Myth, Metaphor and Politics

Stories challenge the stereotypes of left-wing activists

Although Cynthia Flood’s new collection of short stories, Red Girl Rat Boy, demonstrates her attention to the art of fiction much more than to politics, the recent grumbles of electoral campaigning in the east-central Canadian news turned my attention to her characters marked by political signs: social workers, pacifists, feminists. Flood knows the signs well, having been involved in leftist activities since the 1970s, when she began her writing career in earnest—later gaining accolades for books such as My Father Took a Cake to France. Her father, the historian Donald Creighton, leaned more to the right for most of his life and was outspoken in his politics. In contrast, Flood’s politically marked characters in Red Girl Rat Boy say little about their views aloud, or in their heads where readers can hear them. Instead, their actions do the work of characterization and politicking, as they were done in fantasy and myth in the days before movies.

Flood’s stories are minimalist, so that action sometimes has the political ambiguity familiar to me in part from Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth. As happens sometimes in myth, the main characters in Red Girl Rat Boy are reduced to symbols while growing large with openness to interpretation. A girl is known only by the colour of her hair, and a boy sporting a rat-tail becomes vermin: “Rat-boy.” His hybridity is more totalizing than the adjectival nature of “Red-girl,” but in either case the kid’s not alright, not with such a limit on the development of an identity.

The trouble is their compensatory need to belong. Flood nods to fairy tales in the first sentence of the title story: “In Marcia’s favourite book, Cinderella’s stepsisters had thin carroty hair.” Presumably wanting sisters too, Marcia goes looking, finding them not in a book but in “a magazine of Mum’s.” Although little Marcia cuts images of redheads out of the magazines, projecting her fantasy into the more quotidian but no less idealized world of modern consumer culture, she is not satisfied: “always the magazines showed more blondes and brunettes, even more silvers, than redheads. Never enough.” Given a consumer culture and home life that she understands in mythical terms, Marcia begins to fetishize the locks of “a new girl, down whose back cascaded red-gold hair in a shining tumble.” What she does next is mythic partly because she fatefully has “no choice.”

Out come the scissors, and Marcia proves right her aunt’s prediction: “a dangerous age she’s going into.” But this is not a spoiler. One of the best parts of the story is not the ending but how Flood omits the main action implied here. Flood also uses this technique of omitted or abbreviated action in “The Hunter” and elsewhere. It works, helping in each example to create a moment of excited confusion that parallels the character’s state of mind.

Although Marcia might not know the meaning of her actions, she is responding consciously to myth: “she remembered that fairy tales offered three chances.” We do not learn much about Rat-boy, but his name alludes to the medieval tale of the Pied Piper, so he is a symbolic follower. Marcia’s mother and two aunts—three sisters, like the mythic Fates—wonder if the boys in her class might “bother” her, and indeed Rat-boy does, presumably with his “sneer[ing] and swagger[ing]” gang. Reconnecting myth to the modern world again, Flood might be referring obliquely to the issue of bullying so recurrently in the news.

Filtered through myth or otherwise, current affairs are often in the background of Red Girl Rat Boy. Flood, who now lives in Vancouver, repeatedly evokes the history of left-leaning and radical politics in that city, from protests against the American war in Vietnam (“Addresses”) to women’s lib (“Blue Clouds”). These themes are treated at greater length in “Dirty Work,” a tale of enjoyably surprising revenge within a countercultural organization.

I get the impression sometimes that Flood wants to challenge stereotypes of people associated with the political left, namely that they are the bleeding hearts who have lost the most blood. If she does, then perhaps the best example appears in the book’s final story. In “The Hunter,” a Vancouverite commits a dangerous blunder at his grow-op, accidentally releasing his exotic leopard into the city. The feline eventually encounters a social worker and her rifle, and the hunt begins. In an earlier story, “The Sister-in-Law,” a character says that “social workers never fight for themselves.” Is the social worker in “The Hunter” fighting for herself or the leopard? You could debate this question at a supper party with the unexpected conclusion to this story as a start.

Most of Red Girl Rat Boy has this kind of accessibility and amenability to conversation, but a couple of stories might interest other writers more than general readers. “Blue Clouds” is somewhat experimental in how it manipulates time, whether through the long delay in naming characters or the chronological disorder, partly a result of the narrator’s repeated instruction to himself and the reader: “Back up!” While this narrator seems to be a janitor, the narrator of “One Two Three Two One” is more typical, more writerly: a translator, one whose dynamism and commentary on the act of writing are often amusing. Its narrator implies that she writes without embellishment—a job requirement of any translator. Ellen nevertheless remarks on how simile sneaks in to her language when she thinks and talks about her relationship with her significant other: “Bonded like lichen to stones we were, another simile, my guard down.” She later claims, “I can still close off the metaphor, am not so far gone as poetry.”

Here I beg to differ with Ellen’s suggestion that poetry is synonymous with metaphor, or that you cannot have one without the other. In fact, metaphor is in all forms and genres of language, not only in poetry, and to think that we can “guard” against it is another metaphor at work. Flood demonstrates good judgement in not explaining this. For me it raises an interesting question given her focus on myth as a way of telling stories, especially stories that seem to comment on political issues such as bullying, war and economics. Myth and metaphor are intensely political. Any fantasy can be. For the ancient Greeks, what we now call myth contained moral and political lessons in much the same way that modern religions do, and it should be obvious to anyone watching the recent news about Toronto’s mayor that religious narratives of temptation, confession and redemption remain powerful.

Quoted in The Toronto Star on January 2, 2014, on the subject of his intention to run again for mayor, Rob Ford spoke of saving money for the city: “I’ve got the strongest track record. I’ve been the best mayor that this city’s ever had. My record speaks for itself.” Ford was using the sports metaphor that underlies electoral “races” and the Olympian diction of “strongest” and “best”: more myth. Metaphor is sometimes rhetorical, sometimes unintentionally revealing.

Like metaphors, myths are nearly everywhere. Red Girl Rat Boy tells us that metaphor and myth are not separate from the so-called real world, but that they help to define its politics. And while critics may treat the words and actions of politicians with skepticism, Flood treats most of her characters non-judgementally—a gesture of respect for them and for her readers.