An ‘interesting’ Best

Best Canadian Stories 2024
by Lisa Moore (editor)

Windsor: Biblioasis, 2023
$23.95 / 9781771965668

Reviewed by Jessica Poon

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I once asked a creative writing instructor whether he was a fan of Sally Rooney. Given that he’d assigned a short story of hers for elucidating emulation purposes, I assumed he would say yes. But he demurred with, “The stuff she’s known for—it’s been done before. By my friend Lisa Moore.” 

Newfoundland’s Lisa Moore is the editor for the 2024 edition of Best Canadian Short Stories. More than a whopping fifty magazines, ranging from prestige magazines like Granta and The Paris Review to respected Canadian magazines like The Malahat Review and Taddle Creek, were consulted. Curiously, though, nine—or more than half of these sixteen stories—were previously unpublished.

Editor Lisa Moore (photo: Ned Pratt)

Moore herself states wanting “stories where the language was the material in the foreground, every word textured, sandpaper, silk, grease, goo.” Although image-heavy and poetic an explanation, I’m hard-pressed to find an editor who would voluntarily select stories where language isn’t in the foreground. 

The collection is wide-ranging, though these commonalities stuck out: the relative absence of quotation marks for dialogue, a favouring of the present tense, and variously unsatisfying romantic relationships.  

The relief offered by an indented paragraph is the reading equivalent of an orthopaedic insert, which is generally easier to observe the absence of, rather than the presence. In Guelph-based Madhur Anand’s short story, “Insects Eat Birds,” there are connected vignettes all told in one paragraph. No indents. No relief. The paragraphs themselves are not especially lengthy, but the sentences are dense with italicized scientific terms, race relations, and sexism. 

Author Madhur Anand

My favourite sentence—“A woman calls to ask if it possible to taxidermy her cat after he is put to sleep”—gives Miranda July vibes. It’s an offbeat sentence delivered with an almost objective nonchalance. In other words, this weirdness is normal. Although the protagonist’s esoteric occupation as an Ornithology Museum Specialist is provided and described in detail, she, unlike minor (and white) characters, is not assigned a name. Although nameless protagonists in contemporary fiction are ubiquitous, here, it seems more intentional than merely stylistic fad.

Author Billy-Ray Belcourt

 “One Woman’s Memories” by Vancouver’s Billy-Ray Belcourt is told in third person omniscient. A woman named Louise looks at photographs of dead men: Jesus, her father, her deceased husband. It is unclear whether there are any photographs of Louise herself. She looks pensively at trees and shovels snow off her car to go to the grocery store. She calls her son, Paul, twice; he picks up the second time. Paul’s job is to “ensure Indigenous students are supported and make it to the end of their degrees”; however, he has no desire to return home to Alberta and wonders if “he is failing to be a good son as well as a good Indian.” 

Louise herself never evinces any chastisement of Paul, though his physical absence “betrays what she knows about being a person.” Although the narration is often explicitly declarative of what Louise and Paul are feeling, there aren’t many details. Their sadness arrives in the form of summaries, not especial particularities. For a story concerned with conscientiously deciding to confront the past, at last, the choice to write it in the present tense is almost jarring were it not so mainstream in contemporary literature. The line that most effectively illustrates Louise missing her deceased husband is not one that comes from her mouth, but from the omniscient narrator: “Some people don’t take to the singular I. It isn’t anyone’s fault.”  

Author Xaiver Michael Campbell

In “Pitfalls of Unsolicited Shoulding” by Newfoundlander Xaiver Michael Campbell, the protagonist, Martin, is a writer whose kryptonite is hot dudes. I was reminded of Nieztsche’s definition of insanity, which unfortunately describes most people’s romantic odysseys. There’s also a fig tree with Main Character Energy. Martin mentions rejection letters for his writing and lives in a “dilapidated hovel,” but apparently budgets well enough to pay for his frequent visits to Latoya, a massage therapist and confidante. 

Plus, his description of dairy is an apt descriptor for his taste in hot dudes: “Wretched. Yet beautiful.” Campbell’s writing shines most when it comes to capturing the specificity of lust; in particular, the way lust fixates on aspects not necessarily considered conventionally attractive but are beautiful to the admirer: “I hoped he was as into the hyperpigmentation of his body as I was. I wondered about the stretch marks on his ass. Art waiting to be revered.” The upshot? If a fig tree can grow in Newfoundland, then, maybe it’s possible for a hot dude to stick around. It’s a big maybe, admittedly.

