This short story collection was my introduction to Elizabeth Hay. I knew right away she was going to be huge. I love being right. Small Change is hone...moreThis short story collection was my introduction to Elizabeth Hay. I knew right away she was going to be huge. I love being right. Small Change is honest, daring, and original. Its focus is the dark side of women's friendships.(less)
The critics are going wild at the release of Steven Heighton’s new short-story collection, The Dead Ar...more From my Fernie Fix review posted on www.abdou.ca
The critics are going wild at the release of Steven Heighton’s new short-story collection, The Dead Are More Visible. Recent reviews have compared Heighton to James Joyce, to Vladimir Nabokov, to Alice Munro, to Mavis Gallant. There appears to be universal agreement that he is, in the words of Jeet Heer, “as good a writer as Canada has ever produced.” This bold assertion seems designed to provoke naysayers; there have been none.
As well as being one of our country’s very best writers, Steven Heighton might also be the most prolific and most flexible. Since 2010, he has released a novel (Every Lost Country), a poetry collection (Patient Frame), a meditation on the writing life (Workbook), and now a short story collection. I have enthusiastically recommended all four of these books. I am a Heighton fan, even more so after the publication of his latest.
The Dead Are More Visible features Heighton at the top of his game. The language here is powerful, not a word misplaced, not a word wasted. Even when writing fiction, Heighton is always the poet. In one (unrequited) love letter, a character writes: “j, my j, you’ve recanted. Shouldn’t ‘recant’ mean to sing again?” This kind of attention to language brings a remarkable resonance and intensity to the work. At the end of each story, I was convinced I’d found the collection’s best.
Throughout the eleven stories, Heighton (and, through Heighton, the reader) inhabits a wide variety of bodies, including (but not limited to) a jilted lesbian professor; a middle-aged ex-athlete in prolonged mourning for his son; a twenty-three year old woman who, in the midst of an identity crisis, submits herself to pharmaceutical testing; an OxyContin addict lost in the desert near Osoyoos; a young man learning Japanese from a primer written by a psychopath; and a woman rendered invisible by middle age. The scope is impressive, particularly since no matter how far Heighton departs from his own experience (in terms of sex, age, geography, sexuality, sobriety, or class), his narrative voice is fully convincing and irresistibly compelling.
As well as being a poet, Heighton is a philosopher. Each story is infused with wisdom. There is a gravitas in this collection reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee. As in the work of the 1999 Booker Prize winner, the stories in The Dead Are More Visible have an intensity and a preoccupation with ethics facilitated by the over-thinking, highly analytical, and somewhat neurotic protagonists. Coetzee, though, is more the philosopher and Heighton more the poet. Where Coetzee might follow a philosophical thread for a few pages, Heighton whittles these thoughts down to their essence. The ambitious are never truly happy, one character claims, because time terrifies them. Or, on child-rearing, another character claims: “People will tell you, ‘I don’t want a child because it just seems wrong to bring a child into a world like this.’ High-minded horseshit, in my view. A cut-rate cliché. When has it not been a troubled world? People have children or don’t have children for their own selfish reasons, and that’s fine and natural. No need to dress up the option as a philanthropic gesture.”
This seriousness and the relentless attempt to get at truth set Heighton apart from the dominant tone of his time. In “Heart & Arrow,” the eighth story of Heighton’s collection, we’re told:
"Merrick clinks his glass of rye against [his sister’s] spritzer and forges a coy wink, and his whole manner, he can’t help seeing, is lifted from somewhere else—maybe one of those noisy, strobe-lit TV beer ads where a scrum of college jocks flex and guzzle and crack wise along a bar. He can’t be sure. But he does know how much he hates the note of glibness that keeps breezing into his voice—the keynote of so much that he reads these days and almost every party he endures. A note he sometimes picks up and sings in tune with, vaguely ashamed the whole time."
Unlike Merrick, Heighton refuses to sing in tune. He does not give in to the flippancy or tongue-in-cheek irony so prevalent in this age. Even when there is humour in his work (of which there is plenty), there remains a deep seriousness. Human actions and human words do matter in each of these stories.
Steven Beattie of the Quill and Quire has complained that Canadians never write about sex. Likely, writers avoid sex because it’s embarrassing and too easy to do badly – too romantic, too cliché, too vulgar, too predictable. Heighton, however, writes about sex. In fact, physicality and sexuality are central to this collection and its representation of humanity. He has “hot little thighs crushing …ears and cheeks.” He has a “head forced down in a death grip…the thrilling insistence of it.” There is “a pair of nuns erotically revved up by the proximity of illness, death.” There is spelunking:
"We’re back in the tunnel, you see. Despite my fear, I think I would go down and explore it with you, if they opened it up again. I am drawn to a fantasy of fucking you there, maybe in a side tunnel or a cul-de-sac, tugging you away from the tedious tour group with its silly costumed guide to make slow, wordless love in the kind of darkness that people never really do it in. What would that be like?"
