04 June 2009

Reviewed in Edmonton: weepy-making

I think this is the 8th or 9th review of Cigarettes. It's also one that made me a little weepy. It was the phrase "for the rest of his life." I feel like this reviewer could explain my own writing to me. If I wanted it explained. The review appears in the freebie Vue Weekly.


Susan Karp

In his beguiling new collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, Stuart Ross makes the familiar seem provocatively strange, exploring themes as diverse as 20th century celebrity obsession and the political turmoil of South America. It's a truly remarkable effort, Ross's deft use of narrative drawing the reader in emotionally and intellectually, creating pathos tinged with outrage and a desire to read more.

Most of these stories are rather short, some barely more than one page, while a few carry on much longer than the rest, exploring themes not necessarily more deeply, but more broadly. Often the stories are strange, a little bit of unreality that helps jolt the reader into a more critical and curious mindset, such as "Bouncing," where a man trips over his own feet and ends up bouncing on his head for the rest of his life. "Bouncing" provides a fascinating glimpse into what notoriety means, the role of the media in creating and destroying fame, and its ultimately transient nature.

There are also stories that show an obviously darker side, such as "Remember Teeth." Two sides of a domestic dispute are presented, and the chaotic nature of life, the random element of chance, the darkness that lies inside the seemingly innocuous, are explored to chilling effect. One is left with the suspicion that nothing in our "safe" life is real.

The absurdism employed in these stories generates an intense emotional response, an intimacy between the reader and the text. There's the sense one is spying on small corners of the universe heretofore unknown, though this privilege comes with responsibility. To return to the beginning, in the first story, "Three Arms Less," the horror of life during wartime is demonstrated when a small boy is orphaned by the same bomb that took his arms away. The idea that somehow there's a cosmic balance, that losing arms can be made up for, that there's justice, is revealed as an absurdity.

The final line in the last story, "The Engagement," is a direct line to the reader, a challenge, a dare to find meaning in any story, in any moment of life, to construct meaning, because we are meaningful creatures who desire order and purpose and so impose it on an uncaring, unknowing universe: "I speak only to fill the silence—my stories are of no consequence." After we have spent the last 192 pages with Ross, how dare he? It is as though he is invalidating all the effort we have put in to reading his works, perhaps making a mockery of our desire to pass the time in what we thought was a consequential manner. All tongue-in-cheek, of course.

Fans of Ross will find that most of the stories collected in this volume have been printed in a variety of previous publications, but for anyone familiar with Ross's work, this book is a must-have and teeming with gold nuggets; to the uninitiated, it is a welcome introduction to a challenging but unerringly entertaining writer.

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog
By Stuart Ross
Freehand Books
200 pp, $19.95

I've been asking myself why this book is getting so much attention (at least compared to my previous books). The title. The design. And maybe, I'm thinking, the fact that it's so goddamn weird.

Over and out.


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