Doretta Lau slices convention in How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

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How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?
By Doretta Lau. Harbour, 160 pp, softcover

Sure, Canada is home to an above-average pool of talented writers—but self-serious CanLit, with its stoically rugged terrain and small-town immigrant stories, can sometimes be a little, oh, predictable, leaving it open to criticisms like the dig from Gary Shteyngart on Vulture in January (“people just don’t take the same damn risks!”) that raised the hackles of our country’s Net-savvy literati. But it doesn’t have to be that way. For proof, just look to Vancouver writer Doretta Lau’s debut, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?: a wildly creative, irreverent, and pleasantly weird collection that absolutely refuses to be boring—yet somehow remains unmistakably Canadian (and sports one of Shteyngart’s cult-venerated blurbs on its cover, to boot).

Lau, who resides jointly in Vancouver and Hong Kong and writes about arts and culture for publications like Artforum and the Wall Street Journal Asia (and once, long ago, the Straight’s music section), composes stories that effortlessly capture the borderless existence of millennials while winningly, humorously portraying North American Asian culture. Lau is a bit of a genre slut; the collection opens with a hilariously dystopian satirical science-fiction story (“Goddamn, How Real Is This”), where future selves harass present selves via text-message time travel. It then moves into a fictional meditation on life and the art of Jeff Wall (“Writing in Light”), and finishes with the Journey Prize–shortlisted story that gave this collection its name, which follows the exploits of a delightfully foul-mouthed gang of Chinese teenagers as they terrorize Vancouver, Clockwork Orange–style.

Some of Lau’s protagonists are unmoored hipsters who casually drop references to indie bands and artists; there’s something of Tao Lin in this, if only Lin’s characters had souls. But her characterizations, while amusing, possess depth and elicit sympathy—this reader found herself liking all of them, whether tomboyish little girls, washed-up reality-TV stars, or sideshow freaks. And in her best moments, Lau spouts wry lines that smack of a young, postmodern Dorothy Parker: “Our friendship was a habit, like smoking or biting one’s nails to the quick”; “You say dickless as if it were an insult.”

Above all, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is fun, making Lau’s energetic, smart-mouthed debut well worth the risk.

Doretta Lau will appear at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday (April 2), as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series.

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