Feature

Coming of Age Reconsidered

Any Day Now
Denise Roig

Signature Editions
$17.95
paper
251pp
0-921833-98-9

“I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who’s Roger Daltrey before he got old. Aging may not be a picnic, but it’s better than you might think.

This is what Montreal writer Denise Roig is getting at in her new short story collection. Any Day Now puts a fresh spin on the time-worn coming-of-age genre. Forget the passage from childhood into adulthood, Roig suggests: “I’m more interested in what comes when we begin to age,” she confesses at a west end coffee bar. “When we’ve already made choices in life, we’ve married and had children and gotten divorced, We’ve traveled and had our love affairs or whatever it is that we’ve done. And now what? What is left?”

The question is complex, and so are Roig’s answers, providing her with ample material to fill the eighteen beautifully crafted, bittersweet stories of Any Day Now.

“Windows Like Doors Everywhere You Look,” one of the strongest pieces, features a youthful journalism student named Foster lecturing his middle-aged female professor in a role-reversing meeting after class. “You’re a basically good person in a basically nasty world and an even nastier institution,” Foster says. “At some point you had big ideas, grand ideas, even revolutionary ideas, but then the world got hold of you. It shook you and broke you and punished you for those ideas …”

“Foster,” the teacher answers, “you could be talking about anyone I know over the age of forty-five. It’s called adulthood.”

In story after story, Roig probes what it means to be an adult. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be much fun. Roig’s characters have been stripped of most of their youthful certainties. Things that once consoled them – travel, sex, religion, art – now help pass the time, but provide little real solace.

In “Bridge of Sighs,” a man dying of AIDS says to a former lover, “How long am I going to have to explain this to you, dear heart? Life is mess and complication. Nothing but. There’s only little spaces for happy-go-lucky, for grace.”

“I’ve been accused,” Roig admits, “of writing depressing stories, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t think I’m saying here that life’s a bitch and then you die. I don’t think I’m saying that at all. It seems to me, as someone pushing 60, that what’s left at the end of life is a whole lot. There’s a certain strength from having done the early years. Some strength and clarity and a freedom from the limiting notions of who we are and who we feel we have to be. Eventually, hopefully, we learn we can survive without the approval of others.”

So what are these little spaces for grace evoked by Roig’s dying character?

According to Roig, they’re found in “the love and devotion of a couple of people, and some quiet place inside each of us that has nothing to do with anyone else.”

Love. Inward peace. These are the blessings that provide meaning in Roig’s fiction and also, one senses, in her life. “They are the big things,” she says, nodding emphatically. “They’re really the only things that can do, in the end, for any of us.”

Even as she wrestles with big life themes, Roig has packaged her latest stories in an intriguing and ambitious structure inspired by modern dance and the sonata form on which modern-dance choreography is based. “I studied modern dance and the (Martha) Graham technique at the Julliard School in New York years ago,” Roig explains. “It struck me that the sonata, with its exposition, development and recapitulation, is a lot like the short story with its beginning, middle, and end.”

The three-part form occurs naturally in traditional short stories, but in Any Day Now Roig pushes it a step further, dividing the stories into six cycles of three. These trios are also linked, providing an approximate echo of the sonata form. Characters introduced in the first story of a trio reappear in the second or third; setting often carries over, as do image and theme.

In certain trios – like the first, appropriately titled “Troika” – the links are obvious. The theme in “Troika” is storytelling. The narrator is a middle-aged Montreal woman who dreams of adopting a Russian child. In the opening story, the narrator’s Russian friend Luba recounts a surreal attempt to fix her broken-down Lada during a millennial celebration in Moscow. In the trio’s last installment the narrator repays Luba with a story of a coat she borrowed in Moscow (a sly reference to Gogol’s “The Overcoat”?) during a failed adoption attempt that Luba apparently brokered. The stories seem to have little to do with each other until the very end, when the narrator visits Russia and the complex nature of her desire for a child, and of her friendship with Luba, is poignantly revealed.

In linking these stories is Roig moving towards the novel form? Emphatically not. “I get insulted when people suggest a short story writer has to graduate, at some point, to the novel. Think of Alice Munro and all these wonderful women writers who stick by the form.” For Roig, writing stories is “like serial monogamy.” She loves immersing herself with characters she’s just met, but soon feels the pull to move on.

Despite this artistic restlessness, Roig has been a committed fiction writer since 1989, when she moved here from Los Angeles with Ariel, her then 12-year-old daughter. They had just seen a performance of Cirque du Soleil and were so impressed that Ariel convinced her mother to move to Montreal so she could study with the organization.

While her daughter was going to circus school, Roig signed up for a fiction workshop at Concordia University led by Audrey Thomas. The rest, as she says, is history. In 1995 her debut collection, A Quiet Night and a Perfect End received accolades from Grace Paley, among others, and has enjoyed a long and healthy shelf life. In 2000 it was published in French as Le vrai secret du bonheur; in 2003 CBC Radio’s Between the Covers broadcast selections to listeners across the country. In addition to writing fiction, Roig is a journalist and has taught in Concordia’s journalism department.

What comes next? Unexpectedly, the answer is non-fiction. While editing Any Day Now, Roig noticed a pastry school a few blocks from her Montreal West home. She had always secretly wanted to go to cooking school, so she signed up on a whim. The intensive course was “a wonderful and terrible experience … the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The result is Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School, for which Roig hopes to find a publisher soon. Given her passion for telling stories, I’d bet some fiction from the kitchen will also soon be underway. mRb

Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal novelist and translator.

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