The Maleness of God
The Globe and Mail
Reviewed by Jim Bartley
Loving the unlovely
Saskatchewan writer Brenda Baker has a gift for evoking, and sometimes inhabiting, the psyches of widely divergent characters. In these 11 stories, we meet trendy artists and trapped housewives, squabbling siblings and resented parents, a subway driver haunted by visions of body parts under his train, a lonely 40-year-old car-park attendant in love with a prostitute, a devout Christian mother who stumbles toward the knowledge that she loves her gay son more than her husband and his vengeful God, and a hugely fat woman who is drawn to a man because he has lost his penis.
“an admirable simplicity of telling”
Most every character is somehow trapped or stranded, and searching for escape. Some are mired in ineptitude or cursed with physical defects, seekers whose hopes flounder repeatedly on the knowledge that they are misfits. It’s rare to encounter writing that presents the gauche, the blundering, the physically and mentally malformed, with such heartening humanity. Baker takes the people we turn away from in pity or dismissal and connects them to our own needs and fears, our gaffes and failures. She does it with sly humour and often with an admirable simplicity of telling, whether in anecdotal voice or unembellished prose.
In the opening tale, Bathing Dad, a daughter must care for her aging father after a stroke. Perhaps the most conventional story of the lot, it is also the most purely moving. A few of Baker’s efforts are oddly truncated; or she inserts scenes– the penis-severing, a naked man masturbating in a park– that substitute shock and flash for narrative integrity. One promising story relies for its final punch on the nature of HIV infection and diagnosis, but in this otherwise realistic tale, Baker’s imagined HIV diverges unaccountably from the behaviour of the real-life virus**, sadly marring her ending. The lapses, though, are a small caveat to the book’s larger pleasures.
Toronto playwright and critic Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s First Fiction reviewer.
**Author’s note: From a 1999 perspective, this would be true, but the story is set in the mid-eighties…
The Winnipeg Free Press
Reviewed by Armin Wiebe
Ordinary people made intriguing in set of stories
In her delightful first collection of stories, The Maleness of God, Saskatoon musician and writer Brenda Baker displays a remarkable ability to create a variety of complex, intriguing characters using people who, on the surface, seem very ordinary.
In the title story, a Christian woman, Louise, prepares to lie to her husband to explain why she killed two deer with her car on the highway when she should have been safe at home after Bible study. Louise’s born-again spiritual struggle is portrayed convincingly, without a hint of caricature– something very few writers seem able to do. Even the pastor and the Christian entrepreneur husband came across as real and human.
“funny, sad, and thought-provoking”
In The Progress of Man, Baker creates just as convincing a character in Speck, a parkade cashier replaced by a machine, whose best job ever was prancing up and down the street in a King Kong suit promoting Barrel ‘O Monkeys, a discount store.
Speck struggles to maintain his human dignity, despite the rejection of his evolution from gorilla to man. Through an intricate display of “character is plot, plot is character,” Baker has Speck prevail.
The best story in the collection is the opening one, Bathing Dad. After a stroke, a 70-year-old man moves into his single daughter’s tiny house. Marian, whose relationship with her father has never been easy, finds she understands his needs and ingeniously manipulates her well-to-do brother into financing an unconventional approach to palliative care.
This often funny, sometimes startling story of family dynamics, death and rebirth, and love, showcases Baker’s ability to capture the details that give meaning to human relationships.
Baker’s stories are funny, sad, and thought-provoking. But what makes them memorable is their humanity, their rightness– the nuances of experience that provoke in the reader the urge to say, “Yes!”
Armin Wiebe is a Winnipeg fiction writer.
The Prairie Dog
Reviewed by Michael Trussler
Short Stories Explore Death, the Body and The Maleness of God
I’ve only lived in Saskatchewan for two years, so I read Saskatonian Brenda Baker’s new short story collection, The Maleness of God, as an immigrant might snoop around a new and unfamiliar home. But make no mistake. Baker’s pleasingly weird eye for detail and her disquieting imagination ensure that her work can’t be confined to a specific locale, style, or sensibility.
