Samuel Archibald - Like a Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Archibald’s portrait of his hometown is filled with innocent children and wild beasts, attempted murder and ritual mutilation, haunted houses and road trips to nowhere, bad men and mysterious women. Gothic, fantastical, and incandescent, filled with stories of everyday wonder and terror, longing and love


Samuel Archibald, Arvida, Trans. by Donald Winkler, Biblioasis, 2015. [2011.]


A twenty-five-thousand-copy bestseller in Quebec, Arvida, with its stories of innocent young girls and wild beasts, attempted murder and ritual mutilation, haunted houses and road trips heading nowhere, is unforgettable. Like a Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Archibald's portrait of his hometown, a model town design by American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis, does for Quebec's North what William Faulkner did for the South, and heralds an important new voice in world literature.


“There’s a dark, hard presence in the stories, sometimes wry, sometimes muted, but always lurking like an animal in the undergrowth.”—Montreal Gazette


"An intriguing collection of short stories ... A melancholic tone haunts each retrospective recasting of the past [in these tales], and the vain project of reminiscence is examined with intelligence and emotional acuity."—Pasha Malla, The Globe & Mail


"Eerily effective ... Archibald’s interest is in how the past imposes itself on the present, both in the intimate form of family histories and against the larger backdrop of a community that exists slightly out of time ... What’s fascinating is the sense of people haunted by a place instead of the other way around."—Quill & Quire, starred review


"Archibald tells stories from the end of the world with mythic force."—Le Devoir


"Between fables and myths, true stories and tall tales ... Samuel Archibald’s Arvida updates the chilling stories we used to tell each other around the campfire ... A storyteller is born."—La Presse


"[In Arvida] the reader navigates between the fantastic and regional folklore, put at the service of exhilarating tales, polished, free-flowing in their structures, and mingled with childhood memories and Gothic storytelling. A truly distinctive voice has appeared ..."—Voir


"Arvida is a must-read. It is a beacon in contemporary Québec literature, a book that will change something in you ..."—Stéphanie Pelletier, Le mouton NOIR


"Archibald pays homage to [Stephen] King, [but Arvida]'s more than contemporary imitation"The Chronicle Herald


Ghost stories, fables, and childhood memories from the great white north.
Perhaps the personal nature of these stories combined with their specific geographic setting will make them more meaningful to readers in Francophone Canada. Unfortunately, this translated collection's purposeful ambiguity and painterly writing style make the entries feel more like impressions of scenes rather than solid stories. Most of the tales are set in the title village, a small industrial community north of Quebec City. The opener, “My Father and Proust,” and its companion piece, “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness,” are generic memoirs about childhood. Others are anomalies like “América,” a crime caper about an attempt to smuggle a woman over the border, and “Jigai,” an eerie portrait of a self-mutilating refugee. Much of the collection attempts to mimic classical gothicism. “Cryptozoology” portrays a strange creature in the woods from the point of view of an adolescent boy. “A Mirror in the Mirror” is a slight tale about a woman who pines away for an absent playwright and ultimately becomes the ghost that haunts him. A triptych of stories labeled “Blood Sisters” concern themselves with the monsters that roam the lives of girls. In the final sequence of the trilogy, “Paris in the Rain,” a woman is left alone in a morgue with the dismembered body of a man. “God is love and that’s why he’s terrible,” she says. “You can’t live, knowing that. You can just destroy your life and destroy your body and push others away and hurt others. You can just be evil and I was evil all the time and it’s your fault and the fault of the stupid God who loved you like he loved me, of God who loved you, big dirty dog, and who loved me, damaged little girl.”
An uneven collection of stories about cruel men, enigmatic women, and frightened children. - Kirkus Reviews


