Author: Julie McArthur
Appears in: Broken Pencil #54
Premise: A young girl living in a skeevy apartment complex makes her way among aspiring drug dealers, middle school mean girlness and pot-bellied pigs. Currently unavailable to read online, but the issue is still on shelves.
Thoughts: Recently I had the good fortune of having my good friend, the poet and artist Annie Wong, drag me out of my cave for an evening of used bookstore browsery, poutine and pints in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.
I hold any time spent with Annie in high regard, as she sometimes feels like my one tenuous connection to anything resembling the Toronto literary scene, a phrase I admit leaves me with an upset stomach. But when I talk to her about art, or what we’ve been reading, or what inspires our work, what we want it to be, I actually feel kind of good as a ‘writer’ *shudder*.
Anyhoo, Annie’s been doing some work with Toronto indie-arts institution Broken Pencil [a publication I’ve taken small issue with before] and sweet talked the clerk at the used bookstore into giving her a free copy, which she promptly gave me. I figured it would make for a good opportunity to check in on the state of underground fiction in the city, see what’s valued and if I could see a place for me there.
In short, no. But, Julie McArthur’s story, while not perfect by any means [and a bit of a comedown after the steady diet of Nelson, Moore and Hempel I’d been on up to this point] kept me from falling completely into despair.
The story has a compelling lead character in Alice, the girl who hides from the world in a defunct dryer in her building’s laundry room. She has a mom who loves her but isn’t around much due to work, and a friend named Paul, an older guy in the neighbourhood who buys a potbellied pig for a pet and lets Alice hang out with it. She doesn’t expect a whole lot out of life and doesn’t seem to have mind. She’s content to hang out with Wilbur the pig and snuggle up in her pink blanket reading her book in the dryer.
While I found the language kind of plain throughout [probably design, you can’t take these things for granted] McArthur actually managed to surprise me by subtly revealing a sinister underbelly to the narrative. It’s in the way she deftly turns the character of Paul into something more dangerous. When Alice informs him she witnessed some boys in her building stash a bag of drugs in an abandoned washroom, Paul suddenly becomes adamant about having her steal it and buying it from her. His motives are never revealed, nor are the repercussions when Alice finds the drugs are already gone, but he grows irritated in that way dangerous people do when a deal doesn’t go the way they’d hoped. The way that danger slowly leaks into the story is admirable, and a welcome change from the other works in the issue, which go so desperately out of their way to be avant-garde. McArthur doesn’t want to play in that pool, and her story is all the better for it.
Lesson: You don’t need to throw zip! pow! cliffhangers at your reader. Sometimes it’s far more effective to let it seep into the story in drips.
Favourite line: Didn’t have one. Like I said, the language is pretty workaday. Can’t have everything.