The Dead are More Visible
Steven Heighton (Knopf Canada 2012, trade paperback) 260 pages, $22 cover price
I almost used the N word and cursed myself for the possibility. No, not that N word. I haven’t used that N word since Richard Pryor was Ritchie Pryor. No, I’m referring to that other N word - Novel.
You see, having been around the literary block more than a few times, I know that Steven Heighton’s collection of short stories has as much a chance of hitting the Top Ten bestseller lists as I do of being named Vice-Pope. Some things in life’s possibilities simply do not happen - the Chicago Cubs don’t win the World Series, Donald Rumsfeld has a display cabinet bereft of humanitarian awards, and short story collections are completely off the literary radar.
More’s the pity. Truth be told, Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting and Michael Christie’s Beggar’s Garden may well have been the two of the best three books I reviewed in 2011 (Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending truly was magnifico) and they were both short story collections. From where I sit in May of 2012, The Dead are More Visible is neck-and-neck with Deborah Henry’s novel The Whipping Club as my book of this year.
It’s so mightily silly, how we the casual readers look at short stories as failed attempts at Novels? We don’t do it to any other art form. No one presumably read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and said to Wills, ‘Fourteen lines are good, but real writers go for at least a hundred.’ Then again, Christopher Marlowe was frequently drunk, so heaven knows what would spew out of his mouth.
The point is, if we can accept the snapshot/still photograph as an art form on the same level as the 90 minute feature film, why is there the reflexive dismissal of the short story as either a failure or a prostituting for money. Personally, I blame F. Scott Fitzgerald for the mess he left behind for others to clean. He so dismissed his vast work for The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, Esquire et al as hackwork fishwrap journalism that he thoroughly soiled the field for generations to come.
At that it makes no sense in the modern world where news stories are distributed via Twitter or lengthy think-pieces via Facebook headline. Brevity is preferable in all things except those things which are fictional.
All of the above is just an expanded variation on the phrase - I think you’ll enjoy this. Steven Leighton is a Canadian writer based out of Kingston, Ontario who has a fine sense of the ridiculous in both the comic and tragic senses. Truth be told, I am a lousy audience when it comes to comedy finding myself more interested in how a joke works than simply letting the joke work on me. Therefore, I was delighted when the first story in this volume (those Who Would be More) left me howling.Below, a passage from this tale of a Canadian ESL student in Japan:
All sixteen children had been assigned class names, either by their parents (Clint, Rocky, ABBA, Milk Shake, Waylon, The Phantom, Marvin, Miami, Mickey Rourke) or by Eguchi, who favoured the sort of name she found in the chunky Victorian classics she was grinding through to improve her English: Dorothea , Clelia, Silas, Clement, Edmund, and - for two-and-a-half-year-old Toshiko Watanabe, who, you could tell from her lumpy form and cowpoke wobbe, was still in diapers - George.
No one respects the quiet Beatle. Thematically, these eleven stories could be lumped together as turning points. A 58 year old runner challenging a cyclist in a race the runner is doomed to lose; an adult’s memories of knocking back the parents’ liquor cabinet (including the description of a Bloody Mary that will make your stomach churn) to a student couple locked in the trunk of their car by a car jacker. Leighton re-creates many a vicid memory.
If I have a complaint, it is that I never felt a sense of place,. I did not ‘feel’ Kingston. However, I did indeed feel the angst of however many characters living or re-living their lives. And that really is what life and reading are all about.
Be seeing you.
4.5 out of 5 stars