Author Tags: Fiction
SubTERRAIN magazine editor Robert Strandquist has an MFA from the University of British Columbia and has received several writing awards, including a Canadian Authors' Association award for poetry. He grew up in Nelson, B.C. and came to Vancouver. As a follow-up to The Inanimate World, a collection of stories that were far from inanimate, he produced a first novel about an increasingly unemployable handyman, Leo, who is capable of fixing anything but himself. [See below] It was followed by A Small Dog Barking (2005), an eclectic collection of stories. "Jail was where you were force-fed time," he writes in the title story. "The biggest thing that never existed, they pushed it down your throat. It was all you had to think about, that and your crime, if you were lucky enough to have one."
The Waterbird (Anvil, 2010)
A Small Dog Barking (Anvil, 2005)
Dreamlife of Bridges (Anvil, 2003)
Inanimate World (Anvil, 2001)
[BCBW 2010] "Fiction"
Photo by Barry Peterson
The Inanimate World (Anvil $16.95)
The cover of Robert Strandquist’s first book of stories, The Inanimate World (Anvil $16.95), shows a preppy man in pleated slacks and golf shirt sporting a trimmed goatee. I couldn’t help linking the photo to the title story’s narrator—a socially-savvy, introspective student who conceals his Castenadas and Steinbecks, instead displaying the more tasteful first edition Updikes and a signed A Spaniard in the Works above the fireplace. Serving the same social function as the Updikes, the narrator enjoys telling party guests that Francis Rattenbury built the Victoria house for his mistress and was murdered in one of the bedrooms. As well as his less trendy belongings, the unnamed narrator hides his heavy drinking habit. “I get some beer and head out under the deck,” he admits, “where Elmer and Elvis are hovering and give them each one, leaving two for me, one which I down and the other drink quickly.” But Strandquist’s character is more than just a drunk. He’s a poetic thinker who seems to float above life, observing as if he were a tourist in a wax museum.
“… My story involves too much overwriting in empty rooms,” he admits to himself at an AA meeting, while refusing to speak. “I can see their eyes glaze over when I tell it and their skin softens under the lights.”
When the character finds himself at the AA meeting, I was curious to see what the author looked like. I understood the source of the narrator’s voice when I saw the author’s photo; the burly, late 40s Robert Strandquist has messy hair and doesn’t appear concerned with fashion trends.
Despite being ‘a rare good listener’ who feels comfortable at parties, the narrator struggles with loneliness. Strandquist’s use of italics instead of quotation marks for dialogue creates a quiet, introverted mood, as if the narrator is already replaying the conversations in his head. Still haunted by a not-yet-ex wife and his first child, he wrestles with commitment to his new girlfriend, Lucille. But the narrator is stuck in a paradox, trying in futility to connect with a present that slips instantly into the past; Lucille seems like a memory.
Even the narrator’s unborn child seems doomed. The story takes place two weeks after John Lennon’s killing. ‘It was a night like this,’ reflects the narrator, ‘when news of the killing arrived like a drunk at a children’s party.’ Linked to this segment by theme more than plot is a conversation between Lucille and the narrator, where he is pressured to name their future child. ‘Yes, John,’ the narrator finally decides, ‘trying to wrench [himself] out of the anodyne gloom.’ 189563633-7
[Jeremy Twigg / BCBW 2001]
The Dreamlife of Bridges (Anvil, 2004)
Robert Strandquist illuminates the precarious human gravity of his fellow man in a novel partially inspired by bad luck, Social Assistance and the travails of love.
It’s an average day at the shoemaker’s shop where Leo works until a woman comes through the door pushing a stroller containing two white geese. Leo reluctantly agrees to make custom booties for the birds.
“He finds a lovely piece of alligator, but it’s wrong, somehow, for a goose. He digs up a couple of scraps of fine brown cow lining… He caresses the thin leather with his thumbs, turning it over in his mind and eventually the challenges coalesce into specifics and potential weaves itself into an idea, a place to begin.”
So begins Robert Strandquist’s first novel The Dreamlife of Bridges, the story of Leo, a divorced father trying to cope with his son’s suicide. Leo just wants to keep to himself, but bad luck sticks to him like glue. He’s a handyman capable of fixing most things except himself.
