Forms of Devotion, Devotion to Forms
When you think of Thunder Bay, Ontario—and, let’s be honest, it’s more often than you’d care to admit—the name Paul Schaffer usually pops into your head. You know him, you love him, and you can’t live without him, but there’s another native of the Lakehead that you should know “aboot” – Diane Schoemperlen.
Ms. Schoemperlen is a writer with eleven books under her belt. Her work is characterized by experimentation with form. The National Post had this to say about her in a recent article on underrated Canadian writers:
Schoemperlen has built a career out of experimenting with form in fiction. Her novels and short stories have won praise from a small coterie of admiring readers, and her 1998 collection Forms of Devotion even won a Governor General’s award. But none of that has resulted in her catching on with the broad mainstream of CanLit consumers. Perhaps her formal experimentation – stories that use multiple choice questions rather than a traditional narrative, or a novel (In the Language of Love) built around the 100 stimulus words on the psychological Word Association Test – is too challenging for readers more accustomed to the soothing, easily digested fiction of certain writers on the previous list. But Schoemperlen’s abiding themes are not far removed from those of Alice Munro or Carol Shields; if readers would simply open themselves to something a bit more stylistically unfamiliar, they might discover a world of riches they never knew existed.
Forms of Devotion is a collection of illustrated stories that play off our expectations of fictional norms. In “How Deep is the River,” the premise of a word problem is put to innovative use to tell the story of passengers on a train. In “Five Small Rooms,” a consideration of color names has the reader wondering whether they are reading an account of madness or murder…or both?
The book is full of mischievous delights such as this passage from “Rules of Thumb: An Alphabet of Imperatives For the Modern Age”…
Turn against those who have ever contradicted you in public, failed to laugh at your witty repartee, questioned your right to suggest they should seek professional help, criticized your spouse (your child, your wardrobe, your hair color, your antipasto, or your grasp of experimental theater). Bear a grudge against these people forever. Especially bear a grudge against anyone who has ever told you that you looked tired when you weren’t.
…to the juxtaposition from mundane to menacing in the opening paragraph of the title story, “Forms of Devotion”:
The faithful are everywhere. They climb into their cars each morning and drive undaunted into the day. They sail off to work, perfectly confident that they will indeed get there: on time, intact. It does not occur to them that they could just as well be broadsided by a Coca-Cola delivery truck running the red light at the corner of Johnson and Main. They do not imagine the bottles exploding, the windshield shattering, their chests collapsing, the blood spurting out of their ears. They just drive. The same route every day, stop and go, back and forth, and yes, they get there: safe and sound. In the same unremarkable manner, they get home again too. Then they start supper without ever once marveling at the fact that they have survived. It does not occur to them that the can of tuna they are using in the casserole might be tainted and they could all be dead of botulism by midnight.
If you enjoy the form her writing takes, I know you’ll become a devoted reader. I am.