Does it change your reading of this passage once you know we’re looking at two women? I wonder. I think Steven Heighton wonders too. He’s a master at suddenly shifting the readers’ perspective, making them see things anew.
The Dead Are More Visible is a perfect book recommendation as we head into the Fernie Writers’ Conference. Emerging writers could learn much from the confident execution, strong voice, and precise language in this collection. I hope they find it as inspiring as I do. When I fear that writing doesn't matter anymore, as I often do, I will re-read stories like “Those Who Would Be More.” There, the narrator says: “Energy is optimism.” Heighton’s stories crackle with energy. Reading (and re-reading) them gives me energy, and thereby optimism. Writing does matter. When I get to the end of a story like “Nearing the Sea, Superior,” I believe profoundly and right from my core: fiction matters. (less)
I expected to be unable to read this book - kid hit by car in comma, no thanks! But it surprised me. An unexpectedly optimistic book which changed the...moreI expected to be unable to read this book - kid hit by car in comma, no thanks! But it surprised me. An unexpectedly optimistic book which changed the way I think about contemporary fiction. See my review here:
The last 150 pages of this book are brilliant. As I was reading the rest of it, I kept thinking that I would've enjoyed it more if I was reading it fo...moreThe last 150 pages of this book are brilliant. As I was reading the rest of it, I kept thinking that I would've enjoyed it more if I was reading it for personal reasons rather than for work. I'm teaching it in English 102 (not by choice) and I prefer to teach tightly contained books (this one is sprawling). English 102 is a first-year class and I'll probably have three ninety-minute classes to devote to this novel (at the most). We won't even scratch the surface. I used to teach Obasan -- a Canadian book about the same issue of North American racism against Japanese post WWII -- and Snow Falling on Cedars is a better book. Definitely. But it won't be as teachable. Still, in the last 150 pages, I was so caught up in the emotion and weight of the story that I completely forgot about my teaching concerns. It's a wonderful and important book.(less)
Workbook is an aphrodisiac. Better than raw oysters.
In the pages of this beautiful new meditation on the art of letters, I fell in-love with writing...moreWorkbook is an aphrodisiac. Better than raw oysters.
In the pages of this beautiful new meditation on the art of letters, I fell in-love with writing all over again. Nothing in its title hints at the passion between its covers. Neither "Workbook" nor "Memos" nor "Dispatches" leads potential book buyers to think: hot read coming up! Lovers of literature might expect a novel to have steamy scenes or a book of poetry to arouse a sensual response, but a philosophical reflection on the discipline of writing? Not so much. Nonetheless, I stand by my claim: Workbook is sexy.
This effect is created partly through the immediate access to the author's voice. In a novel, the author hides behind the characters. In poetry, distance manifests itself in other ways. Maybe the poet and the reader are separated by a speaking persona, or perhaps the poet retreats into the specific technical demands of a given poetic form. In Workbook, on the other hand, there is a real feeling of intimacy. Here, we have a writer sharing ideas that matter deeply to him directly with the reader. Even more intensely, in sections like "Memos To A Younger Self" or "Memos To a Writer a Decade Deep in the Work," Heighton speaks (almost) to himself, and we have the voyeuristic thrill of dwelling within the inner-most (though finely crafted) thoughts of a very accomplished writer.
More than the direct and intimate access to the author, though, this book's energy can be attributed to the thrill of witnessing a mind at work, an intellect creating truly original, even rebellious, thought. With great energy and insight, Heighton rejects some of the key defining features of contemporary society. The prevalence of social media, the obsession with celebrity, the emphasis on productivity and efficiency – all come under pointed attack.
The wisdom of this book, then, extends far beyond the writing life. This sage advice, for example, applies to writers and non-writers alike:
It's said that your unlived life will kill you. True, but not before it has killed or maimed others around you first. (Heighton 46)
To listen to critics, pro or con, and take their words to heart is to subcontract your self-esteem to strangers. (Heighton 28)
Don't feel discouraged when you find yourself falling out with your earlier work. Dissatisfaction is the price of improvement. (Heighton 26)
Workbook inspires and excites me, and I didn't even know that I needed an injection of inspiration until I started reading it. Upon reflection, I realize that a book about writing should be sexy – writing is, after all, a passion. We do it because we love it.
Though there are many books about the writer's life and craft, there are none like Workbook. I couldn't help racing through it on the first go, but as soon as I finished I started again, this time to read it more slowly, taking time to reflect on my favourite sections. Even the size of Workbook is perfect: it fits right in the front pocket of my book bag, where I keep it handy and revisit it often. (less)
Over-achiever that Steven Heighton is, he simultaneously released a brand new novel and a brand new poetry collection. My most recent pleasure is the...moreOver-achiever that Steven Heighton is, he simultaneously released a brand new novel and a brand new poetry collection. My most recent pleasure is the poetry collection: Patient Frame (House of Anansi 2010).