First published in French in 2011, Archibald’s (Le sel de la terre) collection of 14 stories mostly paints a loose portrait of the author’s hometown of Arvida, Quebec, accented by gothic, sometimes surreal individuals and events. “In the Midst of Spiders” follows a corporate executioner (whose job is telling people they are losing their’s) who knows his own turn on the chopping block will come. In the visually evocative “Jigai,” two women in Hokkaido embark on body scarring and dismemberment, for pleasure and for power. “The Last-Born” follows Raisin, a blunt, unintelligent man, one of the town’s “last-borns,” who doesn’t know how to live his own life or interact competently with others. The strongest story, “House Bound,” is a haunted house narrative about the horrors of existing within a broken family. Like the other strong stories in the collection, it focuses on the nature of things—nature itself, and human nature and the systems constructed by and around it. Though Archibald’s writing is clean and his imagery strong, the two trilogies that intersect with the other stories—“Blood Sisters” and “Arvida”—are more focused on crafting a tone representative of a place and time, and they are not inhabited by fully fleshed-out characters, which detracts from the impact of the other narratives. - Publishers Weekly


"It is not clear where one story begins and the other ends, or where the animal begins and the man begins."
A story that can be retold and rewritten, but can all the while retain its own thingness—a story that can evolve in the imagination—is a finger in the face of the insipid outpouring of gifs and memes we daily consume, like Technicolor marshmallows shot out of the all powerful maw of the Facebook-Disney machine.
We of the lower forty-eight are fortunate, then, that something like Samuel Archibald’s Arvida, has been recently translated from the French by Donald Winkler. We need stories. And these stories from a land we’ve all been living alongside our whole American lives will do nicely. These are American stories. But another America, a hidden America, maybe even more American than the America we think we know.
Canada. In Archibald’s Arvida, there is an echo of some of the wavering visions we have of our northern neighbor (evergreen, flannel), but they are woven into the fabric of a working-class town, both factual and fabulous, immediately calling up comparisons to Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s evocations of Winnipeg. Both Maddin and Archibald tell their tales utilizing a personal history of a family and a discreet location, while at the same time breathing into them a dream logic and fairy tale or fable-like tropes.

While Maddin’s film dialect can range from the truly bizarre (I’m thinking of his wax museum of live hockey players in My Winnipeg) to the hypnotic fever of his latest film The Forbidden Room, while Maddin’s work is a hallucinatory triumph, chock full of erotic and comedic depth, Archibald’s stories work in a more two-dimensional plane.
The mediums of writing and movie-making aside, Arvida is successful as a collection because the two types of stories in it work together in conjunction. In one corner are the Arvida stories. These are stories of the town of Arvida and its inhabitants, most told in the first person. The author seemingly entangles his own family history into that of the town. In this town there are collective memories—a father fetishizing pastries seductively named “may wests,” because of a childhood of not enough to eat, the last born grown-up children of a dying town, imbeciles and innocents, vaguely criminal, and a lineage of hockey, glorious hockey. These are all of a piece.
