By Sharon English
“West Coast” is a term just as often used to describe a state of mind as a place. From California to British Columbia it is shorthand for a mythic landscape, its luscious natural environment a home to aging hippies and youthful spiritual seekers, the counter-cultural edge of the continent and last frontier of freedom.
In titling this collection Zero Gravity, Sharon English is tapping into this mental geography. Most of the stories are set in Vancouver and tell of people attempting to break free and start over. The narrator in the first story, feeling trapped in her Toronto office, is typical:
I wanted to be far away. I wanted to get in the car and drive for weeks and pass out of everything I’d known. I wanted distance to dig into me, to leave a thick, dried husk in my wake while I whizzed on, a small bright creature newly arrived in the world. . . . Where would I go?
Where else but Vancouver: “forests and white-peaked mountains, a sparkling city by the sea.”
Breaking free from the mundane, the shrinking walls of the work station, “the sanitized, pre-packaged life,” is part of a process of rebirth and renewal. “There is something . . . there is something liberating, even purifying, about letting everything go,” one character feels. “A strange new kind of childhood. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been pushed and pulled there; driving forces are always present.” But in zero gravity what are those forces? Those measured in Physics class? Or Goethe’s elective affinities, the eighteenth century’s laws of attraction?
Hannah and Liz are both women of a certain age looking for new lovers. Executive Dayton imagines his old self literally starting to disappear, allowing him to embark on an adulterous fantasy. Cal is reborn in a forest hot spring, surfacing from a near-death experience to find his life suddenly “charged with energy,” free to finally grow “into the man he always knew he could be.” Including, yes, having an affair.
An escape to remember then. A romantic trip to the Greek islands. Or a hike through the mountains. Liz proposes such a trip to Marty by telling him he needs to “Get away. Fall in love — ,” and the break in dialogue in such a carefully written book is as much a reflection of English’s craft as it is a part of the art of seduction. “Falling” in love is an effect of gravity.
The writing rarely fails to engage. First sentences make an impression. “In his seventh year at TrendCrop, Dayton began to disappear.” Or: “Emily and Clive once went to a party held in honour of a dead cat.” And for the most part it stays this good, maintaining a steady register of mood and an uncluttered immediacy of expression. The sort of exact language necessary when measuring forces like gravity. Which is a weak force really, especially among human bodies.
Review first published February 17, 2007.