Volume 11 Number 2.
There is a temptation to dismiss John Metcalf's recent publication of his Selected Stories (now in paperback) as pedestrian. The surface of each seems unnaturally prosaic at first, not much really happens, and the plots seem thin or contrived. But careful reading has its rewards: a variety of subtle, rounded insights; rough-edged eccentricity made comprehensible, even palatable; intimate corners of revelation exposed; the recollected detail from childhood made suddenly palpable. Not much does happen, but the way in which the genuine subtleties are evoked suggests Metcalf is a writer of engaging sensitivity.
His eye for detail makes familiar ground interesting and suggests that sensitivity to the physical environment can enrich even the most mundane life. Metcalf observes life in the context of colour and sound and sensation. In the long story "The Lady Who Sold Furniture," we experience the "purpleness" of a blanket, "the distant rattle of the milkman's van," the "plip" of the leaking faucet, and the "slopping pain" of a hangover. The landscape of childhood is suggested in the image of "shining bubbles" of tar in the hot sun. One is reminded again and again of the comforting details of one's life that are so often taken for granted.
My favourite story is "Dandelions," a very short story about an aging bookseller that argues with compelling simplicity for the consolation of memory as we get older. Here Metcalf has complete control of his material and does not indulge his penchant for the extended flashback. The bookseller's boyhood is recalled one afternoon when he imagines himself in the kitchen "feeling the coolness of the stone through his stocking-feet" and seeing the bright sunshine "glowing on the crowded yellow heads." The memory fades like that of the dandelions, and at the end of the day the man goes home to his wife and works around the garden before supper. The story ends with the man in the garden aware of "a faintly acid smell" and a dim "recollection" that is private, personal and, as the reader knows, special.
There is nothing new in the story, but the absence of sentiment, Metcalf s control and his appreciation for rhythm in this one and many of the others suggest that they should be reread (even aloud, I think) to be properly understood. It is difficult to recommend short stories to students, since I believe a taste for them is rather specialized, but Selected Stories might be put on a course of study if enough time could be set aside for careful study. It would certainly reward the effort.
James Kingstone, Ridley College, St. Catharines, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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