Sibbald’s stories signal a literary force

Barbara Sibbald

The Museum of Possibilities
Barbara Sibbald (Porcupine Press)

Unless we’re talking about Alice Munro, books of short stories face an uncertain future in Canada. Regardless of quality, such books tend to garner fewer sales and glowing reviews than do novels, the supposedly more important literary product. Even when an accomplished author like Kingston’s Diane Schoemperlen wins a Governor General’s Award, as she did in 1998 for the short stories in Forms of Devotion, respect and acclaim do not always follow.

Schoemperlen’s book of quirky stories had beat out the favourite, Wayne Johnston’s novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Some segments of the literary community seethed, believing Schoemperlen had somehow stolen the award from Johnston’s fictionalized account of Joey Smallwood and his drive to attach Newfoundland to Canada.

The literary seething was intensified because Forms of Devotion was not your usual collection of short stories. Frankly, it was weird. The book contained a few offbeat short stories. But there were also helpful hints on how to live a better life, assorted other bits of unclassifiable prose and dozens of drawings last seen a few centuries ago. Forms of Devotion was an unusual work of art. But it was definitely a work of art.

With all that in mind, consider the new collection of short fiction, The Museum of Possibilities, by Ottawa author Barbara Sibbald. Sibbald’s publisher terms the fiction “short concentrated scenes” rather than “short stories.”

At the back of Museum, Sibbald offers thanks for “thoughtful critiquing and advice” to various writerly friends, including Schoemperlen.  The back cover includes an endorsement from Schoemperlen: “Shot through with sparks of sly humour and dancing nimbly on the fine line between real and surreal, this collection is an outstanding display of what the short story can do when it finds itself in the capable hands of a talented writer like Barbara Sibbald.”

Museum’s stories, like Schoemperlen’s, are definitely quirky. And, like Forms of Devotion, Museum is a work of art, beyond the text, in this case, because of the quality of the paper, the font and overall design by artesinal press Porcupine’s Quill.

This is a book to be cherished, placed on a bedside table and to be read intermittently, but only one story at a time. Each tale, even the short ones, leaves you exhausted from the intensity. Recovery time is necessary before starting the next one.

The stories are not really linked although a few characters appear in more than one. In her recent book launch, Sibbald told an overflow audience at Pressed Café on Gladstone that the 16 stories are linked only by a sense of “longing” woven into each plot. She did not mention the other recurring themes of death, selfishness, meanness and revenge. Dark yes, but always most tasteful.

The title story comes first. An inspector is sent to the apartment of a supposed hoarder. The apartment is not really filled with garbage but boxes containing miniature dioramas reflecting situations in the real world – even those involving the inspector and the alleged hoarder. The startling, creepy ending puts you in the right, jittery frame of mind, for the adventures ahead in other stories.

The aforementioned boxed dioramas filled with all sorts of little treasures were popular in the 19th century and called “shadow boxes.” Porcupine’s Quill has also appropriated that term to describe Sibbald’s short fiction.

The story Bitter Butter is only about 1,000 words. It’s filled with comical tongue-twisting alliteration. It’s also about a bunch of women deliberately creating rich, fattening foods so their husbands will drop dead. It’s absolutely hilarious, especially when read aloud.

In the same vein, there is Funeral Hats, a story about another group of women, each with a spiffy hat ready for the day a husband’s funeral can be celebrated.

Men generally do not fare well in Museum. Women wronged by men are treated more sympathetically. This is not a book to send to friends who are men’s rights activists.

Sibbald knows how to build suspense to an unforgettable ending, whether it be slapstick or tragic. Who can forget the little girl Wanda in the story Comet, It Tastes Like Gasoline? Wanda exacts a unique revenge upon her parents after discovering what they really did to her basket of new-born kittens. Creepy children are always the most chilling of characters.

Many of the stories in Museum appeared in similar form previously, in literary journals, websites or published collections. Sibbald has twice been nominated for the Journey Prize for the best short story by an emerging writer. She was also nominated for the Ottawa Book Award for Regarding Wanda, from which the cat story was plucked. Sibbald’s journalism, primarily at the Canadian Medical Association Journal, has also generated numerous awards.

Clearly Sibbald is a literary force. Her newly published fiction can hold its own against many of the books produced this spring by more high-profile authors. But those other books tend to be novels, not “shadow boxes” or “short concentrated scenes.” Perhaps Schoemperlen has some tips to offer Sibbald for muscling her way into that pack of fierce, entitled-feeling competitors.

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