Friday, August 13, 2010

Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston (Book Review Reprint)

Greedy Little Eyes: Stories of observance
A scavenger of the wistful and generous sort
Toronto Star | August 7, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In a recent article for Slate, Jessica Winter discussed how writer-director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg; The Squid and the Whale) takes great pleasure in populating his films with narcissists and misanthropes.

As if that were not enough, many of these disagreeable characters also have greedy little eyes, since, as Winter argues, “A Baumbach protagonist wears his pretensions like armor, but the pose of detachment is also the stance of the fiction writer or critic (incidentally, Baumbach is the son of both), who benefits from a ruthless facility for treating events and people as potential content to be appropriated or evaluated.”

In her new collection of short stories, Greedy Little Eyes, Billie Livingston, or rather one of her protagonists (a freelance magazine journalist named Lila), makes a similar observation in “Candy From a Stranger’s Mouth.” As Lila studies two adulterous lovers in a restaurant, she notes that “I have been accused, in the past, of sitting back, busily thinking up pithy descriptors that I might later use in an article. To some people this is the behaviour of a scavenger.”

Livingston might be a scavenger, but she does not have a ruthless facility. Her eyes are greedy but her stories are generous and wistful as they borrow and return delicate family secrets without breaking them. While her stories are also filled with narcissists and misanthropes, they are almost always antagonists, trying to ruin or frustrate the ambitions of dependable, reliable, plodding heroines: An unappreciated woman who works as an assistant manager at a music store. A woman stuck running a paper store out of family obligation. A librarian with an overprotective father who’s trying to ruin her marriage. All deserve better.

There are, however, moments of redemption and revenge, such as the arrest of a strange attacker in “Make Yourself Feel Better” and the surreal, gorgeous violence of “Did You Grow Up with Money?”

While much of Livingston’s material is relevant and contemporary (an affair revealed by Facebook snooping; Robert Pickton’s pig farm) a few stories feel dusty, such as a fictional retelling of Vancouver performance artist Rick Gibson’s unsuccessful attempt to drop a 25-kg block of concrete onto a rat named Sniffy in 1990. This might be personal bias, but as an ex-Vancouverite who survived the wackadoodle reign of Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm (1986-1991), I feel that no fiction should ever try and compete with the off-kilter reality of that era.

Then again, the little eyes of book reviewers are often jaded. Never satisfied, always making further demands from the authors they are asked to evaluate. Livingston offers many memorable sentences: “The man on the ground struggles with the vagueness of a nature-show cheetah just shot with tranquilizer.” “To my ears the words had a liquid quality, as if they’d been left out in the rain.” “Something in him looked refurbished to me.”

But her default prose style is dependable and unflashy, just like her heroines. I don’t wish to sound greedy (or worse, display a ruthless facility for evaluation), but this collection could use at least another dozen sparkly moments of wordplay. Such prosaic lives certainly deserve to be sprinkled with a bit more magic of the ordinary.