Longing, disappointment and a stubborn hope wear away at the characters in For All the Men (And Some of the Women) I’ve Known, stretching them thin across time. In her second collection of short stories, South African-born Danila Botha again assumes her role as a sullen songstress for Toronto twenty- and thirty-somethings.
The collection is composed of short, emotionally dense vignettes pretty much all dealing with love, relationships, marriage and their failure among Toronto’s downtown-dwelling middle class. By layering varying iterations of love’s path on top of each other, the stories tell how chance meetings or university flirtations can evolve into steep romances, then quickly into uncomfortable discoveries or withering affection. The stories are short, but often span years, an appropriate pace for a book that visits and revisits “how fast love could bloom, and then how quickly it could collapse in on itself like a lawn chair.”
The situations ring true and familiar: a mother and sister-in-law can never quite let their sweet but conservative son out of their control. A girl picks up a guy from a slightly different world in the sushi takeout line, but he shies away when she’s too forthcoming about her story during their first date. And, of course, men cheat, lie and ignore women without real consequence.
The hum of inevitable tragedy, or at least a break-up, grounds nearly all of the relationships that Botha writes. Many of them shake out the things we want marriage or family to stand in for—stability, validation from outsiders or adventure and companionship. And while Botha verges on providing a critique of urbanized picket-fence aspirations and marital normativity, she somehow never quite gets there, preferring to wallow in the painful but ultimately complacent upsets of bourgeois self-realization.
It feels like an easy criticism to make, but Botha’s unnerving accuracy at portraying the men and women she has known—hip, mostly middle-class, presumably white, straight downtowners trying to find love—feels like it misses the mark because of the bubble of its social location. Perhaps it rings true for some readers, but it’s hard not to bore of a world where everyone has or could conceivably have a Master’s degree, where people’s second weddings are destination gatherings in Puerto Vallarta and where men are destined to cheat and women destined to compete.
Botha has a talent with words and description and she is speaking smartly, even boldly toward and from within a milieu she understands. But like a Queen Street condo dweller getting her second tattoo, there’s something transparent about her daringness. References to Bikini Kill and self-actualization trips to Thailand are great, but they’re not transgressive in and of themselves. And while erring toward disappointment, betrayal and compromise feels like the quiet pessimism of modernism’s best moments, the palette can be limiting.
Still, there are great moments of shine in this collection, including the break-up story “Start Being More Independent (and Stop Telling Me You Love Me),” which strikes a moving balance between the strangeness of getting to know one another, the self-narration of intimacy and the sudden simplicity of departure. The opening story, “Love and Polar Bears,” is an awesome blast of a young woman coming to terms with being the mistress in the grand narrative of her last relationship, dyeing her hair in an airport bathroom and thinking semi-seriously, “she couldn’t wait for global warming to kick in.” At her best, Botha repaints the stoic male canvasses of Cheever and Carver, but with a sensing, reflective affect.
So it’s hard to know what more to ask of Botha. She’s responded with finesse to the old adage of “write what you know,” but then has the converse misfortune of being trapped by the limits of her experience. Achingly straight and middle-class, the stories in For All the Men almost deflate each other. But they also sustain each other.
Tightrope Books | 152 pages | $21.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1988040080