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Chris Benjamin: MacLeod hits all his notes, Animal Person, Alexander MacLeod.

More than a decade ago, Alexander MacLeod showed unusual patience with his debut short story collection, Light Lifting. Patience in his delivery, care in his craft. Not a word out of place, some would say. The collection itself was the result of more than a decade of story writing and publishing one at a time in literary journals. Great short stories take time to master, and the bevy of jury recognitions his debut garnered was more indication MacLeod had put in the work. 
Eleven years later, we can finally savour a second collection, Animal Person. I’m told that linked story collections are easier to sell than the hodgepodge variety of whatever themes strike a writer’s fancy. Were I to find a connection among these stories, it’s simply that the author has panache for representation. Whether by way of metaphor, symbol, allegory, or some more subtle technique, MacLeod makes his words do double duty. An astute description of a moment often becomes a deeper observation of life on Earth. Each of these stories is about one thing, and then a much bigger thing.
Sometimes that ability to turn a single moment into a bigger picture stems from a character’s own hindsight, like when the middle-aged narrator of “Lagomorph” reminisces about the time before the children grew up and moved away: “It was the moment just before they made the turn into what they are now.” And now? “We never lived together again.”
But he further distills developments into less self-aware times and habits, things many couples do when they aren’t investing in their relationship with one another, a series of decisions that later seem costly. “Neither of us would ever watch the other person’s shows and there were arguments, real arguments, about who should have the power to decide if an overhead light should be turned off or turned on.”
“Lagomorph,” like all of the stories in this collection, keeps adding layers. It seems to be about those little things and more and more becomes about a really big thing. If there is a single line that captures its theme, it’s this one: “Fullness was what we were always aiming for.” The narrator is talking about backyard plants, but we read so much more given the context of slowly eroding relationships, about the order of things in heaven and earth versus fleeting human desire.
One of the most haunting stories in the collection is “The Ninth Concession,” another retrospective story, this one focusing on boyhood, the loss of innocence and an awakening to more complex geopolitical realities. All set in an Ontario farming community. The story centres on two boys, one poor (“. . . everything we did felt like a compromise”) and one the son of wealthy landholders. Here, MacLeod uses the Sears Wish Book catalogue brilliantly, as a symbol of desire and division, the two boys ritualistically choosing items they’d like to have, from pages, only one of them knowing his every wish could be granted.
A third class is added with the arrival of migrant farm workers, who are welcome on the rich family’s property, but are there only for specific labours at a certain time of year. They know their role, and one spends awkward moments “trying to touch the deck as little as possible with his boots” as the boys play in the pool.
It is this same worker who risks everything to protect one of the naïve boys. Again, through the benefit of hindsight, our narrator sees greater significance in each of these moments than he could have known at the time. With MacLeod’s skill in structuring these moments, the whole thing is conveyed seamlessly. Although the story telescopes in on specific moments, we are left with a sense of nostalgia, longing for that time before innocence is lost. At the same time, we are given a greater awareness of time’s significance, that each moment is precious because change is relentless, and it has merciless impacts on individuals and communities.
My favourite story in this collection, “The Entertainer,” also struck me as the most technically difficult. MacLeod balances the perspectives of three musical narrators, no easy task in a short story. They each share the same moment, and each has a few of their own as well. The varied points of view pay off beautifully, setting three separate tensions — a boy’s fear of public humiliation, his teacher’s fear of a longer term failing, and an elderly man’s fear for his wife’s safety — on a collision course.
Again, the moment is one thing, the characters see another thing (or things), and the story is about something else altogether. The boy is suffering through the awkward changes of pubescence. “I feel like I can barely hold on to anything anymore. Can’t read a book, can’t listen to the teacher in school . . .”
The boy’s music teacher is in something of an early-adulthood crisis, underpaid as a music teacher, and in a make-or-break moment with her performance career.
The elderly man is full of love for and frustration with his wife; he remains an ardent fan of what she was. “Nothing made her more furious than witnessing another person suffer embarrassment.”
The climactic moment is a virtuosic celebration of the power of music. Music represents us, unites us, and is a universal connecter of worlds. To write about music risks having one’s words pale in comparison to listening to it, but MacLeod hits all his notes and the ending truly sings.
There also are a few stories in the collection that give poignant insight into human-made objects. I sense the author has a fascination with such things, not in a materialistic sense but rather as a literary artist observes things. Each item its own story.
But MacLeod stays with the characters as they encounter unusual objects. In “What Exactly Do You Think You’re Looking At?” the narrator has a compulsion for taking people’s luggage and looking through their personal things. He describes his own self as a small object, “inside a larger system, a vast network of coordinated movement.” When he’s forced to attend the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, he is shocked by the senselessness of grand objects on the floats passing by, “one absurdity after the other.”
And in “Once Removed,” a young couple is conscripted into moving a gaudy chandelier from a great aunt-in-law’s neighbour’s apartment into a collection of stunning collected possessions. “There was a collection of handmade quilts symmetrically displayed on a frame of tiered rungs. And a crude amateur painting of a river flowing through some trees. And war medals with their velour boxes open. And a taxidermy fox.” The paragraph goes on at length. These are things older people wanted preserved, protected from the grubby hands of others or, worse, the scrap heap.
These items, for their owners, represent memories. Moments. The moments that gain significance in remembering them years later, in context and perspective of a life lived. There aren’t all that many actual animals or animal lovers in Animal Person. There’s a rabbit and a man who grows to care about it. There’s a terrifying shark encounter. And there’s that taxidermy fox.
The animals are the people, often living on instinct, feeling rational in the moment. With the benefit of context and hindsight, they show themselves to be at the mercy of greater environmental forces. Like all people, they are animals, living moments, accumulating memories that gain significance in the context of expert storytelling.
— Chris Benjamin
is the author of four books, including Boy With a Problem, shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction.