Not to let the cat out of the bag or anything, but I think it’s safe to say that Diane Schoemperlen’s 1998 short story collection Forms of Devotion is going to make my top 10 list this year. The book, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction when it came out, is one of those very rare things: a highly stylized example of experimental writing that is also compulsively, addictively readable.
Each piece in Forms of Devotion is framed like a fairy tale, accompanied by drawings (many of which by the author herself) that lend the stories some pertinent dimension. In this collection, Schoemperlen is often concerned with taking a non-narrative premise and rendering it into story in a deliberate, calculated way. For example, her piece “How Deep is the River?” begins very much like a grade-school math problem – two trains traveling at different speeds race towards the same bridge in opposite directions; which one will get there first? – but soon explodes into an elaborate tale about the passengers on board, about loss and love, fear and the places we come from. “How to Write a Serious Novel about Love” takes on an instructional tone about the craft of writing but slowly unwinds a gripping narrative about the pitfalls of relationships. “Rules of Thumb: An Alphabet of Imperatives for the Modern Age” is a self-improvement guide writ large that rapidly veers, as most self improvement does, into the domain of vanity and its relation to the lies we all tell ourselves.
But the story that stuck with me the most did not follow this premise-as-narrative formula. “Innocent Objects” – the tale of a solitary, small-town woman named Helen who leaves on a mysterious trip into ‘the city’ and the thief who breaks into her large, empty house while she’s gone – could be the most powerful, most wrenching, most emotional and most intellectually challenging short story I’ve ever read. Schoemperlen’s craftsmanship hits this piece on far too many levels to do justice in this simple blog post. Her playful structuring of temporal space – Helen’s time in the city vis a vis the thief’s time roaming her house – is beautifully juxtaposed by the layering of the two characters’ perspectives as they move through the story. Nearly every page is accompanied by a David Foster Wallace-like footnote that describes some physical object that the thief is handling while in Helen’s house, which in turn is accompanied by a beautiful drawing of that object. Yet, none of the footnotes are random – each one provides a little extra dimension on Helen’s story, on her creepy solitude, on her deep emotional life, and the trip she takes into the city. And still, this story offers no easy answers. We never fully understand Helen’s motivations and what her relationship is to the thief. What we are left with, strangely, is a unnerving tension near the end of the story that we could never have anticipated, and the feeling that Schoemperlen has kept just the right amount of this tale hidden from our eyes. This is, without a doubt, postmodernism done right.
If there is one misstep in this collection, it would have to be “Count Your Blessings (A Fairy Tale)” – but only insofar that its problematic concept can’t seem to reach a satisfactory finish, as the other stories do. The piece tells the tale of the lovely homemaker Grace who seems to have by any measure the perfect life. She meets and marries a wonderful man named William who is flawlessly devoted to her; they have a vigorous and satisfying sex life and a beautiful home that they decorate together. William gets a high-paying job as an accountant, full of regular promotions and generous bonuses, and these allow for Grace not to have to work. The two give birth to amazing, perfect children and their domestic space becomes a domain of love and generosity and happiness. Grace continues to stay at home even after the children enter school, attaining a housewife’s life of leisure that most work-a-day husbands couldn’t even imagine. And yet. And yet – a profound depression slowly seizes Grace. The perfect life that she has attained becomes the last thing that she wants. Her husband and children watch helplessly as she descends into a kind of hysterical sadness. Her old girlfriends tell her that she’s being ridiculous, that she doesn’t know how good she has it. William, relentlessly uxorious, tries everything he can think of to snap his wife out of her funk. At last, he seeks the help of a “doctor”, but this comes, as I mentioned above, to an unsatisfying end. The piece, while wonderfully written, paced and structured, feels a bit muddled by the last paragraph, as if Schoemperlen had wanted to say something deep about feminism, the domestic life, and the teeming mysteries of a woman’s inner world – and yet painted herself into a corner she couldn’t get out of.
This story aside, Forms of Devotion is one of the most satisfying collections of short fiction I’ve read in a long time. Schoemperlen’s experiments and craftsmanship keep the rewards coming with nearly every turn of the page. This book is definitely worth reading again, and again.