Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Daydreams of Angels

Twenty stories with a focus on mistreated children, particularly girls, but made palatable by the use of whimsy, fantasy, striking images, and unexpected developments.

Many of the stories are set in the past, as though it's a more suitable location for odd goings-on. In Messages in Bottles a pair of twins survive the sinking of an ocean liner in 1913 by floating away on their mother's cello. "This cello made such a mournful noise as it rode over the waves that a whale fell in love with it."

A fairy tale element underpins several of the stories. In Bartok for Children, a Canadian soldier is killed in occupied France, but brought back to life by a lonely toymaker who longs for a son. The ungrateful soldier seduces a woman by telling her whatever she wants to hear. With each lie, it is not his nose that grows longer.

In The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec Pierre-Loup tours with another feral child, George LeCurieu, and meets a girl in a red coat.  “Why, that girl's so cute, I could eat her up.”

Sex is another major ingredient and several of the characters are prostitutes, yet there's nothing graphic or lurid. In Where Babies Come From the infants appear magically, washing ashore. “You would see their little bottoms peeking up from out of the sand, and if you dug them up quickly, they would be yours to keep.”

The title characters of The Gypsy and the Bear are left stranded in a story that a little boy is telling his tin soldiers. He is called away to lunch and they end up in a brothel.

Dreamlife of Toasters, in which two robots have sex and produce an unwanted child, reminded me of the skewed fables of Stanislaw Lem.  Other stories with science-fiction premises are Swan Lake for Beginners in which a Russian scientist creates batch after batch of Nureyev clones, and The Isles of Dr. Moreau where Grandfather dates a deer-girl, a lion-girl, a swan-girl, and a monkey-girl. 

Another aspect I liked is the way some stories take surprising changes in direction. In the title story, Daydreams of Angels, a shortage of senior angels occurs because they've been sent by God to a beach in Normandy. Consequently a cherub is assigned to a girl named Yvette in Montreal. After they sneak into her room at home, the story switches to her father as he lands on the beach in Normandy.

In The Man Without a Heart a black heroin addict steals from a single mother. When he gets out of rehab, he returns in order to pursue a relationship with her ten-year-old son. The story defies the reader's expectations.

One of the best features of the stories are the marvellous images. “We cover our ice cream in maraschino cherries. It's like clowns were caught in an avalanche and all you can see of them is their noses.” From the same story -- The Conference of the Birds, which features an unruly welfare family with quadruplets named Jay, Robin, Sparrow, and Turtledove -- comes the following marvellous bit:

     Are you who you are when you are a teeny fetus? There are some people who will say that you aren't properly you yet. But of course you are.
     You are you even long before that. You are you when your parents begin to get dressed in fancy clothes on Saturday night. You are you when your mother, who is barely twenty-one years old, puts on a pair of yellow lace underwear. When she plucks her eyebrows in the mirror and when she puts on a red dress that is cut really low and burgundy lipstick: that's all about you, baby.
     You are you when your father, who is also twenty-one years old, pops a pimple on his forehead. When he puts on his fancy shiny shirt that was made by children in a sweatshop in Indonesia. When he isn't sure that he actually looks good—but he has been lucky twice before when wearing it.
     They are both riding the subway in opposite directions to meet each other and you have already begun. That is your beginning. You have just as much right to be as anybody.

My favourite from this collection, "Daydreams of Toasters," I'm adding to a short list I keep of fantastic stories that have been indelibly etched in my mind. The others are:

"The Garden of Time" by J.G. Ballard
"Descending" by Thomas Disch
"Buffalo Gals" by Ursula le Guin
"The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline