‘Once More with Feeling’ by Méira Cook

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Charlene Van Buekenhout

Méira Cook’s new novel follows one family, and an impressive number of minor characters, through the seasons of a city and the minutiae and maxima of life.

That city, though unnamed in the book, is Winnipeg. Relying on the assumptive notion that in a small city everybody knows everybody, Cook is able to connect the circuits running between her characters. It is a fairly truthful representation of the city, and anyone from Winnipeg may get a kick out it. But the tone tends toward nostalgia and, when alluding to Winnipeg touchstones, is both overly referential and vague. Obvious place names are changed, like off-brand pop in a film that didn’t get the Pepsi sponsorship (The Empress Mall as Polo Park), or are alluded to with just enough description so Winnipeggers feel a pang of pride at being in the know (Route 90! The North End!).

The story begins with Max Binder, who sets out to perform a grand gesture to make his wife, Maggie, happy. Maggie is not thrilled at her impending 40th birthday and has been increasingly frustrated with World Vision and suspicious of a child they are sponsoring. As Max is determined to cheer up his wife by giving her a great birthday present, the plot takes a turn, and the rest of the book spreads its tentacles, grabbing on to any character within the Binders’ reach—however strong (their two sons) or slight (an old acquaintance from camp) the relationship to the Binders may be.

Some of these connections are interesting for how they diverged from what seemed to be the central plot, but with others I questioned the purpose of these peripheral stories. Still, there is some really lovely poetic writing. In this scene, Max Binder has picked up a new to Canada visitor and is driving away from the airport:

It’s a grey flannel day, rumpled and ill-fitting. The only splashes of colour are the Day-Glo orange and fluorescent yellow banners draped over buildings – Liquidation Sale! Clearance Sale! Moving Sale! – and the maple leaf pennants snapping above a used car lot. He notices that the snow banks on either side of the road have shrunk to grimy honeycombs oozing slurries of dirty water beneath a winter’s weight of traffic exhaust and pollution. “It’s not usually this bad,” he tells her.

This sounds familiar: trying to apologize for something we see in the place we call home. I know what kind of day this is. I can smell the dirty snow and winter air. I feel that referential pride of being a Winnipegger (at least for the past 17 years). These are the type of acute observations that are peppered throughout.

Unfortunately, passages like this are weighed down by more confusing or unnecessary ones. The book is dense with poetic and metaphorical language, and I had to re-read many passages to understand certain sections (which took it off my before-bedtime reading list), such as this one, where Maggie Binder talks about her son Sams, her good mistake:

She wondered how the hell she’d gotten so good at free throws. So lucky. But how much longer could her luck hold out, given that the average free throw percentage was right around 75 percent, at least in a league game, which left the other 25 percent in which a person could foul out to no avail? In a game like that you might trade the chance of giving up a couple of points for getting two free throws and still not make a goddamn basket.

I read that passage several times and finally gave up. Not only was I lost in the basketball stats, which I could get past, but I wasn’t sure what to take from it. I thought I might understand this metaphor after going back to it, knowing a little more about Sams and his struggles (which we get to see from multiple perspectives and is conveyed in effective non-traditional, magic realism style storytelling), but I couldn’t figure out exactly what is meant by luck, nor do I get a clue at how Maggie feels about it either, which is what I want. There were other instances where I had to look up certain words the dictionary, which I would not normally admit, but I do so here because it affected my smooth entry into the world of the book, and it needn’t have.

Cook introduces an impressive volume of characters who each star in their own short story, lending the book a “city of a thousand stories” type of feeling, but, overall, I wanted more from them. Although the characters are different, their voices remain, for the most part, recognizably the writer’s. I was struck by everyone’s amazing vocabulary and linguistic dexterity, regardless of their age or life experience. However impressive, I felt it didn’t ring true in all cases, and that the language was a barrier to the heart of the character, keeping me, the reader, on the outside. As third-person omniscient is mostly the rule in Once More with Feeling (Cook occasionally writes in first person, as well as using an encompassing “we”), the decision to imbue all of the characters with the ability to fully communicate themselves makes some sense, but when characters reveal personal, sometimes graphic, thoughts and memories (the cookie game in “Camp Beaver” and Strictly Speaking in “Celluloid Museum”) it left me wanting a more intimate, less perfectly crafted voice.

Once More with Feeling is structured around the prairie seasons and each chapter corresponds to seasonal activities—related to work, religion, school, etc. As characters from earlier chapters appear in later ones and the relationship between them develops, it seems like the reader is promised a through line. And so, reading each chapter becomes like detective work, searching for the connection. Like life. Once I let go of this desire for meaning, I began to read the stories independent of their context in the overall structure, and found satisfaction there.

While I didn’t believe every character was deserving of their own chapter and found some of the writing was overly metaphorical, there are also parts that are so perfectly simple, accurate and heartbreaking, like this:

Nights it hung there, red and insomniac, but by day it was only a sketchy outline of faith against the blowing snow or guttering clouds, the leaves that massed in the summer and fell in the fall. You are here, it seemed to whisper to Aunt June. Here in your room, here in the city, here in the breathing, broken world.

Apart from what might be considered my petty disputes, which affected my enjoyment of this work, there is reward for the those looking for a reason to keep reading, or at least closure. I’m glad I stuck with it, although at times it felt like a struggle (like life!) and would suggest to Méira Cook fans, or short story fans, to let go and let these slices of life piece together inside you, and keep a dictionary close by.

House of Anansi | 304 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1487002961

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Charlene Van Buekenhout

Charlene Van Buekenhout lives in Winnipeg with her husband, several cats, and a dog. She is an actor, playwright, tap dancer, and artistic director of Echo Theatre.