“gift for creating memorable images”
The German critic Walter Benjamin claimed that death sanctions the story-teller. Death is a recurring theme in these stories. Not so much like an abrupt interruption of plot, but as a powerful beam that illuminates the terrible intricacies of her characters’ lives. Mangled deer in the title story reflect a woman’s urgent battle against a patriarchal God and culture. In Mobiles an artist finds the desire for a child merging with a need to invite death. Apart from the finely realized central character, Mobiles (a story that Alice Munroe would love to have written, owing to its skillful unhinging of narrative convention) also showcases Baker’s gift for creating memorable images; more than most writers she is attuned to how the world looks. Perhaps her visual arts degree is responsible for this proficiency.
The body is an omnipresent theme throughout The Maleness of God. These stories are surprisingly aware of the body’s shapes, pleasures and unforgiving memories. A sense of physicality is as constant for Baker’s characters as the jobs they work at daily (another reality too often ignored by writers). But if you’re thinking that this sounds like a dry and philosophical tome, let me inform you that quite a few male organs make an appearance in these stories. Not to put too fine a point on it, there are more penises in this book than you can shake a stick at. Large, small, hetero, gay, encased in rubber and gloriously ejaculating. One even wears a lamp, while another, the luckless Mr. Happy, meets a truly miserable end.
“moments of extraordinary control”
The Maleness of God isn’t perfect. One story, a portrait of a neurotic 60s housewife is idiosyncratically engaging, despite the character’s stock adoration of Jack Kennedy. But we don’t need to be told that the story takes place in November 1963. It’s as though the narrator doesn’t trust the reader to read between the lines. Baker’s tendency for compassionate realism sometimes weakens her other experiments in plot and point-of-view. In Give It To Me Now a talking cat and dog, mightily obese female protagonist and maimed psychopath, just seem grotesque. I don’t mean grotesque as in a blurring of the sacred and profane; rather the story reads as Highbrow Tabloid.
These rough bits are balanced by moments of extraordinary control that are enough for me to look forward to her next collection.
Michael Trussler is a professor of English at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, where he specializes in the short story.
Date unknown (from website)
Reviewed by Ken Chisholm
The Maleness of God by Brenda Baker
It is a genuine treat to read a story collection by a writer one hasn’t heard of before and have it effortlessly go from strength to strength (especially when the jacket copy unpromisingly makes Baker’s stories sound like a cross between a ’50′s B-movie and a self help book). Most of Baker’s well-observed characters have a yearning loneliness but lack the psychic tools needed to make an emotional connection (except for Bathing Dad where a brother and sister bond as they care for their failing father which is also the weakest story). Some, as in The Progress Of Man where a parking attendant falls for a prostitute and her son, have a bittersweet optimism. Others like Give It To Me Now where one luckless man falls prey to two grasping warped personalities, explore a darkness that is as compelling as it is shocking and, occasionally, transfiguring.
“beautifully crafted stories”
Baker has an amazingly confident ability to enter the consciousness of a dazzling variety of characters from a subway driver choked with frustrated rage at women to the unconditional love of a dog. These beautifully crafted stories are worth savouring for their individual delights and well worth returning to for a deep appreciation of Baker’s storytelling gifts.
Ken Chisholm, Sydney, NS, is a playwright, musician, songwriter, director, and performer.
University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 70 Number 1, Winter 2000/01
Reviewed by Neil Besner
(This is an excerpt from a LONG review of numerous books.)
