Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Barry Dempster's "The Outside World" and Kelli Deeth's "The Other Side of Youth"

   In the Toronto Star Alex Good recently identified Douglas Glover's Savage Love as the "best book of 2013 you probably never heard of," and praised the book as a stylistic masterpiece (overlooked chiefly because its author tends to write experimental short fiction published by small presses, he'd opined in an earlier review).

   My feelings for The Outside World are similar. Not the experimental masterpiece bit, but the should-be-widely-recognized-and-has-not-been sentiment.
   If in the furiously active world of Twitter, products and brands are ever-trending (as in "Now Trending: Disney Star Dylan Sprouse’s Nude Selfie Lands on Twitter, and Other Hot Topics"—thank you for the headline, Globe and Mail), then, I imagine The Outside World is resolutely non-trending (untrending? flatlining?). 
   At least the mediasphere that has made me aware of the books I ought to read (Glover's, Boyden's, Catton's, etc) hasn't as yet let me know to add Dempster's fine Bildungsroman to the pile.
   The quietly sensational novel tells about a young teenage boy's dilemmas in his world, which is suburban Scarborough circa 1966. One affecting charm is in the hapless character and his wrestling with the complications of a family environment that radically destabilizes. The other comes with Dempster's prose, which is neither baroque nor experimental (as it reflects, more or less, the knowledge and ability of its adolescent protagonist), but manages to not become merely prosaic (which would probably be an accurate representation of the writing style of an actual 13-year-old) because Dempster's other work (as a poet) suffuses the prose to just the right degree.
chief among them the fact that he mainly writes experimental short fiction published by small presses - See more at:
chief among them the fact that he mainly writes experimental short fiction published by small presses - See more at:


   I experienced misgiving when I struggled over the review of The Other Side of Youth, Kelli Deeth's second story collection, because I had such ambivalence about the book. 
   I admired the craft of the writing, for one, and that's no small matter. Deeth's stories are subtle and superbly engineered, and they express an attention to detail and emotional nuance that stands well above average (which is to say you both remember them and think about aspects of them well after the fact).
   And while the title seems to promise views (emphasis on the plural) of post-youth life, the stories return again and again to a type, a white, heterosexual, and more or less middle class Ontarian, who's marked by a passiveness and masochism with regard to romantic and sexual relationships, her parents (domineering, hectoring mothers in particular), and agency. They're stuck, in other words, and evidently going nowhere fast.
   Taken together, the stories reflected, to me, a relentlessly closed-off, nihilistic, and claustrophobia-inducing setting and a population of female characters that makes the masochistic women of Mary Gaitskill short stories seem boundlessly optimistic. Besides the fact that this narrowly singular vision of WASP femininity matches nothing in my sphere of experience or awareness, my feelings as the reader of a collection of short stories were (and are): why? 
   The compulsion to write more or less the same character in different, albeit similarly hopeless, settings, is an interesting one. As a reader of a collection of stories, though, I'm personally interested in seeing how  - over nine or ten or a dozen outings - an author can register various views of various parts of the social worlds that interest them and their readers.
   As I've implied here and also explicitly stated, these words are personal reactions to these stories. Others have found (and will find) nothing to kvetch about in Keeth's angle of approach. They're likely to sing her book's praises. 

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