1469 Throbbingly three-dimensional

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club
by Megan Gail Coles

Toronto, House of Anansi, 2019
$22.95 / 9781487001711

Reviewed by Jessica Poon

*

Everyone has an airplane story; here’s mine: he introduced himself as Alex and he was aggrieved by the state of the world — it was ending, calamitously, and he was on a plane to Los Angeles to visit a cousin, thinking about his carbon footprint, his girlfriend, and his two daughters. He was Greta Grunberg, if Greta Grunberg were a disillusioned, long-haired older man who had largely given up on action and had, with marijuana, allegedly recovered from stage IV cancer. He was not Greta Grunberg. But he did say something that, among other things — like his pronouncement of wholly abstaining from pornography — has stayed with me for years; I think of it often: “One day, I realized that everyone’s life is just as detailed as mine.”

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club has a memorable, sizeable cast of characters. You won’t have trouble remembering them, though. Nobody is short-changed. Everyone’s interior lives are detailed, or, as my airplane friend Alex might say, as detailed as yours.

Megan Coles is a confident writer, such that her novel is written largely in the present tense (I admire anyone who can pull this off for a novel). The present tense can be a drag when done wrong, but Coles skillfully incorporates flashbacks and dialogue with an immediacy betraying her background in playwriting. As contemporary trends dictate, there are no quotation marks to frame dialogue. Admittedly, these things gave me some pause when I first began this book. I thought, not another book without quotation marks in the present tense. But I am a sucker for a novelist who has the pluck to give their book a long, I-don’t-care-if-you-can-remember-it-but-actually-I’m-confident-that-you-will-remember-it lengthy title that recalls Italo Calvino and Fiona Apple. Slap a pastel and ink deer on the cover; I’m all yours.

Megan Gail Coles. Photo by David Howells

This is a novel with a capital N: race, class, strained families, conflicting loyalties, restaurant escapades, perilous weather, and of course, the quintessential love triangle consisting of: George (short for Georgina), a wealthy white woman, once divorced, with two Labradoodles and newly pregnant; John, George’s second husband, a handsome chef having an extramarital affair; and the other woman — a very particular woman indeed — Iris, the brash and beautiful artist with a terrible romantic history, a hostess in George and John’s restaurant, The Hazel. Like Joan Holloway of Mad Men, the men Iris attract seldom see her as marriage material or as anything substantial; rather, they see her body and what they’d like to do to it, or, as Coles puts its: “Her body was built for fucking but her heart was not. It was built for that other thing that eludes her. This is perhaps the great tragedy of her person. Her external structure does not elicit the desired internal response in men” (p. 99).

George, in less empathetic hands, could be a disgusting caricature of a Karen. Instead, though, we are treated to how her employees view her; how her husband views her; how she views herself. She is throbbingly three-dimensional: often, a grating human being, but not the merely vapid rich woman her employees believe her to be. I found one line particularly haunting: “It had not occurred to her to be ashamed of her life. Certainly, it was different from the lives of her friends, but it was still the life she was leading. This was her husband. These were her dogs. Her experiences were not wholly traditional but they seemed to be worthwhile experiences” (p. 120).

Though Iris’s friend, Jo, believes John is a redemptionless lothario sociopath, at least from the more omniscient perspective the reader is granted, you see that John’s a conflicted man making poor decisions, often consecutively. Like many ruinous heartbreakers, in many ways, John feels like a victim of circumstance, the circumstance being: Iris being present at all. And yet there is unspoken tenderness, like preparing staff meals catering to Iris’s tastebuds. He does think of her — just not enough, and really, he shouldn’t be, in that way, at all.

A more charitable explanation of John’s infidelity and mistreatment of women: he’s delusionally optimistic and self-sabotaging: “John smokes his ninth cigarette of the day and promises himself he will quit after he finishes the pack …. He will floss, eat salad, read” (p. 142) His self-esteem isn’t a flourishing wellspring; the only reason George ever married him is because of coterminous misfortunes aligning in his favour:

Luck. A divorce. And a lot of champagne. … He was so fortunate for George’s unfortunate events. … He has been jeopardizing everything for a bit of extra pussy. Not that he thinks of Iris as extra pussy, not exactly, but fuck, what was he thinking?

He was perhaps thinking that he wouldn’t get caught.

Or that he would (pp. 143-144).

When a character named Major David, a classic misogynist dining in The Hazel, calls Iris the b word, John intercedes:

I cannot allow you to speak to her like that.

A quiver of hope runs through Iris. Maybe he does love her. Surely.

Though what John means is I am the only man who is allowed to speak to her like that (p. 253).

In three exceedingly short paragraphs, Coles has gone from plain dialogue from John, to Iris’s unsuccessfully repressed desires that John will reciprocate her love, to what John actually means (from the narrator’s point of view? From Iris’s?) when he is, ostensibly, defending Iris’s honour on her behalf. This kind of skill — manoeuvring from character to character without missing a beat — is such that it can be invisible on the page, but she does this constantly. Coles is always changing the focus of the camera. Because of the narrative technique taking place — never staying with one character for too long and permitting the gaze of myriad interiorities — as much as we may want to chide, plead, scream, and kick these characters, we understand where they’re coming from; they are wretchedly human. If I had to vote, I would say Iris is the protagonist, but this is really a magnificent ensemble effort.

