Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2008.
This is the author's first story collection, and I have been looking forward to it, as I've read many of his stories in various literary journals over the last few years. This collection of 11 stories was worth waiting for; all of the stories are good, but a few have that ineffable spark of originality found in a great writer. Highlights for me include OZY, a wonderful story which has just won this year's Journey Prize, a richly deserved reward for this tale of a young boy's summer obsession with a video game. It is absolutely amazing how Boyko can take the quest for the highest score in a game called Ballistic Obliteration and turn it into a meditation on childhood, on self realization, on excellence. It's a stunning story. Here's an excerpt:
Every message is a message to the future. The feverish, grandiloquent billet doux stashed with trembling hand in the coat pocket of the girl you're in love with; the casual note to your wife jotted in haste and posted to the fridge before you leave in the morning; the drunken, desultory jeremiad left on your ex's answering machine -- they will be read or listened to, if they are read or listened to at all, by people of the future. Even the thought scribbled carelessly in the margin of whatever novel you're reading is a variety of time travel. Every mark we make, every trace we leave is a broadcast sent out into forever. We think of our footsteps as receding behind us, but really they are beacons sent out before us.
The last two stories in the book, Black Ink & Past Lives, are also extraordinary. Their quiet searching of memory and of sorrow really affected me, and I found myself copying out some of the lines from these ones as well.
Boyko is from Saskatchewan, and that fact, along with his last name, makes me suspect that there is some Ukrainian in his background. One of the stories in this collection, Nadeshda Pavlovna, is almost certainly set in Ukraine during the Holodomor, or Stalin-induced Great Famine. (and just one picky point -- in many reviews as well as the publisher's own website they state that this story takes place in "Stalinist Russia". No, it does not. It takes place in Stalinist Ukraine, through all circumstantial evidence.) Nearly every Ukrainian writer I know is compelled to face up to this event in some way, and here is Boyko's take. It's a brief tale of an official who is moved by the power of art (represented by gramophone recordings) to question his blind allegiance to a corrupt power regime and his ability to make others suffer. I found it very interesting, especially as it came on the heels of another collection of short stories I've just finished, in the Language Lanterns series. Titled A Hunger Most Cruel:The Human Face of the 1932-1933 Terror-Famine in Soviet Ukraine, it presented literature from Ukraine by 3 authors writing only twenty or thirty years after the events. It was horrifying and yet necessary to read. Boyko's story uses some of the same elements but in a more 'literary' way. While I didn't really find it as striking as the ones I'd just been reading, perhaps that was because I was awash in the depressing subject already. I've also just read another by a modern Ukrainian writer, but that will have to wait for a forthcoming review.
A few of the stories I've seen celebrated in other reviews, such as Assistance (about a man who clones himself in order to escape his miserable life) or The Problem of Pleasure (a young jealous computer geek surreptiously videos his girlfriend in the bedroom), were just okay for me. I mean, they were well constructed, interesting and unique, but didn't speak to me the same way the others did; perhaps because they felt a little cerebral, like a successful exercise rather than an emotionally driven story. Many reviewers have stated that he takes on any voice he pleases in these eleven stories; while I agree that the stories differ in narration and setting (wartime London, a vague futuristic world, small Canadian town, ocean liner), I don't think that they are all equally successful. It is obvious that he CAN do nearly anything, but I'm not convinced each story is being told in his true voice. Still, he is very talented and I will certainly be watching out for more of his work. One difficulty I had was with the title. It confused me a little, as there wasn't a story by that name in the collection, and I couldn't really see the direct tie-in between all the stories. However, here are a few explanations:
(from the Toronto Star) In several stories, the word "blackout" has a literal connection. Two tales take place during the London Blitz in World War II, when Nazi bombers were targeting the city and residents covered their windows with blackout curtains to avoid any leakage of light. But Boyko extends the implications of the term to fascinating psychological territory...In two stories, the protagonists (one an empiricist out to debunk a parapsychologist's ESP experiments, the other a dogmatic Marxist despite his privileged upbringing) are so certain of their worldviews that, in effect, they're wearing blinders – which are, of course, a form of blackout.
(from What's on Winnipeg) Each of the 11 stories shines light upon those moments -- blackouts, perhaps -- when we realize how difficult it is to accept ourselves.
And from the author himself:
So overall, I'd rate this collection not a blackout, but a knockout. Well worth reading, and if you read literary journals you will probably have the pleasure of reading more of his work before the next book comes to fruition -- because it is evident that this author will be publishing more and more.
“I started out with the rough theme, basically the title, then started brainstorming around that. … Originally, I think I thought that the way to make a book seem more like a cohesive piece would be to write a collection of interconnected short stories. These aren't quite interconnected – but they are, at least, along theme; they have some of the same ideas. If nothing else,” he laughs, “the word ‘black' appears more than in the average book.”