Love At Last Sight: Stories by Thea Bowering — review by Mark McCawley

Love At Last Sight:

Stories by Thea Bowering

 

review by Mark McCawley

 
loveatlastsighttheaboweringLove At Last Sight
by Thea Bowering
NeWest Press, 280 pp
ISBN 978-1-927063-34-7
$9.59 CAN Kindle | $14.36 CAN Paperback
September, 2013

 
In sinuous folds of cities old and grim,
Where all things, even horror, turn to grace,
I follow, in obedience to my whim,
Strange, feeble, charming creatures round the place.

— Charles Baudelaire, “The Little Old Women”
 
To the flâneur, his city — though he was born in it, like Baudelaire — is no home. It constitutes for him a stage.

— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
 
 
Thea Bowering — “How to Read Your Lover’s Favourite Russian Novel” (excerpt) (Empress Ale House, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 12 September 2013)

 
For those open to contemporary literary experiment will most truly relish Thea Bowering’s debut collection of urban, post-realist short fiction, Love At Last Sight, published by Edmonton’s NeWest Press. In the eight short stories, and one novella, which comprise the collection, Bowering interrogates the fictive nature of reality through literary allusions and through the ongoing allegory of the flâneur —— a concept originally attached to 19th-century Paris, the flâneur is a person of leisure who walks the streets of his or her city, studying the buildings and fellow citizens in the hopes of better understanding them, popularized by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.

“Flâneur…” NeWest Press Podcast, Episode #32 – Thea Bowering: LOVE AT LAST SIGHT (17 Sept 2013)

 
That there are striking similarities between the various narrators of Bowering’s stories — Clara, Anna, Jeanne, Tanja, Phoebe, Eira, Riel — is not entirely unusual in post-realist fiction. The term post-realist often describes writing which offers particular versions of reality rather than actual descriptions of it, and need not offer a clear resolution at its end. Thus, contemporary post-realist fiction, then, can be considered much more allegorical, and each post-realist story, an element of that underlying allegory. Such is the case with Bowering’s ongoing femme flâneurs, most of which have seemed to have worked at a bar in Edmonton and traveled extensively in Scandinavia, that one gets a sense of similarity between them:

“I wanted to get at this idea of the female outsider…” NeWest Press Podcast, Episode #32 – Thea Bowering: LOVE AT LAST SIGHT (17 Sept 2013)

 
Indeed, what makes Bowering’s stories so distinctive, besides their depictions of their individual femme flâneurs, are Bowering’s metaphoric comparisons to herself with George Sand in which time, space, even architecture are juxtaposed with character and voice:

“Character is voice, and voice is walking, and you might notice the way she walks out there, but you wouldn’t notice the way she talks. You, out there on the street, are not interested in that; and besides, there will be almost no dialogue, since she will say as little as possible to any passerby… It will be quiet, even in her own head, except for the characterless chant of some vaguely-recalled women’s centre pamphlet: walk with purpose, meet their eyes, be watchful of shadows coming up behind; give a little start, mistaking one’s own, doubling in a passing car light, for another’s so close behind.”

(Thea Bowering, “Fine Armour”, p.25-26)

“The landscape that made its strongest impression on me…” NeWest Press Podcast, Episode #32 – Thea Bowering: LOVE AT LAST SIGHT (17 Sept 2013)

 
Bowering makes an assertion in her discussion with Paul Matwychuk, General Manager of NeWest Press, that in her dreams she inhabits ancient ideal cities, cities of the imagination, cities born of European literature, the weight of old stones, the look of old buildings. Therefore, looking for these ideal landscapes in Canada, more often than not one encounters their absence, cities being as interesting for their failures, Bowering suggests, as for their successes. In “Jeanne’s Monologue”, Bowering’s femme flâneur discovers the diminished gleam of the city, together with that of the femme flâneur herself:

“JEANNE has lived in the city for so long its become a ghost town. She finds every backdrop street remarkable for its continuing existence in concrete banality—its wisps of garbage, its no thing—while one or another of her washed-out, girlish romances gets trampled underfoot. Nimble boys and girls in silly shoes, sex riding their red robin’s chests, stride all over her sets—streets where there are no civic monuments, but pieces of the past that have fixed themselves to her, like taped X’s on a stage floor. Invisible to everyone else. She is a fading star in her city.”

