Short story collections are kind of my personal bread-and-butter reads. I like them like I figure my dad liked Elmore Leonard. Even when I’m pretty sure I know where the book’s going, damned if I won’t enjoy getting there.
My favourite collections, indeed, or at least those that emotionally move me most, often give their protagonists similar brains—from Lorrie Moore to Chandra Mayor. Story collections—which to me are so often subversively relegated to minor-league status among debut fiction writers in particular (anybody can do it, it’ll never make money, no one will know your name)—can often do more than novels, using disparate names and settings to build a holistic mosaic in a way that novels just can’t. Where ensemble casts often feel scattered and hectic to me in novels, a chorus of like-minded protagonists in story collections weave together into something powerful.
This is all to say that Carleigh Baker—a Cree-Métis/Icelandic writer who won the Lush Triumphant award for short fiction and who reviews books for the Globe & Mail and Literary Review of Canada (as in this stand-out review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break)—hits all those nerves for me in her solid collection Bad Endings. The writing is smooth and intimate, the characters are real and complicated: young people, mostly women, in various states of being messed-up in urban and rural British Columbia. I was reminded pleasantly of Nancy Jo Cullen’s Canary this way. (Full disclosure: my employer Biblioasis published that book, though long before I got there.)
Standouts include “Grey Water” (which also appears in this issue of the Winnipeg Review) a lovely lyrical slip into second-person (speaking of other fiction choices snidely derided as small potatoes by Serious Writers), “The Honey House,” the best and hottest of all the young-working-malaise stories and “Baby Boomer,” the only story with an older protagonist, and a heartbreaking, violent one.
Baker’s writing is easy to slip into and my investment in her characters’ lives was usually immediate. This is also the flip side of my one notable complaint—all the stories end too soon. The fifteen of them combined clock in at 155 pages, and all (with maybe the exception of “Baby Boomer”) end as the weight of the story sparks and opens up.
I don’t blanket-dislike the snapshot variety of short fiction. But these particular stories seem so naturally well-suited to stretch on and unfurl themselves over 20 or 30 pages, not 10. To carry on with metaphors, it’s like an album where you love the songs except they end halfway through. Carleigh Baker, if you are reading this, I would’ve happily read a collection twice this long!
Good example: Opening story, “War of Attrition,” about a messed-up girl passing out free tabloids outside the Vancouver SkyTrain:
I’m not leaving Andrew because I’ve met someone else. He didn’t beat me up or call me names or cheat. I’m leaving because I don’t want to work it out. We did try, once or twice. There’s nothing to tell a divorce lawyer or my parents or friends, except maybe that he gave me too much. That’s what he says, and I agree (…)
We both know that I can’t leave until I have some kind of steady income. The Metropolitan was the only place willing to hire me right away, and not ask about the blank spot on my résumé covering the last five years.
There’s nothing else in the text to imply what the blank spot is (though I guessed addiction, which fits with some subsequent themes in the book). A couple pages later:
Andrew texts me while I’m on the train. Found u a place. Think u should move out next wk.
OK, I text back.
I’ll help u move.
That’s OK. He doesn’t know I’m only taking a backpack. Keep it light enough to travel.
And two pages later, she’s running away from her kind ex-husband weighted down by the tabloid work kitsch she hates, and she’s on the SkyTrain and gone to who knows what.
The people on the train are staring. My phone is buzzing in my front pocket, and limp balloons hang from my braids. The heat is cranked and my feet are sweaty from two pairs of socks. The train pulls into Columbia, the stop closest to home. The doors open and close, but I’m still riding.
I was with this girl so hard. I felt like I just got to know her, was ready to keep following her—but there it ends.
Now. Having hedged above that I sometimes like snapshot fiction, Baker’s also not the only story writer I’ve read who cuts things off too soon for my tastes either. I’ve heard some stipulate (I promise this is the last metaphor) that story collections are like a good bottle of wine, with each glass to be considered and savoured. Alas, as art imitates life, I find myself preferring to guzzle a whole magnum. Having that said, Bad Endings is still a good bread-and-butter book of stories, and I’ll probably buy whatever Carleigh Baker writes next, magnum-sized or not.
Anvil Press | 168 pages | $18.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1772140767