By Greg Hollingshead. Anansi, 240 pp, softcover
Some opening lines of the dozen stories in Greg Hollingshead’s Act Normal appear to invite us into staid Canadian literary territory. Featuring domestic settings and often plainspoken narrators—“The Retreat” starts with “This year they were trying something different: separate vacations,” while “Sense of an Ending” opens with “Micheline was spending the day with her husband’s family, at his grandmother’s”—they could lead a reader to expect the comforts of the same old, same old.
A page further in, though, plots have accelerated and taken not one but a few strange—and exhilarating—turns. Where they’ll wind up is anyone’s guess. In “The Retreat”, a silent, macrobiotic yoga retreat for men (where after three days “everyone was shitting pure compost”) encourages one man to flee; in no time he’s drunk at a stripper bar and wandering a mall with Star Alliance, one of the Hot Trot’s statuesque performers. Naive Micheline’s family farm visit in “Sense of an Ending” takes her through deaths by combine, dogs, and shotgun while demolishing her perception of her in-laws’ true nature. That story, by the way, is exuberantly comic.
In his first story collection since 1995’s The Roaring Girl, Hollingshead exhibits a wonderful restlessness, eager to seek out the shadows and odd pockets of the everyday. “The Drug-Friendly House” and “The Force of the World” centre on a neighbourhood association and an 11-year-old’s misadventures with his drunk dad, but rapidly veer into near surreality.
(And for fans of roving, complex, rat-tat-tat sentences, “and this resulted not so much in Derek’s being squashed like a bug in a crinkum-crankum of buckled steel and reinforced cinder block” represents just one-sixth of a sentence in “Wing Night”, a tour de force of trippy weirdness involving two rival automobile engineers and their young assistant. Like any wild-eyed tour guide, Hollingshead wants his audience to sweat a little.)
Just when you might think you’ve got a handle on his intellectually stimulating, satire-flecked, and inventive pieces, he reveals another facet. As though preparing readers for another crazy ride, Hollingshead begins “We Don’t Need to Have This Conversation Now” with: “Yesterday my friend Dede the tattoo artist spent nine hours removing a labial tattoo.” The ensuing meditation on depression quickly makes you forget all about Dede’s intimate labour.
Greg Hollingshead will appear as a guest in two events at this year's Vancouver Writers Fest, on October 23 and 24.