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Tommy Duggan: Review of Best Canadian Stories 2023

For the 52nd time Biblioasis has bestowed to readers a Best Canadian Stories for our edification and pleasure. Comprising 15 stories and available at $22.95 (or about a buck-fifty a story-pop), it is, at the risk of pre-empting the rest of this review, almost certainly worth your cash and the armchair-time to imbibe.

The first iterations of Best Canadian were released during a period of WASP-y literary navel gazing and political anxiety over what it means to be Canadian—when governments funded national transportation and communications networks to connect Canadians and toiled to create a fiction of nationhood. Later editions, especially under then-editor John Metcalf, were known for their strong editorial positions, pushing and pulling at the tectonic plates of Canada’s literary landscape. The 52nd edition, appearing post-neoliberal chop-up of state assets, coincides with a period of post-modern identity assertion, fragmentation and reconstitution. Most of the infrastructure built to create a notion of “Canadian” are long-ago liquidated and the remaining, like the CBC or healthcare, stagnate through neglect. It goes without saying that ideas and obsessions about what constitutes Canada, or a good short story, have obviously fluctuated.

Editorial polemics have loosened in recent years, and editor Mark Anthony Jarman’s introduction avoids explicit principles for how he picked and chose. The pieces drawn from writers who were born in, moved to, or spent considerable time in the entity we call Canada are sourced from literary magazines and publications from around the globe. Referencing the diversity of writers and settings, Jarman offers a post hoc observation, perhaps hinting at his selection aesthetic that, “[f]or better or worse, [Canadian writers] are global.”

Stylistically, the collection is mostly within the bounds of the conventional Western short story form. The two most formally daring are David Bezmozgis’ “The Test” and Jowita Bydlowska’s “Mother.” “The Test” begins with a series of conjectures—a prelude to a romance—that snowballs to climax. It is the closest to a prose poem we find in Best Canadian this year and is a contemplation of love’s solidity in dangerous times. In “Mother” the audacity appears in how far Bydlowska will take certain recognizable conceits to an extreme: the narrator as self-aware writer, writing about being a writer, and comparing her real-life situations to how they would look in her writing. We have a protagonist on a knife’s edge of likeability: worldly, cynical and completely out of touch with her inner self. Using only a metaphorical microscope and telescope with which to see the world, our protagonist fights to shield herself from the emotional present.

Veteran storyteller Caroline Adderson’s contribution to the collection, “All our Auld Acquaintances Are Gone,” mixes close observation with gripping suspense as we follow a rough-sleeping, addiction-addled woman and her accomplice as they scour holiday parties to rob. Adderson pulls our nerves apart like taffy as we follow the protagonist’s conflicted drives to survive and escape. Along with David Huebert’s “Oil People,” this is one of the more virtuosic stories in an outstanding collection. Both authors layer literary techniques, atmosphere and plot in ways that reward rereading. In “Oil People” Huebert lends his poetic, rich style to a story of nine-year-old Jade as she grapples with bullying and her family’s past glory as oil tycoons. The family tries to truck on its oil-soaked legacy by running a museum in tribute to bygone boom days. Huebert imbues the atmosphere with references to Chernobyl, animal mutations and details that pulsate through veins of a “curious circuitry of blue.” Even the lowly Tobacco bottle is carefully rendered with “its glimmering fish-green necktie, the strange red glow of its core.”

With Kate Cayley, we have the expertly drawn Avery, a Camille Paglia-adjacent professor: fiery, passionate but world-weary, who finds a new spark in a youthful YouTube celebrity. There is a lot going on here: debates on sex, art and aesthetics, a sort of Fitzgerald-esque pining for youth, and late-life thoughts on family and legacy. Caley pulls it all together beautifully. Where Bydlowska leaves room for ambiguous feelings about her protagonist, it is hard not to root for the equally complicated Avery in “A Death.”

Alexandra Mae Jones’ “How to Fake a Breakdown” cleverly and humorously addresses alienation, family, and the romanization of mental illness. While a relative newcomer to published fiction—her debut novel The Queen of Junk Island came out in 2022—Jones deftly takes us from the real to surreal and back. Tamas Dobozy’s “Palais Royale” follows Jones in the collection and shares her affinity for humour and the uncanny, exploring the carefully hidden past of the magically awful musical act Chip Chip Duo. Through its protagonist we are also gifted an entire philosophy of hipster-kitsch aesthetics. The skilled pacing of this story makes it arguably the most rollicking selection.

“Your Hands Are Blessed (or Yis Lemli Hidayki in Arabic)” tells the story of a recent refugee in Montreal who, in coming to terms with her environment and predicament, finds new acquaintances and a novel way to cope. Multi-genre wordsmith Cristine Estima tells the story from the perspective of the protagonist’s sponsor and, through this clever choice of perspective, lets us into the inner world of her characters and still leave room for mystery. Carmelinda Scian’s “River Crossings” examines a relationship fractured through geographical and cultural distance. Negotiating a trip home after estrangement and the failure of an arranged marriage, Scian invites us into a personal and conflicted space where notions of home and family are interrogated.

