A Review of Meghan Bell’s “Erase and Rewind”
Back when I was writing fiction — which seems to be a long time ago — I got a first-hand look at how hard it was to sell (longish) short stories and stories that had a surrealist bent. It took an incredibly special market, indeed, to accept a piece that was set in realist mode but had a talking cartoon penguin as part of the story. Surrealist stories are a hard sell to literary markets, especially in Canada it seems (at least to me), so it is extremely rewarding to find something of a somewhat kindred spirit in Vancouver-writer Meghan Bell. Her debut story collection, Erase and Rewind, is being published by a small Canadian press, but it has at least three or four stories in it that could be construed as being a bit fabulist or strange — including one about a pandemic that was written and originally published well before the current situation with COVID-19. I’m happy to have stumbled across these stories, as they provide a bit of validation for my work as a fiction writer.
However, I must admit that I’m a bit on the fence about Erase and Rewind, partially because it is unfocused — the vast majority of the pieces are “normal” (for lack of a better word) slices of literary fiction — and partially because it is really hard to find a male character in any of these stories who doesn’t turn out to be at least a little bit of a jerk. On the other hand, I like the fact that Bell wrestles with the question of what makes a feminist a feminist in these stories (in part, because I’ve wrestled with the concept too: feminism, to me, just seems to be a blanket way of making every man seem to be a monster). The narrators in Bell’s stories, and I think that most of them were written in the first-person singular, are grappling with what makes a woman a woman and how to navigate the rough terrain between the differences in the sexes, or sometimes the same sex.
Of course, my favourite stories in this collection — regardless if a male character is a jerk or not — are the “weird” ones and I would encourage Bell to write more stories in this vein, if only because she’s so good at it. The “title track,” as it were, “Erase and Rewind,” is about a young woman who is date raped, but then can find out that she can reverse and erase time to such an extent that she can almost forget meeting the perpetrator in a classroom setting by not taking the class in the first place. The story was thought-provoking for me because it probed the boundaries of what might be considered consent, and why more women don’t go to the police after being raped. It was food for thought — that a woman doesn’t necessarily have to come out and say “no” for a sexual interaction to actually be a sexual assault, and that there are other signs that may imply that the female is not “out for a good time.” It made me wonder if that capacity exists in all men, even the ones who proclaim that they are “feminists” themselves. (Jian Ghomeshi, I’m looking at you.)
Other stories in the collection are striking too. “Captain Canada” is about the titular superhero of yore, transplanted into a family setting. The story begs to ask the question would a superhero be able to save everyone if he was an alcoholic mess-up of a human being. The story was kind of fun, but it did have a serious edge to it. The other story that had a bit of a surrealist bent was “Anhedonia” (which was also the original working title for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall). This piece is set in a pandemic where the virus, a fatal one, causes people to become severely depressed and the story unspools largely on social media. Given that the story was originally published elsewhere in 2018, one could claim that Bell had some level of foresight — that she knew that a real pandemic was on its way. While this remains to be seen, the story does capture the feeling of panic most people felt at the onset of the original COVID-19 lockdown.
While all the stories are beautifully written, there are — like in any short story collection — a few duds. Some of the more “realistic” stories are entertaining but don’t seem to resolve themselves to any sort of conclusion. Characters in these stories don’t seem to grow or change and are stuck in avoidable ruts in terms of life experiences. I think I know where Bell was going with this, but it might have been better to have a few more stories that had a feeling of certainty to their conclusions. The result is that the collection feels a little repetitious at times. Hands down, the worst story is “I Was Made to Love You,” which is written from the perspective of a character in another story and is about Plasticine people who come to life, written as though it were a film screenplay. I wasn’t sure what this story was about — it seemed to just be weird for the sake of being weird, which is an odd thing to say when you generally like when Meghan Bell is up to her surrealist tricks.
In any event, Erase and Rewind might not be perfect, but it does herald the arrival of a new talent who is well worth watching. One must wonder if Bell has the resources to sustain her surrealist bent throughout a full book, or if her debut novel will instead be more realistic. Regardless, Erase and Rewind shows that Bell has a knack for writing about things she’s unsure about and can explore those questions in the realm of literature. If anything, Erase and Rewind shows that I’ll be next in line to see what Meghan Bell does next because it is simply that intriguing. Her work could be considered to be a hard sell at times, and that makes her all the well worth reading.
Meghan Bell’s Erase and Rewind will be published by Book*hug Press on May 18, 2021.
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