Review of Any Day Now
“When I read that a new collection of stories was "grounded in the sonata form that Martha Graham experimented with in modern dance," I was intrigued. The book is Denise Roig's Any Day Now.
Roig studied dance at the Juilliard School in New York, where she was inspired by Martha Graham. Being a dance student seems as good a basis for writing as anything else, although she did go on to take a degree in creative writing and now teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal.
Here is how Roig explains the choreographing of modern dance based on the sonata form: "exposition, development, recapitulation." Seems straightforward enough, beginnings, middles, and endings being the elements of most stories.
But with Any Day Now, Roig extends the form into trios of stories. In these mini-trilogies, the connections between the stories are sometimes obvious (recurring characters or prevalent themes), but in others the continuities are much more subtle.
The first of these trios, titled "Troika," opens in Montreal with a Russian woman, Luba, telling a Canadian woman, Lesley, a story about a car.
Next follows a story where Luba tells Lesley a tale about a stove.
But the third story makes a leap into the fabulous as Lesley repays Luba with a story about a coat. Luba's coat. The coat Lesley borrowed on a trip to Russia, a trip she made to collect a little girl in an adoption arranged by Luba.
It's with this third tale that Roig reveals the nuances of the previous two. Lesley and Luba are friends, but once were in the position of baby broker and client. Lesley went all the way to Russia for the promised child but then rejected the child, saying, "I have paid $20,000 for a child and I want one who is healthy."
That instance of moral failure becomes a defining moment for Lesley, a part of her personal history that she longs to rewrite and make right. Her revelation recasts all the previous stories in the light of her transgression.
The stories that make up this collection are truly international in flavour, easily and fluidly making transitions from a kibbutz in Israel to a funeral in Quebec to a writers' retreat in California.
They move equally easily through time, from the present day back through the decades and into the early 1960s. The one constant is an overriding need for human connection--through sex, through duty, through faith, through love.
"Only connect!" wrote E.M Forster as an epigraph for Howards End, an epigraph that could apply equally well to this collection. In the words of one of Forster's characters, "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."
Roig, as a storyteller, fulfils this maxim, but for many of her characters--the single mother, the former priest, the bipolar student--that connection, that divine harmony, remains both elusive and transient.
The final trilogy of stories, "Paradiso," makes the most sophistocated use of the sonata form Roig has adopted. Its first story, about a young American couple in Europe, is a tale of loss of innocence. It opens with someone else's tragedy in media res: "We went from newstand to newstand, two American kids on the fly, Florence, 1969, summer of Sharon Tate and the man on the moon, willing it to make sense."
The two American kids are in love. They are also out of money, having exhausted both their resources and their parents' patience. They find themselves at the end of the line, in Italy, sleeping in a pup tent in Paradiso Camping, looking for options.
The boy offers himself to two American men--cousins who spend the day with him and pay him generously at the end. But the boy has changed in ways the girl will not understand until years later.
The second story in this trio is also about a menage a tois, but in this case the intimacies exchanged seem to be exclusively physical. There are no revelations, no epiphanies, no changes of heart. In fact, the heart hardly seems to be a factor at all.
The final story--a recapitulation--finds the girl and boy back in Italy, but they are girl and boy no longer. He is now a famous poet who is dying of AIDS. She is a relationship counsellor.
They spend a week in Italy, together but apart, never actually making physical contact and speaking by phone and through answering machines. But in the absence of physical connection comes a true spiritual union. It's a beautiful final movement to this little sonata.
With this, her sophomore effort, Denise Roig proves herself an expect anatomist of the human soul. Ultimately, her experiment with form is a successful one, and these evocative stories of questing souls ably attune the conventions of modern dance to what Chaucer's Wife of Bath called the "old dance" of love.”
More Reviews of this title
“Denise Roig writes hardbitten stories of great tenderness, with a gaze that refuses to turn away, that insists on inquiry but refuses to condemn. The characters in this musical fugue of intertwining tales are experiments in sociology, yet relentlessly real. It is rare to encounter a writer that works in a mode both realistic—even naturalistic—yet deeply imbued with ideas. Heartbreaking. Wincing. Beautiful.”
“Montreal writer Denise Roig's second collection of short stories should be a tough read, dealing, as it does, with family dysfunction, emotional breakdown, and spiritual doubt. Instead, Roig shows us that life, even at its most heartbreaking, remains a mystery and a marvel. Single mothers, ex-priests, disillusioned teachers, damaged children--society's peripheral and put-upon--fill these pages, but no one in these gracefully crafted stories surrenders their hold on hope.”
