In the last story of Jess Taylor’s stunning debut collection, Pauls, a character muses: “Love and relationships and all that shouldn’t be about possession or obligation, but about making a choice.” Each story in Pauls does feature a Paul of some type — boys, twentysomethings, a woman, a novelist — but each piece is also linked by the idea that all of us are struggling to figure out the best way to love; fumbling, flailing, sometimes screaming along the way.
“Isn’t basically every short story collection about, y’know, love?” you might posit sourly. Well, yeah. But I do think that Taylor is exceptionally wise and deeply observant about what love actually means in a world that is gross and silly and harsh and occasionally lovely. In the world of Pauls, love is deliriously, obsessively painful, and Taylor has her finger placed squarely on that exquisite bruise.
In “Breakfast Curry,” the ache is more corporeal: the title character suffers from an immune disorder that prevents scabs and bruises from healing. “Maybe I was bad, you know, in my core, something a little off that made my immune system spoil,” he wonders. There’s two stories in particular that sawed me in half. The title story (recipient of a 2014 National Magazine Award) presents tender fragments of memories between two childhood friends, with the outcome presented in a way that is abstracted and achingly poetic.
The other, “Multicoloured Lights”, follows a complex friendship between Paulina and Stef after Paulina is date-raped. The push and pull between these two women — the challenge of communicating trauma, of trying to be there for someone you love and not knowing how — is depicted with a gentle realism and clarity. It shows that sometimes all you can do is hold on to your loved one and try to brace yourself against the world. It is not always the right type of helping or the right type of love, but it will do. And sometimes it is all we have. (Alison Lang)
Pauls launches in Toronto on Friday November 6 at the Steady Cafe (1051 Bloor Street West) at 7pm. Learn more about Jess Taylor at jesstaylor.ca.