Sex and Death: Stories, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs

What civil lives we lead. So mannered, so controlled. Everything tidy and safe, everything put in its place. How hard we try not to be frightened, not to let the mind and body misbehave, not to come undone. Look at us in our ties and our stockings, taking vitamins and buying prophylactics, arranging mortgages and emptying the bins, ameliorating, ordering. We’ve almost convinced ourselves.  – Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs

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Sex and Death is a title to get your attention.  But what caught my attention was this review of it I happened upon in The Globe and Mail (along with Kathy Page’s The Two of Us). In his review, Steven W. Beattie sings the praises of the two Atlantic Canadian contributions to the anthology; Fin by Lynn Coady and The Closing Date by Alexander MacLeod.

All the stories in this anthology have do with with “how we come in, and how we go out, sex and death”. Contributors to the collection include authors from around the globe, such as Kevin Barry (Ireland), Ceridwen Dovey and Robert Drew (Australia), Damon Galgut (South Africa), Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe), Sarah Hall/Peter Hobbs/Jon McGregor/Ali Smith/Courttia Newland (England), Yiyun Li/Ben Marcus/Taiye Selasi/Wells Tower /Claire Vaye Watkins (United States), Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico), Alan Warner (Scotland/Ireland/Spain), Clare Wigfall (England/US/Germany), and Lynn Coady and Alexander MacLeod (Canada). I have read about many of these writers from other bloggers, and was happy to finally be sampling their work.

There are a wide variety of stories and writing styles. You never know what you’re going to get; fruit bats with an addiction to coffee, the agony of anal fissures, a woman whose personality change astounds/delights and confuses her husband, a 22-year-old looking to get laid for the first time, a murderer on the run, a (female) ex-cocaine addict who joins a gentlemen’s model airplane club, mysterious disappearances at a “fake” nuclear power plant sometime in the future, lovers who reunite after fifteen years, talking maggots, and more.

I don’t mean to pick favourites (okay, maybe I do), but here are the two best stories in the book…

The Closing Date by Alexander MacLeod

In Alexander MacLeod’s story, the two themes of the book come together at the same time. A young family staying in a roadside motel overnight is unaware that the nice man they met earlier that day, and staying in the room next to them, is a serial killer. They remain unaware of this until the killer is caught almost two years later, as they watch it on TV with their young children upstairs, tucked safely into their beds.

Like walking through a thick fog at street level, the story surrounded us completely and we had to breathe it in. At breakfast, over cereal and orange juice, we’d watch the shows and read, consuming something much higher than the recommended daily allowance of photographs of the victims, accounts of their sad backgrounds, editorials, in-depth analyses, searches for explanation.

He thinks back on the night they stayed at the motel, their daughter only four and his wife seven months pregnant. As they made love while their daughter slept, there were a couple of loud thumps on the wall next to them; sounds they decided to ignore, but now cannot stop thinking about.

Perhaps our quietness saved our lives and saved the lives of our children. Perhaps we were spared. Or perhaps the noises we made and the noises we heard but never reported led to very different results for other people living their lives in other places.

You can imagine the odd mixture of emotions the couple must have felt upon learning how close they were to the killer; how they had no idea, even inviting him into their room to fix a pipe, and entrusting him to watch their daughter alone for a few minutes. (My husband didn’t think this last part was realistic. As he says, who would let a stranger watch their kid, no matter how nice he seemed?) But as I was reading it, it didn’t strike me as strange at all. Just terrifying.

What I love about this story are the real life moments that he nails. Like when the couple are searching for their new house over the internet at night in their bed…

We’d scroll through the internet real-estate listings, dozens of them, maybe a hundred a night, and we got very good at moving the earth with our little gloved computer hand. […] The machine kept kicking off this steady blue glow as the pictures flashed in front of us and sometimes, when the backgrounds changed from light to dark, I caught a glimpse of our faces pressed close together and staring back out of the screen. Our expressions were blank and our mouths hung a little bit open, but our eyes were sharp and intensely focused.

And during the sex scene in the motel while their little one is sleeping…

In the beginning, all I could do was concentrate on Lila, watching for her any sign, and imagining how Maddy and I could maybe both roll off the side and duck down behind the bed if we needed to. I did not want to get caught by a four-year-old and end up leaving some scarring image that would be seared into her brain.

But the best part is how this sense of complete normalcy is juxtaposed with the big escape from their worst nightmare.

