Ian Williams, Not Anyone’s Anything

With its cover photo of a smashed mirror, whose jagged shards have then been picked up and artfully rearranged, the debut collection of short fiction from part-time Torontonian Ian Williams puts its basic conceit front and centre.

Indeed, these are stories for which the usual components of literature (letters, words, sentences, paragraphs) are simply not good enough. For some reason they aren’t quite getting the job done; something important, some essential element of contemporary life, is being lost in the shuffle.

Williams’s solution to this problem? To take the premises of his stories and pull, stretch, and bend them around all manner ofexperimental chassis. Like the mirror, only by dismantling them can they be made anew.

The title story in Not Anyone’s Anything centres on two students in a Korean language class studying for an exam, and ends with several dozen reproductions of their vocabulary flash cards—each complete with a character’s guess at the right answer. “Break-In,” during which a man is forced to hide under the basement stairs during a burglary gone awry, features a literal basement of its own in the form of a ruled line two thirds of the way down the page, cleanly dividing the two different stories being told.

Also sprinkled throughout the collection are copious musical notations, split-screen narratives, and an attempt to realistically capture both sides of a static-filled, cross-continental phone call, pauses and all.

Williams’s impulse to push at fiction’s borders is an understandable, even intuitive one. After all, if daily life has changed so drastically over the past 500 years, shouldn’t the method by which we document it be able to shapeshift accordingly?

But despite this—and despite the rich tradition of literary bricolage being tapped into—only occasionally is he able to fulfil his own promise. The best example is the graduation story “Then,” which juxtaposes a woman’s anxious inner monologue with the endless list of graduands being announced over the loudspeaker. (Running down the left-hand margin: “The recipients of the Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Biological Engineering are: Kevin Austin / Donna Beacon / Sohan Brar Adrian / Costigan Ronald / DeVito”…) Here the effect is not just amusing, or clever—it lets the reader inhabit the story in a way that a typical narrative simply couldn’t, and is critical to its success.

Too often, though, the experimental frameworks overshadow and distract from the narratives they’re meant to support. For instance, the three stories in the middle section are each divided into three further subsections, along extremely rough thematic lines. It’s not at all clear what is gained by such clustering. And good luck figuring out what it means when, for just a single page of the break-in story, the ruled line mysteriously becomes two ruled lines. Is it a cryptic nudge on Williams’s part? Or just a printer’s error? Either way, the reader’s mental energy is best spent elsewhere.

In fact, the other standout piece, “Prelude,” succeeds on the old-fashioned strength and precision of the sibling relationship at its heart—a piano player and her younger brother, the latter of whom tries to help the former become a bonafide prodigy by performing amateur surgery on the webbing between her fingers. It’s a tender, keenly observed story; the embedded musical notations from Chopin and Rachmaninoff don’t add anything that wasn’t already there.

And that’s the overarching problem here: these are pieces that, by and large, would hold up just fine using only the tried-and-true principles of storytelling. Without a compelling reason to be here, these formal stunts start to look less like a genuine foray into new territory, and more like a crutch.

Freehand Books, 224 pp, $21.95, paperback

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, June 12, 2011)