(Thea Bowering, “Jeanne’s Monologue”, p.85-86)

“What I wanted to do was have these competing voices…” NeWest Press Podcast, Episode #32 – Thea Bowering: LOVE AT LAST SIGHT (17 Sept 2013)

 
Just as there are competing characters, there are also competing voices within Bowering’s stories, as well as competing forms which underlie the conflict and structure of the overall collection. New world contrasting old world flâneurs. Edmonton contrasting Vancouver flâneurs. The European urban experience contrasting that of the urban prairie. All the while, unexpected literary allusions and cameos appear throughout Bowering’s collection. Russian novelists, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy toss back shots with Elizabeth Smart and Robert Kroetsch in barrooms with Joy Division and The Carpenters and Fellini in a metatextual game with the myriad musicians, dandies, assassins, and barroom down-and-outers which populate Bowering’s collection. Flâneurs, one and all.

Without a doubt, the strongest, most elegant piece in Love At Last Sight is the novella, “To The Dogs”, which completes the collection. It is set in Edmonton, a city in which Bowering has worked as a bartender, freelance writer, and Film Studies and Creative Writing instructor, and from which as an author she draws the greatest authenticity for her femme flâneur narrator, Riel (after Louis Riel) and the romantic love triangle Riel finds herself a part of with the emotional and psychological grifter and conman, Billy, and the quintessential other woman: Anise.

Thea Bowering — “To The Dogs, Part One” [Excerpt] NeWest Press Podcast, Episode #32 – Thea Bowering: LOVE AT LAST SIGHT (17 Sept 2013)

 
Wandering Edmonton’s streets and avenues, evoking the history of place, both past and present, visiting its bookshops and boutiques, its monuments; providing gossip and background to each, all the while looking through blank walls and past mundane edifices to glimpse the human dramas lurking behind and beneath. It is to this conflicting backdrop of Alberta’s Oil Sector and Edmonton’s University culture that Bowering’s femme flâneur, Riel finds herself in “To the Dogs”.

In her search for meaning and love, Riel wrestles with concepts of truth and self knowledge, evoking “a hell of the mind” in as much as the possibility of the existence of any potential future:

“After living with The Poor, he [Orwell] concluded that: the great redeeming feature of poverty is that it annihilates the future.

That was it. This was the key to Billy and Anise’s world that I couldn’t go down into. Somehow, Billy and Anise had escaped tragedy by staying in the middle of it. They could stand anything. For them, happiness was merely a series of moral lessons missed. Anise would forever continue her theatrics in front of her camera, and her eyes would shine with the excitement of love renewed, over and over again; and Billy, he would continue to operate and rot under the guise of union. In the ongoing present, there are no sins, only actions, and nobody dies from them. Well, if they do, it’s only another action. Something for all those oil professionals, with their fifty-thousand-dollar trucks, to run over and obliterate.”

(Thea Bowering, “To the Dogs”, p.259)

Very much reminiscent of Juan Butler’s Cabbagetown Diary: A Documentary in the manner in which Bowering describes and documents the gentrification of Whyte Avenue (82nd Avenue) in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district during the mid to late 1990s, as well as Louis Rastelli’s A Fine Ending. Bowering also ends her novella with an observation of one flâneur by another:

“I try to imagine what would happen to someone like Billy, who, now I can see, is like so many on the Avenue. Does he just go on forever like this? No disaster, just one meager pay period to the next. One crappy apartment after the next, half furnished. A new pair of boots every four years or so. Until he’s lived a lifetime more or less—then, at around fifty or so, still working in a kitchen, some infection in the lung takes him one day. Perhaps there is a memorial at his last bar or restaurant and that is it.”

(Thea Bowering, “To the Dogs”, p.261)

And that is it. A superbly delicious novelette completing a superbly delicious collection.

Inventive and playful, hyper-literate and allusive — Love At Last Sight by Thea Bowering reclaims and expands the archetype of the flâneur with a fresh, brash, bold new literary voice in Canadian literature.UG
 
 

Copyright 2013 Dwayne Martineau, Laughing Dog Photography ©

Copyright © 2013 Dwayne Martineau, Laughing Dog Photography

Thea Bowering has been published in The Capilano Review, Matrix, Dandelion, The Vancouver Sun and Scandinavian Canadian Studies. A native of Vancouver, she now makes her home in Edmonton, Alberta. Her first book, Love at Last Sight, was released by NeWest Press in Fall 2013.

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