Marcie McCauley Reviews New Short Story Collections for EVENT 51/1

Marcie McCauley Reviews:

David Huebert, Chemical Valley, Biblioasis, 2021
Rachel Rose, The Octopus Has Three Hearts, Douglas & McIntyre, 2021

Both David Huebert’s and Rachel Rose’s 2021 short-story collections feature the furred, the four-footed, the winged and the scaled as well as some two-legged residents of this planet who occasionally behave in a beastly fashion.

The authors root their storytelling in empathy, and they burrow through narrative toward understanding and elusive resolutions. Characters navigate treacherous terrain, and even safe spaces grow increasingly inhospitable—emotionally and, in Huebert’s stories about the corridor of heavily industrialized areas in Southern Ontario, geographically—as they explore shadows and under-areas.

‘For what else is life but a fragile island in the chaos,’ asks Huebert in his 2017 debut collection Peninsula Sinking, ‘a bulwark against the storms and oceans always gathering to subsume us?’ This could have served as an epigraph to Chemical Valley, which opens with quotations from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Gregory Alan Isakov’s ‘Dandelion Wine,’ reminding readers that story—whether taking the form of an ancient epic poem or the lyrics to a 21st-century song—wrestles with essential human questions.

Following four books of poetry and a memoir, Rachel Rose’s debut story collection opens with epigraphs from Mr. Rogers and Stephen King, two contemporary but disparate figures who share her curiosity about behaviour. In a Q&A with her publisher, Rose says: ‘I am drawn to the challenge of trying to understand human motivation for seemingly inexplicable acts.’ She writes ‘as much about the people who are damaged goods’ and those ‘who have been shunned by the human world’ as she writes about beasts rarely featured in fiction, including a pot-bellied pig, a pair of sugar gliders and bats.

In an interview about his second collection, Huebert asks: ‘How can we change the world for the better or at least expose the underbellies—as lovely as they are soiled?’ Some of his most sombre stories end with a glimmer of hope, and he pushes the boundaries of curiosity, being openly ‘fascinated by rot and grit and all things under-loved,’ including lichen, bitumen and maggots.

Despite the thematic similarities, however, the collections differ in structure, voice, style and characterization. Huebert’s stories feel polished, elevated and expansive. Their intensity invites readers to reread, whether out of necessity or enduring curiosity. The layers of interconnection are dizzying; in the opening pages alone, readers could get bound up in the threads linking Isakov’s song in the epigraph to the Ray Bradbury book that inspired it, wondering what it all means in terms of happiness and memory and reality.

Huebert digs deep, things get messy, and there’s often a glitter of unanticipated discovery in the recesses of his stories—but only for its potential to illuminate another layer of darkness. This passage from the opening story illustrates his ability to locate beauty in a shimmer, the gleam that houses something otherworldly and prompts readers to consider the unseen:

Glimmering steel and perfect concrete, a shimmering fairy city and the strange thing is that what you don’t see is oil, what you never see is oil. The other strange thing is that this is how Sarnia used to be seen, that not so long ago the plants were shiny and dazzling and now they’re rusty with paint peeling off the drums and poor maintenance schedules and regular leaks and weeds all over, stitching concrete seams.

There are seams within and between these stories, in some cases literally: ‘The seam in the horse’s guts split and crackled and dribbled a brown sap.’ Sensory details are repeated, such as those including pigeons and smoothies, scurrying rodents’ paws and an abundance of teeth, and stories are overtly linked as characters interact and shift between marginal and central roles. All of this bolsters Huebert’s holistic worldview.

His stories are intricate, all the storytelling elements absorbed so integrally into the theme that it’s difficult to distinguish between the parts and the whole, between the layers of construction and expansion. It seems possible that his work on these sentences could be traced back over a period of years. (There’s also a poem called ‘Chemical Valley’ in 2020’s Humanimus, his second book-length collection of poetry.)

And ‘if you trace [oil] back far enough you see that it’s life, that all this hydrocarbon used to be vegetables and minerals and zooplankton’—that contradictions abound. A leak in an oil refinery is ‘an ever-present threat, both norm and aberration.’ Oil is ‘ubiquitous, invisible’ and ‘foundations’ of a life are ‘exposed as fragile, porous, fleeting.’ There’s ‘a mangle of tenderness and violation’ and, for all that the first half of the collection focuses on oil, blood features in the second half.

‘There are few things as lovely as the sight of blood pooling on white ice,’ readers learn; this hearkens back to a horse’s demise in the collection’s first half and also forward to the following story, wherein ‘Carly reaches up, digs two fingers in, feels with her sister the flow of blood below skin.’ And, in a later story, as if for fun, relevant wordplay: ‘Somewhere a car alarm bleated, bleated, bled.’

