All the Voices Cry

By Alice Petersen

It’s not just the place it occupies at the bottom of a hierarchy of literary genres, or a general lack of public visibility, that makes the short story seem a humble form. While it’s trite to say that the best short stories are characterized by polish and compression, it’s less remarked how much they exploit understatement, subtlety, and ambiguity. This is, in part, self-defence. The wrong word, a slip in pace, or an extra bit of forced plotting are minor missteps in a novel, but pratfalls down a staircase when it comes to short fiction. It just won’t do to be too explicit, too obvious in a story: the author has a much narrower margin of error, and they can’t afford to be crude in their effects.

With this in mind, Alice Petersen’s All the Voices Cry has to be counted one of the most assured short story debuts in recent years. Given the density of the writing, “Champlain’s Astrolabe” will have to stand in here for the rest of the collection. It begins with a divorced architect – Brian Armstrong – on the road to photograph a client’s lakeside vacation home. A pit stop then leads to an off-road adventure.

As with any good story, “Champlain’s Astrolabe” can be read on different levels. Armstrong’s long drive deep into Quebec, for example, is fuelled by “a coffee of mythic proportions.” That coffee introduces us to a man who is feeling a lot of pressure: in his personal relationships (his divorce, a withdrawn son), professionally, and from the growing tide beating against the walls of his bladder. He also feels put upon, driving a “crappy car” and getting bum job assignments (like the one he’s on). He leads an unduly restricted life (he never goes anywhere, except when sent on a trip – like this one – specifically to nowhere), and had apparently been unable to satisfy his wife sexually. The tediousness of the highway and its roadside come-ons (billboards of “bronze goddesses coiled around poles”) leads naturally enough to sexual fantasies, especially a favourite one of a tryst with a willing woman in a sugar shack (the “stickiness and the sweetness were all”).

Thoughts like these colour the landscape, and are colored by it. Just before we get to the billboards promising pole-dance pornotopias, for example, Armstrong looks out his car window and sees this:

He noted a host of white birds feeding in a drowned field beside the river and even found himself able to appreciate the rumpled heads of the nut-brown pampas grass and the barrow-shaped clumps of sumac. Every stalk and bole was tinged with the green-gold of spring sap rising.

This is subtle, but I don’t think I’m reading a sexuality into it that’s not there. Petersen can display a light touch when it comes to hormonally charged writing. In another story featuring a somewhat repressed man suffering the “worst possible case” of complications of desire, “The Tenured Heart,” a professor finds himself in cottage country with a “perfect naiad” (who “could have been born wearing [her] pale blue bikini”) and her cougarish step-mom.

The stepmother pointed out a grove of old growth white pine, and a boathouse that they were accustomed to rent out to a postman. In response, Colin commented on the tongues of light licking up the trunks of the cedars. After comparing the water lilies bobbing in the cove to poached eggs, he thought it better to stop.

I’d say! It’s a good thing he isn’t wearing a Speedo.

Returning to “Champlain’s Astrolabe,” Armstrong stops to relieve himself of the epic coffee by the side of the road, where he finds a piece of garbage that brings to mind the titular object. At first I thought of the astrolabe as a sort of demi-macguffin, but it has more symbolic weight than such a reading allows. Armstrong’s thoughts of orientation toward the “pole star” recalls the billboard goddesses wrapped around poles, and also has the effect of drawing attention to his own pole, which has become a kind of dowsing rod of fate. Dwelling too much on such matters, he is led by process of association to a “moment of clarity”: he has locked his keys in his car.

Setting off into the unknown, he arrives at a bar advertising pole dancers, though inside it is as depressing and empty a place as one might imagine such an establishment at eleven o’clock in the morning. A solitary worker is mopping the floor. Though she isn’t the tasseled dancer Armstrong had fantasized meeting, he does his best to dress her up in his mind. Her eyebrows meeting “head to head like embattled tadpoles” is an unattractive but sexually charged image that foreshadows the story’s abrupt conclusion, bringing to mind video from high school sex ed of burrowing sperm. With Armstrong’s head still full of poles, however, tadpoles it is.

