What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from. —Mark Sampson
Samuel Archibald (translated from the French by Donald Winkler)
213 pages, Paperback $19.95 CAD
TO BEGIN, YOU NEED TO KNOW what Samuel Archibald’s Arvida is not. From what you might gather after a quick glance at the back cover copy, this book – which has been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize – could be a quirky little album of short stories centred around thinly fictionalized characters in the real-life industrial town in Quebec from which the book takes its title. You may surmise that, as per the model for such a collection, these characters’ exploits intersect through the collection in predictably unpredictable ways, and accompanied by a familiar, nonthreatening theme humming just below the surface – something about how small-town life can be at once suffocating and impossible to let go of. We have, after all, seen and read and honoured many short story collections that have done exactly that.
Archibald – and, by extension, his English translator, Donald Winkler – would already deserve a wheelbarrow’s worth of kudos for this book’s nervy, expertly rendered sentences, its polished prose. But what separates Arvida from its peers, what casts it in a blinding hue of originality, and what probably attracted the attention of the Giller jury in the first place, is the fact that Archibald so thoroughly subverts many of our expectations about what this kind of short story collection can do, or should do, or dares to do. Arvida is not a series of interlocking tales forming a larger narrative arc; it is not a gently designed pointillism of stories painting a bigger picture. You need to know what this book is – which is a cacophonous display of multiple styles and approaches, a flawless showcase of different tonalities and modalities, and, most of all, a book unafraid to wear its founding inspirations on its sleeve. What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from.
Take, at random, the story “In the Midst of the Spiders.” Hemingway is all over this piece, what with its terse sentences, brief core interaction, and sharp sliver of realism. Archibald’s unnamed narrator (presumably from Arvida) is hanging out in an airport, given the unpleasant task by his employer to confront a fellow worker, a travelling salesman named Michel, and fire him. Michel is at the height of vulnerability – “[f]ifty-two years old, a sick wife, and three daughters in university” – and does not take his termination well. It’s a brutal conversation these men have, with one delivering a ruthless and disinterested execution upon the other. But Archibald, in a very Hemingwayesque way, counterbalances this with the narrator’s more gentle memory of the fragile spiders creeping around his home garden, saying, “he took them in his bare hands and dropped them delicately onto the leaves.” It is a gentle, beautiful juxtaposition to run against what happens in that airport lounge.
You will find an equal amount of realism in the story “América,” a tale about a band of misfits from Arvida attempting to smuggle a woman from Costa Rica into the United States via the Windsor-Detroit border. Their plan is sound but the men’s vices soon undo them, and they are stopped by edgy border security (the tale is set in the summer of 2002) and thwarted. This piece is reminiscent of the another Giller-nominated Biblioasis title, Alexander MacLeod’s 2010 story collection Light Lifting. In “América,” you will find the same obsessive drive in the narrative, an unrelenting focus on a singular task, and characters who try to escape their desires but cannot.
Yes, realism plays a role in both Arvida the book and Arvida the town, a small community built in the early 20th century around an aluminum factory. In the story, “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness – Arvida II,” Archibald establishes both the parameters of the town’s landscape and the tabula rasa from which it sprung:
The sinuous and labyrinthine designs of the town’s streets, the proximity of the bosses’ houses to those of the foremen and workers, the big parks at each corner, and the flanking of the houses of worship by two schools and a skating rink, everything in Arvida attested to the fact that this model town was the little utopia of a billionaire philanthropist, built from scratch right in the middle of nowhere.
But it is this sense of both a real place and a nowhere place that allows Archibald to unleash his prismatic imagination and take an unfettered approach to capturing his hometown in fiction. Realism slips away in a number of these piece. The tradition of ghost stories, for example, looms large at a number of points. In the story “Antigonish” two men from Arvida take a road trip to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, and one falls conveniently asleep while the other discovers a ghost-like figure haunting the side of the road. Magical realism appears in the story “Cryptozoology,” a tale about the men of Arvida trying to track down a mythical creature haunting the forest beyond the town; it is also about how these men come to process mythology itself.
Proust is also here. He plays a big role, as you would expect, in the story “My Father and Proust – Arvida I.” The schism in this tale is between abundance and paucity (“My father no longer lacks for anything, but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it”), and the story is about how change – including, perhaps, a shift in one’s economic fortunes – can bring with it both progress and depraved behaviour. In this piece, Archibald allows us to contrast the expansiveness of Proust’s oeuvre with the scantness, the precision, of a short story.
