What are you looking for when you pick up a book? For many, a book is just a story to read, enjoy and largely forget about. Light entertainment, as easy to pick up as it is to put down.
Dr. Tim Conley of Brock’s English Literature department wants you to dig a little deeper than that. On March 29 he will be at a release event for Collapsible, a collection of short stories that encourage their readers to think a little harder about what they’re taking in.
Students who have taken Conley’s classes will no doubt be familiar with his love of James Joyce, amongst other challenging authors. At the heart of Conley’s love of English literature is an interest in the way narratives are constructed and told.
“There are a lot of things that interest me, for example, cognitive science interests me,” said Conley. “But it interests me in the same way narrative does, as a function of narrative. We construct narratives, often in which we are the centre of the universe. But it seems that biologically, we have to narrativise. It’s not clear exactly why. We seem to need it.”
Collapsible explores this idea a great deal. In many of the stories, storytelling itself is a focus, even the everyday storytelling that we take for granted; the white lies we tell to feign interest or excuse ourselves, the extravagant fantasies with which we delight children. Conley does an exceptional job of exposing how often we indulge ourselves in narrative, all the while encouraging the reader to wonder why that might be.
For those who are willing to tackle such questions, there is considerable fun to be had in Collapsible. Conley often delights in telling a story, not in the most straightforward way, but the most interesting.
“I like, in part, to not know what I’m doing,” said Conley. “If I can see too clearly what I’m doing there’s no mystery, there’s no fun. I think that mystery and fun should also be felt by the reader.”
This adventurous spirit is something Conley embraces in Collapsible: some entries in the collection are straightforward and realistic, but many play with your assumptions and perception. Some are surreal forays into fantastical scenarios — on the surface, at least. But Conley excels at blurring the line between the reality of the situation and the wool drawn over our eyes by narrators with skewed worldviews, or ulterior motives.
“We should be weary of anyone who claims there is one story. No matter what it is, there’s always more and there’s always the chance that you could tell it a different way.”
But these logical puzzles are only a part of what makes Collapsible so enticing. While it’s certainly fun to try and piece together the actual events of a story, to do so often misses the point that Conley is trying to make. Something that I found particularly enjoyable about Collapsible was that, even if I didn’t quite understand what I had just taken in, I was undoubtedly moved. Something within them spoke to me in a way that completely transcended the literal meaning of the text. As an English professor, Conley doubtless understands how deeply one will dissect even the use of punctuation to find meaning. Collapsible achieves a wonderful balance by daring its readers to go that extra mile, without that becoming a barrier for entry. The only real requirement is that you get something out of reading the stories.
Conley did not have a specific audience in mind for his work, other than the assumption that they’re willing to work a little harder for the things that excite them. It’s not hard to tell that he has a great interest in stories that demand something of their readers, or have some profound effect upon them.
One nagging question I had about this collection was the title itself, Collapsible. Conley’s insight into the title cast an interesting light on some of the stories: “Collapsible is an odd word: that which has the ability to collapse. It isn’t collapsing, it’s capable of collapsing. And there are collapsible things like tents and telescopes, and maybe the universe itself.”
Indeed, that anticipation can be felt throughout Collapsible. Some stories here are incredibly short and deliberately leave you hanging at the most interesting moment.
“Well, at that point, I can leave,” said Conley. “We know that every story has another story. So whenever anyone tells a story, there’s always the question, ‘why are you telling this to me now’? There’s always more to the story and as a reader, we construct those stories. And at that point, I can let you go because I don’t have to do anything anymore.”
Conley has a masterful way of enticing the reader to do exactly that; giving you enough to fuel your creative fantasies but letting you take the reigns.
All in all, Conley has crafted an elegant, bizarre and captivating range of stories in Collapsible. You may not know what to expect, or even fully understand what you’ve read, but you’ll certainly end up thinking a little deeper, even beyond the stories that are here.