I didn’t go to the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert this year, because I was feeling burnt out and wasn’t interested in going out that weekend. It turned out to be the last concert of the year, because Stuart McLean announced a melanoma diagnosis and cancelled the other shows. He seems positive and upbeat so far. I thought I’d dig into this, one of the more recent Vinyl Cafe collections of Dave and Morley stories, and share some thoughts on why McLean is a celebrated Canadian author.
I love the Vinyl Cafe and listen to it regularly, in podcast form. It was particularly important to me during the two years I lived in the UK, because it was like a link to Canada. I would walk through the Bury St Edmunds market every Saturday morning, listening to the show and enjoying that sense of connection. McLean introduced me to a lot of Canadian musicians I wouldn’t necessarily know about, particularly the more folksy ones who don’t get a lot of airplay. But, of course, the Dave and Morley stories are the highlight of every episode.
It would be easy to claim to identify with Dave, who is always getting into incredible scrapes and situations based on a combination of hapless bad luck and awkward enthusiasm. That would be reductive, though. It’s more accurate to say that I identify with elements of Dave, Morley, Stephanie, Sam, and all the other characters in McLean’s world. That’s why these stories are so powerful and compelling: these characters are archetypes for a type of modern mythology.
Sorry, was I getting too literary and CanLitty there? I’ll rein myself in. Let’s try that again.
I had heard pretty much every story in this collection, some of them rather recently, and enjoyed them to varying degrees. Like any short story collection, this one has some favourites and some ones I’m not likely to revisit quite as much. If you don’t enjoy “Attack of the Treadmill” then you are weird, and if you don’t get a little teary-eyed at “Rosemary Honey” or “Annie’s Turn”—stories about boyhood and growing up—then I’ll shake my head in wonder. But some of the stories, like “The House Next Door” or “Curse of the Crayfish” are funny in their own way but can’t really compete on an emotional level with the other players.
Then, of course, there are the really big guns, like “Le Morte d’Arthur,” probably one of the seminal Dave and Morley stories, for all that the title implies.
I get more emotional with Vinyl Cafe stories than I do for many other, perhaps even objectively “better” stories. It’s easy to parody McLean’s laconic, expansive performance style, but when you get right down to it, his actual writing is simple, clear. It’s in the twists and turns, the way the characters act and react to each other, that he manages to grab hold of you and wring from you both smiles and tears.
One sentence jumps out at me now as I’m writing this. It’s from “Rhoda’s Revenge,” a story that’s kind of middle-of-the-road for this collection: it’s a good story, and I totally get if you like it, but it’s not one of my favourites. Anyway, the sentence is this: “Ten years went by.”
When I read that sentence, I was reminded of the power that a storyteller has. Mere moments can last pages; or, as McLean does here, entire decades can go by with the stroke of the pen. This kind of economy of storytelling is immensely important. I remember when Battlestar Galactica jumped ahead three years at the end of a season. My initial reaction was one of shock and betrayal—how could they do that to me? Then I realized it was crucial, because the writers wanted to advance the plot to a point where they were interested in telling the story again—and in order to do that, they needed to skip a bunch of things that were important but not necessarily relevant to their point.
So it was here with “Rhoda’s Revenge.” After the set-up, McLean needed to jump ahead ten years. So he did. With a single sentence. That is power.
You learn a lot about writing by reading—and by reading anything. But if you wanted to learn how to write, you could do a lot worse than reading a whole bunch of Dave and Morley stories. McLean has his formulas and his themes down pat, and he continually applies them in new and fun and touching ways.
Ultimately, these stories are about close human connections, the connections between individuals. It doesn’t matter if they are separated by age or space or time; somehow, some way, we can form these connections—or re-form them if they have been broken. We have an incredible capacity, as a species, for making connections on a personal level. McLean reminds us that when we make these connections, we should do so with compassion, with a sense of levity, and with a smile.