What’s alarming and what’s commonplace, what’s static and what’s shifting: how can we spot the difference? Huebert attends to borders, although with increased intensity it’s harder to distinguish between contrasting states, like ‘how strange [it is] that cold should burn.’ As Huebert writes, ‘More and more, it feels like we’re hitting the edge of something.’

His characters openly question, exposing the wonder and power in the world, as with controlled burns in forests’ rebirth: ‘What a thing to contemplate: a world burning itself better, remaking in the ash.’ They ponder personal responsibility: ‘She gets a Coke from his fridge and drinks it slow, thinking of distant sugar canes.’

‘Oilgarchs’ reminds me of Nancy Lee’s novel The Age; ‘Six Six Two Fifty’ recalls Lynn Coady’s novel The Antagonist; and ‘The Empathy Pill’ gestures toward Saleema Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World. The attention paid to oil recalls the attention paid to water in Doreen Vanderstoop’s Watershed and the corporate side of oil rig life in Madeline Ashby’s Company Town. The focus on ecology and crises brings Ash Davidson’s novel Damnation Spring to mind, along with eco-lit collections by Patricia Robertson (Hour of the Crab) and Claire Boyles (Site Fidelity).

Huebert’s specificity is buoyed by an undercurrent of universality: ‘We know that everyone lives in Chemical Valley.’

Everyone in Rose’s collection lives there too. Largely set on the West Coast of Canada, the stories in The Octopus Has Three Hearts focus on the borderlands between wild and domestic forces in women’s lives, on vulnerability and resilience, and on marital and parenting relationships. Rose’s character-driven stories feel spontaneous and enthusiastic. Because they erupt out of situations, there’s no impetus to reread; there is a sense of encapsulation, if not resolution or finality. Like Huebert, Rose is concerned with the stories that are misunderstood or overlooked. Unlike Huebert, however, Rose was ‘writing [these] stories at a dizzying pace’ while travelling around Europe, with all but two of the collection’s stories written over eight months.

They feel more vibrant than crafted, more investigative than intentional. When a character says, ‘I wanted to give him all the time in the world to think over what he did and could never undo,’ the story seems to exist to embody that contemplation-that-never-happened and that regret-that-was-never-felt. But particularly when plots hinge on life-changing events and the stakes are high, a short story’s success resides in the sense that its characters exist beyond the confines of the story, and here characters often feel observed rather than inhabited.

Her characters’ experiences and worldviews are varied. Readers’ progression aligns with characters’ movement, creating intimacy and immediacy. In the opening story, for instance, a character experiences a punch in the gut, but a few paragraphs later, readers understand she’s been stabbed. There is an overt awareness of an audience, further engaging readers’ interest: ‘Nobody wants to hear about someone else’s highs, so I’ll keep this short.’

This sense of revelation can be mesmerizing; at times these stories read compulsively. The concise language aids the pace, with only an occasional figurative gleam. One character, for instance, feels nothing: ‘flash-frozen hard as a blueberry.’ Barbie dolls’ feet are as ‘high-stepping as unicorn hooves, forever ready for tiny strapless shoes.’ Another character sticks ‘his tongue into [an] ear like a cork into a bottle.’

Occasionally the sense of writing-to-understand-a-headline is palpable. As with ‘I looked from the weapon I had just discharged to the man I had just shot, trying to figure out the connection’; and ‘I touched some kids, yeah, I messed with them. But I never made nobody bleed or cry in pain.’

An occasional glimpse of complexity adds dimension: ‘Cars whizzed by, the redemption of their breeze tainted by the stink of their engines.’ This stink lingers, but more often the stories are overt attempts to make sense of seemingly senseless events. ‘It is impossible to recognize the ordinary day when everything will be divided into the time before and the time after,’ Rose writes—even as she attempts to capture that recognition, to display the moment at which the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Like Huebert, Rose poses some direct questions. In ‘Karma’: ‘What invisible barrier separated them so that she also was alone in her room, signing the word for love over and over to nobody?’ In the title story: ‘Why should it matter to me who else she loved, as long as she loved me?’ And in ‘A Toss through Time’: ‘Hadn’t I spent weeks looking at island men and women, born and raised here, people of great contentment and little ambition?’ But the ever-shifting thrum between polarities in the world doesn’t consistently resonate through these stories; more behind-the-scenes character development and complexity would actively engage us in navigating the space between wonderment and resolution, allowing even an unresolved ending to feel dynamic rather than suspended.

Each writer invites us to twine tribulation with possibility. Rose’s readers might be inclined to believe that sadness ‘was just something we’d grown carefully around as we reached toward the light,’ recalling advice from her poem ‘Harm Reduction’: ‘What you need is just a different way to burn.’ Huebert’s readers might be more likely to alter their perception, to realize that ‘you could be beautiful, live beautiful, even in the burn.’ Rose writes to ‘insist on the radical humanity of all of us’ and Huebert prizes fiction for its capacity ‘to expand, subvert, or reverse expectations.’ Both writers promote and value compassion.

Marcie McCauley