Shortlisted for the 2019 Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction
A collection of intrepid and incisive stories from the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists
Tiger, Tiger takes readers from the Paradise Valley Senior Centre parking lot all the way to Mars and examines the contradictions of life along the way. An astounding array of characters come up against the challenges of existence--both mundane and extraordinary--and their experiences never fail to surprise and delight.
A scientist finds the truth about love in a lab where he is learning to grow extinct tigers. A fake wedding at a nursing home brings a divorcée to the brink of despair while her grandmother marvels at the beauty around her. A small-town taxidermist realizes his fiancée is never returning--that he has lost her to an inscrutable ball of light. A soldier survives the bloody Battle of the Argonne Forest but loses the faith of his child. An uncanny teenager holds two hundred thousand years of the world's history in her mind but feels desperately alone.
Profound and paradoxical, these fourteen stories bring us closer to the truth, even if we discover that it is ultimately unknowable. Masterfully crafted and astonishingly wise, Tiger, Tiger explores the limits of understanding, the future of humanity, and establishes Skibsrud as a rare and exceptional talent.
About the author
Johanna Skibsrud is a novelist, poet and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona. Her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was awarded the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her the youngest writer to win Canada's most prestigious literary prize. The book was subsequently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Award and is currently translated into five languages. The New York Times Book Review describes her most recent novel, Quartet for the End of Time (Norton 2014) as a "haunting" exploration of "the complexity of human relationships and the myriad ways in which identity can be malleable." "It is exhilarating", writes the Washington Post, "to join a novelist working at these bracing heights." Johanna is also the author of two collections of short fiction: This Will Be Difficult to Explain (2011; shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award) and Tiger, Tiger (2018), a children's book, and three books of poetry. Her latest poetry collection, The Description of the World (2016), was the recipient of the 2017 Canadian Author's Association for Poetry and the 2017 Fred Cogswell Award. Johanna's poems and stories have been published in Zoetrope, Ecotone, and Glimmertrain Magazine, among numerous other journals. Her scholarly essays have appeared in, among other places, The Luminary, Excursions, Mosaic, TIES, and The Brock Review. A critical monograph titled The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics is forthcoming. A novel, Island, will also be published by Hamish Hamilton Canada in fall 2019.
- Short-listed, Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction
Excerpt: Tiger, Tiger (by (author) Johanna Skibsrud)
Finally, I managed to seize on something. I lifted it, tremblingly, from the bag, and Dr. Singh and I crouched together in order to gaze, with wonder and delight, at . . . well, at nothing. We could see almost nothing at all at the tweezers’ pinched end. I motioned to Dr. Singh to move aside, and in unison the two of us shuffled a pace or two so that our backs were now to the door rather than to the window, and the specimen was suddenly exposed to the light. Now, we could just barely make out a small speck, as inconsequent seeming as a mote of dust. It was so slightly different in colour and texture from the air that if we had not been looking very hard we would, almost certainly, not have seen it all.
There it was. The tiger.
It had been Dr. Wolff, in fact—not either myself or Dr. Singh— who had stumbled on the idea. He who had first informed us of the team of Russian scientists who had recently unearthed the remains of a laboratory dating back at least a hundred years, since sometime before the Last War. The laboratory had evidently been affiliated with a wildlife sanctuary and had housed the genetic information of at least several now extinct Siberian tigers. The specimens had been carefully stored, and three of them had been recovered—it was tempting to say miraculously—intact. They were now being sold to the highest bidder.
A lab in Moscow had already snatched up one of them, Dr. Wolff informed us. But their science programming hadn’t yet fully recuperated from the war, and it was doubtful that anything would come of it. The second specimen had been sold shortly after, to a collector from Brazil. He would keep it on some high shelf in his Rio penthouse, no doubt, Dr. Wolff sniffed. Show it off whenever he remembered it to his more fashionable guests.
The Chinese would almost certainly sweep up the last specimen. Take it back to their laboratories and—hastily, without a thought to the consequences—create their own little monster . . .
“Yes! That would be just like them,” Wolff cried. “A scientific approach like that of a spoiled child!”
Dr. Singh began to fiddle with the top button of his laboratory coat. I gazed ahead, using a technique I’d perfected—my eyes making just enough contact with the doctor to suggest attention, but in fact gazing steadily past him, toward the row of high shelves that flanked his desk.
