Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Middle Stories (eye, 2001) by Kevin Connolly

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Newcomer Sheila Heti hits her stride in The Middle Stories

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Sheila Heti certainly doesn't give you the impression she thinks she's the Next Big Thing in Canadian writing. Thoughtful, unassuming, even a little bashful, Heti possesses none of the brash, self-involved confidence of which media darlings are usually made.

When she's described by those who know her, the word elfin keeps coming up: the hair is short; the eyes, big; the voice, vaguely childlike. Only a particularly chunky pair of shoes puts her height definitively above 5 feet. And though born and raised in Toronto, she says (over a bite at the Mars diner on College), she has little stake in being identified as "Canadian."

Still, she's got a compelling resumé. There's her age, 25, a plus in a cultural sphere where youth, suddenly, is capital. Then there's the requisite international approbation -- the cred that goes with being showcased in David Eggers' impossibly smart McSweeney's magazine. Heti is well aware that one event more than anything is responsible for the palpable hype surrounding her first book of fiction, The Middle Stories (Anansi, $24.95), which she launches April 26 at the Gladstone Hotel.

"I feel very ambivalent about it in some ways," Heti says of her McSweeney's break. "I'm so lucky that it happened, otherwise this kind of thing would not be happening. But it's also like constantly being asked about your sister." Though she doesn't recognize it as such, it may also have been Heti's introduction to professional jealousy.

"The weirdest thing was that who knows how many copies of that issue were printed -- probably thousands -- and I had almost no response, from anyone," Heti recalls. "It was so odd; all these people were reading it and I had no idea what their reaction was.

"They talk about the 'lonely life of the writer,'" Heti mugs. "I never experienced that except in that context."

If it was jealousy Heti was encountering, there's ample grounds for it. Narrated in a deliberately distanced, economic style and labelled like fables ("The Princess and the Plumber," "The Littlest Dumpling"), Heti's mostly very short stories are by turns harsh, fantastical and broadly satirical. Most work off a recurring premise -- what if you wrote contemporary urban tales in the form of parables, but instead of princess, crones, fantastical beasts and heroic tests you cast them with self-involved mall girls, office workers, writers and the like working through their often thoroughly quotidian problems?

There's not much character development here -- people are usually defined by one or two traits or factual details. In "The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates," we never learn the title characters' names, while the object of the Poet's sexual attention is described as the "woman in the cubicle with the husband and three lovely kids." Despite his growing psychological disturbance, there is little else we learn about "The Man From Out of Town," while the male character in "A Bench for Marianne and Todd" is described as a "big guy with red hair and nothing much going for him except his exacting kindness."

"That's just the way they came out," Heti says of her well-defined style. "It's hard to say why. I don't think it's the stuff I'm influenced by, or the stuff I'm interested in reading. It could be because I was told a lot of stories as a child. My father made up stories -- every night he'd make up a new one. He's an engineer, not a storyteller by nature, so I'm sure he must have had a unique way of doing it."

The stories tend to turn on what little happens or is said, with that lurking (and largely undelivered) promise of a moral lesson or cautionary tale never far from the proceedings.

While the pieces are typically tight and well-honed, Heti is also not afraid to be funny or intellectually frivolous, to cut down a story midstream with a banal turn or anticlimax. Maybe she really does owe it all to Eggers. It's a cynical, but probably accurate, assumption that Heti's writing is just too interesting to have easily moved into the Canadian mainstream on its own obvious merits.

"I think one way of going wrong is to try to get rid of the faults you see in your own fiction or art," Heti suggests. "There's something equally powerful about what you're doing wrong at an early stage in your writing life. In a way, that's where a person's true originality is. To write in a way where you get too far away from that strikes me as hollow -- a little too polished, even a little fraudulent."

But what might first seem perilously close to a standard "first thought, best thought" stance is tempered by the obvious care with which The Middle Stories is written. Granted, Heti goes out of her way to include the awkward diction and cadences of everyday speech, but there's usually some cunning involved and such passages are always conveniently contained by the pointed omniscience of the storyteller's voice.

Several of the stories also contain traces of Heti's keep-it-fresh ethos. "The House at the End of the Lane," in which characters speak lines from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and "The Man With the Hat," where Dali's Diary of a Genius is plundered for incidental dialogue, both suggest a writer adding a specific arbitrary hurdle (much like the games played by the original Surrealists) in an effort to keep the writing surprising.

"It was to add an element of randomness to it, for sure," Heti confirms. "It wasn't like they were these quotes I treasured and I was looking for an excuse to include them. What I liked about them was that they fit with an interest of mine in the fact that you can never get into the mind of anyone else. Even when you're a writer creating characters, you're still in your own mind. By taking text from somewhere else and putting it into the mouths of your characters, you're throwing yourself off again, restoring the strangeness of relationships."

This keen sense of the arbitrary extends to Heti's approach to the implied social structure typically contained by the world of fable. For example, Heti employs a repeating female character - obsessed with beauty and her superficial power over men -- who'd be the princess in a fairy tale. In Heti's ficioonal world, she's a typical, self-obsessed urbanite who has been granted an arbitrary position of authority by society. The goals of Heti's characters, while specific and everyday, from the outside seem fragile and isolated in the face of the random workings of the world.

"It's hard to know what your attitude toward the world is," Heti says when it's suggested all this adds up to a coherent and slightly harsh world view. "It's just the most obvious thing to you -- you can't even talk about it. One of the most difficult things about life is you can't step outside it.

"For me, and I think for a lot of people, sleeping and dreaming makes it seem like a new world every day," she says, shrugging. "When I wake up in the morning, it's almost like I've never been alive before. It's almost like you don't learn anything."

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