You could almost envision Arvida as a town constructed as a backdrop, like a movie set, just waiting to be called upon by a talented story teller; one who would pull and draw legends, myths, and memories out of the woodwork of his hometown and re-imagine them, use them as fuel for his creative fire – a writer like Samuel Archibald. And you would not be that far off. Arvida was, in truth, a company town, founded in 1927 on the banks on the Saguenay River, 240 km north of Quebec City. Archibald describes the town’s genesis as follows:
“The Americans built the town beside the aluminum smelter in a hundred and thirty-five days. There’d been nothing around for 200 million years, then there was the Alcan smelter, and a hundred and thirty-five days later, a town.”
A town with no history suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere was a haven for those with a past to escape, those who wanted to forget or be forgotten… “a town of second chances”.
By the time that Archibald was born 1978, Arvida had been fused with the town of Jonquière and today a number of smaller communities have been amalgamated to form the city of Sanguenay. Arvida, as separate entity, the model town once praised by the New York Times no longer exists as such. But its glory days, its decline, its humanity – and a measure of misguided inhumanity – provide a wealth of inspiration for the stories that make up Arvida, Archibald’s short story collection first published in French in 2011, and now available in English translation. It has been shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.
On the back cover of this book, Samuel Archibald is compared to a “Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy”. Stir in a nod to Stephen King and it is not an inaccurate billing. There is a dark heart throbbing throughout these stories, a pulse that binds them together, weaving often disparate tales into a surprisingly coherent and effective whole.
The series is bookended by the first and third parts of the “Arvida” story: “My Father and Proust” and “Madeleines”. Together with “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” (Arvida II) which appears about two thirds of the way through, we have a fictional glimpse of the author, his family, and his hometown. Funny, sad, and philosophical, this tripartite tale begins with humorous accounts of the narrator’s father’s boyhood penchant for stealing pastries and ends with the challenge of facing Proust’s madeleines armed only with the memory of McNuggets, anchored in the middle with a celebration of the spirit and fortitude of his grandparents and the characters that brighten small town life at its best.
Many of the stories that fill out the collection are decidedly darker. Blood and violence are not unknown. But then neither are dreams and a spirit of magic. “Cryptozoology” features a father and son who live between dream and waking life without holding one as more valid than the other. Sharing a cabin in the woods, 13 year-old Jim is essentially his hard-drinking father’s care taker, driving him home from social gatherings, and cleaning and sobering him up the morning after. On the road and along the traplines he is haunted by sightings of an elusive animal, perhaps a cougar, that cross into his sleeping hours and take on an increasingly mythical significance as Jim himself becomes ill.
“Now Jim is dreaming and listening. He hears what they’re saying about him. He’d like to reassure them, to explain to them. He often has a dream with no up nor down, where the beast attacks him and devours him. It’s a dream of carnivorousness and violence, but not of death. He does not expire while the cougar is annihilating his body, he fossilizes within the animal like a memory of flesh.”
Ghosts are also a featured presence in Arvida, from the old fashioned gothic horror of “A Mirror in the Mirror”, the tale of a woman who wastes away into a state of otherworldliness waiting for her playwright husband to return from an extended stay in Montreal; to the spirits, real or imagined, that haunt and ultimately destroy the family life of a man who takes on the restoration of a crumbling historic mansion. But the horror theme is taken to an extreme in “Jigai”, a gruesome fantastical tale of ritual mutilation set in Japan, safely across the globe from small town Quebec. It is apparently an allegory of an unimaginably brutal story Archibald heard when he was growing up. Placing it in the middle of this collection however, has the effect of providing a powerful counter point to the small moments and the everyday terrors, fears, and passions of life in a remote community.
The fictional Arvida is inhabited by a wide assortment of colourful, often hapless, indiviuals. For example, in “América”, for the promise of three thousand dollars, a pair of young men decide to accept the challenge of smuggling a woman from Costa Rica into the United States. First they enlist a cokehead as an accomplice who turns out to be little more than a burden that must be abandoned, and then neglect to consider the impact that the events of September 2001 will have on their attempt to cross the border in 2002. Later on in another story, “The Last-Born”, a man who is less than a deep thinker, decides he can kill a man, again for a couple thousand dollars. Yet what starts out as attempted murder, turns into an unexpectedly heartwarming tale. Archibald is sensitive to the complicated dynamics of human interaction, allowing his characters to find their own ways in to and, with luck, out of trouble.
Arvida was very well received in Quebec. Archibald worked with translator Donald Winkler for a year to realize the work in English. Hopefully the Giller nomination will serve to introduce him to a wider audience, and to provide a well deserved boost for his small publisher, Biblioasis, who had three titles on the long list this year, two moving on to the short list. The stories in Arvida may be inspired by a particular place, but they vividly evoke the reality of small town Canadian life, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s. They could be set in any number of communities across the country, especially those company towns that rose up around mining or pulp and paper factories. Some, like Arvida have been absorbed into larger centres, while others are fading away.