As a member of the Toronto indie folk-rock act Bruce Peninsula, Misha Bower sings about lives lived on the edges of loss and despair. Their song, “Or So I Dreamed” includes the line ‘I put my faith in evolution because it says nothing is pure.’ In her impressive debut collection of short stories, Music For Uninvited Guests, she displays a similar interest in the imperfect ways people live, and she has a marvellous gift for capturing the way people talk when they get wrapped up in telling you a story.
Each of the eight stories is told in the first-person, and Bower has a great ear for how people like to tell an anecdote, and how in telling it they can get sidetracked. Many of the stories have the quality of an overheard conversation and we feel like we are intruding on an intimacy. Each has the quality of a vignette, of being a small slice of something larger. Bower shows how the extraordinary can emerge from the mundane, but many of the stories end frustratingly. We are left wondering what will happen to these characters.
So will they. Many of Bower’s characters don’t know where their lives are heading, and they feel they are on the threshold of something unknown. In “Fidelity’s Bluff”, the longest and most impressive story in the collection, the narrator runs away from a relationship by driving aimlessly into the night like Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. Like Updike, Bower knows how the myths of manhood can oppress a hero. “Leading Man” is a meditation on – and an inversion of – the cowboy legend. The hero leads the stagecoach party to safety, but at a cost to his own sense of invulnerability.
It is significant that “Leading Man” is set in the woods. Jon Claytor has illustrated each story with surreal images of anthropomorphic wildlife: a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking bear, a raccoon burdened with shopping bags, deer waiting for a bus. The pictures are a comment on what seems to be Bower’s theme: that we are animals who have been civilised, but like animals, we have specific survival strategies because we don’t know any other way to live.
Several stories involve making difficult choices, or living with their consequences. In “Reruns” a woman invites her mentally unstable cousin Lily to live with her. Lily’s ability to amuse herself in spite of or because of her illness makes the narrator envious of her solipsism. In “Naked Women” a man worries what his daughter thinks of the nudie postcards that his brother sends in the mail, and the postcards are the only form of communication the two men have.
Bower is interested in people living on the fringes of society. Most of these stories concern people surviving on minimum-wage, dead-end jobs, and there are barflies, potheads and gamblers. Like characters from a Raymond Carver story, they drink and gamble not to escape anything but because they don’t know how to do anything else, or if they do, they don’t know how to get there. Like Carver, Bower’s simple use of language is subtle. The stories are built on simple sentences and meaningless, elliptical dialogue. The writing is not showy but has a quiet power that lingers in the mind long after the story is finished.
In the end, it is the book’s readers who are Bower’s uninvited guests. We’ve stumbled on to her characters’ privacy, and if we are unsettled by their frankness, we are also made to feel welcome by Bower’s assured and accomplished writing. Music For Uninvited Guests is a marvellous debut from a writer with immense talent.
Music For Uninvited Guests is published by Canadian small press Cringles Publishing. It can be purchased here. It is also available as an audiobook read by Bower.
For a taste of Bower’s music: