Best Canadian Stories 2024 Selected by Lisa Moore

Not only has Lisa Moore assembled sixteen fine stories, but her “Introduction” to this volume investigates the genre in a manner that combines fiction and non-fiction. Her opening sentence – “I peaked in grade nine” – could easily form the beginning of a short story; indeed, the engaging rhythms of her prose blur the lines between essay and short story. Moore continues peaking well beyond grade nine.

” Between the Rock and the Rockies her compressed stories [editor Lisa Moore’s] contend with and cover a vast landscape.”

What are the secrets of her style? “Voice. What voice means in a story.” Each of the sixteen stories carries a distinctive voice; and Moore is a vociferous ventriloquist and complete angler throwing “a fishing line through the air with a narrative hook.” Voice belongs to character, which is “both a building up and stripping down,” within the genre’s compression amidst Canadian amplitude. As a Newfoundlander, Moore selects several welcome Newfoundland writers who contribute to Canadian amplitude: between the Rock and the Rockies her compressed stories contend with and cover a vast landscape.

Moore turns to Alice Munro and Alexander MacLeod for expertise on the short story. Another characteristic: “a pattern of images that a short story can configure into a plot.” When she turns to Borges, clarity becomes more complicated, and the desire of story to “disorient, disturb, make everything certain uncertain” takes over. Moore’s “Introduction” prepares us for the certainties and uncertainties in her choices of Canadian stories. 

Madhur Anand’s “Insects Eat Birds” begins with a title that suggests a reversal of order in the dynamic of small devouring large, poetic compression versus scientific excess. “Teach me something, demands Mr. Woodrow in the Woodrow Southeast Asia Wing, and she obliges.” This teaching moment hinges on the relationship between patron and unnamed protagonist who is an Ornithology Museum Specialist. The distance between museum and nearby hotel is as compressed as the structural orientation of this story, which is divided into several subsections. The wing of the building contrasts with the moving wing of birds and insects. Lunch at the hotel is “a miniecosystem in an absurdly large and asymmetric white ceramic bowl, everything looks disgusting.” The story highlights the asymmetry between minuscule and a broader range of implication. Within this museumized microcosm transitions are truncated. “She brings along a few skins from the teaching collection, and when she is no longer on public display, she arranges them across the impeccable white hotel bed.” White bowl and bed: Anand’s mock-didactic swerves from public to private, from museum to impeccable bed that contrasts with the disgusting food.

Anand draws on her scientific expertise to expose the triangular relationship between the privileged Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow on the one hand, and the unnamed protagonist on the other. In this complex ecosystem “she” eats the Woodrows through sexual innuendo, a web of imagery, optical interference, and the Latin names of species. “They excite her for reasons different from his, but this complexity of sexuality is not a new concept.” Biology bifurcates into sexuality and ornithology: “The Kama Sutra includes diagrams on sexual positions as well as advice on how to teach starlings to talk.” Hierarchical positions of status interact with sexuality. Eschewing dialogue for the most part, Anand instructs much about diversity in various species and “a skin for every mood.”

She then shifts to a phone call about taxidermy in an abrupt move from skin to taxonomy. “She” is the only woman and brown person on staff, as she transitions from “ambiguous grief” to ambivalence to “ova,” which she traces to a poem in the New Yorker that describes her own past experience. In the poem a girl is tempted by two boys to bite into a small Easter egg whose bloodied contents spill into her mouth. The connection between that egg and ova is evident in everything that is supposed to be delicious: “About mistaking something real and containing the potential of life itself for the risen Jesus manifested in milk chocolate.” Every sentence in this story bristles with meaning on multiple levels of animal companionship. As the narrator probes “the real world” where birds eat insects and “Men get to do the skins,” she knows that “things can reverse quite easily” and cockroaches become “god-sized.”

