Culture & Conversation

In Praise of Strange Little Books

Along with disaster movies of the 1970s and all-night bowling alleys, strange little books are one of life’s great pleasures. Just such a creation is The Olive and the Dawn, a slim short story collection by Montreal author Ian Orti.

Dreamlike in tone, Orti’s work is at once odd and humorous. Linear time is insignificant; the future and the past weave their way in and out of the narrative along with alternative endings found in stories called, aptly, “Epilogue,” “Last Call,” and “Postscript.” The Olive is the common thread, a character who appears in the majority of the stories wearing a myriad of different hats; we see him as a horny tennis hopeful, a gallant bicycle thief, a frostbitten drunk. Whatever his incarnation, the Olive is a romantic. His great love is the Dawn, and though we hear of her more often than see her, she is the driving force behind the Olive’s tumultuous life.

The highlight of the book is “And Then the Disco Came to Ecuador.” Told in fairytale fashion, this story mixes a rousing cocktail of teen longing, sibling loyalty, and disco dancing. This could be an alternate universe Sound of Music, the drape-clad von Trapp children trading in mountaintop sessions of “Do-Re-Mi” for sweat, hips, and “music loud enough to drown speech in its own futility.” It’s impossible to resist rooting for six brothers and sisters with the common and admirable goal of sneaking out of the house in the night to join the boogieing throng beneath “the mirrored cubes of Ecuador’s first disco ball.” You’ll want to read this story quietly, to keep from waking their parents.

Ian Orti does things that the most bumptious member of your writers’ critique group will tell you not to do. He addresses the reader directly. He reveals the future, repeatedly. He spends a paragraph on a detailed restaurant breakfast scene only to follow up with “But this wasn’t actually how it happened.” Your clever friend would ask, in the living room, food court café, or wherever it is that you meet every two weeks to pick apart each other’s work: If that wasn’t how it happened, why bother writing it? Because, you might want to answer for the author, if there is no risk involved in the act, why bother writing at all?

Now I’m going to imagine ideal readers for The Olive and the Dawn. The first three that come to mind are:

1. A dude with a red goatee who works at the video store nobody goes to anymore.

2. A 26-year old CÉGEP English teacher who’s anxious about a course on Roman mythology she got stuck teaching this semester even though she knows precious little about the subject.

3. A guy who has tapes dating back to 1989 of himself calling radio talk shows. He goes by the alias “Ron in Chomedey.”

And, like you, all three every now and then enjoy old disaster movies and bowling after midnight.

Mark Paterson is the 2009 winner of Geist magazine’s Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. Author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers, Mark is currently writing a novel, With the Lights Out.

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