Review: How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau

Single_Blade_of_Grass-COVER>>Published: April 2014

>>Finally got around to it: July 2014

As we stepped into the living room, Jenna Kim—a girlfriend of an American named Chad or Chuck or Chandler who specialized in Joseon dynasty history and who directed all his conversation at my breasts whenever I had the bad luck of speaking with him—was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. Her skirt was hiked up to her waist, and she wasn’t wearing panties. She had a cigarette in one hand, and was blowing smoke out of her vagina. Jenna was famous for this at parties. She called it her “Singapore hooker trick.”

“Oh, fuck, not again,” I said loudly. “I need another drink.” I went into the kitchen. Kenichi followed.

“Is this type of behaviour common at parties in North America?” he asked, amused.

“She’s such a fucking moron,” I said. “Singapore is the least likely Asian setting for this kind of desperate sex work. I mean, if she had said Thai hooker trick, I’d still be annoyed with her, but at least she wouldn’t come across as so utterly stupid. She has no sense of political and socio-economic realities in different Asian countries. You’d think all of Asia was poor and backwards from her estimation of Singapore.”

Kenichi laughed. “She’s got a cigarette in her pussy and you’re thinking about socio-economic factors and its influence on prostitution?”

***

The twelve stories in Doretta Lau’s How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? focus primarily on the experience of being lost and dissociated, be it from one’s culture, family, career, or by love.

In “Two-Part Invention,” the protagonist, tired of seeking—and failing to find—love amongst the living turns to dating dead people, specifically the pianist Glenn Gould. “Days of Being Wild” looks in on a young Canadian screenwriter living and attending school in New York City as she grapples with grief over the death of her grandmother, crippling self-doubt, guilt rooted in familiar career expectations, and a nasty case of writer’s block. The story feels a bit all over the place in the beginning, as life appears to be happening around the protagonist, but finally achieving an emotional release by the story’s end helps reconnect her to the world.

“O, Woe is Me” and “The Boy Next Door” offer twin tales of down-on-their-luck men in unforgiving relationships with women who simply are not right for them. The first is centred on a shootee (professional victim) at a local sideshow and his life of lost opportunities, be they university athletics or competitive eating, and his girlfriend who appears to loathe his very being. The second follows a recently unemployed photographer, whose girlfriend does not approve of his vocation, as he flirts with the idea of entering the porn industry in order to make ends meet.

“God Damn, How Real is This?,” “Rerun,” “Left and Leaving,” and “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” are the standout stories in this collection. In the first, society is grappling with the sudden reality of Communicative Time Travel as people’s future selves attempt to steer their pasts in new directions by sending text messages back through time, warning of illnesses, avoidable crises, and poor decisions. “Rerun” follows a twenty-four-year-old former actress attempting to get her life back on track after ditching her seventy-year-old meal ticket at the altar, simultaneously working through the revelation that the majority of her life has been some form of pretend with little reality to ground her to any one identity. “Left and Leaving” uses two events far too familiar to anyone from the Lower Mainland, BC—the Reena Virk murder case and the growing number of missing women from the DTES who would later be revealed as Robert Pickton’s victims—to tell the story of two young girls whose mother is among the missing, and their difficulties flitting from one school and one foster care situation to another. And in the collection’s title track, Lau employs an almost A Clockwork Orange style of diction as a group of Chinese youths—dragoons, not droogies—get on with a bit of recklessness (not quite ultraviolence, but the vibe is similar) as they “reclaim” racist and racially stereotyped terms and insults for use as their personalized nomenclature.

I didn’t find there to be any weak stories in this collection, though when stacked against the four tales listed above, a few of the remaining pieces—“Writing in Light” and “Sad Ghosts” in particular—don’t hit with the same force of impact. Lau’s writing is consistently enjoyable, and her tone strikes a fine balance between sarcastic levity and sincerity. If I were to lobby any complaint against the collected work it would be that several of the protagonists feel cut from too similar a cloth, with only their experiences lending independence to their voices.

There are several recurring themes throughout How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?—drinking and alcoholism, adoption/foster homes, and the film and television industry offer strong aesthetic and thematic grounding to much of Lau’s work. Additionally, she is quite enamoured with photography and visual art in general; being as heavily involved as I was with the Vancouver visual art community in the late ’90s and early 2000s helped anchor me emotionally to several of the stories collected within.

Running a scant 120 pages, there’s little to no wasted space in Lau’s work. The stories are universally tight, and any surrealism or abstraction is spread judiciously throughout. This is an easy recommendation—How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is a fantastic one- or two-sitting read.

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