Heighton’s work is noted for its ambitious range. Living up to Heighton’s reputation, Patient Frame delves into remarkably diverse topics. He quotes Elizabeth Taylor, Dave Bidini, Robert Kroetsch, the Saxon Chronicles, and Martin Amis (find a pattern there, I dare you). He explores the My Lai massacre, parental love, capitalism, natural disaster, Haitian revolution, pedophilia, the court of Medici, adolescence, and a sprawling host of other topics that together cannot be easily classified, generalized, and categorized. If you are a reader who turns to books to take you to new places and stretch your mind in unexpected ways, I’m pretty sure your twenty bucks couldn’t do better than Patient Frame.
For me, the personal domestic poems at the heart of this collection have the most power. “Home Movies 8 mm,” for example, concludes with a poignant reminder that I plan to write in bold across my fridge, my bathroom mirror, my steering wheel, and my computer screen: “If I could start over, I would stare and stare.”
Heighton’s other poems featuring intimate moments in regular day-to-day life move me just as deeply. “The Last Reader,” for example, focuses on a dying mother trying to read her son’s first book as she slowly goes blind: “this plot no lamp can brighten.” Another favourite—“Herself, Revised”—tries to mark the liminal moment at which a daughter grows too old to want bedtime stories read by her father: “How does the end enter? [….] Maybe it doesn’t enter at all./ It was there in every sentence: the end.”
Patient Frame deals with intense human emotion and the impossibility of doing it justice with words: “How can your heart pin down the phrase/ by which it might be grasped? We lose,/ in translation, the words we know./ Say a thing and it turns untrue/ and leaves the deep spring’s face sound-scarred./ Drink from the source. Don’t say a word.”
The marvel of poetry is it keeps trying – trying to speak the unspeakable, trying to describe that which can’t be described, trying to capture that which can’t be captured(less)
A must-read for anyone who has an interest in adventure sports (or is related to someone with an interest in adventure sports). A fascinating, rigorou...moreA must-read for anyone who has an interest in adventure sports (or is related to someone with an interest in adventure sports). A fascinating, rigorously researched account of the psychology of risk, as well as an engaging consideration of accountabilty. See my review at www.abdou.ca/litpicks.html(less)
Incredible range, incredible insight, incredible beauty. Read it. It's clear it was a labour of a decade and that the author takes the craft of poetry...moreIncredible range, incredible insight, incredible beauty. Read it. It's clear it was a labour of a decade and that the author takes the craft of poetry very seriously.
He's brilliant. And I'd say that even if he weren't my friend. This book (deservedly) won the Dorothy Livesay Prize (the award for BC Poetry Book of t...moreHe's brilliant. And I'd say that even if he weren't my friend. This book (deservedly) won the Dorothy Livesay Prize (the award for BC Poetry Book of the Year). It's beautiful. Sad and beautiful.(less)
I loved this book and am happy to have discovered it (though later than everyone else did!). Galore was funnier than I expected - my favourite was Fat...moreI loved this book and am happy to have discovered it (though later than everyone else did!). Galore was funnier than I expected - my favourite was Father Phelan. Galore is just as rich and full and delightful as the many reviewers have said. My only challenge in reading Galore was that there were so (so!) many characters - just as I got invested in one story, that group of characters would disappear and we'd be onto another. I really had to work to keep everyone straight. Still - experience this epic novel was well worth the effort.(less)
Downed this in one sitting! Delicious. Zoe Whittall does for Montreal what Armistead Maupin did for San Fran. Reading Bottle Rocket Hearts felt like a...moreDowned this in one sitting! Delicious. Zoe Whittall does for Montreal what Armistead Maupin did for San Fran. Reading Bottle Rocket Hearts felt like a trip to Montreal - except I instantly got to hang out with the in-crowd. This is my kind of novel. I can't wait to check out more of her work.(less)
I love The Good Body by Bill Gaston. I love King Leary by Paul Quarrington. A fellow lover of hockey lit told me this one is just as good.
Jason Blake...moreI love The Good Body by Bill Gaston. I love King Leary by Paul Quarrington. A fellow lover of hockey lit told me this one is just as good.
Jason Blake, who wrote the most comprehensive account of hockey in Canadian literature, asserts that this is the best hockey novel. I can see why. I'd definitely include it in the company of King Leary and The Good Body (high praise).(less)
This book does exactly what it sets out to do. I wouldn't call it literary fiction (and it is, therefore, different than what I usually read and revie...moreThis book does exactly what it sets out to do. I wouldn't call it literary fiction (and it is, therefore, different than what I usually read and review). This novel is didactic; it has lessons to teach. It works as a good example of Joseph Gold's bibliotherapy (wherein a reader can work through various challenges by reading about those challenges). Stripped Down Running is a fast-paced, action-packed story of self-discovery and resilience. In reading it, I learned a lot about mental health. This novel has much to teach those struggling with mental health issues (whether their own or those of a family member).(less)