The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black: A Review
Carolyn Black’s mind works in mysterious ways. Her stories in The Odious Child are strange and unusual, but they nevertheless touch on the deeper condition of humanity and are also beautiful and vibrant. Like John Lavery’s Sandra Beck…TOC is insightful, creative, original, and a very fine example of how language, when in the hands of a talented wordsmith, can be both powerful and fun.
Those were the words I used on the CBC–Giller Prize page to nominate Carolyn Black’s debut collection of short stories called The Odious Child. Sometime at the beginning of this year, I came across Carolyn’s story “Thirty-Seven Women” on the Joyland site, which features Canadian short fiction. I liked it so much that I googled her and saw that I could read another story, “At World’s End, Falling Off,” online, too. After that, I contacted the Toronto author to tell her how much I loved her writing. She told me I could read another story, called “Serial Love,” in the latest Journey Prize Stories anthology (issue 22), which we just happened to have in the store. I went to the shelf, found the copy, opened it to her story, and stood there and read it immediately.
And now I’ve read The Odious Child, Carolyn’s debut collection of short stories, released by Nightwood Editions in April this year with an interesting cover I did not understand until reading the 7th story (although since this book makes me feel somewhat…distrustful or, rather, uncertain, I wonder if there is even more to it than that. Like the stories, there seems something extra significant. Isn’t there always, with ladders and doors? Or wait—could this be about the escape in story 10? It might make more sense to use the title story…). In fact, I’ve read some of these stories three times, because I enjoy the writing so much, but also because these are not stories you can simply breeze through. More than any other collection I’ve read this year so far, this one has been the most challenging, the most thought-provoking, particularly regarding meaning.
Most of the eleven stories are tricksy, wily creatures, which, like their narrators, seem somewhat unreliable and defiant of certain summary. As a student of English I learned to analyze, to look for metaphor, etc. But what if the furry, feral child in the title story isn’t some sort of animal but actually a child the narrator locks up and hides; isn’t a metaphor for anything—say, the narrator’s psyche—but rather some freak of nature, some fantastical creature?
“Urban fantasy,” the stories are labelled (I’ve discovered a new favourite genre!), and there is indeed a sort of magic realism to them, an otherworldliness, surrealism, even in the ones that seem straightforward, like two of my favourites, “Wife, Mistress,” and “Retreat.” These two stories, especially, talk about rules and propriety, how things should be, yet the characters in them make conscious decisions to break the rules (with both positive and negative consequences), while the other stories themselves mostly break with convention by blending reality and fantasy.
In any case, these stories are not your average CanLit fare. The interesting thing about this is that a major theme is order, concreteness, reflected in such precise language that I found myself treating the very book itself carefully, keeping it pristine, turning the pages deliberately, smoothing their surfaces, leaving it altogether unmarked and clean. Orderliness transcended the stories into my own behaviour. The exact opposite behaviour, in fact, even though I loved this book just as much, to that which I exhibited with Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For the Party. That order, this precision, the deliberation with which the narrators choose their words and the author constructs—one gets the sense that these stories are well mapped out, and that everything in them is meaningful—all contrast with the elusiveness, the unreliability, the shimmer in realism as it’s replaced by surrealism or absurdity. Nothing here is black and white. Lines are blurred; reality is measured not in the events themselves nor in the character’s voices but rather in what we the readers surmise is true. Can we trust it?
Thinking about this further makes me wonder if the title of the book mightn’t have been better called Games, after another of the stories, in which a lonely woman (who sort of reminds me of Harriet in After Claude), concocts romantic fantasies, considers past boyfriends, and deludes herself into thinking the one she truly loved might still love her. The stories in The Odious Child are serious and insightful, touching yet even slightly horrifying—but they are simultaneously playful; they contain an overriding theme of deep-seated, thrumming desire, for love, for sex, for order, for understanding, for connection and belonging, and to create, but they are also dryly humorous, especially “Martin Amis Is In My Bed.”
The stories are also exercises in invention, examinations of language more so than form, although the two are inseparable (Carolyn very much enjoys playing with words and punctuation but also tense), and defy reality by containing imaginary objects and people and personified objects, and delving into that weird and wondrous entity we know as the psyche, explored most notably in “At World’s End, Falling Off” (in which an extraordinarily beautiful man disappears), “Hysteria” (in which a woman’s head separates from her body yet they are still able to function), “Martin Amis Is In My Bed” (in which a writer manifests her muse), “Tall Girls” (in which a man suddenly notices and becomes obsessed with tall girls, and one in particular), and “The Odious Child.”
Carolyn Black is sort of playing games here too, then, with reality and fantasy, with language, with us. Some may wonder: What are we to make of this collection? Just when you think you get a story, the ending defies you, dares you to say you do. I am lost reading the title story. Perhaps if I stop trying so hard, everything will come to me. It will reveal itself in an explosive OH moment, like the one Jasper experiences when he finally gives up on trying to fantasize about his red-headed tall girl.
He gives up. Surrenders. A passive lethargy invades his limbs. He allows the tide of it to carry him out, far out, to sea where his body floats like a discarded object on the surface.
His mind goes under.
It dives away from his body, jackknifing into the murky deep. And there—there!—a portal opens wide, revealing a miracle of vibrant colors and sounds. Images hidden until now.
They are ripe and everything he has waited for.
As challenging as many of these stories are, they are also extremely rewarding. They are not out of reach. Whether or not all stories are clear almost becomes irrelevant. It is enough for me that I have a grasp, as tenuous as it is on one or two stories; it is more than enough that the writing is superb. There is pure genius present here, I promise you. Carolyn’s prose is impeccable, her word choice fitting, her stories strong and orderly and beautifully spare. It’s such a fantastic thing, writing that is both efficient yet so very rich!
The Odious Child of Carolyn Black is anything but odious.
Thank you to Nightwood Editions and Carolyn for my copy of The Odious Child. For an excellent and extremely insightful and revealing interview with Carolyn, do visit Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This.