Leo’s walk home to False Creek shows his dark frame of mind as he passes between the brewery’s chain-link fence and the rail yard siding “where a couple of boxcars have been wasting gravity for the past week.” The Burrard Bridge, at its apex, “achieves a height sufficient to clear the masts of ships and gives suicides a better than fifty-fifty chance.”
June is Leo’s upstairs neighbour. She’s a separated stock trader fighting to retain custody of her son. A blown fuse creates darkness and the opportunity for romance. “The scent she’s wearing has a stormy wildness about it, and he longs for the sheltering nape of being in love, to be out of reach of his memories. He wants to get on his knees and beg her to love him. But the glare of banality breaks over them when June locates the switch.”
They’re both damaged goods but they give dinner a try. The mood is broken when two social workers and an RCMP officer arrive to check on June’s boy.
Late for work one too many times, Leo gets fired from the shoemaker’s. He finds cheap housing—shared with the goose woman, an explosives artist, a cyclist, an intellectual and a young female student—and gets fired from a string of blue collar jobs. Returning from Social Services, wanting only to curl up in bed, he finds the contents of his room strewn on the sidewalk. He has slept with the young student and the goose woman is jealous. “His scaffolding pride crumples around his feet and he just stands there waiting for the first breeze to knock him over.” With no place to stay, little money and less pride, Leo ditches his possessions for a life on the streets. “He could take his room back, occupy it by force, demand his rights under the law, but for some reason this was easier, to just walk away.” It’s hard to fight back when you’re tired.
Strandquist carries on with two story lines. June cavorts with a sleazy stock trader and drinks too much while Leo copes with life on the street. But the story belongs to Leo, as he beats recycling trucks to the punch and savours the luxury of laundry day. “He finds a clock and winds it up, creating a major personal crisis when he can’t turn the alarm off… He surrenders his absurd pride. It makes no difference if he’s a bum or somebody else is. There has to be a bum, a mannequin for people to dress up with their moods. Places to shit are at a premium.”
After the catharsis of losing everything, he finds himself back with the goose woman and her unlikely housemates—part of a family again. But as with Strandquist’s stories in his collection The Inanimate World, it’s the writing that matters as much as the plot. There are surprises on each page, geysers of inventiveness, so the downbeat landscape of Leo’s precarious life is never, never dull. We pull for him because he’s a sentient being like us, and we recognize bits of ourselves in Strandquist’s frequent moments of brilliance.
Leo gets pleasure from eating a sandwich. “The tough crust, the yielding cheese, the cheerful cucumber, tomato with mayonnaise—together it all equaled a deep and lovely kiss.”
Born in Vancouver in 1952, Robert Strandquist grew up in Nelson and Kelowna. After a brief period in Lethbridge, he graduated from UVic’s Writing Department, then received his M.A. from UBC in 1986.
“I didn’t set out to write a topical book,” he says, in reference to B.C.’s new Welfare legislation taking effect, “but I find social conscience seems to go with language in some inextricable way.
“Sure, I have politics like anybody else. I find it is deeply disturbing, what is happening. It’s really a shame that in the past hundred years, or even much longer than that, we have developed an infrastructure to support people and that it is being pulled out from under us in a matter of months. But I never set out with a political agenda.
“I just set out with a character and let him or her lead the book wherever it goes. There’s a lot of me in Leo. I’ve had to run into a few walls. I’ve had to look at myself in the mirror a few times. I have lived on welfare at one point. But I don’t plan. Planning to me would be death. My reasons for writing stories are always different from how they turn out. My intention is just to explore myself and enjoy the language.
“The day I become didactic I will stop writing.”
—by Jeremy Twigg
[BCBW Summer 2004]
A Small Dog Barking (Anvil Press $18)
Mete had noticed bar codes appearing on things long before the scanners appeared
in the stores. In prison he tried to make the connection, but the iceberg it was the tip of floated just out of reach. In jail you live in your head, but Mete had always lived in his head. Jail wasn’t a big change. He tried to make the connections but there were none. Church was a conspiracy to keep you from God. Families ensured you never had intimacy with anyone. Justice, a jury of your peers, just one more extinction event. Lazarus raised from the dead should not be in charge of the nursery.
One night the wrath of God trampled all over his imitation Persian rug, breaking several of his fingers, landing him in a cell where he was immediately ~aped by a chalk outline. Jail was where you were force-fed time. The biggest thing that never existed, they pushed it down your throat. It was all you had to think about, that and your crime, if you were lucky enough to have one. In the early days family visited, bringing their baskets of memories. As their visits became more strained, they wanted him to confess to the poor woman’s murder. They were tired of making the trip, but naturally they denied it. Mete was glad when they stopped coming. It was like when everyone knows something they’re not telling you, something they know about you, something too appalling to tell you about yourself. Tidy resolutions, adherence to irrefutable absurdities.
Just remember to take cell doors at a crouch, and the chairs kill your back if you try and relax in them, all the while trying to block the clatter out, elbowing suspicious bowls of meal. Everywhere, propaganda proclaimed that revenge had been eradicated from the face of the earth, but they never told you about the vial they’d lost somewhere in the files.
Already one parole hearing was a file folder; his test score grid didn’t line up to the machine’s, so they turned him down. When they told him, he just nodded like they made all the sense in the world, relaxing his muscles, taking it in. The warden had to placate the guards’ union, the government mandarins, the news media, his wife. Somebody had to pay for it all.
DNA was no sooner coined when it turned up in forensics. He could see it coming and then it overtook him, like bar codes. Ambitious smalls were always making everything smaller; it was the great stone, the great uphill. What occurred occurred because of the completely unrelated connections between things. It was the warden, claiming rashly, in public, that no wrongly accused men were being held in his facility.
It was the urine sample of fate, a piece of meat on the head of a pin. Some pinching and probing, and a few tests and sword dances later, the odds were in his favour, ranging in the billions to one. The DNA tests were conclusive and the warden was out on his ass, but it took months before Mete staggered down into the valley a free man. There had been no hoopla, nobody on the outside waving in. City administration threatened him and lawyers shouted. A priest whispered that he should forgive God. And the only free shrink found him repellent.
He rented a room in his old neighbourhood and relaxed in his gonch. What it was simply went on. The public found his vague innocence troubling. Slowly he resigned himself to the traumas in the walls and the not insignificant reigns of garbage. It didn’t matter; he’d become an old madman long ago, anyway.
One night after he’d turned out his lamp it all started again. He thought he was having a dream: his door flying open, six Navy seals framing him in watertight pistols. They called him a terrorist motherfucker, bound his wrists with zap-straps and were about to drag him down the stairs when a bright light in the crowd realized they were in the wrong room, on the wrong floor. This revelation was followed by a considerable pause. One of them reluctantly reached out with his bayonet and, with a flick, cut the zap-strap. Covering each other, they withdrew. A minute later there was a crash on the floor below, a cry of protest cut short. A small dog barking.
--excerpt from "A Small Dog Barking" (Anvil Press) 1-895636-69-8
A Small Dog Barking (Anvil Press)
Robert Strandquist twirls the ice around in his glass of black coffee, the cubes clinking together in a pleasant staccato. The home he shares with his partner of five years, Maria, is neat and well-ordered, from the woven placemats that lie on the little wooden table where we sit to the pieces of antique stained glass leaning against the panes in the bay window from which pale winter light spills through.
Strandquist, in his early 50s, is also neat, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a well-trimmed, seal-coloured beard. Nothing about him or around him hints at one of the strongest recurring themes in his fiction—the world in collapse. The colours of the world are dark these days, he says. “And if you want to paint a picture, that’s your palette. Nobody believes in anything anymore.”
Darkness is emphasized in The Shift, a three-part, apocalyptic short story that appears in A Small Dog Barking. “There’s no moon in the sky,” he says, “and that’s basically a metaphor for God: There’s no God in the sky.” Meanwhile Strandquist does yoga, practices Zen, and is inspired by Zhuangzi, a 4th-century B.C. Taoist philosopher, whose ideas strongly influenced Chinese Buddhism.
For Strandquist, to deny the existence of God—or Allah or Yahweh or Brahma, whatever name you use—is absurd. “We blithely walk around thinking that there is no God,” he says, and because of it we are teetering on the brink of oblivion.
Darkness is never far away. Had he not discovered meditation in 1980, alcoholism might have killed him. As well, during his first two years of being a full-time writer, he was beset by terror and anxiety, constantly grappling with the question: Why am I doing this?
Brian Kaufman, Strandquist’s editor at Anvil Press, prefers to view Strandquist as a kind of soothsayer. “His stories seem to talk in the sense of parables. They’re like a warning sign telling us we’re going to hell, and we’d better do something fast.” Novelist Bill Gaston concurs, calling Strandquist a West Coast Kafka. “I guess because one senses in his work, as a sort of backdrop, an existential burden, that there’s a kind of nasty trick going on.”
According to Strandquist, this dystopian mess we’re in has much to do with the destruction of indigenous cultures by western colonialism and imperialism and extends to what Strandquist calls the destruction of our indigenous selves. It comes from the West’s penchant for trashing religions—particularly Islam. This is a sin, Strandquist says, that will come back to haunt us.
“We have no right to be so destructive when somebody’s got something that they value so much they’ll give up their lives to protect it,” he says. And then, with a wistful air, looking down at the table, brushing away invisible crumbs, he adds, “I wish we had something that we valued that much in our culture. If we did, we’d be way better off. We wouldn’t be teetering on the
edge of oblivion.”
Concurrently, Strandquist suggests western culture has reduced the modern-day male to the likes of Homer Simpson, a notorious “goof” who is an alien to his children. “Most men are like Homer Simpson. And that’s a ruined thing; that’s not a complete form. It’s a mutation of something natural.”
Strandquist believes women are generally more on the ball, but he is is not confident that either sex has what it takes to bring the world forward—or set it right. “We’re so close to the abyss,” says the soothsayer, “we’ve got to save us from ourselves. Here we are on this great ship that’s about to run into an iceberg.”
Nor does Strandquist have the answers either. “His fiction’s complaint [has] no particular object or centre,” says Gaston. “Nor does it offer solutions, so in this way it feels so accurate.” The appeal of many of Strandquist’s characters, Kaufman says, “is they’re just like you and me, and you see how close any of us are to falling through the cracks.”
Leo, the protagonist in Strandquist’s novel The Dreamlife of Bridges (Anvil Press, 2003), gets caught in a tailspin through the loss of job after job, and home after home, until he eventually ends up on the streets. His son has committed suicide, and his tools—the only possessions he still retains once he’s homeless—get consumed by fire. For renewal to happen, for healing to happen, we have to start all over again. “And in the deepest sense, we have to start from nothing,” Strandquist says. “We have to throw it away, throw everything away and begin again.”
Growing up, Strandquist bounced around B.C. with his family, and his early education was a disaster. He failed classes. He went from a middle-class high school in Kelowna to Surrey where there were students smoking in the halls. Disheartened by his new surroundings, he started skipping classes and eventually dropped out when he was in Grade Ten. Three years later, Strandquist entered Douglas College in New Westminster and steered himself towards the arts, including writing, even though he was functionally illiterate.
“It’s kind of fascinating why I chose to do something that I didn’t know anything about,” he says. “I would have been much wiser to choose music or engineering, which is what I was really interested in.” Eventually, at the University of Lethbridge, and later at UVic, he realized his course had to be writing. “It lit a fire under me that’s still going today.”
Now holding an M.F.A from UBC, Strandquist has banished his demons. The terror he felt upon becoming a full-time writer has dissipated, and he no longer asks himself, why am I doing this? It’s as if he’s come to an understanding with God, struck a deal with Him, and has every intention of holding up his end of the bargain.
“It’s a reciprocal thing with nature,” he says. “If you make a decision to go in a particular direction, then the impulse is yours, but all the rest of it is up to nature—or Brahma, or whatever.” There is a certain kismet to his thinking, a karmic philosophy that keeps his “ass in the chair.” It tells him God is working away on his behalf to help him in his chosen pursuit, and so prevents him from abandoning it to do something else when things get tough.
“I’ve learned the hard way. You get something good happening and for whatever reason, you decide it’s not the right thing anymore, and you go off in this direction and, boy, do you pay a price. So that’s why I keep writing. This little voice says, just do it. So I do it.” 1-895636-69-8
Article by Tamara Letkeman, a Vancouver writer.
[BCBW 2006] "Fiction"