Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

Any critic who posits that Canadian writers don’t focus on the working lives of their characters really needs to read Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away. With skillful and eerie verisimilitude, Wangersky places most of the protagonists in this new collection of short stories squarely inside the dark hearts of their respective occupations. The breadth of Wangersky’s knowledge of and research into different jobs is truly astounding and worth the price of the book alone.

Indeed, the occupational and geographic range of this collection is quite impressive. We’re given a carpenter (“Bolt”), an amusement park caretaker (“McNally’s Fair”), a paramedic (“911”), a divorce lawyer (“Family Law”) and a travelling salesman (“No Harm, No Foul”). These and other stories are spread across a number of Canadian locales, including Alberta, Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces. In each instance, Wangersky fully inhabits the life, work and place of his characters and creates a whole universe around them. He brilliantly realizes each story’s world for 15 pages before moving on to a completely new and different world.

And while Wangersky is adept at depicting the exterior circumstances of his characters’ lives, he is also skilled at capturing the tiny details that illuminate their inner turmoil. There were a number of scenes in the opening story, “Bolt”—about a carpenter named John who is accidentally killed and leaves behind a mystery for the two women in his life—that captures so well the dynamics and secrets between a man and a woman. Here’s a passage with John building a new table and Anne coming to see him:
Anne had brought his lunch down to the shop every day while he was working on the big table. She had caught him looking along the grain, his face a serious, complicated map, and when he’d seen her and straightened up, rubbing his hands on a piece of cloth, his eyes changed, like someone moving quickly away from the edge of a window and letting the curtain fall back into place.
This wonderfully subtle moment helps to underscore the deeply entrenched inscrutability that John holds in his heart right up to the moment of his death.

My favourite story in the collection is “Sharp Corner.” This tale, about a man who becomes obsessed with telling stories (much to the chagrin of his wife) about a succession of car cashes that occur at the base of their driveway due to a tight turn in the road, is a tightly drawn and symbolic exploration of psychology. The out-of-control cars can be seen as stand-ins for this man’s out-of-control marriage, but Wangersky never overplays his symbolism when making these connections. There is a Ballardian obsession with death and automobile wrecks that lends this story a creepy tone, but we never escape the deeply held emotional tension in the story either.

While not every story in Whirl Away is as riveting—the last two pieces felt a bit withered on a vine by the time I reached them—there is no doubt that Wangersky has a rich sense of story and a deeply held investment in his characters. This was a pleasurable read through and through.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Drifting House, by Krys Lee

It’s always impressive when a short story collection can hold within it both a unity of subject matter and a range of approaches. This definitely applies to the debut collection from Krys Lee, called Drifting House. The topic is clear across all nine tales: Korea—both as a place and as a mentality, the social mores and circumstances driven by a unique set of histories and traditions.

But the range within this central vision is vast. Lee writes about Koreans on their native soil as well as Koreans who have immigrated to America. She writes both about South and North Korea. Her protagonists are men as often as they are women. It’s as if she doesn’t want to privilege one type of Korean tale over another; she wants to, if not run the gamut, at least provide a generous cross section of contemporary Korean life.

And she does. There is a tale about the invidious position Korean women find themselves in a divorce (“A Temporary Marriage”); there’s a story about the love that still dare not speak its name, even in a city as cosmopolitan as Seoul (“The Goose Father”); there is an examination of the IMF crisis in the South in the late 1990s (“The Salaryman”) as well as the famine and the fleeing refugees in the North (the title story). In each piece, Lee commits herself to the world she has created for each of her characters and embraces the nuance of their multitudinous experiences.

Unfortunately, there is a regrettable strain of melodrama—another facet of the Korean mindset, perhaps—that comes on near the end of almost all of these stories. It’s frustrating to have a tale carry you along with its sharp language and fully drawn characters, only to have that world undermined by a burst of unearned or overstated emotion at the end. Only the final story, “Beautiful Women,” manages to avoid sentimentality completely. This piece, so exquisite, so breathtaking in its vision and execution, never lets emotion get out of hand; it leaves so many wonderful gaps for the reader to fill in what his or her own heart feels about what has transpired. If only the other pieces in the book did this a bit more.

Still, this is an impressive collection overall. Having lived in Korea for two and a half years and researched many elements of its culture for my own writing, I had plenty of little moments of recognition reading this book. Krys Lee is an immense talent and someone to expect big things from in the future.