The second type of stories in the collection are the real beating heart of this Canadian town, and are the stories that make it a very worth while read. Beginning with “Cryptozoology,” we are introduced to Jim. An Arvida boy, through and through: handsome, tragic, equally handy with gun or ax. We are in the woods now. Sometimes there is snow on the ground. In this story, reality begins to get a little confused. The boy is feverish, begins to take on the characteristics of the big cats and wolves he hunts. Later, “In The Fields of The Lord,” Jim is cousin to a little girl, her grandmother has an identical twin and is a sorceress like you play bingo on Thursday nights, matter of fact. In a blueberry field, the little girl dreams of dances with her cousin and he kills himself there, hints of incest in the fields of the lord. Then there is “The Animal.” A little girl full of fear is violated nightly by a nocturnal intruder that looks a little like her father. On the foggy bank of trauma there seems to be some kind of connection between the boy Jim merging with the animal and the girl in “The Animal.”
It is not clear where one story begins and the other ends, or where the animal begins and the man begins. A captured black bear called Billy is also emblematic of that confusion, calling to mind the cursed prince in the fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red,” when the prince in the bear’s body cries out to the two lovely sisters teasing him, “Snow White, Rose Red, don’t beat your lover dead.” The fairy tale archetypes are rampant in these central stories—grandmothers, woodsmen, young maids in the woods, and the sexual predators who hunt them. Contemporary takes on the Perrault tale of “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.” I’m thinking of this frightening Neil Jordan romp from 1984, “The Company of Wolves,” and Polish filmmaker, Walerian Borowczyk’s,1975, “La Bête.”
Donald Winkler’s translations of the terms of endearment used here, which probably don’t sound out of place in the French, are wonderful and only add to the odd atmosphere of fear (“my babies,” “my lovely girl,” “my beauty”). In “Paris In The Rain,” the girl is grown up into a different kind of sexuality, a fierce animal independence, a survivor with a history of violence. In the midst of these “Blood Sister” stories is “Jigai,” a foreign girl transported to Japan. Faraway, yet mirroring the Canadian landscape, a context is created for this surgical geisha fantasy. The women taking control of their own pain and their own pleasure.
In Arvida, Canada is “a creature that hides for the pleasure of being tracked, and shows itself from time to time to revive its own legend.” A lake is not named because no one goes there. These are stories that can only evolve in the imagination, and stories that can do that are a kind of true sustenance. Years ago, on some airplane somewhere over the middle of the country, I sat next to a boy covered in intriguing tattoos. To pass the time he began to tell me the story of each one. On his chest were inked two large wolves facing each other. A Cherokee legend has it, he said, that an old brave once told his grandson about a fight between two wolves, that goes on inside of everyone. One wolf is evil, and is all manner of jealousy, anger, and false pride, the other is good and joy and peace. The boy asked his grandfather which wolf wins the fight. The grandfather said—the one you feed. - Gnaomi Siemens


