Beautiful and Horrifying: Lori McNulty on Where the Two Meet

Book Cover Life on Mars

Lori McNulty's Life on Mars is being praised as is "ferocious fiction from a new master witness of life on Earth.” Don't miss her conversation with Trevor Corkum about her stories' collision, the force of tragicomedy, and the power of the short story form.

Short stories feature prominently in her list for us which meditates on what she terms "the relentlessly beautiful and horrifying in Canadian literature," in which we're given a taste of her fantastic prose. 

*****

Man Descending, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

You don’t need to have studied existential philosophy to be riveted by Guy Vanderhaeghe’s debut short fiction collection. Influenced by the work of Søren Kierkegaard, the author explores a cast of beautiful losers. In “The Watcher” we experience the tense power play between Grandma Bradley and her unwelcome “hoity-toity” houseguest, seen through the eyes of a perceptive eleven-year-old boy. The boy’s simmering anger leads to a shocking encounter between he and Stanley the Rooster, evoking an exquisite balance of the brutal and beautiful.

*

Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson 

Set in Kitamaat Village, Monkey Beach is a tense, gripping tale of a volatile childhood seen through the eyes of Lisa Marie Hill, a young woman gifted with a a profound seeing, or supernatural access to the world. Lisa Marie's brother, Jimmy, has gone missing at sea. Robinson keeps the reader on the edge of heartbreak and suspense with a masterful expression of Haisla mysticism, humour, and haunting trauma, to produce a novel as equally moving as devastating.

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry 

Mistry’s novel may be entirely responsible for my love affair with India—the glorious, the corrupt, the spiritual, the yearning, and desperately tragic. The setting is India during “the Emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, when civil liberties were suspended, opponents imprisoned, and the press censored. Sound familiar? His novel captures the sorrow and humanity of India’s poor following four characters acting against a wider context of corruption, violence, and absurdity. It’s a devastating, relentless struggle for survival. Once this book took hold of me, it never let me go.

There Is a Season, by Patrick Lane

A memoir in a garden sounds like a dalliance through a blooming tulip patch, but Patrick Lane’s haunting life sketch is visceral and elegiac. As Lane digs into his enchanting and elaborate West Coast garden, we delve into pain, murder, death, alcoholism and drug abuse, following the jarring rhythms of a life that is so raw and painful, the poet’s body seems to break open between our hands.

“The past hurls itself at me at times. My bones remember the water and the stones. I grew my body from that mountain earth, and my cells remember the cactus and pines, the lilies and grasses. I am as much blessed as burdened by this.”

Clara Callan, by Richard Wright

Should authors be free to write characters with a different race, gender, sexuality, or cultural background than their own? For me, Richard Wright settled the question for good. His nuanced portrait of two complicated, small-town women—Clara and her exotic sister Nora—is an extraordinary study in both courage and containment. The rape of Clara by a passing vagrant and her subsequent loss of faith is captured with such sublime, ineffable prose that the work was a breakthrough moment for me as a writer. Fiction is an imaginative act, creating a world beyond our experience. Though we may fail in conjuring a life experience outside our own (an “outside” that has no simple boundary), we must not be prohibited from making a respectful attempt.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poemsby Michael Ondaatje 

If the bridge scenes in Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion enraptured you, you may love outsiders and daredevils as much as me. Ondaatje visceral prose is stunning as we learn Nicholas Temelcoff makes his living “swinging up into the rafters of a trestle holding a flare, free-falling like a dead star.” In re-imagining the myth, madness and recollections of Billy the Kid, the author assembles a series of tactile poetic sketches that leave us dangling, bloodied and torn, alongside a character suspended between life, death, and our haunted imagination.    

click click click like Saturday morning pistol cleaning
when the bullets hop across the bed sheet and bounce and click

click and you toss them across the floor like. . . up in the air
and see how many you can catch in one hand the left

oranges reeling across the room AND l KNOW I KNOW
it is my brain coming out like red grass

this breaking where red things wade.

Bad Imaginings, by Caroline Adderson 

I knew something of Adderson’s astounding comic and tragic range while studying with her at Simon Fraser University. Her first short fiction collection is diverse in tone and territory, as she moves effortlessly from the point of view of a gold prospector to a WWI-era chambermaid. In realizing the interiority and tumultuous emotions of her characters, she also captures the historical moment leaving a lasting encounter that is both breathtaking and unexpected.

Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith

Smith’s arresting debut collection is eclectic and funny. There is the polarizing title story with Eepie Carpetrod, a girl who ages at an accelerated rate then reverses the aging process just as rapidly. Smith seems to unravel time in his work, sometimes making a moralist of the reader. Is this clever? Too shameless? Is this magic realism or just weird? The stirring “Isolettes,” about a woman and her unconventional family facing the death of her premature baby, is both sobering and sad, but not without Smith’s quirk and tenderness, and elemental understanding of the comedy in tragedy.

My Best Stories, by Alice Munro

Reading Munro leaves in me a lingering fear: Don’t even try to describe her work because this maker of small masterpieces has no time for your nonsense. I would not dare to interpret Munro’s writing for you. Suffice to say, she skillfully maneuvers time, character and life’s minutiae and grand themes with such elegance, such fine poetic restraint, that you never know what hits you until the end. There is transgression, great love and loss, depravity and violence, yet you are thrilled, thankful, and shocked into living. 

*

About Life on Mars

A middle-aged sportswriter gets a new lease on life with a heart transplant and develops an intimate relationship with his donated heart. Two brothers find in their rotting family tree the tangled roots of a dark childhood memory. A young woman travels to Thailand to reconnect body and soul and returns home, physically transformed, to face the wrath of her estranged mother. A divorced man struggling to rediscover his place in the world hits the road from California to Newfoundland, guided by an irascible talking squid.

Life on Mars, Lori McNulty's wild debut collection, sears the heart with blinding black humour and whiplash fast prose. With a flawless talent for juxtaposing the absurd with the everyday, violence and discord with redemption and metamorphosis, McNulty takes readers on an unexpected ride into the core of human existence.

Blending aesthetic styles from high realism to the fable-esque, Life on Mars devours life's numbing tragedies and exhilarating passions with ravenous appetite. These are raw, moving, strange stories—an unforgettable reckoning for our disconnected times.

March 30, 2017
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