The Party is Here

By Candas Jane Dorsey

by Georgina Beaty
Freehand Books
2021/$22.95/250 pp.

Short fiction has limits. Years ago a colleague summed it up fairly reasonably as: “Short stories ask questions. Novels provide answers.” It doesn’t bother me that a story can’t be a complete arc. What does bother me is that so many literary short story writers choose to stay within what critic and scholar John Clute calls “thinning.” A story begins in wrongness, says Clute, then moves through thinning (of the worlds and the characters) to the point where “the protagonist gazes upon the shrivelled heart of the thinned world and knows what to do.” Only then can the story move on to resolution and conclusion. Clute talks about how horror fiction is “stuck” in thinning, the characters forever thinned yet never able to move along. I would add literary short fiction to that list of genres. So many literary short story writers today place hapless and incompetent characters in danger, draw their portrait, often with ironic sarcasm, and leave them there, trapped. These are snapshots, not stories, but the field is rife with them. It’s a crowded field; about 30 short-story books are published in Canada each year.

It’s hard to rise above that crowd, and it’s impossible to review The Party is Here, by Georgina Beaty, without acknowledging the difficult road she has chosen. I commend her for making her first book of short stories stand out.

“So much laundry involved in ethical non-monogamy.” That was the first sentence that really involved me. It’s in the first story in the book, about a woman in a doomed (and not just by herpes) relationship. I was ready to eye-roll about the same-old theme of the story until it was pierced with insights like this one—which the author allowed the character to have, rather than offering it directly to the reader as a nudge-nudge wink-wink we’re-so-smart moment. It’s one of several great lines in the story, along with “Leslie was told it was temporary but temporary was not a unit of time” and “We left when we had done what we could, which was absolutely nothing.” Slowly, as I read through the rest of the stories, I was impressed with the clarity and awareness of even the most limited of Beaty’s people, most of them. They get to live. And often, they spend a long time in contemplation of the shrivelled heart of our thinned world.

All of Beaty’s people are travellers, suffering through the perils of the Anthro-pocene. The last of the park rangers in a privatized national park tries to save an endangered species; a researcher concludes that death is how we save the planet; teenagers play “Werewolf” (a variation on the games “Mafia” or “Thing”) and discover what such a game does to their souls; tourists in a Spanish-speaking country become trees. The story of the woman who is mother to a sex offender and must take him in after his conviction is probably the most static of the tales, and to me the least interesting only because insight is withheld from the characters completely. But this is a first collection, and I expected more unevenness than I found.

As the stories pile one upon another, the themes start to coalesce. The baby shower for the pregnant salmon-researcher (perhaps she is being a surrogate?) leads us on to the gender-switching friends/lovers who founder in their quest for the perfect non-binary, and from there to the resounding concluding tale, of a person who undergoes an egg-preserving fertility process courtesy of the last gift from her suddenly-dead mother, who discovers that the eggs have power that has nothing to do with actual baby-making. So, the stories begin to add up to a satisfying sense of purpose. Metacommentary on global climate change. Apocalyptic futures expressed implacably. Despairing touches of magic realism. The nihilism of parenthood.

The skewer of honesty is driven through all of these tales, as the protagonists are allowed to view, close-up, the shrivelled heart of their thinned worlds. And even if what they know to do, in each pocket universe, is unorthodox, they can choose to act.

Candas Jane Dorsey is an author and editor in Edmonton.

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