Saturday 3 October 2020

Stories of Sex and Power: David Bergen's Here the Dark

David Bergen's Here the Dark consists of seven stories, the last, a novella, being the title story. Masculinity, sex, love, religion, and power constitute the overarching themes. This covers just about everything (just about, not all....). The littler stories deserve a bit of own attention, since these are not connected stories, those novels in disguise that have crept into the marketplace and, I think, have damaged the value of the short story genre these days. Bergen's six are honest-to-god short stories.

My favourite of the six is "How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?" about a math teacher who uses his wise-spirited high-school students as a sounding board for his relationship problems. (This story won the CBC Literary Prize for the Short Story in 1999.) The students become a Greek chorus cheering on their alcoholic, demoralized teacher in his search for love and meaning such a sweet way that I was genuinely surprised and delighted.

Anoter  story that stands out from the others in its focus is "Hungry. It addresses one of the collection's main motifs--teenagers and sexuality--but with the addition of a recent migrant from Rwanda who gets mixed up with a jagged-edged white family whose sons' sexual power plays take no prisoners. A reverse version of this story is "Saved. "Set in Vietnam, its protagonist is a destitute teenaged boy who becomes involved with a Christian missionary group. Like all the characters in this collection, the boy's sexual desire serves as a symptom for a spiritual neediness that organized religion can't assuage. The story shocked me, not a bad thing for me.

The other four I group together loosely as stories of men whose sexual and romantic desires face resistance from gatekeepers.  "Man Lost" features an island-dwelling fisherman named Quinn who has  a customer known simply as K who is, well, the worst: wealthy, tacky, misogynistic, alcoholic, and socially disruptive. Quinn should know about the last part because K impregnates his sister. K wants to catch the big fish so Quinn takes K out on the ocean and, probably inadvertently, demonstrates how precarious human life is in the face of nature and one's own weaknesses. In "April in Snow Lake," a displaced young man gets taken into the bush by the uncle of a young woman who attends his Christan youth group. Yes, the trip to the bush is a test, and yes, the uncle does not make things easy for him.The protagonist of "Leo Fell" has better helpmeets among the locals he meets when he moves to Kenora for a job after his finances and his marriage fall apart. The waitress Girlie has all kinds of people trying to play matchmaker. The protagonist's road is not so easy in "Never Too Late." An old farmer is romanced by a wheel-chair bound woman whose psychopathic ex-husband still feels some proprietoriness towards her since she is an heiress. A dog proves to be a useful bridge for the couple

A dog serves as a similar bridge in "Here the Dark." This story gathers some of the motifs in the other stories but this time features a female protagonist, Lily, a young Mennonite who does not acquiesce easily to the expectations of her community. Her problem is her openness to the  other world through her school-friend Marcie and her Aunt Dolores, who plies her with books in a deliberate effort, it seems, to introduce the outside world to Lily. Lily in particular wants to explore her sexuality, a desire that her husband Johan has little problem with in actuality but in the end has spiritual misgivings about. Another outsider complicates things for Lily: Frantz, her wayward brother-in-law, who has a dog as well as plenty of experience with the outside world. As might be expected, Lily's extended family and the community's elders want to keep Lily in the community.

I have read quite a bit of writing, fiction and non-fiction, about Mennonites and other closed religious communities, and I may have lost too much sympathy for these groups to be patient with the slowness of Lily's haphazard rejection of her upbringing.  As well, the trajectory of Lily's life resembles those of other protagonists in these other stories, so I did not feel like this story was original enough to make me appreciate it.

Notwithstanding the title story's female protagonist, the stories seemed old-fashionedly male- and sex-oriented. Hemingway in particular came to mind. People who want to have this kind of reading experience might like this book more than I did. With the exception of "Hungry" and "A Bottle of Vodka," I did not experience enough of a push at the envelope. I want something new when I read, and the other books Giller long-listers I have read so far were closer at achieving this for me.

I am now reading another story collection among the Giller nominees, and I am curious about how I will react to them.


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