George Bowering, 10 Women (Vancouver: Anvil, 2015). Paperbound, 192 pp., $20.
If you're already well-acquainted with George Bowering's work, then as the author's winking persona George Delsing warns the reader in "Ardell," the final story in 10 Women: "I think you might want to skip the next paragraph."
Into his eighth decade, with over 100 publications to his name, Bowering has two Governor General's Literary Awards, one each for poetry and fiction, and has been prolific in all forms, including drama and nonfiction. But in fairness, there may yet be people who haven't read Bowering—or at least, there were before this reviewer agreed to write the piece you're currently reading, before I found myself blitz-reading his 2012 memoir of adolescence, Pinboy, and the 1967 debut novel Mirror on the Floor, desperate to find out more about this Delsing character.
Like the other nine stories in this latest collection, "Ardell"—the account of Delsing's encounter with a woman who is all appetite—is shot through with the self-aware narration of Pinboy. The story takes us back fifty years to Vancouver, and its first portion is narrated by Delsing—"that goopy kid," "that bozo," "that asshole" in Pinboy—who we first met as an undergraduate chum of narrator Bob Small in Mirror. But then, under the title "In Fairness," the second act of "Ardell" switches the point-of-view from that of a Delsing first overwhelmed then discarded (for stealing his lover's last Crispy Crunch) to that of Ardell, who compares her supposed sins—sins in the eyes of Delsing and his friend glimpsed in Mirror, Dorothy—to Delsing's supposed virtues, casting herself, in the end, as: "maybe […] an angel sent to make a complete human being out of the boy with the trembling mouth."
The male narrator overpowered by a forceful woman's desire emerges as a theme in 10 Women, following Pinboy's relentlessly charming confession of what should only be called sexual abuse by a teacher into two similar stories: "Professor Minaccia"—first line: "You know this one"—about a widowed university lecturer using literature and art to groom a first-year student (who is "not overly bright and not much used to reading books" and "spent high school with a football never more than an arm's reach away"), and "Kassandra," which traces a series of five seductions in which the titular poet leverages one of our hero's senses each time.
But if one comes to this collection having never read Bowering—what then? Without knowledge of the self-aware content, one can't miss the deprecatory style; most are told in the first person, and all take advantage of every opportunity to criticize the storyteller, or the telling, or the telling of stories in general. The first signal to the reader comes just one paragraph into the collection, in "Melody," where the narrator, after admitting he is "secretly thrilled at the prospect" of reading the obituary section and not knowing anyone, provides a single, self-doubting sentence as a second graph: "Prospect—is that right?" The narrator in "Melody" gradually and sweetly comes to love a woman who is obviously dead, and the second story, "Stephanie," carries on the infatuation theme. At once confirming and dispelling any expectation that all ten women in the book will be objects of the narrator's attraction, the narrative in "Stephanie" deliberately fails to describe the action at its centre, and instead tells the story of the attempt to describe the villain, in styles that vary from Jamesian Portrait of a Lady—"If I had been trying to capture the beauty of Stephanie's hair in, say, 1885 […]: her face had the usual fullness of expression which is developed by a life of solitude. Where the eyes of a multitude continuously beat like waves upon a countenance" is not even a quarter of the paragraph—to the metafictional note that creative writing teachers have taught him "to introduce depth and texture" by comparing her hair colour to caramel fudge. After which, he of course jokes, "I have never wanted to eat […] Stephanie's hair." In "Kassandra," we again see the attention to the telling of the story, the awareness of the role sensory detail ought to play: before rendering the appearance of the object of our hero's desire, the narrator says, "I think that it is around here that one is expected to say a few words in the way of description." Afterward, necessarily unnecessarily, he adds, "There's your description."
Moving then into stories with varying points of view, Bowering's trademark humour shines through "Barbara," a frustrated dialogue with the ignorant, egotistical title character, and "Dodie," in which an SPCA employee takes literally the "sentimental violence" toward animals in Canadian poetry begun by one Jack Verge in 1974 (the publication year of Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie, quite possibly coincidental). To this reader, 10 Women felt fresh and new, in all. But is Bowering's fiction perhaps as it ever was? The author brings his wide-ranging oeuvre as well as that of his contemporaries (real and invented) to the text, holding up mirror after distorting mirror. It's largely enjoyable for its comic effect, but it also ensures the reader doesn't lose sight of the smirking author: your Delsing-esque sidekick waiting to remind you everything has a counterpoint.