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Review in Prairie Fire

I confess that when I began reading this collection of short stories, my first reaction was skepticism. Yes, I thought, Sean Johnston has an original approach to the short story genre, but is this just novelty for the sake of novelty? It was only as I read further into the collection that I began to appreciate the innovative approach and even more the versatility that is manifest in these stories, for Johnston speaks to the reader in a variety of voices, tones and accents.

It is very difficult to describe these stories. Literature, like all other creative endeavours, evolves and grows and (one hopes) progresses, and the short story has come a long way from the days of de Maupassant and Somerset Maugham, whose stories, whether comic or tragic, were like polished mirrors held up to life. In Johnston's stories, the mirror has shattered, and you pick up the fragments carefully, at risk of cutting yourself in the process.

Be prepared to be caught off guard. Johnston often uses an oblique approach to his subjects, like a cinematographer using quirky camera angles to make you look at something from a different point of view. Thus the story "Nothing Like This" begins, "When Wendell Sherman was in grade two, his parents could no longer believe in him" (15). The situation that unfolds is that a childless couple have wanted a child so badly that they have imagined one in whose existence they believe to the extent that they have even registered him at school, and the school authorities have even been willing to humour the delusion for a while.

The tone of the stories is predominantly dark. In "In Awful Repair," an elderly couple back from a dream vacation in Japan attempt to be good Samaritans and are plunged into a nightmare of physical and mental anguish. The closest that Johnston comes to lightness of mood is in "Spiders Door to Door." I found myself wondering what John Cleese and the Monty Python crew could have done with this vignette of a door-to-door spider salesman:

Read the customer as they come to the door in housecoat or whatever. Is this an exotic spider today? Or is this a regular, working spider? Is it imported? Is it domestically and organically grown? (61)

It's reminiscent of dialogue from the Cheese Shop and Ministry of Funny Walks sketches, but even "Spiders" gradually moves into a shadowy world of voyeurism and lust, the traveling salesman joke with a scorpion sting instead of a punchline. Although it has tragic overtones, "Here, and Now," the story which contains the collection's title phrase, is gentler and more lyrical. A young man waiting at a hospital for news of his wife who has been injured in an accident, overhears part of a telephone conversation between an older man and the latter's wife. Both men are facing crises - the young man, the possible death of his wife, the older man, the potential breakup of his marriage. The reader is left to draw personal conclusions from the juxtaposition of these critical moments.

Many of the twenty-seven stories possess an eerie, surrealist aura, imparted not only by the situations, but at times even by the language. "The Whole Time I Was Here" unfolds in a prairie/desert-like setting. A man stops his car to help a woman standing beside the body of a man who may or may not be dead. The ensuing dialogue between the new arrival and the woman touches only peripherally on the presence of the unconscious man, and becomes an excursion into a hybrid of the theatre of the absurd and the films of Luis Bunuel. It is a landscape in which the subject of Rene Magritte's painting The Companions of Fear, a group of owls emerging as the flowers of a strange cactus-like plant, would be a natural adjunct.

In "The Reporter and the Reporter," one of the shortest stories, laconic staccato phrases explode into sometimes poetic, sometimes just strained metaphors: "Words hung in the air like murdered fish …" (45) "We need a cab. The frantic town agrees." (46)

It is the very short stories, some of them scarcely longer than two pages, that are the most enigmatic and highly charged, as if their very physical compression intensified the pressure of their emotional content. Dream-like figures with generic titles such as the saint, the prophet, the underdog, the hero pass in procession like beings from a parallel universe that intersects our own at any unexpected number of points. Regardless of length and format, these intricate and sometimes disconcerting miniatures leave us feeling that if life were a verb, it could be conjugated only in the subjunctive mood.

—David Rozniatowski, Prairie Fire