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Book Review: Bang Crunch by Neil Smith

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I read Bang Crunch, Neil Smith's debut collection of short stories (published by Knopf Canada), on a train, on my way to visit a grieving friend. Her partner had died: Too young, too soon, too good for it to be fair. I would read a story and glance out the window, at the gray, industrial world by the tracks, and I would think about how life is so beautiful and cruel, all at once. Then, I would return to the pages, to Smith's enchantingly wrenching tales of striving and failure, wrapped in a blanket of beautiful melancholy as the train rocked me back and forth.

Smith's stories are full of broken-hearted dreamers, people in the midst of being struck by the realization that the world is not what it should be. From the opening salvo, "Isolettes," in which a parent's idealized view of parenthood is shattered by medical complications and emotional ambivalence, to the parting shot from Madeline, an avenger of ordinariness, in "Jaybird," these stories are full of hospitals and broken hearts. Each tale manages to be both stark and tender, like a punch in the face followed by the aid of a stranger.

Much of the solace comes from the bittersweet imagery in Smith's writing. There is hair the colour of construction boots and a "rain puddle look" on a dissed boy's face. A scrapbooker explains away her failed attempt at journal-keeping: "Words simply toddled across the page like a string of daycare tots." Smith's writing about Montreal makes me want to make a return visit to the city; when it appears, it is often a character in its own right.

Montreal is most highlighted in "Green Fluorescent Protein," perhaps my favourite story in the collection. ("Isolettes" and "B9ers" are also in contention.) "Green Fluorescent Protein" is a coming of age story (sexuality, family upheaval) about the meaning of beauty, and about technology, and about the way in which we manipulate our world. I fell for Max almost instantly; just-the-way-it-is observations like this one sealed the deal:

The nurse's name is Charlotte, a pretty, twenty-year-old girl who probably didn't get cast as Juliet because she's black and fat.

In Max, Smith perfectly captures that moment in a teenager's life when they know everything and nothing… and know it.

In "Isolettes," Smith again uses the world of science as a parallel to the inner life of the character. In this case, it's An, a woman whose independence frightens her and leads her to the decision to have a baby. Smith's ability to forge a character in a sentence is again present when we learn:

In her foolish twenties, she'd shared a loft with a boyfriend whose puppy-dog good cheer had made her want to drive him out to the country and leave him there.

It's an image so perfect that I wondered, staring out the train window, why no one had ever conjured it up before.

The "B9ers," conversely, had a Palahniukian feel, with its distrust of sincerity and kindness — not to mention the support group motif and the story's resolution. A more ethereal, less gritty Palahniuk absent the potential for accusations of misogyny, mind you. There were occasionally other echoes of familiarity. The ash filled curling stone that featured in two of the collection's stories was reminiscent of Men With Brooms, not that the world isn't big enough for two memorial rocks. The title story, meanwhile, has a passing resemblance to The Confessions of Max Tivoli in the aging-gone-wonky circumstances of the protagonist. (In Smith's case, he dubs the condition "Fred Hoyle syndrome," again using science as the scaffolding for his human story— Hoyle did not support the Big Bang theory, though he coined the term, supporting instead the idea of Steady State.)

These echoes are mentioned as trivia, not as criticism. Smith's work is original, from the most ordinary of the stories to the most extreme ("Extremities"). His ability to capture wistfulness in all its hope and desperation charmed me. His unwillingness to romanticize situations or subjects shocked, delighted and devastated me. Smith clearly loves the world in all it's messy, car accident glory. Bang Crunch is the sound of life, an onomatopoeia of what it feels like to be alive. It was the perfect book for the journey I had to make, and I am grateful for it.

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