The linked short story sequence is a powerful but challenging form. Done right, the structure can give you a multiplicity of views, styles, and approaches. Done wrong, it can be too elliptical or too episodic. Craig Davidson’s new book, Sarah Court, gets it right in spades.
Sarah Court is a real-estate development in a small town in southern Ontario: “twenty minutes north of Niagara Falls. Grape and wine country. Crops harvested by itinerant Caribbean fieldhands who ride bicycles bundled in toques and fingerless gloves even in summertime. A town unfurling along Lake Ontario. Once so polluted, salmon developed pearlescent lesions on their skin. Ducks, pustules on their webbed feet. They seizured from contagions in their blood. Children were limited to swimming in ten-minute increments.
You really are such magnificently grim bastards. Trashing utopias is how you party.”
It’s hard to argue; much of the book could be seen as an examination of how the utopia of childhood becomes the cesspit of adulthood. The five families of Sarah Court get a chapter apiece, their stories intertwining, building on each other, looking back to show baffled children being moulded and broken by their fathers (mothers are rare in these stories, and usually untrustworthy), showing the failures of the present day, the people doomed and determined to get it wrong.
The structure of the book emphasises the links between these characters; not only the family links, but the unlikely community of Sarah Court. Everybody has their part to play in everybody else’s life. Usually for the worse, usually without even realising it.
These are grim stories, filled with physical pain, brain damage (a recurrent motif), and emotional numbness. The book touches on supernatural (or science fictional) horror, but its core is simply the damage people do to each other and themselves. The tone of the extract above is a fair sample of the tone of the book as a whole: a spiral downward, the sense of inevitable degeneration. Paradoxically, though, the book’s energetic, the writing filled with a weird caffeine buzz, wired and compelling.
Each story, or chapter, has its own variation on that tone, its own voice to match the character it follows. Some of the voices sound similar, but that’s understandable given that these are people from the same place, the same town and (often) socioeconomic status. The key is that the voices sound real, the language is always convincing.
Married to this, and arguably even more important, is a masterful grasp of structure. The book manages the rare trick of unfolding new depths as it goes on. Events are seen from new angles; new connections are made; characters that seemed like throwaways are given depth; questions are answered. This could have felt like a jigsaw, a magician’s cheap stage show, but the sensibility and character conception are strong enough to anchor this cleverness in felt emotional truth.
“You are all in this together,” we’re told at the end of the book. “That huge thrashing teardrop of life.” The residents of Sarah Court do their best, or try to; often it’s not quite good enough. But sometimes it comes together in the right way, at the right time, with the right act of self-sacrifice. Sometimes happiness happens, among all the pain. Is this surprising? No more so than fiction ought to be. Sarah Court is convincing, bleak, and hopeful, in equal measures, bound together with remarkable technical dexterity. It’s a very fine book.
Matthew Surridge is a Montreal-area writer. His criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette and The Comics Journal.