Friday 8 August 2008

The 2x4 as pedagogical tool

When it comes to short story collections, it's pretty hard to beat Thomas King's One Good Story, That One so I was hoping for genius of a similar stamp with King's latest collection, A Short History of Indians in Canada.

It turns out that while King displays some of his earlier work's signature surrealism in A Short History, he's for the most part gone for the 2x4; that is, hitting you up side the head with his message instead of cloaking it in the compelling dreaminess that characterizes work like Green Grass, Running Water and One Good Story, That One.

Overall, this isn't entirely a bad thing - I enjoyed many of the stories and it's good to know that King hasn't found himself, like so many other writers, able to only write the same book over and over again. That said, I found that the 2x4 was swung a little too liberally sometimes. Dealing, as King does, primarily in stereotypes (of both Natives and whites) tends to mean not having to drive home the message with some obvious proclamation of what it all means. I found King giving in to this inclination a little too often at points, and I feel that this is a sign that he doesn't trust his readers anymore to "get it." Because of this, I wasn't blown away by any of the stories here.

If I'm right about King worrying that Canada's general readership doesn't get it, I can't say this isn't a fair concern. I groaned when I read this exchange between two white characters: "'An Indian,' Alistair whispered to Evelyn, 'Now we're getting somewhere'" ("Rendezvous" p.171) - and there were many other moments this this in the book.

Yet, the same day I was groaning over the above, I read an article in The Toronto Star about that poor kid who got beheaded on the Greyhound bus near Winnipeg; in the article, two guys who are married and together run a convenience store or something were interviewed because they had to deal with the murderer's weird behaviour before he got on the bus.

The first guy interviewed talked about how there was something really strange about the suspect and how his behaviour freaked him out. The partner of said store witness guy said something to the effect of "When my partner says something freaks him out, I trust it because he's Native." I'm not even exaggerating the gist of this quotation. This guy is in a committed relationship with an individual Native dude, rather than forming his opinions of the whole race completely from afar as most people in Canada do, and yet he still went in for the embarrassing sound bite without even hesitating.

So, yeah, maybe King's right to swing that 2x4, but sometimes it made for less than stellar story-telling and dammit man, I want the whole package. I don't want the message, if there's a message, sacrificed to the story, or vice versa.

But like I said, overall this was a pretty good read and there were some pretty decent stories in A Short History, including "A Short History of Indians in Canada", "The Baby in the Airmail Box", and "The Closer You Get to Canada, the More Things Will Eat Your Horses." Even these ones, however, always had the 2x4 at hand and weren't afraid to use it.

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