AMONG, THE anniversaries that were celebrated in 1991, the 20th anniversary of Oberon's Best Canadian Stories ought not to go unmarked. David Helwig, had the idea for such an anthology in 1971; since then, annual collections have brought us fiction by all of Canada's major writers, and some excellent stuff from writers whose names have not become ubiquitous, but who have nevertheless made a contribution to the Canadian short story.
This year's edition contains 11 stories, most of which follow the traditional pattern of relatively linear narrative. A few struggle -with varying degrees of success - toward a form of telling that, more allusive and oblique, often comes closer to the fractured texture of life and experience.
Beverley Daurio's "Intruders" is a complex tale in which narrative, quotation, and imagistic snapshots of what seem to be random moments add Lip to a moving story about a woman of whom "nothing has ever been expected," but whose inner life is rich and passionate, though unfulfilled. Daurio presents each fragment with almost poetic intensity, but the reader has to piece them together to find a story. And the story you find, I suppose, will depend on who, or what, you arc.
There is passion, too, in David Manicom's "Ice in Dark Water," the story of an aged nun confronted with doubt about her vocation, about the relationships she has had within the cloister, and about the calling she has followed all her adult life. It, too, concerns the conflict between human love and the life of the spirit, but most of all it is about the doubt and fear that come from having felt secure for too long. In terms of the argument about appropriation of voice, Manicom who has appropriated both a woman's, and a religious mystics, persona -has written a story suggesting that a good car and a willing sensibility can represent unaccustomed experience with moving clarity.
Margaret Dyment's "Owl Girl" is a story about oddness, about family, about grief, and about how cultivating individuality is both painful and empowering. Cynthia, the owl girl of the story, comes to an understanding of herself, and of her grief at the death of her mother, through the intercession of a snowy owl. This creature is so rare, so ethereal, that Dyment can make it stand as a subtle metaphor for love, self-knowledge, understanding, and an acceptance of things as they are - and must be.
Thomas King is represented by "Traplines," a story set in a Native milieu, which reminds us that we are all - Natives, WASPs, Francophones, or whoever -people first and foremost, sharing similar ambitions and despairs, and trying to cope with similar problems of identity and relationship. In "Traplines," a Native father uses anecdotes of his own upbringing to reflect on the relationship he had with his father, while at the same time trying to observe and influence his relationship with his son. Initially believing that life is a line moving outward and away from the past, he discovers rather that it is a loop, within which similar stories repeat themselves. This is a fine, humane, revealing story.
Eugene McNamara's "Notes Toward a Descriptive Catalogue of Immense Pictures" is a witty, erudite, and engaging piece of writing that weaves a hugely imaginative fiction around the lives, and the immense individual paintings, of the artists Benjamin Haydon, Washington Allston, John Banvard, and their acquaintances who included Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats. McNamara drops names authoritatively, and recreates the artistic and domestic history of his subjects with effortless panache; if the story is entirely fiction, his milieu and characters have the stuff of life about them, while the truth about human nature that underpins the story rewards reflection. Of these 11 fine examples of the contemporary short story in Canada, I would most want Best Canadian Stories 91 for this one, though I'd be glad to have the other 10, too.
The six stories in Joan Givner's second collection, Scenes from Provincial Life, like the multiple reversed images of a face that make Lip the book's striking cover, explore the enigma of experiences that are at once unique and common; mirror images of each other, if you will. They seek to illuminate the epiphanic moments by which, if we are fortunate, we may mark our individual lives and see, fleetingly, what they mean.
The title story deals with homosexuality and its attendant contemporary risks, setting the failing relationship of a couple, Chris and Jed, against a backdrop of deeply rooted prejudice and scorn. It reveals that we -are all alone, all in the final analysis speaking - as Chris does in the last moments of the story, calling a gay help-line - to a recorded message.
"The Saskatoon Letters" examines the long relationship between an eccentric, and wealthy, old woman and the village girl she decides to help elevate. The Saskatoon letters are ones that Miss Maud sends from her regular visits to Canada to her protegee in rural England, and the "otherness" of what they describe makes them into a kind of touchstone of all that is distant and desirable to the impressionable girl; then ultimately a beacon that girl; lights her way to independence of thought and spirit. Ironically, she becomes exactly the opposite of the intelligent slave whom Miss Maud had sought to secure with her apparent generosity and concern - though in a strange way, she becomes a mirror of the older woman, as well.
The core of the collection is a group of stories about writing and art, although they are presented as narratives about individuals. In "The Svava Notebooks "I "Portrait of a Lady," and "Short Story with Footnotes "I Givner explores the nature of "real" truth and artistic truth through characters who are, or are not, who or what they seem to be, and whose stories present intricate and often dazzling insights into personality and the nature of the creative process.
Givner's people and their stories challenge the reader's assumptions about human life, offering complex and provocative ideas in richly imagined settings. Examine her title again; the province it refers to is the whole, extraordinary province of the human experience.