Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: A Glass Shard and Memory, by J.J. Steinfeld

It was really great to settle back into a new book of stories by my good friend J.J. Steinfeld. A Glass Shard and Memory is his first full-length collection of short fiction since 2003’s Would You Hide Me? (A short novel he published in 2009, Word Burials, did, however, include a handful of short stories at the back.) As I mentioned in a review last year of his latest poetry book, I’ve known J.J. for a while now and always hesitate to label what I write about his stuff a “review.” But this is a writer whose work I very much believe in, and it deserves more attention than it gets.

A Glass Shard and Memory is in some ways similar to previous collections of J.J.’s, but in other ways very different. Many of his reoccurring themes – preoccupations that have permeated his work over a publishing career that now spans some 30 years – are in evidence here. There is the lugubrious pall of the Holocaust hanging over the children of its survivors. There is the lingering effects of the past on the present. There are also the surrealist twists, the dark humour, the characters obsessed with the works of Franz Kafka and with the very absurdity of existence itself.

But I also see J.J. experimenting with other tropes and themes. Forgive the wretchedly academic term, but there is a certain “intertexuality” on display in a number of these stories. The title piece, for example, about a literary scholar who is traumatized with memories of a childhood impacted by the Holocaust, makes reference to J.J.’s very first published book, a collection of stories called The Apostate’s Tattoo. Another piece expands upon a poem that J.J. published in one of his poetry collections, a surrealist tale about a chance encounter with a very-much alive Marilyn Monroe in a Halifax library in 2002. These examples of “slippage” are a wonderful, cheeky wink from the author to his previous works and the audience that has read them.

There is also some reoccurring images very specific to A Glass Shard and Memory, and they help to pull the collection together. Several stories have references to ladies’ stockings, providing a unifying air of ribaldry to the book. (In fact, I’d say that this is J.J.’s most sexually charged collection to date.) And in a number of stories, we see repeated incidence of people who remind characters of other people they’ve known in the past. It’s very subtle, but these moments – where characters feel they have met someone before, or someone looks exactly like someone else from a previous time in a character’s life – create an atmosphere of unease, a sense that these stories’ realities could split open at any moment, become something disjointed and beyond the characters’ control.

My favourite pieces in the collection are actually stories I’ve encountered before. “Estimating Distances” and “Nowhere to Be Found” were first published in the previous iteration of The Danforth Review. The first is a gentle, beautiful story about two former lovers who live at opposite ends of Canada and whose lives have gone in very different directions. The second is just about the funniest story you’ll ever read about clowns and the clowning profession. Also included is the piece “Fantasy Apparel”, a tense, nerve-wracking tale about a graduate student’s encounter with a sex worker, first released as an audio story with Rattling Books’ EarLit Shorts audio anthology series. (RR’s story “Christmas with My Mother” is included in the same edition as J.J.'s piece.)

With 28 stories in all, some united by theme, others disparate in circumstance, A Glass Shard and Memory offers a lot for readers to chew on. This is a fine collection of short fiction crafted by one of this country’s most underappreciated purveyors of the form.

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