From First Things First: Early and Uncollected Stories
Diane Schoemperlen describes herself on social media as a “writer of books, maker of collages.” The two things are not as distinct as they might at first appear. Her 1998 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures, contains eleven short stories along with woodcuts and line drawings to accompany and complexify them. The 2014 volume By the Book: Stories and Pictures, is a sort-of sequel to the earlier collection that extends the interplay between words and images as a means of deconstructing and reforming narrative itself.
Schoemperlen has always been a restless experimenter with the intermarriage of form and content. In the preface to her 2017 collection of selected early stories, First Things First, the author quotes editor John Metcalf, who writes, “What readers must understand is that the shape of a story is the story. There is no such thing as ‘form’ and ‘content.’ They are indivisible; they are each other. New shapes are new sensibilities.” Reading across Schoemperlen’s lauded career is akin to watching a writer try on new sensibilities like new sets of clothes to see what fits, what stands out, what appears stylish and flashy or comfortable and relaxing. As a stylist, Schomperlen is constantly casting around for new ways to tell a story: “Life Sentences” elides various words from the text, forcing the reader to supply them; “None of the Above” is a love story cast in the form of a multiple-choice test; “What We Want” breaks down language into a series of short paragraphs and lists (the first of which ends, “What we want is a change in style”).
Through all of these, Schoemperlen works very much like a collagist, manipulating words and phrases, placing unexpected strings of images, metaphors, or sentences beside one another to see what new forms emerge. “When I read these early stories now,” Schoemperlen writes, “I can see myself slowly but surely finding my subject matter, my sense of humour, and my voice – finding myself on the page.” For Schoemperlen, this process involves experiments with style that are alternately exuberant, audacious, searching, and oblique. And sometimes, all four at the same time.
“How Myrna Survives” is a borderland story, operating in a place that is recognizable as a work of short fiction, but pulling at the edges of that narrative noticeably and continuously throughout. The story is told in twenty numbered sections of varying lengths, some running over multiple pages, some no more than a few words. The first section, which introduces the eponymous protagonist and provides the relevant parts of her backstory, is the longest at close to six full pages. It is followed by the story’s second-shortest section, which comprises a scant five words: “This is how Myrna survives.” (The shortest section, at four words, reads, “Myrna smokes too much.”)
Myrna Lillian Waxman is a thirty-two-year-old would-be writer and enthusiastic alcoholic who appears stalled in both her professional and her personal lives. We first encounter her sprawled out on a couch of “cautious grey corduroy“ where she has been stationed “all the cool afternoon.” She feels guilt for wasting the afternoon sleeping on the couch, though she “has managed to convince herself that she needs or deserves it.” She tries to preserve herself in a liminal state between sleep and waking, which “she is convinced” is the place where she is best able to access ideas and solve problems. The amount of work required to convince herself of the rightness inherent in her laziness is the first indication of the character’s disaffection and at least partial self-delusion.
A reader will also notice the reference in the first paragraph to Annette, a cousin who died after being hit by a freight train. Annette is only the first in a series of figures who have either died or disappeared from Myrna’s life. Others include her ex-roommate, Rose; her ex-lover, Peter; and her fiancé in university, Gordon Bates. “Myrna and Gordon Bates never did get married,” we are told, and the reasons are perfectly clear: the couple is utterly incompatible from the get-go. Myrna is an English literature undergrad, whereas Gord is in business administration. On Thursdays after class, they get together over pizza and beer to debrief, talking about “debits, credits, dialogue, description, and suspense.” After the break-up, Gord becomes a card carrying member of the Progressive Conservatives and ends up marrying an ex-beauty queen.
One red flag for Myrna might have come in the form of Dr. Diamond, her creative writing professor, with whom she claims to be secretly in love. Gord either “hadn’t figured this out yet or, if he had, he wasn’t letting it bother him.” Dr. Diamond is himself a less-than-perfect specimen: he is married to a “dilettante sculptor” whom he eventually abandons to run off with a grad student, and in one class he informs Myrna that she is “too normal to ever be a really good writer” and, in any case, she doesn’t drink enough. The latter, at least, will change as the twenty-one-year-old student ages into her thirties.
The clarity of hindsight allows the thirtysomething Myrna a measure of comprehension that was unavailable to her as a callow youth: she comes to recognize that what drew her to both Gord and Dr. Diamond was “that quality of twenty-oneness when absolutely everything was a promise, when her expectations were inchoate and unbounded, not yet unbearable, when there were just never enough hours in any given day, and sometimes she couldn’t get to sleep at night for the sheer jumble of joy and the future working through her.” This, it should go without saying, is a far cry from the self-justifying hoops Myrna must jump through as a thirty-two-year-old who spent a number of years picking up men in bars for one-night-stands and now wastes entire afternoons on her grey corduroy couch.
Myrna’s life of promise has since narrowed to an unremarkable existence that involves routines of buying groceries, doing the crossword, and taking herself out to lunch (including a melancholy list of places – Pizza Hut, Bonnie’s Bistro, The Waterworks – where she no longer goes for one reason or another). She gives herself writing prompts, like riffing off particular phrases (“All the length of …”) or jotting down ideas as they come to her (“While dressing herself up for the date, she couldn’t help but think of chickens”), but none of these amounts to anything meaningful.
Schoemperlen’s story dramatizes how Myrna survives her quotidian existence; it also illuminates the dispiriting distance between youthful hope and the disillusion that settles in as adulthood starts to bend toward middle age. So much of Myrna’s ennui arises out of the realization that she has reached her early thirties without achieving any of the things she expected to and lacks the current motivation to make any kind of substantive change. The epigraph to the story is from Alice Munro: “They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” Myrna, who battles this reality via booze and sex with various men, is reluctant to admit that mere survival is what she has to show for thirty-two years on the planet. (The flip side of which, of course – something Myrna cannot seem to bring herself to acknowledge – is that, one way or the other, she has survived.)
At the end of the story, Shoemperlen describes a scene in February when Myrna, drunk and having just been dumped, trashes her room and spends another lost afternoon in bed. The next day, what she writes in her notebook is not so much a prompt as it is a plaintive, painful cri de coeur for lost youth and diminished expectations: “A Fate Worse Than Death.”