Tuesday 7 February 2012

Light Lifting - Alexander Macleod

'a living tension'

Let's get the obvious comments out of the way. Alexander MacLeod is the son of Alistair Macleod whose story collection, Island, I reviewed here last year. We could say therefore that his son has writing in the blood, although by that rationale I would be busy practising medicine somewhere right now instead of dressing up in silly costumes and pretending to be other people for a living. It does hold true for MacLeod Jr however whose debut collection of stories is written with a confidence that comes presumably from not having rushed into publishing his work (at the age of 40 he has been occupied up until now with teaching and family), resulting in a collection which has been nominated for Canada's two biggest literary prizes and therefore gained attention beyond those shores. Most of the stories here are merely satisfying but a couple of them are really great, the 'worth the price of admission alone' variety, so that I finished the book pleased to have been introduced to a new writer and interested in what he might produce next. What more could you ask of a debut story collection?

I'll focus on three of the stories not only because they're the best in the book but because they also illustrate where MacLeod really excells. First off the line is Miracle Mile a story about two childhood friends who have grown up to become professional distance runners. As the Giller Prize judges noted 'MacLeod brings into vivid concrete language the physical experiences that mark us as profoundly as any thought.' By writing about two 'track people' he is able to mark the ways in which their bodies are different to those of most ordinary people, 'designed to do only one thing....We all had our special skills, our fascinating powers and we just barnstormed from city to city, performing them again and again in front of different people....Sometimes I thought it might be better to be able to eat fire, or swallow a sword...'

The numbers meant more than the words and the smaller numbers meant more than the bigger ones. It was like we belonged to our own little country and we had this secret language that almost nobody else understood. Almost nobody can tell you the real difference between 3:36 and 3:39. Almost nobody understands that there's something in there, something important and significant, just waiting to be released out of that space between the six and the nine. Put it this way: if you ever wanted to cross over that gap, if you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else.

We can see their obsession and physical drive back in their childhood together where they would race freight trains through the railway tunnel that runs beneath the Detroit river.

It was one of those impossible dangerous things that only invincible high school kids even try: running in the dark, all the way from Detroit to Windsor, underneath the river. When I think back, I still get kind of quaky and I can't believe we got away untouched. It didn't work out like that for everyone.
The descriptions of this run are frankly terrifying. Danger is present at every stage. At the very outset due to the fixed time that one has to make it through the tunnel before the next train passes through, the peril of losing one's footing due to sleepers or rats beneath, the scrapes and bruises from clashing with the tunnel wall; just look at the picture on the front cover above and say ready, steady, go to yourself without a little hint of panic and you're a braver man than I. The competitive streak in both men is well drawn, as is their almost nerd-like obsession with details about rivals, lifestyle and results. It's a breathless beginning and a great introduction to MacLeod's physical world.

The book may get its cover image from that first story but its title comes from another story of physical labour. Light Lifting looks at a group of building labourers, the blue-collar type you might expect to find in a story by Carver, men who work, drink and occasionally fight. The subtleties of male hierarchy and relationships are well sketched but yet again it is the descriptions of their work that really fascinate. Below for example is an explanation of the collection's titular labour

Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times. But it's the light lifting that does the real damage. Maybe it's just thirty pounds and it starts off slow, but it stays with you all day, and then it hangs around in your arms and your legs even after you leave...It used to surprise our summer student kids...One minute they'd be loud and laughing and tossing the brick around like it was nothing and then, all of a sudden, that little grinding pain would wind up and get a hold of them. You could almost see it tightening around them. It was like they got old all at once. They'd hunch over and get really quiet and start concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong.

My favourite story however is one that picks up from possibly my favourite book of last year, Bastien Vives' beautiful graphic novel A Taste Of Chlorine. Adult Beginner I also uses swimming, or the process of learning to swim, as a metaphor. If Chlorine was about developing confidence and reaching out for what you desire then this story is more about conquering fear and learning to be brave. We follow Stacy as she prepares to jump from the top of the Waterfront Holiday Inn into the Detroit River below (the same spot where the tunnel from Miracle Mile can be found). She is there with a group of swimming instructors, The Tuesday Crew, who have befriended her after she joined classes to finally learn to swim. As she makes her leap the narrative flashes back to the childhood trauma of nearly drowning whilst in the ocean with her parents, the event that kept her out of the water for so long, and then to her first tentative steps with the swimming group under the tutelage of the dependable Brad.

