The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Middle Stories

by Tricia Dower

Sheila Heti says: “Some of the foreign editors who rejected the manuscript complained that there was a ‘sameness’ to the stories. Indeed, there was, because I was only interested in capturing most precisely the structure of my mind through language. I had nothing to say, and I knew it. This is what was so exciting to me about writing The Middle Stories: having absolutely nothing to say, and so going for the sheer representation of Saying.” (From an interview by Lee Henderson in the Vancouver Sun)

I was delighted to find this old interview a few days ago, because I was feeling pretty stupid after making it through this collection of thirty very short stories without a clue as to what Heti was trying to say. Nothing, as it turns out. What a relief.

I may be the last Canadian to read this book (published by Anansi Press in 2001). I was able to snap it up on a bargain table for $3.99, an eminently fair price considering its faddishly small size: designed to slip into your purse or pocket and get permanently lost on your bookshelf. I might have read it earlier had I not been slavishly devoted to Alice Munro. My decision to discover who else can write a decent short story has led me to several celebrated collections. The Middle Stories received high praise from a number of places, including the National Post which said, “Quite unlike anything else being written in this country... The stories are sculpted with a skewed grammar and their charmingly off-kilter cadence is neither totally contemporary nor archaic, possessed of a loopy logic all their own."

‘Loopy logic’ says it all for me. It’s like coming across someone’s dream journal. People and animals appear in strange places doing illogical things in cryptic little tales that end without resolution. Some of them are as cruel as any the Grimm brothers cooked up but they have no apparent moral. My favourites are Mermaid in the Jar and The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates. Even though Heti might not have intended it, both of these did suggest more than what they said: the mermaid as alter ego; the roommates as desire and envy.

From a CBC interview by Andrea Curtis in 2005: “I don’t consider myself a storyteller like some other writers,” Heti explains. “I’m more interested in the essence of the story. In crystallizing something, compacting it, making it so full of energy that it’s powerful... I keep pressing my hands together as I say this.”

Heti may not give us much in the way of traditional character arc, but her prose is clear and frequently audacious. Fearless in a way. Two passages from The Girl Who Was Blind All The Time:

She lived in the hollow of her mouth and ears. She lived in the hollows of her nose, and when and if someone touched her, she lived in her skin as well.

The rest of her life was like a long thin line with little diminuendos and tiny little crescendos and friends visiting from out of town. She had a big, bright, curly head of hair that made her look like a clown, and nobody ever told her.

None of The Middle Stories stayed with me for very long or made me think deeply about life but, as a writer, I still found the book inspirational. Break out of the mould, it says to me. Amaze yourself.

The Middle Stories was published when Heti was 24. That same year, she created the Trampoline Hall Lecture Series in Toronto, at which people speak on subjects outside their areas of expertise.* The series was praised in The New Yorker magazine for “celebrating eccentricity and do-it-yourself inventiveness.” Last year, Heti published her first novel, Ticknor, to mixed reviews. With my record, it’ll be another six years before I read it. I’ll let you know how it was when I do.

* My ninth grade English teacher, Miss Russell, would have loved these lectures. Her favourite torture was to call on you without notice and make you speak for five minutes on a topic of her choosing, usually something you had nary a clue about. It’s her fault I make things up.

Photo of Sheila Heti by Edward Pond


Blogger Anne C. said...

I can understand your ambivalence. I like Heti most on a sentence level. That's what I take away from her work: bits and pieces. (Although I really enjoyed her essay on the Writing Life in the PEN anthology. It held together from beginning to end and stuck with me.)

Sat Jun 09, 08:56:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Good to get your perspective, Anne. (I'm not alone!)I'll have to look up that essay.

Sat Jun 09, 01:37:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Larry said...


Great post.

I think it's amazing where and when we get truth and information that ignite a previously untouchable fuse in us. For me, it can often be in writers that are enjoying a great deal of attention, but leave me cold. I will read their work, trying to understand what is calling forth such public response. I analyze the text and "get" what people are appreciating - but, then, I come across something else, some gleaming shard of sheer energy/talent that leaps right into my own consciousness.

It makes it worth plowing through lots of dreck.


PS. I'm spending 12 hours down in Watsonville at a national Shetland Pony competition tomorrow. Am I the best husband in the world, or what?

Sat Jun 09, 09:25:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You ARE one amazing husband, Larry. We saw a Shetland foal with his/her mom on Thursday. It had a teeny, weeny blanket on it. We thought of you. Have fun!

Sat Jun 09, 09:32:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I enjoyed the middle stories a lot! They delighted me. I like being delighted. I am often delight deficient, delight deprived and always delight dependent.

After reading the book, I set out to write a few of my own and came away with even more respect for Sheila Heti. Try to write one of these skewed little fables and see if you can find such a fine balance between froth and menace! It's hard.

Mon Jun 11, 01:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I'll have to check this one out. Thanks for this, Tricia.

Tue Jun 12, 02:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Joseph Young said...

Thanks for the review, Tricia. I like her a lot and really enjoyed the collection. They are illogical, do end without resolution, but I find them so very logical and resolute anyway.

Wed Jun 13, 10:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting Andrew, Steve and Joseph. Good to hear what you get out of her writing, A & J.

Wed Jun 13, 10:38:00 pm GMT-4  

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