Tales both new and previously collected (this is the author’s sixth story volume) that are almost universally one part Alice Munro, one part Donald Barthelme.
Canadian storywriter and novelist Schoemperlen (Our Lady of the Lost and Found, 2001, etc.) is never satisfied with straightforward character and plot, and more often than not endeavors to undermine traditional strategy with pieces fragmented in one way or another. “This Town” is a portrait of small-town Canada through a point-by-point (“General Information,” “Climate,” “Population,” etc.) tourists’ guide. “Hockey Night in Canada” finds the national sport used as an emotional screen for the romantic body-checks of quiet domestic life, while a writer (in “The Man of My Dreams”) imagines her life in a sequence of dreams that render its broken nature, its rootedness in the imagination, and the ultimate cloister of existence. In “The Look of the Lightning, the Sound of the Birds,” a woman laments the boredom of her life to such an extent that she fixates on local murders and on the carefree life of a friend, but can’t tell if she’s afraid or angry. And in “Five Small Rooms (A Murder Mystery),” a nonlinear succession of poetic description captures the emotions of a life’s trajectory, its odd architectural meander: “. . . the young cephalopod at first lives in the centre of its shell, but as it grows larger, it must move forward, sealing off each chamber behind itself. This would be like shutting a door and having it permanently locked behind you.” The 21 stories here cover 20 years’ worth of effort (Forms of Devotion, 1998, etc.), and the craft of fiction comes to the fore just as often as does the absurd. Occasionally, you wish for more than just a gimmick, but just as often, beneath the experimental facade, it’s possible to detect something simple and human, even routine. The strategies are a challenge, the themes familiar.
In all, smart and imaginative.