Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Manic repression: Sentimental Exorcisms

There are forms of oppression so subtle, draconian, and fully incorporated into our shared way of living as to press their hoary bulk upon us only in guises of kindness, invitation, and concern. The stifling embrace of altruism. Trevor Spate offers a curious case study. He’s a market analyst having some sex problems at home, which is to say he’s having a tough time working up the energy to perform the sex act with his wife Gillian. Gillian wants a baby, which, requiring sex, only increases the pressure. Trevor takes to visiting a peeler bar to get him in the mood, but his gallant efforts to defend the dignity of an ungrateful waitress—who not coincidentally resembles Gillian, at least from a certain distance—yield nothing but troubles. He’s forced to take a leave of absence, coerced into going into analysis as part of his legal defense, urged to visit his sister and brother-in-law and their wriggling new child in Tofino, of all places. Next thing you know he’s trapped with a self-described reformed rapist with a ponytail who co-opts Neil Young to justify his own neuroses and plies Trevor with experimental drugs that ostensibly produce only “positive emotions” and the most tender-loving desires. Trevor has fallen victim to the “tyranny of sympathy.”

Trevor’s one of several such protagonists inhabiting
Sentimental Exorcisms (Coach House Books, $18.95), Toronto author David Derry’s eloquently titled debut, a collection of blackly comic stories in which the Victorian era lives on in the collective unconscious of the white Canadian middleclass male. Stories in which no man is allowed to tend the garden of their own repressed impulses in peace. Stories of men with thorny mom and dad issues, neighbour issues, spouse issues, workplace issues, poo issues. In some cases organized transgression becomes a form of self-medication, but unforgiving society seems unable to appreciate such valiant efforts to take matters into one’s own hands. In Derry’s taut, arrestingly witty opening tale “one of the University of Toronto’s top English undergrads,” employing perfectly sound solipsistic logic, arrives at the conclusion that the only way to fully realize his inherent and sturdy normalcy is to extinguish his compulsion to peep through peeping. “Attainment is annihilation,” he explains. He buys a ladder and a painting suit. He limits his technically criminal therapy to two nights a week. If only he could just manage to see a woman sodomized then surely he would revert to the pristinely well-adjusted individual he and his looming parents know him to be. (In a sly bit of detail, Derry has his protagonist alternately studying The Portrait of Dorian Gray and ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ both being works not only involving sexual repression, but more importantly, looking.)

David Derry, photo by Shannon Bramer

The risk with this sort of material is that the author inevitably condescends to his characters, smugly stacking their often-tormented psyches with so much fodder for gags cheap or otherwise. Derry largely avoids this through writing in the first-person and stressing identification through sheer desperation and what would appear to be a large number of characteristics shared by both the author and his creations. Only a short piece that takes the amusing form of a letter addressed to real-life author Austin Clarke—written by a lawyer convinced that two of Clarke’s stories were based on true events in which the lawyer himself played an instrumental role—seems to stumble through an awkward balance of exposition and the narrator’s somewhat tiring, pedantic tone. Yet the most sympathetic protagonist in Sentimental Exorcisms turns out to inhabit Derry’s only tale written in the third-person. The eponymous hero of ‘The Eventual Eponymization of Tim Pine’ is a Polish-Canadian stamp collector whose washroom experiences epitomize that horror of the log that won’t drown so often described by Slavoj Zizek. I mean it as no small compliment when I say that Derry really knows how to write shit. In the story of Tim Pine Derry transforms an innocent bowel movement into a form of disaster fiction. Here’s a sample:

The aforementioned swirls suggested heavy use, but the water had been clear, and he’s noticed nothing unusual in his advance flush. This time the contents gurgled and started to rise. Back up against the door, he fumbled the lock open, eye on the bowl, and twisted out of the stall with his belt still undone, as the soiled, matted surface paused at the rim before overflowing, just a trickle.

Coach House’s lovely packaging of
Sentimental Exorcisms features reproductions of paintings by Greg Denton excerpted from a series entitled Out of Date: 365 Self Portraits. Denton himself joins Austin Clarke by playing an actual role in one of Derry’s stories. In ‘Greg Denton Dons Golden Threads in Anticipation’ a 42-year-old stockbroker unexpectedly becomes one of several subjects—all of them named Greg Denton—to be painted by Denton. The irony that drives the story emerges from the protagonist feeling singled-out and redeemed by an invitation received explicitly for no other reason than his bearing an apparently very common name. Yet, come to think of it, our titular Greg Denton does prove himself a unique individual as the story reaches its conclusion by clothing himself in what reads as one flamboyantly ugly motherfucking suit.

Well, there may be a lot of Greg Dentons in the world, but there was surely only one Raymond Carver. Or was there? Controversy still lingers around the degree of authorship shared between the late Carver and his devoted editor Gordon Lish, crediting with having excised massive chunks of Carver’s most beloved stories and even changing endings, titles and names of characters. My friend Salvador insists that Lish was responsible for what he refers to as “the Carver twist.” (Salvador always places finger and thumb in close proximity and then flips his hand over whenever he says "twist.") I’m not so sure. But it does make you wonder about how many people can claim some part of the person we all know as Raymond Carver. Also, according to Wikipedia there’s also a famous darts player with the same name.

In any case, the Library of America has recently published
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories ($50), which offers the whole canon between two covers. These stories remain some of the most influential and enduring in modern American letters, and the nicely packaged collection should make a superb Xmas gift for completists.

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