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March 23, 2011

The Vicious Circle reads: Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod

This will be the most boring Vicious Circle recap ever– we loved this book. General comments included, “This is the best book we’ve ever read” and “This is the only book we’ve ever read that managed to write about stable relationships.” We marvelled that Alexander MacLeod has not had to exploit the unhinged in order to create compelling short stories, that his stories are about ordinary lives and the points at which those lives shifted and changed, and thereby the stories manage to tell the story of those whole lives before and after based on one single moment in time.

Perhaps we were all blissed out by the onset of Spring (which turned out to be a lie, by the way). It was a sunny Saturday morning in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, and the Toronto skyline was our dramatic backdrop. There was so much food, it was unfathomable (yet delicious) and the coffee was a-brewing. We had two babies in attendance. Just to set the scene.

Oh, there was some criticism, but we mostly forgot what it was. Really, this was the meeting at which The Vicious Circle totally forgot to be vicious.

“Miracle Mile”, it was noted by two of us, was the one story that didn’t seem to get better with rereading. (Three of us were re-reading the whole collection, and we liked it even more than the first time around). Its intensity was noted, which should have made the story’s ending much less surprising than it was. We loved “Wonder About the Parents”, in particular the part where the father is sent back into the truck stop men’s room to retrieve a baby outfit from the garbage can where it had been discarded covered with diarrhea. We did wonder about truck stop men’s rooms with change tables, but this one scenario was so absolutely irrational but made perfect sense– these are the things we do for the people we love. The helplessness of the parents, MacLeod’s depiction of the evolution of their love.

We also loved “Light Lifting”. Many of us noted that we’ve known people just like the characters in this story. We marvelled at how much a writer would have to know about the world in order to write a story like this, the details, like the effects of sunscreen on brick carrying hands. One of us was optimistic about the ending, and hoped terribly that things turned out one way rather than another. This story noted as a perfect example of MacLeod knowing when to step back and let the story happen, to be a voyeur. The steadiness of the voice that tells it– we note that the pivotal moment in this story is never the narrator taking that fateful first drink, which would have been a very easy plot twist.

“Adult Beginner 1” blew minds, and we talked a lot about endings. One of us is from Windsor, and noted how this story resonated as a result of that. Then we noted how it resonated as much for those of us who’ve never seen that Holiday Inn down by the waterfront. One of us who’d been stuck in an undertow once couldn’t quite believe how the story (the whole book?) had got right into her mind. We like how MacLeod writes male and female voices so perfectly. How the whole novel seems to be a mix of gender, a balance (which is rare). That some of us were nervous about reading it because it was perceived as a “male” book and were then surprised by the balance. That this is a book with something for everyone (and the one of us who’d given the book to everyone she knew for Christmas but had only just read it expressed relief that she’d ended up liking the book, and now knew she’d selected the right present.)

“The Loop” was also a very Windsor story. Also, like “Good Kids” after it, a story about nostalgia. How “The Loop” managed to be so very unsentimental, when it would have been so easy. How MacLeod wrote the creepy guy so convincingly. We remarked upon the line in “Good Kids” about the house that was a Bermuda Triangle for hopeful people. About how he writes about families of boys, how they beat the crap out of each other. How he’d nailed it so perfectly, those bands of brothers. Reggie was a bit Owen Meany, we thought.

And then “The Number Three”, which took the car accident and made it far more than a stock plot device. How terribly bad this story could have been, but it wasn’t. Some of us found the auto industry details a bit boring, others thought it was illuminating, the story behind every day objects that we never think about. The story was so sad, but the sadness was something true and more than itself. How this story (like all of them) exists on so many levels. How it’s about one thing, but so many other things at the same time.

We loved this book. We felt a bit sorry for every other book we’ve read lately, which seemed unfairly compared to this one. To ask another book to be Light Lifting was sort of a tall order, but still. One of us reflected that maybe she wasn’t sick of short stories after all. That instead she was “I’m tired of reading uneven collections where the stories are too dependent on quirks for them to be plausible and/or plot-worthy.” (Read her full review here.) There was so much more to MacLeod’s stories, so much more that even though we didn’t hate these stories, we still had a whole lot to talk about regarding them. Which is a rare thing. When consensus still makes for good conversation, but then, with the Vicious Circle conversation makes a point of being good.

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