‘There Can Never Be Enough: New and Selected Stories by David Arnason’

There Can Never Be Enough coverReviewed by Brock Peters

When I sat down to read David Arnason for the first time, all I had was a scattering of facts and impressions. The most salient of these seemed to be that, despite having prolifically published short stories for over three decades, not to mention novels, editorial work and academic achievements, his writing didn’t seem to have made it much further than a prairie readership. I dove in curiously, and emerged only a few stories later already convinced that to overlook Arnason is surely to ignore one of the most intelligent and creative voices in Canadian literature.

There Can Never Be Enough contains thirty stories selected from six collections previously published between 1982 and 2002, as well as three new stories. Reading through this new compilation is like sitting down over drinks with an eccentric and sometimes vulgar uncle who is eager to embellish and editorialize events from his past, while sometimes descending completely into the world of fantasy and fable. What runs constant from start to finish is Arnason’s unique, energetic voice, something that reminded me almost of a Canadian version of Kurt Vonnegut, able to evoke both biting cleverness and poignant insight. “If you admit you’re a writer in Canada,” one of his characters declares, “they won’t honour your credit cards. You have to pay cash in advance for everything.”

From the very first it’s clear that this is anything but a straightforward collection of stories. “Getting it Right” reads as the reminiscences of an older man, saturated with melancholy but beautifully written, and renders indiscernible the border between autobiography and fiction. The final line, “So, a beginning,” seems to imply that the story might have been written as a literary foreword. While very fitting, I thought it odd not to have demarcated it more clearly as such, in some way; without having done any prior research, it would be unclear to the reader that the first three pieces are the newest.

Entitled “On Silver Pond,” the third story, perfectly exemplifies Arnason’s abilities as a powerfully Canadian writer. Drawing upon the heretofore tired image of skating as an activity that typifies Canadians,  Arnason has it stalk his narrator from his childhood in Gimli, to a spell in Fredericton, and finally overseas to Paris. By the end, though the narrator acknowledges that there is power somewhere in the image of skating that has given meaning to his life, he can’t quite pin it down. As readers we are forced to agree, having in five short pages heard many stories from throughout the narrator’s life, and we are left almost yearning to have such a moving centrality to our own lives.

Though Arnason’s Canadiana is strong, some of the most entertaining moments in the collection are when he dips his toe into the fantastic, as when in “The Drunk Woman Is Singing in My Office,” the occupant of the office in question is quizzing his secretaries about the situation, and “they suggest that [the drunk woman] has been there all along, singing, but I reject this suggestion. I would surely have noticed by now.” And then there are the times when Arnason tackles fully-fleshed fables, as in “The Dragon and the Dry Goods Princess,” wherein a dragon is transplanted from Transylvania to the Whiteshell, and finds himself entertaining a different sort of princess, one who is eventually rescued by an unassuming but clever accountant.

The best example of this kind of fantasy is found in one of the collection’s longest stories, “The Girl of Milk and Blood,” clocking in at eighteen pages. A mysterious brotherhood shares domestic duties in Italy during the Second World War, and finds themselves caring for a woman who has escaped from a Nazi-controlled stronghold nearby. It took twelve full pages, until one of the brothers is forced to construct a glass coffin for the woman, for me to realize that this was an astonishingly creative re-imagining of the Snow White fable; from there the story raced towards an unexpected and dreamlike conclusion.

It’s evident that as a collection of “selected stories,” There Can Never Be Enough strives to give as comprehensive an overview as possible of Arnason’s career. And naturally over the course of thirty-three stories there are a few (“Sons and Fathers, Fathers and Sons” and “Bad Girl,” for example) that would seem to pale in comparison to those around them in terms of creativity and poise. I could spend time analyzing their particular faults, but in the end such an analysis would only underpin the outstanding caliber of the stories surrounding them—and these stories make up the bulk of the collection.

For me, There Can Never Be Enough served as a perfect introduction to David Arnason’s writing, and I would say with confidence that someone who has read him before would find their enjoyment rekindled here. In striking a balance between being comprehensive and being readable, Arnason’s newest collection succeeds mightily. In “50 Stories and a Piece of Advice” Arnason writes, “I used to keep secrets until I figured out that nobody told you secrets unless they wanted other people to know.” Either way, for this collection to be kept secret would be a crime.

Turnstone | 350 pages |  $25.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-0888014504

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