Diane Schoemperlen is one of my favourite authors. Her short story collection, Forms of Devotion, is among my favourite volumes of short fiction, Canadian or otherwise. I’ve had Red Plaid Shirt sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time now, alongside Our Lady of the Lost and Found. I was saving it for a time when I felt really excited about short fiction, and thanks to the recent Penguin/Salon controversy, that time is now. Imagine my disappointment, then, to learn that many of these stories are from previous collections. It was only outweighed by my joy at learning that Schoemperlen had written more than four books. For some reason, when Forms of Devotion was released, none of her works before In the Language of Love were ever mentioned. I can only imagine that’s because they are out of print, but I now at least know there are additional treasures to be found in my local used bookstore’s “S” section.
I once heard it said, and I do not recall by whom or in what context, that the quality of an artist’s work can be determined by how far that artist can stray from her influences before her work ceases to be any good. I don’t know anything about Diane Schoemperlen’s influences, but if the above statement is true, then it pleases me to say that her stories get better the further they get from the work of other writers. She is at her best when she defies comparison. The weakest of the stories collected here (“Hockey Night in Canada,” which should very nearly be discarded simply for placing that damned sport so prominently—I hate fiction about hockey nearly as much as I hate the damned game itself— “Losing Ground,” “Frogs” and “Clues”) are all from early in her career and seem to be from a time before she found her voice. They are not Alice Munro stories, but they are from Munro Country, so to speak, stories that lean rather heavily on the muted realist style that she was instrumental in establishing as the “expected” form of short fiction. Where Munro excels, Schoemperlen does not. Those early stories wander in and out of quiet moments in lonely or troubled lives, examining events or people or issues that are only important in hindsight. They are mostly collections of the narrator’s memories and musings, eventually gelling into a moment of clarity or emotional resonance in the final lines. Dull stuff, really. The only exception to the dull sameness of these early stories is “This Town,” a satirical look at the texture of small town life presented in a way that bears a striking resemblance to a tourism brochure or a Wikipedia entry (not that you could make the latter comparison back in 1979, when the story was first published). The pace of “This Town” is quick and the sentences are sharp, clipped things, full of tremendous wit and energy. It’s the first time, in this collection at least, that the reader is allowed to see the Diane Schoemperlen who wrote Forms of Devotion.
My two favourite pieces in this collection (aside from those taken from Forms of Devotion, of course) are “A Simple Story,” from 1987’s Hockey Night in Canada, and “The Antonyms of Fiction,” originally published in Parallel Voices/Voix Paralleles in 1993. “A Simple Story” seems at first glance a parody of creative writing exercises and books like Lou Willett Stanek’s So You Want to Write A Novel? (Which was actually given to me by my high school creative writing teacher, who had a tremendously positive influence on my decision to study literature from both the critical and creative ends, though I never did use the book.) The opening paragraph is a cold, hard nugget of plot, the sort of thing that would make a fine back-cover blurb, if short stories had such things:
One night in a small city a man and a woman went out to a restaurant to celebrate. On the way back, they were nearly run down by a car that went out of control and rammed into the window of an apartment building. They were lucky. They could have been killed.
In that one paragraph you have the whole of the plot, and various subtitles that follow (“Describe the Night,” “Describe the Car,” “Describe the Farmhouse”) demand only the fleshing out of “telling details,” the sort of information that nearly always appears profound but only actually is under the most skilled of hands. Schoemperlen undermines these demands by providing an excess of detail in crisp, clever prose, moving out in all directions from that one nugget like some linguistic Mandelbrot set. The piece even comes to a dead stop with yet another demanding subtitle, the story expanding ever outward. The most wonderful and amazing thing is not Schoemperlen’s postmodern pyrotechnics, but rather that she sketches a half-dozen delicate and emotionally engaging portraits of intersecting lives alongside those pyrotechnics. All this in the space of just twenty pages.
“The Antonyms of Fiction” uses a similar juxtaposition. Despite the bold subtitle (“FACT,” it exclaims), Schoemperlen opens the story in the simple and time-honoured this is me, and here is what happened style. Aside from the subtitles, most of which are genuinely antonyms of the word “fiction,” the story proceeds in standard realist ways, with characters and plots and closely observed images, as the narrator tells the story of her relationship with a man named Jonathan Wright. The more the narrator reveals about the relationship, however, the more her meditations on truth and reality and fact creep into story, until they begin to take over entirely. In the final section, labeled “FICTION,” the rug is swept entirely out from under the reader, as the narrator comes right out and says that she made the whole thing up. Jonathan Wright does not exist, the relationship never happened; the entire point of the story is the narrator’s meditations, the conflation of fact and fiction, the ease with which Schoemperlen could have passed off one for the other. And she pulls this rug from beneath us at exactly the moment when the reader is most emotionally invested in the story and the characters. It is classic Schoemperlen, and she handles the transition so expertly that it doesn’t feel jarring. The pleasure one gets from being emotionally invested in the characters is transferred seamlessly to the pleasure one gets from taking the story apart and seeing how it works, from being in on the joke. Why Canadian readers have somehow managed to avoid lavishing Schoemperlen’s work with the sort of praise that writing both sophisticated and accessible deserves is beyond me. I honestly believe her short fiction is as far ahead of the pack (and the pack includes favourites like Atwood and Carol Shields and Vincent Lam) as is Donald Barthelme’s, or nearly any other master that you could name. There are several other pieces, the titular “Red Plaid Shirt” among them, that I would also single out for special praise had I the time, but I will close now by saying that the hunt is on for her out of print collections.
Red Plaid Shirt was my seventh selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, by Mark Anthony Jarman.