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Whether we are forced into unpleasant circumstances or end up in circumstances that disappoint us, whether we are borne along by forces beyond our control or act alternately careful and capricious, one thing is for certain: there will never be an end to human restlessness. My debut collection Exit Strategies explores this theme of restlessness and how the choices we make influence or fail to influence change. In every story, characters search for a way out, a way forward, a way through. Sometimes this escape is accomplished through fantasy, sometimes through murder or suicide. Sometimes the decision to leave is made, but not followed through upon.
We ask the advice of friends and family; we research or visit our destination; we write a pros and cons list; and yet it is impossible to know how we will feel in that reality-of-our-own-making until we arrive there. We also cannot avoid the happenstances of life. Sudden tidal waves of fate flatten even our most practical expectations like loosely-packed sandcastles. What the novels listed below prove is that regardless of how we got there, everybody confronts life’s choices, changes, consequences—alone.
A Ballet of Lepers: A Novel and Stories, by Leonard Cohen
In the title story the narrator finds himself in the awkward situation of having to take care of his “grandfather” in his old age. His grandfather is vulgar and uncouth—and yet the narrator discovers a strange affinity for him. He embodies the narrator’s distant past, while his girlfriend Marilyn embodies the narrator’s unwritten future. But all the narrator wants to do is live authentically in the present. Should he marry Marilyn? Should he take life lessons from his pugnacious relative? Violence becomes the primary means for answering these questions. By the end he learns how to take control of his circumstances on his own. I have always been a huge Leonard Cohen fan. His career path was the opposite of mine: from novelist/poet to singer-songwriter. I would recommend this book to anybody who preferred The Favourite Game to Beautiful Losers, as I did. A genius finding his voice.
The End of Me, by John Gould
Another collection in the Freehand catalogue where every story touches upon a theme. If Exit Strategies is about how we run from death, then The End of Me is about how we confront it. In John Gould’s collection, death has either happened already or is approaching. Death might be on the periphery for some characters, for others it is an inevitability. Is it possible to die with dignity? What is required for that to happen? Confessing our sins? Baptism? Only we can know what it is like for us to die. The stories in this collection are bite-sized and extremely diverse. Gould is also a fellow Vancouver Islander. This is the perfect bus or morning coffee book. Two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes—it doesn’t matter: pick any story in this collection, you will never feel rushed.
The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence
Laurence is our Faulkner, and The Diviners is her best book. Morag, the narrator, is the embodiment of the restlessness many of the stories in Exit Strategies touch upon. Her parents die when she is young, forcing her into a foster home from which she is desperate to extradite herself. She marries a professor, Brooke, who will not give her the child she wants. She has a child with her Metis lover Jules and moves to Vancouver, then to England when that doesn’t satisfy her—then back to Canada when she isn’t satisfied there. But no child or lover or book can ever fill the hole within her. This book also was released with a vinyl EP of two original songs, making Laurence another author/songwriter. The characters have always stayed with me, especially Prin, who was Charlie long before Brendan Fraser played him in The Whale.
The Promised Land, by Pierre Berton
This is the first of two nonfiction books in this list. Exit Strategies includes the true stories of Vladimir Fiser and Marika Ferber, Granger Taylor, and the Orca Tilikum. Even some of the fiction in my collection contain references to historical events. In my schooldays, I adored Berton’s Canadian history books for children, but nothing quite opened my eyes to the brutal history of where I grew up (Edmonton, Alberta) like this one. Early settlers of the west arrived full of hope, leaving their comfortable lives behind for the promise of some new bright future. They were subsequently met by the harsh realities of Canadian winter and the loneliness of open spaces. Faced with starvation and freezing to death, they had no choice but to endure.
Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
I am going to go out on a limb here and, though I have no right or power to do so genuinely, declare Barry Lopez an honorary Canadian citizen, since he spent many years in the Canadian Arctic writing this book and others. Before Arctic Dreams, I had read little if any nature/travel writing. With his impeccable style, Lopez takes an environment known for its barrenness and uniformity and reveals for us its abundance and majesty. (Who would have thought Muskox were so interesting?) At the same time, he admits the unforgiving nature of the place and turns to the Inuit for guidance, acknowledging too his own struggles with loneliness. Weather and scarcity direct the choices a person makes in the Arctic as much if not more than their own will. A National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams does for the Arctic what Barbarian Days does for surfing. Read this book and you will be booking a flight to Whitehorse in no time at all.
Sweetland, by Michael Crummey
What happens when you find your entire way of life flipped on its back? Do you accept it or rebel? In Sweetland, Moses Sweetland lives on an island declared unviable by the government. Residents are forced to leave, but he defies the government’s orders and sneaks back onto the island post-evacuation. This book is not so much about a restlessness for something different, but not accepting the restlessness forced upon placid circumstances by change. My first experience with Crummey, I was shown in Sweetland a Newfoundland that was absent in, say, The Shipping News. Every Canadian knows a Moses Sweetland, someone so attached to place that they would rather die than give an inch.
Learn more about Exit Strategies:
A compelling and inventive collection about the ways we leave and the reasons we choose what to leave behind.
Framed within a tale about a journalist investigating choices of life and death, the eighteen stories in this collection explore restlessness, belonging, freedom, and mortality. A prisoner falls in love with his cellmate's fiancée and breaks out to confess his feelings. A woman journeys from Honduras to the United States in the hope of a better life. Convenience store owners attempt to free themselves from financial burden by withholding evidence to a murder. The characters in Exit Strategies are all in need of a way out, a way forward, a way through.
In Exit Strategies, it is less about the destination and more about the initial decision to leave. In this daring and inventive debut, Paul Cresey weaves narratives that are sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always utterly captivating.
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