For a moment, she could imagine it: letting go and pushing away, flying toward Brad. She wanted to be chosen and she believed there must be something like a transparent hand that lived inside the water. It made permanent selections and cradled some people, holding them always at the top, but it dragged down other people to the bottom and there was no way to protest

Learning to swim is about overcoming that fear and once she does she feels 'like the last kid who refuses to let go of the tooth fairy' angry at herself herself as 'years of her life had been sacrificed' due to the 'force of her flawed convictions.' MacLeod structures the story brilliantly, deftly switching from one narrative thread to another whilst maintaining a pulse-quickening tension that comes from Stacy leaping at the beginning and us following her descent and fate as the story develops. What it shares with Chlorine is that spirit of pushing oneself to do something one usually can't. In fact the best moments of this collection share that same impulse and MacLeod writes brilliantly about the human body in extremis. There is something hugely optimistic about trying to achieve the impossible and something shockingly grounding about those moments when we realise we are just human.

There is a living tension, a line running between what can be achieved and what we cannot do.

Elsewhere in the book these explorations don't always catch fire. Wonder About The Parents sees a change in style with short declarative sentences following a couple dealing first with head lice infestation from their children and then a traumatic car journey back to Toronto for Christmas. Facts about lice nestle amongst the story like parasites but only distract from what these parents are going through. The Loop follows a pharmacy delivery boy as he delivers medication to those who can't collect it themselves, often housebound as a result of a lifetime of labour, picking up on MacLeod's recurring theme. It is a brief coming of age tale with a few nice touches. In the final story, The Number Three, we see a man in grief after a car accident has killed his entire family apart from one daughter. The rather methodical investigative style doesn't really allow it to land a hefty emotional blow until it's almost too late but there are lovely turns of phrase. We first see him cooking a single fried egg, 'life's loneliest meal', knocking around his house 'like the marble in one of those tilting wooden labyrinths'. The airbags that didn't deploy to save his wife instead sat 'patient and useless, like a pile of neatly folded white towels in a linen closet.'


stujallen 7 February 2012 at 12:16  

Robs been singing the praise of this and know Kevin from canda a fan of him as well ,I like gritty short stories and love carver I should give this guy a whirl really will ,all the best stu

kevinfromcanada,  7 February 2012 at 16:03  

Will: It is great to see this review and, as stu said in an earlier comment, I am an unabashed fan. Not all of Macleod's stories are perfect, but some are. And, two years on, they keep coming back. I suspect he is going to be like his father (two story collections, one novel as a lifetime catalogue) in not publishing often, but I cannot wait for the next volume. He is definitely a writer to be watched -- and read.

William Rycroft 8 February 2012 at 09:53  

Thanks Stu. I know I mentioned Carver and the physical nature of this work but the stories themselves don't really remind me of Carver, nor would I really use the word gritty to describe them; they're slightly more reserved and considered than that.

As Kevin mentioned he may well be the kind of writer to publish only as and when he wants to; this collection amounts to a selection from his life up until now. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 40 years for the next one.

Simon (Savidge Reads) 15 February 2012 at 15:07  

I was sent this one the other week and I will get to it eventually. I don't know where you stand on 'adult fairytales' or magical realism and the like but if you love short stories you HAVE to read Diving Belles by Lucy Wood. I am sparingly reading one a week, its that kind of amazingly good collection.

William Rycroft 16 February 2012 at 00:18  

Hmmm, magical realism is not really my cup of tea. That said, when I do try to push the envelope with short stories or novellas I often surprise myself with how much I enjoy the more fantastical variety. Maybe I should tale a look at Diving Belles, particularly with such a ringing endorsement.

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