Tradition and the Debut Talent: On David Balzer’s Contrivances

Reviewed in this essay: Contrivances, by David Balzer. Joyland/ECW Press, 2012.

Towards the end of “Laura,” one of the punchiest short stories in David Balzer’s sterling first collection Contrivances, Whitney looks on the work of her artist mother and muses that “it seemed to draw on precedent just enough to be legible.” That allowance for the past, she realizes, “actually made it more idiosyncratic.” How fitting an encapsulation of Balzer’s own work, which follows a tradition of urbane portraiture along the lines of Henry James and filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Max Ophüls even as it speaks in its own peculiar, meticulous cadence.

If Balzer’s fictional debut sounds preternaturally assured, it may be because he’s cultivated his voice over many years as a respected critic for Canadian Art and Eye Weekly, among others. That insight into the eccentricities of the art world serves him well in a number of stories set among aesthetes who are up to speed on Burke, and who’ve presumably mined their copies of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” for all they’re worth. This isn’t to say these stories are insular – only that the author has a good ear for how people in this milieu speak. In fact, there’s quite a bit of generic and thematic variety here. The book ranges from the absurdism of “Smearcase,” about a woman reconnecting with her old friend, now a talk show host who speaks through her imperious hand, to the Atwoodian psychodrama of “The Poncho,” where the protagonist unravels within her own flesh as she crochets a replacement skin out of thread.

Lightly comic as the tone often is, the richest stories have a touch of Gothic melodrama to them. In “The Poncho,” Deb wakes from a grotesque nightmare to find a ball of yarn where blood and vines just were, and a woollen ring for a wound in her side. Closing story “The Mask” follows Kath, an art therapist who instructs her charges to “paint primitively” only to bump up against a stubborn client who insists on producing an ornate mask. Encased in plaster of Paris, he yields himself to Kath, whose hands turn “dramatically murderous” as they rove over her human artwork. Most of the stories hinge on a pair of twinned characters, usually women – the actions of the main player a distorted mirror image of her doppelganger.

There’s also a rich structural doubling in the contemporary paintings that Balzer pairs with his writing. These, too, are diverse, but taken together they set the aesthetic temperature for the story that follows. Janet Werner’s Smearcase, the inscrutable portrait of a masked fashionista that also graces the cover, cues us to that story’s dizzying ambiguities and lingers through our reading as a kind of kitschy afterimage. It’s a fine complement to a book marked by its wide-ranging taste.

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