Jul. 01, 2009 - Issue #715: The Bestest of Edmonton 2009
Ruins & Relics
Picking up the pieces: Zorn's short stories examine objects and their memoriesAren't we continually surprised by the thoughts and feelings that we have forgotten and discover anew when prompted by an inanimate object? What is the hold that these objects have over us? Are they the true memory keepers? The puissance of forgotten memory has been most notably explored by Proust, yet it's a topic of almost limitless explorative possibilities. In her debut short story collection, Alice Zorn examines the almost mystical power objects can exert over human beings and the relationship between objects and memory.
These objects represent the intense connections between individuals, relics that have the power to encapsulate the enormity of feeling. Often, the objects in question are related to a moment, perhaps the moment, of the disintegration of an individual. One of the most intriguing stories in the collection is "Black Peter, 1990" about a young nurse, Katie, visiting her boyfriend, Steve, who is training in Europe to be an art restorer. Katie accompanies Steve and his two teachers, Gario and Dieter, to a remote village in then-Czechoslovakia to work on restoring a statue in a local church. Once there, the restorers discover a priceless statue referred to as "Black Peter."
Conflict ensues as the restorers want to remove Black Peter from the village and have it displayed in a museum where it can be properly cared for and admired by people, while Katie argues the statue has more intrinsic meaning being worshipped than as an objet d'art. This brings the somewhat elitist art restorers into conflict with the villagers who cling to the statue of Black Peter as a relic and consider it a part of their personal history. The ideas of who is truly able to appreciate art, who deserves art, and how should it best be preserved for future generations are all debated.
Gario comments on Katie's naiveté and supreme confidence in the power of capitalism by positing, "Progress isn't things. It's a process—which means nothing if it doesn't come from here. Lose your past and you've got nothing." This goes against Katie's western intuition, and seems to go against the very premise the book is working from: that things are inextricably interwoven with our personal pasts. But clinging to them when there is real life to be lived, new history to be written, that is what leads to ruination.
Zorn's talent is undeniable, but I do question the overlapping of some characters from story to story. When this occurs, a suspicion is raised of an overarching theme or grander tale that must be ferreted out, à la Alice Munro's Open Secrets, but that's not the case here. Only some characters find themselves recycled, leading to an unnecessary distraction that pulls attention away from the narrative.
There is also a perpetual sense of tragedy that permeates the collection; a haunting tone that leads to the melancholic conclusion that misfortune constitutes our strongest emotions and memories, or at least the memories probed here. Zorn's style exemplifies the philosophy of writing that shows rather than tells, and leaves the reader to deduce the motivations of the characters. In Ruins & Relics, Zorn delivers a strong showing and promises to be a Canadian writer to watch. V
Ruins & Relics
By Alice Zorn
224 pp; $19.95
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