I swear it isn’t my default to read a book of short stories by a Canadian woman (or any woman) and immediately compare it to Alice Munro. I swear I mean it every time I do it. Sometimes my comparisons are based on thematic similarities or similarities in tone. In the case of Deborah Willis’s collection, Vanishing and Other Stories, it is that, but not just that. First, there’s the blurb from Ms. Munro herself on the cover. Second, she seems to make obvious, overt references to Alice Munro stories, as well as stories by other famed short story writers.
Take the last story in the collection, “The Separation.” It is a story about sisters whose hippie parents are going through a dramatic separation. The parents are self-aggrandizing in their worry about their daughters, who are more interested in each other, in boys, in dying their hair and listening to punk cassettes, than they are interested in anything their parents are doing. I liked the straight-forwardness of the story and, as always, love reading about sisters. Partway through the story, they start to take long bus trips north to spend weekends with their father, who is living in self-imposed exile. They have been warned about sitting apart on the bus; they may get fondled by strangers. And then, they sit apart on the bus. Hello, “Wild Swans” from The Beggar Maid! Now, the stories do not pan out in the same way, but it’s too obvious a parallel not to pick up on.
In the collection’s first story, “Vanishing,” it is the structure, the era, the relationships between women and the perspective of the story that recalls Munro. There are jumps in time that I’ve seen in her work, and the darkness of the subject matter–the disappearance of a girl’s writer father, her ups and downs over the ensuing years–bring her to mind, as well. For me, this was one of the most successful stories in the book. It was mysterious, subtle, sad. At the end, on page 18, there’s this:
She looked out the big window, the one Marlene washed with vinegar every week. She wanted to see whatever he’d seen. But there was nothing outside. Just the usual street lamps and lawns. Houses with drawn curtains. The everyday, falling snow.
Tell me that’s not a reference to “The Dead”!
The next story, “The Weather,” starts like this, on page 19:
She came home with my daughter after school. The neighbour, Jerry, and the guys I hire for having had left twenty minutes ago, half an hour. I was still in the field, and I saw the two of them walk along the highway: my daughter with her slouch and backpack, and the older girl with neither.
Grace Paley, no?
Now, this isn’t all to say that she copies, or isn’t original, or doesn’t subvert expectations she sets up. “The Weather” is by no means a Grace Paley story. It is told from the p.o.v. of a father of a prepubescent daughter who starts bringing an older, damaged friend around. The story took exactly the perverse turn I wanted it to take and dealt with it in a nonjudgmental, sweet/sad manner.
I think the reason I am harping on the references to other stories in this book is that it made the whole endeavor seem a little more transparent than I’m used to; I was able to see the writer’s process, or what I perceived to be her process–who actually knows–in many of her stories. Even the ones that did not seem to fit into this little thesis of mine had an element of accessibility that allowed me to dissect them, to pinpoint choices being made not just on the characters’, but also on the writer’s part. As a perpetual student of writing, this was pretty great. I felt like I was learning throughout the book.
As I described the book to my writing group the other day, I first told my friend Helen it made me think of her (yes, because she’s Canadian and writes short stories about sisters and yes, because her work reminds me of Alice Munro). Then I said it was a much longer collection than I was used to, filled with many more stories. As I count them now, I realize that there are only 14 stories and the book is actually not that long. I think that, perhaps because the stories are often quite different from each other in terms of p.o.v., time period, etc., it seemed like there were more of them because the transitions between them weren’t seamless. Each story felt like something new, not a continuation of the last one.
I mentioned that Ms. Willis uses different p.o.v.s–this includes the use of the second person. I am generally not a fan of the second person; it often seems cheap to me, a way to trick the reader into sympathizing with a character without having to write that character. There was one story in here that did feel like that to me, like the use of the second person wasn’t necessary, but there was another story–“Traces”–in which it was totally, gloriously necessary. There was no way to achieve the terrible surprise that came at the end without it. I won’t give it away, but I will say that I loved it.
In closing, I’ll mention a story that wasn’t my favorite in the collection, but that gave me a certain level of elation for purely selfish reasons. “This Other Us” is the story of three twentysomethings who room together after college, a couple and the odd girl out, our protagonist. After the woman in the couple takes off, the predictable occurs, when she returns, the predictable occurs again. What did I like so much about the story? This kind of thing, from page 79:
We had a deck, a compost bin, and a herb garden we neglected. Like most young people in that coastal town, we rode our bikes everywhere, ate tofu, and went to bed early. We had two cats, many shared appliances, and we’d forgotten whose dishes were whose.
And this, from page 81:
Lawrence was one of those slouchy urban guys who wears tight jeans and witty, used t-shirts. He was skinny in an intellectual way, his 140-pound body a protest against conventional forms of masculinity like manual labour, going to the gym, and eating steak…He liked to watch cult movies and read the newspaper and take long naps in the afternoon. He was a hipster who was probably meant to become an instructor in a small-town college somewhere. If I were to imagine his future–though I’ve learned not to make predictions anymore–I would guess that he’d eventually trade the ironic t-shirts for sweaters and corduroys and unkempt, receding hair.
I like that she unapologetically wrote about young, white hipsters and the things they eat, like and do. This is the kind of stuff that my former professor Carolyn Ferrell used to eviscerate me for, but I’ve always felt that some people eat tofu and it’s okay to write about that. Ms. Willis constructed a thoroughly moving story with these crunchy characters in ill-fitting clothes and I totally loved her for it.