For All the Men and Some of the Women I’ve Known

Broken Pencil - - Book Reviews -

Danila Botha, 152 pgs, Tightrope Books, tightrope­, $21.95

Most sto­ries in this col­lec­tion ex­plore the fraught re­la­tion­ship be­tween two ur­ban stereo­types. The prose is un­adorned, with typ­i­cal ur­ban­ite cul­tural ar­ti­facts ga­lore. You could meet al­most ev­ery char­ac­ter in this book by spend­ing an af­ter­noon in a down­town chain café, cross­roads of the very nor­mal rang­ing to the dif­fer­ent-yet-in­stantly-rec­og­niz­able.

That is, be­fore each char­ac­ter be­comes ei­ther a mon­ster or a vic­tim. Hope­ful Char­ac­ter A tries to make a re­la­tion­ship or friend­ship work with B, but is suf­fer­ing from one or more of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, drug ad­dic­tion or al­co­holism, an eat­ing disor­der, self-harm, ob­ses­sion, masochism, overeat­ing, or some­thing within that spec­trum. These prob­lems don’t jibe with the rest of A’s per­son­al­ity, they’re just plopped on top like a condi­ment that over­pow­ers all other flavours. B

is the ex­treme-yet-ba­nal an­tag­o­nist. Botha’s an­tag­o­nists are less than one-di­men­sional. (Can di­men­sion­al­ity be ex­pressed in frac­tions?) The setup is in­vari­ably a de­scrip­tion of why B is ap­peal­ing to A. Then at some point, vil­lainy condi­ment is dumped on B (af­ter three or four sto­ries I got fairly good at pre­dict­ing in which para­graph this re­veal would oc­cur) and he or she be­come so in­sen­si­tive I would have to lift the book higher so as to con­tinue read­ing while rolling my eyes.

The trick Botha uses to ob­fus­cate the over-sim­plic­ity of her an­tag­o­nists is that they are im­pres­sive in gen­eral — lawyer/ mi­nor celeb (Ed), straight-a stu­dent (Syd­ney), etc. This cre­ates a ve­neer of so­phis­ti­ca­tion be­ly­ing how morally bi­nary Botha’s sto­ries are, and how emo­tion­ally bi­nary are her char­ac­ters. Where the col­lec­tion’s dust jacket refers to it as com­pas­sion­ate and fear­less, I find it ex­ploita­tive and pre­sump­tu­ous. Botha trig­gers mor­bid cu­rios­ity by pre­tend­ing to have an in­sight into trou­bled peo­ple she does not pos­sess — in other words duck­ing behind tit­il­lat­ing dys­func­tion be­cause she does not be­lieve in her abil­ity to write about (rather than “for”) the peo­ple she’s known. Sup­pos­ing Botha has known many peo­ple like those in her sto­ries? Heaven for­bid, as in that case, she also de­fines real peo­ple merely by their cho­sen style and weak­nesses. (Fe­liks Jezio­ran­ski)

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