Welcome to the Circus
515 – 815 1st St SW
Calgary, AB, T2P 1N3
2015, 188 pp., $21.95, ISBN: 9781554812288
Rhonda Douglas must have been one of the big girls already slouched in their seats at the back of the school bus when it emerged from the fog to stop for me under the Gulf gas station sign. That was Atlantic Canada for Generation X kids—Douglas was there and so was I, a little staggered in time, each of us in different east coast towns. I can hear our histories in her fiction, in the “Ferme ta bouche” of her characters’ junior high French class put-downs. They’re at once tiny and immense, densely crowded and lonely. These places are revisited—along with an African refugee camp, World War I France, and a slightly futuristic Alberta where the small town of Drumheller has a Costco store—in her 2015 short story collection, Welcome to the Circus.
The book contains ten stories, a two of them winners of fiction contests from Room and Prairie Fire. Standing out among the collection’s high points are its four stories about teenagers. But this is not a “Young Adult” offering: on balance, the collection is heavy with what television viewer discretion warnings might call “adult situations,” and the jaunty family drama “Monday Night at the Porn Emporium” probably rules it out for high school libraries. Still, many of the stories do verge on YA fiction—that ambivalent, somewhat arbitrary bookstore category, partly publishing goldmine, partly literary Kryptonite dismissed by some critics and readers as irrelevant, under-developed genre fiction.
But while critical indictments of YA fiction usually dwell on formulaic plots and stock characters, Douglas’s stories don’t feature the detailed descriptions of eye-colours or beautiful, mysterious boys that so often serve as YA tropes and punch lines. “Still Life with Book” may feature a teenaged boy as a protagonist, but rather than doing any dubiously deep brooding, he fights a superficially bloody battle to overcome his own shallowness—using woodworking tools and his mother’s mirrors, he carves John Donne’s poetry into his flesh. Despite referring to his body as “his manuscript” he has no sense of harbouring any deep, inner emotional reservoirs of pain. In fact, he intends to “correct” Terry, his therapists, in the mistaken assumption that self-harm is related to hidden, psychic pain. He reflects:
There wasn’t pain on the inside, there was nothing in there at all, no pain until that first cut. [The boy] will say this nicely, not wanting Terry to feel like an idiot but feeling he should correct this one thing, just for the record.
Douglas’s teenaged protagonists don’t need to be newly-fledged YA Chosen Ones in order to be compelling. None of their parents are gods or monsters (except for in the story where everyone’s parent is a god and a monster). The characters are simply people under twenty years old, speaking in vividly simple yet gut-wrenchingly evocative language. This is both what makes the stories potentially relatable to older readers, and also what could create disorienting unfamiliarity for younger readers. By grounding the stories in objects we’ve handled, brand names we’ve consumed, TV politicians who bored us to death, the stories are imbued with nostalgia for the world Douglas would have lived in when she and I were YA readers at the end of the twentieth century. It’s a world without social media—one where we were not at all sure who our followers were, where people would appear in one another’s hospital rooms without firing warning texts first.
Flouting recognizable, age-determined categories like “YA” is one of the strengths of the collection. It upends typical coming-of-age formulae, working instead on the assumption that there are no true boundaries between scary, complicated adult worlds and the ones we’d like to prescribe for our children. “Welcome to the circus,” a leering adult condescends to a grieving teenaged girl badly damaged by witnessing her boyfriend’s death in a car accident. She is still in high school but already in need of the sanctification she gets through baptism by elephant-spit at a grimy roadside carnival. It’s far too late for a welcome—the girl has been in the circus all along. Sex, drugs, metaphysical poetry, Quebec sovereignty, pain and death—all of it exists for Douglas’s young people, like “a near-constant punch.” Age makes us look different to each other, but trauma and transgression make us the same. No one, as the girl says, is ever more than “young at a distance.”
With the exception of a slightly jarring detour through the trial of Mata Hari told in shreds of fictitious letters and court documents, the collection inhabits the familiar—the realism of times and places readers may have known—and keeps to the familiar right up until these well-known settings are disrupted by fanciful elements like a caveman, foreign aid workers who are literally falling apart, or a parking lot-calibre carnival somehow stocked with live elephants. No explanations are given for these intrusions. Maybe the stories could be classified as light magical realism. Whatever we call them, what drives the stories aren’t devices but voices.
