Relay: Short Fictions
Black Moss Press, 2010
Softcover, 64 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
Until my twenties, I hadn’t travelled much. It wasn’t until shortly after my father’s death that my younger brother and I, restless with the first chill of grown up ennui, decided, on a defiant whim, to spend one Easter weekend in 1985 “just driving south as far as we could go,” freewheeling, without plan or agenda, and, initially, at least, without a map, just to see what we could see. It was then that I first experienced the addictive allure of a constantly changing landscape. A self-identified responsibility magnet, I had been slogging through the second year of a demanding job entailing endless responsibility, into which I had invested seven years of post-secondary education. It didn’t take me long, my gaze transfixed by the flickering slices of life unspooling before us as we sailed sunnily through the springtime greens of the Blue Ridge mountains, to begin to comprehend the exhilaration of non-attachment and to have a subversive thought: Why stop? How lovely to slide through life like this, something new always just around the corner, the narrative shaped, at intersections, only by chance, responsibility rendered moot by the serendipity of the road, and with no option but to abandon oneself to the story. The complete ease and speed with which I adapted to the peripatetics of the road alerted me to my danger and, overall, I do not regret my decision, when the time came, to turn reluctantly for home. But, as I suspect is the case with most brushes with potential addiction, I’ve never forgotten the feeling.
I experienced a similar sensation upon my first encounter with Ontario poet and writer Betsy Struthers‘ newest work, Relay: Short Fictions. Despite the title, the book is difficult to categorize, existing somewhere within the boundary between fiction and poetry. As the title implies, a central character carries the story for only a short time before it is passed, relay-style, along to the next. In total, twenty-seven different perspectives shape the journey. The characters’ lives may be closely intertwined, as in the case of family members, or the connection may be simply a chance intersection , one of an infinite number of possibilities made concrete only by the fact that both were in a particular place at a particular time, and nowhere else. The effect for this reader was reminiscent, in a bookish way, of that long-ago road trip, the unpredictability of the narrative creating an unexpected exhilaration.
As Struthers herself explains, the format is “interstitial,” existing in the realm between poetry and fiction, “neither a collection of short stories (or prose poems) nor a novel, but creat[ing] a sustained narrative arc,”(1) and is a logical progression in her poetic work which has often been strongly narrative in style. Her earlier poetry (for example, Censored Letters, 1984 and In Her Fifties, 2005) has included prose-like sequences.
Debates over the exact designation of style aside, Struthers’ strengths as a poet are immediately evident as the reader encounters “The Romantic,” the lead runner, as it were, of the story line. In slightly over three pages, a scene rich in nuance and intensity is established and a complex character involved in a complex relationship (and what relationship is not?) is exposed. The Romantic is an older sales executive having an affair with a younger married woman. The density and precision of detail with which the sexual tension, power politics, chauvinism and vulnerability innate to the situation are laid bare are clear evidence of a skilled poetic sensibility at work. Then, just as one begins to feel the stage has been set for the next development, the story waltzes out the door on the heel, quite literally, of “The Escape Artist.”
Through the perspective of the next twenty-five protagonists, Struthers takes a big bite out of life, perceptively, intensely and engagingly examining, amongst other things, the tension between competing versions of the same reality, the unreliability of individual perception, the multiple roles (e.g. sister, daughter, mother) that may comprise a life, and the idea of connection itself and the influence of chance upon it.
I confess to approaching this book with some wariness. An ardent proponent of the novel, my personal reading preferences steer me to character-driven stories that derive their power from a long and carefully developed relationship with the reader. I have noted, with some dismay, recent experiments with the fragmented storyline, and although I salute the courage required for experimentation, I have, in general, not been infatuated with the results. Aware of the concept that multiple fragments of reality should accumulate within my consciousness and somehow congeal into a complex but unified whole, nothing I had encountered in fiction had convinced me that this theory was borne out in practice. In my more despairing moments I took it as an abdication of responsibility on the part of the writer, and further evidence of the waning of our collective ability to make deep conceptual connections and synthesize meaning. With this as background you can imagine the trepidation with which I approached a book that proposed to splinter itself into twenty-seven separate narratives over the space of a mere sixty-four pages!
Existence, it seems, still holds some surprises. Rather paradoxically, from my original perspective, I found that Relay combined the alluring, ephemeral quality of that long ago, impromptu road trip, with a strangely enlarging sense of life. Minor quibbles aside (not all the characters are equally compelling and at times, I was not certain I had made the correct connection between successive characters) I came away with the sense of having seen life in a new way.
There’s nothing like contradicted expectations to get one thinking about the why and how of a thing. Why and how had this work managed to use a fragmented story line to illuminate the complex unity of life when other works had, for me, merely emphasized a discouraging disunity? Beyond standard techniques such as linking stories by repeated images (e.g. dogs, crows and birds in general, animals whose pack and flock behaviour depends on an intricate understanding of the collective) the secret, I believe (after much thought) may lie in its ambiguous format – combining the emotional density of poetry with the narrative propulsion of a story. This combination allows the story to deal with multiple perspectives without losing emotional depth. Commenting on the process, Struthers explains that she was “interested in pushing narrative as close to the poetic as possible, of pushing the poetic line into story,” (1) and that she wanted to show “that an emotional and physical truth can emerge through a cameo narrative” (1). Novels, lets say, have horizontal depth and rely on linear continuity to develop it. Poetry has vertical depth – achieved by the layered and intellectually mysterious effects of imagery and figurative associations. Instead of chopping a form which relies on linear continuity into fragments, Struthers the poet, has knit together diverse wholes in a manner which manages to emphasize interconnectivity without sacrificing depth.
Struthers, in the way that poets do, may have tapped into the zeitgeist in a potentially important way. It has really only been in the last thirty or forty years that we have begun to appreciate life as an infinitely intricate network of discrete but interconnected phenomenon — ecosystems, globalization, the world-wide-web. Interestingly, imagery associated with interconnected pathways (mazes of animal tracks) and collectivity (flocks of birds) are sprinkled through Relay.
With this realization of life as a infinite series of connections comes an overwhelming sense of complexity. Myself, I require a story with which to reference this daunting complexity — to view, and begin to comprehend it in the whole, and thus far experiments in fragmenting traditional fiction have provided no solutions. In Relay, Struthers may have begun to evolve a style of writing that articulates something of our new reality. This seems like a hopeful development to me.
1. Struthers, Betsy. Personal communication. January, 2011.