Review: Greedy Little Eyes, by Billie Livingston

>>Published: June 2010

>>Finally got around to it: August 2011

Alice told me one night after our father had gone to bed that she’d been thinking maybe this wasn’t right, this business of having multiple lovers. Forty, fifty? How many lovers would she have by the time she was done? She’d be so far into the triple digits, she’d need an abacus to keep track.

Peering into my eyes she added, “There’s no joy in frivolous sex, Angie. I’m lonesome.”

Suddenly self-conscious, I wondered if my envy was always this apparent.

“Maybe I never should have gone with girls at all,” she said. “The Universe is about miracles, and creativity and life. Two girls can’t create life. Two girls… must make no sense to God.”

***

Billie Livingston populates Greedy Little Eyes with tiny, independent disasters—the wreckage and detritus of our daily trespasses, errors in judgement, and complete and utter fuck-ups. From an unstable grasshopper-collecting, wife-murdering uncle, through a possible kleptomaniac, prescription drug-addicted job hunter; backdropped against the Pickton pig farm massacres, nursing homes, shopping centre hostage situations and performance art catastrophes at the Vancouver Art Gallery; through the eyes of those suffering sexual addictions, mental and emotional confusion, and spontaneously-adopted religious piety, nothing in Greedy Little Eyes could be called neat or tidy.

Livingston isn’t interested in tying together loose narrative strands or offering firm conclusions to any of her stories. She’s more interested in the dissection, the pulling apart of tendons without concern for what might be found beneath the first few levels of skin and blood and bone. The result is a collection of stories that hits like a sack of nickels, turning and walking away from the crime without bothering to offer a wet towel for your broken lip.

Set primarily in Vancouver and surrounding areas, with the occasional detour to a New York hotel and locations between, Livingston’s constructed worldview is one that takes the road less written about at every opportunity—never content to follow the path of least resistance. She’s more interested in showing us the life of the daughter who flounders and flails and experiments with sex, religion and parenthood while her instability grows and festers like a cancer, not the life of the one who watches and picks up the pieces of afterbirth with each successive life retooled and reassigned.

Greedy Little Eyes was the winner of this year’s Danuta Gleed Literary Award for short fiction, and it’s not difficult to see why. Livingston’s tendency to walk away from the messes she’s left behind gives these stories a harder edge than most. She’s willing to let the narratives breathe on their own, with or without her presence at the end. There’s confidence in that approach, and it reinforces the diversity and strength of the personal disasters she’s chosen to display. As with all short fiction collections, certain stories are stronger than others—“Before I Would Ever Hurt You”, “Make Yourself Feel Better”, “Did You Grow Up With Money”, and “Georgia, It’s Me” are the standouts—but there are no weak links to Billie Livingston’s surprisingly sane madhouse of characters.

Greedy Little Eyes is not for everyone. The stories are rife with murder, suicide, abuse, exploitation, and a strong amount of sexual/religious/mental confusion. They benefit from this very naked approach, but the harshness of many of the realities in this book, and the manner in which the reader is often left hanging in the thick of an uncomfortable occurrence, might turn some readers off. There are many tonal similarities to Julie Booker’s Up Up Up, released earlier this year. To lovers of that title, Greedy Little Eyes comes highly recommended.

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One thought on “Review: Greedy Little Eyes, by Billie Livingston

  1. There is a thin veil between the reality most of us live with and the often extreme situations that confront Livingston's characters. For the most part, they are ordinary people who find themselves at the extremes–and how they navigate this territory is drawn with compassion and heart. Like characters in many of Almodovar's films, we find ourselves caring about people who have done things that we find unwise, morally wrong, or even repellant. It is particularly shocking when children are forced to navigate the extremes of the human landscape–but several of the stories capture the moment when the gates of childhood slam shut forever. But with Livingston, we are always left with the hope that somehow her characters will find their own equilibrium.
    These stories are masterfully crafted.

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