April 13, 2014
Shorts: New books by Doretta Lau and Gillian Wigmore
I first read Doretta Lau in The Journey Prize Stories with the story from which her first collection takes its title. “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” is the story of a group of Chinese-Canadian young people growing up in Vancouver who repurpose racist language and stereotypes for their own devices. It was so smart, daring and surprising, but most of all funny, and I’ve been looking forward to this collection ever since. Revisiting that story underlined my first impression, and I was once again stirred by its powerful conclusion in which the friends raucously paint over a mural depicting colonial scenes, ending up with an expanse of empty beige wall. And it’s as though in her stories, Lau picks up where the vandals left off, portraying the experiences of Asian-Canadians in her story but not in the ways in which we’re familiar with seeing them depicted in Canadian literature–heroic immigrant tales, family sagas.
For there is nothing familiar about Lau’s approach in her best stories, her reader dazzled by the possibilities of her fictional worlds in which the usual rules don’t apply. The rules of language, for one, as in “How does a single blade of grass…?”, and then the rules of physics in “God Damn, How Real Is This?”, in which people begin receiving text messages from their future selves, which sends the order of the world into chaos, or “Two Part Invention,” whose main character’s determination to start dating dead men leads to a relationship with Glenn Gould.
A few of the other stories, usually about lovelorn characters without purpose who live alone in apartments, blurred together a bit, lacking the focus and definition of the strongest stories in the book. But ultimately, this slim collection is impressive, marking the exciting debut of an original voice.
I wasn’t sure I would love Grayling, a novella by poet Gillian Wigmore. It takes place over the course of a canoe trip through Northwestern BC, has just two characters—none of the people and concrete I like best in my books. And yet, from the first sentence I was hooked, Wigmore’s remarkable prose creating an incredible momentum that parallels her character Jay’s journey on the Dease River. On the run after a health crisis, Jay is paddling to get anywhere, rather than to somewhere specific, but he is interrupted in his personal quest by a girl he meets en-route who sweet talks her way into his boat. The two characters’ personalities are often at odds, their company in so remote a place creating a curious intimacy between them. And we get to know them by what they choose to tell one another, knowing them even better too by their mysteries, by what they choose to withhold. The stories they exchange, their questions without answers, serve to add layers of meaning to the immediate action portrayed in the book and cast a kind of spell.
Wigmore’s writing is incredibly sensual, her prose vivid with bodies and their feelings (and their food!). The connection between the two characters is so rich and complex, resisting cliches and ever fresh, and so too is her story, which would earn a place in my hypothetical “Death By Landscape” anthology, even though no one dies exactly, because that too would be too easy, but instead her ending is mysterious and shocking, unsettling and swift.
Grayling was a runner-up for the 1st Search for the Great BC Novel contest, and one can certainly see how it stuck out in the crowd. For a debut novel, this one is remarkably assured, and here’s hoping that the multi-talented Wigmore has more fiction in store for us.