by Jason Sherman
Drawing on her experience in group psychiatry, in Edna Alfard's new book the voice of the character sometimes takes the story away from the author.
Through the unclean window of the paint chipped cubbyhole of a rented room in downtown Toronto looms the grandeur of the Royal York Hotel. Some people, particularly the kind who perform cross-country book promotions, might see this as a royal slap in the face. But Edna Afford, who has came to Toronto to tall: up her second collection of short stories, has both a keen sense of irony and a dry sense of humour - two qualities in which the characters of her fictions are drenched which allow her to gain perspective on the disparity between her lodgings and the opulence opposite.
"The Writers' Union recommended it to me" is all she has to say about her room, jammed up as she is against the back, of the hall door, half a foot from her interviewer, in the only corner that will accommodate two chairs. Over the, course of the Sunday morning conversation, vacuum cleaners will whirr in the hall, trucks trill negotiate the narrow lanes outside, and the soft-spoken Alford will lean forward occasionally to speak about sanctions. Not the sort of sanction we've been hearing about lately, but the sort that has people, many people from her distant and recent past, teller her that it's all right to want to write.
Over the past five years, Alford has proved them correct. In 1981 Oolichan Books published A Sleep Fill of Dreams, a collection of 14 short inter-related stories set almost entirely in a home for the aged. Most are told through Aria, a young nurse echo daydreams about naked frolics in the park to escape the burden of pampering tottering, incomprehensible, incontinent old women. Most of the boot; relies heavily on traditional story telling techniques (the result of what Alford remembers as a strong oral tradition in her family), but there is also a narrative voice that transforms commonplace objects and familiar language into a surreal vision of grotesque proportions. In an early scene reminiscent of Kafka's The Penal Colony, Miss Bole is placed on "the hoyer," a machine that aids in the bathing of invalid patients:
Aria fitted the piece of canvas high under the woman's buttocks. It was wet and cold against the old woman's skin and she shivered as she rolled back over the top of tire canvas diaper.
Aria wheeled the hoyer under the bed and swung it round so that its long steel arm bavered cold and impersonal above the great white mass of white flesh. The steel arm had hooks like claws that dangled downward from the ends of four separate chains. Aria inserted each clew into the steel holes riveted into the canvas diaper . . . . Miss Bole's eyes usually looked as if they were made of chocolate . . . . Right now these eyes protruded, glassy, almost black with the fear of what seemed to the old woman uncontrolled and sinister levitation.
A Sleep Full of Dreams received due attention, and then some. "Her debut is cause for celebration," wrote the usually more reserved William French in the Globe and Mail. Jack Hodgms, with whom Alford had studied in Saskatchewan; went somewhat further, describing his review in Books in Canada as "the written equivalent of a fanfare. Announcement, announcement! If you care about the short story at all, sit up and pay attention." On the strength of her one book of stories Alford was named co-winner of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, presented to a writer at the beginning of a career by the League of Canadian Poets and the Writers' Union of Canada (whose taste in writers is far better than their choice of hotels). More recently, she was invited to the Queen's Conference in Kingston, held, as co-organizer John Metcalf stressed, to celebrate the work of "young writers." Alford tends to laugh off such attention ("One of the things I dealt with in A Sleep Full of Dreams was discrimination on the basis of age"), but concedes she finds value in literary gatherings: "I like the idea of writers getting together and talking."
That should come as no surprise. Born in Turtleford, Sask., in 1947 had now a resident of livelong, Sask., Alford lives far from urban writing ghettos, where one need only walk a block to stumble on to a reading. She appreciates the effort made by prairie writers to get together and chew the fat. "These people" û she rhymes off a dozen well known names - "would go incredible distances to form groups, workshops. They would go to extraordinary lengths. And they had an amazing adaptive capacity."
Encouraged by studies at the University of Saskatchewan with Christopher Wiseman ("an extraordinary creative writing teaches - he was interested in the voice, not the writer") and at the Saskatchewan School for the Arts, Afford was still not prepared for the reception to A Sleep Full of Dreams. "The critical reception was encouraging. It was another sanction. But along with that comes a responsibility, a mandate to speak. When A Sleep Full of Dreams came out, I began to travel across the country and became more involved with the book. I thought it was finished, but instead it spread this net. I found myself even more aware of the problems [the mistreatment of the elderly] I was addressing."
Her new collection, Tire Garden of Eloise Loon, contains no such overt sociological observations. The 14 stories are, however, informed by Alford's background in group psychiatry, where she became interested in the idea of "concretization of language," a disorder in which a person interprets metaphors literally. In The Garden Of Eloise Loon reality is transformed into a blur of images, of movements in a foggy world where what you do becomes less important than what you say.
Many of the stories read tike the Gothic writings of the U.S. South. A man retrieves the frozen fingers of his recently deceased friend to carry them to his funeral and place them next to the body. Finding no container to transport the fingers, he puts them in the front pocket of his light-coloured pants, where a blood-and-water stain forms. In another story, a woman crawls into an occupied casket, face-to-face with the body.
The narrators do not judge the rightness or wrongness of these actions, partly because Alford refuses to judge her characters. Most of the interest comes from her preoccupation with language. Throughout these stories the banality of action is juxtaposed against the oddity of speech. In the title story, an everyday activity triggers word-play:
When she got off the bus at Trestle, she began to walk, stopping from time to tinge to talk to herself, to ask herself where she thought she was going with one cardboard suitcase and open-toed shoes, the snow blowing up her skirt, the cold obscenely creeping into the crotch of her panty hose. The noise, the whining wind, instead of dying, rose and covered her head with the sound of something white, all white and smothering and warm, a swarm of white, like cats in her-head. a thousand white and mewling cats. Then howling, bitter ripping cats. Then no cats.
Then no white. Then no sound.
The narrator imitates the woman's free associations, a mindless patter that descends into a frenzied accumulation of images. In this case, the language does draw attention to itself just as, in many of the outer stories, characters notice odd phrasings, not add doings. The idea seems to be that in a world where language is responsible for truly unusual actions and disorders, it is the language, not the actions, that must be questioned if solutions are to be found.
Alford takes this approach to its inevitable and - for the writer dangerous extreme in a story called "The Bid." A woman finds herself led to an end-of-the-world sale where a Whole Earth Catalog of goodies is up for grabs.
Just as she is about to bid, the story abruptly shifts tone: "For the first time, I refused to deliver the lines assigned what were supposed to be my last lines in this card' This is the point at which characters begin to act of their own accord, to speak in their own words (or in words substantially different froth those in the rest of the story). It is also the place where the author is most vulnerable.
"The voice that comes in there is not the author's voice," says Alford. "I came to call it the Voice of the Character of Characters. What that voice does is take the story away from the author." Alford wrote "The Bid" with an idea of how it would proceed: "I thought I knew how it would end when I got to the auction scene. I thought she was going to make a bid. But that vision was totally unacceptable to me."
Authorial intrusion, social conscience, or writer's block: whatever the cause, the effect is dizzying. For a straightforward narrative to be able to make such a leap of faith, credibly, is a tribute to Alford's talent and to her sincerity as a writer. Perhaps five dears down the road we will have the opportunity to see whether she is able to reconcile her own voice and vision with the many voices and visions of her characters.