Fiction Review by Amy Reiswig

Annette Lapointe, You Are Not Needed Now (Vancouver: Anvil, 2017). Paperbound, 224 pp., $20.

You Are Not Needed NowWe’ve all been there: after a long day, your mind full of family responsibilities and concerns about aging parents, you go out for drinks with folks from work, come home late. And you find a ghost hunched over a typewriter on your futon. In the world of Annette Lapointe’s new short story collection, You Are Not Needed Now, you naturally ask, before stumbling to bed: “Can I, I don’t know, get you anything?” And Lapointe’s ghosts themselves defy stereotypes – even her “weird” is weird—as decidedly ho-hum haunters who leave piles of wept-in tissues, use powdered coffee creamer and are concerned about the cost of postage.

The book has been criticized for introducing a supernatural element in the first story and then dropping it. But to me, this early admixture of the mainstream and the messed-up is a good illustration of what’s to come. We’re encouraged from the outset to see more deeply into the so-called “reality”-based worlds and situations Lapointe creates, to re-examine ideas of normal and strange. Or, you know, to maybe stop with the labels altogether. I mean, is coming home from the pub to find a spirit in your spare bedroom really any stranger than the deep mystery of what makes one person love or hurt another?

Lapointe is the author of two previous books, both critically acclaimed novels. Stolen (2006) won two Saskatchewan Book Awards and was nominated for the Giller Prize and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, while Whitetail Shooting Gallery (2012) was a finalist for the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year and the ReLit Prize. You Are Not Needed Now’sstylistic shift into the less-expansive short story genre allows Lapointe to experiment, in these eleven stories, with more tightly riding the line of how much to give. It’s a tension her characters play with as well, deciding how close to get to one another. For example, in the title story, Terry keeps horses at the track and helps out the casual sex-working Krista after she blasts a guy – and herself – with pepper spray. They become friends, and he eventually asks: “Krista, do you want to be my girlfriend.” Her answer: “Don’t do me any favours, asshole.” Her rebuke stands on its own, unexplained, appearing with all the logic of a bedroom ghost. Throughout the collection, we’re called to explore our own relation with what’s happening behind and beyond what we’re told.

As in her previous books, Lapointe’s work here is full of sharp, wounding edges, and throughout, she explores the safe limits of emotional connection and responsibility. Many of her characters are seeming outliers—often in small Prairie towns or, for instance, the nowhere of the back seat on a long-distance bus trip—and they must negotiate relationships with others and with themselves. This desire is often externalized in the various collections her characters keep: family papers, small pets, human teeth, jewellery boxes—one containing a dead child’s dried heart.

Much has been made of the body parts in the book but, like the ghosts, they provide more than shock value. By the end, we question if they’re any different than the obsessively curated antiques that get one character’s condo profiled in trendy home-fashion media. As the older woman saving her daughter’s preserved heart points out: “Many people keep ashes in an urn,” and so we ask ourselves: what makes one thing any weirder than another?

Lapointe seems to enjoy the powerful surprises residing in the interplay of what’s real and what’s possible, what’s hidden and what’s revealed. In “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” we meet the winter-swaddled and all-over-tattooed Pinky, who “Wanders around at night picking fights with gutter punks in the summer. In the winter…she doesn’t know. He goes out. Lurks in bus shelters downtown. Eats children.” And when Pinky moves in, the fetish community comes to help. “Tiny girls she’s only ever seen in stiletto heels and corsets show up in boots and jeans and carry grocery bags full of Pinky’s clothes over…. They invade the kitchen and start a sweet potato curry cooking.” And yet these are the “freaks.” When it comes to the messiness of human beings, what do you see? How do you judge? And if you do judge, well, just don’t.

Thus the perfect bookend to the collection is the final, five-page story “Clean Streets Are Everyone’s Responsibility,” in which Winnipeggers are asked to follow official procedure on how to collect all the severed hands revealed by the spring snowmelt. Over 6,000 of them. Memos are issued. Plans are made. The morning news announcement simply says: “residents are encouraged to wrap any discovered hands appropriately (in grocery bags, etc.) and turn them in to city bus drivers.” Despite the plastic bag directive, the question peeking around the edges is: what can possibly be appropriate for that? Or for anything? Once again, the mundane and the mysterious are tangled together.

It’s difficult to summarize the stories themselves, since it’s generally not the plot that stays with you. This is a collection that illuminates with the crazy zig-zags of lightning: the shapes of scenes and people are thrown into relief, and there’s the faint scent of something burning. You might well say, “What happened?” But what you’ll remember is who stood out against the sky and perhaps a new sense of how in this mysterious life, the boring act of just standing outside, of being, can be dangerous and wild.   


—Amy Reiswig

As in The Malahat Review, 203, Summer 2018