Bathroom humour

Other People’s Showers

By Sylvia Rich

A review of Other People's Showers by Mark Paterson

Published on April 1, 2004

Other People’s Showers
Mark Paterson

Exile Editions
$19.95
paper
132pp
1-55096-567-0

Reading Montrealer Mark Paterson’s collection of short stories made me think about how someone else’s shower could be useful, whether as a hiding place or a way into a stranger’s private life. Several times, Paterson describes someone hiding in a cramped, unusual place: behind a washing machine, inside a dryer, or immersed in the yellow, red, and blue balls of a kids’ play cage. More than that, many of the characters in these stories are deeply interested in seeing what happens when they are not around, fantasizing about knowing strangers intimately.

The characters’ voyeuristic inclinations are indulged in various ways. In “Other People’s Funerals,” a couple attends funerals as a form of entertainment. The narrator tells us, “I felt like I had actually known Timothy Ellis – well enough to call him ‘Pappy’ like his grandkids did.” The couple uses the public display of grief as a way of heightening their own emotions in a relationship that has gone a little bit stale.

Then there’s Perry, the title story’s main character, who spends a lot of time imagining friends or strangers going about their daily activities when Perry can’t see them. Perry’s desire to surreptitiously look at other people, and his fear of being observed or caught out, is a promising basis for comedy. But the writing is too slow; giving elaborate details about the wrong things, like this long description of the cigarette Perry smokes when he gets off work: “It was not the physical properties of the cigarettes themselves – he did not change brands to attain different tar levels, he did not switch from filtered to plain, and, despite an affection for the occasional menthol, he didn’t save the minty greens for this special time.”

They’re the same cigarettes. We get the picture. It’s just not crisp enough to be comically satisfying.

But while “Other People’s Showers” failed to make me laugh, I really enjoyed “Red Pants on Monkland,” about a guy obsessed with knowing who’s a native and who’s a newcomer in his neighbourhood. The way Johnny classifies all the passersby as “tourists from Westmount” or as “latecomers living in an apartment with no balcony” will be familiar to many Montrealers. And the way Johnny is first incensed, and then resigned, when he discovers that the “geek…wearing red pants on Monkland and…eating a Mr. Big chocolate bar” seems to know all the locals better than Johnny does, is hilarious.

Most of the stories revolve around quirky plot rather than character development. It can be fun to spend half an hour reading very short stories about people in unusual situations, like two brothers who get into an eating marathon because one of them needs to be twenty pounds heavier to get an acting job in a hardware store commercial. But aside from “Red Pants on Monkland,” these stories suffer from clean but dull writing, and don’t yield enough insight into the characters for my tastes. Watching other people’s uncomfortable moments without gaining any real understanding of their motivations or their inner lives ultimately makes the reader feel like a real voyeur. mRb

Sylvia Rich is a Montreal writer.

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