Students of Quebec geography will recognize Arvida as a real place. A story in Samuel Archibald’s Giller Prize nominated collection, Arvida: Stories, provides the reader with a brief historical sketch of the town, from its beginning as an aluminum factory. “There’d been nothing around for 200 million years, then there was an Alcan factory, and a hundred and thirty-five days later, a town,” observes the story’s narrator. Incorporated in 1926, the settlement was conceived of as a model, working-class community by an American industrialist named Arthur Vining Davis. (The town’s name is an acronym formed from the first two letters of Davis’s own three names.)
The heart of the story is a hockey game pitting retired Montreal Canadiens, including Rocket Richard, against local players who never quite made it to the NHL. It’s a rowdy, comical episode, a set piece that deserves a place in some anthology of Canadian fiction dealing with hopeless, home town hockey.
There’s nothing of the magical realist about it but perhaps a touch of the exaggerated realist, with a goalie inspired above human measure, for example. Arvida itself could be any place in our great Dominion. The reader should be careful, however. There may be more than one Arvida in this collection of stories, including a “mythic Arvida.” This mythic Arvida is not to be confused, the narrator states, “with the municipality of the same name, in the Saguenay,” the Arvida of the geography books. “Here, I mean there, we were kings of nothing, princes of our sorry backsides,” the narrator says.
The confusion between “here” and “there” points to a larger uncertainty. Sometimes the reader is not sure which is the mythic Arvida and which is the Arvida of the geography books, the kingdom of nothing.
An example is provided by “The Animal,” dealing with two sisters who “loved going to work on foot because they had to cross what they called the ‘fields of the lord.’” Tramping the fields of the Lord involves following old gravel and dirt roads that had once belonged to Arvida’s hydroelectric company. “The girls felt that the road was theirs and that the whole world belonged to them when they walked on it,” comments the narrator. “(It was) an imaginary world they peopled with creatures they didn’t believe in but that they believed in for long enough that the bushes and crevices along the way remained forever their lairs. They imagined imps and fairies, dragons and werewolves, they imagined enormous creatures that were half fish and half reptile.”
The question arises: when all this is no longer imagined, when the world is stripped of “all its mystery and magic,” does that mean we have replaced that world with the kingdom of nothing?
There is no denying that in these stories there is a strong element of what Quebec writers call folklore, an element not always cherished in contemporary francophone literature. The Quebec of the loup-garou and the devil in disguise, however, must be understood if these stories are to be grasped in the imagination. A story, for example, entitled “Cryptozoology” — the study of a false or secret Animal Kingdom — concerns the encounter of some trappers with a strange creature in the bush. It is initially spotted by one of the men. “He was never able to say what it was,” the narrator states. “Not a bear or a moose. It was too big for a fox and too high on its legs to be a lynx.” They inform a vacationing doctor that it might be a big cat. The doctor concurs. “There really had been, he said, a big cat in the mountains. A ferocious animal, two metres in length, and capable of mighty leaps.”
The story takes a peculiar turn when one of the trappers, a young man named Jim, feels possessed by the beast, like someone possessed by a werewolf. Jim’s father is a witness to this possession: “For a long moment his father looked on as his son’s body was wracked with convulsions, arched back on the ground, the eyes rolled upwards.”
A cougar perhaps? “If there are still cougars around, it’s logical that there might be several,” the narrator states, “but Jim also likes to think of it as a lone animal, immortal, like the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster, a creature that hides for the pleasure of being tracked, and shows itself from time to time to revive its own legend.”
Whether this mysterious creature truly exists is doubtful, but the dream of possession itself is as real as anything in the world. Those who go by other bearings have no right to dismiss those who go by dreams and imagination. It’s a funny world. The narrator of a story entitled “Antigonish” reports that his son-in-law bought a GPS. “It’s always telling him that he has taken the wrong road,” the narrator says, “and I’ll be damned if I’ll ever let a machine talk to me like that.”
Since the author is not venturing into the realm of folklore strictly speaking, or trying his hand at the horror genre, like a Quebecois accented Steven King, Archibald seems to feel the need to explain what it is that he is doing. “In a little notebook I jotted things down,” says the narrator in reference to his youth. “I looked into things that had really happened in Arvida, and I tried to put together a kind of working-class mythology. Strange happenings were few and far between, because the town was young and its occult underside pretty tenuous.”
Archibald certainly did make the best use he could of what material was there, however. The ghost of Arthur Vining Davis would be appalled. -


