Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau

One of the things that I tend to judge a collection of short stories on – especially if it’s a debut collection – is the level of versatility that the author shows from one piece to the next. While I’m not opposed to an entire anthology of short fiction written with a limited tonality or point of view, I prefer collections that show off the writer’s chops in handling different scenarios, a mix of themes, a good arrangement of ‘literary’ pieces with off-the-wall stuff, and characters with a variety of occupations and worldviews.

So in this sense, Doretta Lau’s debut collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, seems to be custom designed for me. While the marketing bumpf promises a “whimsical new take on what it means to be Canadian,” what we actually get is a wild, smash-mouth array of wholly original pieces, a deliberate hodgepodge that puts us an entire galaxy away from the staid “immigrant-as-nationalism” narrative that is so overdone in our country’s literature. Lau’s pieces run the gamut from the violent and vulgar to the tender and touching. Yes, most of her characters are Asian Canadians struggling to find their way in the world, but each tale stands on its own as a singular thing, carefully wrought with an eye toward pristine originality.

The collection opens with two very strong pieces of what we might call speculative fiction. “God Damn, How Real Is This?”, a piece that could’ve fallen straight from the pen of Barthelme or Ballard, is about characters who receive text messages from their future selves warning them about all the stupid mistakes they’re about to make. The story starts out quirky but ends on a surprisingly moving note. “Two-Part Invention”,  meanwhile, reveals a young woman who develops the ability to date men who have already died, and picks a wholly believable version of Glenn Gould to be her otherworldly suitor.

My favourite stories in Blade of Grass – I’m a bit red-faced to admit  - are the ones that tackle the sexual, or at least the sexual tension, between characters. This is something Lau handles very well. I’m thinking of two stories in particular: “The Boy Next Door,” about a young layabout who loses his job and ends up accidentally auditioning for a porno movie while on the hunt for new work; and “Robot By the River,” about two young people living in the same apartment building in Vancouver, who despite the obvious connection between them simply can not get their sexual stars to line up. The first story is played for farce and the second is played for pathos, but both show a writer capable of creating anxiety and tension within characters that arise from disparate locations.

Blade of Grass is a short book but packs a lot in it: humour and horror; comedy and sadness; lunacy and the dead serious. Lau is clearly a versatile writer, which of course makes us wonder what she’ll do next.      

No comments:

Post a Comment