Inspired by the people and events of her childhood in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Carmella Gray-Cosgrove’s debut story collection Nowadays and Lonelier offers searingly intimate portraits of characters who exist in the tension between holding on and letting go–of people, places, and personal histories. The narrator of the opening story, “The Dance of the Cygnets,” actually provides us with an excellent metaphor for the whole collection: “On the commute I’ve been listening to an audiobook about trees. Apparently, there is this white stringy fungus in the root systems of forests, and even in more dispersed groups of trees like in a park or a neighbourhood. The fungus connects the forest into one sentient community. It’s called a mycorrhizal network. It’s underneath us most of the time, filaments that reach out for each other deep underground. A hidden conversation” (9-10). Like the trees and fungi, the characters in Gray-Cosgrove’s stories “reach out for each other deep underground,” on the streets and housing projects of the DTES, through breakups and addictions, through hope and disappointment, and across time, space, and even species.
In many of Gray-Cosgrove’s stories, the absurd and extraordinary are rendered mundane before they are reinterpreted back into something meaningful. In one of my personal favourites, “The Cull,” a nanny for a wealthy family discovers that a pregnant coyote has moved into her bedroom closet. After learning that preparations for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics have displaced the city’s large coyote population, and that the city has been culling coyotes for over a decade, the narrator elects to tend to the coyote herself. She provides it with chicken hearts and dog kibble and eventually helps it birth its pups, all while facing accusations of theft from her employers. Through her kinship with the coyote, the narrator eventually experiences a revelation about her place in the world and she directs her life into a new, though unknown, course. This move from the extraordinary to the mundane and back again allows the reader to experience a strange yet stimulating weightlessness, like the feeling you get when you see something in reality that you first saw in a dream.
Like “The Cull,” many of the stories in Nowadays and Lonelier are told to a backdrop of forced displacement, governmental neglect, and class conflict. In the brilliantly-narrated “Go Time,” a retired Stats Can employee reminisces about the young mother she once met living in a dilapidated shed, a tiny infant strapped to her chest. “We knew we could never get everyone,” she reflects after the woman and baby disappear from the shed, “and we knew the ones we missed were always going to be the poorest, the ones who needed most of all to be counted” (179). This idea of needing to be counted—of needing to matter to somebody—is everywhere in this collection. As the narrator of “Whippits” explains after several conversations about love and heartbreak with her boyfriend’s mother, “Sometimes I would listen to what she was saying and sometimes I would just get lost in how Barbara was looking at me. In the intimacy of the eye contact, in how good it felt to be told things someone thought I might need to hear” (164). Of course, this desire for connection is almost always frustrated in every story, but the characters frequently persist in spite of these frustrations.
Yet, in some stories the value of connection is complicated by ambivalence. This is particularly true of the final story, “Power Pose,” in which an emerging writer (who makes ends meet as a barista) befriends a popular photographer of sexually-charged self-portraits. Within the world of the story, these portraits are described by critics as both “a brilliant commentary on sexual power in the time of the me-too moment” and a “vapid, pornographic exploitation of a powerful moment in feminism” (207). Though the narrator strives to be part of the photographer’s world of vibrant, creative people, it becomes increasingly clear that the photographer is not as she initially presented herself to be. The story ends with the writer matter-of-factly describing how the photographer quite literally manoeuvres her into a vulnerable position: naked, gagged, and harnessed, the subject/object of a camera’s lens. The extreme ambivalence of this story—and the fact that the narrator doesn’t comment on these final moments beyond trying not to think about how dirty the room is—left me feeling similarly ambivalent. It’s often said that a good piece of art should provoke strong emotions, whether positive or negative, but what Gray-Cosgrove has achieved with this final story is proof that confused ambivalence can itself be a powerful reaction because it demands further reflection from the reader.
Ultimately, one of the most admirable qualities of Nowadays and Lonelier is how skillfully its author has rendered each narrative voice. Whether she’s writing from the perspective of a young child learning about sexuality, a gay man navigating love and housing instability, a pregnant teen experiencing addiction and abuse, or a young Leonardo da Vinci, whether first, second, or third person, Gray-Cosgrove offers nuanced voices complete with linguistic quirks born of not only the characters’ socio-economic statuses but also their hobbies and personal fixations. These characters are not simply believable; they are people we already know, in all their absurdity, mundanity, and, yes, ambivalence. They are sitting across the table from us, telling us their stories, enfolding us in intimacy. With innovative story structures and always mesmerizing style, Carmella Gray-Cosgrove has gifted us with a deeply rewarding, highly re-readable collection of dreamy, gritty, and hopeful tales.
Nowadays and Lonelier
by Camilla Gray-Cosgrove
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021, 220 p.p., $19.95
Erin Della Mattia is a writer and editor from Brampton, Ontario. She recently completed a Certificate in Publishing at Ryerson University and is currently working towards launching her own freelance editing business.