There’s more to my admiration of Douglas’s stories than a sentimental appreciation for well-struck emotional chords and the resonance between her nostalgia with mine. This is more than merely personal—it has to be. Strictly autobiographical readings of fiction, the equation of narrators’ voices with an author’s own beliefs and experiences, are usually sloppy shortcuts, glib gossipy answers to the complex questions stories pose. To read this collection as an autobiography would be to miss the quiet, second narrative line playing through the stories. This second line is the collection’s most striking success: the times when Douglas uses what look like off-handed references to stories’ minor details and characters to tell two stories at once. Good short stories are economical. Nothing is wasted. Douglas works all the way to the edges of her pages, illuminating the margins, creating single stories with multiple narrative lines. She does this with only a little mechanical tinkering with devices like italicized asides or the polyphony of multiple narrators. Some of the tandem narrative lines are quieter than others, subtle, subtextual. They aren’t often in harmony, but they play off and through each other.
An example of dual narratives is “Love Notes for Eighth Grade.” It’s told by an older, married woman to her fourteen-year-old self, an age at which she was still reeling in the blast-zone of her parents’ divorce. The adult narrator gently sneers at the girl’s fascination with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. “Where did you get the idea that boys will save you? Too much Jane Eyre for you, young lady.” The parts of the story where the narrator is speaking directly to her teen-self would run the risk of having a schmaltzy, smug graduation speech quality if it weren’t for this recurring misreading of Jane Eyre.
Though we tend to assume we remember texts correctly, have properly internalized and understood them, the texts themselves are often entirely different from what we recall of them. The woman narrating the story remembers Jane Eyre as weak and cowed by strong male romantic interests. A fresh reading of the novel would reveal the opposite. In the real novel (rather than in the narrator’s remembered reading of it) a climactic scene where Jane must choose between Rochester and her own sense of integrity reads like this:
Up the blood rushed to his face; forth flashed the fire from his eyes, erect he sprung, he held his arms out, but I evaded the embrace, and at once quitted the room. “Farewell,” was the cry of my heart, as I left him. Despair added, “Farewell, forever!”
If Jane Eyre had been a character in search of a boy to save her, the scene would be different. Instead of rejecting Rochester, and later, St. John Rivers, Jane would have been relieved and grateful to be led to her spiritual or physical ruin by either of them. Jane suffers with her decision but commits to it nonetheless, not because she is weak and desperate to be dependent on men, but because she is neither of those things.
The adult narrator of Douglas’s story has allowed her memory of Jane Eyre to shift, taking on a shape that better suits the story of who she has become since she was fourteen. The narrator is married to a man she first meets when he is a boy, her escort to her grade eight “graduation.” Early in life, she finds safety from the men who disrupt her childhood—her unfaithful father, her self-destructive older brother, and her mother’s predatory boyfriend—by attaching herself to a man of her own. Her derision for Jane Eyre and for the girl who loves her highlights the ironic second melody line of the story, the barely perceptible voice of the strong-kneed, outspoken teenaged girl who is nearly effaced from a history that needs to be revised once the narrator’s story becomes one about being rescued by a man. “You can be your own Mr. Rochester,” the narrator says. It’s a chilling bit of advice, a promise that when the time comes to forsake the self-determination she’s fought for and bind herself to a man, the girl will be able to shut whomever she needs to into the attic, and do it.
The revised personal history and the misread novel protect the narrator from an honest reflection on the life she currently lives. The irony is never unmistakably lit up within the narrative but in the final paragraph, the narrator speaks directly to her girl-self about writing their story, and how she won’t “have to play it straight” and ought to change names and details “to protect the innocent and the not-so.” Perhaps no one in a story fits this description better than its unreliable narrator. This admission of unreliability is as close as the story gets to acknowledging that revision is part of story-telling, part of the reason for story-telling.
While “Love Notes for Eighth Grade” splits the story between a character at two separate stages of one life, other selections tell the twin stories of different characters. In “Sooky Baby” the narrator is a young girl grieving for her boyfriend, Donny. In telling her own story, she tells what she knows of his story and, naturally, she strays into the story of the other woman in Donny’s life: his mother. Sooky doesn’t mean to tell Donny’s mother’s story. She believes it has nothing to do with her. However, she can’t help telling it because Donny only has one story, his mother only has one story, Sooky only has one story, and those stories are one and the same.
The characters’ interconnection becomes visible when Sooky remarks on what she believes to be Donny’s mother’s obliviousness to their sexual relationship. While his mother is at work, he brings Sooky and a half-eaten cake into his bed. She says “… later he told me his mother gave him hell for the chocolate mess on the sheets. Which just goes to show that most adults do not pay close enough attention.” However, it may be that the exchange between Donny and his mother about the chocolate mess “goes to show” the opposite of what Sooky concludes. Leaving the mess for his mother to find may be the boy’s way of letting her know sex—monumental, transformative—had become part of his life. It is the best way he knows to tell her. Giving him hell over the food on the sheets and saying nothing about the rest of it may be his mother’s way of acknowledging the message and meeting him on new, complicated emotional ground where Sooky is already standing. Perhaps an open conversation about the boy’s sexual activity is impossible but a heated argument about laundry is possible. It’s necessary.
