Another Sad Day at the Edge of the Empire
Matt Hartman is a freelance editor and cataloguer, running Hartman Cataloguing, Editing and Indexing Services.
Perhaps there is something in the weather of B.C. that produces a hybrid surrealism peculiar to the region — a surrealism ironically rooted in reality, as though fighting off its literary correlative to the dream. The dichotomy can be seen in the work of Michael Bullock, arguably Canada’s finest surrealist, who himself lives in Vancouver; and now, Stephen Guppy, a young writer from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, has launched a collection of stories which promises to extend the tradition. The elements of the place lend themselves well to magic: the dense flora, the omnipresent sea, the endless rain and fog — all make valid and powerful contributions to Guppy’s tales. The seven pieces (several first appeared in Canadian Fiction Magazine) bear testimony to the writer’s ability to take the commonplace and transform it into that realm we call mystery.
In “Ichthus” (at 23 pages the book’s longest story) a school teacher and his wife holiday on one of the Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia; their purpose is to research the life of Gunnar Johanson, a local mystic who, legend has it, could walk on water. After a day exploring the caves in which Johanson is thought to have lived, the couple is invited to a dinner in the camp of a local family — a dinner that has deadly repercussions.
Two of the stories, “The Catch” and “A Rural Tale,” have farming as their setting. Lemuel, in “The Catch,” has a lifelong obsession with flying. Forced into the guardianship of his orphaned cousins, he is beset by strange sets of circumstances that culminate in his flying machine soaring away without him.
Guppy sets his scenes early — hard and fast. The suspension of disbelief is immediate, so stark are the characterizations. It is without much difficulty that the reader can picture, in “A Portrait of Helen Leafly, with Bees,” the heroine’s Volkswagen lifted aloft in a swarm of bees, to coalesce later in the air above her husband’s apiary.
The disappearance of the ocean in the title story is perhaps the only possible conclusion to a fable in which the characters themselves subtly vanish, overcome perhaps by their own eccentricities.
Guppy has published a book of poems (Ghost-catcher, Oolichan, 1979) and was co-editor of a volume of stories (Rainshadow: Stories from Vancouver Island; Oolichan and Sono Nis, 1982). There are influences in his work that can be traced to the Haida, with their transmogrifications and dark morals. But this voice is Guppy’s own; and it may be, in his writing, that the rain on this coast will come to serve a fine purpose indeed.