Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Recently I seem to be reading more short fiction than I have in quite some time, but this debut collection from the Canadian writer Wells Tower was one that I was particularly anticipating so many positive comments had it generated. It also has probably the best title since A. L. Kennedy’s Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains.

The title story, however, is quite unlike the other eight stories which make up the book and, in my opinion, also the least successful. While the other stories are set in the recent past (though perhaps not entirely contemporary as an absence of mobile phones and references to cassette tapes indicate), ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ concerns a Viking attack on Lindisfarne. Tower intends to have a little fun by using a contemporary register:

“Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebody started in with dragons and crop blights from across the North Sea.”

Of course, a narrator in the style of Thor (I mean the Marvel superhero, not the Norse god – presumably he didn’t speak English) would be funny in an entirely unintentional way, but Tower’s language undermines any sense that this isn’t a simply a modern day American who happens to do Vikingish things. Towers is also such a good writer that he can’t resist granting his narrator a similar turn of phrase: “…where a wide blue fjord stabbed into the land…watch the sun stitch its orange skirt across the horizon…” Not only do these poetic flashes clash with the contemporary colloquialisms, but they further confuse any sense of the narrator’s character. The story’s intention seems to be to highlight the tensions created by settling down:

“Just catching up over a jar turned into a hassle you had to plan two weeks in advance. And when we did get together he would laugh and jaw with me a little bit, but you could see he had his mind on other things. He’d gotten what he wanted, but he didn’t seem too happy about it, just worried all the time.”

While there is a certain amusement in such an extreme example, Tower writes so well about this century that I can only imagine this story results from a refusal to accept limitations rather than an entirely artistic choice. The rest of the stories focus on relationships which have already broken down: a husband separated from his wife; two brothers who barely speak to each other; a son estranged from the father who no longer remembers him. Within a few pages Tower highlights the fault-lines and often widens them a little. An apt symbol is the sea cucumber in ‘The Brown Coast’ which poisons all the other fish in an aquarium, and the main character’s urge to throw it towards a young couple on a boat who beam at each other “in wholesome conspiracy”.

My favourite story is probably ‘Wild America’, about a young girl waiting for her father to visit while coping with the presence of a cousin that she no longer bonds with, and the attentions of a neighbouring boy. For a start, it contains some wonderful images. A baby pigeon which the cat has caught is:

“like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.”

The velvet from an elk’s antlers is:

“like carpet from a murder site.”

It also contains the greatest variation in relationships, and captures that adolescent sense of not being quite sure who you are or what you feel about anyone. At the beginning, Jacey feels her cousin, Maya, “had already been here too long”, yet soon they are lying “on the daybed in companionable style”. In the woods, however, Jacey lets her anger at Maya show when she feels her cousin is moving in on a potential boyfriend. The curtailment of her encounter with a stranger which follows, particularly as it is caused by her father, reminding us she is not yet an adult, sustains the idea of her character in development, preventing the story from descending into certainty.

Throughout this collection, Tower shows he is comfortable writing from a variety of perspectives: male and female; adult and adolescent. He also has an arresting turn of phrase, which reminds me a little of Richard Brautigan. What he writes next should be worth reading, even if it’s about Vikings.

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