1245 Running riot with Sarah Mintz
by Sarah Mintz
Regina: Radiant Press, 2021
$22.00 / 9781989274477
Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic
A slim volume with a quirky but striking cover, handwringers resists categorization. For example, is Sarah Mintz, its Victoria-based author, writing fiction, non-fiction, or both? Or, is she intending to refuse these categories as irrelevant or unnecessary?
“A Car Called Vera,” the volume’s delightful opener, begins with, “My grandmother kept a razor in her car when I was a kid. She would shave spots she missed on her legs because she couldn’t see in the low light of the bathroom.” Appearing 97 pages later, “Eyelids Askance; Knows Best” runs under five sentences: “‘Oh. Well, you never know what will happen,’ my grandmother said, when I told her I planned to open a bagel business in Northern BC. And whether this business flies or fails she will not need to tell me that she told me so.” Are these grandmothers two discrete characters described by a pair of distinct narrators, or is Mintz parcelling out her reminiscences sparingly? Similarly, is the narrator of the pun-titled “Nothing Mattress” (which launches with, “In my early 20s, I worked as a dancer and slept on the floor. I wasn’t a good dancer but I thought maybe I had some quality, some charm”), the same person as the fledgling bagel entrepreneur and grandchild of the woman with the razor? Inquiring readers may want to know.
Although handwringers never clears up the matter, its memoir-like pieces do serve to introduce the ‘house style’ of Mintz-the-writer. As narrative bits — flash fiction? flash memoir? — they’re enticing: off-kilter, amusing, evocative. Whether they belong to one speaker or many, they intrigue as little personal instances, or scenes from lives that may or may not be fabricated. Taken together, the often humorous or tragic-comic scenarios hint at the myriad upon myriad of events and people and experiences possible, as well as the attitudes or tones a narrator recounting them might take.
A related question handwringers prompts stems from the sheer number of pieces — 73 over a span of 149 pages.
Specifically, other than representing Mintz’s output, what’s their relation to one another, thematically or otherwise? The book jacket helpfully describes handwringers as “a kaleidoscopic carousel exploring contemporary Jewish identity with a momentum fuelled by hilarity.” Taking Mintz’s publisher at face value, then, each of the three score and thirteen pieces represents Mintz’s explorations of the “far-ranging and diverse sense of Jewishness” that exists today.
Reading the pieces as emblematic, then, a reader will perceive a riot of possibilities as well as the fruitlessness of reducing Jewishness to any convenient handful of traits or styles. There’s humour. There’s a keen sense of the absurd. There’s family, love, history, loneliness, employment. There’s a ghost and a funeral and a eulogy.
In addition to the assorted vignettes with first- and third-person narration by humans, furthermore, there’s “Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!,” a philosophical discussion about decorum between a irritable whale and a gull with boundary issues, and “Trees and Babes,” a parable with a moral that’s illustrated via a jaguar and hummingbird’s argument about the purpose of trees; “What You Know You Know” offers a miniature revisitation of Animal Farm, only with red cabbage, deer, and watermelon. Plus, there’s “Karen’t,” in which a human disagreement leads to mutual awkwardness (all in a matter of seven partial lines of text); and “Camp Cheakamus” reaches a crescendo when Counsellor Julie, who’s evidently had a rough day, concludes a scary story for the kids with very adult finger-wagging: “But the decay of your mind and the dull buried glow of your soul is as sad as a happy old dog. A true heartbreak. The purest feeling of heartbreak. One that involves no one else, no fault of anyone. It is all, completely and unavoidable, your fuck up.”
handwringers showcases a writer who’s eclectic, yes, and impressively inventive. Still, the pieces are not broken into sections; the organization seems fitful. The end result? The writing’s themes, tones, topics, characters, and ideas grow dizzyingly various. For readers, the prospect of “a kaleidoscopic carousel … with a momentum fuelled by hilarity” could be quite disarming. Next time, Mintz could do her readers a kindness by offering guideposts or through lines: complexity and brilliance can be overwhelming if presented all at once. By giving her pieces some room to breath, so to speak, and by illuminating the variety of her ideas by placing similar pieces (animal tales, poems, first-person narration, and so on) in adjoining literary suites, the reader would be in a position to better appreciate both Mintz’s technical work within the boundaries of a given genre and the conversation that exists among the grouped pieces.
For an interview with Sarah Mintz, see here. — Ed.
My Two-Faced Luck, the fifth novel by Salt Spring Islander Brett Josef Grubisic, was published in October 2021 with Now or Never Publishing — and reviewed here by Geoffrey Morrison. Editor’s note: Brett Grubisic has also reviewed books by Cedar Bowers, Glen Huser, Dustin Cole and George Ilsley for The Ormsby Review.
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