Daydreams of Angels is the fourth of five Giller-nominated books I’m reviewing before the winner is crowned on November 10th. Heather O’Neill’s distinctive style and voice fill these charming, sometimes dark, always beguiling stories. But is this short story collection good enough to take home Canada’s top prize?
A few weeks ago I wrote, perhaps a little hastily, that “I fucking hate short stories,” and “I would rather get nosebleeds while reading the 4-millionish pages of Infinite Jest” than submit myself to another 30 pages of pretentious ambiguity and oh-so-artsy symbolism. Short stories have never been–and likely will never be–my friend.
But after reading Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels I can at least imagine a faint light at the end of the long, dank tunnel. O’Neill’s collection proves that not all short stories are created equal, that there is in fact room for a sense of humor, some whimsy, and *gasp* even a little entertainment.
It’s possible, however unlikely, that I may have spoken too soon in my review of Arvida.
In the opening story of Daydreams of Angels, “The Gypsy and the Bear,” the characters become lost and confused when the author of their story, a young boy, is called away from his tale to eat dinner. At that point, the gypsy and the bear (who rides a bicycle, because why not) need to go on living without any guidance. The world they live in was created by someone with little-to-no knowledge, and so their lives are necessarily limited. Or are they? Is there life beyond what their creator intended?
O’Neill is playing with the idea that fictional characters can only act, think, and feel in the ways their authors can. Fiction can only go so far. The real strength of the collection is this sense of profound absurdity. Later, we read a letter from Winnie the Pooh addressed to Piglet, who’s been kidnapped. What at first seems lighthearted ends up being about abused children and cults. It could easily have been turned into a novella.
At the same time, each story feels the right length. At least half a dozen of these stories have enough meat on their bones to be turned into full-fledged novels, but none of them needs to be. O’Neill goes in, says what she needs, then gets out. It’s fun, it’s a little weird, you learn something, and then you’re done. No one needs to read 300 pages about a kidnapped Piglet. No one really wants to. But it’s an interesting idea to kick around for 15 minutes.
We get stories about a 12-year-old Jesus in middle school who turns his juice box into wine. There’s a failed attempt at cloning the Nureyev ballet dancers in order to recapture their beauty and grace. And then there’s the story of the angels, in which we learn that “Lucifer’s fun to hang out with for a while, but you get tired of all that hocus-pocus stuff.”
O’Neill clearly enjoys characters that exist on the fringes, people who don’t necessarily belong in the real world because they’re not very good at it. Take, for instance, “Messages In A Bottle,” a story in which twin writers from a mostly deserted island long to return there once their work gets worldwide, critical acclaim.
Not everything is so bittersweet, however. In “Heaven” we’re told that “our souls were bigger than all of our deeds, and after life was over, it was finally freed from all that we’d ever done.”
I still get the sense, though–as I do with every short story collection–that these pieces were conceived as a way to stretch O’Neill’s creative wings, and not because she had a lot of important things to say. She admitted as much in an interview with the National Post, when she said, “I wanted to expand my reach. I think that people thought there were only certain things that I can do.“
Her storytelling, above all, is inventive. But unlike most short story collections I’ve read, Daydreams of Angels is also entertaining. There’s more than enough here to make me want to check out her novels, like Lullabies for Little Children or last year’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.
I’m not convinced that O’Neill will win the Giller, but Daydreams more than proves that she belongs in the conversation.
Recommended for Genre Fans
The Good …
+ Consistently inventive storytelling
+ Consistently entertaining
+ Wildly clever, occasionally profound
The Not So Good …
– A few stories overstay their welcome
– There isn’t one absolute standout story