Best Canadian Stories 2018 was edited by Russell Smith (author of short story collection Confidence) who says, “A great anthology does not have a sameness of tone. Every new piece should be surprising.” In this, he has succeeded. These stories are structurally inventive, touch on politically and emotionally charged topics, and are exquisitely written.
These sentences alone serve as explanations for why we read this genre. — Russell Smith
A Dozen Stomachs (by Tom Thor Buchanan) is written from the point of view of a human’s stomach. The stomach rides the bus, fills out forms, reads, writes, and dreams.
A stomach writes something and calls it “Hunger,” finding that easier than saying “I’m hungry.” Things feel more bearable when they are put elsewhere, it reasons.
In one of my favourite stories, Someone is Recording by Lynn Coady, a man sends emails to a woman he had a relationship with fifteen years ago, who wrote about the inappropriate power dynamic of their relationship online. As the story goes viral, and with not a word from the woman, the man’s emails change from ‘let’s sit down and discuss this as friends’ to ‘come on, that’s not the way it was’ to…
Okay so if I’m interpreting your latest post correctly, the sticking point seems to be that you don’t believe I’ve actually been sincere in anything I’ve said thus far about what happened FIFTEEN FUCKING YEARS AGO back in Ottawa. And that I’ve “glossed over” what you call my “actual wrongdoing.” Oh my god. This is amazing to me. As thoughtful, careful and abject as I’ve been in the absurd amount of emails I sent to you – emails you haven’t even dignified with a response – and for all my self-flagellation and prostration at the altar of your fathomless feminine rage, nothing I’ve said has been good enough. Cool, cool. Good to know. Guess I can get up off my knees now.
Twinkle, Twinkle is an algorithmically generated story. Stephen Marche used a program that can “identify dozens of structural and stylistic details in huge chunks of text.” Marche chose some of his favourite science-fiction stories by authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, and fed them to the program. It is then “able to identify all the details that those stories have in common.” In this way, Marche was guided by the program as he wrote his story. Reading about how this works is fascinating in itself, but the story it helped to write is also worth reading! As his editor pointed out, “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.”
Two stories involve teacher/student interactions. In Food for Nought by Shashi Bhat, a grade 10 English teacher is concerned about one of her students who writes a poem about an eating disorder.
It’s clear this poem is about her, which makes it hard to give feedback. “Try to experiment more with enjambment,” I write. “Too many similes?” I query. I consider writing “This poem makes me want to be sick.”
In Never Prosper by Liz Harmer (another favourite), the professor (Evie) is concerned about a student who has obviously plagiarized his essay. As she waits for him to meet in her office, she sees on Facebook that her friend Natasha is in town. As she wonders why she didn’t know, she discovers that Natasha is in town to see Tom, the man Evie has been entangled with for the past twelve years. She is seething with the news when the student shows up and catches her in this rare mood, resulting in a scene very satisfying for the reader.
Gloom had a pressure system, too, and the blue sky was a taunt, cheerful as a sixties housewife. She longed for a downpour.
On the more heart-rending spectrum, For What You’re About to Do by Brad Hartle is about an older man with dementia who has committed a serious crime but has no memory of it. His son comes home to accompany his father to the trial, and as it goes on, we learn about who the father really is and how absurd the situation. The man’s wife copes in her own way by responding to insensitive online comments to news articles about the crime.
“I don’t care if I’m being stupid. Let me be stupid for your father.” She pulled back and gave me those teary eyes. “Because I am stupid for your father. I love him so stupid.”
Fans of Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page will be thrilled to hear that Inches is a short story about Harry and Evelyn as they figure out how to handle the challenges of their youngest daughter.
Downstairs, they were never in the same place unless passing through. He spoke to Evelyn whenever she appeared: he was very sorry for his part in the misunderstanding; could they sit down together and talk it over? Was there something he could do? She did not reply; acted, indeed, as if she neither saw nor heard him. It was, he felt, both magnificent and pathetic at the same time. Infuriating, too. Evelyn left him notes: ‘Kindly wash your teacup. The gas bill has come. I’m not doing your washing.’
In Lisa Moore‘s story, Visitations, a woman thinks she is experiencing “visions”. Maybe brought on by the stress of her recent divorce? This story can also be found in her Giller longlisted short story collection, Something for Everyone.
David Huebert‘s Six Six Two Fifty, is about a hockey fighter, which I’ve written about here.
Alex Pugsley has written a charming story about a boy who claims to be an “escape artist” in A Day With Cyrus Mair. (Part of a series of stories about the Mair and McKee families in Halifax, NS.) Aubrey McKee met Cyrus Mair for the first time on the day Cyrus’ father’s body was found floating in Halifax Harbour.
… as I watched Cyrus Mair in the playground for the Halifax School for the Blind chasing a seagull’s shadow, on the way to the rest of his life, pushing his fingers along the posts of the wrought-iron fence, trying to touch every one, now going back to tap the post he missed, I thought him reckless and exuberant and smart. He was fabulously weird. I wanted to know what he knew. I couldn’t really guess what he was dreaming up in his mind, nor what games and inventions occurred there, but I liked him. His world was in a constant state of becoming, and this Friday afternoon was the beginning of a fascination that would last a sort of lifetime for me because, even if I didn’t know what I wanted, like everyone else I would not be able to stop paying attention to the creature known as Cyrus Mair.
Other stories include: a father and daughter who hash out feelings through Facebook messenger that could never have been spoken about face-to-face (Reg Johanson); an awkward young man who thinks he’s being flooded with someone else’s memories (Amy Jones); a troubled youth who comes to stay on his aunt’s farm over the summer (Deirdre Simon Dore); a political strategist who learned everything he knows from The Simpsons (Michael LaPointe); a woman who gives up her baby to another woman (“Maybe Laura was trying to atone for her sins. Sacrifice the child she chose for the child she didn’t. Maybe that was a clue. A dot I should have connected.” — Alicia Elliott); and a new guy comes to work at a fish farm on an isolated inlet (“It was just guys. Women need not apply. Arnie didn’t know how they got away with that, these days, but no women, and no alcohol allowed. Almost like it was designed by someone with his best interests in mind.” — Bill Gaston)
Now I want to read the first 47 Best Canadian Stories.
An interview with Russell Smith at Open Book on “short fiction and the importance of variety”: “I did my best to read every piece of short fiction published in a journal – either online or in print – in 2017 or the first half of 2018… I also solicited unpublished pieces from writers I admired, and I put out a call for submissions on social media. I read solidly for several months. I was looking for excitement in writing style, for wit and playfulness, for unexpected insights, and for gripping what-will-happen-next stories. I wanted to represent the great diversity of form and setting in Canadian fiction…”
Thank you to Biblioasis for sending me a copy of this book!