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Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007

NECTAR FRAGMENTS

Strange stories from Canadian suburbs


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Nectar Fragments, by Michael Hoffman. AuthorHouse, 2006, 564 pp., $23.49 (paper).

In the manner of the anthropologist, Michael Hoffman, in his latest collection of short stories, stakes out a small piece of terrain then proceeds to examine the life within its coordinates. The name of this plot is Nectar, a fictional Canadian suburb. With sustained reading, individual plots coalesce into a satisfying picture of a community whose innumerable flaws give it a touching humanity.

Hoffman writes about the minutiae, the motes that float in the air, perceptible only when we pause to take note. In Hoffman's tales, this liminal matter coagulates into forms that demand attention.

So it is in the story "Snow," where the currents of one singularly ordinary day nudge and prod events into resolution. Here the narrator's transnational mind gives us in one time frame -- glimpses of Canada, Africa, a once-thriving herring port in Hokkaido. In stories like this, Hoffman conducts us through the desolate, stripped-bare landscape of characters whose lives aspire to be extraordinary but whose mediocrity prevails. In Hoffman's world of failed writers, amateur enthusiasts, recluses, insipid husbands, and men disengaged from both work and society are narrators of thundering ineptitude, who imagine themselves "literary artists."

Hoffman stresses the underlying futility in the lives of anguished writers, thumping away at stories unlikely to ever see the light of day.

The characters in Hoffman's stories, carrying the baggage of two colliding centuries, are filled with premonitions, a gnashing and grinding of anxieties, a millennial neurosis. Unhinged by events, dreams and fear of climate change, they are not insane by any means. We are obliged to admit that they are in fact very like us. Unlike us though, many are men of independent means living, not on baronial estates, but in the dim Canadian suburbs or the more godforsaken reaches of Hokkaido.

This is the land of the middle-aged. At this point in life, Hoffman's characters seem to suggest that you can look backward with yearning or revulsion, or forward with trepidation or resolve. Most people shrug their shoulders, keep their noses clean and get on with the modestly rewarding toil of their work and relationships. Complacency rules -- until, that is, something happens. And in Hoffman's stories there is always a sense of imminency, a short-circuiting.

In "Bugs," a story covering little more than two pages, Hoffman crafts a fully suggestive and satisfying account with the engineered precision of the eponymous title.

In "The Presentiment," a troubling dream causes the main character to face up to the implications of the strange phenomena that assail our sleeping hours. There is talk in this story, as elsewhere, of the prophet Abraham, the Analects of Confucius, the gods of the Norse. You will need to keep your wits about you. Something is going on at a higher level.

Hoffman doesn't shrink from addressing the big questions. One story is called "Life," another "Multiple Universes," while his alter ego in "Disorder," the 50-something Michael Elfman, dabbles in "the eternal question of the nature of reality."

Hoffman knows his Dostoevsky well enough to compose a fictional fugue from inside the skull of Russian literary society and the great writer himself. And it works well in the tradition of fictional and cinematic reconstructions. Particularly strong in this account is the very plausible period dialogue, something that writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Julian Barnes know a thing or two about.

It's interesting that Hoffman, a Canadian who has "lived in Japan most of his adult life," as the author notes tell us, should choose Hokkaido as his home. Or perhaps not, given that island's features. Adding to the novels of Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, and the laconic songs and poetry of Leonard Cohen is another Canadian, born, bred and pickled in the dour melancholy of the north.



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