In Catriona Wright’s Difficult People, her debut short story collection, one might expect to find an assortment of narcissists, pathological liars and other challenging characters we encounter in our every day lives. Instead, what we have are ordinary people dealing with difficult and occasionally bizarre situations in less than ideal ways. Wright’s characters are, in this way, not unlike our flawed selves, as viewed through a kaleidoscope.
We see a collection of characters who range from quirky to dysfunctional, struggling either to find meaning in friendship and intimate connection, or avoiding it altogether. In “The Unofficial Calculation Museum,” George and Laurel are uniquely dysfunctional siblings who struggle to protect their precious collection of calculators as a tornado bears down on them. George is devoted to the calculators (most of which he stole) while Laurel, a gambling addict, is disdainful of George’s efforts. Their inherent weirdness is seen through the lens of a young couple, who are initially delighted by the collection but become increasingly wary as they witness the siblings’ odd relationship in the face of an impending natural disaster.
In “Content Moderator,” a young woman struggles with the parade of online horrors that marches across her monitor as she works to cleanse offending images from social media. “I imagined plucking out my eyeballs and soaking them in a vat of antiseptic,” she thinks do herself. A PhD and failed university instructor, she takes the job of content moderation out of desperation and comes to realize that, in an odd way, she is suited to the task.
Many of Wright’s characters cope with unsatisfying lives with various kinds of avoidance. In “Major Prude,” unemployed Carla and Angela spend their post-Zumba class afternoons swilling beer and bourbon into a frivolous kind of numbness until the fun-loving story-embroidering Carla discloses a past trauma. Angela, bewildered by the disclosure, fails to support her friend in any meaningful way. The relationship ends with Angela understanding the depth of her betrayal with a shuddering kind of shame.
In “Constant Weight Without Fins,” a free diving competitor rejects intimacy in favour of the cold impersonal beauty of the ocean’s depths. “At times she worried that this comfort at three hundred feet below land proved what she’d always suspected: she was a holdover from a more primitive design. Not quite human.” Dominated by habit, ritual and avoidance, she struggles to maintain basic and superficial human interaction while longing for full detachment.
In “The Copy Editors,” Wright explores language, through the juxtaposition of unemployed copy editing twins Mike and Will against the Cerebral Experimentalists, a dadaesque group of poets who perform brain surgery on each other to free themselves from the rational restrictions of language. “2 disinterrrupt the ruts of language and find nu wayz of no-ing,” their web site proudly proclaims. The twins, who are guerrilla copy editers of badly written street signage, find intimacy with a ridiculously well-funded PhD candidate who is studying the poets. It is by turns funny and sweetly sad.
The oddness of the stories themselves doesn’t take away from the very human limitations of the characters. They struggle with loneliness, self doubt, depression, and alcoholism in circumstances that challenge their carefully constructed identities. In the realm of Difficult People, it is perhaps the case that this collection of characters pose the most difficulty to themselves in their search for meaning and identity.
Wright seems to want to convey a dark humour in these dystopian stories, but the collection ultimately fails to delight. Although they are quirky, her characters are largely unlikeable. Their lack of charm and inability to beguile makes them uninspiring — they don’t linger in the reader’s mind as compelling characters should. In short, Difficult People simply doesn’t have the impact one might expect. Injecting unsatisfactory characters into unconventional surroundings isn’t enough to make this a wholly engaging read.
Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderates rabble’s discussion forum, babble.
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