In the title story in this magnificent new collection by Toronto author Cary Fagan, a young brother and older sister have been told they can’t go outside because of some kind of disturbance going on in the neighbourhood. It could be that police are chasing a convict who’s escaped from jail, or perhaps a block of houses are burning down.
The kids are black and dressed smartly. As they sit in the window seat, the boy gets his older sister, Kathry, to tell him about the lovely country house they came from when they were very young. He loves hearing stories about their idyllic past, full of pleasant things and people, and from which they are now completely detached.
“Why did we move to the city?” the boy asks his sister, but she doesn’t answer. Instead “she just looked out the window, where the wind was blowing a fedora along the sidewalk. All by itself it was moving, without even anybody chasing it.”
That fedora, ownerless and as rootless as a rolling stone, could be an emblem for this entire collection of stories, each of which was inspired by an orphaned photograph of nameless people in mysterious settings that Fagan collected in his travels. Several of the photos don’t even have people in them, just inanimate objects such as chairs, but even with these Fagan is no less brilliant in inventing new narrative contexts for them to give them a place in the world.
“Many years ago the photographs in this book became separated from their original owners, faces unrecognized, settings a mystery. They floated through his world, as if on a sorrowful wind . . . I have given them stories to replace the ones they have lost,” he explains.
The stories, which are uniformly short, all have an engaging dramatic element to them and most also have a surprise ending. The Call, for example, was inspired by photograph of a man in an elaborate military uniform sitting at a desk with paperwork and an old-style telephone. Fagan turns him into a Brave New World-style bureaucrat-conformist who is told to expect an important call at 10:30 that morning. He worries about the call all morning, imagining he is being closely watched and his whole career will be affected by what happens.
Although his phone is reserved for emergencies only, at precisely 10:30 his wife calls to ask if she should bring a fish casserole to the colonel’s party. He angrily disposes of her – “This is not a gossip line! I will speak to you at home!” – and hangs up the receiver. “Sweat has broken out on my brow and I take out my handkerchief to wipe it away. I look at my watch. It is 10:31. . . The telephone remains mute.” It does not ring again that morning.
Bloody Tuesday was inspired by a photo of a young boy wearing a cowboy costume and a holstered gun on his hip. The story features his childish, first-person account of how he captures a gang of bank crooks. Rosie was inspired by a portrait of an elegant, slightly dark-skinned woman; Fagan turns her into a friendly and much-admired saleslady in the women’s section of a department store who . . . has a secret life. (You’ll have to read the story to learn the surprise.)
Everybody also likes Uncle Jess, the subject of Jealousy, based on a photograph of a man in a suit and hat stooping to give a treat to a small black dog. In the richly-imagined world that Fagan creates for Uncle Jess, his wife Pauline becomes jealous of the excessive love and attention that he lavishes on his dog Lucille. As zany and offbeat as many of the details in Fagan’s stories may appear, they all seem to ring true to human nature in all its manifold variants and forms. It’s as if Fagan is trying to emulate the example of Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine.
As a genealogist, I’m always dismayed when I find an old photograph that has been handed down within a family but the names of those depicted have been lost. Similarly, I’ve always considered it a shame to come upon bins of orphaned family portraits at antique shows. I’ve often studied such photos looking for any clues to their provenance, some way of matching them up to their families.
Fagan’s impulse to invent new stories to replace those that have been lost is a noble creative gesture that succeeds brilliantly from an artistic standpoint. But what if one of his readers discovers that one of his photographs actually depicts someone in his or her own extended family?
For example the tall young gentleman in a striped suit and bowler hat from I Spare Myself Nothing. The man is called Lucas, and he writes to his beloved Isabelle of the incredible string of hard luck he had after the photograph was taken. But what if his great-niece comes forward to divulge that his name was really William Fennemuck and he invented a gizmo for Ford’s Model-T car that allowed him to retire early and go into cattle breeding?
It would be a remarkable postscript to Fagan’s rescue effort of his found objects if one of them were actually to recover a genuine provenance as a result of his story. (In modern physics, advanced string theory tells us that we live in a “multiverse” of multiple parallel universes, so all of Fagan’s stories will be certainly true in one of those universes.)
The discerning reader will discover with delight that elements from one story in this collection sometimes pop up in another. It’s a subtle and humorous game the author plays that only adds to our enjoyment. The suggestion is thus implanted that the people in these stories and in these orphaned worlds may be linked in diverse and mysterious ways.
Having read most of Fagan’s novels over the years as well as various of his previous stories, my assessment of the pieces in The Lost World is that they are as good as anything he has ever written. This is Fagan at the top of his game. Simply put, he’s a master storyteller and wordsmith who almost never takes a misstep. Although he doesn’t often reach for large dramatic themes, he’s adept at burnishing the small dramatic and comic ironies of human existence until they shine like stars.