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Prairie Fire, December 2009
Lori Hahnel was a founding member of The Virgins, Calgary's first all-female rock band. She drew on this experience for her first novel, Love Minus Zero, published in 2008. The music scene also finds its way into "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a short story in her new collection.
Perhaps more subtly, familiarity with song-writing seems to inform the structure of these stories. Many of them are examples of a certain shtick Hahnel has developed: breaking a story into short first-person narratives and offering the same narrator in alternating time frames, like verse and chorus.
The story "The Least She Could Do" alternates Molly's voice with her mother's, like a duet, with the mother telling us things Molly doesn't know.
In "Art Is Long," Julia addresses her narrative specifically to an old lover, as in a ballad. "Now we were on a date at a disco," she says, "you buying me Zombies while music throbbed and pounded, your long legs tangling with mine under the table (we didn't dance). I noticed the gold flecks in your irises." (28)
Like the words of a song you can't get out of your head, that image recurs in Hahnel's story "Valediction," told in the third person about Elizabeth and John: " . . . the first time she caught herself mesmerized by the gold flecks in his irises, it was too late." (178)
Also popping up in more than one story is a fascination with old movies; one of these, "Leading Men," originally appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of Prairie Fire. "We Had Faces Then" features a female librarian who becomes pregnant by a rapist--this is nicely tied to her musings about classical Hollywood actresses who couldn't get pregnant or had abortions.
That story is one of the two strongest in this collection of twenty-one. The other is "Across the Universe," which follows Maggie on a December 2005 bus trip to New York City for a celebration that will commemorate John Lennon's death twenty-five years earlier. Maggie has taken just enough time off from her record-store job in Calgary. "This time tomorrow," she says, "I'll be in Central Park with all the other freaks and losers and weirdos, and we'll all sing 'Give Peace a Chance' or 'Imagine,' sway back and forth holding candles, tears streaming down our faces." (95) But a fierce blizzard forces the bus to stay in Thunder Bay.
Some of the stories seem too short for their weighty subjects, like the suicides in "Rain in December" and "Beware of God." Some read as if they are summaries of melodramatic novels. "The Selfish Professor" is more like a dark joke than a story. In "Poor Little Rich Girl," Hahnel indulges her liking of old movie stars by recreating bits of Mary Pickford's journals, but interweaving those with a brief story of one of Pickford's maids doesn't quite work.
At least two stories are hilarious. In "You Tore Me Down," would-be writer Fiona bases a story on a break-up she's had, and the "Editorial Collective" she sends it to turns out to be David, the guy who broke up with her. In "Fiction Romance," Leah, who loves Neil but can't seem to attract his attention, spends long hours on the phone with Alice fantasizing about love-making with him. The lovely irony: he can't reach her because her phone's always busy.
Lori Hahnel's Nothing Sacred offers a wide variety of topics and people, and, shtick or not, each is appealing in its delivery — something like a good song. — Dave Williamson
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg novelist whose latest short story "Harassment" appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Prairie Fire.