1781 Briefs

The Whole Animal
by Corinna Chong

Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2023
$19.95 / 9781551529158

Reviewed by W.H. New


Corinna Chong’s first book, The Whole Animal, introduces a startling new writer, one who is drawn to the disruptions of contemporary life and clearly unafraid of using the blunt language of her generation. The characters here speak with the voices of the present, each of them trying to make sense of the empty promises and real upsets that affect and confuse them. The result is a collection of thirteen ‘briefs’ — each operating with a kind of medical precision, probing the sores and scars of survival.

I say ‘briefs,’ partly because the stories are short, partly because they strip away the trappings of dress and convention, and partly because they read a little like the case arguments in a daily deposition. The topics, for instance, range from a vegan diet to the porcelain white legs of a doll (and a partner) and from plastic and pregnancy to death and over-the-counter drugs. The reader hears an adopted girl resisting the reach of her birth mother (as she connects with her adoptive mother), a different girl’s fierce distinction between her now-separated father and her new stepfather (whom she distances by means of the pronoun ‘Him’), an inadequate teacher in a group home, a teenage boy’s appalled response to his mother’s bodybuilding, a young gay man’s intention to stop lying to himself, and a couple who talk more in riffs than in considered exchanges. The result is a cautionary glimpse of current social history. As its title suggests, the book distils ‘the whole animal’ — in other words the swirl that this generation lives in: the pressures of diet and body image, race acceptance and interracial biases, gender acceptance and the double-distancing of coded gender-coding, early and sometimes unwanted sex, empty role models, and the casual profanity that has begun to lose its power to offend.

Kelowna writer Corinna Chong. Photo by Andrew Pulvermacher

In a way, then, the stories may appeal to some readers more in the tonal totality of what Chong has accomplished here than in the startling insights of any single story: the stories convey a sense of having had to have been said, as though any single insight were only a searing slice of some amorphous confusion whose entirety (‘the whole animal’) keeps eluding control. And yet, at the same time, this amorphous confusion, this condition of being pressured on all sides by the personal, the political (and the economic, the moral, the psychoanalytic, the legal, the artistic, the sensory, the physical, the technological . . . ) was exactly the effect intended: as though the book in its entirety were enacting an entire generation’s constantly dislocated lives.

Chong’s stories also suggest, of course, that this sense of ‘constant pressure’ is not necessarily new, but rather that it repeatedly changes its specifics. One story, for instance, asks why love dies, but counters this question by asking if love ever really starts. In another story, a character asks ‘When do we stop regretting the people we once were?’ — while backwards glances continue to irritate and shape the present. The pressure to perform affects more than one character, while some others keep affirming their refusal to be trapped. While cruelty, casual or deliberate, is often on display, so is the desire to love — and so is the connection between the two. In other words, the stories fill with affirmations, regrets, pretences, apologies — the actions and emotions of more than a single generation, animated here in the vocabulary of the moment.

The spoken vocabulary rendered here may be the quality that readers most readily respond to. Action often develops as though in a stage play: nuance resonates. Chong is adept at rendering conversations — and also at hearing those verbal exchanges when communication takes place tonally, without the characters listening to each other. In the title story, for instance, a moment when bison appear on the road in front of a couple is alluded to a second time when the woman remembers how she felt at the time. How they both felt, she murmurs (though he has to be reminded). She thinks, but does not say, that the moment was ‘terrifying.’ He (standing in his briefs) remembers the event only as ‘funny.’ Which of them is seeing ‘the whole animal’? As the couple falls into bed, she ‘sinks’ into the dark and he shimmies ‘under the covers.’ Inference is all.

This collection is full of such moments as these — moments when something said, or not said, shapes a revelation. Chong displays her early skills here, and readers of this book will appreciate being invited viscerally into a world of semi-memories and shaken observations. Perhaps it is a world of ‘exercises’ as well, for (as a group) the stories of The Whole Animal read a little like a set of experiments in formal strategy. At the same time, I say ‘early skills’ because I look forward to Chong’s next books — in the plural: there are clearly more to come. In them I would expect to hear a vigorous distinctive voice emerge.

Corinna Chong. Andrew Pulvermacher photo


William (Bill) New

W.H. (William) New is the author of Reading Mansfield & Metaphors of Form (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999); he has written widely on short fiction in Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere. New’s most recent books include Neighbours (2017) and In the Plague Year (Rock’s Mills Press, 2021), reviewed by Gary GeddesEditor’s note: William New has recently reviewed books by Robert ChursinoffHarold MacyPaul SungaEmily St. John MandelTamas Dobozy, and Rhonda Waterfall 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 book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, 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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