What do we expect from the young? The ingenuity of a new generation? A rebellion against the status quo? The residual angst of adolescence? A new voice? Clark-Nova Books’ new anthology of short stories Writing Without Direction: 10 1/2 Short Stories by Canadian Authors Under 30 promises all this and more from “eleven of Canada’s most talented young writers.” Necrophiliacs, beer-soaked bars, gluttonous cannibals, unwashed dishes, the pangs of loss—this eclectic collection encompasses an impressive array of themes and characters between the covers of one slim paperback. At their best, the stories are wonderfully refreshing and entertaining, but at weaker moments they become predictable, heavy-handed, and confused.
The best stories in the collection escape predictability. Highlights include the opening story, “Housecleaning,” narrated in the oft-neglected voice of an elderly woman mourning the dispersal of her family; “Eloise and Pierre,” a wonderfully grotesque story of gluttony and cannibalism; and “30 Ways to Die,” which, true to its title, is narrated as a list of ways to kick the proverbial bucket. These stories retain their distinct “young-writer” flavour along with the subtlety and ingenuity common to all great fiction. They were a pleasure to read.
Unfortunately, a hefty dose of angst clings to many of the other stories; mostly as an undercurrent of disgust: disgust at the gluttony of a consumerist culture; at the aimless, meaningless hedonism of university life; at the ridiculous lengths to which we go just to feel some connection in a world as banal and superficial as we’d always feared it would be. In most cases, the disgust is warranted, but the grace and subtlety needed to express critiques through fiction just weren’t there. Instead, some stories degenerate into polemical outbursts that become very tedious very fast.
For example, in “Fifteen Pounds of Steak,” a story about the evils of big-box-sized consumption, a consumerist, hog-like character blurts out, “It’s like…like a way of life. I just get in [Costco] and…and I just want to consume…It’s probably not healthy, all this consumption.” While an obvious statement of purpose like this may be well-suited to essay writing, it doesn’t work well in fiction. Another story, “Are Ya Havin’ Fun,” is guilty of the same. In this case, the critique is of the idiotic binge drinking in university, and the story progresses well until the narrator/author-facsimile exclaims with thinly veiled bitterness, “Stay home and read a book or watch a movie or do anything except for get totally shitfaced and fuck a random stranger? Fuck that. What’s wrong with you? Why would you want to do anything else?” In both cases, some subtlety would be nice.
All this angst is exacerbated by the dark, brooding drawings by Luke Fimio that preface each story. While the drawings are wonderfully executed and make a well-designed book even more beautiful as an object, they smack a bit too much of teenage rebellion in a book by young authors trying to be taken seriously.
The collection as a whole remains inconsistent. The several lackluster tales dilute the excellence of the better stories. What readers will get from Writing Without Direction is a display of earnest intent and budding potential, but with little mastery. Perhaps the next generation of Canadian writers could use some direction after all.
Justin Scherer is a writer, critic, and translator based in Montreal.