The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?  by Doretta Lau

Reviewed by Annick MacAskill

Doretta Lau

How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? Nightwood Editions, 2014.

119 pp.


How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is Canadian journalist Doretta Lau’s first book. A collection of short fiction, it has been shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and named one of the best books published in 2014 by The Atlantic. Its stories span several genres, from science fiction to soft surrealism to realism, with most centring on incongruous situations and ending without any obvious resolution.

The first few stories quickly establish the author’s interest in the fantastic. The unnamed narrator in “Two-Part Invention,” despairing of her love life, decides to date dead men. She starts with Glenn Gould, who agrees to meet her in Toronto. The story is told in a straightforward, almost laconic style, as when the narrator reveals her idea to her grandmother:

“So silly!” Nina says when I tell her my plan the following Sunday. “Your parents wasted good money sending you to school. No common sense.”

“There are more dead men than living men.”

“I suppose you have a point.” She sighs. “Is it possible that a dead man will father my great-grandchildren?” (17)

The reader comes to understand that, in this world, dating a dead man might represent a lapse in common sense, but to do so is far from unbelievable. After Gould agrees to meet her, the protagonist flies to Toronto and they go on a date, which turns out to be surprisingly banal: “I am nervous. Due to my nerves, I am being boring,” the narrator relates (22). The story ends in the middle of the date and without comment on the bizarre nature of the meeting.

In other stories, Lau unsettles the reader through the humiliation and ostracism of her characters in more probable, if still remarkable, circumstances. “Rerun” and “The Boy Next Door” focus on protagonists forced into unbearably awkward jobs – one ends up working at her own mother’s wake, while the other almost becomes a pornstar to pay his bills. Similarly, “O, Woe is Me” is narrated by Yoshi, a former high-school athlete who finds himself reduced to working in a freak show after breaking his leg in an accident on prom night. “Shoot the freak,” the carnival game he participates in, submits him to extreme humiliation, yet Yoshi manages to find humour in his plight:

There are six of us sardined into the trailer behind the empty lot, which is strewn with mismatched furniture covered in violent paint splotches. Our boss, Artie, refers to the lot as “our money maker.” The rest of us call it “the pen” or “the shooting gallery.” I like to think of it as “the office,” because it’s where I spend most of my work hours. (66)

This blend of tragedy and comedy runs throughout Lau’s stories. While the situations depicted seem somewhat beyond the reach of the normal, it is hard not to see parallels between these strange worlds and our own. In their exaggeration, the three stories discussed above satirize workplace exploitation. Other stories similarly comment on our everyday lives. “Two-Part Invention,” for example, spoofs the common desperation of the modern dating world.

Even in Lau’s more realistic stories, the protagonists face a similar emotional isolation, often due to greater societal circumstances. Internalized racism is at the centre of “Little Miss International Goodwill,” which tells of Clementine, an eight-year-old Chinese-Canadian who longs after popular images of white beauty:

More than anything in the world, eight-year-old Clementine Wong wanted to be blonde when she grew up. At Chinese school, when she was supposed to be memorizing characters for dictation, she drew pencil crayon self-portraits depicting herself as Rapunzel, Smurfette, or Barbie. (74)

Clementine’s insecurity also plagues her at home, where her older sister, Constance, teases her, ironically, for not being Chinese enough: “You’re stupid because you weren’t born in Hong Kong. […] You’re a stupid banana. You speak Cantonese with a banana accent” (76). Unlike most of the stories in the collection, this one has a clear, uplifting outcome when Clementine attempts to bleach her hair and is rescued by her mother, leading the girl to recognize her mother’s beauty: “Her mom wrapped a towel around her head, gently drying her hair. Clementine closed her eyes. She hoped she would look like her mother when she grew up” (78). This kind of epiphany, though common in both classic and contemporary short fiction, rarely occurs in Lau’s book. With some exceptions, her stories tend to resist any traditional dénouement, which further contributes to the reader’s sense of disorientation.

Despite their tendency to veer towards the fantastic, there remains a serious element to Lau’s fiction, which blends social commentary with explorations of human emotion. In what could be read as a mise en abyme for the entire collection, the end of “O, Woe is Me” has Yoshi kneeling in front of his girlfriend, asking her to marry him, while in the middle of his performance at the freak show:

Instead of collapsing and pretending to die I stay on my knees. I am Yoshihiro. No more rehearsed lines, no more thoughts of death. No finish line in sight, just starting blocks and the tension before the pistol goes off.

There is no script to follow. I know that now. (73)

The mask is lifted and the face is human, simple and relatable, despite the unfamiliarity of its surroundings. This, it would seem, is the underlying, unifying message to a collection that, on its surface, resists definitions and classifications.

Annick MacAskill’s poems and reviews have recently appeared in Prism International, The Rusty Toque, Versal, Room Magazine, and Contemporary Verse 2. Her poetry has been longlisted for the CBC’s Poetry Prize, longlisted for The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Prize, and nominated for a Pushcart. She is the author of a chapbook, Brotherly Love: Poems of Sappho and Charaxos (Frog Hollow Press, 2016), and a forthcoming full-length début (Gaspereau Press, 2018). Originally from London, Ontario, she currently lives in Halifax. 

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