The initial buzz around Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gartner’s 2010 anthology of literary sci-fi stories, had everything to do with its superstar contributors: Douglas Coupland, Annabel Lyon, and William Gibson, to name a few. Since then, however, that spotlight has gradually broadened to include some of the younger, fresher faces—writers who’ve since published debut story collections, each of which wears its affiliation with Gartner’s anthology like a badge of honour.
The most recent of these writers is Buffy Cram, a Vancouver Island native who now divides her time between Berlin and San Francisco. But flipping through Radio Belly, you’d be hard-pressed to decide which of her stories caught Gartner’s eye. That’s because Cram routinely deals with ideas that are just futuristic enough to be comfortably deemed sci-fi. But they’re literary stories, too, and that’s where the problem lies.
“Loveseat” follows a morning-radio DJ who turns his Grateful Dead–loving girlfriend into a piece of furniture. “Floatables: A History” looks at a world almost completely underwater, where a small group of survivors live atop an island of roped-together plastic bottles. And “Large Garbage”—the piece from Darwin’s Bastards, it turns out—introduces an entire new class of hoity-toity homeless, who won’t let living on the street get in the way of reading Proust or enjoying a nice cut of prosciutto.
Strong premises, all. But they aren’t allowed to stretch out and find their own shape. Cram has caught a case of whatever virus it is that makes Canadian writers stuff all of their work into the same kind of elegant, lyrical, wearyingly well-mannered box. Too much of the writing in Radio Belly is stifled in this way, as when she describes the hobos in “Large Garbage” as “all racket and ruckus, their skin the colour of sky, the smog rubbed right in.” For a collection that ought to zip right along, it’s frustrating to see Cram pump the brakes so hard and so often.
The good news is that her case is mild. And there’s plenty of room for optimism in the title piece, with its tale of a girl whose stomach starts to transmit radio signals, as well as the aforementioned “Floatables.” Each of these has a full story’s worth of juice.
In “Mrs. English Teacher,” meanwhile, the narrator watches hundreds of butterflies fleeing a huge fire—a byproduct of civil war in an unnamed Asian country. The whole scene is very quiet, she notes, and “the silence is unbearable because this much death should make noise.”
You bet it should. Unfortunately, a lot of what Radio Belly generates is white noise: repetitive, distant, and far too soothing.
Douglas & McIntyre, 224 pp, $19.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, July 26, 2012)