Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: How to Get There from Here, by Michelle Berry

I’ve been meaning to read some of Michelle Berry’s work for a while now. She’s one of these writers I hear about a lot but don’t actually see a ton of my friends reading. Her name appears often enough in the Globe’s Books section and she seems to be a big deal, at least here in Ontario. So when I saw her first book, the short story collection How to Get There from Here, at my local used bookstore, I decided to pick it up.

In many ways, the stories in How to Get There From Here represent the best and the worst of what you’d expect from a first collection of stories. Berry is adept at capturing the little spark of an idea that illuminates a moment in time and building a piece of short fiction around it. This spark can take the form of a single incident, like the car accident in her story “Driving Lessons”; a turn of phrase, like in her piece “An Urban Myth”; or physical objects, like in “Orange Cowboy Boots” (a nice little ditty about a girl’s shopping excursion with her less-than-mature mother) or “Bug Shields and Gun Racks”. Each of these concepts are meant to act as a catalyst for a very brief but telling interaction between characters. Berry definitely has a good grip on the brevity part: there are 19 stories in this 149-page book, and each piece is distilled down to its essential moments.

But still, I found a lot of things that frustrated me about this collection. The focus always seemed to be more on the concept of each story and less on the characters who populate it. This resulted in some pieces coming off as cold and gimmicky. I would have tolerated a bit more length to these stories, provided it resulted in them saying something heftier about the human condition. Instead, we get short and ultimately distant episodes that are almost alienated from the reader’s sympathy. This caused the paradoxical effect of making the stories seem more daunting to read because they were shorter. By the end of page 149, I was glad the book was done. Also, many of Berry’s endings are cringe-worthy duds. In several of her stories, she makes some amateurish reference in her final sentence to the concept on which the story was based. A more mature writer would have chosen a more nuanced closing.

I also need to say something about the two stories that act as a kind of centerpiece to the collection – “Do You Know Who Emily Carr Is?” and “The Most Peculiar Thing.” These two pieces are essentially the same story, telling the tale of an art gallery worker who watches a mother and daughter who have come to the gallery to pray in front of a religious painting. Never mind that the first story seems like a false-start beginning of the second story – again, gimmicky, and I didn’t really see the point – but that’s not what bothered me. My problem was this: Berry goes to great lengths to emphasize that the mother and daughter are the only patrons in the gallery while all this is going on, that the place was virtually dead. And yet she also goes to great lengths to point out that it’s raining outside, presumably to add to the lugubrious atmosphere of the scene. But aren’t those two things contradictory? I mean, as the writer, if you wanted an art gallery to have a slow day, wouldn’t you have the sun absolutely blazing outside? Aren’t galleries typically busier on rainy days? Berry might argue that both of these things need to be there – the gallery needs to be empty of other patrons, and the atmosphere calls for a rainy day. But the fact that they need to exist in the same story, in the same fictive universe, just undermines the story’s whole reason for being. Call them contradictory necessities: If two concepts contribute to the heart of your story and those two concepts are at odds with each other from a plausibility standpoint, then you don’t have a story. There might be more at play here, but this came off as a massive oversight on the part of the author.

Having said all that, there are flashes of brilliance in How to Get There from Here that show the talent that I presume Berry has nurtured as her career’s moved forward. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here and her dialogue is almost always spot on. Not sure if I’ll read more of her stuff in the future, but I can see, in places, exactly why I’ve hear so much about her in the 15 years since this book was first published.

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