When is a novel not a novel? What is the distinction between an episodic novel and a collection of linked stories? Academics love questions like these because they provide fodder for endless debates about the specific generic qualities that adhere to chapters of a novel as opposed to self-contained pieces of short fiction, which putatively obey different rules and structural approaches. When, in 2007, The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories appeared with excerpts from Wayson Choy’s memoir Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood, Michael Ondaatje’s novel Running in the Family, and Michael Winter’s novel This All Happened, editor Jane Urquhart was criticized for not understanding the properties that separate short stories from other modes of prose writing. Especially since, in the case of Winter, there are two other volumes by the author – Creaking in Their Skins and One Last Good Look – that actually do constitute collections of linked stories.
But, then again, what is it specifically that separates those two volumes from the novel This All Happened? All three feature Gabriel English, Winter’s fictional alter-ego, and all are told in episodic fashion. This All Happened further muddies the boundaries between fiction and memoir; at the time of its publication, its author and publisher claimed that the title was chosen in part because it was true. (Winter, an inveterate formal experimenter, would later mash up two different genres – fiction and true crime – in his 2010 volume The Death of Donna Whalen.) Ondaatje’s postmodern “novel” also incorporates aspects of autobiography, to the extent that if one looks up the text online, various sources will call it either a novel, a memoir, or a fictionalized memoir.
All of which is to say that genre is not immutable, but rather slippery, and there are authors who relish playing in the interstices between and among genres. Shashi Bhat is one such author. Born in Richmond Hill, Ontario, formerly a resident of Halifax, and currently ensconced in New Westminster, British Columbia, where she teaches creative writing at Douglas College, Bhat troubles the notion of stable form in her second novel, which, though it is called a novel, also evinces all the properties of a linked collection. The book follows protagonist Nina from her early days in high school through her career as a teacher, her relationship with her family in Halifax, and early-thirties experience with online dating.
The pieces are arranged chronologically and follow a clear arc; the first, “Why I Read Beowulf,” and last, “Broken Telephone,” both feature Nina, at different points in her life, being preyed upon by men. In the former case, she is sexually interfered with by her Grade 9 English teacher (she is fourteen at the time); in the latter, she is assailed by an internet troll. The final story makes reference to a class photo that includes Mr. Mackenzie, the teacher from the first story – this is the most explicit connection between the two, though the thematic chimes to the start of the book from the point of view of its end are inescapable. This structure is so carefully determined across the entire volume that the various pieces appear intricately interwoven: there is no other possible arrangement for them, and the final section of the book circles back with a sense of inevitability to the event that gave rise to everything that follows.
It is not until the second entry, “The Wave,” that we discover Mr. Mackenzie had intercourse with Nina in his office, taking her virginity. It is not necessary to know this for “Why I Read Beowulf” to achieve its powerful effect; there is a strong argument to be made that the open-ended conclusion of that piece renders the interaction between teacher and student even more uncomfortable than it would have been had Bhat divulged the details at the time. Nor is it necessary to have read the opener to understand or appreciate “The Wave” – Bhat provides sufficient internal detail for each entry to stand on its own. Though the deepening comprehension of what transpired in the high school English office does add new resonance and nuance when the two pieces are placed back to back.
I have to this point avoided calling the individual entries in The Most Precious Substance on Earth stories, despite the fact that “Mute,” the first piece in part two of the book, won the Writers’ Trust of Canada McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2018, and various other pieces have been previously published in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, and elsewhere. The organizing principle of the book is obvious and deliberate – the first part focusing on Nina as an adolescent high school student, the second addressing her experience as a young adult in her twenties and early thirties, embarking upon and then abandoning a career as a high school English teacher. Themes, characters, and subjects reappear across various parts of the book. Recurring characters include Nina’s best friend Amy, who drops out of school, vanishes, and eventually dies of a drug overdose. “Why I Read Beowulf,” “Mute,” “You Are Loved by Me,” and “Facsimile” all involve inappropriate or undesired sexual interactions with various men suffering an inflated sense of entitlement.
And yet, if one essential premise of short stories is that they are different in nature from chapters in a novel, it’s hard to see how the thirteen self-contained pieces in The Most Precious Substance on Earth don’t qualify. Novel chapters cannot be fully understood out of context; they tend to involve a kind of reverberation and development that is largely absent here. Each of the pieces in Bhat’s book, individually titled, can stand on its own with no difficulty, notwithstanding the added nuance gained by placing them alongside one another in sequence.
But what argues most in favour of viewing this volume as a collection of stories is Bhat’s technique: the formal compression Bhat prefers is emblematic of the short form. In “The Wave,” Nina recalls Mr. Mackenzie’s disapproval of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as reading material for an adolescent girl: “ ‘Wouldn’t it only narrow my mind if it were the only thing I read?’ I replied, and his expression turned remote and wary, though I hadn’t intended to be disrespectful.” In “Everything You Need to Know,” the adult Nina confesses to her boyfriend that she has left her teaching job: “When I tell Travis the story of my quitting, he slides his hands under my shirt and says, ‘That’s fucking pathological.’ ” In addition to being acerbic, in the first case, and piercingly funny, in the second, this strain of linguistic elision and withholding of elaboration is characteristic of a short story’s core formal approach.
In the title story, Nina’s high school band class takes a trip to Toronto to perform in a student competition at Roy Thompson Hall. One of Nina and her best friend Amy’s bandmates is an eccentric outsider named Eunice, whom the other girls alternately taunt and ignore. Amy presses Eunice on her experiences, asking if she’s ever smoked marijuana or stayed up past 11 p.m. The attack escalates until Amy lashes out with, “Have you ever been fucked?” Bhat’s presentation of Eunice’s reaction is as merciless as it is sublimely precise:
Eunice sobs once and curls her arms around herself. Then, lifting her head and staring Amy in the eye, she says: “Yes, I have. Have you?”
I consider the way Eunice hunches and slouches, making her body small. We all realize it at the same time. Even Amy has the decency to look away.
The calculated elision here – the refusal to directly articulate the assault that lies behind Eunice’s words and actions – contains powerful emotional force and requires no further amplification. Eunice will not reappear in the book, but in a few deft strokes, Bhat elucidates her character in great depth and empathetic understanding. Similarly, in “Good Enough Never Is,” about Nina’s struggles with proving herself as a public speaker at a Toastmasters group, the protagonist imagines her self-loathing as a lizard “swimming through my cerebrospinal fluid and taking small bits of self-esteem.” The lizard speaks to Nina: “Perfection, he urges, in the language of snakes.” Not just the personification of Nina’s self-loathing as male, but the metaphoric imagery of lizards and snakes lend this moment its technical virtuosity.
These are the tools and tactics of a consummate short story writer. They are also emblematic of Bhat’s ability, throughout The Most Precious Substance on Earth, to distill human experience to crystalline instants of pain, fear, or humour. Nina’s first-person narration, by turns sarcastic, self-flagellating, confounded, and vulnerable, is one unifying feature knitting the stories – let’s call them stories – together across the entire volume.
In the end, whether The Most Precious Substance on Earth constitutes a novel or a story collection may be of interest only to academics and critics, or those people who resent the idea that readers will only pick up a book of stories if they are somehow conned into thinking they are reading something else. And the book’s formal adventurousness is of a piece with a current cultural attitude that is suspicious of borders, hierarchies, and classifications. But Frank O’Connor was not wrong when he wrote, “[F]rom its beginnings, the short story has functioned in quite a different way from the novel, and, however difficult it may be to describe the difference, describing it is the critic’s principal business.” Especially when confronted with someone as evidently talented in the form as Bhat proves herself to be here.