As abruptly as Mr. Woodrow enters the story, Mrs. Woodrow enters the final section of “intergenerational ecological trauma.” Both women go to the top floor: “By way of either expertise or wealth, they enter into their privilege, the filthy freight elevator” – that filth contrasting with the impeccable hotel bed. Furthermore, the filthy freight elevator picks up “the filthy outside” earlier in the story. Details accumulate as a warm breeze enters the wing “like a warning.” Expertise and wealth converge in privilege: “They notice a half-smoked cigar on the ledge.” This tell-tale sign elicits a comment: “Someone has expensive tastes, Mrs. Woodrow says of the Arturo Fuente Don Arturo Gran AniverXario.” This stretched-out name of the phallic cigar identifies the smoker as Mr. Woodrow. Immediately following “my husband” is a sentence beginning with “Cryptic birds display their large wing patterns that resemble eyes when threatened.” This description near the end of the story repeats the beginning’s “optical interference.” Birds in the story are “one of twelve species of birds that bait or lure to attract prey to within striking distance,” according to Mrs. Woodrow who recites from memory. 

She puts the brand name cigar in her mouth: “It moves from one female mouth to the other, along with the Latin names of birds.” This migration of species, synecdoche, and identity prepares for the final sentence where exchanges and reversals highlight the entanglement of the ornithological and her patrons. Crypt and museum are brought to a close as the story’s meaning migrates across the page along with self-consuming species: “It tastes on the one tongue of broken eggshells, and on the other of salvation, but as these things were entangled long before they met, no one will say which is which.” Each section of the story is a specimen of fiction that braids entanglement of words and birds. 

Another love triangle appears in Sharon Bala’s “Interloper,” which entangles Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa, and brother-in-law Clive Bell. Bala plunges into the intrigues of Bloomsbury with a narrative voice that precisely captures the period. “The post had been delivered while the Bells were out. They spilled through the door, Vanessa giggling and Clive nipping her earlobe with murmured endearments, only to be halted by the maid holding a silver dish of letters.” Bala’s verbs are telling, for there is much spilling in the story as Clive is reduced to a “Parakeet” until his fall at the end: “he tipped and went feet first, crashing hard on his knees.” Dazed and on all fours, Clive is one interloper in the lives of the two sisters, as are “Baby” Julian and Bala herself who interlopes in the life of High Modernism.

Julian is the interloper who sends Clive into exile away from Vanessa who nurses the infant: “Clive kept his eyes on the arabesque-patterned wallpaper and away from her barred [sic] breast.” This Freudian slip underscores the distinction between barred and bared: on the one hand, Clive is barred from his wife’s breast; on the other, what is bared must somehow be confronted within Clive’s rigid purview. Moreover, the dialectic between barred and bared spills over to larger fictional concerns about what is revealed and what is concealed. Clive’s attempted seduction of Virginia in the wake of his dismissal contrasts with the bared truth of Bloomsbury’s libertine mores. The dynamic between baring and barring that is both hidden and obvious in “Interloper” may be seen in other stories in this collection and thereby characterizes the genre. In addition, a tension between barren and fertile informs many of the stories, and by extension may be applied to the Canadian landscape – so often seen as barren until filled with story. 

Bala rewrites Woolf as her narrative shifts perspectives among her triangulated characters and windowed settings, “the naked windows exposing the double room … and bare wooden floors.” The narrator exposes the intrigues among her three characters. Virginia observes Clive and her sister: “The Parakeet was next to her, his every gesture, no doubt, a grand ejaculation.” Bala deflates his grand ejaculation with each description of his parroting the ideas of others and his failed seduction of Virginia. With his “ridiculous pipe,” Clive is a “twitching lump.” Virginia listens to the Parakeet “twitter” and opine that the only hope “is to wipe out all the Hindoos.” Clive is a colonizer of opinions who is brought to heel in these postcolonial moments of retribution. With the sisters in league, he is a clear outsider, while Virginia remains barricaded in her room, apart from the “blessed family trio that left her cast out.” Not without fault, Virginia “had a perverse compulsion to injure them, to break the charmed circle, as if in breaking she might find a crack in which to enter.” The story exposes the cracks within Bloomsbury’s permissiveness and inhibitions. 

Like Bala’s fiction, Virginia’s writing is “full of nuance and veracity, recalling the exact sound and texture of old memories,” while Vanessa imagines a still life: “Three poppies, a medicine bottle, and a teaspoon.” Virginia comments to Clive: “Mr. Joyce has smashed it all up …. He has thrown tradition from the window.” Virginia also smashes up the order of things and throws not only tradition from the window. With her patrician accent she mimics the working classes, even as Bala ventriloquizes the language of Bloomsbury. She collects “every nuance and gesture to resurrect on the page.”

