Story Mechanics: GORILLA PAINTING 26″ x 32″ ACRYLIC ON CANVAS by Kris Bertin
Who’s that loud but charming drunk guy beside you at the bar? What’s really going on inside his head while he latches onto you and asks you for a light and then tells you he had a vision about your future?
The unnamed narrator in Kris Bertin’s “GORILLA PAINTING 26” X 32 “ACRYLIC ON CANVAS” is one of those guys. We meet him on the night of his 29th birthday party, staring at a bizarre gorilla painting sent as a joke (or not?) by his older brother on the very night said narrator plans but ultimately fails to break up with his girlfriend. Instead, he manufactures reasons to avoid his house of enthusiastic partygoers (including his girlfriend upstairs), then meets a mysterious dressed-in-pink young woman in the basement and proceeds to spend his birthday card money following her on a wild goose chase through the lonely streets of Halifax. In the process, he starts smoking again, gets progressively drunk, and ruminates in an obsessive loop on family, past love, and the kind of existential heartache that inhabits the young men of Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson stories.
Except Kris Bertin’s no Carver or Johnson. He 100 % Kris Bertin original.
What’s so compelling for me about this story is the risks it takes, both in its telling and what it reveals.
Most obviously, there’s the cryptic, note-like narrative structure of the story itself. Bertin carefully avoids the possessive first-person pronoun, the “I” that bogs down so many contemporary first-person pieces. Instead his story spreads opens and finds its proper spiral as a series of jottings and play-by-play observations on the less-than-stellar unfolding of the night:
Present arrives from brother for 29th birthday.
Painting of Gorilla with hands raised, palms-up, sitting in marshy field. Dead and disemboweled Gorillas peppered around swampy landscape, half-sunken into mud like the beaches of Normandy.
Note attached: When are you gonna quit MONKEYING AROUND and GROW UP? Saw this and thought of you—perfect fit for the house. Francis.
See message as commentary on inability to settle down and find high-paying work or meaningful relationship. Carefully crafted jab about failed engagement with ex girlfriend, four exes ago. Note mention of the house, not your house, as if house purchased cheaply from parents doesn’t count.
As the story progresses, this shorthand pulls us more and more deeply into the mind and heart of our narrator. Instead of being placed at a removed distance by traditional narration, we’re deep inside our restless narrator’s mind, inebriated, confused, exhilarated, and terrified – able to only see and feel the world through an aching, compressed Morse Code:
Suddenly feel drunker than usual, sinking into some kind of mire. Imagine vodka actually heavy sedative, bartender in cahoots with others: gorilla, girlfriend, taxi driver, man on phone. Pink woman may or may not be part of it—or may be involved without knowing.
Second text arrives from girlfriend:
U asshole where did u go
The crimped passages, over time, widen from wry observation to thoughtful reflection to something deeper and more profound:
Tell skinny Arab sailor standing nearby that things have to happen a certain way or else they wouldn’t happen at all: you’d have to be a different person otherwise.
Tell him that life is made up of a number of decisions that appear to be decisions but are actual predetermined outcomes that cannot be changed or managed.
Skinny Arab frowns and shakes his head, and continues to scour the dance floor for something only skinny Arab can see. Tell him, without taking my eyes off the people below us, that he has to get over it. Tell him this with raised hands, palms up, as if to say WHAT CAN YOU DO, or WHAT ELSE DID YOU EXPECT, or maybe even YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF.
Through what might seem, at first glance, to be merely a narrative tic, Bertin uses the deceptively casual note-taking to lead us deep into the story’s nerve centre. It’s as direct (and honest) a route as any to our protagonist’s conflicted heart.
Kris Bertin is a Halifax-based fiction writer. He’s been published widely across Canada, was a finalist for the 2012 Vanderbilt/Exile Fiction Prize, and appeared in Journey Prize Stories 24. His new story “The Eviction Process” will appear in The Walrus in July, 2013. Check out my conversation with Kris here.
Story Mechanics appears on Current Living approximately once a month. In this space I take a closer look at the mechanics, tricks and narrative techniques behind some of the freshest, finest writing in contemporary Canadian and global short fiction.