There’s a small but vocal group of critics who regularly bemoan the abundance of Canadian fiction focusing on the dilemmas of affluent, privileged characters; fictions aimed at accordingly privileged readers. David Derry’s first collection of stories, Sentimental Exorcisms, certainly fits this description, but I’d wager that it’s so eloquently, confidently executed that all complaints of class bias can, and should, be forgiven. In fact, at least in terms of style, Derry’s first collection seems like a fresh breath of air in our small press climate of quiet, minimalist fiction. Reading Derry can be a rich (and sometimes florid) experience — his narrators are erudite and scholarly, employing an exquisitely intricate grammar. But considering our rapidly shrinking attention spans, it’s an oh-so-welcome jolt, and completely appropriate to his cast of professional, academic and cerebral men.
Sentimental Exorcisms explores a world of stamp collectors, top-scoring English undergrads and art buffs — aficionados and professionals, navigating the fragile ego-systems of their painfully masculine landscapes. In the boldly-titled “Semicolon, Coma, Full Stop: A Treatise on Punctuation,” we’re launched into a grammar-nerd’s fantasy of usage guides, ancient treatises on philology, the dry but peculiar history of the semicolon. In “Distance,” we get a series of insights and interpretations from a dedicated market analyst, and begin to see a world dependent on a rising and falling economy. However, underlying all this impressive terminology and research is Derry’s primary skill as a realist storyteller. These men are by turns pathetic, sniveling, delusional, cruel, bumbling and oblivious, but in Derry’s hands they’re also strangely compelling, sympathetic and utterly believable. Rather than despise or condescend to his subjects, we feel their private, painful conflictions as shadowy reflections of our own. This sense of kinship is assisted by five out of six of these stories being told from the first person, as well as by their sheer length — another sign that Derry’s working against the status quo of snappy, bite-sized fiction.
Anyone who’s read Foucault will recall that the intensification of sex as an object of study hasn’t exactly liberated our libidinal repressions and secret desires. If anything, it’s helped force us into a pained awareness of what’s supposedly normal, as dictated by demographic and statistical analysis. I don’t see Derry’s conflicted characters as “latter day” Victorians, as some might have us believe, but entirely contemporary, struggling — as all sensitive men are — with the simultaneous explosion of sexual openness and the sinking ship of traditional masculine identity. I would love to see Derry venture out into more ambitiously experimental fictions, but hey, you can’t ask for everything. For what it is, Sentimental Exorcisms is a solid exploration of these sad and confusing days, and a more plausible portrait of the men who inhabit them than most petulant stabs at subversive fiction on the market. (Spencer Gordon)
by David Derry, $18.95, 189 pgs, Coach House Books, 80 bpNichol Lane, Toronto, ON, M5S 3J4, chbooks.com