Steven Heighton: The Engine of his Prose
Steven Heighton is among the few short story writers in our Salon des Refusés who could claim a spot in a like exhibition of national poets, or novelists: he’s an amphibious writer, equally at home, it seems, in verse and prose—able to move comfortably, yet calculatedly, between the two, and often carrying his central themes across from genre to genre. Heighton has published two collections of short stories, Flight Paths of the Emperor and On Earth As It Is (Porcupine’s Quill, 1992 and 1995, respectively; Heighton revised both collections for republication by Vintage Canada in 2001). Rereading these collections now (along with a newer story, “The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead,” which appears in the 2002 anthology The Notebooks), it seems to me there are three things I might set forth as “characteristic” of Heighton’s short fiction: the first involving the stories’ effects, the second involving their prose style, and the third involving their narrative “engine.”
1. Things actually happen in Heighton’s stories. Planes crash, canoeists are drowned, women kill their husbands (or are rumoured to have done so), ESL teachers are kidnapped by the Japanese mafia, siblings fall out and are reconciled, unlikely couples make passionate love. Taken at face value, this looks like a predilection for the sensational. Oddly, Heighton is the farthest thing from a sensationalist writer. What I mean by this is that these “sensational” happenings are somehow secondary to the stories’ main effects. What I’ve remembered from the stories, down the years, is not so much their revelations or disasters as their lyric moments: moments in which a character’s perceptions or reflections take sudden, clear, linguistic form. These have stayed with me long after the smoke has cleared and the rubble has grown over. (Thus, what I remember most keenly from “Five Paintings of the New Japan” is not the story of Mr. Onishi’s heroic battle against the banks but the quiet, incremental narrative of Nori and Steven’s collaborative translation of the poem by Bashō.)
2. Heighton’s style is marked not so much by a characteristic idiom—a set of authorial tics, or a trademark sense of comic timing (though he is a master, here, when he wants to be)—as by an ability to move seamlessly back and forth between a simple, workmanlike prose and a soaring poetic line, as the story calls for it. These transitions will often correspond with transitions in person or tense; thus, in “Five Paintings of the New Japan,” the carnival chaos of the section “The Kermess” is enacted through a shift out of the past tense and into the present.
3. Heighton’s stories are driven not so much by plot or character as by language and conscience. Language—which, with its basis in metaphor, insists on the juxtaposition and superimposition of disparate images and events—and conscience—which, with its basis in empathy, insists on responsibility and consequence—form the connective tissue of these stories, linking past and present, home and away: a home-run hit in a children’s baseball game in North Bay, Ontario, is overlaid on the apparition of a bomb in the clear skies over Hiroshima, so that the relationship between the two seems almost causal. In “Five Paintings of the New Japan,” this sort of overlay becomes so thick that the story achieves critical mass—an almost oceanic pressure, which works, on any individual detail, exactly the sort of “sea change” the story addresses. A tower of Budweiser and Kirin cans becomes a high-rise department-store, which in turn becomes the tower of Babel; the pearl stud in the earlobe of the bartender becomes the pearl of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which in turn becomes the eye of a sailor, tempest-drowned, full fathom five. Likewise, turns of phrase that at first seemed random—Mr. Onishi has just “fought and lost a battle with cancer”; the waitstaff “issue[s] from behind the bar and line[s] up for inspection”—come to seem double-edged, knowingly participant in the story’s war-haunted themes. Ultimately, the reader is left—like the narrator, confronted with Nori’s uncannily apt malapropisms—“no longer sure” that Heighton doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying.
Photo by flickr user Vladislav Bezrukov