Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reading Journal: The Journey Prize Stories 16 (2004)

Selected by a trio of writers who have since become CanLit royalty - Elizabeth Hay, Lisa Moore and Michael Redhill - I might have anticipated that I wouldn't love these stories; I despised Late Nights on Air (Hay), was lukewarm to Consolation (Redhill) and I'm kind of dreading my upcoming Lisa Moore introduction (I've owned Alligator for at least a year but can't make myself crack it - I really didn't like her calling Dave Bidini a "lazy reader" during Canada Reads...). The best story here is probably "Isolettes," by Neil Smith, about coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, but I had already read and raved about it when I read his collection (Bang Crunch). I also quite liked the incredibly long "The Uses of the Neckerchief" by Lesley Millard - it tried to shoehorn in a bit too much in places, (an extra image here, an overwrought flourish there), but it really evokes the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on a friendship and it's easy to get caught up in. In general, though, I found these stories overwritten and in many cases so focused on style that the reason to continue reading - the "what happens next?" - was lost in the smokescreen. The prime offender here is the winner, "The Last Spark" by Devin Krukoff, which uses great images but doesn't make me care about the characters and the mundane party they're having - in fact, I wasn't convinced Krukoff was too concerned with them, either. The stories by Adam Lewis Schroeder ("Burning the Cattle at Both Ends") and Patricia Young ("Up the Clyde on a Bike") felt the same. But the collection wasn't without some realist hits: I thought Michael V. Smith's "What We Wanted" was an excellently-told story about a (gay) sexual awakening, even if the writing itself was clunky, and the final two stories - "Nice Big Car, Rap Music Coming Out the Window" by William Metcalfe, about who really owns land (and a young man interested in a young woman, too), and Elaine McCluskey's "The Watermelon Social" - were stories that I could actually be taken away by. McCluskey's, at the end, left me saying "I don't really know what to say that was about," but it reminded me of "Half a Grapefruit" by Alice Munro in the way that the disparate pieces all seemed to somehow fit together. In sum, though, every contest is only as good as its judges, and every anthology only as good as its curators; I'm sure these are among the best short stories by new writers in 2004, but overall, it just wasn't my year.

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