Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Middle Stories (The Toronto Star, 2001) by Eva Tihanyi

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he has been dubbed a "wunderkind" (National Post). Citytv's Book Television featured her launch party. She has been interviewed by Maclean's, Elm Street and Saturday Night. She is represented by the prestigious Anne McDermid literary agency. Her work has been called witty, clever, dark, ironic and beautifully crafted.

This newest star in the CanLit firmament is Sheila Heti, a 24-year-old art history and philosophy student at the University of Toronto. She won a writing award at age 16 (at which point Roch Carrier called her "a great future writer"), but it wasn't until Dave Eggers (of A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius fame) published five of her short stories in the box-set version of McSweeney's print issue Number 4 the buzz about Heti began in earnest.

Now, with the publication of her first slim short fiction collection, The Middle Stories, the buzz has reached hyperbolic proportions. The question is, of course, whether the work merits as much attention as it is getting. The answer is yes, mainly because of Heti's quirky, cheeky approach and the unabashed (yet subtle) way she spotlights the absurdities of contemporary urban life.

As the title suggests, the stories come from the "middle," the centre of everyday existence, wherein oddness can be found. As one narrator says: "I ... looked out at the lawn and thought it was a pretty confusing world, which it is, if you look at it the right way." Heti's overall sensibility is reminiscent of a remark Brassai once made about his photographs: "I never sought to express anything but reality itself, than which there is nothing more surreal."

The 30 very short pieces that comprise this collection are hard to label, and that's not at all a bad thing. While it is tempting to call them fables or parables or fairy tales, they are really none of these. Rather, they are prose riffs — improvisations on a theme - and they are mostly open-ended. There are no tidy conclusions, no life-changing epiphanies. There is what there is, Heti seems to be saying. Look at it.

The temptation with a book such as this is to over-analyze it, strive to "get" it. But, as is often the way with intriguing tales (and with poetry too), the "getting" occurs more in the gut than in the head — intuitively rather than intellectually. Heti's pieces are best ingested in small doses (reading them all at once would be like eating an entire box of chocolates at one sitting) and in a relaxed frame of mind. The less one wrestles with them and simply allows them to work their magic, the more sense they make and the more provocative they become.

Heti's prose style is deceptively simple but slyly incisive, and she enjoys playing with the reader's assumptions. She presents situations and forces the reader to engage with these situations, bring his or her own values to the table, as it were. As with Rorschach ink blots, how the stories are interpreted says more about the reader than the writer.

Finally, there is Heti's underlying sense of humour, the low-key tone of which is illustrated in the opening paragraph of "The Man From Out Of Town": "Since his first day in town the man had been looking for a nice girl to spend good times with, but none of the girls would have him. He wasn't sure why but suspected it had to do with his status. The waitress who served him corroborated this when she called him a bum, even though he was not living on the street and he had two suits."

The Middle Stories does, indeed, signal the arrival of a talented young writer, one who is able to see the complexity of the world through its extraordinary banality.

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