November 4, 2013
Review By Mark Diotte
Following the reissue of George Bowering’s Burning Water in 2007 and Shoot! in 2008, New Star continues its dedication to local authors with the publication of Bowering’s The Box in 2009. Promoted as a “series of ten stories” that break “with the conventional short story” to weave “together biography, autobiography, parable, and drama” (back cover), The Box works to place the reader into various “boxes” while often simultaneously breaking them down. The ubiquitous Bowering narrator is constantly setting-up, manipulating, and pushing against the assumptions, prejudices, and perceptions of his reader, all the while interjecting the narratives with wit, humour, and sarcasm.
“A Night Downtown” centres around the narrator’s encounter, years earlier, with a Japanese woman named Eiko. Highlighting the assumptions that are built into language and communication are Eiko’s first words to the narrator. In response to her “I am sorry if I disturb you,” said in the stereotypical clipped-English expected by a native English-speaking, white Canadian, the narrator states: “Not a disturb … no, you don’t … don’t sorry, it’s perfectly.” This exchange indicates the narrator’s struggle to communicate with Eiko but, more importantly, works to parody or satire the false and belittling assumption that, by mimicking Eiko’s words, by “dumbing down” the language, she will be in a better position to understand the narrator. Later, Eiko uses the word “prease” and explains to the questioning narrator, in perfect English, that “people like to hold onto their illusions of the exotic East.”
Bowering continues to play with assumptions and language in “Belief.” The narrator’s incessant questioning and interrogation of the words and phrases he chooses for his story suggest the difficulty (or impossibility) in bridging the gap between intention on the one hand and understanding and interpretation on the other. Foregrounding the construction of meaning, Bowering’s narrator demonstrates how the assumptions of the reader are equally, if not more, important in the telling of a story than the craft of the author. To this end, Bowering ultimately leaves his readers to finish telling the story on their own.
Told in the guise of a social experiment to determine what happens to “the youth who moves from the iniquitous city to a bucolic setting” – namely, from Vancouver to the south Okanagan Valley – the playfully titled “An Experimental Story” is broken down into sections headed by scientific categories such as “materials,” “procedure,” and “results.” In this “coming-of-age” narrative that revolves around the character of fourteen-year-old Drew, Bowering seems to work harder to seduce his male readers than he does to come to any firm conclusions. The idealized, fruit-laden countryside is coupled with the romance of learning the rhythms, cadences, and knowledges of labour in the fruit orchards. The narrator, observer of the experiment, cannot help but notice Drew’s attention being drawn to the rustically beautiful orchardist Mrs. Van Hoorn as “a bead of perspiration descend[s] between her tanned breasts.” Inaccurate though it may be, Bowering ultimately succeeds in enveloping his reader in an eroticized Okanagan landscape and the magical time of growing up.
In “Don’t Make Him Mad,” a story told in the format of a three-character play, an angel and a lawyer take turns trying to entrap, or “box in,” the other while the lawyer defends his life from the charge of “Wrath.” Of similar format is the final story of the collection, “The Home for Heroes: A Parable.” Here, Bowering creates one last box for his readers. A junior executive for a confectionary organization, Mr. Aligari is both figuratively and literally locked in a box. Trapped by his desk job, and labelled a “flop” and a “daydreamer” by his wife, Mr. Aligari awakes in confusion to find himself in a small room, bare of windows and furniture. Through the visitation of heroes such as “The Man of Steel,” “The Sultan of Swat,” and “Papa,” Mr. Aligari comes to represent the struggle and heroism of the average individual. At the same time, this story advocates the breaking down of the self-limitations, authority structures, and social conventions – in other words the “boxes” – that can blind us and hamper our dreams.
Ranging from a baseball narrative to a detective story, the various stories in The Box have been published elsewhere in various forms; yet, when put together, they make a fascinating and successful study of what it means to inhabit different boxes, what it means to operate under illusion, and what it means to escape into another place – if just for a short while.