This is the most entertaining collection of short stories that I can recall reading: I am not someone who gravitates towards short story collections but once I started this one I actually wanted to continue and that is very unusual. In fact, I don’t think it has ever happened to me.
In The Gypsy and the Bear when a child is telling a story to his toy soldiers about a Gypsy and a bear “who equally knew nothing about country life” and forgot to put any money in the Gypsy’s pockets so that “from the get-go” he and the bear were forced “to earn their own keep.” O’Neill seems to turn the traditional worlds of story-telling on their heads in subtle ways that sneak up on the reader and produce similarly subtle chuckles which sometimes break out into loud guffaws. For example, when they ended up renting a room on the top floor of a brothel and the Gypsy suggests he will go into town to find a schoolgirl, “the bear told the Gypsy that if he tried to leave the brothel, he would find him and he would kill him.” Not your traditional Gypsy-bear story.
In The Gospel According to Mary M, the narrator explains that she and Jesus were in Grade Six when they first met and she was the “only girl in class who had a pair of high heels, and for my birthday my mother bought me a ton of black bracelets with studs on them. Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore, and they didn’t want my whore cooties or something.”
But these stories are not just entertaining: quite frequently there are insightful observations which will make your head snap back so that you can reread what you just read. In Swan Lake for Beginners scientists are engaged in the Nureyev Experiment to create a “bunch of Nureyevs” in order to “open shows every night in every major city in the world.” By 1961, the first lot of twelve Nureyevs were cloned. Most of them had very little interest in dance. Success continued to vary with more clones. The one thing that all the clones had in common “was the desire to defect from a place that suffocated them and impeded their civil liberties”. Similarly, in a letter from Pooh Bear to Piglet (nicknames used by two of the protagonists in the story, The Holy Dove Parade, this observation about childhood is presented by another protagonist: “it was generally the state of childhood – to find yourself in a home that you didn’t like and to be subjected to the random laws of ignoramuses. Parents go through their children’s psyches looking for contraband ideas that way that guards toss apart prisoners’ cells looking for items that they might have smuggled in. All children were being raised in prisons of one sort or another, according to Edward.”
“Dolls” is one of my favourite stories. It is about dolls at a rummage sale who start chatting the minute they are put together on one of the tables. “The dolls all knew how it went. You were taken home and told you were special. You were defined by being loved. Love exposed you to lonliness. Love gave you a personality but damaged you, too.” One of the dolls, Mary, had lost her red jacket and trousers. “The worst thing is to be a naked doll. She was terrified that she would be mistaken for garbage.” It is very hard to miss the implications here.
In Where Babies Come From, a grandmother tells her grandson and granddaughter that back when she was a girl,” babies were washed up from the ocean when the tide went out. You would see their little bottoms peeking up from out of the sand, and if you dug them up quickly, they would be yours to keep.” The grandmother uses the story to explain to the children why their mother is special: she was a night baby. Night babies were found after swimming in the night ocean and they had extra hours of dreaming and she tells the children that is why their mother “weeps when she hears music she likes on the radio, and why she waters flowers in the middle of the night and is always doodling stars on the margins of her paper” and why, of course, she is a poet. A lovely twist to the story.
The Man Without a Heart is another of my favourites: it’s about Andrea and Lionel and Michal. Lionel is an addict, Michal has an e missing from his name and Andrea is a single mother working ten hours a day in a grocery store.
The title story is a mix of ten thousand angels in Normandy and one cherub in Montreal, sex and soldiers and landing craft, fathers and daughters, dread, prayer and peace: Daydreams of Angels indeed.
This is followed by The Isles of Dr. Moreau based on tales a grandfather once told his grandchildren. Robotic monkeys listen to and comfort weeping orphan boys and the genetic makeup of humans is combined with that of hippopotami, gorillas and parrots. One of the highlights is Grandfather’s liaison with a swan-girl. He is quick to point out to his grandchildren that they are obviously part-monkey which is demonstrated in their habit of running about the house all day like “lunatics”.
The Story of Little O (A Portrait of the Marquis de Sade as a Young Girl) is the tenth story in this collection of twenty. Once again it includes a grandfather, Joe, whom Little O was dependent upon until she was 10 when he became more dependent upon her. It seems she had been abandoned by her parents and her grandfather was on welfare. When she was eleven she “noticed that boys noticed her” and she began to feel “a magical sort of lonely feeling” when she realized some boys were in love with her. This story reminded me at times of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.
The tone of the stories seems to change with the title story: they remain creative and fast-paced but there are subtleties that sneak up on the reader and sometimes seem to gloss over some slightly darker tones and sometimes are laced more heavily with sadness. Or is it just reality?
The last half of the book is equally enjoyable and quirky. I think my favourite might be The Dreamlife of Toasters which takes place in 2089 and arises from “unprecedented advances in the field of bioengineering” and the invention and introduction of androids into the general population. Have you seen the robotic lawn mowers in your neighbourhood yet?
You might just want to add this title to your TBR list: it’s on the 2015 Giller long list and it’s fun!