In its exploration of death and mortality—and by extension life—John Gould's new book serves up 56 very short, fascinating and timely stories.
I COULDN’T WATCH OR READ ANY MORE NEWS. The world had passed the million-case mark in the COVID-19 pandemic, and what, I asked myself, was there for me to do? What I always do: Take a book and go outside. Sitting on a round paving stone below the front steps of my home—now my self-isolation chamber—on Mayne Island, like my garden plants I turned my face to the sun. A fat bee fumbled its way across a floppy crocus, and the eagles nesting down the road sent down a shower of staccato chatter.
Feeling small and absorbed in the life going about its business around me was the perfect time for also turning to John Gould’s new book The End of Me (Freehand Books, May 2020), as it explores not just death and mortality but by extension life, the edges of our connection and that invisible force suffusing everything—mystery.
In this collection of 56 very short stories, Gould returns to the genre of flash (or sometimes called sudden) fiction, for which he was a Giller Prize finalist with Kilter: 55 Fictions. He describes the form as a hybrid of short story and haiku.
It is also a blend of trampoline, time machine, x-ray, astral projection and lover’s whisper, as the shifting perspectives, penetrating vision and imaginative agility allow the author to take you anywhere, inside and out, in endlessly unexpected directions.
Gould takes us back in time to a young man dating one of Lot’s daughters in the city of Sodom; up into a spaceship’s decaying orbit; and into the early 1900’s lab of a scientist trying to weigh and discover the exit point of the human soul. We read a dating profile, a performance art grant proposal, customer’s book review, and obit for a professional obit writer. We’re led into the beautiful but sombre intimacy of dreaming extinct species, and the terrible intimacy of suicide. All with control, play, tenderness, curiosity and a willingness to end in question.
Death is a tricky subject. One of the most covered themes in literature, it’s still something of a Gorgon most avoid looking directly into. While it’s a universal—100 percent of us will go through it—Gould reminds us that it’s also illimitably individual in terms of how we experience it, where we encounter it, how we see it and how it makes us see ourselves.
“That multiplicity of perspectives suits my temperament,” Gould tells me by phone, as we each do as we’re told and stay home for safety’s sake. He says he inherited his mathematician father’s love of precision and concision and his journalist mother’s love of story, so “The form feels natural for me.”
After stretching out inside a novel (Seven Good Reasons not to be Good—see the Focus review here), Gould was missing the short form, not only because it feels natural but because the ability to inhabit so many kinds of people across time and place, to put on the lens of wildly divergent predicaments, “gives me access to so many different ways of thinking.” It was, he says, “persistently exciting to write.”
In this time of uncertainty around a global health crisis, Gould’s book—with serendipitous timing—invites us to remember that uncertainty is often the unnoticed norm. Several of the stories end outright on a question, and we’re shown that no matter how smart or prepared or rational we think we are, the unexpected can cut us off mid-stream, mid-steam and, in the case of one story, mid-sentence.
But uncertainty is not all bad. While it can be unsettling, that space of not knowing allows us to confront the limits of our understanding, the edge of what we think we know.
Gould does this partly as a philosopher, delighting in paradox. For instance, at a funeral home, two sisters experience the classic presence of absence—“two true things that couldn’t both be”—of a deceased sibling; and a dead woman trapped in an “exhausting afterlife” reflects on regrets but realizes you can’t distinguish between the things you did and the things you didn’t do. “Saying yes was saying no, and vice versa. Yes and no were indistinguishable, because you were always saying both.”
These stories play with the edges of the metaphysical and the physical, and even mundane practical problems become more than they seem. Consider the poor guy on a first date trying to decide whether (and how) to mercifully kill an injured raccoon: “There was no way to be certain he’d be doing the creature a favour…What if the Babylonians were right, or maybe it was the Mesopotamians, what if we’re all going to spend the rest of forever in the dark eating dust?”
And before arriving at the funeral home, those two sisters had gone shopping for an urn for their brother’s cremains, “lugging with them a bag of orzo to stand in…Research had helped them estimate him at twelve cups.” As the artist’s deadly grant proposal more explicitly yet cryptically reminds us: “your body isn’t what you think it is.”
Then who and what are we? Where exactly is the end—or the beginning—of me? What do we coalesce out of and what do we dissolve into? When I watched my mother die of pneumonia last February, I kept thinking that simple and forever unanswerable question: “Where did she go?” How could a single exhalation be the difference between my mother and mother’s body? What was she now? What was I now?
The connections we have with others can be powerful—enough to bend the boundaries of our selves.
In several stories, Gould more tangentially shows us that the same power lies in our relationship with the world around us. Before COVID, we were already living in a time of global threat, that of ecocide, and Gould touches on that loss as well and the delicate edge of where we begin and end as creatures of nature.
“Nature was my first real sanctuary,” Gould says, “but that sanctuary is such a loaded experience now. Now the tranquility brings the heartbreak with it. We’re having to acknowledge our role in the loss and contemplate the future of the living planet.”
As I sit in my sunny outdoor refuge from pandemic news, almost on my mother’s birthday, I deeply feel the truth that one of Gould’s characters explains so simply: “There’s a great deal for which to brace oneself.” But The End of Me, in its collection of controlled surprises, delivers the equally important message that even when life is uncertain, “things can still be beautiful.”
In these isolated times, The End of Me can be ordered directly from Freehand, and many local independent booksellers are either shipping for a flat fee, allowing customers to order and pick up at the door or arrange for delivery.
Writer and musician Amy Reiswig works by day (and sometimes into the night—and now remotely) as an editor for the provincial government. Besides Focus, her writing has appeared in Quill & Quire, This Magazine, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.