28 June 2010

Cigarettes reviewed in Event

Nice to see a stray review of Buying Cigarettes for the Dog pop up in the literary journal Event. Here it is:


Stuart Ross, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, Freehand Books, 2009
Amy Jones, What Boys Like and Other Stories, Biblioasis, 2009

Sometimes at an EVENT fiction board meeting, one of our team will put forward an inventive ultra-short manuscript as a ‘sorbet piece,’ a palate cleanser between other works lined up for publication in upcoming issues. The collected short-fiction works by Stuart Ross in Buying Cigarettes for the Dog are more like quick shots of tequila. Ross is a co-founder of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair; editor of the anthology Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence; and a writer of six collections of poetry, two collaborative novels, a previous collection of short fiction and a collection of essays, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer.

There are 23 very short works in Buying Cigarettes for the Dog and each is a strange, self-contained world. Unifying the collection is a beguiling expansive feeling created through narrators who appear to relish the art of storytelling. Ross engineers a general loosening of temporal markers so that his characters seem suspended outside the world of the ticking clock. He also finds Beckett-inspired absurdity in the process of naming, cataloguing and defining terms.

The words of the narrator at the end of ‘Mr. Joe’ seem to speak for Ross’s approach: ‘I practise the politics of inclusion.’ There is a galloping anthropomorphism in the writing so that the entire landscape seems to participate and breathe in response to events. Birds, dogs, cows and chicken feet are actors on the stage, making appearances as totemic visitors from another dimension. Conventional power hierarchies are comically inverted in stories like ‘The President’s Cold Legs’ and ‘Me and the Pope,’ where everyday blokes have intimate access to institutional figureheads.

There are a few persistent motifs recurring over multiple stories. For instance, we hear repeatedly about Hank Williams’s music, Payaso cigarettes, death by drowning and spumoni ice cream, giving an eerie cohesiveness to the parade of dreams. Other references pull popular culture and classic literature into the framework of the stories in interesting ways: We learn how one character played the song Suicide is Painless in a school band, how another used a hardback copy of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice as a weapon. Throughout the volume, Ross embeds the reader in the story as captive listener: ‘ right now you’re the only person who will actually talk to me.’

The quirky four-page story that launches the collection is titled ‘Three Arms Less’; it links two casualties involving severed limbs. The tone here is everything: a cultivated linguistic naiveté enveloping a burnished seed of contained outrage. Ross writes, ‘When there was a war, a little brown boy had his arms exploded right off the sides of his body, where they were attached at the shoulders. He was ten years old. It hurt him a lot.’ In addition to the little boy Ali, we meet Aron, a mountain climber who lops off his own arm to save himself from death by exposure and starvation. We discover that the loss to the planet in terms of limb count is precisely measurable:

So then what you had was this world with three arms less. It really threw things off all over the place. Buses were late and a guy fell on his head and Miss November’s left breast was a little bigger than her right breast.…

Making sarcastic pronouncements with deadpan certainty, Ross constructs a biting fable about human interconnectedness and the process by which we forge celebrities. In Ali’s story, particularly, the idea of culpability and the human cost of war intrudes uncomfortably into the landscape of fable. The narrative focus flares briefly within the experience of each delimbed character before bowing out with a hyperbolic flourish: ‘After that, the number of arms in the world never changed.’ Ross conceals a political razor’s edge under his cape.

If ‘Three Arms Less’ is a faux-naïve documentary about collateral damage, ‘Bouncing’ takes us right into the very noggin of body trauma. The self-proclaimed Bouncing Man reveals how he tripped in a ‘precise sequence of limb-related fiascos’ and began bouncing on his head ‘like an upturned pogo stick.’ The narrator’s journey has an epic quality:

Each village became an overturned blur, each downpour a welcome laundering. I could focus only on the blows to my skull and the subsequent rattling, the quiver of every molecule of bone that held my increasingly irrelevant brain in its protective embrace.

While continuously bouncing, the narrator lists the reactions of those who gather to observe him: ‘those who mocked and those who tried to help; those who genuflected and those who tried to profit.’ The ongoing action of bouncing becomes a way of highlighting the range of human response to unexpected events.

‘Guided Missiles’ is the only extended story, though it proceeds through titled subsections that maintain the short-burst fictional approach. Archie, an aspiring DJ, encounters a prophet, engages in a violent act, experiences an apocalypse and ascends to ‘green man’ status, where there is finally peace:

Archie had been in the tree for fifty years, or seventy-five, or three hundred. His flesh was a deep brown, weathered bark. Small green sprouts emerged through fissures, decorating the lengths of his arms and legs.

The mythic image conveys the metamorphosis in vivid physiological terms and reinforces the concept of elastic time.

This is short fiction to savour. Maybe there’s a kind of sorbet infused with tequila we could name after Stuart Ross? Eat with a little salt and a wedge of lime.

[snip: review of Amy Jones]

— Christine Dewar

Over and out.


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