“What kind of story was this?” asks Lennart, one of Douglas Glover’s many conflicted characters, concerning his overcomplicated life. Lennart has just learned from his frenemy Nedlinger, the celebrity forensic archaeologist, that the skeleton Nedlinger built a career upon was not prehistoric at all, but the abandoned fetus of Lennart’s unknown brother.
Lennart’s tentative conclusion is that this tale of pseudo-love, betrayal, sexual abandon, and media frenzies surrounding forensic archaeology is “just a piece of sordid Canadian Gothic” with its “dead babies under the hedgerows, shadowy adulterous unions in cornfields, thin-lipped murderous mothers forever drinking their Alberta vodka,” and so forth.
In other stories, the complications are greater and the characters more direct. Olga, unfaithful and spiteful wife to Bjorn, is proposed to a second time by the husband she never loved and who never loved her:
Olga takes a breath and thinks, Perhaps I have been holding my breath these ten years. There is a trace of a smile on her lips. She says, “I am plain as a pine plank.” “Whoever said such a thing?” says Bjorn. “The author,” says Olga. “Besides, it’s true.” She says, “I was always afraid you’d never like me, that you’d run away.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Bjorn, a bit irritated about the author. “I love you now.”
What kind of stories are these? What they most recall are the 1980s postmodernist short stories of David Arnason. If you took The Circus Performers’ Bar apart, added crystal meth, and put it back together, you might wind up with something like Savage Love.
Glover, best known for the best-selling historical novel Elle, which won the Governor General’s Award in 2003, won’t win any awards for Savage Love. That’s not meant to disparage the stories, but to note their dogged pursuit of the unfashionable.
Pondering life’s mysteries, Olga’s lover Jannick “notices that in the present age people are turning to art and sex to pass the time … The town’s newspaper’s columns are taken up with virulent aesthetic disputes between the right-wing realists, the left-wing avant-garde, and the irritatingly articulate postmoderns, despised by all.” Is it accurate or kind to lump Glover into the camp of those postmoderns? It might be neither. However, in a general sense, the stories in Savage Love seem less like stories than parodies of stories, and are refreshing in that way.
Linked by this theme of “savage love,” the tales also seem to despise their collective theme and work to make a mockery of themes. At times, Glover mocks the conservatism of other authors openly, with a wry humblebrag:
Someone had replaced the Price Chopper muzak with a Stevie Ray Vaughan selection. Shelby loosened his scarf. He said something about the magical charm of atmospheres how things might change for no reason except that you suddenly felt better, because of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a little 420 action in Price Chopper and customers turning into people, against all odds, and holding conversations. Although you could never write a story like that.
Almost every one of Glover’s stories is, in some way, “a story like that” (not to mention, of course, this particular story of repeating love triangles), in which an atmosphere of harried terror accompanies even the comic respites. Glover’s calculated buffoonery reaches its height in “The Lost Language of Ng,” a story presented like a shockingly readable essay on this fabled lost language:
The Ng are believed to have been a proto-Mayan people who emerged, somewhat mysteriously, from the jungles south of the Yucatán a thousand years before the birth of Christ … A carved stele discovered at the ancient Ng capital, long concealed beneath temple ruins, depicts the dramatic emergence of the Ng people, their great tattooed war god _____ stepping naked from behind a tree, brandishing a cucumber (or boomerang; listed as “unidentifiable” elsewhere) in his hand, his erect penis dripping blood (according to Trqba; according to Giambattista et al., 1953, possibly water, sweat, urine, semen, or “unidentified fluid”) on a row of diminutive, dolorous, and emaciated natives who are about to have their limbs severed (see Farrell, “Ng Stele Recounts Imperial Conquest,” National Geographic, 1951). The name of the Ng war god is lost because to utter even one of the eighteen divine dipthongs would have meant the sudden and cataclysmic end of life on earth. But Trqba (see Trilby Hawtornk “New Light on the Ng, a Jungle Romance,” People, 2009) said that the Ng referred to him in conversation using conventional epithets such as Snake or My Girl’s Delight.
Everything in Ng culture, like the speaking of anybody’s secret name, is basically believed to end all life on earth. The Ng are also reported to have “played a peculiar version of the Meso-American ball game at the end of which the winners would be bludgeoned with gorgeously carved obsidian death mauls — the losers would become kings and nobles. Since no one wanted to win … in practice the Ng ball game went on forever” and “the ancient Ng came to believe that the sacred ball game generated a spiritual current or life force … that kept the world dome inflated … and animated all living things, and that if the Ng heroes … ever ceased their listless ebb and flow upon the court, the world would end catastrophically.”
The story is at once a parody of reportage and scholarship on indigenous culture (Glover later writes that “primitive oral cultures … view all older people indiscriminately as ‘grandfathers’ and ‘ancestors'”), and a parody of historical literature that approaches indigenous peoples in much the same way, and a Borgesian fantasy. Glover’s dense plots marry dense prose that insists aggressively on diluting or deflating its themes.
Most of the stories in Savage Love read like dense, overlong, Wikipedia plot summaries of insane novels (say, the absurd “webworks” of Harry Stephen Keeler). The main exception is “Tristiana,” a brutal, nightmarish, Cormac McCarthyesque fugue, in which a serial killer finds a sort of love, despite the fact that “He lived in a slaughterous universe under a doleful sign of dream from which he did not wish to awaken, for that seemed like death to him.”
Earlier, in the opening story, labeled a “Prelude” to the book, Glover writes that “the throw of language is deceptive. It’s much better for describing things that don’t exist than for pinning down reality.” Glover’s prose buffets the reader with insane, irreal characters that spend most of their time questioning their own motivations, and plot developments that are absurd when apparent at all.
It’s a joy to read stories that seem unconvinced of their own importance even as they strike serious tones. Although Glover’s exuberance can be exhausting, his style enlivens even tired tropes in Savage Love.
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