Friday, November 20, 2020

Pflug, Seeds and Other Stories (2020)

Ursula Pflug, Seeds and Other Stories. Inanna Publications, 2020. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-1-77133-745-8. $22.95.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

In Seeds and Other Stories, Canadian author Ursula Pflug brings us 26 speculative tales, the vast majority of which have been previously published in venues including Dead North Anthology, Transversions: An Anthology of New Fantastic Literature, Tesseracts 21: Nevertheless, The Peterborough Review, and Prairie Fire. With over 70 published short stories to her credit, as well as two other short story collections and three novels, Pflug is an accomplished writer, and that shows in the polished prose offered in Seeds and Other Stories. This particular collection, as is the case with Pflug’s novel Motion Sickness and her novella Mountain, was published by Canada’s Inanna Publications, which describes itself as “one of only a very few independent feminist presses in Canada committed to publishing fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction by and about women.”

In many of Pflug’s stories, the surreal exists alongside the everyday. Between the pages of Seeds and Other Stories you’ll find a hotel that exists on more than one dimension, a giantess living at the bottom of a pond, an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of a well, and a beaver the size of a sub-compact car. But despite this subtle skewing, the altered realities Pflug creates are still close enough to our own that we’re able to relate to the stories. Her characters are, in many cases, the downtrodden, the cast aside, the quiet recluses—people you might pass on the street and not recognize for anyone exceptional. And herein lies much of the charm.

Many of the stories are threaded through with a sense of loss. Some of the characters can’t remember their names. Some can’t remember their spouse’s name. They may not know why they are where they are, or where they want to go. In some cases, they recall past relationships that for one reason or another, are gone for good. In the hands of some writers, this would equate to dark or depressing fare. But Pflug’s sense of humor, her keen and matter-of-fact observations about human nature, and the ways she gets us to invest in the characters’ inner and outer journeys elevate the stories into a more upbeat state.

One of the stories that stood out for me was ‘Big Ears.’ In this story, set in New York, a down-and-out musician named Joey is befriended by a woman named Rickie. With Rickie’s help, Joey begins to play again, and gradually improves his situation and his life choices. When a friend of Rickie’s, Phoebe, moves in, the three of them must forge a new dynamic. Complicating matters is the fact that Phoebe is a drug user. Joey covers up for her by cleaning up the needles so Rickie doesn’t see them. In so doing, he is forced to deal with his own addiction issues. At one point, he asks himself, “What if he only threw out Phoebe’s needles so he could handle them again, a tiny illicit thrill? It would be so easy to fall, such a comfort.” (47) The interesting speculative element to the story is the fact that in this particular iteration of the world, if you hone your craft you “get” an animal. At the peak of his career, one of these creatures came to Joey: “a beautiful gryphon with yellow eyes who sat behind him when he played.” (38) Due to Joey’s fall from grace, at the start of the story the gryphon has become a drooling, intimidating monster, “a bag of feathers and fur, matted, shedding.” (39) Rickie’s quest to become worthy of an animal of her own and Phoebe’s dawning realization that talent is a quality we can choose to nurture or to waste carry the story forward to an uplifting conclusion.

Another story that stood out for me was ‘One Day I’m Gonna Give Up the Blues for Good.’ In this story, Ruby, the protagonist, works at the Clinic, where workers use alternative therapies for child molesters and other abusers. Ruby describes it as “Psychosis in a controlled environment. So it doesn’t happen out on the street. But you got to go with them, to where they go. And keep one foot on the beach, so’s you can lead them back out.” (126) It’s a dangerous job, physically and emotionally. Ruby’s boyfriend Little Davis starts to work at the Clinic with her, proving to be really good at it, until one day a client does him in. Like ‘Big Ears,’ this story deals with issues around addiction. It also deals with abuse. More deeply than that, though, ‘One Day I’m Gonna Give Up the Blues for Good’ is also about love and self-worth.

