The jury was still out on the final and longest story, “Milaken”– a couple of us hadn’t yet finished it, but the story had its defenders too. Some of us had really liked “The Dean of Humanities”, though it was noted that we might not have liked it as much had it not been preceded by the more whimsical tales of the bunch– perhaps we were just relieved to be back in reality? (Some of us still think we would have liked it all the same.) One of us thought she’d got the male voice nailed right in “Taxation”. And “Ugly And” as well, the one story we all mostly liked all around.

We liked the title, though it didn’t bring the collection together (as the Plow Man wasn’t making light of anything, was he?). We thought the cover image was awful and horribly unappealing. That the collection wasn’t brought together by anything at all, and read very much as a collection of pieces that had first been published elsewhere, as opposed to something cohesive. Need a story collection be cohesive (and we thought of Sarah Selecky and Alexander MacLeod’s books)? Not necessarily, but perhaps the problem was that this one was far too long. Out with King George! And a few others we’d never agree on.

We talked about Burning Rock, and how difficult it would be to be in a writing group with Lisa Moore. That everyone’s prose looks crap beside hers. This led to a long, long discussion about the merits of Lisa Moore’s February, which the Vicious Circle appears to be disproportionately fond of.  There was much praise for Jessica Grant’s caustic wit, for the two guns moment. But some of these pieces felt overly workshopped. We talked about how a few of us were going to read Come Thou Tortoise now, on the basis of Grant’s collection, having been previously put off on the basis of the talking tortoise (which works better than it sounds). And we talked about how having read this book, at least one of us wished Come Thou Tortoise had been better.

Aren’t people funny?

And isn’t agreeing to disagree always easier to do over sausages, pancakes and french toast?

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