Instability recurs throughout Douglas Glover’s new short story collection, Savage Love. As the title suggests, love (or at least desire) is the dominant theme, but it is a love so unstable, so rife with conflict, so twisted against itself, that it shakes the confidence of its moorings. This is not love patient and kind, nor slow to anger; it is not a love that leads to calm plains of the soul; it is not the kind of love that will help you achieve satori, young bodhisattva. It is the kind of love that Toni Morrison once described as “one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy at the same time that he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” In this book, Glover takes us far, far out into a vast sea of imaginative possibilities, shadows, violence, and twisted logic. There is a persistent questioning of the real consistent with his post-modern precursors, but there is also a disappearance into myth and mystery, which isn’t a denial of the world in a swirl of signifiers, but an embracing of its ultimate instability. It is a world that is knowable in fragments; it’s just that the fragments keep falling apart. Glover has always embraced the absurd, but he’s more grounded in facts than Kafka—witness the unlikely and extremely intriguing title of an earlier short story, “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon.” Glover’s catalogue of opening sentences would nearly make a book on its own. He is a master at setting up the awkward and the curious, often romantic, situation that demands explication. The frisson of desired transcendence lost in repeated failure veers seemingly inevitably toward catastrophe. Carol Shields used to say that Alice Munro’s stories don’t end, they swerve into mystery. Glover’s stories enter mystery early and never leave. Readers are drawn along for the journey on slipstreams of luminescent prose.
Glover’s previous short story collection, 16 Categories of Desire, built into its title the author’s persistent interest in explicating desire as narrative strategy. The push and pull of what we want from each other, and the inevitable conflict (and often humour) that results is a repeating characteristic of Glover’s work. The title also makes obvious the diversity of experiences linked to that emotion. Here’s a line from the title story of that earlier collection: “She say the Lord invented the orgasm so people would make babies but it one of those inventions that got away from Him.” And here we have another persistent Gloverism: the sense of being out of control and existing in a world of the inexplicable and the chaotic. The stories in Savage Love continue in this vein. The stories growl off the page, as if read in the voice of an octogenarian Delta Blues master or one of the more recent Bob Dylan protagonists. As in many Dylan songs, these are stories “after the flood.” These are not stories of millennial angst, fearful of a coming apocalypse. Glover is a writer aware that chaos has long been loose in the world. In Savage Love, Glover takes us where Shakespeare takes us in “The Tempest,” into our imaginations, all the better to understand “we are such stuff / as dreams are made on.” The imagination holds clues to meaning, if only fleetingly.
In the second story, “Crown of Thorns,” we are told about Tobin, eight, who fell in love with his babysitter, an emotional attachment that affects the course of his life. Define his life, in fact. Such an insensible thing, an unplanned thing, could only make sense, become beautiful, in a Douglas Glover story. When he is eight, the babysitter is dismissed after Tobin’s mother catches the boy’s father erotically entwined with the paid caregiver. Tobin imagines the girl is killed, and so begins years of therapy and trauma response. The boy’s hurt is exaggerated beyond the point of being ridiculous, but then again, is it? The disturbance of our attachments can lead to absurd consequences; on that point the story is clear. On the other hand, while it may strain credulity, the logic of the story must make sense to us as readers, if only on an intuitive level, or else we would dismiss it as not worth reading and crazy. Glover’s artistic achievement here is to push us into the grey zone where “told reality” is both more weird and more meaningful than common sense allows. The real is not real; it is a story; but only through story can we know the real. Glover’s stories both affirm our experience (we all had childhood attachments) and undermine them, make them unstable, force our memories to slant into uncertainty. Could a childhood crush on a babysitter turn into a lifelong obsession? We can’t discount it, such is the oddness of life, but the exaggeration entertains, too.
A writer (and teacher) long concerned with the intricacies of form, Glover gave a nod to his writing technique in his essay, “How to Write a Short Story:
In every story . . . Form creates a structure that seems necessary and logical. The imaginative variation and development of material in the gaps opened up by form make the story seem alive and unplanned. Art is a strange and paradoxical thing. Out of these apparently opposed and antithetical elements, it creates beauty, meaning and the illusion of living characters.
Glover’s well-proven rhetorical complexity is best read, in other words, not for “aboutness” but, as a painting, with an engaged awareness of the medium in motion. Story demands forward movement, but language need not lead to clarity or certainty. In fact, remaining in ambiguity can only lead to more story, and it is the writer’s talent and obligation to make what is fabricated and manipulated “seem alive and unplanned.” In Savage Love, Glover gives us the odd and the awkward, the violent and the hopeless. Dark humour is woven deeply into all of it. He has stretched his oeuvre to a new plateau where it demands comparison to McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner. He challenges readers to enter winding caves of mystery, not in search of answers, but in search of experience, and he challenges writers to question what a story can be, as only the best scribes can. He reminds us that asking is better than knowing, and that asking never ends.
