1561 Teased into speculation
We Want What We Want
by Alix Ohlin
Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2021
$22.95 / 9781487004897
Reviewed by Laurie Ricou
In “FMK”, the eighth of the thirteen stories in this collection, Sonia accompanies her partner Cat, a hospice nurse, to a funeral for someone she does not know. There she drags six-year-old Jake out of the funeral home to prevent him disrupting the service. She is then startled to find that the child’s mother is Fox, her one-time lover. Jake, who is gluten-intolerant, hides in a plastic playhouse, and announces that Grandpa says “media is ruining our minds.” In the background we encounter brownies, a sports bar called the Red Sombrero, Fox’s “leafy, citrusy” perfume, NyQuil, and a metal band touring in Norway.
I begin with this inadequate summary to signal the tumble of transitions and images in Ohlin’s stories. Ohlin tours cultures unfixed and unfinished. Her storied worlds, while familiar on one level, convey a pervasive strangeness. Characters pass fleetingly without introduction. Others emerge surprisingly from some distant past or mysteriously anticipate a potential future. At the end of the funeral service Cat turns rigid, uncommunicative, suddenly herself a stranger. In the story’s final sentence — now they are in bed together — Sonia tells us enigmatically “We slept soundly, stonily. Like we were in the room with death.” The reader is baffled. The reader wants to know more.
As Jake’s warning about minds and media might suggest, some influence of the Twitterverse can be detected here. Apparently spontaneous, brief, unelaborated observations, emerge in each story. Their immediacy carries its own often confusing urgency, as Ohlin evocatively builds the “stuff” of a twenty-first-century life. My list from “FMK,” conveyed in Sonia’s breezy conversational tone, could be stretched much further. We want what we want is the tautological signature for this crowded changeable surround. The title — Ohlin attributes it to her editor — implies a consumer society whose “wants” are undefined — but insistent and endlessly changing. Wanting is not a stage toward attaining this or that, but of hoping for ‘both and.’ Wanting is its own justification.
So, for example, here is another random selection of potential ‘wants’: Diet Coke, People [the magazine], Camry, Red Vines, NyQuil, Martha Stewart, Trader Joe’s. Such artefacts and allusions are suggestive, but each mention passes singularly, without explanation or extension. Ohlin might be said to be testing disconnectedness: both her characters and the things in their world move in strangerhood.
In parallel with the plentiful sensations and material details, place names come and go throughout the collection: Orlando; Silver Spring, Maryland; Des Moines; Seattle; Toronto; Ghana; Rehoboth; New Hampshire; Lehigh Valley. From this list, only Ghana, location of disappointing volunteer work at an orphanage, receives any sustained description of experience rooted in place. Very few of the named locations in the collection are placed. They are apparently indices to something, but we don’t have the institutions or architecture, fashions or vegetation that might situate them. Place is unsettled and therefore unsettling. Place is perhaps another stranger.
I offer these responses not to lament but to tantalize. Ohlin surely makes enthusiastic use of the short story form, especially by deftly exploiting “shortness.” The short in the short story is often a short circuit. A flickering light illuminates a puzzling particular; then a moment of perplexing darkness. The wry intonation hints at the absurd, amuses with suppressed satire. Abrupt turns, tentative relationships, magnetic details, quiet absences invite the reader to invent. We are teased into speculation.
Laurie Ricou is Professor Emeritus of English, UBC. His books include The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest (NeWest Press and Oregon State University Press, 2002) and Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory (NeWest Press, 2007). Editor’s note: Laurie Ricou has also reviewed books by Andy Zuliani and Grant Buday for The British Columbia Review.
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