Fiction Review by Rita Donovan

Matt Rader, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This (Gibsons: Nightwood, 2014). Paperbound, 256 pp., $21.95.

What I Want to Tell Goes Like ThisTo call a book exotic evokes travel, action, and romance. But in this collection of stories Matt Rader has taken Comox Valley working life, west coast history, and the dailiness of modern existence and made us see them for what they are—dangerous, fragile, exotic. He explores things that are hard to cover in the short-story form: time and temporality, the tentativeness of knowledge and experience, the value of artifacts, and the importance of speaking and naming. In prose at times poetic, at times linear and procedural, Rader questions the relevance of the family story we hold dear. How reliable is our history? Several stories are set in the past or are given a mutable interface with the present: “Grand Forks, 1917,” “The Selected Kid Curry,” “Wejack,” and “Alone Mountain.” In “The Children of the Great Strike, Vancouver Island, 1912–14,” time folds in on itself and the story is pieced together through photographs and fading memories. It is not surprising that another version of this story was presented as a broadside installation in the windows of B.C. businesses. The ability, in that case, to literally “walk around with the story” would have added to the immersive experience. On the page it is more of a challenge, with the narrator coming across as a researcher: “In the top right-hand corner of the background is the image of ….” We are told that: “No one is alive now who remembers those days….” This is the thematic core of several of the stories. It is reinforced when, referring to one of the characters, the narrator says: “The story of Italo Bonamico is incomplete. Too much was never recorded and everyone who knew him is dead.”

The tentativeness of those things we rely upon is evident in stories like, “Brighton, Where Are You?” in which a man searches for the elusive Palmer, but can never quite locate him. Palmer leaves the titular message scratched on the door of a bathroom stall, almost a taunt. Meanwhile Brighton seems to float through his own existence, habitually giving random people new names as it suits him and then questioning even this designation: “…it’s like some mistake has been made at the Department of Naming, a mix-up that’s left two people walking around with the wrong names. Two people who are never themselves no matter how long they live.”
And in a story about two people supposedly trying to connect, an unnerving ‘otherness’ occurs: “Makes you wonder, room like this, all those guys going from place to place all the time, living on the road, maybe we’re away most when we’re home….”

We witness this same nervous hold on our personal histories in the story, “A Half-Wonder,” where two men sit in a bar looking at a box of photographs: “The shoebox is on the bar and he’s got one hand on either end like it might slide away, like he might spill something.” We are constantly seeing fleeting versions of characters, and of ourselves. Historical figures, from labour leaders to rebels, enter the stage and depart. In the story, “First Women’s Battalion of Death,” the historical figure of Maria Bochkareva, known as Yashka, is invoked in a hair salon, among women who are unaware of, or perhaps impervious to, Yashka’s historic role in Russia prior to the Revolution. Again, it is the juxtaposition of the historical story and the quotidian situation in the salon that is telling. Only one woman in the group is capable of understanding: “History was like this for Catherine: full of doublings, repetitions, echoes, rhymes, recurring shapes in time that lit up when viewed through the agency of perception. Often her life seemed to be lit with recognition, as if history were looking her in the eyes, as if she were being seen by Time.”

This ethereal connection and the profound idea that we are the same as those echoes lift us from the particulars of Yashka’s life, and those of the salon women. And it is not the same as saying we are all characters in a story, although there are elements of that. The need to speak, for there are no words to echo without speech, counters the devastation that occurs when we don’t speak, as in the story, “In Russia”: “Jack opened his mouth, then closed it again….I’m through with stories,” he said. “I want a job on a trail crew.” In “At the Lake,” a brutal sexual encounter between two men and a woman is told in short, stark prose. It is the absence of language, here, that is violent. They drive the woman home. After dropping her off: “Billy looked at his friend and opened his mouth and closed it and was quiet.”

So we travel with our artifacts, our boxes of photos, our half-remembered stories, because as imperfect as they are they are better than their absence. This comes to fruition in the lovely story, “All This Was a Long Time Ago,” which portrays a young James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in 1904, before Joyce became Joyce, when there were still versions of the stories that would become canon. The idea of iteration, of possibility, is there in his renaming and reimagining of Nora’s late friend Michael Bodkin as the unforgettable character, Michael Furey, in his later story, “The Dead.” And we can see the writer shaping history, the non-discursive spoken, the temporal suddenly atemporal.

The most successful stories in this collection are challenging and uncompromising. We are sometimes lost and stranded, like the characters themselves: “Here he is in his own breathing.” (“Wejack”) But Matt Rader is doing his part in expressing the ineffable, a notion as absurd as it is wonderful.

—Rita Donovan

As in The Malahat Review, 191, Summer 2015, 95-97