Savage Love begins with a brief Prelude, which is followed by 21 stories divided into three sections: Fugues, Intermezzo Microstories, and The Comedies. The Prelude introduces what follows. In a page-and-a-half of imagistic prose, the narrator describes moonlight, dancers, “the liquid amber gum tree” and tells us “the throw of language is deceptive. It’s much better for describing things that don’t exist than for pinning down reality.” Glover provides all the hints we need here about what is to follow. The real is both real and not real. It is presented to us as language, and language isn’t to be trusted, but it is also the medium of knowledge, and to proceed we must navigate this instable relationship. The first of Glover’s Fugues, “Tristiana,” is the longest story in the collection. A major work, it cultivates chaos for forty-odd pages. It contains more than a nod to Blood Meridian and is clearly demotic. It begins, “1869, Lost River Range, Idaho Territory,” and it recounts one man’s journey of murder and mayhem, beginning with his farm animals, then his wife, then his dog because “the snow surprised him” and “against the winter he had scrupled not to lay in a sufficiency.” He survives the snow and then forages into wilderness and discovers a girl, “just breasted,” legs frozen into the ice. He digs her out, hacks off her diseased feet, carves her new ones. Across land they go, and he murders virtually everyone they meet. Out of these apparently opposed and antithetical elements, the story creates beauty, meaning and the illusion of living characters.
Glover also engages in the notable Canadian literary pastime of historical fiction. Glover’s novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., which takes place at the time of the American Revolution, attempts to recast the founding myths of two nations, and also injects readers deep into the worldview of the contemporaneous Aboriginal peoples. Glover has long been presenting the instability of history and myth, or the instability of the myth of history. The inability of desire to overcome or bind together the gaps, though also the inevitability that people will keep attempting that strategy because it seems to work for a while, and just feels so darned good. Here, the fourth story (“The Sun Lord and the Royal Child”) and the fifth story (“A Flame, a Burst of Light”) take readers through ambiguous and ambitious historical narrative muck. The narrator of “The Sun Lord and the Royal Child” lives (present day) on a southern Ontario farm, land that was once fertile hunting and communal territory for the Iroquois. He is friends with an archaeologist who made his fame on telling stories about the Aboriginal past of the region, particularly about a dead baby and a dynastic succession. The narrator has also been romancing the archaeologist’s wife. Superficially the story about an unstable man, loose with his affections and under considerable existential threat, the story also argues that the narrative of the land is as wobbly as he is. Farmed for generations of descendants of United Empire Loyalists, Royalists who fled Republican America following the Revolution to stay loyal to the British Crown and sensible Presbyterianism, the geography holds mysteries the eighteenth-century geopolitical power play swept cleanly aside. As a historian, Glover is a dissident. He refuses to provide tales of nationalistic uplift. In this instance, the attempt to grapple with the past is reduced to near farce. The archaeologist, who is presented as clearly competent, confronts his error and what had once seemed like enlightenment becomes another small town mix-up.
In “A Flame, a Burst of Light,” we are back in the swampy nineteenth century among soldiers and ultra-violence. We are among bloodied Upper Canadian irregulars engaged to the death with invading Americans. Glover took us there before in “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814” (from A Guide to Animal Behaviour). The newer story is darker, but it retains at its core a note of thumping absurdity. War may be hell, but in Glover’s version there’s a mysterious woman among the dead and dying—and what can a woman mean among all this masculine destruction except the possibility of something else; sex; love; domestic comfort—but then she disappears and no one knows what happens to her. There is no resolution, only reconciliation with the depraved. And it is the depth of the engagement with depravity that astonishes in this collection. Perhaps also its relentless repetition. Articulating chaos has always been part of Glover’s work, but the stories here delight in a darker manner than we’ve seen before. The teenage girl protagonist of Glover’s Governor-General-Award–winning novel, Elle, begins the book sweaty with sex and then dashes into the St. Lawrence River, off a boat, circa 1542, chasing a dog and a tennis ball. Lost in the Canadian wilderness for a year, she not only survives the winter, she shape shifts into a bear, beats back the black flies and makes friends with strangers from a culture she couldn’t have even begun to contemplate, before returning to France. In the stories in Savage Love, there are no such rescues. The narrative mazes here are often terror traps and the telling of the tale a perpetual tightening of the screw.
Glover wrote a book-length essay on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and the notion of the book being a book about books is second nature to him. So, yes, some of these stories are stories about stories. The first Comedie, for example, “The Lost Language of Ng,” is an anthropological thriller about a mysterious Aboriginal people, or more specifically about the last know speaker of a mysterious Aboriginal language. That is, it warbles with a vibration that can only induce giggles. Another “book world” and “real world” story is “A Paranormal Romance,” which has echoes of Woody Allen’s “The Kugelmass Episode,” wherein the narrator gets injected into Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, with the intent on romancing the title character. Glover’s story is shorter, but the blurring of “book world” and “real world” is clear. In Glover’s fiction, comedy includes mass murder and no wedding feasts. Here is the ending of “Uncle Boris Up in a Tree”: “And, truth be told, except for the catering assistant found with a pitchfork in her throat behind the barn after the reception, everyone lives happily ever after. For a while.” That’s about as good as we might reasonably expect in our early-twenty-first-century world of weakened expectations. Love will not release you from despair. It’s more likely to draw you into intricate absurdities from which you will never escape. Glover has been hitting these related notes throughout his career. Savage Love takes us down these paths to deeper and darker mysteries. These stories resonate along complex frequencies that reward our best reading efforts.
Michael Bryson is a writer of short stories and book reviews. In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, which he continues to curate. He blogs book reviews and such at The Underground Book Club.