Michael Christie: The Beggar’s Garden

The Giller Prize does it again: The Beggar’s Garden (2011) is another excellent short story collection, and another from a debut author.  The author’s blurb says that Michael Christie “worked in a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and provided outreach to the severely mentally ill.”  His experiences there have made there way into this collection with striking emotion and clarity.

The Beggar’s Garden is made up of nine short stories, each centering on someone dealing with some form of mental illness or homelessness or both.  Each story stands entirely on its own, though throughout Christie has them slyly referencing each other.  No story was a failure, though I have to admit that I liked the ones in the first half quite a bit more than the ones in the second half.  That said, I’ve gone back to those early stories and found that they not only held up to my memory but have strengthened. 

The first story is called “Emergency Contact,” and it begins with an excellent line: “They sent the wrong paramedic, one I’d never met before.”  Here we meet a woman whose loneliness is so heightened and so well portrayed it feels rapturous.  Her soul is bursting.  Her loneliness has driven her to seek companionship by calling ambulances so she can savor the human contact, taking her back to a long illness of her youth that kept her happily in a hospital for months.  One paramedic was particularly kind and, while treating her for nothing, complimented her on her nightgown.  That was two weeks ago, and ever since she’s been dying to call for another ambulance at the same time she’s afraid of coming off as desperate.  The way Christie ties this state of mind to a physical malady that needs treatment shows just how strong a writer he is:

Tonight after dinner I’d put on the same interesting nightgown before dialling 91 at least thirty times, snatching and replacing the phone for over an hour.  There should be someone who picks up when you just dial 91, someone reassuring and pleasant, a service for people in almost-emergencies, because that’s what this was, not really in the life-threatening category.  I just needed to see someone specific, but it was the sort of longing that could corrode something essential inside me if it stretched out for years.

Of course, she finally calls, and as we saw in the first line the wrong paramedic showed up.  The pain and longing is so delicately handled, we can see that Christie is basing these people on his own experiences and his own feelings for them.  She finally does make it to the hospital, hoping to find her paramedic, but just being at the hospital is a great start:

I’ve always liked how they make the ID bands impossible to remove without destroying them, how for this reason you could never wear the bracelet of another, how they, and the belonging they bestow, must be earned.

“Discard,” the next story, begins with an older man named Earl roaming around a garbage can, scoping out its contents, spying a promising clean cake.  But rather than attempt to get the cake, the Earl attempts to set a half chicken in the trash in such a way it won’t be soiled, the smell coming out “a smell so bad it graduated to taste.”  As it turns out, Earl is not homeless.  Rather, a while before he lost his wife and, in the destitution that followed, he saw his estranged grandson on the television in a line for a soup kitchen.  He assumed his grandson, whom he helpd raise, was dead, but there he was.  So now he has taken it upon himself to make his grandson’s life a bit easier.  It took him a long time, but eventually he found his grandson and learned his daily routine:

He found himself strangely proud of his grandson, proud of the steady way he carted the things he found and of the resourcefulness the task required.  Earl knew that he himself had never worked so hard in his life.

And now, knowing his routine, Earl hopes to help his grandson feel a bit luckier, though it doesn’t go quite as planned.

“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” is one of the strangest books here.  Structured like a science paper — “Purpose,” “Materials,” “Method,” etc. — here we meet a crack smoker who has found a deep love for science.  This helps him out a great deal when a somehow alive J. Robert Oppenheimer who hopes to have some assistance smoking crack. 

In another heartbreaker, “The Extra,” we meet a mentally ill narrator who lives in a basement (no, not a basement apartment, a basement) with a man named Rick.  The narrator’s voice is optimistic and innocent: “Most of the time I forget it’s damaged.  Maybe it’s too damaged to know it’s damaged.  Or maybe it’s not damaged enough for me to notice.  Either way, it’s not very bad.”  Rick isn’t actually terrible to him, but at the same time he is taking advantage.

Rick needs my help.  He can’t get welfare because years ago he got kicked off for not telling them he had no job while he was still getting cheques.  But Rick says we’re lucky because I have a disabled brain and we get more money than the regular welfare pays anyway, so it works out, and we split the disabled money right down the middle.

As the story progresses, Rick finds the perfect job for them: they will be extras in a movie one of Rick’s high school friends is working on. 

Each of these stories is different.  The characters are impoverished in a variety of ways, but Christie is consistent in his presentation: it is caring without in the least romanticizing the characters or their situations. 

A shortlist contender?  I hope so.

