Cathy Stonehouse Reviews Short Fiction from Jean Marc Ah-Sen and Katherine Fawcett for EVENT 49/3
Cathy Stonehouse Reviews:
Katherine Fawcett, The Swan Suit, Douglas & McIntyre, 2020
Jean Marc Ah-Sen, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, Nightwood Editions, 2020
Like everyone else, my sense of time, like my sense of cause and effect, has gone haywire over the past several months. And when life goes awry, some of us reach for the familiar and reassuring, while others (myself included) take comfort in the resonantly strange. In differing ways, these two collections provided such solace. This is short fiction—but not as we commonly know it. Ah-Sen and Fawcett lead the reader into whole new universes of mash-ups, collisions, borrowings, plot twists and red herrings, one stopping short in a recognizable galaxy, the other heading straight into deep space.
The tongue-in-cheek cover of The Swan Suit by BC writer Katherine Fawcett features a romanticized woman’s face emerging through feathers. The stories, we may conclude, are tales: deceptively simple narratives, often involving magical or exciting events; something out of the ordinary, perhaps; a form of gossip. In fact, Fawcett’s stories are an engaging mash-up of contemporary short fiction and fairy tale, straddling and interweaving elements of fantasy and contemporary life in an often stylistically shocking and refreshing way. The genre elements and tropes are repurposed and reinvented such that the contemporary short fiction tropes are themselves subverted, and the overall effect is of surprise and sustained action.
The title story, ‘The Swan Suit,’ sets the tone by blending selkie myths, Red Riding Hood and elements of Swan Lake into a tale of a bewitching swan-woman and her doting fisherman admirer, who lives prosaically at home with his mother. In a move reminiscent of Angela Carter, Fawcett eventually renders the characters’ roles as literal suits, evoking the performativity of gender while simultaneously building recognizable characters, such as the fisherman’s middle-aged mother: ‘The truth was, she was a little apprehensive about the whole daughter-in-law thing.’ Fawcett’s juxtaposition of contemporary speech and descriptive detail with fantastical events is both funny and pointed, revealing the complex realities behind conventional myths, in particular in relation to heterosexual gender roles and marriage.
‘The Virgin and the Troll’ and ‘Ham’ make similar use of traditional European fairy tales to open up a teasing gap between the reader’s expectation and fictional reality, this time drawing on ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘The Three Little Pigs’ to critique sexism and consumerism. The latter story employs witty West Coast references for its BC readership: When a baby wolf tooth is discovered in Chinny-Chin-Chin Organics’ Lupus Minestrone, porcine green entrepreneur Ham is forced to leave his West Van mansion and dumpster-dive for a rebranding solution. Other, more magic-realist stories push the limits by way of extended metaphors. For example, in ‘Nasal Cannula,’ the oxygen in Carmen’s elderly father’s tank proves unusually revitalizing, while ‘Crumble’ plays darkly on its title. ‘The Pull of Old Rat Creek’ stands as a cautionary tale to all who aspire to exert a magnetic attraction. My favourite stories in the collection function as riffs on the body: ‘East O’ is a hilarious and poignant account of a woman’s fertility as viewed from the perspective of her right ovary, while ‘Mycology’ places the aging male body under its microscope.
United by a confident, playful voice, the stories in The Swan Suit harness the power and resonance of myth while repurposing some of its overused tropes for character development and humorous social commentary. Structurally, Fawcett’s plots unfurl rapidly in real time. The stories are predominantly action-based and take unexpected yet satisfying swerves, exuding a madcap sense of adventure while remaining grounded in character-based reality, like well-crafted fairground rides.
Some of the stories push their jokes a little too far (I could have done without the fake Reader’s Guide to ‘Ham,’ for example), or else their believability: In ‘The Devil and Miss Nora,’ I struggled to believe that ‘Stan,’ a.k.a. Satan, would be allowed to take a child out of daycare even with a fake access pass. Most of all, I yearned for some darker notes; fairy tales are often extremely dark, especially their original versions, and some of these tales could have lingered a little longer in the shadows, in order to make more sense of their predominant light.
