Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

I feel a little late to the game lending my unadulterated praise to Alexander MacLeod’s debut short story collection, Light Lifting. The book already found its way onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, received solid reviews in The Globe & Mail, The National Post and Quill and Quire, and made itself the crown jewel in Biblioasis’s fall 2010 list. There’s not a whole lot I can add to the acclaim that this fantastic book has received over the last month and a half, but I’m going to try my best.

One of the aspects of Light Lifting that got a lot of people talking was how long it took MacLeod to write the collection – by some accounts as many as 10 years. This may have raised a few eyebrows considering that the book is comprised of just seven stories spanning about 210 pages. But after finishing the book, I wasn’t surprised at all that it took him so long: the craftsmanship behind each piece is absolutely off the charts, and any close reading will reveal the time and patience it must have taken MacLeod to put these stories together.

Indeed, one of the great strengths of MacLeod’s writing is the way he is able to modulate between different modes within a single story. This is typified in his two opening pieces, “Miracle Mile” and “Wonder About Parents”: in each example, we see the narration do a number of astounding tricks with point and counter-point. His stories often move from a direct first-person point of view to a kind of second-person didacticism or universality, as if his protagonists are speaking directly to us about some aspect of life that we already unconsciously knew or understood. They also shift effortlessly from the specific to the general, and from the immediacy of a present situation to a flashback of some relevant event in the past.

This accomplishment can’t be overstated: it’s incredibly hard to achieve this kind of perfected balance between so many narrative modulations, especially in a short story. But MacLeod makes it look effortless. I imagine there must have been a proverbial cutting-room floor where entire scenes (or even whole stories) were ditched outright, and what remained was substantively rewritten and rewritten until MacLeod got each piece’s queer alchemy, its resounding equilibrium, just right. In the end, the results speak for themselves: you finish each story and know that it could not have been structured any other way; you turn the last page feeling as if the tale you’ve just read has, in some way, always existed.

Much has been made of the rugged masculinity of Light Lifting, but there is also a rugged intellectualism here too, not to mention a ton of old-fashioned authorial tenderness. MacLeod is just as adept at writing about a dad wiping poo off his baby’s backside in a gas station bathroom as he is writing about laying brick or young men enthralled by athletic competition. It’s a versatility that impresses over and over again. These are very human stories, and very humane. They are gentle and violent, specific and universal, and chock full of insight and keen observations.

I look forward to seeing what MacLeod will do next – and here’s hoping it doesn’t take him another 10 years to do it.

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