10 thoughts on “Michael Christie: The Beggar’s Garden

  1. Hi Mookse,
    but I must adamantly, here, be the Gripes!! How can this be a worthwhile collection of stories –for whom (Yes, I asked “whom”?) is it written (and, can they read)? Do we really live in a world in which drug pedaling nitwits are on the same level – social, moral, or political – as regular folk?
    Michael Christie has presented a lot of topical rubbish – which is best known AND RECOGNIZED as bullshit – because it sells. There is no “but” here; nor any engagement with the underbelly of late Capitalism in American society. This is bullshit, through and through. You paraphrase him:

    and as we saw in the first line the wrong
    paramedic showed up. The pain and longing
    is so delicately handled, we can see that
    Christie is basing these people on his own
    experiences and his own feelings for them.
    Nonsense!!
    Trevor, he is using these people (props) for his own literary advancement– in trying to be known as a writer who cares: this is not only counter-intuitive, it is bullshit from the get-go!! The evidence is in your quotes:
    “Rick finds the perfect job for them: they
    will be extras in a movie one of Rick’s high
    school friends is working on.”
    This is who he is!
    You know, I hope that I value your opinion and that your views are not taken for granted; but in this case, Trevor, I have to call out loud . . . who will corral this son of a bitch and call a spade a spade–he is a moron, and all his friends are morons. He can always claim that he is in good company: Hunter S. Thompson was such a moron, and some (morons) still think he was great! I’ll go down with History saying, “I think, not so much”. But the fantasy is pleasant, isn’t it?

  2. Trevor says:

    Well KJML, I’m shocked ;) and thrilled by your comment. A view I completely disagree with, so can discuss!

    It may be possible that I’ve misrepresented the collection in such way it looks like Christie is exploiting these characters, which isn’t, in my opinion, the case at all. Nor is he honoring them, trying to get us to feel as if we should go buddy up with crack addicts. When I say he writes in a “caring” way, I do believe he cares about these people (and why shouldn’t he, they are people, some obviosly in the situation due to their own stupidity, but still people nonetheless), but I also think he writes these characters without moralizing either way.

    One thing I appreciated about the collection was that the writing itself never resorted to the “druggy” style, that writing that attempts to mimic the gritty, illogical, profane mindset.

    My worry, though, is that I didn’t so much misrepresent these stories as much as you may have a reaction to any stories on this topic, as if anyone who approaches the poor and/or drug-addled is only trying to make a buck and not trying to merely explore human experience. Why should that be, though? It kind of reminds me of folks who won’t read books about religious people (like Gilead, and as opposed to religious books) just because they don’t like religion. But isn’t any aspect of humanity (religion, poverty, drug addiction) worth looking at (if done well) since it is human experience?

    I agree that there is a lot of exploitation out there. From your recent reading, I believe Atonement could be called Exploitation, which because of the technique kind of applies to McEwan as well as Briony, but in my mind is one of the more interesting aspects of that novel. Still, though I think I am sensitive to the issue, and was even wary when I started The Beggar’s Garden, this is no such book.

    All that said, I’m thrilled to keep this discussion going!

    By the way, loved the suggestion that Christie is the high school friend, though I don’t believe it.

  3. Hi Mookse,
    Yes, there is a certain thrill to disagreeing once in a while, isn’t there!?! And please forgive the expletives as a rash impulse of the moment -they were not directed at you, of course.
    I am always wary of a writer who chooses a to write about the down and out–especially about the insane or the addicted–and then tries to feign a non-sentimental approach. The selection of theme is already sentimental: the excess is built in. To write about a woman who calls 911 sixty times a night is to write about a disease, not a person. To suggest that crack-addicts have lowered expectations of fame (extras in an amateur movie) is ridiculous from the get-go. Has Christie ever seen a real crack-addict? Does he imagine that we, the readers, have not? It is preposterous. And it is preposterous to presume that a crack-addict is anything over and above the addiction: they are not any longer, for that is what addiction does, it takes over the character totally, else we would not call them “addicts”.
    My point is that these subjects are stalking horses, merely; used to wow critics (What unsentimental vision you have) and convince readers (What a compassionate heart you have, to see through the insanity and the addiction). But this focus is not genuinely respectful of anyone: characters, critics, or readers. Rather, it is a desperate attempt to garner attention by selecting the bizarre and sensational for its own sake. (Think: Geraldo Rivera writes a collection of stories!)

    When I first read your review, I was just then finishing the novel “The Assault,” by Harry Mulisch (Pantheon Books, trans. copyright 1985). It turns out that Mulisch had done something very similar in fact with his character, a Dutch victim of Nazi atrocity in WW II, and a sufferer of what we would now-a-days call PTSD. The young Anton evolves through the various episodes AS A CASE STUDY in repression and denial. My critical disquiet with the objectivist detachment of that text no doubt colored my view of Christie’s book. The problem is not THAT such things are treated in fiction, but HOW they are treated. Ultimately, I think, it is a matter of tact!
    Can you tell me more about Christie’s approach -perhaps something that would soften this charge of exploitation? (BTW, you are right, I think, about Atonement being – deliberately – a sly example of the same! In fact, I think that is what McEwan wanted to expose.)

  4. Trevor says:

    Yes, KJML, I don’t mind disagreeing in the slightest — most of the time (and this is certainly one of those times).