I would not normally describe myself as a short story fan — my preference is usually for novels or novellas — so it came as somewhat of a surprise that I enjoyed Samuel Archibald’s Giller Prize shortlisted Arvida so much. In fact, I championed this one to win the Shadow Giller Prize, when the jury cast their votes on Friday, because there was something about this volume, a glorious mix of ghost stories, road stories, family tales and rural folklore, that really grabbed me.
It may have been the fact that pretty much all of the stories — there are 14 in all — have a distinctly Canadian feel (many are set in the author’s home town of Arvida in Quebec) and that they were written in such an immediate style (by which I mean they transport the reader effortlessly to times and places that feel so real you could touch them). Or perhaps it’s just that having read a string of rather so-so books on the Giller shortlist ( with one exception, that being Martin John, which we have selected as our Shadow Giller winner), I was waiting for one that had the “wow” factor. It just turned out that this was the last one on my reading list, proving that the saying “last but by no means least” is, indeed, true.
Tales that draw you in 
Each story in the collection, expertly translated from the French by the Donald Winkler, is rounded and complete, drawing you into a world which is sometimes fantastical (in A Mirror in the Mirror a woman wastes away in a lonely house waiting for her husband to return from Montreal, where he has gone to “chase his artistic ambitions”); sometimes scarily surreal (Jigai, the only story set outside of Canada, is about ritual mutilation between Japanese women); and sometimes downright tawdry (in América, two losers foolishly agree to smuggle a Costa Rican women across the border into the US just after the 9/11 attacks when border control is on high alert).
It also features two series of interlinked stories — Blood Sisters I, II and III, about one family’s secret history, and Arvida I, II and III, which all begin with the words: “My grandmother, mother of my father, always said”, which have the ring of autobiography about them.
The stand-out story — in what is a collection of exceptionally good and occasionally extraordinary stories — is the penultimate one titled House Bound, a terrifically slow-burning haunted house tale that oozes paranoia and reads like something Stephen King might have written. (I suspect Archibald is a fan, because in the next story, which reads like non-fiction, he claims that as a child he used to type out stories by Stephen King, whom he describes as “the world’s coolest writer at the time”.)
In it the narrator buys a dilapidated house once owned by three generations of a well-to-do family whose fortunes have fallen by the wayside and renovates it to create the dream home he’s always wanted. But his wife and young daughter feel uncomfortable in the house and believe it is haunted. This belief is further cemented when the narrator finds a hidden room up in the loft, which has a pentagram, or “devil’s symbol”, drawn on the floor. When the family dog later disappears and is found floating, mutilated, in water at the bottom of a nearby cliff one can’t help fearing that things are only going to get worse…
The challenge of writing
The final story, Madeleines, draws on the idea that Proust’s entire In Search of Lost Time begins with a man remembering his whole childhood by merely tasting a little cake, but for the author, who wants to be a writer but does not know how — “the only story that comes back to me from taking a bite of something has to do with a mouthful of McNugget” — this seems like an impossible task. And yet in writing this story, of how it is difficult to write stories, he has written one that shows how stories are all around us if we care to look. And in writing this particular tale, he shows in a deceptively clever way, how the entire volume of Arvida came into being. Reading it made all the pennies of the previous 200 or so pages fall into place for me, and I came to the last page only wanting to turn right back to the start to read it all over again. If that’s not the sign of a good book, I’m not sure what is.
Unsurprisingly, Arvida has already won a literary prize — the Prix Coup de Coeur Renaud-Bray in 2012 — and on Tuesday we will find out whether it takes the 2015 Giller Prize as well. If it does, it will be the first translated work to win the award. - readingmattersblog.com/2015/11/08/arvida-by-samuel-archibald/


