Sometimes all it takes is to make the shortlist of a literary contest, especially when you are not expecting it. Alexander MacLeod (age 40) lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with his wife and three young children, teaching English at St. Mary’s University. His father is the wonderful writer, Alistair MacLeod, now retired, one of the best, least appreciated, short- story writers devoted to the form. But the father’s brilliance does not seem relevant to the son’s highly praised short story collection Light Lifting. In fact, MacLeod told an interviewer last year that although he and his father talked about lots of things when he was growing up, they never talked about stories and literature.
Alexander MacLeod has been writing stories for the past seventeen years, never really having time while getting his degrees and raising a family to create a book out of them. It seems it took his friend, Dan Wells, publisher of a small Ontario press, Biblioasis, to work with him to get Light Lifting together. MacLeod has said it was a shoestring operation, with he and Wells promoting the book by “driving around in a Volkswagen, selling books out of the trunk.” Then in early October, 2010, he got word that his book was long listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.Bingo! The rush of agents, publishers, reviewers, reporters all began, much to his surprise and bemusement. Then, lo and behold! the book made the shortlist of the top five for the Giller. This is not small stuff. The Giller, renamed the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is the largest annual literary prize in Canada, awarding $50,000 to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists. It has been won by Alice Munro (twice), Mordecai Richler, Austin Clarke, Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Atwood, and the shortlists include just about every major Canadian writer.
Here is the 2010 Giller citation for Light Lifting:
“Rarely does fiction inhabit the body – the moving, athletic body – as fully as in Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection. Whether describing what it is to run track, to swim against a current, to build cars or to haul bricks, MacLeod brings into vivid concrete language the physical experiences that mark us as profoundly as any thought. His stories are a careful marriage of the lyric and the narrative: each unfolds around a resonant, ineffable moment, replete with history and emotion, a Gordian knot comprised of all the strands that lead up to and away from it. Sensitive and subtle, MacLeod is a writer through whose deliberately partial and quotidian pieces shimmers life’s unspoken complexity.”
MacLeod did not win the Giller; Joanna Skibsrud did for her novel The Sentimentalists. But his success with his debut book of stories is not over yet. He has also made the shortlist for the lucrative Frank O’Connor Prize, to be awarded in Cork in September 2011. Again, no small thing. The prize is worth 35,000 Euros, which, currently equates to 50,510 American dollars or 49,512 Canadian dollars. Yiyun Li, who is nominated this year, won it once before, as have Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, and Ron Rash.
So, what is it about this collection of seven stories that has put it on the short list of two of the best-paying literary awards in the world? It has not been widely reviewed in the U.S., and not paid much attention to in Canada until it made the Giller longlist/shortlist. The reviewers largely attribute the book’s appeal to its focus on ordinary working class people. Of course, the popularity of such writers as Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, and Richard Ford back in the sixties was also attributed to their focus on the so-called “blue collar.” But there is nothing minimalistically hyperrealistic (whatever that means) about MacLeod’s stories. In fact, they go on at great lengths about the details of work and the obsession of workers to do the job right. From a young drugstore delivery boy who overcomes his revulsion to save the life of a threatening old man to a young track star obsessed with shaving two seconds off his run, the stories seems to focus more on the surface of experience than on the depths.
However, Macleod believes that his stories are not just about the attention and dedication to the physical action necessary to succeed at what one does. At his first reading, when asked what makes physical action significant and meaningful, he said, “that somebody cares about it.” For MacLeod, the specific physical action of his stories has “general meaning.”
I will discuss only one story in the collection—“Miracle Mile,” although two others-“Light Lifting,” and “Adult Beginner I”—also seem illustrative of what constitutes the appeal of this collection and perhaps account for why it has been shortlisted for two major literary prizes. “Wonder About Parents” and “Good Kids” are family stories and not particularly compelling; “The Number Three,” about a man who tries to deal with guilt for the death of his wife and son in an auto accident, seems somewhat “rigged” and conventional. “The Loop” is a rather ordinary coming-of age-story about a young boy who delivers drugstore meds to the down and out elderly, often injured by a lifetime of work.
Ever since Edgar Allan Poe, short stories have often focused on obsession, because a psychological obsession most often leads to an aesthetic obsession with the unity of the story. Moreover, short stories often focus on characters, as one Hemingway story suggests, who inhabit “Another Country,” living outside the ordinary controls of everyday society, made to earn their identity rather than deriving it from social definitions. As the narrator of “Miracle Mile” says, “It was like we belonged to our own little country and we had this secret language that almost nobody else understood.” Well aware of the need for obsessive focus, he adds, “If you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else.”
Short story collections that focus on a culture previously unexplored—a country, a region, a profession, a cult, a subculture—often grab the attention of reviewers and judges. It is the “new,” the “unknown,” the “mysterious that makes readers say, “wow, that’s really something, I’ve never heard of that before.” For a profession, like running, (MacLeod, who was a runner himself and seems to know what he is talking about), the reader is apt to be fascinated by what makes runners do what they do with such rabid devotion.
