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
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.