4 min

By George!

Arresting volume of stories weds lyricism with fierce queer imagery

Credit: David Ellingsen

Let’s call it the ‘autobiographical fallacy.’ As readers, we often presume that writers are making artful confessions. That is, we imagine that their fictions are real life, more-or less-embroidered a bit, for sure, but basically actual experience transposed onto the page.

And, certainly, there’s support for that view. Just think of a few renowned literary figures, whether a melancholic fatally entranced by death (Virginia Woolf), a traumatized teenaged runaway (Evelyn Lau) or a hard-living alcoholic (Dylan Thomas).

While poring over Vancouverite George Ilsley’s edgy and engrossing debut story collection, Random Acts of Hatred (Arsenal Pulp Press, $19.95), readers might be tempted to believe that the book’s author is revealing a troubled man who graduated first in his class at the School of Hard Knocks. The stories are darkly-hued and not for the faint of heart.

Consider just one sample. It’s drawn from the title story, Ilsley’s variation on the small-town-boy-moves-to-the-metropolis theme: “Soon after the wedding, Todd shaved his head and left for the big city. There he was fucked with abandon. Fucked by men who desired him for an hour, fucked by men who hated him from the start. Fucked by men who carried a torch and fucked by men who carried self-replicating strings of genetic material.

“Todd hated that the big city turned out to be so much like his family.”

With these dozen stories (written and revised over the past decade), Ilsley has constructed a mesmerizing gallery of desperados, hard-luck cases, cynics, and victims. While the writer’s dry humour, empathy and insight prevent it from becoming an alienating journey into despair, there are examples of tragically flawed relationships, abuses of power and deeply scarred families on every one of the volume’s 176 pages.

And yet to meet Ilsley in person reveals the problem of casually linking art and life.

The transplanted Nova Scotian is polite, quiet and witty-and shows no sign of the damage so readily apparent in his characters. And, clearly, he’s functional, working as an editor at a consulting company and holding degrees in business and law from Acadia and York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. (That education was doubly practical: “My writing developed mostly through reading and the study of marketing and law, both of which to a large degree focus on the meaning of words,” he explains.) He even swam competitively at university.

Ilsley also refutes any neat correlation between the life he’s led and the ones he’s written:

“My work is fiction, not autobiographical or confessional. The standard denial aside, of course there are autobiographical elements, or things that ‘really happened’ to a varying degree in each of the stories. I hope the stories are interesting on their own; I have failed as a writer if they only become interesting based on their intersection with biographical details from my own life.”

Still, the stories do incite curiosity about Ilsley’s consistently seeing past the silver lining to find a bounty of grey cloud. The author says that if Random Acts became organized around the common theme of hatred, it was inadvertent: “The collection became much darker than I had intended. I did not see how dark it was until it was all piled up, and I saw the pieces next to each other. In reaction to this, my second collection is going to be so sweet your teeth will ache. I’m thinking of calling it Reincarnation Love Stories.

“The darkness of this collection suits my artistic vision but does not match my worldview,” he adds.

As for hatred being a theme, Ilsley suggests that since it’s plentiful enough, it’s worthy of our attention: “Hatred is a basic human emotion, as primal and prevalent as love. It is easier to whip people up into an emotional frenzy using hate than it is using love. Hatred is seductive. It is also very satisfying to hate. Hatred and love march along together so closely sometimes it can be hard to draw the line between them. Someone in one of the stories, a swim coach, is described as someone they loved to hate.”

He mentions too that the fiction does not emerge from a vacuum; its roots spring from the world we live in.

“Everything written about exists on this planet with us, and often it is just a matter of perspective whether we see that or look at that. My goal in writing, even though I am writing fiction, is to say something that is true. Not true about me necessarily, or true in the journalistic sense (if that even exists anymore), but true to the reader,” he states.

As for the characters-a boy anorexic, a predatory shop manager, appalling and glib gay tourists-Ilsley acknowledges that there’s design behind their in-your-face personalities: “I use exaggeration in order to help achieve a focus. Our senses are overloaded and jaded in the modern world. We need a big slap of sensation before we pay attention to anything. I write about the extreme in order to shed light on the mundane, in the same way writers use death to focus attention on the living.”

His stories feature gay youth victimized by family and society as well gay men who would never be nominated for Citizen of the Year. Ilsley explains that he directs his attention toward that diverse tribe because it’s central to his life: “I want to write about people and situations which are important to me. Being gay has an incredible impact on my life, and it is important to me as a writer to reflect that.

“Sometimes I read books with gay characters, who are funny and bitchy but are really just there as springboards for the ‘real’ characters. These wise-cracking tangential characters used to be the ethnic sidekick; now they are gay. It is true for some people that gay people and gay issues are tangential to the real concerns of their lives. In my case, it is not tangential, it is central, and hopefully is reflected in the characters I write about.”