I was initially doubtful when asked to review Rand Gaynor’s New Old Stories. Being neither a literary scholar nor a fiction writer, would I have anything useful to say? Reading short stories, however, is a bit of a passion, an enthusiasm honed decades ago when my first fulltime job at the Nova Scotia Hospital required two bus rides plus a trip on the ferry: what better to occupy travel time than reading a story one could finish on a single leg of a commute?
When I first picked up New Old Stories, I read through all 12 stories in one go, although one could certainly read them over time, each being complete in itself. My first impression is that these are the product of an imaginative writer with an excellent grasp of what makes a successful short story. The writing is uniformly good, at times quite beautiful with sentences one wants to savour. Gay themes, with a changing set of characters, run through the stories. There are other common motifs as well, change and loss prominent among them.
One central character is a link among the stories, the rather coyly named Seh Goodnight. Has Gaynor perhaps written a novella rather than a set of short stories, or perhaps a novel literary genre somewhere between the two? With this thought in mind, I reread the collection, several times in fact. This is one of those instances where—good as each individual story is—the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
The first story (chapter?) introduces Seh as a youth. He is already looking beyond his home, thinking of places far away, places he fears he may never visit as “ordinary people from here usually don’t go that far away”—but, far from ordinary, later in life he will.
In one of my rereadings, I focused specifically on what I could find out about what Seh was like. One learns of his changing tastes in music, the various places he has lived and to which he has travelled, and of his constantly changing group of friends and acquaintances. Yet oddly at the end one still knows relatively little about who he is as a person.
While he appears in all of the stories that make up the main section of the book, he is seldom the main actor. Indeed he appears to be essentially passive, responding to others’ needs and requests. He is present when interesting and unusual things happen, but they are seldom initiated by his actions and don’t usually happen to him directly. And it is never clear if or how he is changed by them. During the rereadings I looking for clues about Seh, but could never really develop a picture of who he is, although I assume this is a conscious decision on Gaynor’s part.
Such careful reading leads on to realize that it is the auxiliary characters who take centre stage. It is they who initiate and are the focus of the action. Gaynor has an impressive capacity to bring these people alive, often in a few deft strokes or a single telling action, as for example the grandfather in “Stupid Old Man”, Barry in the eponymously named chapter, or the mother in “David Star and the Fallen”. Few of the characters are happy and balanced, but one does not expect that in a short story. In thinking about many of them I was reminded of a comment a patient made to me at the Nova Scotia Hospital: “I could be perfectly happy if I could go away and leave myself behind”.
Having enjoyed the stories the first time through, their complexity compels one to go back and focus on a specific theme: the forms that loss can take, the ways that one can listen to music and the reasons for doing so, for example New Old Stories is a collection that rewards rereading. Outwardly simple, the inter-linked stories are a testament to the richness of the author’s imaginative life.
About The Author
Born in Fredericton, NB, Rand’s “careen” took him first to the Ontario College of Art for two years, and then to the New Brunswick Teachers College where he majored in both Art and Creative English. At graduation he was awarded a one time, specially-created scholarship “For Outstanding Contribution to the English Department,” for his creative writing. He later completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Inspired by children’s book illustration, he wrote and illustrated "Henrietta’s Book of Days", which, after 35 years in an attic, he published in 2015 just for fun.
Rand had a decades-long career in graphic design with an impressive list of national and international awards. His photos of “Patient Zero,” Gaëtan Dugas, have been featured in several international magazines and documentary films, a BBC Radio program and in "Image and Inscription: an Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Photography" published by Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto.
Rand's book blog, including some snippets from New Old Stories, may be found at https://halibutbaybooks.blogspot.com/ .
New Old Stories is available in Halifax at Venus Envy (they will deliver during the COVID-19 quarantine time) and also on amazon.ca.