So diverse are the narrative tactics in Arvida that Archibald even allows himself to include a story set on the other side of the world and, seemingly, unrelated to the goings-on in the town of Arvida. The piece “Jigai” takes place in early 20th century imperial Japan, and involves two women – Misaka and Reiko – who kindle a relationship based on lesbianism and, shockingly, horrific mutilations. These women maim each other as a kind of protest against the oppressive, patriarchal, misogynist culture that permeated so many aspect of imperial Japan. This oppression is relayed through an incantatory phrase repeated throughout the story, “I came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in my pockets.” It is an apt maxim, as the carrying of stones (or pebbles) in a woman’s pockets is a metaphor for her oppression – particularly her sexual oppression – in East Asian culture.
With the air of a genuine Japanese folk tale, “Jigai” pivots when the women of the village, instead of being horrified by these disfigurations, begin to mimic them as their own protest against the men in their lives:
The repugnant mutilations that Misaka and Reiko inflicted on flesh became a fashion, an uncontainable compulsion, an enchantment, and there was no way to break the spell, not in reasoning with the wives, or in crying after them, or in trying to shake them out of their torpor, or by beating them.
Readers should prepare themselves for some extremely graphic imagery in this story, but they should also prepare themselves to ask how “Jigai” – so strange, so elliptical, so distant from the Quebecois sensibility found in other pieces leading up to it – fits into the bigger project of Arvida. There is a hint, perhaps, that the story alludes to some unspeakable violence decades and thousands of miles away, and with his groundwork in unfettered storytelling already laid, Archibald, somehow, makes it all work.
Naturally, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is all creepy ghost stories and bodily violations. Arvida has also, in several places, some extremely funny scenes, reminiscent of Kingsley Amis and, perhaps, P.G. Wodehouse. The story “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” tells a light-hearted tale of retired NHL players (including the Quebec icon Maurice “Rocket” Richard) coming to Arvida to play a local team. The story, replete with David Foster Wallace-like footnotes, (another obvious influence on Archibald), is full of brassy dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments.
Speaking of humour, there is also the story “The Last-Born,” a piece about, among other things, masculine loyalties and screwing up one’s life, that comes with this paragraph of unalloyed comic genius:
That night, Raisin took part of Martial’s five hundred dollars and went to buy a lot of beer at the corner. He walked as far as the baseball field … sat on the players’ bench, and downed, one by one, the twenty-four bottles in the case. Zigzagging home, he looked like a domestic bull to which one had administered a powerful sedative. At the steps of the Blackburn, his cat, which had again run off, was rolled into a ball in front of the door. Raisin grabbed the cat by the skin of its neck, kicked open the door, and heaved it inside. In the air, the terrorized animal, which was not a cat but a skunk, emptied its sphincters full force, showering Raisin and the walls with a foul liquid, part ammonia and part excrement.
I only wish I could say I’ve never been that drunk.
Of course, the best story in this collection, the real crown jewel, is a decidedly darker tale called “Home Bound.” In it, an alcoholic man becomes obsessed with a dilapidated house, which he buys and then moves into with his wife and daughter. It becomes apparent that the house – with its hidden rooms and sinister crannies and nooks – may very well be haunted. The house soon drives a wedge between the man and his wife. The influence here is over-the-top obvious: if you don’t spot Stephen King’s The Shining on virtually every page, you should probably resign your reading life right now. But what makes “Home Bound” such a gem – beyond its impeccably crafted characters and spot-on atmosphere – is the way Archibald can work in the King (not the mention the Shirley Jackson) influences without making the story come off as derivative of them. There is a pristine originality in the prose and positioning of this piece, one that transcends its clear-cut antecedents. Unlike The Shining, “Home Bound” hinges on a very human reversal, a fatherly betrayal involving a cliff, a trusting daughter, and a dead dog.
To say that Arvida skewers our expectations of a “linked” short story collection would, of course, be a gross understatement. So pungent are the stylistic shifts and contrasts in this book, that the less-generous reader may feel a bit baffled by them. But the reason this book has been such a success – 25,000 copies and counting sold in its original French; its nod from the Giller for the English translation – is because it breaks new ground in that very genre.
Indeed, it may be fair to say that we’ll never look at a linked short story collection quite the same way again.
Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.