By Bill Gaston
Character in short fiction, it has been said often enough, is a quality to be discovered or revealed rather than developed. And so the image of the gargoyle is an apt one to preside over the twelve stories in this compelling and highly original collection by Giller-nominated author Bill Gaston. The stony fixity of the gargoyle is alluded to in figures buried in sand and cement, as well as in the stubborn, emotionally determined voices that tell their stories even in the face of an audience that often seems determined not to listen.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. And it’s not always a failure of expression. Gaston’s world is full of people with something to say, but without anyone to say it to. In the story “Honouring Honey,” a schoolteacher tries to tell his wife how he plans to commemorate the death of the family dog. She doesn’t want to hear – and given the planned ceremony’s macabre perversity, few readers will blame her. But this leads only to the teacher’s frustration, rendered in a wheedling repetition that captures the insistence of natural speech: “Please just listen to me. You never listen to me. Just listen, okay?”
The reluctant audience is a recurring motif. There are a lot of things that people don’t want to listen to, don’t want to hear. In “The Gods Take Off Their Shirts” the narrator attempts various delaying tactics to avoid hearing the “sort of a proposition” his old friend is about to make. In the surreal and self-reflexive “A Work-in-Progress” an audience rebels in the face of a particularly egregious reading by a visiting author. The French youth in “Freedom” can’t get anyone to understand his earnest pidgin-American, with tragic results. And Philip’s poor Uncle Phil, dying by degrees as he disappears into the beach, well, he “wasn’t talking to anyone but himself anymore and Philip wished he would stop.”
Is there something of the plight of the author in all of this? How could there not be? But this is by the way. In well-crafted stories that demonstrate a remarkable range of subject matter and tone Gaston shows a keen appreciation of the universal need not only to express ourselves, but to be understood.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2006.