Culture & Conversation

Fantastic Montreal


Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O’Neill, HarperCollins Canada

Heather O’Neill’s debut short story collection Daydreams of Angels is a whimsical and charming exploration of the fantastic that, in many instances, challenges the primacy of the real. O’Neill, who was born in Montreal, explores her city’s urban landscape with a diverse cast of talking bears, sentient dolls and robots, and cigarette-smoking angels who exist in a magical realist world where extraordinary phenomena are an everyday occurrence.

What I like about O’Neill’s collection is her keen awareness and masterful display of storytelling techniques: her narrators are self-conscious about their roles as authors, just as her characters are often painfully aware of the narrative conventions that limit their development. Though such techniques are associated with post-modernism, O’Neill reminds us that they are also an important part of traditional fairy tales, where storytellers go out of their way to affirm the truth of their account, and characters (like Pinocchio or Cinderella) lament their existence and try to alter their circumstances.

The self-conscious evaluation of genre is apparent in the first outstanding story in the collection, “The Gypsy and the Bear.” This is a fairy tale, richly told, in which a protagonist becomes gradually aware of his status as a fairy-tale character and ultimately wishes to change the pre-conceived outcome—that is, the historical representation of gypsies as pariahs. After a foolish boy begins and abruptly ends the telling of a tale about a gypsy and a bear, these protagonists suddenly find themselves alone, adrift, and “contemplating [their] existence.” As the gypsy character begins to develop and as his consciousness grows, readers might dispute the omniscient narrator’s opening pronouncement that the gypsy “was just a stereotype” and “had no depth.”

As we learn in what might be the best story, “Swan Lake for Beginners,” where scientists clone a much-loved though conceited Russian dancer named Nureyev, even systematically organized narratives don’t always work out according to plan. In a scenario that invites comparison with Eastern European fantasy (Stanislaw Lem crossed with Vladimir Sorokin?), the Nureyev clones are contained in a specially designed environment in “Pas-Grand-Chose,” Quebec (which roughly translates to “Nothing Much”), and subjected to all manner of tests and trials to ensure that the copies develop into dancers as skilled as the original. But very few of them have any interest in dance, choosing instead their own (sometimes disreputable) paths in life.

“The Dreamlife of Toasters,” a counterpart to “Swan Lake for Beginners,” features automated pseudo-humans who are programmed for menial tasks but yearn for love. Though it is assumed by the human population that these mechanical beings cannot experience sexual passion, the android “4F6” develops an emotional bond with another android and eventually asks to be kissed. Along similar lines, “The Isles of Dr. Moreau,” in which a scientist on a secluded island attempts to “create a race of humans who could love more freely,” and “Bartók for Children,” in which a toymaker reanimates a flesh-and-blood Quebec-born soldier with new mechanical parts, examine how stories/organisms often develop a life of their own, independent of their “creators.”

In other tales, fantasy offers an alternative to the drudgery of everyday life. “The Story of Little O” and “The Conference of the Birds” situate the fantastic within a gritty Montreal landscape that has become a hallmark of O’Neill’s fiction. In the first of these stories, a retelling of French author Anne Desclos’s 1954 erotic novel Story of O, a young lower-class Montreal girl, known as “Little O,” defies her neighbourhood’s morals when she decides she will “not be chaste,” and instead seeks a life of sexual pleasure and inner fantasy. Despite her bleak surroundings, she still wants “to bring things of wonder into this world.” “The Conference of the Birds,” one of the more touching stories, which also exhibits O’Neill’s gift for dark humour, features a lower-class family whose life seems anything but fantasy, though the characters’ impetus to change their circumstances is no less strong than in the other stories. While the young female narrator often feels powerless to improve her family’s situation, she confesses: “If I stop believing in them, they will cease to exist, like a bunch of fairies.”

Several other stories echo this desire to believe in the power of storytelling: “The Gospel According to Mary M.” asks us to believe in a “Jesus” who exists among school kids and can turn his apple juice into wine; the title story “Daydreams of Angels” features a trumpet-playing cherubim who takes his sensual joie de vivre to—where else?—the gritty streets of Montreal; and “The Wolf-boy of Northern Quebec”—well, that speaks for itself! Overall, through some twenty stories, O’Neill asks us to believe that a character—whether human or animal, android or angel—need not adhere to a preconceived formula, particularly one bound by the conventions of history or literature.

Adam Lawrence is a writer and lives in Montreal. His work has appeared in Quills: Canadian Poetry, Vallum: Contemporary Poetry, and Salon.

– photo: Toni Blay, Flickr Creativ

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