Review | Mireille Silcoff’s Chez l’arabe

by Kyl Chhatwal

The back cover copy of Mireille Silcoff’s very impressive debut short story collection, Chez l’arabe, describes it as “a gripping portrait of chronic illness­­­… inspired by the real life medical struggles of the author.” Of course we shouldn’t put stock in these back-cover descriptions, but this one in particular does the book and its author a serious discredit. It’s a cliché, I think, and largely untrue, that good writing necessarily follows from suffering. In reality, pain makes narcissists of us, and narcissism can make for very tiresome fiction indeed.

Thank god this is no narrow or parsimonious memoir of suffering. Instead, these are generous, expansive stories, and though many are told from the sickbed, they gesture to a broader world.

Of course illness has a place in these stories too. (Specifically, a rare defect of the spinal cord, suffered by the author and many of her narrators, where the brain is deprived of its protective cushion of spinal fluid.) But illness is not the final word in these stories, nor all they have to offer. If anything, Silcoff uses illness as a plot device: it restricts her characters to very limited physical and psychic spaces.

In the collection’s first and title story, “Chez l’arabe,” we’re given our usual convalescing narrator confined to her high-tech “Bed-o-matik” hospital bed, set up by the window of her West-end Montreal living room. Her self-involved husband Antoine isn’t much help to her—practically or emotionally—and there’s a housekeeper, Mathilde, but she soon departs for personal reasons. (Maids are common in these stories; the houses may be cloistered but they’re always wealthy.) Hiring a proper nurse feels too much like capitulation. The narrator still clings to what she calls “the impatience of the well, thinking vainly of scars and low-backed dresses.” In her healthy life she was a jet-setting journalist but now has been reduced to watching the sunlight filter through her vintage blinds, printed with old maps of Montreal. The sun’s progress across this sequestered geography becomes the new template for her days:

“When [the sunlight] filtered through the Molson estate, warming the belly of my brace, Mathilde brought my lunch….When it lit past Papineau, entering the deep east end of the city—the blue ribbon of St. Lawrence to the south—it meant the roaring waves of excruciation, the indescribable sensation of a brain sinking waterlessly, were closing in.”

While the blinds stand in for the city she no longer has access to, the cul-de-sac where her house is located similarly becomes a microcosm: for grander and perhaps more disturbing things.

We learn, for instance, that down the street is a Persian grocery, what Antoine derisively, and erroneously, calls “Chez l’arabe.” (“But Persians aren’t Arabs,” the narrator protests.) Her mother makes similar conflations. “You know, they were a very cultured people, the Persians. Anyway, all the same now,” she says a little too blithely.

These are small, ruthless stabs of prejudice from characters who slip them into conversation so lightly they’re almost neglected, until we discover the darker things they signify.

Mathilde’s departure has precipitated a minor crisis. Who will bring the bedridden narrator her lunch? The husband is constantly working and the mother is not particularly dependable. So one day at noon the narrator manages, with much pain and difficulty, to drag herself to Chez l’arabe, which also serves hot food. The owner, Samira, takes pity on her and starts delivering her lunch daily.

It’s an uncomplicated arrangement between neighbours until the narrator’s mother gets wind of it, and here the conflicts of the broader world begin to trickle in. The mother is an ex-Israeli folk-dancer fiercely dedicated to two things in her life: her homeland, and a certain wilful, muscular brand of Jewish motherhood. That a Persian woman delivers her daughter food threatens her sense of moral propriety. By the end of the story she has re-established her position as rightful purveyor of lunch. She swans into Chez l’arabe to let Samira know that her solicitousness, while appreciated, will no longer be required.

Wisely, Silcoff keeps this climactic and potentially distasteful encounter off-stage, permitting us to imagine all the ways it could’ve gone, and letting its significance bloom in our imaginations. I’m not suggesting, of course, that what happens in the Persian grocery is the powder keg of Middle Eastern politics writ small—but it feels like it could be. While the encounter is taking place, we are stuck with the narrator in her Bed-o-matik, fearing the worst:

“I fiddled with my bed controls. I flicked the side of the radiator over and over as if launching a fleet of miniature anti-mum fighter ships. I kicked off a slipper in frustration… Perfect. I was having a tantrum about my lunch delivery, and now my foot was going to be cold. [My mother] made everything so complicated.”

Silcoff is not heavy-handed in drawing her parallels; her touch is appropriately light. And she’s far too smart and compassionate a writer to ever portray any individual character as either entirely guilty or blameless in this minor Montreal drama.

The tangled issue of ethnic hatred has no clear victims or perpetrators, and by the end of the story we’re not sure what exactly has transpired in Chez l’arabe, besides that some kind of compromise has been reached. What this compromise consists in, or cost, is equally uncertain. And while the implications of all this unsettle us, they also edify. International conflicts are never solved here in Canada, but the matter of lunch can at least be sorted out politely.

The domestic scene as microcosm for… well, basically any human conflict is not new to Canadian short story writing. After all, it’s the well-trod territory of one of our literary greats, Alice Munro, to whom Silcoff has already been compared.

Silcoff’s admitted to having read a great deal of Munro and other “very emotionally informed women writers” when she first got the idea to write this book of stories. (Other noted mentors include Margaret Atwood, Anita Brookner, and Margaret Drabble.)

Again, I’m not suggesting that Silcoff merely parrots her favourite writers. But there is certainly an echo of them in her work—Munro in particular. Munro’s influence is evident even on the level of the sentence: not in Silcoff’s flashier turns of phrases, but her quieter, less obtrusive ones—like the lovely “a medallion of dignity.” Or when Silcoff describes a female character’s liberated but hollowed-out feeling after a divorce—“and now this thin, mean simplicity—everything, always, alone”—it sounds like the kind of “emotionally informed” observation a writer like Munro might make.