Author Corinna Chong

“Love Cream Heat” by Kelowna’s Corinna Chong feels like a novel compressed into a short story. Louisa’s father is dead, necessitating a family reunion with her mother and her brother, Cole; Louisa decides to reconnect with a reprehensible ex-boyfriend; and Cole’s wife is pregnant. A funeral; a new life; a reckoning: it’s a lot. 

Most striking is Louisa’s ill-advised reunion with her ex, Michener, who has long been married. Louisa’s thoughts on Michener are both nostalgic and comically ungenerous: “What she’d loved most about Michener was his rice cooker.” (To subvert expectations, Louisa is Chinese, and Michener is white). The rapid metamorphoses of Louisa’s feelings about Michener—lust, disgust, and then the mortification that he may well believe, inaccurately, that she is still in love with him, is exquisitely off-putting: “She understood now. He did want to have sex. In his mind, she had been pining for him all of these years. He was the one that got away.” 

I got the ick so quickly I still haven’t recovered. I was reminded of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” as Louisa imagines how she would rather go along with unwanted sex, rather than “seeing the disappointed look on his chubby face.” 

But it’s not sex that Michener wants, apparently. He’s meeting with her to apologize for wrongdoings she doesn’t remember, that have been compartmentalized into “a feeling of repulsion—a lump, dense but pliable, like a gristly, chewed-up wad of beef.” The apology, and its uneasy aftermath, is precisely when I felt this short story would benefit from the novelistic format. 

Author Ryan Turner

In “Ghosts,” by Nova Scotian Ryan Turner, the protagonist, Mark, is at the airport when he runs into Jana, a childhood friend of his sister’s. Mark is single and his ex-girlfriend is currently dating a man who coincidentally also is named Mark, which makes social media updates crueller than usual. Jana is, arguably, happily married, but perhaps that is too oxymoronic. When Jana invites Mark to visit her in Toronto, it’s unclear whether she’s initiating an extramarital affair, or just being nice. 

Turner writes of a man’s wretched hopefulness in the face of ambiguity and plausible deniability (see: the joke about “Does she like me, or is she just Canadian?”) regarding a Technically Unavailable Woman is sigh-inducingly authentic. More remarkable than any of these ambiguities, though, is how Mark treats his mother as a confidante in his love life. Although the story flits between Vancouver and Toronto, the settings could be anywhere, for the significance they have on the story. The story is rich with detailed awkwardness, though absent in juicy salaciousness.

Author Ian Williams (photo: Justin Morris)

In “Bro” by Toronto’s Ian Williams, the protagonist, Greg, desperately wants to befriend a Black man. His wife, a stand-in for the reader, chastises him for treating the friend quest as if it were like “collecting rare Pokémon, or harpooning a white whale.” The capture element in both these comparisons is not subtle, nor is it meant to be. Williams makes good use of parentheses to describe Greg’s nightmare of chasing after a Black man. These parentheses juxtapose Greg’s well-intentioned but dubious (at best) friend quest with his subconscious fear of Black men, as though the parentheses embody the conflict. 

Greg fixates on a Black security guard at Home Depot, described in humorous deadpan: “one of those security guards hired by the store to count capacity limits and urge customers towards the sanitizer.” After buying a shovel that was probably unnecessary, Greg addresses the security guard as “Bro.” He never does learn the security guard’s real name. When Greg has friendship fantasies about Bro, they are relentlessly juvenile: “They could score women on a scale of one to ten, face and body categories, as they appeared onscreen. They could rewind the nude scenes on Netflix.” 

The ending of the story echoes Chong’s story—a woman who is not the protagonist, observing the overwhelmingness of recent events. It’s easy to laugh at hapless, ignorant straight white man Greg—and I did, copiously—but the truth is, there are people far, far, worse than Greg. “Bro,” by far, is the story I keep returning to in this interesting collection.

*

Jessica Poon and Wolfy

Originally from East Vancouver, Jessica Poon is a writer, former line cook, and a pianist of dubious merit who recently returned to BC after completing a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. [Editor’s note: Jessica Poon has recently reviewed books by Sandra Kelly, Robyn Harding, Ian and Will Ferguson, Christine Lai, Logan Macnair, Jen Sookfong LeeJ.M. Miro (Steven Price), Bri BeaudoinTetsuro ShigematsuKatie WelchMegan Gail Coles, and Ayesha Chaudhry.]

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Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now 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. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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