‘Arvida’ by Samuel Archibald

Book Reviews

Arvida coverReviewed by Andrew Woodrow Butcher

Though named after the Quebec town of his childhood, this collection of short fiction from Samuel Archibald, recently translated for Biblioasis by three-time Governor General’s Award winner Donald Winkler, reaches far beyond the limits of the Saguenay.

At first glance, it might seem that this collection never leaves small-town Canada at all: the list of Canlit tropes that appear in the book is long. The isolated communities in decline. The grandmothers and dullards, the drunks and the loggers. The passing mention oftourtiѐre. A bear and a lynx. Too much snow. A mine, a factory, a lake with no name. And accounts of at least two hockey games. Arvida has roots, and they are showing.

But don’t let this set-dressing fool you: Archibald puts these old tropes to novel use. In his hands these seemingly familiar landscapes shift, redouble, dissolve. The recognizable patterns of families, of love, of poverty or of growing up are disrupted just as soon as they are invoked. Sometimes these disruptions are literalized–a little girl traumatically mistakes a strange twin for her own grandmother in “In the Fields of the Lord: Blood Sisters I”; the narrator of “A Mirror in the Mirror” intimates that the protagonist Gemma is alive when she is also clearly dead.But at other times, Archibald deploys oblique or ambiguous language that encourages us to lose the threads of his narratives, not knowing if, when or how we might find them again. Arvida is not a book of miniatures that depict Canada, Québec, the Saguenay. It is a book that reveals the uncanniness around us all, everywhere.

A few of the stories are compact, gritty gems. “In the Midst of Spiders,” for example, is seven poetic pages about a nameless character, sent to a meeting in an airport, where he must fire “consummate ass-licker” Michel from his corporate job. Archibald’s pronouns blur these antagonists together at first, strangely fusing two sides of the ensuing argument. The surprising connections between this terse, tense encounter and the narrator’s consideration of the spiders that live in his garden, where “the morning glories ran riot” and “the roses showed no restraint,” expose the costs and dividends of a work life which lacks empathy. Arvida is full of writing like this, both economical and quite rich.

Though some are compact, other pieces in the collection unfold in a kind of sprawl. Digressions and diversions, obliquity and ambiguity are deployed judiciously, involving us, inviting us to answer Arvida’s many questions, to generate our own spontaneous meta-narratives as we engage with the text. As in “Cryptozoology,” a yarn about secrets and mysteries: here the story hinges on a large cat that may or may not exist, and that may or may not be a cat. A slow swirl of contradictory and overlapping accounts, histories and imaginings present a network of possibilities without constituting any clear reality. The technique of the book as a whole leverages this kind of sprawling storytelling, too. More than a collection of complimentary pieces, these fourteen stories include two intertwined story cycles that recycle phrases, characters, settings and ideas. Over and over, the stories of Arvida depart in one direction but arrive at many places at once.

Paradox and instability are at the core of this book, then, and these procedures are intrinsic to Archibald’s success in handling so much Canadiana. These stories move beyond the particular, relatable, recognizable situations of their setting. But the book does not abandon the town of Arvida, relegating it to the level of the mundane, a mere collection of convenient metaphors of hope, despair, anxiety or resolve. Rather, Arvida shows us the very multiplicity in how we make meaning of the lives, landscapes, communities we inhabit.

The final story, “Madeleines: Arvida III,” presents this metaphysical and aesthetic scope clearly, when we read of a narrator who received an Underwood typewriter and “looked into things that had really happened in Arvida” in order to create “a kind of working-class mythology.” It is tempting to consider this book not as short fiction at all, but as a single, unified, novel-scale work. At the same time creation-myth and creation, a book of the particular and the universal, Arvida shows us how artful, how great, how big short fiction can be.

Biblioasis | 213 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1771960427


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Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

Andrew Woodrow-Butcher has been a Toronto bookseller for about two decades. He is the Director of Library Services for The Beguiling Books & Art, and one of the organizers of the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival.