Anik See, Postcard and Other Stories

If you're here for the review, jump ahead to the bit marked "Actual Review." There's a mostly unnecessary preamble that I won't judge you for skipping, even though I needed to write it for myself.


It's been (gulp) fifteen years since I stumbled across, bought, and feel hard for Anik See's little marvel of a book Saudade: The Possibilities of Place. Later that same year, I met Anik at a reading by Theresa Kishkan, and bought her short story collection Postcard and Other Stories (or possibly, as I've seen elsewhere, postcard and other stories, or even per the copyright page Postcard: And Other Stories). 

At this distance, I can't remember now why I didn't write about Postcard at the time. I can see an apologetic little note in the blog archives bemoaning my quiet (writing what I think must've been this article about some BC authors, which I should reread to see if I still stand behind it...), but I suspect that there was a more particular reason for not posting.

The reason I say this is because of her writerly overlap, aesthetically and biographically speaking, with fellow author Theresa Kishkan, about whom I've written frequently. At that long-ago reading, Kishkan was reading from her novel The Age of Waterlilies, and though I came eventually to deeply appreciate that novel, it took some time for me to accommodate myself to what I was reading. I'd found her nonfiction intensely and immediately compelling, but the novel took some work that I hadn't been prepared for (which is on me, obviously!).

And the same experience is what I dimly recall of Anik See's Postcard, which to be clear is radically different from Kishkan's novel. Reading Saudade had been overwhelmingly immersive, in a very good way, and I think I must've come to Postcard craving that same experience. Stupid, expecting that a lightly experimental collection of place-centric essays would feel the same as a collection of short fiction, but that's the most likely explanation.

Actual Review

Anik See's collection Postcard and Other Stories deserves a second life: deserves a first life, maybe, because my sense is that it may not have sold very well on its original publication in 2009 from Freehand Books. I can think of so many readers who'd find this book just right for them (though that's not much help 15 years after it came out. Gah).

Although it's pitched as six stories, actually I'd call it five stories and a loosely experimental novella. After five texts easily recognizable as short stories, the book's titular story "Postcard" gets the last 80 pages of this 200-page volume, and it represents a distinctly different achievement from the others. The short stories are good, and rewardingly unlike each other, but this time around, I felt challenged and kind of honoured by "Postcard."

Loosely speaking, the first five stories are about relationships, but only loosely. Really, each one gives you a memorable narrator who's more of an observer: the stable one in the orbit of someone erratic, or the one who's unclear why someone else is with them, why this other person finds them appealing.

Indirectly, I'm borrowing the metaphor of orbit from the first story's title, "binary," in which a young math teacher tries to deal with the wildness of her much older brother, an alcoholic like their father had been: they're gravitationally bound to each other through their relations with their parents, especially their father, but knowing this changes nothing except self-knowledge: "He is fourteen years older than me. I haven't got a clue who he is, because I don't share anything with him. Except blood. And time" (p27). As it happens, that's enough for her to understand him, but not enough for her to understand the relationship as anything other than something happens to her.

The second one, "Ice Out," gives us an artist whose life has taken her to living in a small Ontario cabin, not much smaller than the island it sits on. A man enters her orbit, bringing with him all manner of complications, and it's just a really good, truly grown-up story.

"Etching" is the third, and it's another artist story except this time the narrator's a man, and both he and the woman he spends his time with are artists. She's married to someone else, and it's not (exactly) that kind of relationship, but See does a wonderful job making their artistry and their vision part of their alternately interlocking and diverging stories.

Something of a palate cleanser, "Kingwell" is the shortest piece by some distance, only ten pages, the story of a woman who's low-key obsessed with the philosopher Mark Kingwell. She's also deeply dismissive of Toronto-centrism, while at the same time entirely Toronto-centric herself: everyone in Toronto name-drops, for example, but Kingwell is her neighbour.

For me, possibly because it comes after the comparatively light "Kingwell," the fifth story is the most powerful of those five. A middle-aged non-romantic romance, "The Offing" would film so very well, with all kinds of scenes ideal for Diane Lane and a greying Mark Ruffalo. The plot's both simple and rich, so even though I want to, I'm not sharing much here. They go looking for fossilized shark teeth, they cook lovely food for each other, and they're both achingly present and achingly absent for each other, and it's so recognizable as to be a joy (for me, anyway, but I suspect for a lot of readers).

And then there's "Postcard."

Now that See and Kishkan are the proprietors of Fish Gotta Swim Editions, a remarkable little press that specializes in novellas, I kind of suspect that "Postcard" was going to be a novella until a well-meaning editor convinced her to shoehorn it into this collection. It could've been longer--I would've read twice as many pages--it could've been shorter--this is a story of gaps, elisions, lacunae, and it's hard to tell why its author would choose to have written either more or less:

"I feel as though I was drunk, and that it has passed and I am being drawn languorously out of the dizziness and disorientation of that drunkenness. I wander through the carnival as though in some '70s movie starring Jon Voight, the clickety-clack of game boards and tinny, automated voices of hawkers shouting through megaphones all rotating past as I glide along--it's all so much that I feel as though I am passing through it in the passenger seat of a car, the light and noise so powerful it's washed out, as though it's reflecting off a windshield and why I find this random light and noise comforting I don't know." (p185)

"Postcard" is at least two stories woven together. Along the bottom of most pages, you'll find italicized sentences that add up into something like paragraphs if you read across multiple pages; they're from the narrator's present, more or less. Above those, mostly in regular type, you'll find most of a story, told in fragments, of a young woman named Sophia, who's also the character in the subtext story. Me, I found I had to read the lower story until a blank page, then go back to read the upper one until I at least caught up, but other approaches could presumably work. They're two stories, except that they're not, because they're two different perspectives on some of the same moments that define Sophia's life, or at least her life as it is when the story closes.

You absolutely need to experience the plot on your own, but basically Sophia is travelling in search of the idea of her family, much of which is now lost to her: travelling across the world, yes, hence the postcards, but travelling into memory and into herself as well. The question of what Sophia will recover, and what she'll find that's new to make part of her life, is what drives the story, but for me the story's almost beside the point. The moments leap off the page, the crushing little silences and the detailed set-pieces, and for all the uncertainty you're left with as a reader, you're left at the same time with a deep clarity about this person's character's inner life.

Highly, highly recommended. I've returned to Postcard in preparation for Anik See's new book Cabin Fever, and this time, I'll be posting long before we hit 15 years post-publication!

(Saudade, I can't reread just yet, because I must've loaned it to a bad friend who hasn't returned it. Oy.)


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