A Silcoff story also collapses time the way a Munro story does, shifting effortlessly through formative moments in a character’s life. In the wonderfully written “Champs de Mars,” an architect suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s and begins to imagine that every young woman he sees is his daughter, Sam, whom he lost years ago to a subway accident. Coincidentally, the accident happened at Montreal’s Champs de Mars station, an early version of which he designed.

Just as memory and time have collapsed in his diseased mind, the narrative seems to flit from one decade to the next: from the 1960s when he built the station, to the 1990s when his daughter was killed in it, to the present.

However, as anyone who has read this story knows, my outline here is woefully incomplete—as any effort at a tidy summation of a Silcoff story is bound to be. Which recalls another important similarity between Silcoff and Munro: their ability to distill, into a short story’s restricted space, enough material to fill a novel.

Silcoff also has a Munrovian knack for portraying men with unrelenting and sometimes terrifying clarity. Headstrong and ostensibly powerful men always have an aura of boyishness about them in a Munro story, and the same is true in Silcoff’s work. The façades these men carefully construct around their lives are ruthlessly and yet tenderly perforated by both of these writers, letting all the light in.

In interviews, Munro has remarked that she doesn’t think she writes men well at all. But what I think she means by this is that she only feels comfortable approaching men through the perspective of her typically shrewd and fiercely observant female characters. What this angle permits is a stripping away of pretense that nonetheless imbues Munro’s men with a certain vulnerability, even grace. Silcoff strikes a similar balance with her male characters. In the final story of her collection, “Eskimos,” Silcoff puts a man centre-stage, something Munro rarely does, and the performance is convincing. Gerry Dubinsky is a hyper-masculine Montreal businessman who’s not afraid to play the clown—a little like a Richler hero in this respect. We’re almost tempted to write Dubinsky off as just another entitled alpha male who goes through wives like designer shirts—until we learn that his lucrative restaurant business has just collapsed, and he’s now financially dependent on his vacuous wife, who we assumed was just another trophy wife. The highly rehearsed control that is so crucial to the identity of a man like Dubinsky turns out to be ephemeral; he is not in control at all; he is caged by his emotionally destitute marriage and can find no way out of it. He’s vulnerable, but the truth of his vulnerability sneaks up on us. We don’t see it coming, like many of the epiphanies we experience while reading Silcoff’s book.

Epiphany—and the yearning for it—is at the heart of probably my favourite story in this collection, “Appalachian Spring.” It is part of the suite of stories narrated by the young convalescing ex-journalist who closely resembles Silcoff. In this story, her neurosurgeon has patched up her “Swiss cheese” spinal cord, and while she’s not exactly 100% yet, she’s at least more locomotive than when we last encountered her, and able to do something she only dreamt about during her Bed-o-matik days: escape.

Montreal stifles her, with its “sky like cooked veal” and emotional repression. In a travel magazine she reads about a town in southern California known as a gathering place for spiritual seekers. In the 1930s, a renowned mystic (based on the real-life Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti) settled here, drawing his followers with him, and our narrator becomes a sort of latter-day supplicant.

While it’s reckless for her to fly across the continent in her condition, she does so anyway, renting a bungalow to which she finds herself largely confined—as though replacing one walled prison with another, albeit a sunnier one.

Again, no personal misery or transparent appeal for pity weighs this story down. While the narrator is still harassed by her pain, the story she offers is far funnier and more generous than one might expect from someone in her condition.

By chance she discovers the house once belonged to a famous artist and spiritual seeker herself named May Wallace (based on Beatrice Wood, who, among other things, was the former lover of Marcel Duchamp, and the inspiration for the character Rose in the 1998 film Titanic). The story from then on becomes all about Wallace: her famous and numerous lovers, her bohemian life. The fullness of this life inspires and even obsesses the narrator. After hobbling to the local library, she shoplifts a hand-written Wallace diary. In it, she learns (or divines from very thin evidence) that one of Wallace’s lovers was Aaron Copland, famed composer of the orchestral classic “Appalachian Spring,” an emotional touchstone in the narrator’s own childhood.

What this story demonstrates—and to hilarious effect—is the number of quirky, outrageous ways that spiritual yearnings exhibit themselves in people on the edge of a crisis, and how slippery the imagination can become under such circumstances. “I had the rare feeling that where I was and where I was supposed to be had merged,” the narrator tells us, sounding, she admits, “like some waif out of D.H. Lawrence.” She knows all this is silly, but it’s a silliness she can commit herself to. The whole thing is touching, pathetic, and yet perfectly familiar. After all, cobbling together meaning out of pure coincidence is a uniquely human activity.

The whole collection brims with humour, but this story is arguably the funniest, especially the penultimate scene. Here we find the narrator spread-out on the floor trying to achieve some minor enlightenment. She’s hopped-up on medical marijuana, “Appalachian Spring” blasts from the stereo speakers, and Wallace’s diary is tented on her chest and open “to the page where she and [Copland] do it.” With perfect comic timing, Silcoff has the husband, Antoine, walk through the door at this precise moment. He says he took the morning plane from Montreal, convinced, it seems, that his wife has flaked out.

“Are you stoned?” is all he can say when he sees her, then frowns at the Copland. “Cowboy music?”

It’s true that this collection begins with physical suffering, was born of physical suffering, and owes a great deal to physical suffering. But thankfully it does not restrict itself to physical suffering. It maps much more interesting territory, and does not always play the same dull note of pain, pain, pain.

The result is a hilarious, self-effacing, beautifully paced, and often uplifting collection of short fiction. It’s generous with its insights, exacting with its observations, and ultimately worthy of even the “emotionally informed women writers” who inspired it.