While nursing her baby, Vanessa reads in the newspaper about William Hampton, the last man to be hanged in England for the murder of a young girl. “The newspaper slipped from her fingers, pages scattering across the carpet, out of reach.” The slipped newspaper prepares for Clive’s fall, and everything is out of reach for him, from the lower classes to his wife and sister-in-law. In her period piece Bala captures a poignant moment in the life of Virginia Woolf, as lighthouses cast their shadows from Newfoundland to England. 

If Bala rewrites Woolf, then Gary Barwin draws on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as Jewish folklore in his “Golemson.” The mythic figure of the golem stalks the narrator and his surroundings in Toronto. Barwin constructs his narrative out of clay slabs of sentence: “Nights. I was waiting on a bench. On the sidewalk. In the fog.” And his punchy sentence fragments are balanced by a nuanced “but” that both advances his humour and qualifies his thinking. “But night and fog. The music store mute.” In this bleak atmosphere the golem suddenly appears: “He was walking down the street, moving between clouds of lamplit luminosity and obscurity. Wearing a dark suit and bowler hat. Like Magritte or the men in his paintings. And like me.” Barwin breathes life into his prose and his creature. He packs his paragraphs with a description of the music store where students hear “a fitting theme song” of Que Sera, Sera, while they learn to play “uncertain melodies” with their “ill-prepared fingers.” Their fingers contrast with those of the creator who assembles the golem out of clay – their music, his play. And the inclusion of Magritte in this scene surrealizes Barwin’s entire enterprise, which is immediately undercut by “Kidding” – the author’s hallmark jocular vein. 

The first-person narrator twins with his golem, but this coupling is problematic: “All that clay. Might gum up the works.” The narrator asks how you make a golem and googles for an answer: “It is said that you harvest a bathtub worth of clay exhumed from a grave by a riverbed and fill a body bag.” Then you take it home and form a colossal three-dimensional gingerbread man with your hands. “You knead the shapeless husk to near-human shape.” Since this do-it-yourself creation goes all the way back to Adam, Barwin gathers clay from Genesis, centuries of mythology, Mary Shelley, and Magritte. Through the word made clay he writes the Hebrew letters for truth (emet) on its forehead, erases the first letter to arrive at met or dead. “You free-write” – one formula for Barwin’s free-wheeling composition. A sequel to the original Frankenstein, his son of golem intrudes on his marriage to Mary, and this intrusion raises the spectre of procreation and barrenness: “We tried to have children, but our doctor had determined that, in terms of procreation, I was a Peter Pan.” Barwin moulds his clay carefully and haphazardly, mixing myth and slapstick in swaying rhythmic prose: “Blood cells turning in a slow saraband, or maybe it was too much smoked meat, too much coffee, an anxiety-hope blend.” Barwin blends clay and caffeine, wit with angst, highbrow with pop culture, and bends the barren-fertile paradigm: “a visible zygote that would divide and divide into our child Zeno’s paradox.”

The story comes full circle, “my words telling another story,” and “a son can create his own father, a golem too, can create the writing that created him.” Tour de force and farce, “Golemson” joins Barwin’s other fiction in a wild ride through the Diaspora. 

If Barwin golemizes his short story, then Xaiver Michael Campbell queers Jewish experience in his “Pitfalls of Unsolicited Shoulding.” Born and raised in Jamaica, Campbell considers Newfoundland and Labrador his home. His narrator Martin suffers from olfactophilia – a sensitivity to smells that attracts him to other men. On his masseuse’s table across from the harbour where a crisp, salty wind breaks up the August heat, he announces that “These hot guys will be the death of me.” In Latoya’s massage studio a potted fig tree flourishes while the narrator languishes, his subscapularis muscle damaged by an encounter with another lover whose smell has attracted him. “I was a man acting like a boy with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.” He lives in a cheap apartment on Cookstown Road across from the dingy Peter Easton Pub, which provides “ample content for stories.” But the main impetus for his stories comes from the gym where he meets a series of “hot guys,” the first of whom tells him “You should” – advice on physical training that carries the moral weight of identity. “I was irked from his first ‘You should,’ but he smelled like my future.” Pressing his luck, his chest to the bench, and his hypersensitive nose to the grindstone, Martin meets Zev and exchanges Jewish history. “Zev. Ze’ev. Hebraic for wolf. Finally, a real-life application to knowing Hebrew outside of Torah study with the Rabbi and chanting during Shabbat services.” Martin is blinded by his sense of smell, as well as his inability to detect Zev’s true identity and ethical imperative of unsolicited shoulding. “This was a meet cute we could tell our future kids about as we broke challah over the Shabbat table.” Between could and should, massage table and Sabbath table, between the Rock and a hard place, and between broken bread and muscles, Martin suffers.

On Latoya’s massage table the rhythms of should and shoulders work out after the stresses of the gym. She tries “to cleanse me from my susceptibility to the should-isms and the men who love to go around unsolicitedly shoulding at unsuspecting strangers.” The narrator takes hope from the fig tree, its Mediterranean fruit in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. The story concludes with the potential for growth in biology: “If a fresh fig could grow in Newfoundland, then anything was possible. Baruck HaShem. Maybe a hot guy will not be the death of me.” Baruck should be “Baruch” in the guttural pronunciation, one of the pitfalls in growing a fig on the Rock – another example of transplanted identities in fertile and barren Canadian soil. 

Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “One Woman’s Memories” ends on an elegiac note with its protagonist Louise remembering her late husband: “For a month, she swears she can smell her husband. His earthy aroma is whirling around her once again.” An elegiac mode pervades the story from the photographs filled with nostalgia to February’s snowfall in the Subarctic. In her phone call to her son Paul, she confides in him about her years at the mission, a residential school where she had befriended Sue from another reserve: “I didn’t know that two Cree girls could fall in love.” She had never confessed about this to her husband because he “was as straight as can be.” As a mother, Louise is “a shape of unknowing” to her son who also considers his own “unpresentness” in her life. Both unknowing and unpresentness are germane to a consideration of the strains of Indigeneity: “Life on the reserve is too compressed.” And it is this compression that rubs against the short story’s compression to make “One Woman’s Memories” so poignant and memorable.

Corinne Chong’s “Love Cream Heat” offers another interesting perspective on love and family relationships, while Beth Downey’s “The Bee Garden” focusses on fertility in a Newfoundland setting. Allison Graves’s “Ceiling Like the Sky” also covers the ground in Newfoundland where snow locks in its inhabitants: “One hundred centimeters of snow fell and our house was completely buried.” Similarly, Joel Thomas Hynes’s “Nothing But a Legacy” features Newfoundland’s dominant season: “Dad says how he can smell winter in the air. Like as if winter had some sort of smell to itself that showed up before the other stuff – the cold and the slush and the snow and the ice.” The beauty and barrenness of Newfoundland dominate these stories: “There’s nothing out here except hills and woods and rocks.” Another Newfoundlander, Michelle Porter, repeats the snow motif in “Luck Is a Lady”: “They all disappeared into the thickly falling snow … drifts as high as their waists.”

Ryan Thomas’s “Ghosts” alludes to Alice Munro’s short stories and draws attention to fiction: “I begin to think of the entire escapade as a story.” This notion of escape pervades many of the short stories in this anthology and reminds us that escape takes its meaning from out of the cape or cloak. That is, fiction uncloaks the barred to arrive at bared truths in lines and landscapes. In “Bro” Ian Williams exposes racial identities; in “Cooler” Elise Levine explores a gay relationship in a meet cute: “She who trafficked in multi-dimensional high-frequency attunements and how they flow.” Multi-dimensional, hyphenated attunements range from lengthy paragraphs in Sourayan Mookerjea’s “Long Haul” to more clipped dialogue in Lue Palmer’s “Wata Tika Dan Blood.” Sara Power’s “The Circular Motion of a Professional Spit-Shiner” rounds out Newfoundland’s varied voices in this collection.

Under Lisa Moore’s stewardship, Biblioasis’s Best just keeps getting better.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Nov. 14 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 240 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965665
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965668