By Greg Hollingshead
Act Normal is Greg Hollingshead’s first book of short stories since 1995’s Governor-General’s Award-winning The Roaring Girl, and it’s a refreshing reminder of his idiosyncratic take on the form. Few other writers represent the confusion of modern life in as unique, light, and succinct a way.
You never know where a Hollingshead story is going to go, as they don’t strive for any traditional sense of unity. What seems at first to be important, either thematically or in terms of plot, may be dropped abruptly as the story wanders off track or shifts focus. After a while you start to look for disruptive moments that mark an epiphany or change in consciousness – a mind, as one character imagines it, blown wide open. A knock to the head in one story changes a woman’s entire life. For another character a moment of revelation in the British Library magnifies some enigmatic, esoteric text into the wisdom of the ages.
Chance plays a role in all of this, as do other factors. Altered states of mind are most often brought on by drugs, drink, or dreams. Sometimes they are the result of what seems to be mental infirmity. And sometimes they are nothing more than a reaction against the everyday, a release into fantasy driven by boredom or repression. Whatever the cause, the everyday world is upset, a meltdown occurs, and then we see a man’s wife turn into an alien lizard creature, or a severed hand beginning to talk.
Mutability of form is expressed in many ways, from structure to imagery. Hollingshead’s language matches these fictional transformations, frequently slipping into a version of the surreal and grotesque that’s brought to life in striking metaphors and similes. One poet’s gig at a reading goes forty minutes over her allotted time, until “her voice was a fat old golden retriever on its back with its legs spread, having its belly scratched.” In the final story a hairy nipple stands “like a brown traffic pylon in a dust devil of straw or like a novelty hubcap on a wheel of golden thatch, now bristling.” Even the erotic is off-putting.
The effect of all this is comic in a very contemporary, observational way. The protagonists tend to be average people trying to make sense of a world they can’t comprehend, and at times can scarcely communicate with. There is a wonderfully funny scene in the story “The Drug-Friendly House” where a produce stocker at a Superstore speaks entirely in sound effects and random ejaculations: Whoa! Whhaaah! Schwumpff! Ta-da! Is he actually saying something that the narrator can’t understand? Is he just weird, on drugs, or does the fault lie in us?
Time and again we listen in on conversations going awry, with people speaking at cross purposes, or with one party having to confess that they have no idea what the other is talking about (that is, even when they’re trying to understand). The vicar-general in the story “Miss Buffett” is only one of the more extreme cases: “nobody knew how to talk to him any more than he knew how to talk to them.” And it is precisely this alienation that leads to a series of incongruous, comic misunderstandings.
It’s a gentle, satirical humour, not the kind that makes us laugh out loud but one that pokes fun at life, how little we understand it, and how hard it can be to get through to one another. The characters tend to be natural eccentrics who have a sense that they’ve missed something important, that the world has moved too far ahead of where they’re at. That, finally, the joke of life may be on them.
In the story “We Don’t Need to Have This Conversation Now” the narrator has a glimpse, another epiphany, of how essential the incongruity between public and private realities is, how large the gap can get even between people who have been intimate. Inattention becomes a coping strategy. Relationships throw off
. . . too much information, even for yourself. It’s like a joke that works by surprise, a throwaway line, an inappropriate detail to bring up, at any time. It was just something the two of you did, that people do. There are always other, more important things going on, for everybody, and that’s what doesn’t go away. Am I the last to be getting this?
Probably not. Of course, no one is normal. The best we can do is “act” normal, faking it, nodding our heads when people say things we don’t understand, and hope that carries us through another day. But it’s tough keeping up appearances.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2015.