Pauls, a debut linked short story collection from Toronto-based Jess Taylor, is populated by central and supporting characters named Paul. You’d think this framing device would get tedious quickly, and in the later stories there is a slight feeling of contrivance around the name, but generally Taylor brings her vision off with a light, slightly-dreamy, ironic, and deft touch.
The collection succeeds not only because Taylor has chosen the perfect vehicle to bring forth her unifying themes of repetition and chance, but also because of her skill as a storyteller and her great attention to detail. At times it is as simple as the gesture of the hand on Claire’s shoulder, repeated several times in the story “Claire’s Fine.” Reassuring, patronizing, or confused, the gesture mirrors the motivations of those who surround Claire and are struggling to help her as she’s grieving the death of an aunt. Taylor’s portrayal of Claire’s friendship with her male roommates also walks a line between mundane and uncanny—there is something underneath the surface that we can’t quite put our finger on. In the story “Paul,” the unlike, best friends named Paul stand in contrast, like inverted images that complete each other throughout their years of friendship. Their interactions are observed by a teenage Paul, who has his own observer and admirer—the girl from math class. While eating ice cream with Paul, she “imagines herself a year from now, six months from now, even a month from now, and that girl is different… The presence of the future girl makes the ice cream taste strange…” Perhaps Taylor’s stories ask, if we could observe ourselves with detachment and then try to understand our various selves, would we in turn change our ways and behave differently?
The doubling and repetition in the text forces self-reflection and encourages irony when it comes to analyzing one’s relationships with others. There is an almost fatalistic sense of grappling, of going through the same motions, and, in some cases, of making the same mistakes. Paulina in “We Want Impossible Things” states “this him, the one that might have gotten me pregnant, was more or less an echo of the first him. And the first him was more or less an echo of certain men in my family….” Paulina, or Paul as her friends call her, appears in three of the book’s ten stories. The first time is during a pregnancy scare with a man she loves but can’t seem to get along with. Paulina’s wit and the scars on her hands testify to her intelligence and experiences that should make her much wiser. However, they do not prevent her from making new mistakes with her current lover. She’s unable to state directly that she loves him and may be pregnant, and that if so, she would like to keep the baby. She continues to have unprotected sex with him and attempts to allude to her pregnancy with a reference to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” seeing Hemingway on his bookshelf. Confused, he accuses her of playing games. It’s hard not to sympathize a little with her boyfriend, because at that point Paulina has not told us the whole story either, only left us with clues and insinuations as to her past. But her inability to communicate, anger, and shortcomings are precisely what makes her an interesting character.
Although in three stories,Taylor also explores male points of view, she is at her best when she writes about female characters in their mid- and late-twenties. They are exactly at the point before we learn to settle, a time of trial, by repetition and error. But these characters do not live the glib and sterilized lives of the cast of Friends or even of shows such as How I Met your Mother. Taylor has a uniquely raw perspective on sexual and familial relationships. There is the teenage Jill in “Wishweeds” who lets her boyfriend Brad have his way in a muddy field because she believes that is what is expected of her, and then rages after. Stef, a friend of Paulina’s in “Multicoloured Lights,” fights back against a violent boyfriend so he leaves her and their young daughter. And Paulina also takes off with a man at a nightclub, is drugged, and finds herself naked and disoriented the day after. She also comes to reveal that a cousin had molested her and tried to kill her and himself, all before she turned fifteen. Family violence and sexual assaults echo in the other stories as well. Paulina, who teaches art to children, in a moment of a rare vulnerability, tells Stef that “special kids are the damaged ones. The ones that won’t speak to you because what’s in their head is already beyond their comprehension. Because they’ve seen things or had things done to them or done things that have messed them up.” Paulina, in a way, describes many of Taylor’s own characters.
The last story, “Degenerate,” returns to Paulina and Stef and their world on the eve of Toronto’s big ice storm. Paul, Stef, and their friend Kayla, struggle in failing relationships with partners who are even more damaged and messed up than themselves. Taylor doesn’t even give them names and they are referred to as degenerates throughout. However, by the end of the piece Kayla admits she may be a degenerate herself. Although this story is less subtle than some of the earlier ones, it reverberates with the same point—damaged people may repeatedly make mistakes, but that is what makes their lives interesting and captivating to read about. And as long as Jess Taylor continues to write about them, I doubt we will stop being haunted by them or stop reading.
BookThug | 208 pages | $20.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1771661683