Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 17: “Once Removed” by Alexander MacLeod

From Animal Person

“You think you are in one situation,” writes Alexander MacLeod in his story “Once Removed,” “but then it turns out to be something else.” This is as fair a summation as any for the story’s protagonists, Amy and Matt, who, along with their baby, Ella, embark on a Sunday outing that ends up being quite different from what they thought they signed up for.

“Once Removed” is one of eight stories from MacLeod’s sophomore collection, which, coming twelve years after his astonishing breakout debut, Light Lifting, had every possibility of languishing in the shadow of the earlier book. Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Thomas Head Raddall Fiction Award, and the Commonwealth Book Prize (it deserved to win them all), Light Lifting stands as one of the powerhouse short-story collections in the 21st century thus far. Readers who admire it could be forgiven for worrying that the follow-up might disappoint; they should rest easy, because Animal Person is the equal of its predecessor in every way, and “Once Removed” is one of the best stories in a suite of pitch-perfect tales.

MacLeod casts the story in close third-person from the perspective of Amy, whose combined frustration and puzzlement at her boyfriend’s extended family tree is acute. The early stages of the piece find her wondering over the specific connections in Matt’s clan, which originates in the small Nova Scotia town of Inverness, where “everything was different … Not better or worse, just different.” One stumbling block for Amy is the “huge and complicated” lineage Matt springs from – “five brothers and sisters” with “a second wave of children starting up,” making it difficult to tell “where one household ended and the next one began.”

Foregoing this tightly knit east coast community, Amy and Matt have settled in Montreal, where Amy has family and where she feels much more comfortable in her anonymity. “When she and Matt had first got the jobs and moved here, to Montreal, for good, it had seemed like they were finally going to get to be alone,” MacLeod writes. Except that Montreal is also the home of the delightfully named Greet Walker, Matt’s great-great-aunt or, in Amy’s exasperated locution, her “boyfriend’s father’s mother’s oldest sister.” And of course it doesn’t take long for Greet to track down her relative or to demand an audience with them on one of the hottest July afternoons in the year.

Greet is every bit as much of a character as her name might suggest. She lives alone in a building that she insists is not a senior’s residence or any kind of old folks’ home. “Even if I was dead,” she sniffs, “I wouldn’t set foot in one of those hellholes.” Instead, she lives in a building in which the units are “real con-do-min-iums” and the residents remain fully autonomous and functional. “We aren’t the kind of people who don’t know what we’re doing.”

Though Greet does have her own way of doing things, which includes tying baby Ella to a chair with rope, scarves, and kerchiefs so that the youngster can sit at the table during lunch. She feeds Ella potatoes that make her violently ill. And she coerces her great-great-nephew and his partner to accompany her on an expedition to help spirit a chandelier out of a unit belonging to Regina, a downstairs neighbour who is moving out. She wants rid of the chandelier for the stated purpose of keeping it out of the hands of a disliked family member.

It is here that the story ends up going off in a different direction from the one Amy, or the reader, expected. It is a testament to MacLeod’s control over his materials that the turn of events in the second half does not feel out of place but rather entirely of a piece with what has gone before. Amy’s marvelling at the dynamics among Matt’s extended family finds its counterpart in Regina’s antipathy toward Karen, who married into the family and thinks “she’s entitled to anything she wants from everything we have.” There is a chime here with Amy’s consternation at Matt having lent money to a second cousin – “His second cousin once removed.”

Amy has to look up what it means to be a second cousin once removed, but what is clear in the story is that the title does a lot of heavy lifting. “Once removed” refers to the relationship status between Matt and the relative needing cash; it also refers to the lighting fixture after it is spirited away from Regina’s apartment and stored in Greet spare bedroom where, it turns out, she keeps a cache of other personal items hidden away from the prying hands of other, anonymous relatives. “People wouldn’t give me the time of day sixty years ago,” Greet laments, “now they leave me with all of this.”

MacLeod shares with Alice Munro an ability to build an entire life into a tightly compressed space on the page. And, like Munro, he is able to calibrate a story so finely that it can move through a series of pivots and emotional registers without apparent friction. “Once Removed” begins as a humorous story buoyed by Amy’s exasperation at Matt and his seeming obliviousness about the trouble his “father’s mother’s oldest sister” is putting them to, then almost imperceptibly shifts to become a melancholy meditation on things lost and unwanted.

If readers want to know how good short fiction can get, they could do a lot worse than to start with MacLeod’s stellar second book.

A podcast conversation with Alexander MacLeod about Animal Person and the practice of writing short fiction is online today as part of the Writers Festival Radio channel run by the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

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