Some narrators speak certainly, and others shyly stammer, revealing their stories with reluctance and unease. Think of Moby-Dick, which begins, “Call me Ishmael,” and then consider John Barth’s The End of the Road (1958), which opens on a more jittery note: “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.” Horner’s nervous squirming came to mind while I was reading Another Ventriloquist, the finely turned and intelligent collection of stories by Adam Gilders, a Canadian author who wrote for the National Post and The Walrus and published his fiction in the Paris Review, among other magazines.
Gilders, who in 2007 died of a brain tumor at age thirty-six, mines such awkwardness for comedy and sympathy. His characters worry and wonder, hardly seeming comfortable in their skin, and when they itch, we itch with them. They, too, seek answers. They turn to self-help manuals for advice and listen to therapists, management consultants, and a TV program about body language. Their studies, unfortunately, lead not to a greater sense of well-being, but to aggravated self-consciousness and more questions. In “The Abnormal Party,” the narrator details his personal method for interacting with coworkers:
I have a certain way of standing during these conversations that is supposed to put people at ease but in my experience it doesn’t always put them at ease. . . . It involves leaning backwards slightly and using one or both of the hands for balance. This is supposed to work because, psychologically, people are more at ease and unthreatened when the person they are speaking to is projecting their hips slightly.
In “Sink and Swim,” the book’s longest and best story, Don, a public-relations functionary frustrated with his job, plots to impress his boss and thus charm his way out of what he terms “the odious outfield of the corporate game.” The two meet at a coffee shop, a run-in owing nothing to chance and everything to Don’s careful recon work. Before setting in motion his plan, Don reviews a few lessons:
Great conversations often begin with casual remarks on the immediate surroundings, on what is currently at hand. For this reason, I had already decided that my opening remarks would focus on the phraseology of certain restaurant menus, specifically, on the use of the word “filling,” as in “cheese filling” or “meat filling.”
Gilders never permits his fiction to devolve into crude farce at the expense of fools. However obtuse Don’s stratagems, he seems most human and vulnerable when chasing after goals he’ll never attain. Chatting about “filling” or shifting one’s hips to the proper angle could not, one feels certain, possibly work, and yet one nonetheless feels the ache and the hope and the need that make such adjustments seem like the best bet in a rotten game.
Don and his colleagues in this collection are trying to understand their lives. They find themselves in cubicles at work and, in the wider world, surrounded by invisible barriers they cannot cross, and yet they persist in believing they needn’t stay put. In one of the book’s many short-short stories, bits so sharp and quick they seem like lost pieces of text from a Barbara Kruger installation, Gilders writes, “There is no escaping what is most obvious about your situation.” His characters, though, won’t be warned off: They’re still trying to escape. They may go about changing their situations in unorthodox fashions—they may even be completely wrong—but they want something more, and Gilders, wisely, generously, lets them explore the places where want meets frustration. If they’re undone by the faith they place in logic, betrayed by lessons learned from TV shows and therapists, if all the advice they’ve consumed fails them when they require it most, they remain people who think. What a welcome and rare sort of character: people caught in their gnarled thoughts.