Reviewed by Jason Grand
The Old Blue Couch and Other Stories. Ronald P. Frye & Company, 2012.
$15.00The Old Blue Couch and Other Stories is the most recent publication from Montreal-born writer/translator Seymour Mayne. The stories in this collection are light in tone and, while many of them survey serious questions of identity and loss, they nevertheless do so through a humorous lens. An almost equal mix of first- and third-person narratives, these stories are ostensibly about self-discovery, although they often emphasize the difficulties associated with this process. By adopting a revelatory mode, Mayne structures the narratives around moments of key insight that are intended to eschew the deeply entrenched biases of his protagonists. Overall, this produces mixed results: the moralizing tone of the stories sometimes comes across as heavy-handed, but Mayne avoids lapsing into didacticism by anchoring the insights of his characters in humor and wit.
Although the stories in this collection were originally published separately, their placement in this volume seems quite deliberate. The first three stories showcase a first-person narrative perspective, which emphasizes the internal experiences of the narrators, while the later stories are written using the more impersonal third-person. The one exception to this is the last story, “The Kiddush Club,” which, despite the almost complete effacement of the narrator as a character, is actually a first-person narrative. The overarching narrative structure of this book, which shifts abruptly from the first- to third-person, establishes an opposition between the internal and external experiences of its characters.
The use of first-person narration is particularly effective in the first three stories—“The Old Blue Couch,” “The Story of My Aunt’s Comforter,” and “Goldman’s Tallitt”—in which the narrators fetishize various objects as sources of moral and spiritual stability. In the title story, the unnamed narrator romanticizes a dilapidated blue couch, which represents the last, sentimental relic of his bachelor past. Although this story offers little in terms of plot, Mayne finds opportunities for humor through the use of irony and hyperbole: when the narrator describes his couch, he imagines that “poets had recited from its cushions whose sand no doubt had been drawn from the holy deserts of the Middle East” (17).
The status of objects is further explored in “The story of My Aunt’s Comforter,” in which the narrator, Max, is haunted by the memory of his aunt when he inherits her “pookh” (38), a down-filled blanket that symbolizes the hardships of the old country. Unlike the blue couch (the value of which is purely sentimental), the blanket’s real material value is concealed by its shabby appearance: its down filling is said to be “worth its weight in gold” (37). Although the blanket is ultimately repurposed into a pillow, it retains its association with Max’s aunt, which gestures toward the dual nature of objects as both material and conceptual artifacts.
The tensions to which this dual nature gives rise are ultimately played out in the third story, “Goldberg’s Tallit,” which recounts the narrator’s descent into paranoia when he suspects that a fellow member of his congregation accidently picked up his prayer shawl. The incommensurability between the inherent and associated value of objects is perhaps most explicit in this story, in which the two prayer shawls, objects that are said to take on “the signature of [a man’s] face, his soul” (45), are indistinguishable from one another. In these three stories, Mayne establishes an opposition between the inherent and associated value of objects and, while this opposition lacks subtlety, it underscores the futility of each narrator’s attempt to stabilize the meaning of objects that evade stable meaning.
Along with the narrative shift from the first- to third-person, the focus of the later stories shifts from material objects to the spaces in which those objects are defined. In the final story of the collection, “The Kiddush Club,” a teetotalling Rabbi searches for ways to curb the drinking habits of his elderly congregation and is answered with a whiskey “drought” (115) when the SAQ, Quebec’s provincial liquor board, goes on strike. Like the first three stories, the opposition between the Rabbi and his congregants gestures towards an underlying incommensurability between material and ideological imperatives. However, the pun on “spirits” (118), which refers both to the Rabbi’s spiritual reforms and to the choice drink of the congregants, suggests ways in which these seemingly antagonistic programs can be consolidated through moderation and, most importantly, humor.
Despite minor lapses ito sentimental reverie, The Old Blue Couch and Other Stories remains a thoroughly engaging read. Through a common thematic trend towards self-discovery, these stories demonstrate an exceptional awareness of the subtle and often unexpected influences that help, or in some cases hinder, this process. Mayne presents his protagonists, and by extension his readers, with the right way and the wrong way to pursue self-improvement and, although this is sometimes accomplished through heavy-handed references to Jewish mysticism, Mayne is at his comedic best when he is playfully irreverent of these tenets.
At press time: Jason Grand is a second year Master’s student in English Literature at McGill university where he is currently finishing his SSHRC-funded research project entitled “From the Penny Press to Pickwick Papers: Charles Dickens and The Rise of Mass Publications in The 1830s.”
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