Sometimes short stories can seem like a box of Raisin Bran: the raisins are the oversweetened little quirks that moderately competent writers insert to disguise the dull cardboard flavour of their work: characters defined by a wacky tic, or a fantastical situation that is not explored and exploited, not integral to the tale, but merely used to put a checkmark beside “be inventive.” Too many authors write as though plot plus personality is greater than story plus character.
Steven Heighton’s short fiction is writing on a different level entirely. With his latest collection, The Dead Are More Visible, Heighton has come close to producing what might be considered the perfect book of short stories. What binds the pieces in this book together is an exploration of how people behave in unusual situations. Not the kind of unusual situation that a less competent writer would think demonstrated originality and wit, but a more everyday extraordinary. Even if most readers have not been personally involved in the situations described, they will know others who have had these experiences: An encounter with a gang of thugs on a dark night. Dealing with the death of a grown child. Taking part in medical trials. Discovering the many different ways one is different when living abroad. It is familiar territory, yet at the same time largely new. Like many literary writers, Heighton explores the life of the mind, but he resists a simplistic Cartesian division of body and soul, making a point of also examining the physical, visceral effects of grief, fear or romantic nerves.
The short form suits Heighton’s writing. His novels, while good, do not have the urgency and the energy of the short fiction; something is lost in the translation to a bigger scale. That is not to say they do not have their merits: The Shadow Boxer in particular manages to find a home for his beautiful observations as well as his talent for making a narrative out of the incremental character developments brought about by daily routine. He also brings a flavour of Quebec to that novel—sometimes a hint of Réjean Ducharme, sometimes Monique Proulx.
Heighton’s pithy, dry humour, combined with a fierce intelligence, probably explains the appeal of 2011’s Workbook, a slim volume of aphorisms and miniature essays or, as Heighton calls them, memos. One of these thoughts, from “Notes to a Younger Self,” reads “In writing, as in life, ‘personality’ is not character. Never try to be cute, to be winning, to audition for the reader.” This insistence on emotional integrity demonstrates why Heighton’s work is vastly superior to much that is being published today; why his short stories instantly surround the reader with an entire world, largely recognizable but more intense—and definitely not skewed or off-kilter, the standard descriptions of short stories these days—but with a trick of bringing the out-of-the-ordinary into a whole, and whole-hearted, story.
Occasionally, an ambitious story does not quite meet the standard of the others. “OutTrip,” a tale of a recovering drug addict on a desert-survival challenge who is confronted by his dealer (or is the dealer merely a hallucination brought on by dehydration, solitude and detoxing?), is an arresting story. The details of this strange world are convincing and inventive, but the writing itself seems below Heighton’s usual standard. There is the second-person present, for a start, which is sometimes bearable, but often makes writers defenceless in the face of extra padding that pushes its way in, littering the already-awkward voice with phrases like “you guess” and “you think.” The dealer himself, the Fisher, is the vaguely familiar character of a person whom we expect to be rough and unlearned, and who is instead fairly knowledgeable—but not in any way we need to take seriously, since he is always giving away his autodidacticism by his implausibly high mistake rate when speaking: debit rating for credit rating, Upper Mongolia for Outer Mongolia, infer for imply. A little of this goes a long way; a lot of it starts to make a reader wonder if the story is intended to be a pantomime. Thankfully, the ending of the story is handled so well, balanced so finely, that the piece is saved from failure.
One of the best stories is the title story. In “The Dead Are More Visible” Ellen works the night shift flooding rinks for the city. It is a quiet, contemplative sort of job, until her peace is disturbed several nights in a row. To begin with, the interrupter is a man who believes that the people buried in the park (which was formerly a cemetery) object to a tombstone, and who claims he will dissolve it using only the power of his mind. But on the night of the story’s main event, the tone becomes less playful and more menacing as Ellen is approached by three youths out to amuse themselves by frightening other people. Heighton can nail the subtle characteristics of class and concomitant assumptions about other people; he can understand and acknowledge when he is writing about class while simultaneously refusing cheap romanticization of certain types of workers (here the parks worker, later a firefighter) or types of people (the handsome thug); and he can also make these characters interact in ways that manage to be both surprising and right. Thus the story’s conclusion, a neat mixture of gruesome comeuppance and unexpected power shifts, is satisfyingly perfect.
My other favourite, a story with more slow-burning appeal, is a modern-day Gilbert and Anne romance set in a boxing ring. In “A Right Like Yours” Trina and Trav both train hard, considering going professional in the sport. The spark of attraction is ignited when the coach puts them in the ring together. Trina starts finding ways to steal a few minutes with Trav, a seemingly unattractive man with two children, even though he seems to actively dislike her. He holds back in the ring, reluctant to punch a woman, but has no such delicacy outside it. He insults her; she silently pledges to knock him down if the coach makes them spar again. Trina cracks Trav’s shell and slowly wedges a splint in; Trav, even more slowly, allows himself to be opened up—but we can wait, because Trina can almost make you fall in love with him from a ten-word description. Heighton casts the whole scene in a rosy sunrise light tempered with the harsh colours of the boxing ring and the greys of Trina and Trav’s mundane working lives.
Steven Heighton is something of a sleeping dragon in Canadian literature. Every time he opens his mouth to speak, a great burst of flaming intellect rushes out, scorching to the ground everything that is pretentious, everything lazy, everything cheap. This is a writer incapable of being facile or shallow, yet one whose work is also funny and fun. Although Heighton is admired by critics and the literary world, his work is not universally adored by the general public. It should be, since his writing is challenging but not difficult, insightful but not sentimental, and his abilities can be compared with those of Canada’s best writers. Reading The Dead Are More Visible calls to mind another of Workbook’s memos: “On reading an excellent writer for the first time, two vying urges: to go and write, and to give up writing.”