Culture | An exercise in melancholy

Alienation and loneliness ring hollow in Seven Openings of the Head

Liane Keightley’s short story collection Seven Openings of the Head is a series of pretty exercises in alienation, loneliness, and existential fatigue, most of them set in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. They are peopled with men and women who don’t understand each other, who trade clever dialogue back and forth over the distances between them like a game of verbal ping-pong.

These stories unfold slowly, promising to build toward some kind of payoff – a moment of revelation, a brief understanding, or a blunt, cynical ending that comments on the futile situations the characters are in.

Sometimes this works – this last kind of ending is the one Keightley is best at, occasionally showing her skill with deadpan humour. Overall, though, they don’t quite make it there; most of the time the stakes are too low for the punchy endings to resonate.

Maybe it’s because Keightley’s characters seem to exist in a vacuum. The scope of these stories tunnels down to a world made up of two or three people, with only some passing atmospheric details – well-rendered though they may be – to anchor them in their rural setting.

The stories don’t make up in emotional depth what they lack in scope, with their two-dimensional characters and ham-fisted, unnatural dialogue. Take, for example, the boy in “The Channel Swimmer,” trying to share his life with two strangers in a bar: “‘But I love gardening,’ he says, ‘I really do. I look up at the sky at night and think, this is it, this is my life.’ He has begun to slur a little. ‘Why the fuck shouldn’t I be happy?’”

Keightley is perfectly capable of turning a phrase or commanding an apt metaphor: the boy’s mind is “awash in beer and awful distances;” he tries to describe to the women he meets “how he fills the shallow bowl of his days.” But somehow the author fails to come through on the insights that such phrases promise. The description of his days is just as shallow as that bowl might be. Those awful distances lose some of their bite when they’re between characters whose highs and lows feel more like cardboard cutouts of real emotions, flat outlines with little fine detail in between.

We get to know most of Keightley’s male characters almost exclusively as projection screens for the women’s anxieties. Most of them, with a couple exceptions, feel like the same person making repeated appearances. Kit’s exaggerated description at the start of “No One Tells You” essentially sums up Keightley’s recurring two-dimensional male lead: “You are a bad man…. You don’t care about anyone but yourself…. You feel no remorse, and you never apologize for your bad behaviour.” Some nuance is introduced to these relationships only by virtue of the varied reactions the female characters have to their male counterparts over the course of the book, from ambivalence to protective affection to growing irritation.

There are instances when Keightley’s stories strain toward an acute moment of feeling or an emotionally dense scene, particularly in the ending of “They Never Tell You,” some parts of “The Channel Swimmer,” and “Triton and Tex.”

For the most part, though, the largest stakes in these stories are whether the couples will stay together or not, and even in the face of these anxieties they often find themselves ultimately indifferent.

They grapple with the idea of aging, of the way that staying together and being apart are often equally unthinkable propositions – potentially weighty themes, if handled with a certain subtlety and depth.

Here, however, they hone in on basic precepts of life as though they were a revelation – people age; everything is impermanent; sometimes romance doesn’t work out. The stories take these as their conclusions, rather than telling us something new about how to live in light of these facts.

Perhaps if there was something more in the picture besides two characters and their loneliness, their melancholy musings might just be that much more meaningful. As it is, they come off cloying and self-absorbed.