Like the mother who supplies the mirrors in “Still Life with Book,” Donny’s mother doesn’t burst into the story, commandeering the narrative, a mouthpiece for the grown-up mother-author who’s supposed to be dead. Instead, the mother’s synchronous narrative is suggested in the details, on the periphery, on the margins, as it is in an illuminated manuscript.
Not all of the collection’s best stories are about young people. “Cancer Oratorio” deals with older adults coming to the point in life where their peers begin to get sick and die, not in untimely tragedies but simply because life doesn’t last forever. These characters are not very different from the teenaged ones. They are new at death, while the young characters are new at life. In the story, death comes to Carol, a soprano in a choir. The story is written in segments named for movements, as in a long, complicated piece of music. There’s “Aria for a Chemo Nurse” and “Chorale for Cancer Cells.” Despite the strength of all the voices, the full lives they represent, the time they have after the diagnosis to rehearse and prepare themselves, when Carol dies and the choir is called upon to offer a musical tribute, “The Mozart isn’t ready. We sing it anyway.”
The farther the collection ranges from this intricate, deftly rendered interpersonal realism, the weaker it becomes. The impact characters have while in their bedrooms and hospital wards fades when they step into wider, weirder settings. The stories made with thousands of small, skillful cuts—like the verses of Donne’s poetry inscribed on living skin—are the collection’s most poignant and memorable. The magic in the light magical realism sets up some difficult plot points as well. For instance, “Sounds of Our Paleolithic Past” ends the way it needs to, with a woman balking at housing a Neanderthal man behind glass in the museum where she works and returning him to the Alberta badlands, now encumbered with a pack of modern goods she’s given him. However, it still tends too much toward King Kong or Free Willy. The device of listing brand names as a shorthand for evoking realistic, remembered domestic settings also proves mildly irritating over the course of the collection; when assembled together, set side-by-side and sustained for the length of a book, it begins to seem like a gimmick.
All of the stories grapple with connections between people, hinting that relationships are more involved and important than we know. The collection is vaguely like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, posing a grittier, contemporary version of the deceptively quaint play’s question of, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it …every, every minute?” The nostalgia, the minutia, the longing for who and what is all around—Douglas’s collection shares these tones and themes.
There is a parallel to Our Town’s “Stage Manager” character in the story “God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery.” As the title promises, the narrator of this story is God. Even so, the voice remains modest instead of swelling into anything grand, invoking the warmth, melancholy, and humanity of a parental voice. This parent is a mature one, a parent who’s been alternately raging and repenting for ages—a parent at the stage where being understood by their offspring means something. “Perhaps you’ll understand,” God says, “or accept, if understanding isn’t possible, or at least just listen if that’s all you can give me.” This is a god who accepts and follows “the laws of the universe.” It’s a god who will entertain questions on anything from how they feel about us to how to win the lottery. But, true to parent-form, the answers are usually unsatisfyingly unequivocal lines like “I have choices, and I make them.”
The story traces lines from small causes to vast effects. What begins as the brutal euthanizing of an injured seagull becomes a careless human tragedy and ends as an environmental catastrophe as large as the North Atlantic. Again, Douglas shows that there is only one story, with all of us and everything we touch in it. God explains:
This is what is important to me. I didn’t do enough, and I did too much … In my defence, I am only God. You want someone who knows everything, exists everywhere, and will fix anything if you only ask. But be reasonable people—there are limits … I want to tell you it will never happen again, I really do.
The story is an elegant convergence of almost all the collection’s narrative lines. Douglas’s God speaks to and for the other voices in the book, saying that no amount of omniscience—or even omnipotence—makes it possible to navigate loving relationships without regret, pain, and, eventually, loss. There is no way to get love completely right. But in that sombre thesis lies its promising antithesis: that there may also be no way to get it completely wrong. The best any of us can hope for is just to get it, like the other human of the story—the one who is not a god, but one of the best of us—who knows to “sit there, drinking tea, and loving the world.”
Douglas shows that there is only one story, with all of us and everything we touch in it.
Novelist, talker, blogger Jennifer Quist is the award-winning author of Sistering (2015) and Love Letters of the Angels of Death (2013). She studies Comparative Literature and Chinese at the University of Alberta while raising five young sons.