Fin by Lynn Coady

What I love about Lynn Coady’s story is how real and familiar it all sounds and feels; one partner (in this case, the woman) trying to be extra upbeat and supportive to make up for the other partner’s tension and dark mood, the passive aggressiveness of her partner trying to get her to do the breaking up so that he doesn’t have to. But it doesn’t work, and one day, soon after moving into their new house, he gets drunk and blurts it out.

He had to get really drunk and blurt it out because all the months of getting drunk and saying cold and pessimistic things hadn’t made her want to leave him.

… even the sober conversations were bullshit – that’s what was so difficult. That’s why it got so that every time he tried to talk, drunk or sober, he would open up his mouth and she would hear: I want to get away from you so bad. So bad. So bad, I’m just making up random shit at this point. In all my panic; in my desperation.

Because it was astonishing! To wake up in her own home, smack in the middle of this life she had chosen, and find herself despised.

And now here she is, taking care of the new house alone, living with all the stuff he didn’t take with him; “The Museum of Us”. Putting up with him popping in to grab some of it from time to time. Even finding herself still ‘taking care’ of him, worrying that he’s okay.

Pop culture has only offered comfort in the aftermath. Like that moment a few days ago when music started speaking to her. It started talking to her directly, of heartbreak. All music. Even bad music. Bon Jovi. Roxette. When she had to stop what she was doing and sit on the kitchen floor and listen because suddenly she realized that she was being addressed. Someone else’s pain was messaging her own, like an animal locked in a basement, howling away, rousing her own animal to start howling in return.

The story floats back and forth between the lead-up to the separation, and the realities of being on your own in a new city with no friends.

But maybe she didn’t do it all for love. Perhaps she did it all so she would never have to feel like this.

Some great lines/passages:

Dan dropped dead on the sand and that was that. – Robert Drewe

As is the way of the body, when things are going right, we are allowed to remain blissfully unaware of the fact that we are housed in sheaths of flesh. When things go wrong, however, worse than the pain, worse even than the shame, is no longer being able to ignore the body’s relentless systems of audit and account: things go in, things come out, things go in, things come out, over and over and over until we die. – Ceridwen Dovey

She arrived home after work, sat at the kitchen table and took a large chocolate bar out of her bag. She said nothing, not even hello. She split the foil, broke it apart, and proceeded to eat the entire thing, square after square; a look of almost sexual concentration on her face. – Sarah Hall

When I first met God I was desperate and lost and my balls were leaping about within me from the lack of use. – Jon McGregor

George forced his hand along the dog’s awful back, wondering why anyone would willingly touch another living thing. What a disaster of feelings it stirred up, feelings that seemed to have no purpose other than to suffocate him. – Ben Marcus

I pause at the door. I’ve always been able to go through if I wanted, but I’ve never wanted to. After all, I can always watch it on the monitor. I think about how it looks on the screen, grey and empty, and I think about how it will look with me walking down it. It seems a shame that it will be the most excitement the corridor has seen for ages, and there’ll be no one watching. – Peter Hobbs

Couples keeping secrets are remarkably affectionate. – Taiye Selasi

It was awful the way asking a completely reasonable question could sound like a screechy harangue  when you knew the other person was primed to hear it that way. – Lynn Coady

… we do not know where we are in the arc of our lives – old or young, safe or exposed, closer to the beginning or the end, brushing up against death or far away from it. We do not know if the decisive moment has arrived or is yet to come. Led only by what we desire, we go out into the world and make our way. And then we sleep, each of us in our temporary beds that will one day be occupied by other people. – Alexander MacLeod

Sex and Death is entertaining and provocative. As Rebecca Rosenblum says in her Goodreads review, “Almost every piece is a highlight of form, style, and substance, and even the pieces I didn’t personally love I admired.”  And best of all, it’s a book that includes stories written by Atlantic Canadian authors that is widely available in the world. It can’t get much better than that.

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40 thoughts on “Sex and Death: Stories, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs

  1. Penny says:

    I love it! I love that the two best stories in the collection are by the Canadians! Yes!! I truly do believe that Canadian writers own short story writing. They have perfected it and others just truly do not compare to the superb style!

    I’ve never heard of this collection – will have to check out its availability!

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! I love your enthusiasm, Penny! I really do believe that their stories are among the best in the volume (if not the best), but the good thing is, there are a lot of others in there that came pretty close!

    • Naomi says:

      I was impressed with the range of writing style and stories! It’s fun to read through and have no idea about what’s coming next!