You could almost envision Arvida as a town constructed as a backdrop, like a movie set, just waiting to be called upon by a talented story teller; one who would pull and draw legends, myths, and memories out of the woodwork of his hometown and re-imagine them, use them as fuel for his creative fire – a writer like Samuel Archibald. And you would not be that far off. Arvida was, in truth, a company town, founded in 1927 on the banks on the Saguenay River, 240 km north of Quebec City. Archibald describes the town’s genesis as follows:
“The Americans built the town beside the aluminum smelter in a hundred and thirty-five days. There’d been nothing around for 200 million years, then there was the Alcan smelter, and a hundred and thirty-five days later, a town.”
A town with no history suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere was a haven for those with a past to escape, those who wanted to forget or be forgotten… “a town of second chances”.
By the time that Archibald was born 1978, Arvida had been fused with the town of Jonquière and today a number of smaller communities have been amalgamated to form the city of Sanguenay. Arvida, as separate entity, the model town once praised by the New York Times no longer exists as such. But its glory days, its decline, its humanity – and a measure of misguided inhumanity – provide a wealth of inspiration for the stories that make up Arvida, Archibald’s short story collection first published in French in 2011, and now available in English translation. It has been shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.
On the back cover of this book, Samuel Archibald is compared to a “Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy”. Stir in a nod to Stephen King and it is not an inaccurate billing. There is a dark heart throbbing throughout these stories, a pulse that binds them together, weaving often disparate tales into a surprisingly coherent and effective whole.
The series is bookended by the first and third parts of the “Arvida” story: “My Father and Proust” and “Madeleines”. Together with “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” (Arvida II) which appears about two thirds of the way through, we have a fictional glimpse of the author, his family, and his hometown. Funny, sad, and philosophical, this tripartite tale begins with humorous accounts of the narrator’s father’s boyhood penchant for stealing pastries and ends with the challenge of facing Proust’s madeleines armed only with the memory of McNuggets, anchored in the middle with a celebration of the spirit and fortitude of his grandparents and the characters that brighten small town life at its best.
Many of the stories that fill out the collection are decidedly darker. Blood and violence are not unknown. But then neither are dreams and a spirit of magic. “Cryptozoology” features a father and son who live between dream and waking life without holding one as more valid than the other. Sharing a cabin in the woods, 13 year-old Jim is essentially his hard-drinking father’s care taker, driving him home from social gatherings, and cleaning and sobering him up the morning after. On the road and along the traplines he is haunted by sightings of an elusive animal, perhaps a cougar, that cross into his sleeping hours and take on an increasingly mythical significance as Jim himself becomes ill.
“Now Jim is dreaming and listening. He hears what they’re saying about him. He’d like to reassure them, to explain to them. He often has a dream with no up nor down, where the beast attacks him and devours him. It’s a dream of carnivorousness and violence, but not of death. He does not expire while the cougar is annihilating his body, he fossilizes within the animal like a memory of flesh.”
Ghosts are also a featured presence in Arvida, from the old fashioned gothic horror of “A Mirror in the Mirror”, the tale of a woman who wastes away into a state of otherworldliness waiting for her playwright husband to return from an extended stay in Montreal; to the spirits, real or imagined, that haunt and ultimately destroy the family life of a man who takes on the restoration of a crumbling historic mansion. But the horror theme is taken to an extreme in “Jigai”, a gruesome fantastical tale of ritual mutilation set in Japan, safely across the globe from small town Quebec. It is apparently an allegory of an unimaginably brutal story Archibald heard when he was growing up. Placing it in the middle of this collection however, has the effect of providing a powerful counter point to the small moments and the everyday terrors, fears, and passions of life in a remote community.
The fictional Arvida is inhabited by a wide assortment of colourful, often hapless, indiviuals. For example, in “América”, for the promise of three thousand dollars, a pair of young men decide to accept the challenge of smuggling a woman from Costa Rica into the United States. First they enlist a cokehead as an accomplice who turns out to be little more than a burden that must be abandoned, and then neglect to consider the impact that the events of September 2001 will have on their attempt to cross the border in 2002. Later on in another story, “The Last-Born”, a man who is less than a deep thinker, decides he can kill a man, again for a couple thousand dollars. Yet what starts out as attempted murder, turns into an unexpectedly heartwarming tale. Archibald is sensitive to the complicated dynamics of human interaction, allowing his characters to find their own ways in to and, with luck, out of trouble.
Arvida was very well received in Quebec. Archibald worked with translator Donald Winkler for a year to realize the work in English. Hopefully the Giller nomination will serve to introduce him to a wider audience, and to provide a well deserved boost for his small publisher, Biblioasis, who had three titles on the long list this year, two moving on to the short list. The stories in Arvida may be inspired by a particular place, but they vividly evoke the reality of small town Canadian life, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s. They could be set in any number of communities across the country, especially those company towns that rose up around mining or pulp and paper factories. Some, like Arvida have been absorbed into larger centres, while others are fading away. - roughghosts.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/life-in-a-company-town-arvida-by-samuel-archibald/




