Flash concision is Bridgman's Way

Nov 14, 2013 – ABC Book World

By David Stouck

Not all authors hanker for publicity. A precious few adopt pseudonyms and avoid the limelight like the plague. P.W. Bridgman, a nom de plume for someone who works in the field of law, is one such anomaly. There is no Facebook page.

No self-merchandizing whatsoever.

In P.W. Bridgman's first fiction collection, Standing at an Angle to My Age (Libros $20), the very shortest stories, referred to as "flash fictions," compress within as few words as possible a setting, a way of life, and the potential for dramatic action.

"The Mars Hotel" encompasses in less than a page, and in language as taut as an Emily Dickinson poem, a lover's journey that began with his mother's proffered finger until, "javelined by Airbus from London to Paris," he is united with his beloved.

In just two-pages, "Trading Places" charts two English couples over a lifetime in terms of education, health and class.

Among the experiments is the telling of a story backwards. The machinery of plot is put into reverse in "Turning in the Trap," wherein the narrative of a soldier's long, unhappy marriage and his suicide are presented in brief segments each dated earlier than the preceding one.

The title for "Ad Te Clamamus, Exsules, Filii Hevae," another one-pager, can be translated as "To thee we do cry, poor banished children of Eve." The context here is Catholic guilt. The speaker/narrator sits at the dinner table with Nuala, her six-year-old brother and their father, while the mother hurriedly ladles out lamb broth soup. The exact relationship between the speaker and Nuala is not defined–but the concluding sentence suggests menacing possibilities framed by sin and violence. The Irish father mutters "Jay-sus, Mary and Joseph." The speaker observes the older man's thick fingers "roughly tapping the table in synchrony with the beating of our newly post-coital, runaway hearts."

The longer pieces are also foremost about the craft of writing. The selection of the right word is thematic as it was for short story writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, or Ivan Bunin (the now almost forgotten first Russian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature).

"Our Secret" is a mother-daughter story in which the daughter learns the story of her paternity, the perfectly-crafted sentences convey a way of life in northern Ontario that is hard-bitten but intensely alive.

"De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum" is a father-son story in which a late middle-aged man from B.C. revisits the wartime scene of his Manitoba childhood with a painful clash of cultures between his fiery Irish Catholic mother and his pacifist Mennonite father.

Both these stories have the dimensions of large tragic novels pared down to their essence.

The skills of an adept satirist are evident in the lengthiest piece in the collection, "Cake, Bang and Elm," structured around two points of view: the narrator as an observant child in London, England, and as an adult college teacher from Canada. The child's view is registered in the cartoonish Dickensian names of the characters he meets and hears about in London: Mr. Cake, Mrs. Paper, Mr. Boil, Jack Cat, Mr. Gland, etc. The adult, returned many years later, comes to see these bizarre figures in a wholly different light.

"So and Not Otherwise" is a lively satire of academic life at UBC, its aspirations and shortcomings, including some splendid farcical moments.

Both these stories slip free of satiric conventions and conclude in a gently serious vein.

The stories in Standing at an Angle to My Age, while sometimes set abroad, are nonetheless markedly Canadian, some with specifically B.C. settings and references. They inhabit a wide range of genres and modes, but are distinguished by the steady craft of an elegant literary stylist. Bridgman's carefully polished stories perform agile narrative feats: one page evokes a full-length short story; ten pages read like a novel. Each piece is an experiment and P.W. Bridgman a writer of exceptional talent.

The stories 'The Mars Hotel' and 'Suitably Framed' each placed in Spilling Ink fiction competitions; both appeared in 2011 in the Scottish anthology, Story.Book, published by Unbound Press of Glasgow. 'The Mars Hotel" was also shortlisted for the U.K. Bridport Prize, flash fiction category, in 2010.

The volume has been fittingly produced by Libros Libertad with careful attention to design layout and typography. P.W. Bridgman has begun work on a novel.

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