Feature

Bang Crunch

Bang Crunch
Neil Smith

Knopf Canada
$29.95
cloth
244pp
978-0-676-97836-0

“It’s strange talking about yourself,” says Neil Smith as we sit down in Mile End’s Arts Cafe to talk about him. “It’s not something I’m used to, especially with strangers.”

All writers should have such problems. After all, it’s only an issue because Bang Crunch, the 42-year-old Montrealer’s first book, has been causing the kind of excitement rarely generated by a debut, let alone a short story collection. Anyway, presumably he’ll be used to it before long. This tête-à-tête with the mRb is, by his count, the 27th interview he has done in the past month.

Happily for everyone concerned, Bang Crunch is an easy book to talk about. It’s a collection boasting a beguiling range of moods and approaches. It’s also infused with a spirit of fun, one that’s less a result of the actual content (though in places it’s very funny indeed) than of the sense of a writer setting himself a series of audacious challenges and meeting all of them. Time and again, readers are likely to feel they’re witnessing some literary lab scientist trying a crazy experiment and finding, “Hey! This works!” Given that’s there’s apparently no hidden narrative thread-these are not connected stories – one wonders how the sequencing was determined.

“I wanted a mixture of tones,” Smith says. “I didn’t want all the hard-hitting stories clumped together, or all the silly whimsical ones together either. Two stories with the same characters had to be kept separate, as did the four stories set in Montreal. I wanted to spread things out to show that I could do various things. One hesitation that I had was that the first two stories have gay characters. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to be the new David Leavitt. But in the end I got over that.”

Another striking thing about Bang Crunch is its range of references and devices. An affinity for the world of science and medicine, for example, is evident in the very first story, “Isolettes,” which manages the neat feat of finding an original take on the universal theme of motherhood. Would Smith agree that he comes at many of his stories from angles that aren’t typically literary?

“I guess so. It could be because I work as a translator and I work with a very wide variety of texts, often scientific and often medical, and I end up incorporating that into stories. The story about a premature baby (“Isolettes”) is from a project I worked on for the CBC, a documentary about micro-preemies, or extremely premature babies, and the turmoil that their parents face. It was really heartbreaking. I wanted to use the background information that I had amassed and funnel it into a short story. And I wanted the woman in the story to be even more detached from the baby than the women I worked with in the documentary, whose babies were in incubators and couldn’t be touched. I wanted this mother to be already detached before she had the baby.”

Debut collections sometimes take the form of linked stories comprising a thinly veiled autobiographical coming-of-age narrative. Smith decisively sidesteps that whole issue for much of Bang Crunch – the narrator of “Extremities,” for example, is a human foot. But then there is “Butterfly Box,” in which an artist father is misunderstood by his non-artist son. Is that perhaps a comment, if only an ironic one, on his own relationship with his father?

“No, not at all. None of these stories are about my family. I didn’t want anyone in my family reading my work and saying ‘Why are you upset with me?’ Nor are they about me. People have said things like ‘You’re a gay man, so you must have lived through something like [the experience of the gay teen narrator of “Green Fluorescent Protein”],’ but that wasn’t my experience at all. With reference to “Butterfly Box,” my father is an engineer, not an artist. He’s not interested in art, and he doesn’t read fiction, though he was excited when the book went into the Maclean‘s bestseller list. Having said that, though, I’ve always been interested in art, and thought it would be my career choice at one point, to be a commercial artist. But I ended up going into language.”

Language, for Smith, is more than his stock-in-trade. Clearly it’s something he thinks about a lot, something that’s evident when he’s asked about the significance in his work of objects – a curling rock shows up in two stories, to cite just one case.

“When you’re trying to describe an inanimate object in words, in essence you’re trying to bring it to life,” he says. “You use adjectives that effectively give the object a human personality. With “Extremities,” I decided to try to take that a step further. I had written stories from the point of view of a child, a teenager, an older woman. How about a foot?”

In a uniformly strong collection, one story that stands out is the last one, “Jaybird,” a study of deception and humiliation set in Montreal’s francophone theatre community. Not only is it by far the longest story in the book, but it succeeds, in a way so subtle that one hardly notices it at first, in vaulting over a problem that has faced every Quebec writer working in English.

“I wanted to delve into francophone life in Montreal in a way you don’t often see in Anglo Quebec literature,” Smith says. “It’s a story that’s almost exclusively about Francophones, but told in English. I deliberately didn’t pepper it with italicized French expressions, or try to reproduce the phonetics of Francophones speaking English, because that wouldn’t have worked for 66 pages. I’ve tried to write it as though it were a translation of a story originally written in French.”

It would appear that Smith’s rare ability to straddle two worlds is a function of his life circumstances as well as his talent. Though much of his youth was sent in various American cities, he’s a Montrealer through and through.

“I do still find, in Montreal, that there’s this great divide between the two cultures,” he says. “But I live mostly in French. My boyfriend is a Francophone, and we don’t speak English at home, we only speak French, because his English is much more limited than my French. There are certain English words and expressions he just doesn’t understand, like all the words we have for people talking: chat, ramble on, natter.”

Speaking of which, all the talking Smith has been doing about himself and Bang Crunch hasn’t been wasted in market terms. Though he’s reluctant to get caught up in certain aspects of it all (“I told myself when the book came out that I would never look at [the Amazon sales list]. That would drive me insane.”), enough other indicators show that things are going quite well: publication is imminent in the U.K. and U.S., there are newly secured translation deals for Germany and France, and the aforementioned crash landing at Number Seven on the Maclean‘s national bestseller list. Does this all mean that he’ll be leaving translation behind soon, and writing full time?

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely. The money from selling books of short stories, even if it sells abroad, isn’t going to sustain you indefinitely. And to tell you the truth I don’t think I would want to stop, because I find that there are only a certain number of hours in a day that I can creatively write fiction. Translation, because I’ve been doing it for 17 years, is something I can slip into and out of pretty easily. Right now I’m doing the annual report for Radio-Canada.”

More than just market factors, it’s how the two genres are perceived that has made Smith determined to write a novel next.

“Reviewers have remarked things like, ‘I can’t wait to see what he does with a novel.’ Now, had I written a novel, do you think they’d be saying ‘I can’t wait to see what he does with a short story’? I’ve been lucky enough to get a big push with this book, and it’s been a wonderful experience, but I don’t think I can expect it to happen twice. You speak to editors, agents, publishers – they all want novels.”

Still, there must be a certain wistfulness in leaving behind the flexibility and freedom to experiment that comes with short stories.

“Yes, sure,” Smith says with a smile. “I probably couldn’t write a whole novel in the voice of a foot.” mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette.

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