From Granta 141: Canada
Lisa Moore’s essential métier has always been the short story. She has branched out in recent years, publishing novels and books for young adults, but none has compared in stylistic acumen or narrative interest to her first two collections of short fiction: Degrees of Nakedness and Open. Those collections displayed a virtuoso stylist at work, a craftswoman whose understanding of technique seemed almost preternatural.
Moore took a detour into something resembling genre fiction with her 2013 novel Caught, a book that was more plot driven than anything the author had written previously. It was appealing on a cinematic level; Alan Hawco spearheaded the television series adaptation, which debuted on CBC earlier this year. Though Caught had a strong narrative line and a screen-ready story arc, it nevertheless retained elements of Moore’s literary style: the spare dialogue, the minimalist prose, the facility with imagery.
It is possible to argue that crime fiction is not Moore’s forte: her work in the genre does not appear as deeply inhabited as some of her other fiction. And then one comes across a sequence like this one, from Moore’s recent story “The Fjord of Eternity”:
He had tried to go clean before the cruise. He had tried to give the crack a shake, but the crack shook back. The hold was too strong for poor Loveys. He’d poured all his bottles down the sink and gunned his truck to an abandoned community back in Newfoundland, with nothing but a cooler full of Vienna sausages, and then he’d slashed the tires of his truck so he’d be stuck until the DTs passed.
But when the shakes set in he drove on the wheel rims back to town, sparks flying in all directions. The gas tank caught and the thing blew, spinning out on the arterial like a Catherine wheel, cars squealing to the left and right until Loveys’ truck came to a stop.
Close to a whole minute later, spectators said, the door on the driver’s side flew open and he got out with his guitar, his back aflame, giant wings flying up towards the heavens from his shoulders.
This description is worth quoting at length, because it amounts almost to a mini-novel within Moore’s short story. Here we are presented with an unquestionably idiosyncratic portrait of a character who may seem rote – the drug addicted rock god with his guitar constantly at his side and an affinity for the open road. But in this author’s hands, Loveys becomes something surprising and unexpected.
The image of the truck “spinning out on the arterial” is precise and vivid; the simile of the Catherine wheel is evocative and appropriate; the detail about the Vienna sausages provides specific character information without seeming at all forced or twee; the linguistic reversal in “the crack shook back” is simultaneously clever and very funny; and the final image, of the truck driver exiting the vehicle with his back on fire, like some sort of avenging angel, his “giant wings flying up towards the heavens,” is the kind of moment that reminds us why we read fiction in the first place. We also note that this entire anecdote is reported at one remove – “spectators said” – and therefore open to the possibility of exaggeration or mythologizing of experience; rather than diminish the passage, this presentation lends it an additional level of interest. This is bravura writing: it is the reason discerning readers keep coming back to Lisa Moore’s short fiction.
What is fascinating about this segment – and about Moore’s approach to narrative in general – is that Loveys is not the central character in the story. That is Trisha, a private investigator working out of an office on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Trisha, who has been “rocking the contestable death claims,” agrees to travel to the Arctic, where Loveys is rumoured to have gone overboard on a cruise ship headed to the titular (and highly symbolic) fjord. His insurance company wants to prove that he is still alive so that they can avoid paying out on his policy.
This basic plotline is straightforward enough, some might argue almost clichéd for the genre. But the story, as is frequently the case with Moore, is ancillary to its presentation, the linguistic flair with which the author dispatches her material. Moore’s prose in “The Fjord of Eternity” is typically spare and unadorned, laced with dollops of irony: “Trisha can do sincerity. She’s sincere as fuck.” And the dialogue, set down on the page without the distraction of quotation marks, is especially well handled:
Next she was on the phone to Roy at OptiLife: I’ll cost it out for you. Roy, you’re looking at twelve hours a day at one-fifty an hour, the cost of the cruise, which is hefty, and add an isolation fee.
Isolation fee, Roy. Northern isolation fee.
It’s a cruise ship, what isolation?
Roy, you with me?
I’m just trying to follow isolation fee.
Then Roy said something mushy about the seal hunt.
Let me ask you something, Roy, Trisha said. You wear leather shoes?
The northern setting is perhaps prototypical for a Canadian story, as is the notion of death by drowning (“The Canadian author’s two favourite ‘natural’ methods for dispatching his victims are drowning and freezing,” writes Margaret Atwood in Survival.) But Moore reinvigorates these well-worn fictional elements by casting them in the context of a hardboiled detective story, a quest narrative that ultimately ends in ambiguity. Trisha never does locate Loveys or discover for certain what actually happened to him, though she finishes the story convinced that he is “dead as a doornail” (one of the few times Moore resorts to a clichéd turn of phrase or verbal counter).
Yet just before reaching this desultory conclusion, Trisha is shown in conversation with a woman who had an encounter with the enigmatic rock star. “So, he was alive?” Trisha asks the woman. “He was very fucking much alive.” This is the second time in the story that Loveys has been described in this way and it is typical of the manner in which he is mythologized, both by the other characters and on the level of story itself. Though he never actually appears in the narrative (except in flashback, at second-hand), Loveys is an undeniable presence throughout; he lives in the story on the level of language, which is where Moore has always operated at her most intimate and intense pitch.