A stun­ning strug­gle

Trou­bled char­ac­ters com­pelling in de­but col­lec­tion of sto­ries

Winnipeg Free Press - - BOOKS / FICTION - RE­VIEWED BY PA­TRI­CIA DAWN ROBERT­SON

IFFICULT Peo­ple is Toronto writer Catri­ona Wright’s bom­bas­tic fic­tional de­but. The so­cial real­ist’s short sto­ries are rem­i­nis­cent of the mor­dant, yet satiric fic­tions of Lynn Coady (Hell Go­ing), Cordelia Strube (Le­mon) and Zsuzsi Gart­ner (Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Plas­tic Ex­plo­sives). Short-story lovers will also rec­og­nize the in­deli­ble in­flu­ence of Alice Munro’s fa­tal­is­tic neo-gothic prose.

Wright was born in the 1980s, yet her work re­flects the soul of a dis­af­fected Gen­er­a­tion Xer. Each story in this bril­liant col­lec­tion re­ver­ber­ates with raw dis­ap­point­ment and long­ing as the bro­ken char­ac­ters an­grily con­front, or slickly deny, their thwarted am­bi­tions and ob­vi­ous per­sonal lim­i­ta­tions.

To earn her daily bread, Wright is em­ployed as a teacher and ed­i­tor. The poetry ed­i­tor for the Pu­ri­tan and co­founder of Desert Pets Press, Wright pub­lished Ta­ble Man­ners (Ve­hicule Press), a “gas­tro­nom­i­cal” poetry col­lec­tion, in 2017.

Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple is a tour de force — there isn’t a sin­gle flaw in this air­tight col­lec­tion pop­u­lated by a mod­ern cast of mis­fit char­ac­ters. The col­lec­tion serves up well-wrought set pieces such as Lean into the Mic, where Amanda is a strug­gling standup comic with the wry sen­si­bil­ity of a philoso­pher. Although she prizes au­ton­omy, Amanda is “un­der­writ­ten” by her be­lea­guered white-col­lar part­ner, Ben.

In a brave bid to re­store her san­ity, Amanda shut­ters her Twit­ter ac­count. “Why would I care about what other peo­ple thought of me any­way? I could be strong, an in­de­pen­dent woman fear­lessly spew­ing hu­mour and truth into the world, bring­ing peo­ple to­gether in a com­mon emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, free­ing them from the com­pro­mises, pri­va­tions and degra­da­tions of daily life.”

The pro­tag­o­nist in Them con­fronts an in­dif­fer­ent room­mate who has found a pro­gres­sive yet in­su­lar new so­cial cir­cle. The friend­ship is strained as the women strug­gle to main­tain their his­toric high school con­nec­tion. It’s an hon­est ren­der­ing of what hap­pens when peo­ple out­grow each other.

The story is also a sear­ing ac­count of the com­pro­mises and dif­fi­cul­ties faced by mod­ern uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates.

Will the nar­ra­tor con­tinue to bingedrink and re­main un­der­em­ployed at the lo­cal lin­gerie store or ac­cept a for­eign teach­ing as­sign­ment?

It’s these all-too fa­mil­iar “com­pro­mises, pri­va­tions and degra­da­tions” that Wright de­tails with such dex­ter­ity. Ev­ery char­ac­ter in this col­lec­tion has ne­go­ti­ated an un­palat­able com­pro­mise, de­prived them­selves of ba­sic needs and faced daily hu­mil­i­a­tions as they con­tinue to bat­tle the Sisyphean tra­jec­tory of mod­ern life. It’s the char­ac­ters’ per­sis­tence when con­fronted with un­re­lent­ing ad­ver­sity that hu­man­izes their uni­ver­sal strug­gles.

The earnest reader will find no happy end­ings in Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple ,no suc­cess against all odds sto­ries, nor clean and tidy re­la­tion­ships. The young fe­male char­ac­ters ei­ther fret about an un­wanted preg­nancy or long for a

Dbaby. No one seems to be ful­filled. The chal­lenge is to humbly ac­cept what is of­fered to them by the capri­cious Fates.

Con­tent Mod­er­a­tor, the open­ing story, is a crack­ling por­trayal of a des­per­ate woman who can’t erase the lin­ger­ing and vivid im­agery of “an or­nate swastika tat­tooed on a flabby back” or “a pool of blood, ma­roon and shin­ing” posted by the anony­mous users of an app.

The pro­tag­o­nist is a dis­af­fected aca­demic fu­elled by self-dis­gust and Mer­lot who imag­ines “pluck­ing out my eye­balls and soak­ing them in a vat of an­ti­sep­tic.” Her elu­sive dream of a ten­ure-track po­si­tion in Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture has been sup­planted by a night­mar­ishly ex­haust­ing day job cen­sor­ing con­tent for her cor­po­rate client:

“I re­as­sured my­self that the job had im­por­tant ben­e­fits. The pay was good, three times bet­ter than the con­tract teach­ing job I had be­fore, good enough for me to buy a new car and to move into a big­ger and much less roach­in­fested place, and I liked be­ing able to tell peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly my par­ents and for­mer class­mates, that I worked in tech now.”

While these char­ac­ters are cer­tainly Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple, in Wright’s ca­pa­ble hands they shift im­per­cep­ti­bly from snarky un­der­achiev­ers to un­sung he­roes.

This am­bi­tious col­lec­tion re­in­forces the dynamic state of the short story. Well done, Catri­ona Wright — you have won this dif­fi­cult reader’s ad­mi­ra­tion.

EMMA DOLAN PHOTO

Catri­ona Wright’s sto­ries fea­ture a mod­ern cast and few happy end­ings. Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple: Sto­ries

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