13 Ways of Listening to A Stranger: the Best Stories of Keath Fraser

by Keath Fraser

Published by Thomas Allen

396 pages, 2005


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Caution: Hard Work Ahead

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

 

You don't browse or even jump into Keath Fraser's stories. You circle cautiously.

Fraser's publisher knew what they were doing, including blurbs from Rosemary Sullivan and Constance Rooke on the back cover of 13 Ways of Listening to A Stranger, Keath Fraser's latest collection of short stories. I suspect his is not an easy book for women to delve into, so having quotes by respected female authors in a visible location is a fine tactic. While Rooke writes that Fraser is one of Canada's most intelligent authors, Sullivan comments that his work is eccentric as well as fine. You have to admit, though, that "eccentric" and "intelligent" do not compel many of us to race for the book.

So I circled, retreated, circled and tried again, several times. I ricocheted off "Waiting" which begins: "This is a calling like any other, except I was not called. I was not chosen I was born to it, as some bird to flight. People ask me, what is the secret of waiting. People ask me, do you like waiting? Okay, no one asks me, but I have a mind to tell them. The best service is given on an empty stomach. This is the secret." I know I should be driven by curiosity to carry on but instead I step back to try somewhere else.

On to the next, "LE MAL DE L'AIR."

Suppose he had a three-day-old festering on the elbow, ate pork at his mother's on Sunday and got sick: his wife would rather blame his illness on bee stings than on worms in a good woman's meat.

I read this line to my partner, raised my eyebrows and waited for his response. "Yeah. Got that, Clever."

"So you would read on?"

"Definitely."

And we're vegetarians. Hmmm.

On to "Memoir." Wondering why I seemed to be denied entrance and relieved to find myself smiling finally at lines like: "Frank had killed his wife. I could tell by looking at her that she was dead. I was surprised he brought along the corpse." That followed by "Her black hair flared aggressively." And then a wonderful description of teenage lust: "It had been on the streetcars, under a raincoat, that I had learned to canoodle .... A wild time on a streetcar consisted of jerky stops, lurching corners, and spotty acceleration. It is a wonder we learned anything, except how to control lip drift."

Encouraged, I returned to the front to read the title story and found it accessible and touching, without tipping over into sentimentality. No more retreats for me, not even to bed at midnight. Perseverance was rewarding me.

"Foreign Affairs," by far the longest in this collection of 18 of Fraser's best-known stories, tells the tragic tale of a doomed diploment, on his way to a promising career when levelled by MS while still in his 20s. Now 50 and restricted to his dingy apartment with a live in housekeeper/helper, his life is exhausting and painful, the bleakness of his days salvaged only by visits from the feisty daughter of an old friend. It's no surprise that the collection of short fiction, Foreign Affairs, which included this story, won The Ethel Wilson prize for Fiction in 1995. The halting, ellipsed speech of the afflicted Silas is reproduced with surprising clarity -- surprising until you learn that the author himself suffered for many years from an obscure vocal disorder which caused him to sometimes lose control of his voice, similar to his diplomat. After 20 years Fraser found a cure, a toxin plastic surgeons use to remove wrinkles. The final diagnosis emerged -- he had Spasmodic Dysphonia, faulty transmitters in the brain causing a misfiring of the vocal cords. (Fraser tells the story of his affliction, his search for others with the same condition, and his eventual cure in his memoir, The Voice Gallery.)

The range of Fraser's characters is astonishing. From a young man on welfare living in a crumbling Vancouver rooming house to an elderly doctor, a failing diplomat, a gay young opera singer, a disillusioned and depressed motel cleaing lady, a professor out of his depth, a stand up comic and a tennis playing Hindu waiter in a French restaurant, each feels fully fleshed.

While perhaps not being everyone's cup of tea, Fraser is nevertheless not an author who can be ignored. Because his writing is challenging in the manner of new fiction, some readers will be startled to learn the author who was born in 1944, has been publishing for many years. He was obviously ahead of his time. His name and his works are going to pop up again and again, haunting those who gave up too easily. Destined to reach a wider readership with the publication of this collection, he has also won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award for Popular Anatomy in 1995. | February 2006

 

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.