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The Vanishing Man
by Aaron Bushkowsky
Cormorant
248 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted August 31, 2005

Vancouver writer Aaron Bushkowsky is best known as a playwright, although he is also a poet, with two published collections, ed and mabel go to the moon (1994) and Mars is for Poems (2002). His most recent plays include The Dead Reckoning, One Last Kiss and Soulless, and he is also the co-Artistic Director of Solo Collective, which produces one-person plays exclusively.

In his first book of short stories, Bushkowsky occupies a precarious position between poetry and the stage, between slow flourishes of style and the quick urgency of drama. It is a difficult balancing act, although when he succeeds in keeping the tension taut between these two poles, the resulting stories are strong and satisfying. A good example comes from “The Dead Man’s Float,” the first story in the collection:

“I open my eyes—even though I know you’re not supposed to—and am mildly surprised by this world. The combination of water and light ever-changing in a guttural sway of sound. Sound that swells and groans, even hisses in this concrete bowl; all synchronized to glitter that flashes at its best when I look away. Always that one inescapable fact: what goes on when you aren’t looking, goes on. And I’m mulling this over and over, while above and behind, standing in a pink bathing suit, a beautiful woman is counting.”

This story also introduces a self-reflexive theme that returns often: “I’m working on my first book. Right now. Writing and holding my breath. This is the first story. I call it “The Dead Man’s Float” because I can’t think of what else to call it.”

Here is another example, from “Your Typical Alien Transformation”:

“I am a product of Religion and Theatre. My father, eventually a preacher; my job, eventually a playwright. He imposed God, I superimposed Drama.”

These are details that can be found in Bushkowsky’s own biography; this blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction is surely connected to his poetry, where those same formal boundaries are virtually non-existent.

All of these stories are written in the first-person perspective, and apparently are linked, but it was not immediately clear that they were all about the same man because the stories jump around in time and place without much concrete information to position them in a distinct chronology.

It is surprising how little one comes to know about the protagonist—right down to his name. The closest we get to being told his name is in “The Promised Land”: “My family came to Canada in 1927 from a part of Russia where many Jews lived. My father claimed we were German, not Jewish, but refused to talk about his mother whose maiden name was distinctly Hebrew. My first name is Jewish, but my father said it was Biblical, meaning ‘climber of mountains’ and I shouldn’t give it a second thought.” (Google “Aaron,” and you will see lots of references to mountains. Does that mean this character really is Aaron Bushkowsky?)

The only other problem, and I will admit this is a pet peeve of mine, is the stylistic choice to avoid quotation marks, surprising consider Bushkowsky’s main writing pursuit is playwriting, where dialogue is, well, everything. Since he is writing from the first-person perspective exclusively, there are numerous instances here where a paragraph begins with ‘I,’ leading the reader to assume it is the protagonist’s internal narration, only to realize, sometimes half-a-page later, that it was actually another character speaking. Why a writer would want to confuse his reader in this manner is a mystery to me.

Still, there are enough positive reasons to read and enjoy this book. There is a strong throughline of humour throughout, not the sort that will make you laugh out loud, but a dry wit that packs a punch. This example, also taken from “The Promised Land” shows off Bushkowsky’s ability to merge his brand of sardonic wit with strong imagery that speaks volumes: “I was becoming a lousy companion. My wife said this was affecting sex. Our sex, particularly. This came out of the discussion about cleaning or not cleaning the microwave, one of those everyday discussions that are strings leading to a frayed kite, the kind that always find storms so inviting.”

Regardless of my quibbles about quotation marks and the inconsistency of who this “I” really is, The Vanishing Man is a strong debut from one of Vancouver’s most compelling voices.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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