At the start of ‘Hamilton Beach,’ the protagonist Petra can’t remember her own name, and doesn’t know where her boyfriend Martin is. She tries to decipher clues that will help her reclaim her lost memories. In the course of doing so she stumbles across a coffee shop called the Dew Drop Inn that seems to be stuck in the fifties. Here, as in many of Pflug’s other stories, the rich description provides a vivid image of the setting:

The place is empty, huge, and dim. The booths are upholstered in shiny red stuff with flecks of gold in it … the rips held together with wrinkled silver duct tape … A taupe Formica counter with red swivel stools and a green Hamilton Beach milkshake machine behind it. God, how I always loved that name. It’s always been like a picture to me, of a perfect place, where you could leave all your troubles behind, where everything would be okay and you’d be happy. (175)

In this iteration of the world, the discovery has been made that “it’s pheromones that keep your memory sharpened.” (172) To access these pheromones, individuals known as “machine heads” seek out virtual sexual experiences instead of relationships with other human beings. In fact, machine heads “never touch living flesh.” (176) This story comes complete with creepy descriptions of these virtual sex experiences. Suspense is maintained as Petra gradually pieces together the dark secret about what really happened to her during the “lost” months she can’t remember. Rather than being crushed by the knowledge, though, like many of Pflug’s other characters she shows the inner strength to deal with unwelcome revelations and move on with her life.

Pflug’s stories whisk us to a variety of settings, ranging from farmsteads and marinas to busy cities. Berlin, New York, and Hawai’i form the location for some of the stories, while others are set in Canada, in or around towns like Peterborough or Oshawa. Humor is a mainstay in many of the stories, with the characters often having a self-deprecating wit and an honesty about themselves and their place in the world. Pflug is one of those writers who can carry off sarcasm without it being over the top or off-putting. In ‘Daughter Catcher,’ the protagonist, Siena, observes that “Whatever her life had become, it sure wasn’t what she’d planned.” (270) Another character notes, “I’ve been going nowhere fast my whole life and I still haven’t arrived.” (131) Canadian readers in particular might be able to identify with the comment in the story ‘Fires Halfway,’ “In Canada to be famous you have to be famous somewhere else first.” (158)

As one might expect from a writer with Pflug’s credentials, the quality of writing is high. The stories read smoothly, and plot and character are for the most part adequately developed.. The majority of the stories had strong endings that left me laughing, thinking, or both, although there were a couple of entries that felt incomplete, more like vignettes—albeit interesting ones. The ending of one story, ‘Harker and Serena’ shocked me the first time I read it. I didn’t feel that the story’s events had quite prepared me for the final paragraphs. Other than that, though, I found the endings effective and powerful.

Pflug isn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues in her stories—drug use, abuse, indigenous issues, and prejudice are underlying themes in some of the stories. Pflug deals with these issues with a deft hand. In ‘Big Ears,’ for example, Joey reflects on his previous pattern of drug abuse, noting that, “At first I thought it fed my music but in not too long it was bigger; it ate my marriage, ate my music, shamed my animal, yet seemed like the only thing. One day you wake up and realize maybe your woman, your proud creature, and your work were more important after all.” (55)

A handful of stories, including ‘Trading Polaris,’ ‘Harker and Serena,’ and ‘Daughter Catcher’ have a magical flair. Again, Pflug’s sense of humor emerges in ‘Daughter Catcher’ as the witch Siena notes, “She longed for the days her mother had told her about: the days when witches were well paid and cared for with kindness, invited to good parties and not forgotten but necessary, and not ostracized in the ragged woods at the bottom of the gardens.” (273)

Though Pflug, in the various stories, has both male and female protagonists, it is in some of the stories featuring female protagonists that she alludes to the sacrifices women make for family. ‘No Woman is an Island’ and ‘Daughter Catcher’ include musings on women’s role in society. In ‘No Woman is an Island’ Azalea remembers of her husband “how impassively he sat by while I lost myself in years of laundry and cooking and scrubbed floors and isolation.” (286) In ‘Daughter Catcher’ Siena recalls “how she’d poured everything into her family … until she was so exhausted she couldn’t even remember what her own dreams had been for herself, or if she’d ever even had any.” (280) However, this is balanced out by the observation that “there were days Siena had noticed how lucky they were, that a tiny bit of heaven had come unglued from the sky to land at their feet, astonishing them, allowing them to live in it. It was like a secret, and she’d taken the best care of it she knew how.” (280) Siena’s balanced observations are in keeping with the overall tone of Pflug’s stories—the characters have difficulties that must be surmounted, but this doesn’t rob them of the ability to see, or at least seek, the positive.

Reading Pflug’s stories, you get the sense that there is an alternate world somewhere very near to ours, where things are subtly different, and that someone has left a door or a window open to let you slip through. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the magical, the rational world we know and the altered reality of the stories, evoked a delighted sense of surprise and at the same time, gave me the feeling that my brain was being stretched—not in a torture-rack kind of way, but a pleasant one. All in all, Seeds and Other Stories contained interesting, insightful, and thought-provoking stories told with a generous dose of wit—which is, in itself, a kind of magic.

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