I came to Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s In the Beggarly Style of Imitation with no previous knowledge of his creative output, drawn in only by his recent collection’s title and its front-cover image of a woman in platform heels and short-shorts, her foregrounded feet huge. The pieces here vary radically in style, as suggested by the title, from epistolary, to faux-essay, to sci-fi, to fan-fiction, to campus novel, and are interspersed by intriguing black-and-white photographs, spoof Mauritian folk songs and even a tongue-in-cheek foreword penned by one of the author’s alter-egos. Taken as a whole, Ah-Sen’s collection employs the ‘imitation’ of the title to interrogate notions of identity, self, belonging and culture, and in particular to make mischief with ‘the author,’ that supposedly coherent, ‘real’ person standing in plain view behind all published work.
I certainly fell for it. Frustrated at first, I thumbed through the book, attempting to get a purchase on it. Who the heck even is Jean Marc Ah-Sen? Is he one person, or several? What of this is satire, and what is sincere? And why do I feel as if I’m sitting in a bar, listening in on an extremely clever but heavily coded conversation full of in-jokes between people I’m not even sure I want to know?
But then it grew on me. A lot. For one thing, the stories are extremely funny, especially if you enjoy erudite verbal riffs and labyrinthine jokes that shapeshift from one context to another. The more I read, the more I also appreciated the deep seriousness behind Ah-Sen’s high-stakes play. Many of the stories make important points about race, class and power, including the existential agility required by the hybrid racialized immigrant in urban North America, whose dynamic identity flexes, expands and contracts depending on context and social location. And surely all human identity (not just that of the Other) is by its very nature temporary, shifting and prismatic. By requiring the reader to work equally hard to locate and categorize their authorial other within the mischievous labyrinth Ah-Sen lays out, the writer creates an experience as much as an artifact that resists easy consumption. If forced at gunpoint to shelve it, I would file In the Beggarly Style of Imitation under ‘participatory performance art.’
Each piece satirizes or steals from a different literary form, and employs a different tone. The diction is challenging and extremely dense in places, and to get the joke, you have to know what’s being referenced, or at least some of it. For example, the first story, ‘Underside of Love,’ riffs on an Austin Clarke story, ‘Give Us This Day: And Forgive Us,’ while employing characters from Ah-Sen’s first novel, Grand Menteur. The sizzling epistolary art-world sex caper ‘Swiddenworld: Selected Correspondence with Tabitha Gotlieb-Ryder’ also features characters from Grand Menteur, most notably Serge Mayacou, the great liar himself, whose on-again, off-again affair with art maven T.G.R. involves grand machinations on both sides, not to mention deliciously pornographic billets-doux (‘MY LITTLE FUCKLING…Your blithesome bunghole and its raucous puckerings hypnotized my mind to the Omega Point…’). ‘The Lost Norman: A Preview’ could be described as a kind of sci-fi film treatment featuring the Norman Wisdom-style antics and Cor Blimey Guv’nor-style dialogue of one Oscar Modwind, whose friend stands to inherit a fortune when the president of the company he works for dies: ‘A crossfade soon reveals Mr. Smidlarge and Oscar tramping their way up to Cuthbertson HQ accompanied by a tuba sonatine.’ I also laughed out loud at the philosophical justifications in ‘A Defence of Misanthropy’ and at the cliché-riddled campus anti-romance ‘The Slump,’ featuring vain, seedy creative writing professor Cepecauer.
Besides obviously satiric fiction, the book also includes an apparently serious interview with Ah-Sen, conducted by Type Books, and a foreword written by Kilworthy Tanner, who may or may not be one of the author’s alter egos. From this angle, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation could be read as a kind of exploded memoir written through fictional and borrowed personas, fractured into forms adopted from diverse eras, locations and cultures, and interspersed with gnomic photographs and some clearly personal snapshots. For the reader, it’s genuinely hard to know where the game ends.
We do like to organize our literature, to place it in categories: prizes for particular genres, forms, identities and age groups. We readers get very upset when we find out a work, or writer, is not who or what it seems. Increasingly, we also need our reading matter predigested by juries, committees, celebrities. We need them to tell us what to think, and to how to react. In the Borgesian riff ‘Ah-Sen and I,’ there is a suggestion that the family name Ah-Sen was itself adopted as a strategy or persona by the writer’s grandfather. Clearly, survival is serious business, and as readers and writers we are playing for our lives.