The shelves housed the Wolff’s own collection—the extent and variety of which would have impressed even a Brazilian collector. And just like the specimens in Rio, there was no more promising future for these than to remain where they were, gathering dust and waiting for the day when, in a burst of paternal affection, Wolff would take out the feather duster he kept for the purpose and dust each jar—contemplating their secrets, which he alone now kept. His eyes would shine as he dusted the jars in the way that eyes shine only in moments of sincerest love.
How quickly that light would go out once the job was done! It almost made you sorry for him, the way his eyes flickered, then turned inward, toward the trap he had made of his mind. To imagine him in there, shut up and alone—the last of his kind.
Just as for Dr. Wolff, the jars provided me with a source of respite and relief by offering me something to look at while he spoke. For some reason I couldn’t bear to listen to him and look at him at the same time. One or the other, yes—but not both. And so I would look behind him at the collection of human and chimp fetuses floating in formaldehyde, their skin grey from long exposure to preserving agents, and think about how strange it was to decay that slowly—or rather, to not decay at all. Because it was the preservative process that was slowly eating away at the specimens, not the other way around—the possibility of their own immortality that was now slowly destroying them. Sometimes I even imagined I could see it happen. That I could actually detect, in the length of time that I gazed at them, their incremental deterioration. (No doubt this was only my imagination; the oldest specimens, boasted Wolff, were nearly four hundred years old. It was quite ridiculous to imagine that given that great length of time I, who was witness only to the smallest fraction of it, might actually be able to see the moment in which some identifiable change occurred.)
Other times, I would amuse myself by hazarding guesses at which of Dr. Wolff’s specimens were human and which were not, because often in the smaller, less developed specimens it was quite difficult to tell—especially from a distance. I tried to keep my eyes level, and my mind focused on this task, because if I let my eyes drift even slightly—according to some irresistible gravity—down toward the lower shelves, they would inevitably betray me.
The lower shelves housed the doctor’s collection of preserved testicles—all of the human variety. It was the second-largest collection of human testicles in the world, Wolff would sometimes boast, transferred into his care by the great-great-grandson of an ex-Nazi surgeon. Wolff maintained the collection “in the name of science,” though even he would have had to admit that, by this point, the evidence these specimens supplied was less scientific than spectral; from within their murky jars, they conjured a gruesome past only Wolff was capable of looking in the eye. My own always blinked, compulsively, when they drifted to those lower levels. Or skittered away.
It will be an immense relief, if and when the Wolff ever does finally retire, to clear out those lower shelves. Sometimes I even allow myself the brief fantasy of overseeing the operation. Of course, I would hire someone to do it; I could never bring myself to actually touch them. I would merely watch as the specimens were carried away by a sanitation engineer on a metal dolly, but it would give me a great sense of satisfaction—even pleasure—to see them go.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction
"Skibsrud’s writing is a pleasure, with its shortish sentences, snappy prose, and mixture of formal speech and slang combining to create a recognizably 21st-century voice."—Quill & Quire
“The juxtaposition of the mysterious with the mundane, the unexpected idea illuminating a life, are not only engrossing, but open the reader’s mind to genuine insight about one’s own reality. These stories, like life, are complex….Skibsrud is a master…[she] can make your head spin and dares you to think.”—Winnipeg Free Press
“An astonishing collection of short stories…Some are long and multi-layered; others are intense vignettes, like small sharp stones glittering on the beach. All are brilliantly constructed with not a word out of place, and are full of wisdom and insight into human beings. Skibsrud writes elegantly about deep-thinking characters on a quest for love, for connection and for meaning in life, whether they live in the present or the 26th century.”—The Chronicle Herald
“Johanna Skibsrud has a way of introducing you to the most unlikely situations and turning them into something that you feel you have experienced yourself, like an uncovered, necessary truth, a story that was waiting to be told. In clever, incisive, and heartfelt prose, she illuminates the past, the present, and the future of humanity as if everything was happening now, here, inside of you, within your pulse.”—Catherine Leroux, author of The Party Wall
“Johanna Skibsrud’s new collection Tiger, Tiger is brimming with provocations and marvels. In a tour de force of imagination like its Blakean predecessor, these fourteen speculative tales travel the big mysteries of origin and destiny. Such wanderings (and wonderings) culminate beautifully in the book’s final words: “Which path is more honest in the end? And by whom, or by what, are we judged?” Happily, Skibsrud manages to convey philosophical depth with a light, almost whimsical heart, via her tenderly rendered, frequently befuddled characters. Each of these stories is a thrill and a pleasure."—Karen Brennan, author of Monsters