Culture & Conversation

Delight, then Bite

From soups to cocktails to Chicken McNugget sauce, sweet and sour is one of the world’s most popular and enduring flavours. I have a theory about why this is so. The key to sweet and sour’s success is in its ability to deceive. The first thing my palate detects is the sweet. In a flash, expectations and associations of a sugary sort – lollipops, cotton candy, birthday cake – form in my mind. In another flash, however, the sour kicks in. Suddenly, I’m tasting something much more complicated, much more adult.  A similar happy deception occurs repeatedly in Julie Booker’s debut short story collection, Up Up Up.

This book is very funny. It’s playful. There are flickers of whimsy. For all of its sweetness, however, shadows abound. An undeniable sense of gloom awaits around many of its corners. Though on their surface these stories can look like candy, their flavour is far more mature.

The book’s lead story, “Geology in Motion,” perhaps best exemplifies Booker’s ability to first delight, then bite. Lorrie and Katie, obese best friends, set off on an Alaskan wilderness vacation. Many things are going on in this story, but the most obvious is situational humour. As the hefty adventurers paddle among glaciers, their double kayak floats “dangerously low in the water.” Instead of trail mix, the baggie on their spray deck contains Smarties. Erecting their tent, Lorrie and Katie bend “without grace to pin the corners.” Booker genially invites us to snicker at the spectacle she’s created. And still, an underlying gravity exists. At a bed and breakfast, the women sit at “a dining table that cut(s) into their bellies.” Lorrie is more adept than Katie at coping with the rigours of the outdoors, a feeling that’s liberating even if it comes at her friend’s expense. The real sting, however, is saved for the final scene, when two lifetimes’ worth of mockery is brought to the fore. What were jokes only a few pages prior assume a completely different  connotation.

“Sacrifice” takes place in another vacation setting: a group tour through Tibet. Two women take it upon themselves to pilfer and abandon objects belonging to fellow members of the group, secretly sacrificing the articles to atone for their owners’ various transgressions. A can of Spam is tossed out the window of the moving minibus. A bra is left tied like a flag to a pole on a mountain pass. On the surface, there is much humour in these acts. Beneath it, though, is desperate defiance. Subject to the strict customs of the country and to the shifting whims of their tour guide, the sacrifices’ perpetuators are exacting a measure of control over a situation in which they have precious little.

Booker reverses the order of sweet and sour in one of the book’s best stories, “How Fast Things Go.” Here, starkness takes centre stage in a gritty study of staying true to a violent drunk of a boyfriend. Stories like “Levitate” and “Speculators” feature a comparable rawness of language and subject matter. Despite this, there is palpable joy, wrapped up mainly in celebration of youth and, especially, of autonomy won.

Balance is vital to a good sweet and sour: too much sweet and it’s candy, too much sour and you’re sucking a lemon. With Up Up Up, Julie Booker has served up a first book that’s hilarious and heartbreaking, merry and sombre. It’s an irresistible mix.

Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize.

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