- Arts & Entertainment
- Health & Lifestyle
- Bits & Bytes
- Events calendar
The Dead are More Visible by Steven Heighton
The critics are going wild at the release of Steven Heighton’s new short-story collection, The Dead Are More Visible. Recent reviews have compared Heighton to James Joyce, to Vladimir Nabokov, to Alice Munro, to Mavis Gallant. There appears to be universal agreement that he is, in the words of Jeet Heer, “as good a writer as Canada has ever produced.” This bold assertion seems designed to provoke naysayers; there have been none.
As well as being one of our country’s very best writers, Steven Heighton might also be the most prolific and most flexible. Since 2010, he has released a novel (Every Lost Country), a poetry collection (Patient Frame), a meditation on the writing life (Workbook), and now a short story collection. Regular readers of this Fernie Fix column may have noticed that I have enthusiastically recommended all four of these books. I am a Heighton fan, even more so after the publication of his latest.
The Dead Are More Visible features Heighton at the top of his game. The language here is powerful, not a word misplaced, not a word wasted. Even when writing fiction, Heighton is always the poet. In one (unrequited) love letter, a character writes: “j, my j, you’ve recanted. Shouldn’t ‘recant’ mean to sing again?” This kind of attention to language brings a remarkable resonance and intensity to the work. At the end of each story, I was convinced I’d found the collection’s best.
Throughout the eleven stories, Heighton (and, through Heighton, the reader) inhabits a wide variety of bodies, including (but not limited to) a jilted lesbian professor; a middle-aged ex-athlete in prolonged mourning for his son; a twenty-three year old woman who, in the midst of an identity crisis, submits herself to pharmaceutical testing; an OxyContin addict lost in the desert near Osoyoos; a young man learning Japanese from a primer written by a psychopath; and a woman rendered invisible by middle age. The scope is impressive, particularly since no matter how far Heighton departs from his own experience (in terms of sex, age, geography, sexuality, sobriety, or class), his narrative voice is fully convincing and irresistibly compelling.
As well as being a poet, Heighton is a philosopher. Each story is infused with wisdom. There is a gravitas in this collection reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee. As in the work of the 1999 Booker Prize winner, the stories in The Dead Are More Visible have an intensity and a preoccupation with ethics facilitated by the over-thinking, highly analytical, and somewhat neurotic protagonists. Coetzee, though, is more the philosopher and Heighton more the poet. Where Coetzee might follow a philosophical thread for a few pages, Heighton whittles these thoughts down to their essence. The ambitious are never truly happy, one character claims, because time terrifies them. Or, on child-rearing, another character claims: “People will tell you, ‘I don’t want a child because it just seems wrong to bring a child into a world like this.’ High-minded horseshit, in my view. A cut-rate cliché. When has it not been a troubled world? People have children or don’t have children for their own selfish reasons, and that’s fine and natural. No need to dress up the option as a philanthropic gesture.”
This seriousness and the relentless attempt to get at truth set Heighton apart from the dominant tone of his time. In “Heart & Arrow,” the eighth story of Heighton’s collection, we’re told:
Merrick clinks his glass of rye against [his sister’s] spritzer and forges a coy wink, and his whole manner, he can’t help seeing, is lifted from somewhere else—maybe one of those noisy, strobe-lit TV beer ads where a scrum of college jogs flex and guzzle and crack wise along a bar. He can’t be sure. But he does know how much he hates the note of glibness that keeps breezing into his voice—the keynote of so much that he reads these days and almost every party he endures. A note he sometimes picks up and sings in tune with, vaguely ashamed the whole time.
Unlike Merrick, Heighton refuses to sing in tune. He does not give in to the flippancy or tongue-in-cheek irony so prevalent in this age. Even when there is humour in his work (of which there is plenty), there remains a deep seriousness. Human actions and human words do matter in each of these stories.
Steven Beattie of the Quill and Quire has complained that Canadians never write about sex. Likely, writers avoid sex because it’s embarrassing and too easy to do badly – too romantic, too cliché, too vulgar, too predictable. Heighton, however, writes about sex. In fact, physicality and sexuality are central to this collection and its representation of humanity. He has “hot little thighs crushing …ears and cheeks.” He has a “head forced down in a death grip…the thrilling insistence of it.” There is “a pair of nuns erotically revved up by the proximity of illness, death.” There is spelunking:
We’re back in the tunnel, you see. Despite my fear, I think I would go down and explore it with you, if they opened it up again. I am drawn to a fantasy of fucking you there, maybe in a side tunnel or a cul-de-sac, tugging you away from the tedious tour group with its silly costumed guide to make slow, wordless love in the kind of darkness that people never really do it in. What would that be like?
Does it change your reading of this passage once you know we’re looking at two women? I wonder. I think Steven Heighton wonders too. He’s a master at suddenly shifting the readers’ perspective, making them see things anew.
The Dead Are More Visible is a perfect book recommendation as we head into the Fernie Writers’ Conference. Emerging writers could learn much from the confidence, strength of voice, and precision of language in this collection. I hope they find it as inspiring as I do. When I fear that writing doesn't matter anymore, as I often do, I will re-read stories like “Those Who Would Be More.” There, the narrator says: “Energy is optimism.” Heighton’s stories crackle with energy. Reading (and re-reading) them gives me energy, as well as optimism. Writing does matter. When I get to the end of a story like “Nearing the Sea, Superior,” I believe profoundly and right from my core: fiction matters.