Well-executed books of linked short stories such as Century or Hair Hat have the rare power of making the novel look mere. Mere as in only linear, one-dimensional, and narrowly focussed, which is nothing like life or like the world. Whereas the shape of a book of linked stories is like the world, or rather, like the world if it had edges-- polyhedronal. Multitudinous sides, perspectives, but only glimpses of these. And so perhaps the novel has the advantage of providing the reader with more satisfaction in its illusion of wholeness, but for the reader who is seeking something a little more true, linked short stories are as close as it gets in fiction.
The stories in Carrie Snyder's Hair Hat are linked by a man whose hair is cut into the shape of a hat. A creepy cut to ponder, and even someone standing immediately before Hair Hat Man declares the style only "plausible". Of course, I had to google it, and this guy seems to be the most famous Hair Hat Man on the internet. Carrie Snyder's Hair Hat Man, however, looks a little different. In fact, he looks a little different to everyone who encounters him, older or younger, shabby or less so, weary or sinister, friend or foe.
"Yellow Cherries" is told from the perspective of a young girl staying with her Aunt, Uncle and cousins while her mother is having a baby. A later story, "Comfort", is the Aunt's perspective of the same events, but the events subtly different, calling into question notions of memory, narrative authority and underlines the gulf between what adults and children understand about one another. "Tumbleweed" and "Third Dog" are both stories of motherhood, the first about a mother taking her children on a disasterous beach outing on the day her husband has (perhaps?) left them, and the second a grandmother taking her grandson for a walk one summer day, pondering her daughter's unhappiness as she relieves her of her maternal duties for a small time. A most vivid moment is the daughter upon their return home, (the narrative is in second person, spoken from granddaughter to grandson): "Give me the baby!" said your mother, running to the back door to greet us. "
It doesn't take much: the urgent nature of her exclaimation, that she is running, that it's the backdoor. Snyder uses her materials with such deftness that she almost makes prose look easy, and indeed Hair Hat is a breezy read. But each word, every sentence is weighted, to be considered. Such a wide range of characters, but Snyder is deliberate in showing the different ways that each one speaks.
The narrator of "Harrassment", for example, who speaks like he's spouting off, and then we realize he's erupting. He's one of several characters who are loners, for whom the Hair Hat Man is a point of connection. Queenie, the obese doughnut shop employee in "Queenie, My Heart" who has just lost her father is another, and on her second encounter with the man, on the subway, the beginnings of a romance are sparked. In subsequent stories, we view this odd pairing from afar, but there is something heartening about their relationship. We've only been watching Hair Hat Man from the periphery, observing him as an oddity, but we're beginning to connect with him too, and he's somebody we care about.
As the book progresses, we move back and forth in time to get closer to the Hair Hat Man's story. When we finally encounter him directly, he is so familiar that the hair is plausible, and perhaps the least remarkable thing about him. But still, this is only an extended glimpse. This story "Missing" is from the perspective of his long-lost daughter's own daughter now grown, given up for adoption and now returned to find him, Hair Hat Man, her grandfather. "I should have brought along a camera. I should have asked a passerby to take a photograph of the three of us. Next time, I thought. But next time is so rare. It's a hummingbird in the rose bushes: blink and its possibility is gone."
Not so much for a book, however, for like Century, Hair Hat is a book that begs for rereading. Unlike Century, it is also a book that I would have found my way to, even if not for Patricia Storms' recommendation. Carrie Snyder's book with its distinctive cover had been turning up before me increasinly often of late-- at the library, at the Eden Mills Festival in September at The New Quarterly booth where I entered a draw to win it but didn't win. Carrie Snyder had stories published in the most recent TNQ as well, and I was excited to read more of her work once I'd finished reading them.
All right, this ranking thing is terrible when all of the books in question are wonderful. Like choosing between your children, it is, when none of them have colic and they sleep for twelve hours every night. I am going to have to rank Hair Hat over Century, however, because for being less ambitious in its vision, Hair Hat realizes that vision with more success. Or perhaps that I'll have to read Century thirty-five more times before I get my head around it finally, or that no matter how many times I read it, I never will. For all my derision of readers "seeking the illusion of wholeness", perhaps I want a bit of it myself, and Hair Hat offers. But this doesn't mean, I promise, that I love Century any less.
Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder
2) Century by Ray Smith