Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa by André Alexis

despair and other stories of ottawaI just talked about Fifteen Dogs not too long ago, but as they say, you can never have too much André Alexis.

(Okay. I’m the only one who says that. But that doesn’t make it any less true.)

And in a stunning, Shyamalan-esque twist, I loved Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa even more that Fifteen Dogs. So here I am, continuing to spread the Good Word of André Alexis.

As you might guess, this collection largely takes place in Ottawa. Alexis grounds these stories in geographically-accurate cross streets, real community halls, endearingly local shop proprietors. Which turns out to be important, because otherwise these stories risk going off the rails – portraying a version of Ottawa peopled with blood-sucking monsters, cannibals, prostitutes who model their hands against burlap, and dozens of doppelgangers named André Alexis.

It’s creepy, and it’s awesome.

Before I started Despair I was warned not to read it before bed. Did I listen to this advice? No. Did I regret it? Yes. Yes, I did.

Take the end of this story, for example:

Alexis_acurseonanyone.jpg

This isn’t even the final story of the collection. You are expected to keep reading after this. Are you serious, Andre Alexis? What kind of bad dreams are you trying to give me?

But I mean, you have to hand it to an author who has the guts to end a story with “a curse on anyone who reads this.”

The prose is beautiful but not flashy, familiar without being everyday. The details are as shining and sharp as sewing pins. A couple of my favourite phrases:

He’d been dreaming of mason jars filled with topsoil: a soothing dream, until the jars broke.

It was Saturday morning. There was nothing urgent to buy, sell, perform or destroy.

It was night, and the train swayed from side to side as if it were a boat. The clackety-clack of the wheels was all that remained of solid ground.

André Alexis taps into an unsettling undercurrent running below Ottawa, but it’s also comforting, in a way – providing a depth to the city, even if it’s in the form of hybrid, vaguely Freudian or Kafkaesque folktales. These stories blur the lines between real and mythical, until it’s not clear which is which. In many cases, the appearance of the monstrous and strange can be read as cautionary tales but also as metaphors. A pale young man describes a love affair with a soucouyant, detailing how she literally drains the life from his body. But on another level, this can be read as a metaphor for grievous disease- a story about the attempts we make to exercise control in uncontrollable situations.

While fantastical on the surface, the heart of this short story collection is firmly grounded in the real – with plenty of food for thought on the topics of connection and disconnection, worry, hope, and, yes, despair. But Alexis ultimately shows that there is so much more to Ottawa – and any city, any homeland – than despair. Happiness, after all, may be found in simple, familiar places.

Good furniture at a good price, said Mr Paradis. That’s what Heaven’s about.

 

Header image of Ottawa skyline is a cropped version of a photo from Flickr user Taymaz Valley, available for use and remixing through Creative Commons.

 

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