The Dead Are More Visible

By Steven Heighton

Every age has its dominant cultural forms, and our own longstanding literary monoculture, which is mainly given over to the production and marketing of novels, has had some odd and unfortunate effects. Kingston’s Steven Heighton is one writer who has often been misevaluated due to his being viewed primarily as a novelist. Both a fine poet and one of the better short story writers in this country, his moral earnestness, structural rigour, and habits of precise observation are strengths that often become drawbacks when magnified in his novels.

The stories collected in The Dead Are More Visible show Heighton at his best and most familiar. For starters, a couple of elements that have remained consistent throughout his work are again front and center. First is the intrusion of dangerous figures into an otherwise placid, everyday reality. So in the title story a woman working the graveyard shift flooding a city ice rink is confronted by a threatening gang of youths, and in “Journeymen” a middle-aged jogger gets into a cardio duel with a buff mountain-biker who doesn’t like to share the trail. The protagonists in Heighton’s stories are always surprised by these interruptions, which usually lead to reflections on how tenuous one’s hold on a normal, happy life can be.

Another favourite theme of Heighton’s is what might be called the physiology of consciousness. This comes naturally enough when the main character is a doctor or a patient at a drug clinic, but it’s a clinical attitude that he finds ways of introducing in other places as well. Whether through working out, sex, drugs, lack of sleep or some other condition (in his last novel, Every Lost Country, it was oxygen deprivation among mountain climbers), Heighton is as at least as interested in the physical effects our bodies have on our brains – the chemical and electrical network – as he is in more traditional fictional explorations and explanations of mental states. For his characters, the stream of consciousness is just as often the “brain’s babble” and “neural noise.”

As with any good writer, it’s easy to miss or take for granted all the things Heighton does well. Like, for example, the way the sense of smell, the hardest to evoke in words, is brought to life in the “hot, coppery, sour” breath of a woman locked in the trunk of a car. Or how the lazy clichés of a too-casual email are dissected by a jilted lover in “Noughts & Crosses,” developing a picture of an entire relationship through an exercise in close reading. Or the skill with which so many of the stories are rounded off in a manner that doesn’t come across as pat or contrived. Work of this quality is a real achievement, even if the technique, as it should be, is often invisible.

Review first published in the Toronto Star May 27, 2012.

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