TO BEGIN, YOU NEED TO KNOW what Samuel Archibald’s Arvida is not. From what you might gather after a quick glance at the back cover copy, this book – which has been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize – could be a quirky little album of short stories centred around thinly fictionalized characters in the real-life industrial town in Quebec from which the book takes its title. You may surmise that, as per the model for such a collection, these characters’ exploits intersect through the collection in predictably unpredictable ways, and accompanied by a familiar, nonthreatening theme humming just below the surface – something about how small-town life can be at once suffocating and impossible to let go of. We have, after all, seen and read and honoured many short story collections that have done exactly that.
Ahem.
Archibald – and, by extension, his English translator, Donald Winkler – would already deserve a wheelbarrow’s worth of kudos for this book’s nervy, expertly rendered sentences, its polished prose. But what separates Arvida from its peers, what casts it in a blinding hue of originality, and what probably attracted the attention of the Giller jury in the first place, is the fact that Archibald so thoroughly subverts many of our expectations about what this kind of short story collection can do, or should do, or dares to do. Arvida is not a series of interlocking tales forming a larger narrative arc; it is not a gently designed pointillism of stories painting a bigger picture. You need to know what this book is – which is a cacophonous display of multiple styles and approaches, a flawless showcase of different tonalities and modalities, and, most of all, a book unafraid to wear its founding inspirations on its sleeve. What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from.
Take, at random, the story “In the Midst of the Spiders.” Hemingway is all over this piece, what with its terse sentences, brief core interaction, and sharp sliver of realism. Archibald’s unnamed narrator (presumably from Arvida) is hanging out in an airport, given the unpleasant task by his employer to confront a fellow worker, a travelling salesman named Michel, and fire him. Michel is at the height of vulnerability – “[f]ifty-two years old, a sick wife, and three daughters in university” – and does not take his termination well. It’s a brutal conversation these men have, with one delivering a ruthless and disinterested execution upon the other. But Archibald, in a very Hemingwayesque way, counterbalances this with the narrator’s more gentle memory of the fragile spiders creeping around his home garden, saying, “he took them in his bare hands and dropped them delicately onto the leaves.” It is a gentle, beautiful juxtaposition to run against what happens in that airport lounge.
You will find an equal amount of realism in the story “América,” a tale about a band of misfits from Arvida attempting to smuggle a woman from Costa Rica into the United States via the Windsor-Detroit border. Their plan is sound but the men’s vices soon undo them, and they are stopped by edgy border security (the tale is set in the summer of 2002) and thwarted. This piece is reminiscent of the another Giller-nominated Biblioasis title, Alexander MacLeod’s 2010 story collection Light Lifting. In “América,” you will find the same obsessive drive in the narrative, an unrelenting focus on a singular task, and characters who try to escape their desires but cannot.
Yes, realism plays a role in both Arvida the book and Arvida the town, a small community built in the early 20th century around an aluminum factory. In the story, “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness – Arvida II,” Archibald establishes both the parameters of the town’s landscape and the tabula rasa from which it sprung:
The sinuous and labyrinthine designs of the town’s streets, the proximity of the bosses’ houses to those of the foremen and workers, the big parks at each corner, and the flanking of the houses of worship by two schools and a skating rink, everything in Arvida attested to the fact that this model town was the little utopia of a billionaire philanthropist, built from scratch right in the middle of nowhere.
But it is this sense of both a real place and a nowhere place that allows Archibald to unleash his prismatic imagination and take an unfettered approach to capturing his hometown in fiction. Realism slips away in a number of these piece. The tradition of ghost stories, for example, looms large at a number of points. In the story “Antigonish” two men from Arvida take a road trip to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, and one falls conveniently asleep while the other discovers a ghost-like figure haunting the side of the road. Magical realism appears in the story “Cryptozoology,” a tale about the men of Arvida trying to track down a mythical creature haunting the forest beyond the town; it is also about how these men come to process mythology itself.
Proust is also here. He plays a big role, as you would expect, in the story “My Father and Proust – Arvida I.” The schism in this tale is between abundance and paucity (“My father no longer lacks for anything, but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it”), and the story is about how change – including, perhaps, a shift in one’s economic fortunes – can bring with it both progress and depraved behaviour. In this piece, Archibald allows us to contrast the expansiveness of Proust’s oeuvre with the scantness, the precision, of a short story.
