Andrew MacDonald Reviews Derek Mascarenhas and Elise Levine for EVENT 48/3
Andrew MacDonald Reviews:
Derek Mascarenhas, Coconut Dreams, Book*hug, 2019
Elise Levine, This Wicked Tongue, Biblioasis, 2019
‘Felix Pinto’s birth in a cemetery was never forgotten by the village of Colvale,’ begins Derek Mascarenhas’s debut story collection, Coconut Dreams. The 17 linked stories follow the Pinto family, and Aiden and Ally in particular, over a 60-year period from the mid-1940s in Goa to 2006 in Canada. The collection is, with one exception, chronologically organized and, aside from the first and last stories, set in Canada.
Haunted zamblam trees and a haunted house on a hill feature prominently in the opening story, ‘The Call of the Bell,’ set in Goa, India, during the mid-1940s and 50s, detailing the birth of Felix Pinto. Along with comic moments (including the antics of the randy horse of the village’s new priest, Father Salvador), a discomfiting, almost gothic menace hangs over the story. Religion and myth figure prominently: ‘I think the smaller the village, the more it needs to believe that some people are closer to God than others,’ says a particularly threatening figure whose dual identity is revealed in the story’s climax, adding, ‘Simply so they have a scale on which to place themselves.’ Substitute racial and ethnic identity for religion, and you’ll come to the heart of the stories that follow.
The Pinto family migrates to Canada in the early to mid-1990s. The world of the opening story informs the more modern settings of those that follow and provides a kind of foundation for Aiden and Ally Pinto’s coming of age. A liminal sense of identity complicates their universal coming-of-age moments. Narrated by Ally, ‘Snapshots,’ one of the shorter stories, features a brief return to the family’s past in Goa and her mother’s miscarriage before recounting Ally’s first period, which comes inopportunely during tobagganing and streaks the snow red. She’ll also struggle with a boy whose crush becomes bullying when he asks to see her feet in ‘Picking Trilliums,’ a request motivated by the question of whether they too are brown. Aiden likewise suffers the slings and arrows of juvenalia; in one of the collection’s more gut-wrenching set pieces, ‘Fallen Leaves,’ Aiden reflects on a prank that changes everything for him and his friends when it goes awry.
Adult figures pass through the collection, with aunts and uncles in particular serving a key role in demonstrating how to adapt to life in the West. The polyphonic ‘When the Good Shines a Little Brighter’ cleverly alternates in narration between Ally and her Aunt Audrey to contrast shifting ideas of womanhood, while ‘One Hundred Steps’ introduces us to Uncle Francis, who plans to sell his gem and jewel business and provides his own blueprint for starting a family after he meets a potential wife on a recent business trip: ‘You see, starting a family is much like cutting stones,’ he advises. ‘I start with something raw that needs to be shaped.’ From there, he polishes the stone with an end state in mind until it’s perfect. His view of family through the eyes of commerce is subtly undermined when he collapses while climbing the titular 100 steps.
Collections of linked stories are tricky, since they can lack the larger narrative arc of a novel, while often including pieces that aren’t quite developed enough to exist on their own. A story like ‘Carriers,’ for example, sees Aiden and Ally stop at the house of Crissy, a classmate, while collecting money for a penny-per-paper job. While there, they witness a private moment involving Crissy’s elderly grandfather. On its own the story is probably too thin to stand as more than a vignette. Housed in the greater arc of Aiden and Ally’s lives, though, the story builds on moments that came before.
The final, eponymous story might be the collection’s strongest. It returns us to Goa, forming a satisfying bookend to ‘The Call of the Bell.’ Aiden travels back to the place of his birth, a visit where his lineage is challenged almost immediately when he falls off the back of a scooter and can’t believe monkeys play on the roof of the house. During a game of soccer with some much younger local boys, one of the boys says he’d play that sport for Portugal, but cricket for India. Aiden, meanwhile, admits to himself that he once dreamed of playing soccer for Canada—a moment we suspect engenders a j’accuse! from deep inside him.
While Mascarenhas excels at considered character building and traditional storytelling skills, the stories in Elise Levine’s This Wicked Tongue are biting, voice-driven works that call to mind the best of Lorrie Moore, if Lorrie Moore had a yen for deconstructing religious belief and a propensity for witty cussing. Levine is the author of two novels, Blue Field and Requests and Dedications, plus a previous collection of stories, Driving Men Mad, a fine track record that might explain the fearless way in which she takes big risks in her stories.
‘This Wicked Tongue’ stands out as the most formally inventive of this linguistically innovative collection, opening with this statement: ‘Here beginneth a short treatise of contemplation taken from the Book of Alice Nash, Ancress of Shere, c. AD 1372.’ An ‘ancress,’ we are told in a footnote, is a type of religious devotee sealed in a cell for the rest of her life ‘for the purpose of intensive spiritual devotion… Practitioners may have believed they were helping to stabilize—to anchor—the church and society.’ It’s a high-wire act of a story, in the sense that Levine’s punchy style probably shouldn’t work in an ostensibly historical piece. But somehow it does, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the marriage of archaic diction and multivalent sentences that can be understood in a variety of ways. The story is a good example of how Levine’s work offers gifts to its readers on multiple levels: Like poetry, the ministrations of language can lead to startling conclusions on the sentence level; for those who thirst for narrative, careful reading reveals much between the lines. The nocturnal meetings between Nance and Alice, to cite one example, come with incantatory entreaties to a divine You—a subtle, but omnipresent, confrontation about being among God’s children, despite the illicit love affair between the women.
Religion and the abuses of the church arise a number of other times in the collection. ‘Armada’ begins in typical Levine-esque fashion by referencing the ‘first Jesus from my father’s mouth,’ leading us to temporarily wonder how literally we should take the line (not wholly, as it turns out, to my slight disappointment). The narrator watches as her father shouts Christ’s name again and again at the rabbi hired to administer the funeral of her mother; as she puts it, ‘What there was of my family rocked, our rent-a-Rabbi rolled.’ Without exception the stories in This Wicked Tongue feature moments like this: whip-smart wordplay that invites readers into the story as colleagues, as comrades in cleverness.
Readers looking for straightforward storytelling might be disappointed in some of Levine’s more lyrical, less accessible works. Just two pages and change, ‘Princess Gates’ is as much poem as story, so fully oriented are we to the rhythms of Marguerite’s mind as she considers an old woman in her neighbourhood. Years pass in the span of syllables. ‘One night Bryce fell,’ we are told. Then, a few inches down the page, an inscrutable length of time has passed: ‘She got thin. Beautiful in that thin kind of way.’ What comes next? Heart failure from refusing to eat, ‘refusing, fuck you, so long, goodbye.’
More straightforward is ‘The Association,’ a long, voicey story from the perspective of Martin, a brainy student at the Lab School, who lives with his mother. His father, ‘What a fuck. For fuck’s sake,’ chats up younger women whenever Martin visits, while Martin’s mother dreams of winning a Nobel Prize for her work that, as Martin sees it, largely involves medicating criminals. She’s heavily involved in her townhouse group and micromanages Martin’s life, unaware of his increasingly dysfunctional, but utterly compelling, inner world. ‘The Association,’ along with the excellent (and excellently titled) ‘The Riddles of Aramaic,’ are sure to please readers looking for a little more narrative grounding.
While not servicing one grand narrative arc the way Coconut Dreams does, Levine’s stories nonetheless feel meant for each other, and like some of the best poetry collections (and Netflix series), are perhaps best enjoyed binged en masse.