Reviewed by Frankie Barnet
Sweet Affliction. Invisible Publishing, 2014.
You’ve probably heard of Sweet Affliction, Anna Leventhal’s debut collection of short stories that’s garnered quite a buzz around Montreal’s literary scene since its release last year. This year, Leventhal won Quebec Writers’ Federation’s Concordia University First Book Prize, participated in readings across the city, and earned a spot on numerous Drawn and Quarterly’s staff “best of” books for 2014. As well, a French translation of the book, Douce détresse, translated by Daniel Grenier, came out earlier this year.
It is no surprise that Montreal has embraced a book that honours and depicts so many of the city’s characteristics. The overwhelming majority of the fifteen pieces are set in Montreal, featuring familiar details of Avenue Van Horne, “pockmarked highways of Southern Quebec” (“Gravity” 3), and even Le Château. Sweet Affliction serves to document how Montreal is “a city of divides […] St. Laurent marking the East-West Anglo-Franco schism, east of St. Laurent a phrase indicating all that is foreign and unfathomable to an émigré from Out West: Elvis-themed laundromats, seniors in tiger print pants and purple bouffants” (“Horseman, Pass By” 58), or how “it [is] possible […] to walk blocks along Van Horne without passing a single retail enterprise” (“Horseman, Pass By” 59).
However, despite the familiar contexts of Leventhal’s work, readers should be careful not to get too comfortable. What Leventhal offers us in this collection are pieces that reject expectations. They don’t end where we think they will, or they don’t end at all: conclusions are offered, though characters are returned to later, with remnants of their previous trials continually present. Sally, who first appears peripherally in “Gravity,” returns in “Moving Day,” “Horseman, Pass By” and “Helga Volga.” Lynnie appears in “Moving Day,” “Horseman, Pass By” and “A Favour,” while Bruce we see in “Glory Days,” “A Goddamn Fucking Cake,” and “Wellspring.”
When characters don’t repeat themselves, themes do. Motherhood and pregnancy haunt the book, which begins with a teenager taking a pregnancy test at a wedding and ends with a pregnant abortion doula. While Leventhal is interested in the family, whether nuclear or chosen, her lens is never traditional. The families of Sweet Affliction are broken, betrayed, and/or dysfunctional.
In the collection’s titular story, the narrator describes, in prose typical of Leventhal’s always dynamic and clever voice, “I believe that when you die, among other things, you get to see the Log Book. The Log Book keeps track of everything [...]. How much money you spent on presents for relatives who didn't like you. The total volume, in litres, of lime rickeys you drank. How many people thought about you while they yanked off and so on” (“Sweet Affliction” 20). This is, to some extent, what Leventhal’s work is offering us: records of infidelities, rats, illnesses, and hand jobs. Each is described unsentimentally and often even with a dejected tone. If this sounds bleak to you, then at least you know what you’re in for. Sweet Affliction is a book that refuses to sugarcoat the lives of its characters, offering readers the kind of glass-half-empty perspective that can be refreshing in its honesty.
Not that joy, happiness, and positivity are not also present. The book is called Sweet Affliction after all, although how Leventhal mediates this is curious. Attempts at positive thinking are largely satirized. In “Sweet Affliction” the Doctor’s comical platitudes to his dying patient read, “‘what I’m telling you doesn't have to be the end of the world. You should think of it rather as an opportunity for personal growth’” (“Sweet Affliction” 17). Later in the book Leventhal describes another similarly silly character, a government aid, citing “Moving Day is an opportunity for growth!” (“Moving Day” 33). Careful readers can watch for Leventhal’s use of the exclamation point, displayed most profusely in “Moving Day”, one of the book’s highlights: “A new apartment is [...] soaked with lust and thrilling at the prospect of the new! Each shortcoming a delight, a foible to be treasured, appreciated, loved! A chance to assess potential, scout necessary renovations, roll up the sleeves!” (“Moving Day” 28). Though one could question if the exclamation point is ever completely genuine, Leventhal’s use of it here is ripe with a sarcasm that hints at the overall tone of the book.
If this is a book that sees the glass as half empty, then it is also a book that says, “let’s forget about the water, can we just leave water out of it?” It is not interested in celebration, in weddings or birthday girls, but what happens behind them, beneath the surface. In “Gravity,” the narrator’s friend asks of the narrator, “‘what’s the matter [...] are you afraid of heights?’ To which her sister replies, “‘she’s afraid of gravity’” (16). This example demonstrates one of the overarching themes of the book: the inevitability of sorrow, life’s tendency to let shit hit the fan. Positive spins and hoping for a better tomorrow are not valid possibilities for Leventhal, who prefers the present moment and whatever it offers, however sweet or afflicting it may be.