Omar El Akkad’s “Oddsmaking” takes place in a future western United States of America, where fire watchers are just as likely to be placing bets on which towns burn as trying to prevent their destruction. Akkad’s ability to lure us effortlessly into this dystopia and its world is a testament to his craft. His light sketching of the protagonist’s relationships with other characters and his past pulls us in and doesn’t let go.

Philip Huynh’s “Doi Moi Beans” is a rich examination of family bonds and capitalism’s incongruity. The narrator’s father, having fled Vietnam as a refugee, left his life’s passion and business behind in the wake of the communist takeover. Interestingly, those family members that stay behind keep the family coffee plantation and seem to prosper. When business dealings come to the fore again in Canada, our hero gets to pursue the capitalist dream that has so far eluded him. Sara Freeman’s “Tides” deals with an economic decline of a different sort. Fleeing to a seaside town, a woman is adrift in grief, personal revelation and disintegration. As her money runs out, the story delineates the thin border between outcast and middle-class existence.

Naomi Fontaine’s “Neka” is the only work in translation (from French, by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo) and tells of the story of an Innu woman’s relationship with her mother, her culture, and her faith as she adapts to life after her family leaves a reserve. It offers a nuanced read on her family’s relationship with their Protestant faith against the background of the broader cultural upheaval faced by the Innu post-contact. It was first published in 2016 and appeared in translation in 2020.

This raises the obvious question of why it is only now included in this anthology for 2023. “Neka” is a deeply moving piece by one of Quebec’s best known Indigenous writers. The collection from which it is taken, Amun: A Gathering of Indigenous Voices by Exile Editions, gives ten stories that play with assumptions or complicate—likely especially so for non-Indigenous readers—ideas of Indigenous identity and history. Though “Neka” foregrounds this complexity, the effects of Canada’s attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples and the problems created by the settler state are on full display. If, as Jarman notes, “we’re all global now,” and “Canadian story” can mean writing from or about anywhere, it is not clear where this leaves stories tied up in the land. No one wants a return to John A. or Anglo-Canadian construction of a nation state, but against “Neka,” the professed cosmopolitanism can seem like an avoidance, a self-exile to avoid conflicts at home.

Great and varied Indigenous writing occurs despite the Canadian state’s ongoing policies towards Indigenous people. There were plenty of possible Indigenous selections for Best Canadian Stories 2023, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to find writers who could closer embrace the cosmopolitanism of Jarman’s introduction. One wonders, then, given Jarman’s reach back in time to snag it, if this story was included as a corrective or footnote to this internationalism. If that is the intent, however, it becomes difficult after reading Fontaine’s story—its concerns of land and indigeneity so direct—not to reflect on the stated global-ness of Canadian writing. A collection otherwise built on an expansive and cosmopolitan definition of what Canadian means is discordant with a Canada as a specific place built on a specific, complex and troubled history. It’s hard not be cynical about celebrating the idea of the Canadian writer as someone living anywhere and writing about everywhere when juxtaposed with “Neka.”

Mark Jarman dedicates this edition to acclaimed writer Steven Heighton, who died in April of last year; two of his stories bookend the collection. Those who have read previous work or who had the pleasure to see and hear him read will be familiar with his resonating presence. Both included stories contrast a frequently meditative voice with dramatic action and tension. The first, “Instructions for Drowning” explores the relationship of a couple in crisis. A second piece, “Everything Turns Away” is nothing less than a meditation on the experience of life and death itself.

The latter might have compared with Bezmozgis and Bydlowska for its experimentalism—a work of fiction where the author has written themselves into the text, it reads like an essay. However, checking its source publication, Geist, it seems this is how it was originally published, as a work of non-fiction. There is a blurring of lines of fiction and non-fiction in a lot of writing, and Jarman may be a partisan for the “never let the truth interfere with a good story” or “everything’s fiction / what is truth anyway” side. But while one can accept and even rejoice in a creative impulse that blurs lines between these two genres, some readers likely still want a warning that the collection is a mix of both, where instead they have a jacket blurb that implies that Best Canadian Stories is a “fascinating glimpse at the most exciting short fiction;” Biblioasis also publishes a Best Canadian Essays anthology. While a reader can assume any time travelling musicians and ghosts are likely inventions of pure imagination, on checking some of the other texts the reviewer found that at least “River Crossings” also was originally published as non-fiction.

Despite this eclectic editorial choice (which may even be welcomed by some), Mark Jarman and Biblioasis have put together a collection would be a welcome addition to any fiction lover’s bookshelf—whether a weekend or evening reader or the literature buff looking for a sampling of Canadian writers this year

— Tommy Duggan

from Chapel's Cove, NL, served as a Graduate Assistant for The Fiddlehead in 2022. He is currently, among other things, a graduate student in English Literature at the University of New Brunswick.

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