These two collections, each consisting of six stories and a novella, are by Vancouver-based writers who have recently emerged from British Columbia's creative writing programs, and bear the stamp that readers have come to expect from that source. In fact, the recent crop of graduates is so good and so numerous that it has caused journalists to pontificate once more on the effectiveness of creative writing classes. My favourite word on that topic is Flannery O'Connor's response to the question "Do creative writing courses stifle writers?" She replied that they don't stifle enough. "There's many a good creative writing teacher that could have prevented a bestseller."
Both Schroeder and Hunter have remained gloriously and deservedly unstifled, a vindication if one is needed of the teaching process. They are technically sophisticated, fully aware of previous literary traditions, yet on the cutting edge of current trends, and well able to situate their own work.
Schroeder sets his stories in a range of Asian countries. He tells one story from the point of view of Amin, a dying man, semi-delusional and hallucinating, who travels from the depths of the country to town in search of medicine from an old friend who is a pharmacist. Reading it on the week of Eudora Welty's death reminded me of her much-anthologized story, "A Worn Path," about an old black woman walking to town on a similar mission. Such projects are more dangerous in Schroeder's post-colonial times than in 1941 when Welty published hers. He is fully aware of that fact, and his collection constitutes a kind of on-going dialogue with earlier artists who have worked cross-culturally. These include Joseph Conrad, William Golding, the film maker Francis Coppola, and the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a contemporary and colleague of Darwin. One of his protagonists, a Dutch painter in Bali slightly suggests Gaugin in Tahiti.
Schroeder uses the oldest of story forms¨the odyssey. Most of his characters are engaged in journeys across foreign territory. He has a clearly defined view of the world and an attitude towards it that modulates between sympathy, irony, and hilarity. His fine comic sense produces effects that range from subtle to broadly humourous. Most of his travellers are in the grip of delusions, illusions, or mythological and religious systems that make their quests futile from the start, and which prevent them from understanding other human beings. Not only that, but the signs and messages they send and receive all go awry, get misunderstood or are endlessly deferred. Nevertheless, his characters' isolation, courage, and determination to press on is often rendered very poignantly.
The dying Amin, for instance, discovers that the pharmacist he seeks has been dead for years. Nor was he a benign helper so much as a partner in crime who finally betrayed him. ( Callous personal betrayal is a recurrent theme). The Dutch painter on Bali, as he is rounded up by the Japanese, tries to send a message to the former model he loves, unaware that it is this same young man who has delivered him into the hands of his captors. The lad from Borneo who has loyally served a naturalist for seven years, wanders around Singapore in search of his fellow tribesmen before he leaves for England. But his master has no intention of taking him along, and he is dumped at the dock watching the ship depart without him. He is still wearing the velvet suit that was hastily run up so that he could enter a hotel and spend a last night serving his master.
The novella "Beautiful Feet" is the mainly comic account of a worker with the Vancouver Parks Board who loses his job and sets out with his family on a vaguely-defined mission to do God's work in the Philippines. "Once they've got MTV they won't look at you," he is warned. When, after penetrating ever more remote regions, he eventually finds potential converts, they have been exposed to something more seductive than MTV. They live among the remnants of a film set. The film that was made there was Apocalypse Two, Coppola's 1979 "take" on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Their sacred texts are fragments of the film's dialogue and the objects of their worship are a confused blend of Willard and Kurtz (characters from the film and the fiction respectively), and Marlon Brando¨a wonderful image for the means by which objects of worship, religious or secular, are constructed in our time!
Aislinn Hunter also uses her residence abroad to good effect, although the time is the twentieth century and the location European and therefore less exotic than Schroeder's territory. Her fictional territory is also less exotic, for the risk she takes is in choosing such well-used subject matter that clichTs are an ever-present danger¨heterosexual love affairs, star-crossed lovers, unrequited love, and domestic discord. It's a bold thing to take up well-worn material and render it fresh and surprising and Hunter succeeds, sometimes brilliantly. The short stories are less remarkable than the ambiguously titled novella "What's Left Us."
The novella belongs to that sub-genre¨the fallen woman¨a long-time favourite with men of letters, and in the Twentieth Century given many a new twist by women writers. Hunter describes a young woman who is "seduced" by a married man from a higher social class, finds herself pregnant, and gives birth to an "illegitimate child." She nods to the plots of romantic literature by labeling one section "Rereading the Great Romances" and another, "Rereading the Great Romances 2". The latter begins with the line: "It's Jane Eyre all over again..."
All the same, the piece is more reminiscent of "Mrs Dalloway," in its portrayal of a woman in the context of a patriarchal society. It is similarly structured as an interior monologue by Emma, who assesses her past and present life, as she walks about London during a defined period of time. Although Emma's peregrination takes place during the last month of a pregnancy rather than during the course of one day, there is the same cyclical effect. The culminating event of the novella is a birth in a delivery room rather than a party in a drawing room.
Hunter uses the somewhat unusual second person singular for her narrative. While Emma directs her musings at herself, the effect of that "you" is to generalize her particular experience, elevate it to the archetypal, and make it inclusive of the reader. The musings cover not only the love affair and how it came about, but the influence of genetic heritage over human lives, the role of accidents, and the possibility of distinguishing between what is controllable in human experience and what is inevitable.
The narrative is divided into forty-two sections, each with its separate heading, a device indicative of the attempt to order the experiences and, at the same time suggest, because the headings are diverse and often incongruous, the impossibility of doing so¨To Let, In This, The Facts, Stations (on the tube), The Old Stand (a pub), and The Houses We Build. The motif of the house or room of one's own runs throughout. Emma's lover is an architect with a special interest in domestic architecture, "the Georgian style being his favourite." Emma has grown up in two rooms in her grandparents' house before moving to a two-room flat of her own. Her mother (who has preceded her as an unwed mother) makes a hobby of creating ornate and fragile birdhouses. Every detail in this superbly crafted work casts a long shadow.
Because anything tagged with the word "debut" invites speculation about the future, the question of what will come next is unavoidable for debut collections. An indication of future directions is built into both these books. In each one the novellas are the crowning achievement, but when they are read after the short stories, it is possible to see how the strands of the stories were woven with greater dexterity into the longer forms.
Schroeder's story "Distance," anomalous in the collection because it is set in Europe rather than Asia, prefigures many of the components of the novella "Beautiful Feet." It is set in Prague, which had one of the oldest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, and was the scene of persecution from the time of the Crusaders. In the story the use of such a place as the medieval setting for a Hollywood movie, provides scope for comedy on subjects similar to those targeted in "Beautiful Feet." But the comparison emphasizes the greater maturity and assurance of the longer piece. It seems to me that in "Distance" the fine line between trivializing Jewish experience and satirizing the trivializing of Jewish history is not quite taut enough.
Similarly Hunter's story "The Last of It" contains many components of the novella. The story describes a list-making woman, in a troubled relationship, living in a borrowed flat, and engaging in second-person singular musings. Reading the spare version against the more ambitious one shows the increasing assurance in the writer's deployment of her material.
There are dangers inherent in remarkable debuts as in other good performances. They may be so good that the artist has exhausted all his resources and peaked early. Or they may be so well-received that they tempt the artist to repeat herself. But the skill and intelligence with which these two writers have navigated their courses so far seems to auger very well for their next books. ˛