Four Stories (Sheila Watson)

Sheila Watson is best known as the author of the Canadian classic The Double Hook — one of the few “Canadian classics” that is not a chore to read. Watson only ever published two novels and five short stories … these are four. I have a copy of the original Coach House publication (Coach House PRESS, for the geeks), a library discard. The stories all concern characters with names from Greek myths who live and are anxious in a surreal non-world that is supposedly Canada.

There is a brilliant strangeness to the movement of the stories, especially evident in the dialogue. This from “Brother Oedipus”:

‘While you care for the roses and stand about under the willow,’ [Oedipus’s wife — who’s not his mother in the story] said, ‘I must care for both of us. You promised to take out the garbage.’

‘I have lost interest in ash cans and their contents,’ said Oedipus. ‘But the cats which come to the cans are a different matter.’

The stories are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They are at turns surreal and poetic, fable-like, and even banal. In “The Black Farm,” Daedalus is a businessman who becomes obsessed with creating an utterly black farm so that he might, enrobed in gold, stand in stark contrast to the farm. But he can’t quite get the total black he desires and so resorts to magic (black magic, of course), and fails. The story ends, like all the stories, in an abrupt and brutal fashion. Watson almost seems to cut her stories to an end with a very sharp knife, and it’s devastating.

Watson’s beginnings are no less fascinating. I’m utterly transfixed by her ability to develop a story that has almost no stability as if she were developing any regular old story. Here’s the opening of “The Rumble Seat”:

Oedipus folded his legs. It was a sad story. He had adjusted himself as the cameras circled. We could not see them but we knew they were there. Information is no longer the prerogative of the few. Besides Oedipus was pointing above him now to something which was excluded from our television screen.

Later in the story Oedipus ponders his namesake myth. His interviewer states “We must … demythologize” and Oedipus replies:

For me it is too late … although since some Protestantism has not yet fully acknowledged Freud there might still be time. For some I have already become a complex, for others a thematic design like the sphere, the cylinder, and the cube.

Watson’s stories are stunning and singular and possessed of an insane, twisting energy. I’ll be reading her other books as soon as I find them.

— Jonathan Ball

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