This doubtless says more about me than the story’s prose, but though I found myself wanting Iris to dump John’s duplicitous ass, the more reprehensible part of me also wanted John to do the thing that husbands seldom do — to leave his wife. But of course, both Iris and George deserve better than John, who probably needs to spend more time being John. Iris and John are a doomed love story. Arguably, Iris and John are doomed. Not a love story. Or: “But this is not infatuation. This is small game hunting at the local coward gun club” (p. 156). The power imbalances are steady and they are many.

Megan Gail Coles is a graduate of Memorial University, the National Theatre School of Canada, and UBC, where she completed her MFA in 2018. Courtesy YouTube

And of course, we have the character of Olive, who almost seems like a stand-in for the reader; she doesn’t speak much, but the story begins and ends with her. Olive she observes more than the observed realize. But who’s watching Olive? In the opening sentence, “Olive waits below the sad mural painted in memory of some long ago drowned boy.” Olive is relatively vague, so far, but she is still a proper noun with a name; the one verb apportioned to her is passive: waits. Presumably, we are meant to understand that the juxtaposition of Olive and the “long ago drowned boy” is not one of contrast, but rather, a possibility that, fortunately, has theretofore been avoided. But, for now, Olive waits. We don’t dwell on the mural, though. There’s too much for Olive to observe. The last verb assigned to Olive? Stays.

It’s become a trope for a character, usually white, to ask a nonwhite character where they are from. Here, though, a black character named Omi is the one doing the asking to Olive and his voice is “ … warm and she had always sought our warm places in others” (p. 191). Still, though, the question is fraught, not least because the answer is vague and unknown. Coles is skilled at conveying the difficulty of such threateningly banal questions: “Olive is expected to magically untangle a hundred years of snarl for casual conversation” (10).

Coles’ omniscient narrator offers devastatingly disturbing zingers, such as: “Women think men like scarves but they don’t. When a man tells a woman he likes her scarf it is because he wants to tie her up and is pleased she has all the necessary equipment for the whole outfit” (p. 131). Sometimes, these zingers are geographically wry: “In St. John’s, though, being not shitty is the same as being awesome” (199). Other times, they’re depressing: “It’s all about the numbers for people who’ve always controlled the numbers” (p. 277). She writes about unwanted sex with heartbreaking simplicity: “She pretended she liked it because objecting did not seem a realistic course of action” (p. 278). Aphorisms are abound: “People can no more be normal than winter can be unified and made the same every year” (p. 291).

Everyone wants to do the right thing; sometimes they do the right thing, but not often; more often than not, they are doing what feels easy, all the while recriminating. The reader is given the gift of perspectives, plural. I felt as though I knew these characters and even when I wanted to reprimand them, I knew why they were making the mistakes that they were. I wanted to plead with these characters. If you knew what I knew about this person, you would feel differently.

I’m treading dangerously familiar territory (read: comfortable pet rants of mine), but I have long been sceptical of the idea that reading’s most salutary consequence is increasing empathy. I still thoroughly believe that reading’s very best quality is the pleasure it provides. Any empathy increase from reading is likely ephemeral, nominal, and not particularly life-changing, a bonus spent before you know it. People who tout the empathy increase that reading imbues are, on some level, insecure about the merits of reading. It can’t be reading for the sake of reading; that’s a gross tautology of elitism. No, reading inspires you to become a soup kitchen volunteer that actually returns your mother’s calls (does it, though?).

Megan Gail Coles. Photo by Ryan Remiorz, The Canadian Press

Or, to quote a much more eloquent George Saunders from A Swim in a Pond of the Rain:

There’s a certain way of talking about stories that treats them as a kind of salvation, the answer to every problem; they are “what we live by,” and so on. And, to an extent … I agree. But I also believe, especially as I get older, that we should keep our expectations humble. We shouldn’t overestimate or unduly glorify what fiction does. And actually, we should be wary of insisting that it do anything in particular. … whenever we get up on the soapbox and sing fiction’s praises, explaining how good it is for everyone, we’re actually limiting its freedom to be … whatever it wants to be (perverse, contrary, frivolous, objectionable, useless, too difficult for any but a few to read, and so on).

… Still, I often find myself constructing rationales for the beneficial effects of fiction, trying, in essence to justify the work I’ve been doing all these years (pp. 382-383).

Preamble and Saunders aside, though, if we accept that an increase in empathy is at least an occasional, incidental, intermittent consequence of reading, it’s probably not a bad thing. And Coles squeezes every bit of nuance from her characters’ humanity. If there’s one takeaway from this book, it’s this: your perspective is just one perspective; there are so, so many more. Everyone’s life is as detailed as yours.

*

Jessica Poon and Wolfie

Jessica Poon is a writer, former line cook, and a pianist of dubious merit living in Toronto. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Editor’s note: Jessica Poon has recently reviewed books by Ayesha ChaudhryGillian WigmoreMeichi NgAlex LeslieZsuzsi GartnerRobyn HardingBrad Hill & Chris Dagenais, and Lindsay Wong.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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