  2. JacquiWine says:

    That’s a very impressive list of writers, no wonder you enjoyed it! These anthologies are a great way of sampling ‘new’ writers alongside more established, familiar ones. It’s always good to pick up a few names for the future, authors to explore in more depth.

  3. roughghosts says:

    I’ve had this from the library but have not yet had a chance to read it. I was intrigued by the range of authors, including a few favourites. Thanks for your review.

    • Naomi says:

      I knew I wanted to read it for the two stories I highlighted, but I was definitely happy about the rest of the authors in the book, as well. Many of them have been on my to-read list for a while. I hope you get a chance to read it before it has to go back!

  4. madamebibilophile says:

    This sounds great! What an impressive collection. In all honesty, the title would have put me off because I would think they were just trying to be provocative for the sake of it, but you’ve overturned my ill-founded prejudice!

    • Naomi says:

      I might have felt the same about the title, except for the circumstances under which I first heard about the book. I do think the cover is pretty, though – kind of makes up for it!

  5. Don Royster says:

    The first story reminds us how close we may come and miss something. It could be a serial killer or winning a lottery. Or missing that airplane that crashed. Why we miss them we never will know. But it does happen. The second reminds me how much my writing is about relationships. Usually, that despite everything, we make them work.

  6. Elle says:

    This has been on my shelf for months while I wonder whether to bother with it (not only short stories, but short stories WHERE EVERY STORY IS BY A DIFFERENT AUTHOR—arrrghhhh.) But I adore Sarah Hall’s writing, and I trust her judgment, and your excerpts are excellent. So now I’m convinced.

  7. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    The Closing Date sounds like a fascinating book. I cannot imagine the horror of the family when they find out that they stayed near a serial killer, even though the incident is in the past. So many emotions to be portrayed.

  8. Sarah Emsley says:

    You’ve inspired me to read the collection, Naomi. The opening quotation made me think of what Winston Churchill said about Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”

  9. buriedinprint says:

    Love that you’ve included so many quotes here, to really give an idea of the diversity of styles and voices herein. And what’s wrong with choosing favourites when they’re amazing stories? Although obviously they have some fine company here, too. The idea of couples being more affectionate if they have secrets makes me very curious about that story. But the MacLeod really speaks to me. Oh, yes, the chocolate too! Heheh

    • Naomi says:

      I found that idea very intriguing, too. (The one of couples keeping secrets.) I had to stop and think about that!
      Another favourite was the story about the woman who had just given birth and trying to get used to her new body. It brought back some memories! (Ceridwen Dovey)

  10. Grab the Lapels says:

    I met Alexander MacLeod at a reading. He’s a fellow ND grad, though he was out of there before I came along. I bought his short story collection and got it signed. I remember really liking his reading, which isn’t always the case at Notre Dame because we get some highly experimental writers who come through. I also met Ben Marcus when I was in the MFA program at Notre Dame. I remember I really hated his book The Age of Wire and String because I couldn’t grasp a thread anywhere to get into the story. It was like reading gibberish. Because I was in a creative writing pedagogy class at the time, he came to class and sat with us and answered our questions about being a writer and craft. I remember he mostly complained that he and his wife had just had a baby, and the baby had ruined him as a writer. I ended up selling my copy of his book just outside the reading because I was so disgusted overall.

    • Naomi says:

      Oh dear, that’s not a very good impression of Ben Marcus! I liked his story in this collection. It wasn’t straight-forward – I had to think about it a bit. But not too much.
      I’m glad you had a good story about Alexander MacLeod!

  11. The Cue Card says:

    Such a wide variety of writers in one anthology! I would like to read Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border sometime; I tried to pick it for my book club but they wimped on it. I will get to Lynn Coady too. It sounds like an interesting topic for the anthology, a bit dark but provocative.

    • Naomi says:

      The death stories are actually not as dark as you might think. In most cases, the person’s death is just the springboard to the rest of the story. I don’t think I was devastated by any of their deaths.

  12. Elena says:

    I just came here from Cathy’s blog and I can’t believe we had never crossed paths before. So hello, Naomi! I love the title of this anthology, and I love the diversity of the writers it contains. I’ll check it out next time I’m in the UK!

  13. DoingDewey says:

    I have a review copy of this book which I’ve not read and I have to admit that I’m more interested in finally picking it up after seeing the cover, haha. The mix of normalcy and creepiness also sounds fascinating. I should really get to this one!

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