When at one point, the narrator of “Sense of an Ending,” a story smack in the middle of Greg Hollingshead’s crackerjack new collection, Act Normal, announces “It’s in a reader’s interest to close down on the meaning as soon as she can. She needs to be able to move on as soon as possible to the next story,” it’s hard not to take it personally. That’s because in these twelve non-sequiturish tales of miscommunication, uncanniness and altered states, Hollingshead (currently director of the Banff Centre Writing Studio and a G-G Award for Fiction-winner for his 1995 collection The Roaring Girl) makes a sport of denying exactly this to his readers, as if “meaning” were a piece of fantasy real estate and he were Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross urging us, minus the verbal abuse, to “always be closing.”
Instead, catharsis and resolution are consistently, almost sadistically, denied; as with Glengarry’s under-the-gun salesmen, the few “leads” we’re thrown go nowhere. And yet the effect of this is a kind of pleasurable incitement, which is why, instead of doing my readerly (and reviewerly) duty and moving on to the next story (“closing”), I often found myself re-reading, with far greater attention, the one I just finished.
In many of Act Normal’s stories, characters’ intentions produce the opposite outcome. In the opener, “Unbounded,” a woman hires a fence-builder who doesn’t approve of fences and who lectures her on “the security of the public gaze”; the man in “The Retreat” escapes from an all-male meditation weekend and ends up under threat from the angry Haitian stripper he declined to have sex with; a blow to the head in “The Amazing Insult” changes a woman’s sexual orientation and leaves her with the same masculine tendencies she despised in her ex-husband; and in “The Drug Friendly House” a man invited to a neighbourhood meeting about the titular problem finds himself strategizing with its very inhabitants.
Dreams play key roles in the collection’s second half. This feels almost like a joke, since all the stories are themselves somewhat dreamlike; dreamlike not as in frivolous and magical, but as in random, irrational. Authors often use dreams as elucidatory devices, Hollingshead uses them to make things weirder.
In the book’s brilliant narrative caboose, “Fist Fight at the Orgy,” the protagonist writes his dreams down in order to capture them, otherwise “everything would be —as usual—lost, emptied to husks and ciphers.” And yet here, and elsewhere else, we find evidence aplenty of that lovely phrase, “husks and ciphers.”
Against the backdrop of Toronto’s Hurricane Hazel, in “The Force of the World” an eleven-year-old boy accompanies his parents to a party at his father’s boss’ house. The following day, he discovers that the flood has thrown the family camper into the river, and also that his father, having gotten into a drunken argument with his boss, is now unemployed. Beating us to it, the father proceeds to harness the wreckage around him as a metaphor to show his son “what the world does to human hopes and dreams.”
Hollingshead has a knack for an opening line. Who doesn’t want to read a story that begins: “A ghostly or larval quality about Derek Witten made him difficult to place, or see”? Or, “On party nights Nick’s parent would climb the stairs with their drinks and descend an hour later like movie stars, wisecracking and smelling of alcohol and White Shoulders”?
Horror is employed, but sparingly, for accent colour: a grandmother is found partly eaten by her dogs; an act of cannibalism saves a plane-crash victim; a severed hand a man finds on a road offers advice about his current quandary.
In another sly passage from “Sense of an Ending,” a social worker makes the argument to a woman about her in-laws that: “Fiction had taught them an impossible point of view, which they had no right to, which was not in their best interest.” Is Hollingshead referring to his own work or to the presumably more conventional fiction the family reads? Like many things in this fiendishly good Schrödinger’s-cat-of-a-book, it’s likely both. Or maybe it’s neither.
—Emily Donaldson (www.emilydonaldson.com) is a freelance critic and editor