“In 2004, Denise Roig's Any Day Now appeared, a collection made up entirely of trios. It seems inevitable that there will be comparisons made between Roig's technique and that of Munro, but such comparisons are not entirely fair or relevant, since Roig's approach is quite different. Munro's trio can be related structurally to the story cycle; in fact, the stories form a kind of mini-cycle within the larger collection. The story cycle is generally unified through character (Munro's own Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?) or setting (James Joyce's Dubliners or Hugh Hood's Around the Mountain: Scenes From Montreal Life), and sometimes both (Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town). Given the fact that Juliet becomes a television personality and has quite fraught relationships with men along the way, it is easy to see links between the trio and Who Do You Think You Are?
But Roig derives her structure from quite a different source: the dance sonata. As she explains in her author's note, Roig studied dance under Martha Graham an was influenced by Graham's attempt to reproduce the sonata in dance, featuring a dialectical structure of exposition, development and recapitulation. The stories in a trio can therefore be related by character, setting, theme or indeed any fictional element, and that freedom permits a greater range of style and approach. Roig's trios and the individual stories within them are quite varied in the sorts of characters portrayed and the language and narrative structure adopted to convey their lives and the consequences of the choices they make. Like Munro's trio, some of Roig's stories cover great periods of time and even different generations, but Roig is interested in exploring the wider artistic opportunities afforded by such a flexible form.
The collection is made up of six trios (it would have been too much to expect nine). The first, "Troika," concerns life in post-Soviet Russia, and the narrator's efforts to adopt a child. The characters live in in-between spaces, particularly Luba, who arranges such adoptions and is now both a Russian and a Quebecer. The stories are connected through the motifs of cars and coats, representing efforts to cope with declining economies and new environments. The third story, "Coat," suggest obvious comparisons with Nikolai Gogol, although here the overcoat becomes a character in its own right, complete with voice and name (Boris). Lesley's efforts to adopt are not very successful, and her motives are called into question as she seems unable to make the leap between her illusions about having a child and the harsh realities of modern Russia.
"After Quebec" concerns one of Roig's favourite subjects, the French Canadian immigrants and their descendants in New England. In "Good Men," Benoit insists on being more generous to the poor than his wife can tolerate. As Alexandrine recalls, her mother did not favour her choice of Benoit as husband, but other than his looks he has the qualities she favours: "There were two kinds of people in Maman's world. Catholics and everyone else. Except, of course, there were Catholics and then there were Catholics. The best Catholics--Cat-o-lique, as Maman pronounced it--the only Catholics she knew, for that matter, were white and French Canadian, not too uppity, but not too poor either. They were people like them: former Quebecers, now American, regulars at mass, homeowners, proud of their roots but grateful for the new world's possibilities."
Alexandrine must cope with ehr daughters' own debatable choices, and on one terrible evening has to deal with both a sick grandchild and a burglary. She comes to realize that perhaps Benoit's generosity has its benefits. In "Un, deu, trois...soleil!" J.P learns during and after his aunt's funeral about the hardships of his pioneer ancestors in New England; in fact, Tante Jocelyne insists on appearing at the event as a ghost, urging him to be more understanding of his father. The final story of the trio, "Top of the World," brings the two families together; Ben must decide whether he is ready to accommodate the needs of his girlfriend's troubled son--the same boy who, as a toddler, had contributed to Alexandrine's horrible night. That Ben's full name is the same as Jackie's father's promises more of a bond between the two lovers than may be real.
A good example of a trio like Munro's in theme and structure is the last one, "Paradiso." In the first story, "All the Davids," we follow the experiences of Paul and "Letitia" (we never learn her real name) on their visit to Italy as adventure-seeking young people; they find they have run out of money, and Paul offers himself as a male prostitute. Paul's homosexuality comes as a shock to Letitia, but the full implications of his true sexual identity and choices become apparent only in "Bridge of Sighs" in which we see her later attempt to see Paul as he is dying of AIDS in Venice. The middle story, "Toy Symphony," is connected to the others by two motifs that unify this trio: the Sharon Tate murders and Camping Paradiso, the ironically named campground that the various characters inhabit as down-and-out North American artists.
Roig's collection showcases her ability to adopt a variety of voices, and to make full use of the potential of the trio form. The stories do not always work--while certainly moving, "Bridge of Sighs" seems somewhat gimmicky, particularly in its recourse to AIDS as a (now overused) device for evoking pathos--but overall Any Day Now is a fine collection. As a structural experiment and portrait of diverse lives and emotions, the book is both interesting and engaging.”
“Coming of Age Reconsidered
Denise Roig explores the post-youth frontier
"I hope I die before I get old," sang The Who's Roger Daltrey before he got old. Aging may not be picnic, but it's better than you might think. This is wht Montreal writer Denise Roig is getting at in her new short story collection. Any Day Now puts a fresh spin on the time–worn coming–of–age genre. Forget the passage from childhood into adulthood, Roig suggests: "I'm more interested in what comes when we begin to age," she confesses ar a local cafe. "When we've already made choices in life, we've married and had children and gotten divorced, We've traveled and had our love affairs or whatever it is that we've done. And now what? What is left?"