“It’s hard to tell anybody what it’s really like,” the narrator says, but tries by describing guys who are willing to spend two years of training to shave s single second off their personal best, tells about popping anti-inflammatories like they were candy love hearts, recounts with some pride getting more cortisone injections in the feet in five months than you are supposed to have in your whole life, marvels at long distance female runners who are anorexic, iron deficient, and have not had a regular period in years, but who can run a hundred ad twenty miles in a week, who can slow down their hearts so far you have to wait between the beats.
All this is engrossing, “wow” information that contributes to the appeal of MacLeod’s stories. But mere information does not a story make, so MacLeod adds an insert action story about when he and his friend, whose nickname is “Burner” were in high school and used to race trains in the underground tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Canada—foolish, “I’m invincible” type behavior that makes readers shake their heads in disbelief and hold their breath in anticipation as Burner gets out of the tunnel ahead of the train: “He had this long line of spit hanging out of his mouth like a dog and the look on his face wasn’t fear but something more like rage.”
To give the story some historical context, MacLeod situates his story his story on that day in 1997 when Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear, which the narrator and his friend see played over and over again on television. He takes his title from the famous 1954 race when Roger Bannister beat John Landy as both broke the four-minute “miracle mile,” in Vancouver. What the two incidents share is what the narrator calls “pure craziness”; as one announcer of the Tyson fight said, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” MacLeod provides some detailed description of the bite and the race, but he does not have to rely on memory for these, since both events are available for viewing over and over again on YouTube.
In addition to the racing information about obsession and two historical events of head-shaking craziness, the story must, of course have a plot—the story of the race. And who can resist a race story—horse races, swim races, running races—for of all athletic events, a race seems the most audience-involving, as we try to “pick a winner” and watch in real time people or animals simply moving their bodies competitively through space-- but doing so at a speed that can only fill us with wonder.
The narrator describes the race as only a participant can describe it, and, as usual in races, the winner wins because of an ability somehow to exceed what ordinary human beings can do—like Roger Bannister in that final sprint around Landy. But the story also requires that the narrator elevate a mere race, which is the essence of action and suspense, into something more generally significant. The narrator ruminates:
“I know that when you give yourself over completely to just one thing, you can lose perspective on the rest of the world…. We have to scrounge for meaning wherever we can find it and there’s no way to separate our faith from our desperation… We can only value what we yearn for and it really does not mater what others think… We are what we want most and there are no miracles without desire.”
But stories cannot just be descriptions of interesting details, accounts of historical contexts, or even suspenseful, action-packed plots or thematic essays. They also have to have meaningful endings. And since MacLeod’s stories are less plot-based stories than explorations of physical actions, his endings sometimes seem generated by the convention of the necessity of a short story ending rather than by the necessity of the story at hand. “Miracle Mile” ends with a “crazy” example of the basic madness of what underlies the obsessed competitor. There’s something ultimately out of control about the absolute control required to be a winner. So when a group of four or five children, ages 7 to 9, speed by the narrator and Burner as they are jogging to cool off, the kids jeer, “I’m faster than you are…. you can’t catch me.” Burner “loses it” and charges after the children, who, of course have no idea that they are jeering at a professional runner. The story ends with Burner catching up with one female child riding her My Little Pony bike away as fast as she can, a strange, high-pitched wheezing sound coming from her. “But there was nothing she could do. Burner had already closed the gap and his hand was already there, reaching out for the thin strands of her hair. It all disintegrated after that. He must have been a foot taller than the oldest one.”
Finally, and never to be forgotten, there is style. Since MacLeod’s focus is on physical activity, it would not do for him to call attention to the writing itself; and indeed, the style here is relatively transparent. Even when the story is told in first person, the emphasis is less on the personality of the teller than it is on the action being described. This quotation from which the book takes its title is typical. The narrator is describing carrying brick on a job site:
"Anyone who’s ever done this kind of work can tell you that the bending over is the worst pat of it. Bending over and getting up, and then bending over and getting up again—it’s like you’re folding and unfolding your body all day. You get creaky. And just that little bit of weight—just the weight that’s in a couple bricks—that’s enough to grind you down. Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times. But it’s the light lifting that does the real damage.”
Typical of MacLeod’s ruminative style is the following passage from “Adult Beginning I,” in which a third person narrator describes how a young woman feels when learning to swim:
"That’s when it happened. An understanding, a new realization came into her head and triggered a transformation that was almost total. Maybe this was how all learning worked in the end. The right kind of concentration deployed in the right way at the right time. If you paid attention and sorted carefully, put things in the right place at the right time, it was possible to think yourself away from yourself, away from the things you could not do."
To his credit, in an interview last year, MacLeod said:
“I’m a fan of the short story. I don’t see it as a warm-up for the great novel-writing career. People say that you have to escape the limitations of the short story to move on to the broader canvas of the novel, but there are possibilities in short stories that are not there in the novel. I wanted these stories to have a lot of tension, which is harder to sustain in a novel.”
I congratulate Alexander MacLeod on making the shortlist of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize and wish him luck. I will discuss Edna O’Brien’s nominated collection, Saints and Sinners in a few days.