Kilter: 55 Fictions
A young woman puzzles over the identity of her lost brother; a husband cites a sixteenth-century portrait to explain his lover to his wife; a dead man laments the suicide note he failed to write. With spare, elegant prose Gould crafts quirky gems, compact fusions of humour and pathos. His fictions are full of individuals catching odd glimpses of themselves, of big ideas working themselves out in the minutiae of modern lives.
A t the centre of this varied collection is a coherent vision, a vision of human beings as paradoxical creatures—finite creatures haunted by infinite longings. If this vision is the piñata, each piece is a wildly different whack at it. Gould’s writing is serious, joyful and supple, constantly seeking out a fresh voice, a new angle of illumination. Call them sudden or flash, each of these finely wrought works gives us a pure moment, a fulcrum from which we witness a life tilting from kilter to off-kilter and back again.
At five pages, “Raising the Sparks” is the longest piece in Kilter, John Gould’s second collection of extremely short stories (which was a surprise Giller Prize nominee). But with his command of language and eye for the minutiae of relationships, the Victoria-based writer doesn’t need more than a few lines to capture a character or relationship or moment. “In Translation,” which takes the form of a dialogue between a man and a woman reading in bed, follows each spoken line with its actual meaning. “’What’s it about, though, Marie-Claire?’ I say, meaning, After all these years, you know, the sound of your name still makes little purple blossoms start popping through my scalp.“ In “Sunday Morning” the narrator describes her boyfriend as saying “God
the way my grandma says ‘email.’” Some of the stories in Kilter are exceedingly clever in format. “Dear Ann,” for instance, is written as a letter to an advice columnist about a troubled relationship between a Kabbalist and an alchemist, followed by the columnist’s hilariously off-the-mark response. In “Password,” a woman searches for the forgotten password that will unlock a computer document—innocuously titled “Mom.doc”—detailing an erotic dream. In “Dust,” an argumentative conversation over classical literary allusions gradually reveals itself to be a telephone call from a potential suicide to a prevention line.
But the stories in this rewarding and revelatory collection are never simply exercises or literary devices. Gould’s raw material is the dynamic between men and women—how we go from being strangers to friends to lovers and back again—as well as the transformative powers of mortality. More than a few terminally ill people populate these stories. Underlying many of these precise, illuminating tales is a questing, playful spirituality. In “Takeout” a woman asks her boyfriend if he would still love her if she changed, and then reveals that she already has. “’Naw,’ says Dick, shaking his head. ‘Naw, you’re still my little Wendykins’ ‘Actually, no,’ says Wendy. ‘No, I’m not your Wendykins. I’m Chiyono, a medieval Buddhist nun.’ Dick looks up abruptly from the wreckage of his dinner. ‘I’ve just achieved enlightenment,’ says his wife. ‘Just now, just today.’” —Shawn Conner