The question is complex, and so are Roig's answers, providing her with ample material to fill the eighteen beautifully crafted, bittersweet stores of Any Day Now.
"Windows Like Doors Everywhere You Look," one of the strongest pieces, features a youthful journalism student named Foster lecturing his middle-aged female professor in a role-reversing meeting after class. "You're basically a good person in a basically nasty world and an even nastier institution," Foster says. "At some point you had big ideas, grand ideas, even revolutionary ideas, but then the world got a hold of you. It shook you and broke you and punished you for those ideas ..."
"Foster," the teacher answers, "you could be talking about anyone I know over the age of forty-five. It's called adulthood."
In story after story Roig probes what it means to be an adult. At first glance, it doesn't seem to be much fun. Roig's characters have been stripped of most of their youthful certainties. Things that once consoled them – travel, sex, religion, art – now help pass the time, but provide little solace.
in "Bridge of Sighs," a man dying of AIDS says to a former lover, "How long am I going to have to explain this to you, dear heart? Life is mess and complication. Nothing but. There's only little spaces for happy-go-lucky, for grace."
"I've been accused," Roig admits, "of writing depressing stories, but I don't see it that way. I don't think I'm saying here that life's a bitch and then you die. I don't think I'm saying that at all. It seems to me, as someone pushing 60, that what's left at the end of life is a whole lot. There's a certain strength from having done the early years. Some strength and clairity and a freedom from the limiting notions of who we are and who we feel we have to be. Eventually, hopefully, we learn we can survive without the approval of others."
So what are these little spaces for grace evoked by Roig's dying character?
According to Roig, they're found in "the loveand devotion of a couple of people, and some quiet place inside each of us that has nothing to do with anyone else."
Love. Inward peace. These are the blessings that provide meaning in Roig's fiction and also, one senses, in her life. "They are the big things," she says, nodding emphatically. "They're really the only things that can do, in the end, for any of us."
Even as she wrestles with big life themes, Roig has packaged her latest stories in an intriguing and ambitious structure inspired by modern dance and the sonata form on which modern-dance choreography is based. "I studied modern dance and the (Martha) Graham technique at the Julliard School in New York years ago," Roig explains. "It struck me that the sonata, with its exposition, development and recapitulation is a lot like the short story with its beginning, middle and end."
The three-part form occurs naturally in traditional short stories, but in Any Day Now Roig pushes it a step futher. dividing the stories into six cycles of three. These trios are also linked, providing an approximate echo of the sonata form. Characters introduced in the first story of a trio reappear in the second or third; setting often carries over, as do image and theme.
In certain trios – like the first, appropriately titled "Troika" – the links are obvious. The theme in "Troika" is story-telling. The narrator is a middle-aged Montreal woman who dreams of adopting a Russian child. In the opening story, the narrator's Russian friend Luba recounts a surreal attempt to fix her broken-down Lada during a millennial celebration in Moscow. In the trio's last installment the narrator repays Luba with a story of a coat she borrowed in Moscow (a sly reference to Gogol's "The Overcoat"?) during a failed adoption attempt that Luba apparently brokered. The stories seem to have little to do with eachother until the very end, when the narrator visits Russia and the complex nature of her desire for a child, and of her friendship with Luba, is poignantly revealed.
In linking these stories is Roig moving towards the novel form? Emphatically not. "I get insulted when people suggest a short story writer has to graduate, at some point, to the novel. Think of Alice Munro and all these wonderful women writers whoj stick by the form." For Roig, writing stories is "like serial monogamy." She loves immersing herself with characters she's just met, but soon feels the pull to move on.
Despite the artistic restlessness, Roig has been a committed fiction writer since 1989, when she moved here from Los Angeles with Ariel, her then 12 year-old daughter. They had just seen a performance of Cirque du Soleil and were so impressed that Ariel convinced her mother to move to Montreal so she could study with them.
While her daughter was going to circus school, Roig signed up for a fiction workshop at Concordia University led by Audrey Thomas. The rest, as she says, is history. In 1995 her debut collection, A Quiet Night and a Perfect End received accolades from Grace Paley, among others, and has enjoyed a long and healthy shelf life. In 2000 it was published in French as Le vrai secret du bonheur; in 2003 CBC Radio's Between the Covers broadcast selections to listeners across the country. In addiiton to writing ficition, Roig is a journalist and has taught in Concordia's journaism department.
What comes next? Unexpectedly, the answer is non-fiction. While editing Any Day Now, Roig notived a pastry school a few blocks from her Montreal West home. She had always secretly wanted to go to cooking school, so she signed up on a whim. The intensive course was "a wonderful and terrible experience ... the hardest thing I've ever done." The result is Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School, for which Roig hopes to find a publisher soon. Given her passion for telling stories, I'd bet some fiction from the kitchen will also soon be underway." ”