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August Books

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Issue: 62 Section: Literature & Ideas Topics: short fiction

July 25, 2009

August Books

New works by Steinberg, Comeau

by Shane Patrick Murphy, Melissa Bull

We Could Be Like That Couple...
Sarah Steinberg
Insomniac Press, 2008

Picture a paper plate. On the plate you’ve got some bite-sized quiche, a little cube of cheese, and fingers of tooth pick-skewered meats. You’re looking at a plateful of mini-meals. Sarah Steinberg’s tip of the iceberg collection, We Could Be Like That Couple... is like this dinner of hors d’oeuvres—her stories are Spartan, salty. They’d go well with booze.

The title of the first story, "We Could Be Like That Couple From That Movie That Was Playing Sometime” sets the tone of the book: wistful, colloquial, ironic. And it spoke to me immediately: “Do you know how it feels when you need a certain taste in your mouth and instead you have, like, the opposite of that flavour in your mouth and all you want, in that instant, is whatever it is that’s going to satisfy that craving?”

Having one thing but wanting another makes wanting a kind of having all its own. We Could Be Like That Couple’s parade of characters express their desires and dissatisfaction slant-wise. They don’t gripe, they just notice how things are off, how routine details take up so much space in their lives that their expectations get blurred.

The narrators consistently fit their stories: in the tragi-comedy “You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This,” Rhonda, who lisps, appears “hand shoved deep inside the mouth of her purse,” rummaging for a tissue. She’s at a vernissage and her eyes are leaking. She’s hot for a teacher, who’s there, coincidentally. Maybe Rhonda’s stalking him, maybe she’s imagining they’re having a relationship. Professor Halle asks if Rhonda’s all right. She answers—with a line that puts Dirty Dancing’s “I carried a watermelon” to shame—“It’th okay. I jutht can’t control my eye excrethionth.”

Uncomfortable, long-suffering, judgemental and moving, Steinberg writes with a sharp, strong voice. Her stories often end with a shift from specific details to big ideas—a horizon, vertigo, loss, or a near-miss. There’s a breathing pace to the collection, and the way text is set on the page—sparse paragraphs with justified margins all cut by an asterisk—gives the prose room. It looks like a René Gladman text but reads more like Mary Gaitskill or Joyce Carol Oates.

We Could Be Like That Couple... is one scrappy, skinny book. I’d like more. This won’t hold me ‘til suppertime.

–Melissa Bull

Overqualified
Joey Comeau
ECW, 2009

Cover letters are a consistently depressing form of writing. After I finished a master’s degree, I spent almost a year finding new ways to say, “Choose me! I’m good! And desperate… horribly desperate!” Eventually I found work in parking lots, mail rooms, and a cowboy-hat factory before giving up and retreating to law school.

And that style of writing was all I really expected from Overqualified, a collection of cover letters by Toronto writer Joey Comeau. The angst and misfortunes of job searching can be amusing and predictable. But Comeau doesn’t get bogged down in the usual cover-letter routine beyond a few introductory lines to each letter. Instead, he spills out bits of autobiography, dreamscapes, perversions, and generally unleashes his id in a manner guaranteed to never land him a job of any sort.

Comeau takes the structure of a cover letter and completely removes himself from the job-searching context. We don’t learn much about what Comeau does for a living or if he’s looking for a job at all. We learn in gritty detail that his brother Adrian recently died in a car accident, his Acadian grandmother refuses to speak to him in French, and he’s got a girlfriend named Susan who he feels reluctant and relieved to love. He’s a self-confessed pervert who wouldn’t trust himself with a webcam. His dreams mix sex and violence. On top of that, John Wayne apparently calls him crying in the middle of the night.

A novelty act? Well, sure. The idea of making a book out of cover letters isn’t a grand innovation. But Comeau’s skill is to weave his life story, including its neurotic undercurrents, around a literary structure that encourages us all to sound like duller people, not to mention dull writers. These rambling cover letters are utterly bizarre, but they also present their author’s genuine complexity. Overqualified never unravels into an angst-soaked diary, even when it comes close. There is a compelling tension behind each letter which makes the book consistent and weirdly enjoyable.

–Shane Patrick Murphy

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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