Ever since Susanna Moodie wrote about “those wood-demons the black-flies, sandflies and musquitoes,” Canadian writing hasn’t shied away from things that bite in the night. Writers across genres throw back the carpet to reveal the scrabbling creatures who live amongst, and sometimes on, us. And with bedbugs popping up in no fewer than three Lower Mainland libraries, it seems the attraction is mutual; the vermin are ready for their close-up.
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, "Wonder About The Parents": The second story in Alexander MacLeod’s brilliant first collection weaves the history of lice with the history of a couple. Like the parasites he describes, MacLeod deftly jumps from scene to scene—a family three weeks into an infestation, the coronation of Henry IV, hostility in a line-up for flu vaccine. Throughout, the writing is unsentimental, the tension ratcheted up by MacLeod’s short sentences and the threat of loss.
Scratch by Charlotte Corbeil Coleman: The central drama of Scratch is summed up in the opening line, “My mother is dying…and I have lice…. Fuck.” Dying parents and surly teens are common literary tropes, but Scratch’s Anna has just the right balance of self-involvement, vulnerability and boundary pushing. When it opened Factory Theatre’s 2008 season, Corbeil-Coleman admitted much of the piece was autobiographical—she struggled with lice for seven years while her mother, Carole Corbeil, was dying of cancer. Like all plays, Scratch belongs on the stage not the page, but in the absence of a good production, it’s worth the read.
Cockroach by Rawi Hage: If the first two books use pests as counterpoint to the main narrative, Rawi Hage takes a different tack. To the unnamed protagonist of Cockroach, an immigrant living through a bone-freezing Montreal winter, he’s not so different from the cockroaches infesting his apartment. He too snatches sustenance and souvenirs from the people he encounters. To him, immigrants, like cockroaches, will inherit the earth—the survivors able to make their lives in the small crevices of society’s refuse. Hage’s nod to Kafka succeeds with the energy of its voice, arresting imagery and biting social commentary.
Another Ventriloquist by Adam Penn Gilders, “Barnyard Desires”: In “Barnyard Desires,” Adam Penn Gilders creates a slice of urban gothic when a woman wakes up to scratching above her head—rats in the ceiling. Her landlord, her sister; neither is able or willing to help. Stains appear, which the protagonist attributes to the rats relieving themselves, slowly expanding across the ceiling into the shape of a man. As the story arcs towards the surreal, Gilders twists the moral in on itself. The threat isn’t the clawing in the wall, but our own imagination and its ability to run wild, multiplying its delusions like an unchecked rat colony. First published in The Walrus, “Barnyard Desires” adds energy and brashness to Gilders’ posthumously published collection.
Kerosene by Jamella Hagen, “An Introduction to my Mother”: Don’t be lulled into expecting the gentle maternal in Jamella Hagen’s “An Introduction to my Mother.” Few images are as startling as the opening lines.
“She’s standing naked
in the bathtub at midnight, in her gumboots.
Beneath her feet, the submerged
packrat trap: long wood box
with a trick door. Inside it, the rat
drowning. My brother sleeping upstairs.”
The quartet of poems, like the rest of this knock-out collection, twins the unsettling with the ordinary. Hagen, who grew up in Hazelton, British Columbia, isn’t afraid to show both nature’s beauty and its teeth: horses break backs, mice burrow labyrinths under the snow, and goat bites pepper interior walls.
The Good News About Armageddon by Steve McOrmond: Insects elbow for room between scraps of pop culture, current events and slices of life in the title poem of Steve McOrmond’s third collection. Images of advancing insects are interspersed with laments about Paris Hilton and conflict in the Middle East: “River of fire pouring from a crack / in the sidewalk. Red ants swarming”; “Morning: a cockroach halfway up the wall. / Evening, and it hasn’t budged an inch.”; “A cloud of blackflies. / Let them come. Lift my sorry flesh / little by little into the sky.”
Small Arguments by Souvankham Thammavongsa: Winner of the 2004 ReLit award, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s sparse verse accomplishes the unlikeliest of feats, evoking sympathy for arthropods like earwigs, cockroaches and black ants. Her tender musings cast these insects as victims of human apathy: “Earwigs / are born / holding out their limbs / to a world that will not hold them”; “The Black Ant / will go into / an unpaved city / There will be no light / to lead its way”; “There is a Cockroach / on the floor / with bits / of paper and food / on its belly / It lay there / dying for a week, kicking one leg at you.” A gorgeous collection, Small Arguments will convert even the most phobic readers into entophiles.
Fauna by Alissa York: Alissa York’s most recent novel opens with the sound of a mouse skittering a few feet, “less than an arm’s length,” from the face of Edal, a Federal Wildlife Officer. Unlike Adam Gilders’ protagonist, Edal’s reaction isn’t fear, but hospitality. She works to set the mouse at ease, softening her gaze and holding her breath. The world York creates is no less populated with “pests”—the place is teaming with mice, raccoons, foxes and coyotes—but she cajoles the reader into being grateful for this. Her characters work to protect their wild neighbours, safeguarding them from the city’s human threats.
Claire Tacon’s first novel is In The Field, winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award.
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