Continuing in this vein, “every so often she stopped and sucked in her cheeks, as if life had given her a drink with a disagreeable taste, to be taken through a straw at regular intervals.” Well. Enough said. Perhaps she is doing a kind of pole dance with her mop then. Finishing this task, the woman then turns to cleaning the counter of the bar, spraying the cleaning fluid out of a squeeze bottle. Armstrong, naturally, is “entranced” by this action. He thinks of his son, and how what he really needs is to find a girlfriend: “a woman whose touch shocked him, whose presence confused his thought processes, who rendered his entire body as brilliantly lit as a landing strip.”

A landing strip! Yes it’s a powerful image, and we know very well what sort of a landing strip Armstrong, with his confused thought processes, has in mind.

Am I only projecting? Am I inventing such a reading because my mind is as full of such pornographic musings as Armstrong’s? Just as his thoughts colour his surroundings, and vice versa, one has the uneasy sense that this is a story that is reading you as much as you are reading it. At the same time, Petersen effectively distracts the reader, confusing their thought processes so that they are as shocked as Armstrong when reality intrudes. And intrudes in a way that forces us to read the story again, to see what we should have been noticing (what Armstrong did with his keys, his wallet), and to sort out the ambiguous ending. I say ambiguous because what at first blush seems to be missing from the story – an inquiry into Armstrong’s responsibility for his son’s alienation and his divorce, not to mention the dreamy thoughtlessness that got him into this jam in the first place – has been there all along. And yet can the reader blame Armstrong for not seeing the signs for the billboards? Haven’t we, as readers, been guilty of the same?

All of this is only scratching the surface of just one of the stories in this collection. And even here there is much else going on. Armstrong’s removal of his boots, for example, seems full of significance in some teasingly Flannery O’Connor sort of way. But throughout the book we get similar attention to detail and layering of meaning and interpretation, often achieved through the same inner/outer interplay. When the narrator in “All the Voices Cry” starts thinking of bears, it seems less like foreshadowing than a way of calling a bear forth. In “Where the Corpse Weed Grows” just the thought of her cancer-stricken mother dying stops Isabella short on a walk through the woods, where she sees the body of a shrew, itself “caught in the surprise of death.” Perhaps a little obvious this time, but Petersen recovers with some very nice descriptive writing:

Before her, in the middle of the road, as if dropped from above, lay a shrew caught in the surprise of death, its paws in the air, its whiskers a fan of dewdrops. She crouched down to look at it. Patches of skin shone through the short grey fur gathered with moisture. Her mother’s scalp showed in the same way when she washed her hair. Under the shrew’s pointed snout a tongue like a pink grain of rice stuck out above teeth that were sharp and dirty brown.

Of course a dead shrew reminds Isabella of her mother, but thoughts of her mother also seem to have conjured the shrew (“as if dropped from above”). Because, as we learn through a later flashback, Isabella’s mom was a shrewish personality. In a similar fashion, the corpse weed of the story’s title is precisely described in generally neutral detail when first seen, but as Isabella’s mood shifts it becomes “stupid and ugly and the colour of an old dog turd.” Imagery and states of mind are frequently interlinked in this way; to be is to be perceived. Walking along the beach, a woman named Hattie sees a row of abandoned dredge buckets.

Occasionally, after a good storm, a section of the buckets would surface in bas-relief against the pale sand, hefty and mottled like the bellies of chained ogres or the vertebrae of long buried dinosaurs.

When I first read this I thought it a bit over-the-top, but (again, upon re-reading) I later found it apt. Hattie is an artist, so seeing the buckets as bas-relief fits. And the way they seem to her like long-dead, drowned corpses or creatures out of fairy tales that have been washed ashore also has a special significance for the rest of the story. Here and elsewhere in All the Voices Cry structure is built up through this close interweaving of style with both what the characters see and how they think. When it’s well done, as it is here, this is something that is easy to miss. But that camouflage is itself the highest art.

Review first published online June 4, 2012.

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