By John Goldbach
One of the greatest illusory effects in literature was that achieved by Ernest Hemingway, who likened his writing to the dignified movement of an iceberg, the critical mass of which was concealed from sight. It was prose that had been so pared down, what had been left out still seemed somehow present, part of the effect.
The illusion lies in how it seems so easy, the embodiment of grace under pressure where all we see is the grace. It has been a very seductive illusion for generations of writers and so it’s hard to fault Montreal author John Goldbach for falling under its spell in his debut collection of short fiction, Selected Blackouts.
The blackouts in the title are mainly self-induced, with alcohol having a significant presence in almost all of the stories. The characters are, for the most part, young slackers who attend parties, drink, do drugs, and try to hook up. They seem to be going through life without a great deal of purpose, and neither care for each other or themselves very much.
The homage to Hemingway is expressed in the book’s style. The tone is deliberately, almost painstakingly flat. The narrative pushes ahead through matter-of-fact statements of what is happening, which is rarely anything special. Language is employed without any rhetorical flourish, with the dialogue in particular tending to repeat simple, common words like “good” and “nice” a lot. The fly on the wall accounts for exits and entrances, but little more. Descriptions, whether of people or places, are minimal if indulged in at all.
But pulling off this kind of writing is not easy, and here it doesn’t work. One doesn’t have the sense that more is going on than meets the eye. And the laconic dialogue, both in terms of rhythm and vocabulary, often seems unnatural. Indeed it is in the few experimental pieces that the book is most successful. In the last story, a single-paragraph account of a woman watching a wedding show on television, we experience a subtle feeling of inner drift, and in the paranoid interior monologue “How Much Do They Know?”, the voice has a kind of manic energy absent from the rest of the book. Among selected blackouts, stories like these provide a flash of light.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2009.