Vanashing and Other Stories

Short stories are an under-appreciated art form. Agents encourage their writers to craft novels instead. Novels sell better. Publishers will even slap “A NOVEL” across the cover of a collection of connected short stories in an attempt to increase the book’s chances in a competitive market. The preference baffles me. In this age of overfull day-timers and compromised attention spans, in a society that insists upon immediate gratification, shouldn’t short stories be the genre of choice? The best of short fiction delivers the same impact as a novel – but gives it to readers in a single sitting.

Deborah Willis’ collection meets this requirement of “the best.” Each story in Vanishing carries the weight of a novel. Every single piece is so emotionally satisfying that you’ll want to live with it awhile before moving onto the next.

The theme that links Willis’ fourteen stories is loss. In these stories, people disappear, but not without a trace. Instead, the dialectic between absence and presence weaves through the texts while those characters left behind come to terms with the departure. A father, a wife, a friend, a girlfriend – they all leave, but they’re not absent. Instead, the memory of the departed, the struggle to comprehend the disappearance, the desire for return, the guilt of eventual acceptance – all of that becomes a presence that occupies a space bigger than any character. Loss itself becomes a character, and Willis’ sparse prose achingly evokes the ripples a single “vanishing” can send through an entire life.

The stories are not linear: they do not have a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, the disappearance stands as a fulcrum, and the story extends forward and backward, balancing upon the moment of departure. A father, for example, abandons his family, and the narrative teeters on the instance of this vanishing, stretching backwards in search of the cause and forward in an account of the effects. Backwards and forwards. Over and over. The lines between past, present and future blur as Willis shows events fold in upon themselves and recur. The past is ever present in the future.

Vanishing first caught my attention when it received a nomination for the 2009 Governor General’s award. The nomination was remarkable because, unless penned by Alice Munro, a short story collection doesn’t usually have a shot at one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards.

Too often in Canadian literature, comparisons to Munro are unwarranted. Alice Munro is easy shorthand for “these stories are really good – you should read them.” However, the stories in Vanishing are like those of Munro in their emotional intensity. And Willis’ work is Munro-esque in its ability to pack a whole lifetime of desire, disappointment, aspiration, disillusionment, and guilt into a single short story. Willis’ style, though, is all her own. The particular blend of simplicity, economy, clarity, sobriety and detachment – that’s pure Deborah Willis, and I can’t wait to see what she does with it next.

Angie Abdou is a local fiction writer. Her novel The Bone Cage was recently included in Canadian Literature’s list of Top Ten Canadian Sport Lit Picks. For more information on Angie’s publications and upcoming speaking engagements, see www.abdou.ca