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February 5, 2011

Canada Reads Independently 3: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

I may be crucified for admitting this, but I didn’t enjoy reading Mavis Gallant’s collection Home Truths, though the stories themselves, they’re a whole other thing. When I finished reading “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”, I had to close the book, catch my breath, and put my head back together. A story that hooked me with its opening lines, “Now that they’re out of world affairs and back where they started, Peter Frazier’s wife says, ‘Everybody else did well in the international thing except us.” The story is a scathing treatment of “the international thing” and the people who do it well or otherwise, a pathetic, tragic climax, ill-considered hobo costume, Saskatchewan evoked in the wilds of Geneva. What a trick to render the hollowness of life so very richly.

The collection opens with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”, a perfect formula. Malicious girls in private school uniforms, and the coldest, most precise and shivery ending: “[Ruth] wondered if she would ever care enough about anyone to make all the mistakes those around her had made during the rainy-day tea with Mrs. Holland. She breathed on the window, idly drew a heart, smiled placidly, let it fade.” The book proceeds with characters caring enough to make all manner of mistakes– a young girl who rejects a playmate for her more sophisticated cousin; young girl abroad whose choice of lover lands her with inevitable heartbreak; Lottie Benz who goes to Europe, seeing the whole world as a pet project, but an acquaintance from home keeps her from making her neat arrangements, and forces her to reconsider the parameters of her life (which is another way of saying that she grows up).

In her pitch, Carrie Snyder referred to the collection as “a smorgasbord for the mind”, but I confess that it was just too much for me to digest. The stories were so deep and involving that to move from one to the other was simply disorienting. (This is not a problem I usually have with short story collections. I love the idea of collections offering glimpses into window after window, and I am, after all, a veritable peeping tom.) These stories are exquisite, yes, but many are far from short, and they’re not ideally presented together in book form. Though the edition has given the book overall a definite structure (“At Home”, “Canadians Abroad” and “Linnet Muir”), these stories are not necessarily enhanced by being considered together.

I take full responsibility for this as a reader. For not having the kind of time to consider each of these stories singularly, as they’re intended to be. But perhaps these stories are best considered within the context of whatever issue of The New Yorker each one first appeared in, which places for them, I think, fully at home in the wide literary world. We’re also really talking novels for Canada Reads Independently, and though I might argue that any one of these stories on its own conveys as much depth as a novel, if not more, the effect of all of them together is overwhelming to compare book-for-book.

Now, Carrie Snyder notes that she chose this book primarily for its Linnet Muir stories, however, Muir being the narrator and protagonist of the final third of stories in Home Truths and to consider these, I’d like to shift gears a little bit. Linked short stories have a bad rap these days, a cheap way for publishers to sell a novel that isn’t (for writers to write one). But I would argue that the best collections of linked stories possess a range of perspectives not possible in other forms, and a greater chance of coming close to presenting something like truth.

This is apparent in the Linnet Muir stories, which present the same characters and events in different contexts. And interestingly, because they weren’t necessarily intended to be published together, contain a great deal of repetition in order to establish the facts of Linnet’s life, repetition that would be edited out of a novel’s first draft, but which becomes almost a meditation here. Characters who are secondary in one story are in the spotlight in the next. There is flux, there are many plots, some fizzle out and go nowhere, characters grow up and change their minds, and this is kind of what life is.

“Between Zero and One” was my favourite story in this section, Linnet Muir considering the world of men which she becomes privy to as the sole female working in a Montreal office during World War 2, and how other women could be just as complicit as men in ensuring women’s place as a “third-class immigrant”. In many of the stories, she’s reflecting on her parents, who were too young and too consumed in their own affairs to be present to her as a child, and who are both lost to her now. Linnet is coming of age as she looks back on the vanished world of her childhood, vanished doubly for having disappeared at the beginning of September 1939. Wartime is the backdrop of “Varieties of Exile”, which (like many of these stories) talked around and around itself, avoiding the epicentre to the point where I began to question its architecture, but came to a sad and illuminating conclusion that gave me the strange feeling that this story’s destination and not the journey was necessarily the point (though the latter will be entirely worthwhile upon rereading).

These stories are difficult, and I might suggest that “precise” is an adjective that rarely applies. Not that these stories aren’t deliberately constructed, the imprecision itself deliberate somehow, but there is a muddledness to the prose– lines that could mean any number of things. “I did not forget her, but I forgot about her” says Linnet about the godmother who fails to follow through, and though the line rings familiar, sparkles with insight, what she means exactly is unclear. Which triples the stories’ already-expansiveness.

I’ve also failed to really get to the point, because there are too many points to be considered. Instead of glimpses into one window after another, I kept getting lost in mansions. And so although Gallant should top any list, I can’t put her at the top of this one, but then Home Truths is really a book that belongs in a class of its own.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:

1) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

2) Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

3) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

8 thoughts on “Canada Reads Independently 3: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant”

  1. Gallant’s prose may be many things – ironic, cold, spare, unforgiving – but it is NEVER muddled. There has rarely lived a more precise writer. EVERY word counts, and EVERY word is there for a reason. Ambiguous, yes. Muddled, never.

  2. Kerry says:

    I was thinking the prose embodies same foggy muddle so many of her characters inhabit– of course, there is real, crafted deliberateness in these stories. And less than “unprecise”, I think I mean that they aren’t “taut”. By which I mean that everything has hidden weight, and yes, is ambiguous.

  3. Susan Telfer says:

    Home Truths is one of the best books of fiction I have read in my life. That was true when I was 20 and true when I was 40,

    1. Kerry says:

      See, I know I should have loved it, but I would have been lying if I said I did. I never said it wasn’t an amazing book of fiction though. You are right about that.

  4. Carrie says:

    I think you responded fairly, Kerry. And who knows, you might have something–that the book isn’t meant to be read straight through or consumed novel-like. In fact, I suppose that isn’t how I’ve read Mavis Gallant over the years. I dip in. I seek out my favourites. (“Ice Wagon” being one of them). She does love ambiguity. But I would have to agree with Steven–I also consider her to be an extremely precise writer. Polished. Her polish is almost a flaw, if you know what I mean–she’s not raw enough, or too formal, for the reader of today. But I guess I love that precision and formality. I love the old-fashioned craft, and the depth of each story.
    It was really hard choosing which Gallant collection to suggest … there are so many other amazing stories not included in this one.

    1. Kerry says:

      I am so glad you chose Gallant– the stories were amazing. “Ice Wagon” in particular, yes. Thank you, Carrie!

  5. I completely understand how reading them cramped in together would have been an overwhelming reading experience. It took me a few weeks to work through the collection, and I still felt as though I was rushing because there is so much to absorb in every story.

    It’s as though all the characters existed elsewhere, with full lives beyond the story, and we –as readers– were dropped into their lives for only 30 pages worth of events, but left with the weight of their lifetimes.

    Now I’m reading From the Fifteenth District and thinking that reading a story a month might work out well for me!

    1. Kerry says:

      “we –as readers– were dropped into their lives for only 30 pages worth of events, but left with the weight of their lifetimes.”

      Yes yes! To me, that’s what every short story writer should aim for, and they’ll end up with fewer readers wondering what happens next, or when they’ll finally get around to writing a novel. But it’s certainly a lot to ask of any writer, any story. Gallant is in a league of her own.

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