By Tim Conley
In the Foreword to his collection of critical essays The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis idealizes that “all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” These are, of course, all connected. A cliché of the mind or the heart, for one thing, isn’t really a cliché until it has been expressed, repeatedly, by the pen. Written clichés, in turn, beget the clichés of heart and mind. Life imitates (bad) art. Our hearts and minds are muscles atrophied by convention that good prose liberates through healthy exercise.
St. Catherine’s author Tim Conley’s collection of short stories, Whatever Happens, is part of this campaign. It is obsessed with the trite language and banal verbal formulas that fill our days (and our fiction) like so much white noise. The various narrators have an ear for such stuff, and it drives them crazy. When one of them starts to cry he has to point out that tears don’t actually burn. When another has trouble falling asleep we hear the phrase “tossing and turning,” a use of language immediately derided as “corny”: “I doubt anybody really tosses and turns.” When a woman knocks on the door and says she’s sorry to be a bother, the man who answers the door is struck by the fact that she might actually be sorry. “Jabbering on, that’s all there was, meaningless intercourse. An interesting phrase. Meaningless discourse.”
Writing that is so self-regarding and so concerned with avoiding the conventional isn’t going to be mainstream stuff with believable characters and stories that have a beginning a middle and an end. After all, cliché is just as much a matter of what gets said as how. Whatever Happens is experimental fiction, influenced (or so the back cover tells us) by Borges, Queneau, and the European avant-garde. In these stories we see the laws of physics suspended and the conventions of narrative turned into a running gag. Numbers tell stories, people float, and dogs talk. Realism is on the run. Metafiction is the name and alienation is the game. Is “Plot” a story? An essay? A story about an essay, or an essay about a story? Experimental fiction makes you think about these kinds of questions.
The driving force behind this kind of writing is frustration with the language, the need to make it new when so much – if not everything – has already been said. In “Way to Go” (the story title, like many in this collection, is part of the joke) two voices are arguing over how to escape. Escape what? Well, for one thing, the very terms of the argument. When the interrogatory voice asks “Whither?” it triggers an minor explosion:
Oh come on, nobody uses words like that any more. That’s part of the problem, this is all so old, so done. I need something new, something rejuvenating.
Something new. Something not a cliché of the heart or the mind. And the way to find that something is by rejecting the clichés of the pen, the conventions, and upsetting expectations. No words like “whither.” And, in this story, no paragraph breaks or quotation marks. Removed not because they are artificial – this book revels in artifice – but because they are passé. Leaving us with just a stream of words. And why not?
There is a philosophical point to all of this. That by exploding cliché we aren’t just liberating our minds, our way of seeing, but reality itself. Take an expression like “They’re calling for snow.” We’ve all heard it, we all have an idea what it means. Indeed it can even determine how we plan our day. Even if it doesn’t snow, the fact that “they” called for it has the same effect. But Conley isn’t one to let a flabby line like that go, and so provides a footnote in the heavily annotated “An Annotated Affair”:
They (colloquial): a common usage for authorities; in this case, popular meteorology reporters. Forecasts, while not held as altogether reliable in this period, constitute a makeshift universal reference point.
Language is just such another makeshift universal reference point, not altogether reliable, especially when it falls into lazy clichés like “they’re calling for snow.” This is cliché as fraud. Or an example of the idea that “Nature and irony are the same thing.”
This endless nit-picking and self-referentiality could make for a dry book. But Whatever Happens is too light-hearted, unpredictable, and infused with Puckish wit to ever be a drag. Conley is one of a number of young Canadian authors doing great work in this field, combining playfulness and seriousness with a fast-moving intelligence and a sure grip of established literary forms and traditions. This collection has a place beside such recent small-press gems as Paul Glennon’s The Dodecahedron and Chris Eaton’s The Grammar Architect. We might even think of it as a New Wave – if that weren’t such a cliché.
Review first published June 10, 2006.