No doubt it is small of me to praise two books of stories and then ask that they be more than they are; but that’s what I think and feel about two very good collections, Brenda Baker’s The Maleness of God and Mike Barnes’s Aquarium. Baker’s collection has many virtues: she tries on different voices and does it well, from the laid-off parking-lot attendant in The Progress of Man to the interior consciousness of the artist in Mobiles, and the voices succeed because Baker gives us characters that she cares about– an old-fashioned virtue. Her stories pulse with crafted feeling, which means that her characters are both fictional and real enough to encourage the reader to care about what happens to them; and her plots are both artfully and causally shaped, so that events and developments are both believable and significant. My minor complaint is that her endings are almost always too neat, too prepared-for. The opening story, Bathing Dad, is representative. The narrator’s father, an ex-swimming champion, has had a stroke, and is living in her house, where she first builds a tub that he can immerse himself in, then a pool in the backyard that he can ‘swim’ in. It is clear that the father does not want to be kept hanging on after the next stroke, but that is what happens, so that we are more than ready for his final act when he drowns himself. This summary is brutally unfair to the complexities of the story, but the signs of the end are set in motion far from the end, weakening a very good story by robbing it of some of its complexity. All of Baker’s stories engaged me, however, and if the autobiographical feel of Mobiles is any indication– it would be nice if I were wrong, but ultimately irrelevant– she is very good at writing about art and artists, and I hope she writes more in this vein.
Neil Besner is a critic, editor, reviewer and translator with a PhD from UBC.
Volume #182, Autumn 2004, accessed from website in 2006
Reviewed by Shannon Catherine MacRae
Mysteries of the Quotidian
(This is an excerpt from a review of two books.)
The Maleness of God and Night Watch, two short story collections written by relatively new authors, cover the familiar territory of the casual cruelty of families, mistaken epiphanies, and the emptiness of nostalgia. Yet, while the main themes that both Baker and Zettell explore are not new, both collections continually surprise with their shared freshness, lyrical yet economical use of language, and the ability to draw the reader into a space where the mundane becomes infused with meaning. Both capture the raw significance of the everyday without bogging the reader down with heavy-handed symbolism…
“an uncanny ability to create a nearly instantaneous emotional reaction”
…Baker’s The Maleness of God, which won the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild literary award for fiction in manuscript form, is the ideal companion piece to Zettell’s collection. While The Maleness of God is not as overtly thematically arranged as Zettell’s collection, this first impression is dispelled by Baker’s examination of the various ways in which cruelty, chance, and miscommunication hamper relationships. Baker has an uncanny ability to create a nearly instantaneous emotional reaction in her reader. The first story of the collection, Bathing Dad, is wrenching in its examination of the relationship between an adult woman and her ageing father. When Marian describes bathing her father, something which at first was an unwelcome chore, she finds that her entire perception of him has been remediated through such intimate contact with his body:
“Without him watching or talking, bathing my father became kind of a private thing between me and his body. And it’s the physical things I most often remember now. Like his hip. The flesh fell into the bone and made a perfect curve. I loved to look at it, even though the skin hung loose and spotted.”
This recognition of the bodily connection between father and daughter is striking, and typifies Baker’s capacity to explore familial relationships in ways that are simultaneously accessible and innovative.
The story for which Baker’s collection is named, The Maleness of God, explores the territory of the religious right, and tenderly describes the spiritual crisis of Louise, who discovers that her son is tentatively, and secretly, exploring emerging homosexual feelings. Baker writes without judgment and the story reads without any feeling of didacticism; in fact, the story is resolved with Louise’s conviction that she can retain her spirituality and her relationship with her son. While drinking tea at a gas station snack bar, Louise experiences a spiritual revelation, something which, from past events relayed by the narrator, has been slowly building. Within the unlikeliest location, and only after hitting and killing a deer, Louise finds a place where she can accept her son’s choice and realizes that he “would remain in the fold, whatever fold would have them both.” As with all of Baker’s stories in the collection, The Maleness of God presents a world where polarities meld into one another and ambivalence is the default emotion. Baker should be commended for handling such topical themes without being influenced by the typical rhetoric that so often surrounds literary attempts to work out these issues.