So diverse are the narrative tactics in Arvida that Archibald even allows himself to include a story set on the other side of the world and, seemingly, unrelated to the goings-on in the town of Arvida. The piece “Jigai” takes place in early 20th century imperial Japan, and involves two women – Misaka and Reiko – who kindle a relationship based on lesbianism and, shockingly, horrific mutilations. These women maim each other as a kind of protest against the oppressive, patriarchal, misogynist culture that permeated so many aspect of imperial Japan. This oppression is relayed through an incantatory phrase repeated throughout the story, “I came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in my pockets.” It is an apt maxim, as the carrying of stones (or pebbles) in a woman’s pockets is a metaphor for her oppression – particularly her sexual oppression – in East Asian culture.
With the air of a genuine Japanese folk tale, “Jigai” pivots when the women of the village, instead of being horrified by these disfigurations, begin to mimic them as their own protest against the men in their lives:
The repugnant mutilations that Misaka and Reiko inflicted on flesh became a fashion, an uncontainable compulsion, an enchantment, and there was no way to break the spell, not in reasoning with the wives, or in crying after them, or in trying to shake them out of their torpor, or by beating them.
Readers should prepare themselves for some extremely graphic imagery in this story, but they should also prepare themselves to ask how “Jigai” – so strange, so elliptical, so distant from the Quebecois sensibility found in other pieces leading up to it – fits into the bigger project of Arvida. There is a hint, perhaps, that the story alludes to some unspeakable violence decades and thousands of miles away, and with his groundwork in unfettered storytelling already laid, Archibald, somehow, makes it all work.
Naturally, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is all creepy ghost stories and bodily violations. Arvida has also, in several places, some extremely funny scenes, reminiscent of Kingsley Amis and, perhaps, P.G. Wodehouse. The story “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” tells a light-hearted tale of retired NHL players (including the Quebec icon Maurice “Rocket” Richard) coming to Arvida to play a local team. The story, replete with David Foster Wallace-like footnotes, (another obvious influence on Archibald), is full of brassy dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments.
Speaking of humour, there is also the story “The Last-Born,” a piece about, among other things, masculine loyalties and screwing up one’s life, that comes with this paragraph of unalloyed comic genius:
That night, Raisin took part of Martial’s five hundred dollars and went to buy a lot of beer at the corner. He walked as far as the baseball field … sat on the players’ bench, and downed, one by one, the twenty-four bottles in the case. Zigzagging home, he looked like a domestic bull to which one had administered a powerful sedative. At the steps of the Blackburn, his cat, which had again run off, was rolled into a ball in front of the door. Raisin grabbed the cat by the skin of its neck, kicked open the door, and heaved it inside. In the air, the terrorized animal, which was not a cat but a skunk, emptied its sphincters full force, showering Raisin and the walls with a foul liquid, part ammonia and part excrement.
I only wish I could say I’ve never been that drunk.
Of course, the best story in this collection, the real crown jewel, is a decidedly darker tale called “Home Bound.” In it, an alcoholic man becomes obsessed with a dilapidated house, which he buys and then moves into with his wife and daughter. It becomes apparent that the house – with its hidden rooms and sinister crannies and nooks – may very well be haunted. The house soon drives a wedge between the man and his wife. The influence here is over-the-top obvious: if you don’t spot Stephen King’s The Shining on virtually every page, you should probably resign your reading life right now. But what makes “Home Bound” such a gem – beyond its impeccably crafted characters and spot-on atmosphere – is the way Archibald can work in the King (not the mention the Shirley Jackson) influences without making the story come off as derivative of them. There is a pristine originality in the prose and positioning of this piece, one that transcends its clear-cut antecedents. Unlike The Shining, “Home Bound” hinges on a very human reversal, a fatherly betrayal involving a cliff, a trusting daughter, and a dead dog.
To say that Arvida skewers our expectations of a “linked” short story collection would, of course, be a gross understatement. So pungent are the stylistic shifts and contrasts in this book, that the less-generous reader may feel a bit baffled by them. But the reason this book has been such a success – 25,000 copies and counting sold in its original French; its nod from the Giller for the English translation – is because it breaks new ground in that very genre.
Indeed, it may be fair to say that we’ll never look at a linked short story collection quite the same way again. —Mark Sampson

Giller nod breathes new life into Samuel Archibald's Arvida


Samuel Archibald teaches contemporary popular culture at the University of Quebec in Montreal, where he lectures on genre fiction, horror movies, and video games, among other subjects.

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