Sex and chemicals. Rats and chicken bones. The darker side of gold body glitter and parents capable of beyond-the-grave guilt trips. Lisa Foad slices and dices these sundry elements in a blender of denial, love, lust, uncertainty, fear and insanity and serves it up in a bitter glass of tight, original prose in her 2009 collection of short stories The Night is a Mouth.
Based in Toronto, Foad works part-time as an English professor at George Brown College. She started working on Night three years ago and wrote the title story— she admits, with a laugh — while her students were writing an exam. Her provocative, sensitive fiction attempts to examine the “shameful and inhospitable places within ourselves.”
“These places within us are really uncomfortable to exist in,” she says, “We try to imagine we just imagine them, but we are saturated with these feelings.”
Uncomfortable might be the best word to describe Foad’s collection; there is something disconcerting, something pleasantly unpleasant that is evoked when reading her stories. What exactly unsettles the reader is uncertain, but each tale contains an element of something at once macabre and personal, drawing the reader in with distinct prose and holding them there with frank discussion of the body — of piss, shit, violence, love, misplaced tenderness and sexual dissatisfaction.
Mixing elements of post-modernism and surrealism, Foad takes a long step away from the realism many critics have come to expect from Canadian writers. In the title story, the floors of the character’s apartment building regularly fall down, rats dine with tenants in the living room on greasy chicken bones and the sort-of ghosts of dead parents come in and out of bathrooms and call over the telephone at highly inappropriate moments. In Here There Be Monsters a family undertakes casual incest while a mysterious package arrives and a small boy wears lederhosen. The sense of the abnormal and the surreal pervades the text, but Foad’s writing is so rich, each word so carefully selected and each sentence so smooth that she has no trouble making the reader suspend their disbelief.
Surrealism was the only way for Foad to go with these stories, she says, as she sought to investigate, “the tangible sinisterness,” of her topics. Readers who are not fans of post-modernism and prefer a more structured, chronological and traditionally-told kind of story may find Foad’s style somewhat frustrating, however. The movement between what characters are actually doing and what they are merely thinking is somewhat distorted. Occasionally the shift between perspectives — especially apparent in Between Our Legs — is less clear than it would be in traditional fiction, which makes it sometimes difficult to follow.
“The main drawing force of this collection is of abjection and monstrosity,” Foad says of her inspirations.
This sense of the monstrous, of the grotesque and alien is alluring, producing an ironic kind of beauty in situations which are otherwise vile. In Lost Dogs, a young woman recounts her abandonment and sexual assault in almost hypnotic prose. In Expulsions of Emetophobia — literally, fear of vomiting — which focuses on explicit bodily expulsions in a connection with the emotional and psychological.
Foad, who runs in the same circles as fellow Torontonian Zoe Whittall, lists numerous authours as her influences, including Derrida, the father of the Deconstructionist literary movement, Anne Carson and the American writer Kathy Acker — author of the infamous Blood and Guts in High School — to whom she has been compared.
“Being compared to Kathy Acker really excited me — I’m a huge fan,” she says, and sheepishly recounts how she once met the post-modernist writer at a book signing, went up to talk to her, and blanked out.
“I was looking for that perfect thing to say — you know, that perfect question which would be like, deep without making me seem like a gushing fan — and all I could think of to say was, ‘Um, could I shake your hand?’” Foad laughs.
Editing is an important part of her creative process, she says, calling it a “discipline,” and each sentence is a language “puzzle.” Despite this, she says her writing is pretty intuitive. Foad is currently working on a novel, although she admits it might end up being a short story. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including Exile, Sluts and Saints, and Matrix.
“Most of the stories in The Night is a Mouth were much longer to begin with,” she says, “The story knows when it’s done.”