December 27th, 2010

Canada Reads Independently: *Play the Monster Blind*

For those not familiar with the (wonderful) concept, Canada Reads Independently is Kerry Clare’s companion project for the CBC’s Canada Reads. Both programs have 5 books as defended by 5 panelists, and then in some way a winnowing down to one winner. CRI’s panelists are bit more literary than CR’s, and they also have a bit more invested in the project, having chosen books that they love deeply rather than picking from a list.

And the books they’ve brought to the table this year (and last, too–which was the first year of Canada Reads Independently) are just a fascinating collection. I am bad about following reading schedules, I tend to get distracted, but when I saw that Lynn Coady’s *Play the Monster Blind* was panelist Sheree Fitch’s choice, I knew I’d read at least one from the CRI list.

*Play the Monster Blind* is a book my friends have been recommending to me for years as “your kind of book.” It’s Coady’s second book, her first story collection, and an absolute stunner. The stories are rich, taut, and funny, about characters with flaws and and quirks and weird ideas, people you feel like I could know. What can I say, I have smart friends.

The book’s most obvious aspect is its unidealized Maritime settings. The characters in this book live tightly inside their lives and their social relationships; the potential glories of land- and seascapes in the Martimes exist not only outside their towns, but outside their lives. The only time in the book that anyone remarks on natural beauty at all is in the last story, “A Nice Place to Visit,” about an east coast girl visiting Vancouver Island. I did not always find *Play* the best ordered book, but that joke was awfully clever.

If the setting is not a character in the story, it is imbued into each each personality that takes the stage. I’m the last person who can guess the level of accuracy in the accents (if you add up all my trips to different Atlantic provinces, I’ve been there for slightly less than 3 weeks all told). But I know the rhythms *sound* right, like real people talking but no one *I* know, weird slang you have to say aloud to make sense of, and the liberal use of “Jesus” as an adjective (would it be unliterary of me to say that that was one of my favourite things in the book? among many other favourites of course).

If Coady is the kind of writer I imagine she is, she must have notebooks full of this stuff, of which we the readers get the very best. This, from the abovementioned BC traveller, calling home to her young son:

“Me and Pop bought some chickens, and I named one of them Ted. Do you want to talk to him?”
“No, I don’t want to talk to the Jesus chicken.”
“I’m going to go get him.”
“I will kill you if you go and get the chicken.”
“Talk to Nan.” He was gone.
“He’s running outside to get the chicken now,” Bess’s mother tittered on the end of the line.
“For Christ’s sake, Mother, don’t let him bring that thing inside!”
“Oh, he just loves that bird.”
Bess could hear the screen door slamming shut a second time.
“Here’s Ted,” said Dylan. “I’ll hold him up to the phone.”
“Do you know how much this is costing?” No answer. She was screaming at Ted.

And that’s the other thing about *Play*–it’s very very funny, without being in any way “light.” It’s such a hard balance to walk, especially because a critical perception of “lightness” can sink a book like a lead balloon (abandon metaphor). There is humour in theses characters’ lives because there is humour in everyone’s life. We don’t (usually) laugh at the characters but with them–because we all know that life is funny and cruel and weird. This from the story “In Disguise as the Sky” (gorgeous title, eh?), about an ESL teacher and her coping mechanisms. Here, she has overheard one of her students using a made-up word for “muffin”:

“So I come stampeding out from behind the partition where I’m photocopying lists of prepositions, hollering, ‘Muffin! Muffin! Muffin!” Kunakorn gives me a look as if his suspicion that I just make up all the craziness I drill into him day after day has been vindicated. He points with triumph at the new co-worker.
“He say ‘day-cake.'”
“Why are you standing there talking about day-cake?” I say to the new guy.
THe new guy is shorter than me, and about ten pounds lighter. He is absurdly overdressed to be sitting at the front desk. He looks like a boy who’s been polished up for his first communion and I try not to wince.
But I do wince when I realize I’ve scared him. It is awful to scare a short man in a communion suit.

What’s annoying me about the above is that, out of context, you can’t tell how good it really is. I mean, it just reads like well-written chick-lit zaniness (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but that story actually has such fluid and subtle emotion that it really stings when it ends. The problem with Coady’s writing is that any random bit of it looks easy and delightful, and it’s only when you get to the end that realize how much you’ve experienced in the story.

Maybe you should really just read *Play the Monster Blind* for yourself.

2 Responses to “Canada Reads Independently: *Play the Monster Blind*”

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