    I still must confess I’m not sure where you’re coming from. I do think that Christie is writing from personal knowledge (if not experience). It’s valid experience, and for my money he conveys it well, both artistically and for the substance. I also think that due to my review, you may be conflating all of the topics into one. Each story is not about a crack addict; for example, the one about the extras is not, and the story is not about lowered expectations of fame.

    To write about a woman who calls 911 sixty times a night is to write about a disease, not a person.

    I’m also not sure I agree fully with the above quote; can it not be about both? And even if not, is it wrong to write abot the disease? Or is it that it is written about a disease but pretends to write about a person? I can see your point, if that is the case, but I don’t believe Christie falls into that trap. Admittedly, growing up in Idaho I didn’t have a lot of experience with urban poor and addicted (not always the same thing), but I spent a couple of years in large metropolitan areas working with just such people and I think Christie writes these people and their diseases without trying to get us to sympathize or despise. They just are, and it is enriching — in my opinion.

    I think we may have a disconnect in our communication here, though, because I’m not quite sure how The Assault (which I loved) fits in here (by the way, I certainly don’t attribute any disconnect to you, but rather to the means we are using — blogs are great, but, well, here’s a weakness). I see your point about the “objectivist detachment,” but I’m not sure why it fails. Can you provide a good example of something written about similar topics in a different mode?

  5. Hi Mookse,
    I think my main concern is with “Agency”: who is responsible for the actions – i.e. doing the acting – in the stories. And it is all based on the premise that these are – as you said – stories about people dealing with some form of mental illness . . . This is not a question of ultimate cause and effect; of who first smoked crack, or how a mental illness crept in, but a concern with who or what is responsible for Character A doing action B or C.
    Christie’s (apparent) focus on people suffering from metal illness and addiction seems to answer that question before the stories get started. A mental illness (a compulsive disorder, or an addiction) expressed itself in human behavior. Stories about people require some degree of freedom of action (= Agency). In this, they seem best described stories about what diseeases do, not what people do.
    Can he write it? Sure, but, if it really is more about the illness (and its manifestations) than about the ‘dealing’ with it, then it is simply not very interesting, and it is rather patronizing and ultimately sentimental.
    The reason I mentioned Mulisch “The Assault” is because he treats the trauma there in its effects on the character as the main body of the work. The torpid flatness of Anton’s experience is symptomatic of his lingering condition –a disengaged state of mind. It is only assuaged, finally, by the individual actions (!) of Anton himself. His whole personality was not subsumed in his disease. He still had mental room and energy for significant action. But the bulk of the text describes a life almost wholly determined by a trauma. And that vantage accounts for the difficulty of the experience for the reader: insofar as it is a book about a malaise, it is a bore. Only when he acts is his story interesting and not merely pathetic.This is a case, then, of treating the same theme in a different mode.
    Stephen Crane’s “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” is another example of a writer grappling with poverty and delusion without sentimentality (In fact most of Crane’s work deals with people – as people, i.e. as agents – in straightened circumstances. There is respect for the characters as well as pity.

    You are no doubt right that we are speaking, to some extent at least, at cross-purposes, since I have not yet read Christie’s book, and am ASSuming that my criticism portrays his stories accurately. (I admit, this is an arrogant and indefensible posture.) You seem to suggest that it is not the whole truth about Christie, perhaps not any part of it. OK, so I have to look in eventually to see what I am missing. I can only hope that he is concerned more about the “dealing with”, than the disease or condition being dealt with.

  6. Deborah says:

    I’ve not read all of the argument’s against Beggar’s Garden, but I can say that I’ve actually read the book word for word some months ago, which I suggest Kevin J MC do.

    The stories are strong, Michael Christie never moralizes or judges, he just comes at the situations that he writes about as they are. It’s been several months since I read the The Beggar’s Garden, but I still remember many of the stories most vividly. This is an important book of short stories because we get some real insight into what it must be like to be in Riverdale challenged by a mental illness, or living on the Downtown Eastside, living in a SRO , or perhaps the life of a Grandfather of a young man on the streets. I think many of us in society could have a lot more empathy and knowledge of these situations. Beggar’s Garden allows us to just that.

  7. @AkA says:

    loved your enticing reviews of both ‘The Beggar’s Garden’ & ‘The Meagre Tarmac’…. they look to be very well crafted short story collections

    I will be getting both books next week

    Cheers Trevor

  8. Trevor says:

    I hope you enjoy them as much as I did, AkA. The Giller has a way with short story collections, and these two are wonderful.

  9. This wasn’t my favourite of the collections on the longlist (Blaise fits that bill for me), but I do understand why it has impressed a number of readers. In my experience there are other writers (like Pat Capponi and Emma Henderson) who have brought the stories of characters like Isaac and “The Extra” to life in a way which resonated more strongly with me, but technically the stories are strong and his way of telling them makes for a satisfying read.

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