‘Boundary Problems’ by Greg Bechtel

Boundary Problems coverReviewed by David Burgess McGregor

When a debut collection of work is published there is often a risk that the impatience of the author might lead to rushing material rather than waiting for a collection that is a round object. Or, what is more likely, the author is still finding their voice and it only shows itself completely formed in a few exceptional moments. As a reader and reviewer I certainly do not expect first time authors to have the ability to produce patiently crafted and mature work, which is what makes Edmontonian Greg Bechtel’s Boundary Problems such a notable exception.

Boundary Problems is made up of ten stories, covering a broad variety of startlingly specific characters and situations. As the title suggests, many of the stories (three of them combining into the epic “Smut Story” parts I-III) push into territory that sits in between satisfying definition, or even distinguishable dimensions. Though the cover gleefully expresses that the stories are about “paranoia, sex, conspiracies, and magic,” Bechtel finds a way into these topics that sidesteps any of the predictable showiness that these classifications might suggest. From the schizo-abduction/abductee voicing of “Blackbird Shuffle” to the impossibly telepathic taxi dispatcher in “The Mysterious East,” to the society of mentally ill cultural resistors that meet in the backroom of a Tim Horton’s, there is undoubted energy and excitement in the way that these stories attempt to peel back at least one layer of reality. But it is the way that Bechtel combines these ‘out there’ themes with more practical (though equally complicated) instances of boundary pushing that make the collection work as a unified and interesting whole.

Perhaps what is most surprising and satisfying about this book is Bechtel’s persistent willingness to take real chances in terms of where the narratives might lead. Bechtel demonstrates a rare devotion to pursuing tension in his characters even if it means pushing into uncertain or unflattering territory. It never feels like a sure thing that the character (or even the reader) will emerge unscathed. Like the vantage points that writers such as Tobias Wolff take up, Bechtel is interested in exposing personal humiliations or shortcomings, but also in doing it so that it ultimately feels cathartic. This tendency is evident even in the narrator’s voice in “The Concept of a Photon”:

“The overflowing ashtrays on every available surface and the underlying reek of stale smoke say working class. Like Bruce and his buddies. By comparison, I feel sheltered, bourgeois, and somehow less real.”

The writing is necessarily personal because there is no veil or illusion of ultimate control that diffuses the impact of uncertainty. As readers we sense the openness of this approach, the willingness not to be in control, and it makes it exciting to be a part of the stories as they unfold. Ultimately it is a gamble to throw yourself into subject matter that you do not completely control, but it is also one way of trying to write something that might actually matter.

Many of the stories are centrally concerned with sex, but explore it in a way that allows the paradoxes of desire to be present alongside what might be understood as more conventional aspects of sexuality. Most notably in stories like “The Evertt-Wheeler Hypothesis” and the title piece “Boundary Problems,” characters traverse the usual but formidable challenges of understanding their own sexuality, but the reality of their partners is refreshingly present. This empathy for the partner includes sexual histories made muddy by encounters with abuse. Though the decision to face the very real epidemic of sexual abuse is laudable, it is Bechtel’s ability to push this topic into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory that makes his writing significant.

In the story “Boundary Problems” the teenage protagonist (Michael) is involved in a relationship where his own actions get blurry in relation to an experience that his girlfriend had with boy a year or two prior to their meeting. Bechtel is willing to blur the line between abuser and lover, or more particularly, willing to let his character sincerely wonder about what he might have buried inside himself:

“Now she wants Michael to understand what it means when she says his name like that, but he knows he can’t understand. Not Really. When she says his name, he stops, and that is enough.”

This tendency to question borders or ‘boundaries’ weaves its way throughout the collection, continually showing how defining lines are essential but perhaps don’t matter in the ways that we think they do.

What makes Bechtel’s approach in Boundary Problems effective is that every story is grounded in meticulously well-balanced prose and attention to detail. The certainty of the prose ensures that the thread is never lost even in some of the most ambiguous and obscure corners of reality:

“At precisely 4:03 a.m., the infomercial blurs and slows, melts softly into static and white noise. The hiss of the static reminds him of running humidifiers, a hum of childhood colds, warm blankets, bedtime stories, and tuckings-in. When the static clears, he sees himself, sitting in his empty living room. He waves, and his televised self waves with him.”

This excerpt from “Junk Mail” is a good example of how Bechtel consistently hurdles the descriptive trip-wires that bog down so much popular fiction. The details provide momentum and insight instead of feeling like you are being withdrawn from the moment in order to be given an all too hypothetical context. Perhaps the believability of the details in the book is partly owing to Bechtel’s formidable list of previously held jobs (visual basic programmer, camp counsellor, cab driver). His list of work experience is suspiciously similar to the jobs that his characters are engaged in.

While there are a great many things right with Boundary Problems, the commitment to ambiguity that Bechtel exhibits occasionally leaves some of his characters stranded in an uncomfortable way. The stories cover an extreme amount of narrative ground in the short time that we spend with them, and sometimes this makes the departure points feel like they come up short of significant or satisfying resolution. Though a lack of resolution is often preferable to a tightly wrapped gift of a conclusion, in “The Concept of a Photon” and “The Mysterious East” it feels like the stories end a step or two before we are ready (even ambiguously) to let go.

In spite of any drift that occurs in Boundary Problems, Bechtel’s eagerness to transparently deal with tension as well as his ability to craft beautiful prose make this a rare and valuable addition to the world of Canadian literature. My only concern is that Bechtel will have some difficulty finding an equally strange collection of jobs and life experiences to inspire him in his future projects.

In the work of writers like Guy de Maupassant or even J.D. Salinger there is a sense of particularity in their understanding of both their place and time. More than just consistency in style or theme, they convey place and time in a decidedly un-generic and unconventional way that works through specificity to find some kind of universality. Though I do not want to draw too strong of a comparison here, there is a sense in Boundary Problems that you are seeing strange slivers of Canadian life that are particular to Bechtel’s perspective but rich with wider relevance. Bechtel reaches for nuances in the dissolution of boundaries and definitions in contemporary culture in a way that shows you things about our cultural moment. The consistency of voice and meticulous pacing of Boundary Problems suggest that Bechtel and Freehand were patient in developing this ambitious collection, allowing it to mature rather than rushing it into publication. Every story justifies its place and works to enhance the collection as a whole. It is an articulate debut from a well-developed (and hopefully prolific) new voice in Canadian fiction.

Freehand | 232 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1554811861

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